In his article “Speaking Out” (The Walrus, June 2019), Toronto-based 30-something freelance contrarian John Semley tells the story of the Wilfred Laurier University (WLU) teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd, who made international headlines when she was censured by a University examining committee for allegedly creating an unsafe learning environment for transgender students. The committee consisted of her thesis supervisor, Nathan Rambukkana, her supervisor’s boss, Herbert Pimlott, and a representative from the university’s Diversity and Equity Office, Adria Joel.
What Shepherd had done, for a tutorial she was conducting in a communications studies class, was show a couple of short clips of University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson, in which he tells interviewers that he would refuse to use gender-neutral pronouns if requested to do so by nonbinary students, and that any attempt to compel him to do so would amount to curtailing his right to free speech.
Shepherd explained to the committee that she showed the clip as an illustration of “how something innocuous, like grammar, can actually be politicized.” Evidently, a stimulating discussion ensued in her class. But the unanimous opinion of the committee was that she’d created “a toxic climate” for some students. The committee also criticized for “maintaining a neutral stance,” which was deemed unacceptable, because allowing Peterson’s perspective to be shown was, as Rambukkana put it, “like discussing whether a student of colour should have rights,” and like “neutrally playing a speech by Hitler.”
Shepherd pointed out that, outside the university, Peterson’s perspective was being taken seriously by many journalists and politicians. In response, she was told that “multiple students” had complained, and when she asked how many and who they were, the committee cited confidentiality. Rambukkana then ordered her to submit to him, in advance, all her future lesson plans for approval. As for other punishments, he would have to discuss that with his colleagues.
Shepherd must have been very glad, at that moment, that she’d taken her mother’s advice and secretly taped the meeting. She immediately released the tape to a couple of newspapers, and the outcry started. The general consensus was that the meeting was a sort of Hitlerian, Stalinesque, or McCarthyite show trial: the accusations vague, the arguments against Shepherd (especially Rambukkana’s) silly, and the evidence likely faked. No one can say for sure that Shepherd’s whistleblowing helped her academic career, but the fact is that no other punishments ensued, and Shepherd was officially vindicated by her university. Ultimately, she took her degree.
Rambukkana published a letter of apology saying he should have supported Shepherd, “as her course director and supervisor,” and that he had “reconsidered some of his positions.” WLU’s president, Deborah MacLatchy also apologized in a letter, saying that the meeting “did not reflect the values and practices to which Laurier aspires.” She concluded that Shepherd “had done nothing wrong in showing the clip,” and she said that the meeting should not even have taken place because “no formal complaint, nor informal concern relative to a Laurier policy, was registered about screening the video.” In short, the interrogating committee members had, on their own initiative, sniffed out what they thought was a breach of campus protocol, and dragged Shepherd into their semi-official (the Diversity and Equity Office was there) kangaroo court.
Semley mentions another possible vindication of Shepherd’s position. After the incident, the Ontario government demanded that provincial universities “implement and comply with a free speech policy that meets a minimum standard described by the government.” If they didn’t, funding would be cut.
But Semley doesn’t think that Shepherd’s victory should have been so absolute. He implies, actually, that she should have lost. He suggests that her defense was invalid, summarizing her “open inquiry” argument as meaning “in a university, all perspectives are valid’, and “everything is fair game.” He also impugns her motives: “Call it foresight, call it cunning, but Shepherd recorded the meeting.” Finally, Semley suggests that Shepherd is not really an advocate for scholarly objectivity: “Since her breakout Laurier free-speech scandal, Lindsay Shepherd has fallen swiftly in step with the anti-‘identity politics,’ anti-‘sjw [social-justice warrior]’ set, proceeding to launch an online database called Identity Grifting, which indexes ‘news articles and opinion pieces that superficially exploit identity + diversity so that the subject, author, or media organization can profit.”
