The WLU/Lindsay Shepherd controversy was never about free speech

On November 10, Christie Blatchford published a piece decrying the demise of free speech on university campuses across Canada in response to news that a TA at Wilfrid Laurier University was reprimanded for showing a video featuring controversial psychology professor Jordan Peterson on TVO. Others soon echoed her sentiments, signalling that the question of free speech on university campuses has been a much discussed, ongoing issue that is just reaching its watershed moment. Many from across the political spectrum said this is symptomatic of graver issues in Canadian higher education and the means by which pedagogy is developed and controversial topics are presented in a coddled manner to students. Somehow, as the story took off, it seems that almost everyone lost sight of the key issues at play within the Lindsay Shepherd affair.

I’m a PhD student in science and technology studies at York University. My subject of study deals with how power, technology, knowledge and sociocultural factors are mobilized across varied contexts. I have a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, and professionally and academically, I have straddled the worlds of STEM as well as the humanities and social sciences. I have also been a TA for nearly 2 years, assisting with the grading of material from classes intended for students in arts and science disciplines. Similar to Shepherd’s role, my job is to aid the course instructor in reaching their intended course content objectives and learning outcomes. If I were to deviate from the directives of my teaching assistantship contract, I’d be failing to meet the basic requirements of my job. I would be accordingly disciplined. If there are grading discrepancies between a group of TAs, we generally come together to address how people were approaching their evaluations and to address any misunderstandings. This is routine procedure. If, due to some error, I misdirected students to whom I am ultimately accountable, I know very well, that I would have to answer for my mistakes, intended or not, to my superiors. This is something that is clearly shared between the worlds of academia and the “real world” which Shepherd claims she wants to not “shield” her students from. Ironically, it seems that Shepherd herself has long been shielded from the reality she alludes to.

A source who has chosen to stay anonymous, a graduate student in communication studies and a fellow TA in the “Canadian Communication in Context” class with Shepherd, has stated that the backlash that Shepherd has generated, including the so-called free speech rally that was organized with support from the white nationalists this Friday, caused professors to cancel several classes in fear of personal safety. The debacle that Shepherd started, the source states, has been grossly mischaracterized by the media. Shepherd is a teaching assistant for a class not on “critical thinking”, but one that is intended to help students with basic writing skills including grammar, punctuation, essay formatting, and annotated bibliographies. It was also revealed that the problem was not about the fact that the Peterson video was shown, but how Shepherd essentially created a forum whereby her students could debate whether or not it should be acceptable to use alternative pronouns when addressing trans and nonbinary people. Such a debate, is not part of the basic curriculum of a class that is fundamentally a class on writing skills. Moreover, as one of her students has noted, “Lindsay Shepherd showed the video of Jordan Peterson during a grammar lesson in our class. This video had absolutely nothing to do with what we were learning that day and it felt as if she showed the video to purposely start a discussion about something she had opinions on. The video was showed and she asked the class for some of their thoughts. Some of the comments made for an interesting discussion, but mostly students used it as an excuse to make fun of trans identities.” So not only did Shepherd deviate from her responsibilities as a teaching assistant, but also gave platforms to her students to make bigoted comments about trans identities, all in “the spirit of debate”. Once she received a gentle slap on the wrist, simply being asked to have her lesson plans reviewed beforehand, Shepherd literally cried wolf and claimed her academic freedom was being suppressed, while in a role that was not about her academic expression to begin with.

