Wilfrid Laurier University recently came under fire for disciplining one of its teaching assistants over her showing of a video on the gender-pronouns debate. Recently, Dalhousie University also began disciplinary measures against one of its students for her harsh criticism of the Canada 150 celebrations.
Views published in the media on the Laurier University case have almost universally been in support of the student, on the grounds of free speech. By contrast, views were much more polarized concerning Dalhousie University’s actions. Those who are currently defending the teaching assistant, Lindsay Shepherd, by and large did not extend support to Masuma Khan. While some did, Khan never enjoyed anything remotely resembling the level of support Shepherd enjoys currently.
Why that is so is, of course, pure speculation. Yet I can’t seem to dismiss the idea that it has to do with who they are and why they faced disciplinary proceedings. Shepherd is a cisgender white woman who presented respect for trans people as a matter of debate. Khan is a woman of colour on the student executive who wears the hijab and posted “white fragility can kiss my ass. Your white tears aren’t sacred, this land is.”
This distribution of concern isn’t new. While some publications regularly refuse to give space to marginalized voices on topics that concern them — I’ve had outlets refuse articles on trans issues because the topic is not “family friendly” — people like Jordan Peterson are making absurd amounts of money for railing about free speech.
As much as we like to laud freedom of expression, the distribution of attention suggests a different reality: that many people are less concerned about free speech than they are about themselves and people like them. Canada is three-quarters white. Canadians who have access to platforms are even more uniformly white. When Shepherd, a white teaching assistant, gets disciplined, it seems to me that we white Canadians are seeing ourselves in her and feel the pull to defend her as an extension of ourselves. Most people also don’t see themselves in the trans students she’s inviting debate on. And most don’t identify with Khan; indeed, many might feel attacked by her words.
I am little different, except that I see myself in the uncomfortable trans students who have their place in society debated, because I am trans. And I see myself in Khan not because I am a woman of colour, but because I frequently have to confront systemic oppression and the frustrations it causes. Our lives are immensely different, I am certain, but we share an experience of resistance.
Deductive reasoning is the pinnacle of rational thought. However, more often than not, it seems, we make up our mind on the spot, and then justify that decision by reference to free speech.
Free speech only benefits those who have a voice. If you’re not invited to speak, freedom of expression is pointless. Those who have a platform don’t concern themselves with the difficulties of obtaining one as much as those who don’t have one.
When free speech is reduced to a justification for one’s intuitive reaction or opinion on a given case, it is instrumentalized in defence of those we agree with. It becomes a mere shadow of the right we have enshrined in our Constitution.
There is much to be said about balancing free speech with other human rights, such as the right to equality. But even for free speech absolutists, a lot more can be done without talking about other rights. The distribution of outrage and the equality of access to platforms are free-speech issues.
We can’t truly care about Lindsay Shepherd without caring about Masuma Khan first.
Published in the Montreal Gazette on November 23rd 2017.