Should racists and rapists be humoured at uni?
WHEN university teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd showed her students a clip of a TV debate about the use of gender-neutral pronouns, she was accused of "epistemic violence".
An LGBT centre official claimed her activities led to a surge in assaults on transgender people. When asked to prove the allegations, he said he didn't have to "perform his trauma".
A professor in Ms Shepherd's own department wrote an opinion piece for the local paper saying the campus "had become unsafe".
"Is freedom of speech more important than the safety and wellbeing of our society?" he asked.
Ms Shepherd, a graduate student at Canada's Wilfrid Laurier University, made international headlines late last year after she released an audio recording of her interrogation by university officials over the tutorial lesson.
She was told her decision to air the clip featuring University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson debating Bill C-16 - a law making it illegal to refuse to refer to transgender people by their preferred pronouns - had created a "toxic climate" and an "unsafe learning environment".
She was accused of violating the university's gendered and sexual violence policy for transphobia, the Ontario Human Rights Code, and even Bill C-16 itself simply by presenting criticism of the bill.
"Most shockingly, I was told that by playing that clip neutrally and not denouncing Peterson's views, this was akin to neutrally playing a speech by Hitler. So it was my neutrality that was the problem," the 23-year-old told a gathering at the Centre for Independent Studies on Thursday night.
Ms Shepherd, who has since launched a $3.6 million lawsuit against the university over the "inquisition", was speaking alongside Quillette magazine founder Claire Lehmann and sociologist Dr Tiffany Jenkins at an event titled "The Snowflake Epidemic".
Conservatives have held up her case as a emblematic of a radical left-wing takeover of universities, where safe spaces, "micro-aggressions", trigger warnings and censorship of ideological opponents are now commonplace.
For many, the universities are a lost cause after decades of postmodernism - which holds that there is no objective truth - eating away at the intellectual foundations of most disciplines.
Melbourne University now teaches a course in "whiteness studies", pushing concepts like "white privilege", "white fragility" and "toxic whiteness".
In 2013, two whiteness studies "scholars of colour" published a peer-reviewed paper exploring their lack of empathy for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings and the Sandy Hook massacre - because the victims were white.
"Why does this matter? Students who get inculcated into this ideology graduate and enter the professions, enter the media and enter corporations," said Ms Lehmann, whose online magazine bills itself as a "platform for free thought".
The panel warned that it only took a small number of aggressive activists to force the majority to acquiesce. "The radicals are definitely a minority," Ms Shepherd said.
"The thing is, the vast majority of students on campus are totally disengaged. They don't do their readings, they barely come to class, they don't care about anything, they just want to pass with the lowest grade they can get, so they don't care what happens. That's why the minority is so powerful."
Ms Lehmann said the noisy minority had power. "You can see the impact in Australia through the corporate world with all of this virtue signalling on diversity and inclusion and implicit bias training," she said.
"Implicit bias training doesn't have any solid scientific evidence backing it up. These ideas have impact. They waste money. They waste people's time."
Ms Shepherd said the only way to fight the activists was to get a "critical mass of people who will speak out, but when you look at my situation it's not very inspiring for other students".
"Other students were publishing op-eds saying I put hate speech in my classroom, I'm a transphobe, I committed gendered violence," she said.
Dr Jenkins said the "bottom up" censorship that came as a result of identity politics already "seeped into our everyday lives". "The interesting thing about it is it doesn't announce itself in the way censorship used to," she said.
"How we deal with each other, second guessing, seeing each other through the prism of difference. It encourages people to see each other as harmful."
She said educators had a responsibility to the younger generation and she "would not necessarily encourage people to go to university anymore".
"They're not going to learn, they're not going to be challenged," she said. "I genuinely think we need to set up different universities and encourage people to take the ideals of the old academy out."
Ms Lehmann agreed that the universities were lost. "A lot of us are trying to build intellectual spaces online," she said.
"We try to have serious, thoughtful, complex discussions on difficult topics. There is quite a robust community of us who are scattered all over the world but we come together to talk about things you would have ordinarily talked about in a university tutorial setting but we can't anymore so we talk about it online.
"We have to carry on the spirit of learning and the values of western civilisation, and the love of learning and books. That's all we can really do is keep that flame burning. Universities are an institution, but institutions die."