Shepherd, and her supporters, most notably University of Toronto Professor Jordan Peterson, who journalist Desmond Cole recently characterized, accurately, as “irresponsible”, and defender of old stock Canada, journalist Jonathan Kay, who in his spare times likes to attack Indigenous academics and once advocated for an “appropriation prize”, believe that her “free speech” is under attack from leftist authoritarian ideologues. Nevermind that Peterson himself has talked about creating an online database of instructors that he claims are mired in postmodern cultural marxist ideology, effectively attacking their academic freedom. It is also telling that Jon Kay, while coming to the defence of Shepherd and her “academic freedom”, recently subjected an Indigenous academic to threats of doxxing. While facing backlash from the University of Toronto Faculty Association, Peterson has put plans for such a database on hold, it seems that Shepherd has picked up where Peterson left off. In a tweet referring to an open letter by Laurier professors who have presented their stance against the recent uptick in harassment of LGBTQ students as a direct consequence of Shepherd’s incitements and “free speech” rally, Shepherd suggested that the signatories should be added to a list of instructors who impede freedom of expression, much in the same way Peterson previously advocated.

When asked about the recent increase in harassment against trans students on campus, Shepherd suggested that it is not transphobia that is causing this trend, but rather, the campus LGBTQ organization, the Rainbow Centre’s “opposition to free speech”. She also went onto claim that the Rainbow Centre’s opposition to her stance is because they want to use the media attention to secure more funding.

In more recent tweets, Shepherd has continued in a similar victim-blaming, gaslighting vein to question how mere words can cause violence. In spite of the fact that the Guelph and Waterloo Proud Boys, the local chapter of a growing white nationalist organization, has fully endorsed Shepherd and the free speech rally organized around her situation, Shepherd seems almost willfully blind to the ways by which speech acts, including the loaded history of white women tears, can indeed, incite physical and verbal violence. A chilling resemblance to the way she framed her demands asking for names of her complainants on her secret recording can be observed here.

There are also legitimate concerns floating around about the way that Laurier handled the case. Most notably among them is the idea that Shepherd’s supervisor, Nathan Rambukkana, used his power to silence Lindsay and “bully” her into compliance. This is debatable, for reasons of the TA contractual obligations stated above. But his most salient mistake is perhaps likening Jordan Peterson to Hitler. This was, as far as analogies go, quite the stretch indeed. Jordan Peterson certainly did not target and exterminate millions of people who he claimed were inferior, nor did he, to the best of my knowledge, advocate any sentiments of “peaceful ethnic cleansing” in order to establish a white ethnostate that many of his devoted followers endorse. Even Shepherd, according to her own recording of her “clandestine trial” has expressed disagreement with Peterson’s view on gender neutral pronouns. Despite this, she showed his video debating this issue in a class that was not related to the material to begin with, and has received Peterson’s support for her ongoing battle, as she characterizes, against the suppression of academic freedom on Canadian campuses. When asked whether Shepherd would present contemporary alt right white ethnonationalist views in class, she mentioned that given the context of the content she was teaching, she would certainly show them, without providing context or nuance, in a neutral manner in the spirit of debate, so as to facilitate free exchange of ideas and to not “comfort” them and “shield” her students from ideas that are out there. Indeed, in the tweet below, she can be seen being chummy with Faith Goldy, the former Rebel Media personality who is a confirmed white supremacist, as if pandering to Peterson’s alt-right fanbase. Would it follow then, if the class was centred around media representations of the Holocaust, that she would also show and share Holocaust denial literature? In an astronomy class, would she begin a “debate” about the geocentric model of the universe using testimony from church officials for Galileo’s trials? Would barring her from doing so be an act of suppression of her academic freedom? Unclear. But it seems that Jordan Peterson’s pseudoscientific claims about the nature of gender and sexuality are just “other sides of the argument”, and are thus entirely valid to present to students.

But Shepherd’s issue was never related to academic freedom and freedom of speech to begin with. She failed to meet the contractual obligations as a TA, a role in which, she does not technically have academic freedom. Similarly, the issue with Rambukkana, characterizing Peterson as Hitler was indeed a stretch. Peterson is perhaps more like the equivalent of Holocaust deniers when it comes to the domain of sexual and gender diversity issues, ignoring the endless evidence around the world and within scientific discourse that affirm nonbinary and trans identities. Peterson is no Hitler, he is just a James Keegstra of sexual and gender diversity. And while he may not be a Holocaust denier like Keegstra, Peterson lampoons the concept of white privilege and supremacy, all the while cozying up to contemporary white nationalists. This is a trait that Shepherd certainly shares with Peterson. On fellow Canadian student, Masuma Khan of Dalhousie University, who was censured for her comments on white fragility in the wake of Canada 150 celebrations, Shepherd states that she has, within the span of a week, surpassed Khan in her reach and popularity because apparently, unlike Khan, she is not racist towards white people.

