A review of Lindsay Shepherd (2021), Diversity and Exclusion: Confronting the Campus Free Speech Crisis. Magna Carta, 253 pages.
My first thought upon learning that Lindsay Shepherd had published a book about her Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU) ordeal was “Who needs that?” Surely the detailed media coverage and ensuing debates ensured that anyone who was interested in the story knew all the details. And someone who wasn’t interested in the tale hardly would suddenly change their mind. However, after I picked up the book, I quickly realized I had been wrong. Below I shall explain why.
First, Lindsay is an excellent writer. She tells her story in a compelling manner, her writing is clear and accessible, and there is of course no substitute for lived experience. Second, Lindsay provides some personal details from her decision to pursue a graduate degree up to the impact instantaneous fame had on her. This material could not be found in the media coverage. Third, human memory is fleeting. I had already forgotten some of the details (like the awfully pretentious lecturing of Dr. Pimlott during the interrogation) and presumably others had too. The implications of this story are certainly important enough for it to remain readily accessible to a large audience. So, I recommend the book without hesitation.
The book consists of 20 chapters and 4 appendices. The introductory chapters [1-3] describe Lindsay’s undergraduate studies and how her love for learning prompted her to apply to grad-school. Any prospective grad-student will profit from reading how naive she was in her decision making and, hopefully, learn what kinds of questions to ask before making such an important decision. Unsurprisingly, the bulk of the book deals with the well documented “affair”: Lindsay deciding to play a clip of a discussion between Nicholas Matte and Jordan Peterson in one of her grammar tutorials, the resulting interrogation, and the “fallout” after Lindsay shared a recording of the interrogation with the media.
Under the pretence of having received a formal complaint, Lindsay is ordered to attend a meeting with her superiors. There, two intimidating professors (Nathan Rambukkana and Herbert Pimlott) mansplain what Lindsay did wrong while Acting Manager of Gendered Violence and Sexual Assault Prevention Adria Joel accuses her of violating the Gendered and Sexual Violence Policy and targeting “Trans folks”. The fact that Lindsay was in tears several times had no impact on her interrogators who seemingly had no interest in creating a safe space for her.
Lindsay’s decision to record the interrogation and share the recording with national media allowed Canadian and international audiences a view “behind the scenes” of a respected Canadian University. Lindsay’s goal was merely to inform the public: “All I had wanted was one single article that exposed the professors, the Communication Studies department, the diversity office, and the preposterousness of the meeting. … I was feeling rather proud: I had done my part to notify the wider Canadian public about the suppression of free thought in academia” (p. 67).
Of course the story did not end with a single article. There was more media coverage of the incident. In the beginning most of it was supportive of Lindsay but soon “the other side” caught up. WLU issued official statements and initiated a formal investigation (that eventually would reveal that there was never a formal complaint about Lindsay). Later Nathan Rambukkana and university president Deborah MacLatchy apologized to Lindsay. These apologies opened the floodgates to protests from the rainbow-centre and their supporters (e.g., Rideout, 2017) and nasty social media debates ensued.
Later, petty retributions within the Communication Studies department of WLU occurred. One professor attempted to force Lindsay to delete a Tweet in which she referred to the land acknowledgement posted on the professor’s syllabus. And a Trans-activist from the department ensured that Lindsay no longer had access to the printer in the Communication Studies lounge and later filed a harassment suit against her. Then there were the attempts to undermine Lindsay’s “Laurier Society for Open Inquiry” by imposing outrageous “security fees” and cancelling some of the events.
Most disconcerting is the account of how professors at Lindsay’s department attempted to undermine her academic work. Lindsay writes that “every student in the MA program was required to deliver a short summary of the research they were pursuing to get feedback from the department’s professors” (p. 177). When she had finished her 10-minute presentation she did not receive any constructive feedback but was publicly humiliated and lectured about white supremacy and hate speech. It is troubling how some professors exploit their position of power and how little the university did to ensure that Lindsay got the academic credit her work deserved.
On the upside, Lindsay had become the new face of campus free speech and received several awards for her courage. A good part of the book is dedicated to this positive aspect of the WLU affair, and Lindsay describes some of the events she travelled to (from a presentation to students in Halifax, Nova Scotia to a guest appearance on Australian national television as a panelist on the show Q+A) and the interesting people she met. But these are things best read in Lindsay’s own voice. Instead of retelling Lindsay’s story I will address two issues.
The first concerns comments about Lindsay’s appearance. One of her critics apparently wrote “I had no idea Lindsay Shepherd was a fucking giraffe” (p. 97). Having met Lindsay a few times in person I was perplexed by the comment. Nothing about her neck ever struck me as disproportional enough to warrant such a nasty comment. Lindsay took the stab in good humour. But it does highlight a serious credibility problem within the social justice movement.
On the one hand we are led to believe that for example not using a person’s preferred pronouns is causing serious harm. Sam Dylan Finch writes “When someone states their pronouns (he, she, ze, they, etc), they are asking for your respect. And when you choose not to use these pronouns, and instead opt for your own, you are not only invalidating someone’s identity, but you are also saying a plethora of harmful things” and continues to list ten ways of harm that is allegedly caused, including “I would rather hurt you repeatedly than change the way I speak about you”, “Your sense of safety is not important to me”, “I want to teach everyone around me to disrespect you” and “Offending you is fine if it makes me feel more comfortable”.
On the other hand, one almost never finds any public objections from social justice advocates when the physical appearance of those they are critical of is viciously ridiculed (remember Kim Davis?), when the (alleged) mental inferiority of political opponents is made fun of (remember Sarah Palin?) or when Trans-activist Rachel McKinnon publicly celebrated the Glioblastoma diagnosis and later the death of Magdalen Berns (see Tweets quoted in Moody, 2019).
To be clear: Trans-people (or other members of disadvantaged minorities) are seldom responsible for the hypocrisy. Rather, it’s a small number of very vocal “activists” who feel entitled to speak on their behalf. Unfortunately, the public hears the loudest voices and associates them with the entire group[s]. It is high time that we hear from those who have been silenced by the activists.
The second issue concerns freedom of speech. Some of Lindsay’s critics have alleged that her advocacy of free speech is problematic because she is in a position of privilege and/or has the wrong political views: “Freedom of speech is an interesting thing it only works for those who already have a voice and a platform. If you are not given the space to speak (or if you are harassed and attacked when you do) then freedom of speech doesn’t actually exist for you” (Rideout, 2017).
“I think that a lot of people responded to [Lindsay Shepherd] for the same reasons they tend to respond to things, which is that she is a young, crying white girl, but there are a lots of moments in which the academic freedom conversation could have been had and that has been skipped over serially and I don’t think she’s the appropriate person to have launched this conversation because as it turns out she leans hard right on some of her choices” (Mochama, cited in Enkin, 2018).
Neither Jay Rideout nor Vicky Mochama seems to understand what the concept of free speech entails. They seem to equate free speech with the ability to express one’s own opinion, at the exclusion of other opinions. But, as Noam Chomsky put it: “Goebbels was in favor of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re really in favor of free speech, then you’re in favor of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favor of free speech.” So if Lindsay Shepherd defends her right to free speech she necessarily also defends the rights of Vicky Mochama or Jay Rideout, no matter how vehemently she might disagree with their opinions.