Humanizing the Debate on Campus Free Speech

Over the past several years there have been numerous instances on college campuses of speakers being shouted down, not allowed to give talks, or otherwise “deplatformed”.  These incidents are then bandied about conservative or alternate media spaces as examples of the decline of Western universities.  The latest incident involves Lindsay Shepherd.  Shepherd, a 22-year-old graduate student and teaching assistant at Wilfred Laurier University, was called into the university’s Gendered Violence Prevention and Support office for a meeting with her supervising professor and two administrators.

Ms. Shepherd had shown a segment of a Canadian television show debating the use of gender pronouns.  The video featured well-known University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson as one of the debaters.  Peterson has been arguing that there are only two genders and he would not be forced to call someone by a gender pronoun other than he or she.  A student in Ms. Shepherd’s class reported to her supervising professor that a toxic class climate for transgendered students had been created because of the video.

Ms. Shepherd had the foresight to secretly record the forty-plus minute meeting and upload it to YouTube.  For free speech advocates or those who are inclined to use terms such as the “regressive left” or “social justice warrior”, it is the upload heard ‘round the world.

The audio is compelling and makes the university and the academics interrogating Ms. Shepherd look like either buffoons or stock politburo characters in a Cold War movie.  Most lay people listening to the video would have found the charges brought against Ms. Shepherd strange if not downright silly.  She showed a video that had aired on a milquetoast television show, yet one of the superiors tried to compare it to showing a video of a Hitler speech.  Ms. Shepherd repeatedly asked to know who had made the complaint, but never got an answer.

Through the ordeal, Ms. Shepherd acquitted herself quite well.  Even through tears she was able to articulate rather clearly her intentions of showing both sides of a debate.

I think the discussions surrounding free speech on campus, highlighted by Shepherd’s ongoing experience have been skewed to one side or the other depending upon what media silo one currently lives in.  Those supporting Shepherd and free speech on campus are not (always) callous, racist, and homophobic.  Those supporting safe spaces on campus are not (always) crazed, anti-intellectual radical feminists and students enrolled in soft majors who don’t understand science.  To borrow a term from the uploaded Shepherd video, and one that is used constantly in graduate seminars, our understanding of the free speech debate is “problematic”.

People can be placed into one of two camps on this issue.  One camp bends towards allowing diverse intellectual arguments to be heard.  Using the phrase adopted by Jonathan Haidt, we can call this the viewpoint diversity camp.  They recognize that some speech can be unsettling and distasteful, but argue that intellectual growth occurs in those moments when someone is presented with contrary ideas.  Throughout history, it has been intellectual debate that has led to progress.  Safe spaces, in this view, dumb down the intellectual climate of a university and shield students from dealing with tough issues.  Moreover, by categorically barring some words or ideas, you run the risk of producing an Orwellian climate that runs antithetical to the values of individual freedom and self-expression.  There is some truth in this.

A second camp bends towards creating a welcoming and inclusive environment for diverse social groups.  For lack of a better term, we can call this the social diversity camp.  Advocates of this camp recognize the value of learning, but believe that some words, phrases, and ideas are threatening or damaging to historically oppressed or currently marginalized groups.  People of color, sexual minorities, and women have been the victim of racist, homophobic, and sexist words and ideas in the past.  To say it another way, language is harmful.  Language directly damages the psyche of a person.  Hateful language can also provide fertile soil for the growth of discriminatory laws or physical violence.  As an enlightened society, we understand this, and work to create safe spaces for learning.  This camp speaks truth as well.

One of the complicating factors is that race and gender differences map somewhat tightly onto the two camps.  The people advocating for viewpoint diversity are usually white men.  There is a vibrant alternate media circuit in online spaces headlined by Gad Saad, Dave Rubin, Sargon of Akkad, Stefan Molyneaux and Sam Harris.  Jordan Peterson, he of the two million plus YouTube downloads, has commented frequently that most of the people who agree with him and come to see his talks are males.  Meanwhile, those advocating for social diversity tend to be women and minorities on college campuses, and are labeled with the increasingly derogatory term “social justice warrior”.

