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 to 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *