It’s not about free speech
Maybe you haven’t heard about the Teaching Assistant, Lindsay Shepherd, at Laurier and her decision to show a video of controversial UofT professor Jordan Peterson in class. Let me briefly sum up. Shepherd is a relatively young grad student and TA for an English class. She decided to highlight issues around pronouns by showing a clip of Peterson discussing his feelings on gender neutral pronoun use in class. Peterson is — or rather was — a well respected psychology prof who decided to wade into the murky waters of gender, representation, “free-speech”, and in so doing, has amassed a substantial following of bigots and misogynists and made himself into a(n abrasive) tool of the alt-right*. Anyway, Shepherd got in trouble because one of her students complained, and so she was called to a meeting with faculty. Rather than being mature about it all and bringing a union rep with her, she brought a tape recorder and secretly recorded the whole thing, presumably because she knew she was going to get in trouble and decided it was a great idea to light a free speech fire, as that card’s obviously not being played enough these days. And when she didn’t like what the faculty had to say, she went public. She’s been called courageous by some, a trouble-maker by others, a tool of the alt-right by still others, and a bunch of things more or less flattering.
What nobody is calling her, and, as far as I can see, the only thing she’s deserving of, is a Very Bad Teacher. And Laurier handled all this wrong, too. They got played and allowed her to make it all about free speech, when it really wasn’t.
The actual issue the Laurier vs Shepherd news story keeps ignoring, no matter what news agency is covering it, is that Shepherd is a shit teacher. No, no, stay with me here.
Lindsay Shepherd broke the rules a TA is contracted to abide by and then, when she got called out, she took a page out of Peterson’s book and made it about herself (through the veil of free speech). She probably anticipated she could make a free speech issue out of this, deflecting from her own faulted teaching method, and if that’s the case she is manipulative and clever, though perhaps not terribly smart. But what she did was wrong.
Here’s how Shepherd broke the rules.
- She did not discuss her intentions with the course professor. Regardless of whether she’s doing the teaching, the course belongs to the professor to whom she is the teaching assistant;
- She had to know Jordan Peterson’s words were inflammatory. She could have chosen other scholars (perhaps ones who actually are professors of language or linguistics);
- She failed to provide a counterpoint to the video she showed, which means she only provided one viewpoint. It’s not a neutral debate or discussion without two opposing points of view;
- She provided no context to the class, nor content warning prior to screening the video. Knowing Peterson is a controversial figure (just Google him, if you haven’t been paying attention), and especially his arguably trans-phobic opinions, she should have not only explained to her students she would be showing the clip, but absolutely provided room for any of them to recuse themselves. Imagine if you were transgendered, sitting in your English class, and found yourself being attacked for choosing how to self-identify.
Shepherd is the TA of an English class. Her students are 18-year-olds. They are, no matter how sophisticated they pretend to be, still developing emotionally and intellectually. For many of them, this may be the first time they are being asked to think critically about anything, let alone gendered pronouns and self-representation.
Shepherd has made this about free speech (though this is Canada and we have Freedom of Expression, officially, not Freedom of Speech) and Laurier handled her meeting (some called it an interrogation) in such a way that it allowed Shepherd to win. Shepherd played to the media, which loves a sensational story, and universities have recently become a punching bag for the freedom of speech debate. The whole reason we’re discussing this story at all is because of a complaint. It’s important to note, and the media has largely ignored this very significant fact, one of Shepherd’s own students made an official complaint to Laurier’s office of Gendered Violence and Support. Someone was upset enough — either on their own or on behalf of other students as well, perhaps because they are or someone else is transgendered — to go through the bureaucratic hoops of filing a complaint with a university administrative office. Holy shit.
It’s not about free speech, it’s about poor judgement and ethical teaching. Lindsay Shepherd has proven herself to be short-sighted (at best), or highly unethical (at worst). In failing to show two sides of the argument, what she did was lazy. In failing to get her professor’s permission to show the clip, what she did was undermining. By failing to respect the diversity of her students, or take into consideration their levels of intellectual or emotional maturity, she showed arrogance. Ultimately, she failed in her duty to create the best possible learning environment for her students.
That is why this isn’t about free speech.
*White supremacists, racialists, neo-nazis, and overzealous MRA trolls.