What Semley is saying is that Lindsay Shepherd inclines to the political right, and the public outcry that may have saved her academic career came from there. He cites David Haskell, a WLU professor who supported her at the time, on campus and in the newspapers, to show how far to the right her supporters are. Haskell is identified as right-wing by his choice of metaphors; he claimed that many of his academic colleagues “are promoting a virulent brand of cultural Marxism that advances an agenda of campus censorship.” Also, it was a conservative Ontario government, Semley notes, that put the screws to the universities over adherence to legal standards of free speech. He notes too that Donald Trump (and we all know how far beyond even Republicanism he is) followed up with a similar message to universities in the U.S. in regards to their political correctness protocols.
As for Shepherd’s professors, Semley argues that they were trying to fight this right-wing tendency on campuses. The Lindsay Shepherd story illustrates, to him, the sort of difficult work that professors have to do to ensure that the university remains a safe place for “those who had been previously ignored or deliberately silenced.” These ignored and silenced people do not include white supremacist groups, religious cults, creationists, anti-abortionists, anti-vaccinationists, flat-earth believers, etc. They do include sexual and racial minorities, and the handicapped, the obese, and the aged.
The work of Semley’s advocate professors doesn’t, in his opinion, involve merely bringing conservatively minded students like Shepherd to heel. It also involves actions like “law professors avoiding material in their classes that could be disruptive for survivors of sexual assault (about, for instance, the gory particulars of the Paul Bernardo case”), and other actions like, in general, “encouraging more written assignments and fewer stressful in-class discussions.” His professors should be supporting the removal of free-speech walls, (which are giant pieces of paper on which students are invited to write their opinions—something like the Hyde Park speakers’ corner in London). These walls might contain “potentially galling [to non-binaries] sentiments” like “Traditional marriage is awesome.” Such professors should also continue, even though they may face ridicule from the media, “issuing ‘trigger warnings’ in Shakespeare lectures.” They should prevent speakers like “Steve Bannon and Milo Yianopoulos” from appearing on campus — an action known as “deplatforming.” And, of course, Jordan Peterson should be regarded by all on campus as an academic pariah.
But is fighting the right, and so making the campus a comfortable place for victims of sexism and racism, conducive to scholarly research and discussion? Semley says it is. Without this work, the work of Shepherd’s ad-hoc interrogators, right-wing intellectual bullying will prevail on campus. That bullying, Semley says, is subtle and pervasive. The free-speech walls, for example, may seem like a good idea, but they were, on some Canadian campuses, funded by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF), whose mission it is “to defend the constitutional freedoms of Canadians through litigation and education.” Moreover, a big supporter of JCCF is former Barrick Gold chairman Peter Munk, and Munk also donates to the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and the Fraser Institute, “both of which have been described as conservative and libertarian.” The JCCF is also partnered with Atlas Network, “a US non-profit that advocates for free-market principles.” And JCCF’s president, John Carpay, “was a candidate for the federal Reform Party of Canada and the right-wing Wildrose Party in Alberta, a man who has compared rainbow-patterned Pride flags to swastikas.”
On the basis of evidence like this, Semley argues that the professors on the committee interrogating Shepherd were merely doing their duty as members of a guild “who are experts in the scholarship, and . . . have jurisdiction over the academic direction of the university.” They are acting, he says, in the tradition of Immanuel Kant, who objected to his sovereign’s demands that he stop questioning Christianity. Kant argued that scholars should be “free to evaluate everything,” and that “only scholars can pass judgment on scholars as such.” This privilege, Semley says, has been fundamental to the western university since Kant’s time. It ensures freedom of speech and and freedom of inquiry. Semley is glad to see this tradition being upheld by Shepherd’s investigating committee.