Why would we see this relationship between demographics and attitudes?  The short answer is that we can’t remove ourselves from the contexts in which we live.

The reason why white men can advocate for viewpoint diversity, and thumb their noses at (admittedly) out of line students who attempt to deplatform speakers is because they are not in danger of any real harm from what those intellectuals say.  White men can afford viewpoint diversity.  It is easier for them to dispassionately hear both sides of an argument because whatever the outcome their life chances are not affected.

The reason why women and minorities are more likely to be in the social diversity camp is because the conversational winds may blow in a direction that is materially or psychologically harmful.  It’s one thing to be a white male and analyze the scientific evidence on gender – “is it two genders”, “is there such a thing as gender fluidity”.  You may be troubled by the conclusions drawn, but ultimately it does not have a significant impact on your life.

It is another story to be someone who identifies as transgender, and realize that if people migrate en masse to a certain side of the debate it will socially erase you.  Similarly, black people will find it hard to contemplate the relationship between race and IQ knowing how those supposed correlations have been used to justify mistreatment in the past.  Importantly, it is not only the amount of hard evidence brought to bear on a topic.  It is also the conversation itself.  If you are engaging in a conversation that argues for or against some damaging aspect of who you are, you are simply not going to be in the proper state of mind to learn.

So, it would seem as if I am advocating for the social diversity camp.  We must realize how our social position conditions our interests and makes it more or less easy for us to embrace viewpoint diversity.  But wait a minute, there is more to this story.

Ironically, the very groups who have historically benefited from viewpoint diversity are the very groups who push back against it today.  We all know the line, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”.  That arc was very much shortened in Western societies because of our values of free speech.  Think abolitionists, Black civil rights supporters, women suffragists, and gay rights activists.  They needed viewpoint diversity to speak truth to power.

So back to Ms. Shepherd.  My guess is that she simply values viewpoint diversity and wanted to present two sides of an issue to her students.  It is highly likely that she bends one way or the other on the issue, as we all do on any given issue.  But her main desire was to show that there is (and there really is) more than one way to look at gender.  We should respect that.  It is also the case that she is not someone threatened by a future consensus that there are only two genders.  We should acknowledge that too.  As to the professor and administrators at Wilfred Laurier, my guess is that they are aware of how words and ideas have been used as cudgels to beat down the aspirations of marginalized groups.  They wish to prevent that from happening to transgendered students at their university.  Let’s respect that.  It is also the case that taking this too far would stunt the intellectual growth of students and in a broader sense deprive future marginalized groups with the mechanism of their liberation.  We should acknowledge that too.

There is no easy answer.  And that may be unsatisfying.  But my objective was not to provide a solution, but to humanize the adversaries in the debate.

The difference between cybersecurity and cybercrime, and why it matters

A Texas woman in her 50s, let’s call her “Amy,” met a man online calling himself “Charlie.” Amy, who lived in Texas, was in a bad marriage. Charlie said he was a businessman and a Christian, and wooed her. “He was saying all the right things,” Amy later told the FBI. “He was interested in me. He was interested in getting to know me better. He was very positive, and I felt like there was a real connection there.” Early on, Charlie told her he was having some problems with his business and needed money. She wanted to help.

From 2014 to 2016, she sent him US$2 million – often in installments of a few thousand dollars at a time, always hoping and expecting to get paid back. After she alerted the FBI, two Nigerian citizens were arrested near Houston – both pleaded guilty to wire fraud charges in connection with Amy’s relationship with Charlie. The person who played the character of Charlie has not been identified.

This story is a cautionary example of a crime that happens online. But most advice for avoiding online dangers – like having long passwords, using two-factor authentication and encrypting data – wouldn’t have helped Amy.

