The Knife’s analysis of how news outlets distort information. (This section may contain opinion.)
The Lindsay Shepherd case at Canada’s Wilfrid Laurier University exemplifies a serious problem in communication and education today: reprimanding people who encourage critical thinking. This is antithetical to the mission of higher learning institutions, which are presumably founded on the principles of exploration and critical discourse.
If we are to address this problem in society, it’s important we understand how it occurs. We applied our scientific analysis process to the university’s arguments regarding Shepherd and quantified the distortions in their communication so they can be easily identified and understood. Their arguments contained faulty reasoning, misrepresentation and vague, one-sided arguments. Our ratings reflect this.
This is the first analysis in a new series by The Knife Media called “With Prejudice.“ The series exposes cases in which people who critically question the status quo are misrepresented or discredited. While the Shepherd incident happened several months ago, it remains a poignant example of this problem. (The headline for this analysis was changed from “BLACKLISTED” to “With Prejudice.” For more on this, click here.)
First, a quick overview of the case: Last November, Shepherd showed her class a video of a debate about gender pronouns, saying she was trying to encourage debate and expose students to different viewpoints. Faculty members later called her to a meeting and said she had “harmed” students and violated a university policy by “legitimizing” the viewpoint of Professor Jordan Peterson, a panelist in the video who argued against a law that mandated the use of gender neutral pronouns (see Raw Data below for more details on what happened).
Shepherd recorded her meeting with the faculty members and released it. We transcribed it and applied our analysis process to all statements made by all parties in the first 30 minutes of the tape. Put together, the three university representatives received a total integrity rating of only 14 percent, meaning their communication was 86 percent distorted. By contrast, Shepherd’s comments received an overall rating of 82 percent (only 18 percent distorted). The faculty’s statements were more spun and slanted, and were largely based on faulty reasoning. (See The Numbers below for the full ratings.)
Below are the highlights of our analysis. We detail four arguments made by the faculty that use faulty logic or misrepresent Shepherd and Peterson, as well as explaining issues of spin and slant.
UPDATE — After this analysis was originally published, we received feedback that it did not explore certain perspectives — namely those of Wilfrid Laurier University. At The Knife, we strive to be as balanced as possible in our writing and analysis, and this involves examining multiple points of view. For this reason, we’ve updated this analysis with a section called Balance that aims to do this. Click here to go directly to this section.
Note: Although we usually analyze the news, here we analyzed a private meeting. Our analysis process can be applied to any communication to identify when it is fact-based and logical, and when it isn’t.
The Knife determines its logic ratings by measuring both formal and informal logic. For a person or article to receive a 100% logic score, the communication would need to either be completely data-based, or the arguments would need to abide by the rules of formal logic. In an informal conversation, it’s unlikely a person would receive a rating of 100% logical.
Argument 1: Showing the video targeted transgender people and created a ‘toxic climate’ for students
Consider the following excerpts from the meeting. Assistant Professor Nathan Rambukkana said, “the reality is that [showing the video] has created a toxic climate for some of the students.”
Adria Joel, manager of Gendered Violence Prevention and Support at the university, said that by showing the video, Shepherd targeted “trans folks” and violated the “gender-based violence, transphobia” part of the university’s Gendered and Sexual Violence Policy. Joel said this section relates to “causing harm to trans students by bringing their identity as invalid, or, their pronouns as invalid — potentially invalid … which is, under the Ontario Human Rights Code a protected thing.”
These statements explicitly or implicitly support the argument that showing the video caused harm to transgender students.
Some transgender students may indeed have felt emotional when watching the video. But what constitutes harm? If students were physically injured, or were discriminated against in some way, that could be considered harm. But there was no evidence of such harm; the students were showed a publicly televised debate about whether Canadians should be required by law to use certain pronouns. The ideas presented in the debate may be uncomfortable for some, or may challenge their existing views, but does that constitute harm? Some scholars, such as psychologist Jonathan Haidt, might even argue that protecting students from ideas they find objectionable could actually put them at a disadvantage.
Argument 2: Debating gender neutral pronouns is the same as debating whether a transgender person has rights
Here’s another example where faulty reasoning is used to try to prove Shepherd did something wrong.