He does concede that Kant’s argument could also vindicate Shepherd’s inclusion of Peterson’s perspective in her class discussion. Peterson academic reputation is, after all, well beyond that of anyone on the committee; his research and publications have received considerable acclaim from other professors. However, Semley believes, (and accepts Shepherd’s supervising professors’ view) that Peterson, by refusing to use gender-neutral pronouns when asked to, has violated Kant’s prescriptions for a scholarship that is “rule bound, structured by standards of evidence, argumentation, and accreditation.” Peterson is intruding right-wing politics into the discussion when he argues that he has the right to what Semley rather carefully terms “unlimited free speech”. The professors on Shepherd’s committee, he believes, perceived this and, in their arguments against Shepherd, were properly exercising their professorial authority.
Another professor affirmed for Semley the value of this rule-bound freedom to her research and teaching. Shannon Dea, a philosophy professor at Waterloo University (just down the street from WLU), said to him, “since the Shepherd scandal and the subsequent renewal of the Canadian campus free-speech movement . . . I’ve become interested in how calls for unrestricted freedom of expression on campus compromise the historical role of universities. There’s a cultural perception that the university in particular has a mission to foster freedom of expression . . . . I think that this is based on a partial understanding. . . . If I have been hired to teach a course on formal logic, I can’t spend every class instead talking about my own personal peccadillos on free-expression grounds.”
Semley also quotes a WLU doctoral candidate, Abigail Curlew. She testifies to the trend to right-wing intellectual bullying on campus. Her thesis is about how trans-feminine activists, journalists, and scholars are policed and surveilled by far-right, anti-trans interests. Scholars working in her field have, therefore, to walk a perilous path: “When you get involved with free-speech debates, it’s very difficult to raise these issues without being accused of being a snowflake, or an sjw, [and] once you associate as a free speecher, you’re seen as someone on the far right.” The rigors of scholarship, she affirms, enable her to navigate this left / right minefield: “I can’t just say anything I want in papers . . . . I have to say things that align to various literatures, that make substantiated arguments, that have a rigorous analysis. All of that is held accountable to my committee . . . . All of them have the authority to tell me that what I’m saying is wrong and I need to rewrite everything . . . .” Semley takes care to add, “Curlew . . . makes this point not as a grievance but as a matter of institutional procedure.”
Semley’s support for Shepherd’s professors, it seems to me, is heavily dependent on misrepresentation, on ad hominem arguments, and on ambiguous or irrelevant testimonials, all of which seem to derive from his apprehension — I’d say paranoia — about what the political right is doing on campus. Are Peterson and Shepherd actually arguing for unlimited free speech, as Semley and Dea say? The WLU authorities didn’t think Shepherd was. They clearly thought she was arguing for, and in class exercising, balanced free speech. And Dea’s example of unlimited free-speech, that she be able to go on in class about her personal problems, is as silly as Rambukkana’s comparison of Peterson to Hitler. Curlews’ statement that if you raise the issue of free-speech on campus you’re attacked from both sides, accused of being a “snowflake or sjw [social-justice warrior]” or seen as someone from on far right,” actually infers the presence of both right-and-left wing bullying on campus. Finally, are free-speech walls bad simply because some are funded by corporate leaders or politicians who also happen to support the Fraser Institute? This is guilt by fiscal association. And are Shepherd’s supporters, accusing the members of her investigative committee of being Marxist, therefore arguing from the far right? This is guilt by political association, or maybe by analogy.
Kant would have regarded Semley’s analysis as purely rhetorical and unscientific. Also, if the King of Prussia could be said to be intruding on campus life from the right, Kant wouldn’t have proposed a binary counter-intrusion on the part of professors and students from the left. He would have proposed that all issues taken up by professors be resolved by reason rather than politics.
Finally, Semley’s celebration of the efficacy of Kant’s guild of scholars exercising their academic freedom and practicing independent and thorough scholarship is undermined by his celebration of the salubrious effect of student protest on scholarship. The rigidity of scholarly research protocol is, he says “premised on the capacity for revolution.” He goes on to say, “Often, these revolutions begin outside the classroom. In the 1960’s, the administration of UC Berkeley famously banned on-campus political activity in response to activism and rallies: students had, among other things, participated in campaigns to support registering African Americans in the South to vote. Protests in defiance of the ban spread in turn to other campuses, also developing into activities protesting the Vietnam War, and gave credence to both the merit and the efficacy of on-campus demonstration.”
This involves a complex question. I’m not sure what Semley means, in this statement, by scholarly rigidity being “premised by the capacity for revolution.” The word “revolution” is used loosely or at least metaphorically in most contexts these days, but his example of student activity of the 1960s suggests he’s really talking about the scholarly capacity for reform, not revolution. Students trying to get the vote for African Americans in the South (Semley’s example) were trying to reform the system, not overthrow it. Martin Luther King made it very clear that he was demanding equal rights for Blacks by cashing (his metaphor) cheques written to Blacks “in the magnificent words of the Constitution.”
If Semley also means that professors are dependent on protesting students, influenced by off-campus politics, to test the results and the efficacy of their scholarship and its application in social experiments to improve the system, I can agree with him. In the sixties, the students were led in the civil rights and democratizing campaigns by political activists like Martin Luther King, Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Germaine Greer and Malcolm X, and by Marxist, feminist and anarchist theories that originated far distant from contemporary university campuses (Marx, Mao, Tolstoy, even Thoreau).
The professorial guild, overall, acted in the 1960s as an intermediary between the students, with their external politics, along with the Kantian idea of university research and discourse, taking the pressure off the university (and themselves) by democratizing some of its functions as the students wished. The professors facilitated student representation on senate bodies and departmental councils. But research at the university continued as it always had, according to those Kantian protocols described by Semley, and speakers from all sides of the political spectrum came on campus and were listened to. And all of this happened in the context of the existing liberal-democratic system and its institutions, like the university, with an eye to making the system more liberal and democratic, and more scientific in its methodology.
Governments did not have to invade the sanctity of campus, as Ontario did after the Shepherd affair, to enforce liberal-democratic, free-speech legislation, though they did come on, and violently, as Semley says, to stop the students from speaking their minds and (less importantly, it seemed) to prevent the occupation of facilities and the damaging of property.
As for Semley’s second “revolution” — the revolution that started in the early eighties and threatened to overwhelm Lindsay Shepherd in the course of her teaching and studies — I don’t think that it was premised on reforming the liberal-democratic system. It was and still is a real revolution, though mostly (so far) in theory. Nor do I think that it originated with the students, as Semley has it: “Students in the 1980s and 1990s demanded that universities expand the campus’s intellectual franchise to include those who had been previously ignored or deliberately silenced and to expand the curriculum to account for these people’s insights and ideas . . . .”
The fact is that most analysis of the campus revolution that started in the 1980s has it that the revolution started with the professors, not with students, and that it had as its objective the annihilation of liberal democracy — of, in fact, all of “western civ,” as the students came to call it. Analysis from both what’s now considered the left (most famously, the liberal-humanist Allan Bloom) and what’s now considered the extreme right (most famously the conservative libertarian Dinesh D’Souza) saw that unrest growing out of what students were being taught, rather than what students were bringing on campus from outside.
The revolution is said to have started when New Left professors withdrew into their offices in the mid 1970s to re-think their philosophy after their fight against the system—the “military industrial complex,”—fizzled out without accomplishing the reforms they wanted. Certainly, the Vietnam War was being wound down, southern apartheid was starting to break down, women were acquiring more equality, and students had more power within the university. But the professors of this rethought New Left saw no real change or shift of power. The democratizing reforms desired by the students and professors had been arrested part way along, and justice was still being withheld from those victims to whom Semley refers — gays, minority ethnic groups, the aboriginal peoples, the handicapped, the overweight: “the colonized”. In the name of these minorities, the professors were determined to renew the fight.
