National Column: School’s response to controversial lecture a disservice to students

by Shree Paradkar

If the biggest problem facing transgender people in Canada is the inaccuracy of the pronoun used to refer to them, you could say we have made great strides in understanding gender fluidity.

That isn’t so.

On Monday, Transgender Day of Remembrance, when Toronto police raised the trans flag for the first time, it was worth remembering the two-year-old study of 433 trans Ontarians that showed 1 out of 5 had been physically or sexually assaulted, another 1 in 3 had been verbally threatened or harassed and a quarter of them reported having been harassed by police.

Another study in 2015, this one of 923 trans youth participants from all 10 provinces and one territory, found 70 per cent of them reported sexual harassment; nearly two-thirds reported self-harm in the past year.

Given these realities, how would you view a communications class discussing gender-neutral pronouns exclusively in the context of grammar?

Is it in the interest of academic pursuit to expose students to a discussion on the pros and cons of gender-neutral pronouns? Or does that create false equivalence between the two sides of the debate?

The latter, according to the powers-that-be at Wilfrid Laurier University, who accused a communications studies teaching assistant of targeting trans people.

Lindsay Shepherd had aired a debate on gender-neutral pronouns from the TVO program The Agenda in two classes. The focus of the class was complexities of grammar, she told The Canadian Press. She did not state her position on the debate, she told the faculty when she was questioned.

“This is like neutrally playing a speech by Hitler or Milo Yiannopoulos.” A faculty member is heard making that hyperbolic assertion in an audio recording of the dressing down she received, which was published on Global News.

One student complained, or perhaps more than one did. Shepherd isn’t entitled to know, the faculty told her.

I’m not sure a topic that revolves around the identity of a marginalized group is the best choice to debate aspects of grammar. Gender-neutral pronouns are no more about just grammar than Donald Trump’s tweets are about senility. They represent a larger issue of rights of people to exist without fear of discrimination, harassment and violence.

The considerable opposition to attempts to carve out a space to define people left out by a language founded on rigidly held ideas of two genders is indicative of the scope of oppression facing trans people.

But the university’s ham-handed intervention, accusing a teacher of targeting trans people without knowing what transpired, was no mediation.

If a group of students felt uncomfortable and complained, the faculty – presumably the adults in the room – should have asked the teacher for her position before taking her to task.

What unravelled here was the reverse. Shepherd was told she did wrong and only when that incited a backlash did the university say it had enlisted a “neutral third-party professional” to “gather the facts” of the situation.

Shepherd was told she was “causing harm to trans students by bringing their identity as invalid or their pronouns as invalid – potentially invalid.”

She was told she had created “a toxic climate” and an “unsafe learning environment.”

From the viewpoint of a majority of us who are comfortable in the sex assigned to us at birth, this would appear to be a stretch. From a transgender person’s lens, perhaps not.

If the complainant/complainants were transgender themselves, perhaps they felt silenced or not
supported if students on one side were more strident than the other because the teacher had claimed neutrality. Perhaps this debate cut too close to the bone, making it not just an intellectual exercise on the finer points of grammar, but an intensely personal existential discussion.

However, just like the children who don’t learn to climb because their parents never allow them to fall, university students shielded from uncomfortable – and even wrongful – ideas will not learn to challenge them. They needn’t put up with uneven power dynamics where, say, a professor discriminates based on identity. But if they are shielded from all debate, how will they leave those gates with the confidence to hold to account those who surely will seek to trample their rights?

Painful though the process is, the university classroom debate is one of the safest spaces for students to learn how to deal with opposition. The faculty’s job should be to equip them with the tools to handle it, and guide the teaching assistant with best practices on conducting debates surrounding the identity of marginalized groups.

The best societies seek to protect their vulnerable, even when people bumble their way through a new awareness of how to do things right.

In this process, the faculty’s knee-jerk appeasement does not help those whose rights it claims to protect. Instead its actions come across as high-handed thought-policing that plays right into the hands of the intolerant, the ones who raise the spectre of free-speech infringement every time they need a cover to express bigoted ideas.

Shree Paradkar writes about discrimination and identity.
You can follow her @shreeparadkar
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

Print Friendly, PDF & Email