Canadian author and columnist Lindsay Shepherd’s message to Americans is simple: Defend free speech or risk losing it.
In 2017, Shepherd, then a teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada, played for her class a series of clips in which psychologist and author Jordan Peterson talked about personal pronouns and transgenderism.
Afterward, Shepherd was called into a meeting with her supervisor and a representative from the college’s Diversity and Equity Office. She was accused of creating a toxic environment for students and threatened with punishment if she did something similar again.
Shepherd, our guest today on “The Daily Signal Podcast,” recorded the meeting to protect herself and later leaked it to the media.
“I wanted people in Canada and abroad internationally to know what’s happening inside our universities,” Shepherd says. “I saw it as a bigger issue than just me having an encounter in this disciplinary meeting.”
Shepherd became an activist dedicated to free speech and academic freedom. Her book, called “Diversity and Exclusion: Confronting the Campus Free Speech Crisis,” recounts her experience and offers advice on how to protect free expression.
“Don’t try to cave into leftist ideas just to try to prove to them that you’re a good person.” she says. “You don’t need to prove anything to them, because they’re always not going to like you.”
Also on today’s show, we read your letters to the editor and share a good news story about the crowdfunding website GiveSendGo, which is raising money for Georgia small businesses affected by Major League Baseball’s decision to move the All-Star Game from Atlanta.
Listen to the full interview on “The Daily Signal Podcast” or read a lightly edited transcript below.
[Recording made by Lindsay Shepherd]
Shepherd: Like I said, it was in the spirit of debate.
Nathan Rambukkana: OK. In the spirit of the debate is slightly different than being like, “OK, this is a problematic idea that we want to unpack.”
Shepherd: But that’s taking sides. It’s taking sides for me to be like, “Look at this guy. Everything that comes out of his mouth is BS, but we’re going to watch anyway.”
Rambukkana: OK. So I understand the position that you’re coming from and your positionality, but the reality is that it has created a toxic climate for some of the students. Do you see how this is not something that’s intellectually neutral, that is kind of up for debate? This is the charter of rights—
Shepherd: But it is up for debate.
Rambukkana: You’re perfectly welcome to your own opinions, but when you’re bringing it into the context of the classroom, that can become problematic and that can become something that creates an unsafe learning environment for students.
Shepherd: But when they leave the university, they’re going to be exposed to these ideas, so I don’t see how I’m doing a disservice to the class by exposing them to ideas that are really out there.
Doug Blair: My guest today is Lindsay Shepherd, a Canadian free speech activist and author of the new book “Diversity and Exclusion: Confronting the Campus Free Speech Crisis.” Welcome to the show, Lindsay.
Lindsay Shepherd: Thanks for having me.
Blair: Great. So you entered the spotlight back in 2017 after the incident at the school that you were TAing at, which was Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada. You were showing clips of psychologist Jordan Peterson and accusations of transphobia and bigotry started to come up, and that’s actually the subject of your new book. Can you give our listeners and viewers a brief summary of the events that happened, just for some context?
Shepherd: Yeah, for sure. I’ll try to make it as brief as possible. I was a master’s student at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada. And when you’re a master’s student, you also are a TA, or a teaching assistant, for an undergraduate class. So I was the TA for Communication Studies 101.
In one particular class one week, our theme was grammar. So I thought in addition to doing the typical common grammar errors, we’ll go over some common grammatical errors, but I also want my students to think about grammar in everyday life. To demonstrate that, I wanted to talk about pronouns and how a grammar issue, like using they/them to refer to one person or using alternative pronouns like xe/xir, how that could be a grammar issue in everyday life.
So I found a great clip on YouTube, and it was from a public television show in Canada called “The Agenda With Steve Paikin.” Very highly regarded show. Like I said, public television, taxpayer-funded. It airs on TV. And Dr. Jordan Peterson, who is a University of Toronto professor, he was one of the people on the panel.
I showed two clips from that panel discussion episode where Peterson was arguing against alternative pronouns, mostly in the sense of being against compelled speech, because in 2016, at the time, there was a law being introduced in Canada, which is now law, which he saw as compelling speech, compelling the use of pronouns. And he said he didn’t want to give into radical leftist ideology like that by being forced to use the language of the left.
But then on the other side, there was a professor of transgender studies at the University of Toronto, and he was saying, “Well, we have to use pronouns, alternative pronouns, because that is recognizing students’ dignity and respecting them.”
So I aired this, and I thought it was a great class. My students were very engaged. It was an interesting discussion. But then I get an email from my supervising professor telling me that there were some concerns from the class. So I go into a disciplinary meeting the next day with that professor as well as my master’s program coordinator and a diversity office bureaucrat, and they tell me that that class I had held had created a toxic environment. I had targeted trans students. I had violated the university sexual violence policy, and I had also violated the Human Rights Code, and yeah, various laws in Canada.
Blair: I mean, that’s just such an incredible story. It’s kind of hard to believe. We actually have the clips you played from Jordan Peterson. Let’s take a listen.