But they would not act in the name of Christianity, of Marxism, or (especially) of liberal-humanism. Those faiths had failed them. The disappointed professors took up Nietzsche, that thorn in the side of Enlightenment progress and the Kantian faith in reason, that inspiration for Fascism. In the twentieth century, it was Fascism, not Marxism, that advanced the most telling critique of democracy. For Nietzsche, reason, as Kant defined it (inductive thinking focusing on evidence and experiment, and the search for certainties that could equal those of mathematics and geometry and were usually expressed in those terms) had to be jettisoned entirely if humans were to reach their full potential. Nietzsche led the professors to Heidegger, another professor, and his anti-rational, anti-liberal thinking. Heidegger led to Cassirer, Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Foucault, de Man and Derrida — more university professors, mostly. (Only Cassirer remained loyal to Kant and liberal democracy, and he was condemned for this —and because he was Jewish — by Heidegger, as Heidegger turned to Hitler for the political solution to the problems he had identified in theory.) The new cause was named, by these European epistemological thinkers, “poststructuralism,” and the new analytical methodology was called “deconstruction.”
This is why it is surprising that Semley mentions Kant at all. He’s correct that Kant advocated for the intellectual and institutional freedom of professors, on the grounds of its necessity to scholarship and publication. But he forgets that, for the professors on Shepherd’s committee, Kant would be anathema, his philosophy the very focus of Heidegger’s attack on liberal democracy and science, his methodology at the very heart of the western Enlightenment that poststructuralism seeks to deconstruct and undermine. One of the acknowledged ironies of poststructuralist theory and its applied derivatives postmodernism and postcolonialism, is that the professors who push it never question that favourite child of the Enlightenment, the university. They attack all sources of privilege but their own academic status. They rely on the authority and freedom that the Kantian university provides them, not to mention the high salaries and light teaching loads premised on their primary function: research. But they reject the principle that Kant stood for and on which scientific research is founded: that Truth is not a social construct but an absolute, arrived at slowly by an evidence-and-experiment-based methodology that is universally applicable and endlessly progressive, and that speaks with the conviction of geometry and mathematics.
At first, through the 1980s, the poststructuralist professors used deconstruction to pluck low-hanging fruit — the traditional literary canon, which was the responsibility of that largest and least disciplined of all university bodies, the English Department. The English department was invented at Harvard, in the 1860s, to facilitate scientific studies by teaching literacy (that’s why it was the largest department, teaching all students). It decided to do so mainly by using literature as a subject matter and a model, which is, not incidentally, why it has trouble explaining itself as a discipline.
Bloom and D’Souza, writing in the late 1980s and early 1990s, talk mainly about the evils of canonical deconstruction. Bloom was an English professor, and D’Souza based his analysis mainly on interviews with English professors, most notably Stanley Fish, famous for developing a special branch of poststructuralism called “reader response theory.” Shakespeare, for example, according to the poststructuralists, was clearly racist and sexist; to acknowledge and explore his genius was, therefore, to traumatize women, minorities, and gays, and to perpetuate injustice. The deconstruction of the canon conflicted with the humanistic view that connected (all too loosely, actually, as Nietzsche and assorted Fascist literary writers and theorists like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound correctly pointed out) great art with great ideas, and promoted a thematic analysis of literature. This sort of analysis tended to show Shakespeare (and most other canonized writers) to be not just an artistic, but also a philosophical, genius. For some humanists he seemed to be, even, a secular Messiah.
Deconstructing the Canon was fun, partly because it put the professors into a dominant position over Shakespeare and everything else in the Canon, as well as over all those liberal-humanist (usually senior) professors who had produced thoroughly-edited texts and voluminous, mainly thematic, commentary on the Canon. The deconstructionists could preach morality out of Shakespeare, just as the liberal-humanists had; however, for the deconstructionists Shakespeare was (like Peterson) the devil, his writings teaching evil lessons.
