by: Ashley Quinton
News and Politics Writer
When did the academy become a panopticon instead of an open forum for debate?
I ask this question in light of the recent case at Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU) where a GA was reprimanded for playing a video clip from TVO’s The Agenda that caused discomfort for one or multiple students (the TA was not told who complained for “confidentiality reasons”). The 5-minute clip shown in the first-year critical communication course featured controversial University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson defending his opposition to using gender-neutral terms. You can listen to the audio excerpt in the Global News link below.
What I mean by the university becoming a panopticon is that, increasingly, the dominant ideology on university campuses is not neo-liberalism but an opposition to open discussion. People such as Peterson aren’t even allowed to express their points of view; rather, they’re hectored and harassed. Even Lindsay Shepherd, the WLU TA, gets called before a disciplinary panel for simply playing a clip of Peterson – a clip on TVO of all stations, one of the most thoughtful, fair and balanced broadcasters anywhere.
I am borrowing the concept of the panopticon from Michel Foucault’s 1975 novel Discipline and Punishment who applied in a figurative sense Jeremy Bentham’s concept of an institution where buildings were designed to a watchman in a tower shining a light into the surrounding cells. This leaves the cell occupants assuming they are always being watched. Foucault’s theory of panopticism is a society where citizens self-regulate their behaviour for fear of being disciplined because akin to Bentham’s concept, the feeling of always being surveilled, whether or not they are actually being watched.
Do students, teaching and graduate assistants, and even professors now have to be mindful that something said, or a video shown, will result in an anonymous complaint in this panopticon? Are we paying tuition to be moulded into an army of narrow-minded idealists? Why should we fear speaking out because what we say may not align with the opinions of someone monitoring language for its gender neutrality? What about the very debate over gender-neutral language itself? Is merely discussing it controversial?
In the discretely recorded audio clip, Shepherd told the two faculty members and an Orwellian titled Manager of Gendered Violence and Support who sat in judgment of her that she did not agree with Peterson’s beliefs she was only introducing the video “in the spirit of debate.”
“I could see it could challenge their existing ideas. But to me that is in the spirit of the university is challenging the ideas that you already have,” said Shepherd. Shepherd continued asking “can you shield people from those ideas? Am I supposed to comfort them and make sure they are insulated from this? To me, that is so against what a university is about. I was not taking sides I was presenting both arguments.”
Shepherd’s supervisor, Nathan Rambukkana stated, “you’re perfectly welcome to your own opinions but when you’re bringing into the context of a classroom that can become problematic,” further suggesting Shepherd was creating a toxic climate in the classroom. By extension, would a student bringing up a controversial topic be toxic-inducing too and punished? It is safe to assume that classrooms are being surreptitiously monitored by people using technological tools available on devices such as cell phones. Is every classroom now a panopticon because of the fear of ending up in front of a disciplinary panel?
Throughout her inquisition, Shepherd remained in the dark about what exactly she had done wrong. This frustration led to a few tears on her part and the faculty interrogating her never clearly explained her violation. Furthermore, the panellists suggested Shepherd is transphobic according to the alleged Gendered and Sexual Violence policy the university recently released. Yet Shepherd made it clear she was in no way condoning Peterson’s views.
In Laurier’s panopticon, Shepherd was pilloried for introducing content that may encourage (opposing views) a (critical) debate on the topic of the use of gendered language.
The WLU president, as well as her supervisor, issued apology letters to Shepherd but I would argue it’s because they didn’t have a choice in the midst of the public relations shit show.
It struck me as too little, too late and the apologies came only because Shepherd was wise enough to record the audio of the inquisition. What if she hadn’t recorded it?
Even now, in light of the apology letters be issued to Shepherd, a group of WLU professors have signed their own letter condemning the university’s response. They, it would seem, don’t see the issue as a debate over free or hate speech. Nor do they think it’s about the ability of students to think critically about societal issues. Rather, for them, it’s about promoting their ideology – ideology that is evidently dominant on campuses such as Laurier’s and the university as a forum for open debate be damned.
Here is a link to the original TVO clip:
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