Steve Paikin: What is it you find offensive about this legislation?
Jordan Peterson: Well, fundamentally, there were two things that really bothered me, although there have been other things I’ve thought about since. One was that I was being asked, as everyone is, to use a certain set of words that I think are the constructions of people who have a political ideology that I don’t believe in that I also regard as dangerous.
Paikin: What are those words?
Peterson: Those are the made-up words that people now describe as gender-neutral. And so to me, they’re an attempt to control language and in a direction that isn’t happening organically. It’s not happening naturally. People aren’t picking up these words in the typical way that new words are picked up but by force and by fiat, and I would say by force because there’s legislative power behind them. And I don’t like these made-up words, ze and zir, and that sort of thing.
Paikin: OK. They’re not all “made-up words.” For example, “they” is one of them, to speak to an individual as they.
Peterson: Right, but we can’t dispense with the distinction between singular and plural. I know that the advocates of that particular approach say that they has been used forever as a singular, and that’s actually not correct. It’s used as a singular in very exceptional circumstances, like, “If your child wishes to bring a book to school, they’re welcome to do so.” But—
Paikin: That’s just grammatically incorrect.
Peterson: Well, there’s some debate about that, because they is used like that sometimes, but it’s never been used as a singular replacement for he or she. And so it’s not a tenable solution, and that’s the best of the solutions.
Blair: So, interestingly enough, your story actually ended up on that same show. It ended up on “The Agenda” afterward. And it was a discussion about free expression on college campuses, specifically focusing on this capacity for students to be exposed to things that they might not agree with. One of the things I kind of, when I was reflecting on my college experience, was that I was kind of hoping to be exposed to new points of view and different ideas that I maybe wasn’t totally comfortable with.
So I guess my question for you now is, what do we lose when we kind of have professors saying, “You’re not able to listen to this. You’re not able to hear this”? They’re trying to shield students from toxic ideas. What do we lose from that?
Shepherd: I mean, I know that I feel that when everything I’m learning is politicized, I wonder, “What is the truth? What am I being taught and what is the truth?” And it makes it hard to trust anything because I feel like maybe I’m not getting the full story. And yeah, it’s harder to seek the truth when we censor. It’s harder to relate to one another when we feel like we can’t talk about everything openly.
The university is supposed to be an environment where we can talk about anything and it’s very stifling when you see that the university is actually somewhere where certain topics are apparently forbidden, and if you bring them up, you get pulled into the diversity office and you get disciplined.
I should mention the only reason I think I got off relatively unscathed in this encounter is because I secretly recorded that disciplinary meeting I was in and I released it to the media because I saw this as a public-interest issue. I wanted people in Canada and abroad internationally to know what’s happening inside our universities. I saw it as a bigger issue than just me having an encounter in this disciplinary meeting.
So, yeah, that’s how this came to light. And unfortunately, things haven’t improved in those four years since that happened in 2017. It’s only gotten worse, I would say.
Blair: I think that you’re probably right, that this idea that, “We’re going to censor opinions that we don’t like” and “We’re going to protect our students from these toxic ideas,” I think that idea is proliferating.
We actually did play at the top of the show some of the recording that you took with your supervisor. One of the things that really struck me when I was listening to this was this insistence by the supervisor that you were, quote, “creating a toxic climate for the students.” And then, as you said, your response was that it would be a disservice to the students not to expose them to different ideas.
Seeing as we kind of are both on the same page that this is an issue, how do we counter this idea? What do we need to do to get this idea that students need to be protected from ideas they dislike out of our universities?
Shepherd: I think universities shouldn’t be infantilizing students. That’s what a lot of it came down to for me, was I don’t want to be treated like a child who needs to be protected from the truth. I’m sure my students don’t want that either. And unfortunately, that’s the way I felt, even in graduate school, was that it was just an environment where I didn’t feel like it was a free marketplace of ideas.
So I should say, I’m a really big defender of universities. I love the university and what it stands for, but unfortunately, we’re kind of seeing the same problems come from the same kind of discipline.
For example, my graduate program, which was full of critical race theory, and postmodernism, and social justice, and just kind of empty content, like there just wasn’t really a lot of substance to my graduate program. I do hold a degree, by the way, but it was in cultural analysis and social theory.
You also see it with things like, there actually are programs called “Social Justice Studies,” or there are degrees in critical race theory, critical race studies. Just those kinds of keywords, like justice, social justice.
Those programs, unfortunately, they’re just social justice programs that, yeah, are promoting ideological conformity and they’re not helping anyone academically. They’re not serving much in our society. So we probably, honestly, do want to defund those programs. And I say that as someone who loves the university.
Blair: I think you’re definitely hitting on a point that a lot of people would agree with, that the university system, in terms of education and learning more, going beyond, is definitely something we should strive to be doing.
As a populace, we should be looking to become smarter, become more educated, become more informed. But you’re definitely pointing out that there are these programs at these colleges that really aren’t enriching their students’ experiences. It’s more along the lines of, “Well, we’re just going to teach you to be an ideologue and we’re not going to actually teach you to think critically.”