The deconstructing professors soon moved on, in humanities and social sciences departments, to deconstruct liberal-humanism and democracy itself. The concept of human rights and rule of law, they opined — concepts basic to democracy — were tools of the Patriarchy and the colonizing west. They were applications of the Kantian, reductive methodology, which held that all humans are fundamentally similar, like atomic particles, and that ethnicity, sexuality and culture are superficial. This premise is the heart of liberalism, and over three centuries it has led to the (admittedly slow) spread of equal rights to women, the poor, and ethnic minorities. It has been fundamental to the evolution of modern democracies and the protection of minorities from majorities.
But this scientific reductionism, as practiced by Locke, Kant, the writers of the U.S Constitution, Adam Smith, Malthus, the leaders of the British Reform Movement, etc, this mathematizing of human nature in terms of equal rights, this evolution of a political system that would help individuals walk upright as citizens when naturally, as history shows, they can only crawl, was offensive — not just to religious groups, ethnic majorities, free-market economists, anarchists, and ethnic nationalists, but also—and maybe especially—to the poststructuralists. The one thing that poststructuralism has in common with the far right and the far left, with evangelical religions, with white supremacists, is its hatred of democracy.
The result, when poststructuralist theory in history, sociology, and other disciplines is applied in the world outside the university — applied in the context of liberal democracy — has been gridlock between the professors and their student (graduated and ungraduated) allies on one side, and the various reform-minded victim constituencies on the other. Because reform implies the fundamental legitimacy of the institutions being reformed as well as of the process by which they are informed, poststructuralists don’t accept any of the gains achieved by these constituencies. That would be to accept the system, to admit that it is progressive.
Feminism, for example, has taken heavy hits from poststructuralists, both from the professors in the university and the graduated students who work in the education and social-welfare systems. According to the poststructuralists, the two-century-long struggle for equal rights to men — to acquire the vote, to gain equal opportunity in the arts, government and business, to eliminate the generic use of male pronouns, to extend rights to oppressed women in African-Islamic countries as well as in the African-Islamic diaspora in Europe and the Americas — has merely resulted in a White matriarchy that marginalizes and patronizes trans people and coloured women and takes a colonialist attitude to non-European cultures. Feminism made the fundamental mistake of assuming a binary definition of sexuality, and a willingness to occupy “male space” as the definition of success. Margaret Thatcher was the end result of feminism. Binary (“his / her”) pronoun use was adopted as the solution to sexism in language. Presently, the most visible struggle between feminists and trans people is over access to sex-designated washrooms and sporting events.
The struggles of Black people for equality are also taking a hit, as the ongoing story of Black Lives Matter shows. BLM is a campus movement. Unlike King’s civil-rights movement, or the parallel (and antagonistic) Black Panther and Nation of Islam movements, BLM defines Blacks as just one victim constituency among many others, doing battle with the patriarchal, colonialist, capitalistic West. Liberation of Blacks, BLM argues in its list of 13 “commitments” required by individual chapters who use its name, is contingent on liberation of everyone.
To use the BLM name, autonomous groups must make commitments to “work for freedom and justice for Black people and, by extension, all people . . . foster a queer-affirming network . . . do the work to dismantle cis-gender privilege . . . [and] disturb the Western-prescribed nuclear family . . . by supporting . . . ‘villages’ that collectively support one another.” Other commitments are to fighting ageism and double shifts for women. In Canada, at least, BLM commits to the protection of aboriginal culture and the environment through the return of North America to its original inhabitants: “In our movement for Black liberation, we join calls to decolonize Turtle Island [North America] and Nunavut-Nunangat. Our struggles are tied up with the struggles of the Indigenous people of the land on which many of our ancestors were brought and forced into brutalization — a living apocalypse. There is no Black Liberation without Indigenous Liberation on Turtle Island.”
BLM’s attempt to represent all victim groups, even when the interests of those groups conflict with one another and with BLM, along with its tendency to find solutions to such conflicts within a vague sort of “Walden” anarchism instead of a liberal-democratic political system, probably dooms it to failure.