The crime that befell her has nothing to do with cybersecurity. It’s cybercrime, a human-centered crime committed in a digital environment. There are more of these each year: In the U.S. in 2016, 298,728 complainants reported losing more than $1.3 billion in various types of cybercrimes, including romance scams but also involving fraudulent online sales, extortion, violent harassment and impersonation scams, among others. As a social scientist who studies online behavior and as the program coordinator for one of the few cybercrime undergraduate programs in the United States, I find it unfortunate that problems like Amy’s get relatively little national attention, especially compared to cybersecurity.

Understanding the differences

Cybersecurity is not merely a set of guidelines and actions intended to prevent cybercrime. The two types of problems differ substantially in terms of what happens and who the victims are, as well as the academic areas that study them.

Cybersecurity is ultimately about protecting government and corporate networks, seeking to make it difficult for hackers to find and exploit vulnerabilities. Cybercrime, on the other hand, tends to focus more on protecting individuals and families as they navigate online life.

The U.S. has created several initiatives to improve its cybersecurity, including investments in cybersecurity education and expanding efforts of government agencies.

Unfortunately, upgrading official networks and training future generations of cybersecurity professionals will not necessarily benefit people like Amy. Technical solutions won’t solve her problems. Social science research into human behavior online is how to help millions like her learn to protect themselves.

Little research

One of the few studies on romance scams like the one that ensnared Amy suggests that there are three stages to these types of cons. It starts with the criminal engaging in intense online communications with the victim. In Amy’s case, Charlie undoubtedly contacted her repeatedly as their relationship began. That built her trust and lowered her defenses – and commanded much of the time and energy she had for social interaction.

Once the victim is isolated from other interpersonal social experiences, the illusion of connection and interdependence can deepen. Charlie no doubt kept this illusion alive any way he could, taking as much of Amy’s money as he could. In the third and final stage, the target finally sees through the veil and learns that it’s all been a scam. That’s when Amy, urged by her financial advisor, suspected fraud and called the FBI.

More research on cybercrime could help deepen scholars’ and investigators’ understandings of how these social science problems play out online. To my knowledge there are just four cybercrime programs at residential four-year colleges. With more effort and investment, academics and law enforcement could learn more and work better together to identify and protect the real people who are at risk from these online criminals.

Race, Cyberbullying and Intimate Partner Violence

(Originally published in The Conversation)

Over the past two decades, cyberbullying has become a major focus for parents, educators and researchers. lists several effects of cyberbullying, including depression, anxiety and decreased academic achievement.

Judging from popular culture, the narratives surrounding cyberbullying tend to have at least one of two themes. One, cyberbullying is a mob-like phenomenon: Television shows such as “American Crime” depict a group of teens preying on a vulnerable individual by using social media and text messaging. Second, the face associated with cyberbullying is often a white one. Both in the aforementioned “American Crime,” for example, and in the television movie “Cyberbu//y,” the victim is white.

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Far Beyond Crime-ridden Depravity, Darknets are Key Strongholds of Freedom of Expression Online

(originally published in The Conversation)

The internet is much more than just the publicly available, Google-able web services most online users frequent – and that’s good for free expression. Companies frequently create private networks to enable employees to use secure corporate servers, for example. And free software allows individuals to create what are called “peer-to-peer” networks, connecting directly from one machine to another.

Unable to be indexed by current search engines, and therefore less visible to the general public, subnetworks like these are often called “darknets,” or collective as the singular “darknet.” These networks typically use software, such as Tor, that anonymizes the machines connecting to them, and encrypts the data traveling through their connections.

Some of what’s on the darknet is alarming. A 2015 story from Fox News reads:

“Perusing the darknet offers a jarring jaunt through jaw-dropping depravity: Galleries of child pornography, videos of humans having sex with animals, offers for sale of illegal drugs, weapons, stolen credit card numbers and fake identifications for sale. Even human organs reportedly from Chinese execution victims are up for sale on the darknet.”

But that’s not the whole story – nor the whole content and context of the darknet.

Continue reading “Far Beyond Crime-ridden Depravity, Darknets are Key Strongholds of Freedom of Expression Online”