Others, myself included, who reached out to her to highlight the way in which historically rooted theatrics of white tears were mobilized to ultimately dismiss an untenured professor of colour, she dismissed and lampooned these allegations, questioning the basis of claims that she might be transphobic or racist. Here, Shepherd embodies one of the most prominent paradoxes of our time. Charging someone with racism, transphobia or bigotry, is evidently more offensive, and indeed more ridiculous, than such acts of discrimination themselves. Shepherd wants universities to be a place where all ideas are presented as equally valid, but is ready and willing, to dismiss concerns and the free speech of her critics because she denies the validity of concepts like “white tears” and “white fragility” on the grounds that she believes, to the chagrin of multiple explanations provided by the critics, that such terms are racist against “white people”, an ill-defined racial group based not on shared heritage and identity development but power. If Shepherd can ignore historically established information and arguments based on that as “racist” against “white people”, even though, it is an idea that is certainly out in the world, I’m not sure if it is indeed free speech she advocates for, but her right to present obviously debunked arguments about gender pronouns to the disadvantage of actual lived experiences of fellow students, where their lives and identities are up for debate. But attacks on white supremacy rooted in historical and contemporary injustices? That’s bigoted, and should right be punished, according to the Lindsay Shepherd/Jordan Peterson school of academic freedom.

In the end, it is at the very least clear that Shepherd is no Joan of Arc of free speech as many have modeled her to be. Free speech doesn’t excuse for incompetence or passing off falsehoods as “equally valid positions”, which was the issue at hand, nor does it give her the right to hold court on whether trans identities are real, as if their lives are up for debate. It’s true that Laurier did a rather poor job of handling all of this, but I do think they threw an untenured professor of colour under the bus to avoid media scrutiny. His only mistake was comparing Jordan Peterson to someone who committed genocide, when in reality, he is better compared to someone who denies genocide ever happened.

The anonymous source, who TAs the same class with Shepherd confirms that the media has entirely missed the point about this issue. “It’s been framed as a censorship and free speech issue when it’s really not. Rather it should be seen as an issue with how graduate students are properly trained and supported throughout their TAships and given the right tools to be effective teachers in their classrooms”, the source states. “It’s changed the social climate in that we actually had our profs cancel our classes last Friday due to a “free speech” rally happening on campus and we feared for our own safety, and a lot of faculty members and grad students from the Communication Studies program feel unsafe to come to campus. Very difficult situation.” Apart from one article by a trans Carleton University PhD student, mainstream media has yet to present opinions from either LGBTQ or minorities, and Shepherd continues to claim that recent spikes in attacks against trans people on campus have nothing to do with her situation. Additionally, a group of Laurier students and teaching assistants have written a response (pictured below) to the recent events surrounding the Lindsay Shepherd controversy and how they are affected, addressed to Laurier President MacLatchy, concerning the official apology to Shepherd. What remains to be seen is how Shepherd, who maintains this is a free speech issue and not one related to transphobia or racism, will handle her relationships going forward with her own academic peers and colleagues, as she further situates herself alongside noted white supremacists and the garden variety, post-gamergate Jordan Peterson disciple. As the white supremacy-sympathizing selective nature of Shepherd’s free speech advocacy becomes more apparent, one can only hope that those in Canadian media, who have done all but look to LGBTQ and minority voices for their response to the situation, come to their senses.

Correction: within mainstream media outlets, the following two pieces have also questioned Shepherd’s commitment to values of free speech.