The Pride movement has faced similar problems in dealing with BLM. In Toronto, for example, BLM refused to allow gay police officers in uniform to march. If they did, BLM wouldn’t sanction the event, which meant a lot less publicity. This terminated a few years of reaching out to police to establish some mutual understanding and develop new policy on sexism and policing.
Finally came the deconstruction of science itself, which was the hardest discipline for the deconstructionist professors and their supporters outside the ivory tower to get at, and the most important of all in the sense that the civilization they hate came out of the scientific revolution in Europe. Liberalism and democracy grew out of and was energized by scientific methodologies, which were blind to the colours, cultures, and sexualities of human beings. Life, liberty and happiness were, basically, not considered by politicians and lawyers as distinctive outcomes of a person’s ethnicity, sexuality, or religion. Scientists studied things like conscious and unconscious thought, economics, sexuality, cancer, obesity, sex and psychosis, as if these things were physical manifestations or mechanisms, not social constructs. For liberalism and science, the solution to victim identity is to erase it rather than to affirm it. The solution was to progressively affirm the equality of all individuals and end racism, sexism etc by ensuring rule of law, providing mandatory humanistic and scientific education in public schools, encouraging the exchange of information and opinion via a free press, and directing science towards the provision of human needs and the solving of human problems.
The new victim groups, identified and so empowered by poststructuralists in their critique of EuroAmerican civilization, now face the same choice that traditional feminists have faced — over issues like birth control and abortion for example. The trans, the aboriginal, the obese, the environmentally- concerned, the ethnic minorities, are attracted to the gifts offered by science and technology. But, unlike feminists, they have been trained by poststructuralists to think that these gifts mean loss of identity and complicity with an antagonistic system.
In the late 1980s, humanists like Bloom, analyzing the effects of deconstruction on education, assumed that science was safe from the “histrionic morality” of the deconstructionists: “Natural science is doing just fine. Living alone, but happily, running along like a well-wound clock, successful and useful as ever . . . its objects and methods agreed upon” (The Closing of the American Mind, 1987).
His confidence was ill-founded. The agreement he refers to didn’t last past the Millennium. By then, the deconstructionist assault on science had caused an erosion of standards of scientific methodology and professional accountability, an erosion most visible in terms of the explosion of “junk science” and the battle among scientific faculty over it. Walrus has an article on this in the same issue that featured Semley’s essay. In this article, focussing on the science faculties at McGill, the Kantian university is seen not to be working as it should. Though the article shows that resistance to the production of junk science remains active, it also shows this resistance is being overwhelmed.
The effect of deconstructive Theory (the word is often capitalized to give it an aura of authority if not quite infallibility), upon students in all disciplines, has been explosive. Students are naturally idealistic, meaning that they are inclined to take the side of what they perceive to be the weaker party, and are therefore naturally attracted to solipsistic and faith-based thinking and research. Once they heard that the interpreter was more important than the text, and the observer more important than the phenomena, they took to deconstruction with a vengeance. D’Souza, detailed the messages of poststructuralist teachings that were absorbed and then acted upon by students both on campus and after graduation: “By the time these students graduate . . . colleges and universities . . . by precept and example, will have taught them that all rules are unjust and all preferences are principled; that justice is simply the will of the stronger party; that standards and values are arbitrary . . . that individual rights are a red flag signalling social privilege and should be subordinated to the claims of group interest . . . that convenient myths and well-intentioned lies can substitute for truth, that double standards are acceptable as long as they are enforced to the benefit of minority victims . . . ” (Atlantic, March 1991).
