In The Dialectic of Sex, Shulamith Firestone argues that truth comes out of struggle. While I believe this, it seems clear the Canadian university system does not.
Wilfrid Laurier University’s Vice President and Chancellor have now issued an apology to T.A. Lindsay Shepherd — who was called “transphobic” and compared to Hitler for showing a debate about gendered pronouns in her class. But the PR-induced back-peddling can’t undo the fact that Canadian universities haven’t been a place of healthy struggle for some time.
I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but some of my most formative years were spent navigating a political struggle. I was spat out the other side of puberty in the era of “empowered sexiness” — the crispy platinum hair and visible g-strings years, to be precise. By the time I left high school, my understanding of the prevailing social climate was that sex could not only be sometimes good, but that it could only ever be good, and to challenge the goodness and rightness of sex and sexiness in the early 2000s meant one was repressed or prudish. At the same time, I was raised in church at the height of the evangelical “purity” movement. On Sundays, sexiness took a break from being holy, and was instead bad, dirty, and the root of all disease. The particular brand of Christian sex education that was popular among young people at the time taught me that sex and sexiness were reserved for marriage, at which point they must both be used to serve and please men.
For a youth who failed to fit the mold of both sexiness and purity, these were indeed confusing and alienating times. As a young woman, I was exposed to some ideas that were worth considering, many that weren’t worth considering, and some that were downright repugnant and oppressive. And, contrary to the logic undergirding many academic institutions today, being exposed to these ideas didn’t kill me (not even lexically!), and they didn’t indoctrinate me in such a way that I was motivated to hurt others, physically, emotionally, or systemically.
Rather, struggling between two “problematic” areas of thought made me intellectually resilient. When I was introduced to the feminist movement in my early 20s, I was relieved to find that it was familiar with intellectual struggle and out of it had come some formidable thinkers — people with the kind of intellectual and political fortitude that actually effect change.
By engaging with feminist politics and ideas, I learned that I can be exposed to men like Jordan Peterson and discern that, while someone ought to challenge the orthodoxy around pronouns, he is not an ally to women, but a right wing contrarian. I learned that I can read lesbian separatist literature, as a straight, married woman, without these ideas (which challenge my own lifestyle and choices) shattering my universe. Feminists taught me that people can hold conflicting thoughts in their own heads that make them feel deeply uncomfortable and that this won’t harm us, but rather will make us vigilant, honest, and sometimes even insightful.
This has been an incredibly valuable thing for me to learn, but I don’t think the university system makes room for people like this anymore. (Granted, you will encounter many grotesque ideas about women there, and few people will give a shit. In my first year back to university after a long break, I remember an English professor “uncritically” showing images of naked women in cages posing as cows to make a point about veganism, and you can be sure no one reported him to a sexual violence committee.) I can’t deny that a university degree is a useful piece of paper in an economy that (sometimes) rewards people who have the privilege of education with the privilege of money, but if you feel alienated and starved for struggle, I recommend dabbling in feminism over academia.
Feminists in Vancouver will know that activist and former front-line anti-violence worker Lee Lakeman often speaks of becoming ungovernable. If the hot mess at Laurier is any indication of what learning has become, I would argue that we should become unteachable, too.