Rambukkana: To debate the ideas shown in the video “is basically debating whether or not a trans student should have rights…”
Rambukkana: “It’s just that you’re trying to open up the debate, but the problem is that that particular debate is about whether trans people are people or not.”
Although it’s not clear what part of the hour-long debate Shepherd showed in her class, the discussion was about the government legally requiring people to use certain pronouns. Is debating such a law the same as debating whether or not someone has rights, or is considered a person? Probably not. If there’s an argument for this, Rambukkana didn’t make it. What he proposed was a stretch in reasoning, as he would need one or more additional steps to explain his argument.
Argument 3: Because it’s law or policy, it’s not up for debate
Rambukkana said the arguments from the video were “counter to the Canadian Human Rights Code,” and later asked, “Do you see how [debating the use of gender neutral pronouns] is something that is not intellectually neutral, [that it’s not something] that is kind of up for debate? I mean, this is the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.” He also asked, “do you understand how what happened was contrary to [the Gendered and Sexual Violence policy]?”
The implication here is that because something is stated in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, or in a Gendered and Sexual Violence policy, it’s not up for debate and therefore Shepherd was wrong for presenting both sides of an argument.
But the implication that laws and policies are not up for debate has serious consequences. Laws are meant to provide order and protection, but they are imperfect. In fact, part of the justice system’s role is to constantly refine laws. When laws are found to be flawed or discriminatory — such as laws in the past that prevented women or minorities from voting — the only way they can be revised is by openly discussing them.
Argument 4: Peterson is ‘highly involved with the alt-right’
Rambukkana and Associate Professor Herbert Pimlott repeatedly mischaracterized Peterson and his views during the meeting. Here’s one example:
Rambukkana: “Just to give you some context about Jordan Peterson, he is a figure that’s basically highly involved with the alt-right … the website Rebel Media which is an alt-right website has been involved in raising multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars for his research.”
The Knife and other outlets have demonstrated that the media has inaccurately labeled Peterson as “alt-right.” Let’s break down Rambukkana’s implied argument above:
- Rebel Media is an alt-right website.
- Rebel Media gave money to Jordan Peterson.
- Therefore, Peterson is involved with the alt-right.
Rebel Media did help crowdfound fund Peterson’s research. But the rest of the argument is flawed and inaccurate.
For one, calling Peterson “alt-right” is a mischaracterization. According to Merriam-Webster, the alt-right is a group “whose members reject mainstream conservative politics and espouse extremist beliefs and policies typically centered on ideas of white nationalism.” In Peterson’s YouTube videos and other works, he says he opposes such ideas. For example, in a YouTube video, he directly addresses the claim he is “far right” and criticizes the alt-right. Rebel Media has also denounced the alt-right.
Also, if Rebel Media helped crowdfund Peterson, does that mean he endorses the website, and its views and values? Not necessarily. Rambukkana’s statement may also imply receiving funding from Rebel biases Peterson’s work, yet this isn’t necessarily the case.
Rambukkana similarly implied Peterson is part of the alt-right because he “lectures about … basically critiquing feminism, critiquing trans rights, critiquing white supremacy.” This reasoning isn’t logically valid — it’s possible to criticize certain ideas of, say, feminism without being alt-right.
How does this mischaracterizing Peterson as “alt-right” affect Shepherd? It supports the idea that she was wrong to show a video without criticizing his views. It may also mischaracterize Shepherd as sympathetic to the “alt-right” by association.
Slant: A one-sided perspective
We also analyzed each party for slant, which showed the degree to which they considered multiple points of view. The three university representatives presented only one perspective: that what Shepherd did was wrong and insensitive. We analyzed 141 statements they made, and none presented a different point of view or acknowledged any potential benefits of Shepherd showing the video in class.
On the other hand, Shepherd made numerous statements suggesting she was open to considering multiple perspectives, and asked for additional information to help better understand the situation. Of Shepherd’s 106 statements we analyzed, 51 were either neutral or represented points of view different from her main argument.