Lindsay Shepherd’s professors over-reacted to her teaching because they are facing the contradictions of their own teachings, starting with the fact that they are being paid and protected by a system they wish to overthrow. They panicked because, more and more, those contradictions are being thrown in their faces by their own students. Having been taught all the principles listed by D’Souza, students naturally applied them to their professors. If all rules are unjust, why do I have to work for grades, and why do you professors have the authority to force them on me? If all preferences are principled, don’t I have the right to insist that I not learn about abortion in my nursing class, or about Paul Bernardo’s crimes in my criminology class?
At first, the white, heterosexual male professor was the students’ main target; such a person could never legitimately teach the deconstruction of an overwhelmingly patriarchal canon, provide an objective view of EuroAmerican colonialist history, or teach doctors how to administer abortions. Now the student mob moves against professors who have even the highest victim status. At the 2017 first-semester start-up at Reed college in Portland, assistant professor Lucia Martinez Valdivia, who describes herself as mixed race and queer, was attacked as a “race traitor” for failing to oppose the Humanities syllabus (i.e., for teaching what she was hired to teach). She was deemed anti-black because her T-shirt read “Poetry is Lit,” an expression that supposedly appropriates black slang. She burst into tears and the class ended. In the previous semester, because of a revolt in a class focussing on the poetry of Sappho, she claimed post-traumatic stress disorder and had to go on (paid) leave. “Many of these students don’t believe in historicity or objective facts,” she lamented. “They denounce the latter as being a tool of the white hisheteropatriarchy” (The Economist, 9 September 2017).
The professors on Shepherd’s committee were, like professor Valdez at Reed College, spooked by the monster they themselves have helped to create. As Semley says, in the context of the revolution that started in the 1980s, if the students decide they don’t like what you’re saying, don’t like what your t-shirt says, don’t think that you showed full support at the latest BLM statue desecration or demonstration to defund police, they pull the fire alarms at your lectures. And they keep pulling them until you run out of the classroom, resign or take early retirement. The fact is that the only recourse of the professor now is to stay on the offensive; once you become an expert in identifying witches, you have to keep turning them up and participate fully in their burning, or you yourself lose your credibility. Once you lose credibility, you can find attention turning to you. Shepherd’s interrogators were anticipating a revolt in her classes, which is why they lied to her, telling her there was one. Such a revolt could ignite a campus-wide protest that could involve them and end their careers.
The response of poststructuralist professors has been the classic political tactic of populism. You pick a constituency, in the Lindsay Shepherd case “the right,” as represented by Jordan Peterson, his defenders, and, for that matter, anyone who mentions him; you demonize that constituency (it hides behind its free speech rights when traumatizing trans people); and you apply the necessary punishment (excommunication). Donald Trump worked this same approach at the Mexican/U.S. border. For a politician, who has to consider votes, minorities are easy game. For a contemporary university professor (who has a Lilliputian version of the powers of a politician), majorities, these days, are guilty according to Theory. You go after them. Lindsay Shepherd, while a woman, is white, relatively privileged, heterosexual and (judging by some Twitter exchanges) not fat: easy game.
Semley quotes a famous Canadian scholar, Northrop Frye, from his 1971 essay, “The Definition of a University”: “Experiment and reason and imagination cannot be maintained without wisdom . . . without charity, without prudence, without courage, without infinite sympathy for genuine idealism and infinite patience with stupidity, ignorance, and malice.” He doesn’t appear to think much of Frye’s statement, regarding it as an post-humous apology for professors like Peterson, who, somewhat curiously, he regards as merely stupid: “Evangelizing patience for stupidity offers no comfort to students whose basic rights to recognition in the form of something as seemingly simple as being addressed by the pronouns they designate are being sideswiped by the self-styled absolutists preaching the ethic of free expression for its own sake.”
I think Semley is dead wrong about what Frye is saying. Comfort is exactly what Frye’s paper offers, and patience is exactly what those students need to learn if they are to become competent scholars and functioning professionals in their fields. They need to get their minds off their identity-based grievances and the grievances of others about whom they know little or nothing, and to concentrate on mastering their disciplines.
6016 words April 13, 2021