Today we have a guest post, from Eileen Mary Holowka, who also finds that she has to say something about the Lindsay Shepherd rolling nightmare. It just keeps going: the Chronicle of Higher Education is now covering this (poorly) and that National Post (ridiculously) gave Shepherd the helm of an editorial.
In case you are not caught up, on Friday November 10th, the National Post published an article that criticized Wilfrid Laurier University for their response to complaints made about a first year communications course.
Since then, a number of similar articles have been released, arguing that the university is censoring “free speech” and that the teaching assistant of the course, Lindsay Shepherd, was mistreated. Most recently, the Conservative party leader Andrew Scheer has chimed in to say that, if elected Prime Minister, he would “ensure that public universities or colleges that do not foster a culture of free speech and inquiry on campus will not receive federal funding” (Huffington Post).
But whose free speech is he talking about?
Almost all of the articles published since November 10th have done approximately the same thing: they present quotes without full context, accuse Wilfrid Laurier (as a whole institution) of being anti-free speech, fail to mention the rights of trans individuals, and continue to splatter a certain U of T professor’s name across Canadian media headlines yet again.
It was not until November 24th that anything was published about how the recent events might impact trans and non-binary people. Abigail Curlew’s piece published on Vice questioned the neutrality questions the neutrality of “free speech” and argues that “[t]rans folks have been historically marginalized by academics who have been embroiled in debates concerning the authenticity of [their] existence.”
There are, of course, many complicated issues at play within this whole ‘controversy’, including our universities’ often poor training for TAs who themselves may have only recently left undergrad as well as the limits of institutional protocols around complaints. But the issue that calls out to me the loudest is the one that has been left almost completely untouched by the majority of Canadian news platforms. That is, the lives and experiences of trans and non-binary people whose bodies are being “debated” without thought.
Shepherd’s argument that anything can be brought up for debate in a classroom without bias is simply not true. There are always power imbalances at play in the classroom and it is frightening to see how quickly the Canadian media jumped to defend Shepherd’s “free speech” while subsequently dismissing the voices of trans and non-binary individuals.
As we have seen in the recent discourse of the alt-right, free speech privileges whiteness. It privileges the people who already have the power to say whatever they want without the risk of losing their jobs. Free speech is not so easily afforded to the already marginalized, the trans and non-binary, or the people at the back of the classroom who do not know how to speak up. At least, not in the same way it can be claimed by the Petersons of the world, the Shepherds, the CBC, or the Globe and Mail.
This is nothing new either. These same defences of free speech have come up in response to Charlottesville and ACLU, Milo Yiannopoulos and Berkeley, and of course Jordan Peterson and McMaster. There is much more work that needs to be done to question the way free speech is being talked about in the news and we cannot let ourselves blindly join the hype. Instead, we need to look for the stories that are not being told.
Unlike popular belief, making a classroom a safe space does not require censorship or “handholding.” (Or, as Christie Blatchford argued, “Thought Policing.”) But it does require an understanding of our entanglements and responsibilities. A safe classroom means that even more ideas can be talked about in critical ways without the risk of losing students’ voices. A safe classroom means “staying with the trouble,” with an understanding that this “trouble” does not need to be exclusionary and, in fact, is troubled more so in its attempt to account for all responsibilities, all affects, and all voices.
Due to confidentiality, the complainant(s) who originally reported Shepherd are left unheard. While it is important that they are protected, they need not be erased entirely from the narrative.
Despite what the news has been telling us, Shepherd is not the victim we need to worry about. The free speech of Shepherd and Peterson is safe, is being broadcast loud and clear.
What we must now consider are whose voices we are losing in all the noise?
Eileen Mary Holowka is a writer, editor, researcher, academic, programmer, musician, and sometimes video editor who lives in Montreal, Canada. She is currently doing my MA at Concordia University in English and Creative Writing where she is working on an interactive narrative ‘game’ about the act of narrating sexual trauma on and offline. Her research interests include trauma theory, feminist studies, queer theory, and media studies, but she is currently focusing on self-imaging, Instagram, online affective labour, and the intersections of trauma and media.