Spin: Vague language
Our spin analysis revealed that the faculty often used vague and subjective language when presenting their views to Shepherd. Rambukkana said Shepherd created a “toxic climate,” referred to her “positionality” and said students had “come forward.” None of these terms are precise, which makes it difficult to understand his accusations or the reasoning behind them.
Some of the faculty’s comments were so vague that they were hard to decipher. For example, Pimlott said:
When you’re doing that — never mind the fact that there’s also the issue of the fact that a certain grouping of students will be subject to having their rights, subject to what the majority thinks without — so I just I mean just purely from the matter of that.
There’s something called the tyranny of the majority. It’s that if you want to create an environment that has the ability for everyone to learn, that’s not going to block people out just because they are the minority within a particular group, or they might not feel comfortable voicing that they have problems with that material in that space because you’re an authority figure in that space.
The university was also imprecise in suggesting that Shepherd’s class was damaging to students. Joel suggested Shepherd caused “gender-based violence” and was “causing harm to trans students.” Joel didn’t define these terms or give a measurable understanding of how the students were affected. The lack of precision may make it easier to accuse Shepherd, but makes it more difficult to assess whether the claims had merit.
What’s at stake
In December, the university found that Shepherd did not do anything wrong and said its faculty had made “numerous errors in judgement” in how it handled the case. The university’s president did later issue an apology to Shepherd, as did Rambukkana, who said the incident “has made me seriously rethink some of the positions I took in the meeting.”
But the notion that some views are off limits for discussion at a university remains problematic. The ability to freely explore and examine different ideas and viewpoints is a cornerstone of critical thinking and civil discourse. If people fear they will be stigmatized or reprimanded for exploring certain views, our ability to navigate complex and sensitive social issues may be greatly reduced.
An exploration of alternative perspectives
As our logic ratings showed, the Laurier professors and staff at the meeting used flawed reasoning. However, to dismiss their views altogether would be committing the fallacy fallacy – just because someone uses faulty logic, doesn’t mean their perspective is invalid. There’s merit in the views Laurier’s staff was putting forth, so let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Steelmanning is a practice in critical thinking where you actually try to make another’s argument stronger. Let’s do that with Laurier.
Here’s a reframing of some of the main points Laurier made:
- Some people may respond negatively when presented with certain ideas.
- Marginalized and minority groups likely have experiences that are less common, and so the general population may have blind spots in understanding such experiences.
- Some people might lack the emotional maturity or fortitude to handle certain beliefs of theirs being challenged.
From these claims, an argument could be made for limiting one’s individual freedom of speech in the short term in order to achieve a goal in the long term. For example, if the goal is to not only expose people to different perspectives, but increase the likelihood that people will be receptive to them, then it may be pragmatic in some cases to be sensitive to how people might react. This may mean voluntarily limiting expression and speech (Note: this is different than compelled speech). That speech could potentially be introduced later or gradually over a longer period.
In the case of Laurier, perhaps it would have been better for Shepherd to do more to communicate to the students a priori and ask for their opinions on being exposed to this specific type of debate before showing the video. Shepherd alluded to this when she said she could “see why people would think” that showing the video may not be the best choice in the context of her class.
In general, standing for freedom of speech doesn’t necessarily mean we should always exercise it.
Releasing the audio
Let’s return to the assumption that one of the goals in the Laurier situation is to promote viewpoint diversity. We saw one way to do this – following the release of the audio, Laurier’s president affirmed the university was committed to freedom of speech and one of the professors said the incident made him “seriously rethink” some of his positions.
Maybe releasing the audio was the best approach. It certainly brought awareness to the issue and led to some change. But there were costs as well. For example, the university faculty and staff at the meeting effectively became public figures without their consent. A private conversation was made public, also without consent. And Laurier’s reputation may have been damaged through a kind of trial by media, as opposed to a more objective review. In other words, it may have been possible to hold Laurier accountable and achieve the desired outcome by working with the university internally, and without going to the media.
How to change a law
Although Shepherd wasn’t arguing against Bill C-16, some people that support her views do oppose it. So let’s consider how one might oppose a law he or she disagrees with, and let’s use the case of C-16 as an example.
There is legal debate as to how Bill C-16 applies to Laurier’s case, but for the sake of argument, let’s say the bill and the Ontario Human Rights Code did prohibit showing the video in class. And let’s say everything played out as it did — Shepherd showed the video, released the audio, and ultimately received an apology and an independent review exonerated her. For those who oppose the law, the battle would have been won, but not the war — because the law would have remained in place.
Of course, this isn’t the only possible approach. Breaking the law could also lead to jail time, and a hunger strike while in prison could inspire a change. Or, another approach could be to follow the law, and make it evident that there are certain things you can’t show or teach given its restrictions. This might help students understand the law’s limitations and inspire them to organize to change it.
It’s difficult to say which approach would achieve the desired result. But it’s also worth considering not only what is achieved, but how it is achieved and at what cost. In other words, do the ends always justify the means?
When solving social problems, we often deal with a complex system in which changing one thing may have unintended, and undesirable consequences for many other parts of the system. Arguably, neither free speech absolutism nor absolute political correctness are ideal in Laurier’s case. But by considering many different perspectives, and acknowledging the costs and benefits of each and seeking a balance, it may be possible to find a solution that avoids unintended repercussions while maximizing the benefits to society as a whole.
Now it’s your turn
We’ve shown you five different perspectives.* Can you think of others? Which ones do you agree with more? Can you try to argue for the ones you disagree with? Tell us on Twitter!
*The perspectives we’ve shown are by no means complete arguments, and could be explored more deeply, backed by more evidence and subjected to more scrutiny. But hopefully they serve as a starting point for you to explore more.
See how the articles rate in spin, slant and logic when held against objective standards.
Total Integrity: 82%
Total Integrity: 14%
The Raw Data
Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.
Canadian university apologizes to TA who showed gender debate clip in class, leaked meeting recording
In December of last year, Canadian university Wilfrid Laurier apologized to teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd for the way it had handled an alleged complaint over a video clip she had shown in class.
Shepherd, a 23-year-old communications postgrad student, showed a 5-minute video clip from a debate about gender pronouns between Professor Jordan Peterson and Professor Nicholas Matte, both from the University of Toronto. The clip was from TV Ontario’s current affairs program The Agenda with Steve Paikin. Shepherd said she screened the clip to help the students engage in the subject of gender pronouns and to show how the use of gender-specific pronouns was relevant to current political debate.
Shepherd was later called into a meeting with two faculty members and a manager of Gendered Violence Prevention and Support at the school: Dr. Nathan Rambukkana, Dr. Herbert Pimlott and Adria Joel, respectively. Shepherd recorded the meeting with her laptop and sent the recording to news media sources.
In the meeting, Rambukkana said that “one or multiple” students had complained about the clip Shepherd played. She was told that she had violated the university’s “gendered and sexual violence policy” on “transphobia” by showing the clip and not criticizing Peterson’s arguments against the legally enforced use of gender neutral pronouns.
When Shepherd asked about what policy she violated, Joel said Shepherd violated the “transphobia” section of the policy by “causing harm” to trans students by “bringing their identity as invalid, or, their pronouns as invalid — potentially invalid.”
Rambukkana, Shepherd’s supervising professor, said the use of the clip had “created a toxic climate for some of the students,” and that “one or multiple students who have come forward saying that this is something that they are concerned about and that it made them uncomfortable.” Rambukkana told Shepherd that in the future she would need to send her lesson plans to him in advance.
After the incident and the meeting was published in news media, Wilfrid Laurier called in an independent legal investigator to look at the case. The investigator found that no student had formally or informally complained about the clip or how Shepherd used it in class, according to a statement from the university’s president. The investigation found that the information had reached staff in the diversity and equity office via on-campus conversations.
University President Deborah MacLatchy said the school’s “policies and procedures were misapplied through errors and judgments that were made by staff and faculty,” and that the gendered and sexual violence policy would be reviewed as a result of the incident.
MacLatchy had previously written that Laurier was committed to “principles of academic freedom, diversity of opinion, critical thought, the civil debate of competing ideas, free speech, and freedom of expression.”