Shepherd: Yeah, exactly. And it’s not even only in the academic programs. I know at least in Canada, almost every single university has a diversity and inclusion office. And when you first hear that, you think, “Oh, OK. They’re probably doing some good work. Including people is nice.” But when you actually look at what these offices are doing, they are offices of enforcing ideological conformity. That is their purpose.
Their purpose is to make sure that everyone on the campus has the same opinions on the pressing social matters of the day. You have to be pro-choice, you have to believe that Canada is a systemically racist country, you have to believe that trans women are real women. And they are there to make sure you have those opinions. And if you don’t, then they’re going to intimidate you and threaten you, and try to get you out of there if they can’t change your mind.
Blair: I think you’re definitely hitting on a very important topic, where it’s like these diversity offices are really only, ironically, existing to promote conformity, not really diversity. My question then kind of follows along that logic. If there’s this school of thought that says speech needs to be compelled, speech that we disagree with is violent, speech that we don’t like is something that needs to be curtailed, is there really any way to reach common ground on issues of free speech with people who believe that? Or what do we do if that’s sort of the camp that we’re against here?
Shepherd: I don’t know if there’s any common ground. No.
So something you’ll see is, maybe a free speech club will organize an event with a controversial speaker. And even if you don’t agree with that speaker’s opinion, if you are pro-free speech, you should be just saying this event needs to happen. You shouldn’t be advocating in any way for it to be shut down. And if that is your stance, then you are a pro-free speech person. You don’t have to agree with the opinions being expressed, but it’s just a matter of not shutting anything down once a speaker has been invited.
So I think we need to have, in order to bring back that culture of free speech, we need those kinds of events to happen. We need people to realize that when there’s a controversial event happening, you’re not endorsing the specific speaker. You’re just endorsing the principle of free speech in general. And I think just recognizing that value at large is really important.
Blair: I think that’s a really good point. I know we’ve seen in America, there are certain kind of hot-button speakers that will come to college campuses, like Ben Shapiro or Jordan Peterson. I recall when I was back in college, Justice Clarence Thomas of the Supreme Court was almost booed off campus, which I thought was a mind-boggling event, that a Supreme Court justice, who maybe you don’t agree with him, but he still has a lot of knowledge to share.
I actually want to go back to something that we had discussed a little bit earlier. During the discussion about your experience at Wilfrid Laurier, the idea of offensive content vs. offensive style came up. So there was a speaker who basically made the point that there is something, that content is inherently offensive or it’s only delivered in an offensive manner. I.e., it’s not the content itself that’s problematic, it’s the way that you present that information.
In your view, is there a difference between offensive content and content that’s presented offensively? And is there a possibility that content can be OK, but just presented in a way that’s an issue?
Shepherd: No. I think comments like that are kind of used to dismiss something. In my book, for example, I make a case that being a provocateur is not necessarily a bad thing. If the worst thing someone can call you is a provocateur, then you probably aren’t that bad of a person. So I think they try to use that as a way to dismiss someone and … as a cop-out.
Blair: That’s an interesting point, that if the worst thing that they can call you is somebody that says something provocative, I mean, that’s not really saying too much. It’s basically saying you’ve said something that made people think.
I recall reading some of the commentary about your recording and one of the things that the supervisor said was they compared Jordan Peterson to Milo Yiannopoulos. And Milo, obviously, being a very famous sort of firebrand, very famous provocateur.
We are running out of time, but I did want to let you kind of take the last word. If there was something that you want our listeners to take away from this, what would you want them to take away? And then what can we do as advocates for free speech to make sure that free speech is protected?
Shepherd: Well, something that I learned at university was it’s important to band together and create those free speech groups, whether it’s a student club or a community group, what have you, and find like-minded people who value free expression and who want to organize community events.
The club I had on campus, our mandate was to air unorthodox viewpoints, non-mainstream views, because the university, they’re only going to sponsor events that center around themes of social justice and critical race theory, postmodernism, all the rest. And we want to hear something else because we’ve heard that for over four years of university. So, yeah, it’s grouping together. And don’t be intimidated.
Another thing is, don’t apologize if you don’t feel that you’ve done anything wrong. I was thinking, a lot of people who may have found themselves in my position, their instinct would have been to just apologize, to say, “Sorry I hurt those trans students. I’m so sorry. I will comply. I’ll apologize publicly. And I’m so sorry.” That would have been the inclination for a lot of people, but at no point did I feel like I had done anything wrong. And so when people were asking me to apologize, I was just like, “Why?”
Even the Rainbow Center on campus, which was the LGBTQ center, for the whole year I was at school, they had a sign outside their door after the controversy erupted, and it said, “Trans students deserve an apology.” And it was always just kind of like, “For what? What did anyone do to you?” So, yeah. Really analyze, do you feel like you need to apologize? Well, then don’t.
Also, I think a lot of leftists, or the mainstream media, whatever, they’ll try to make you feel like a bad person if you don’t go along with their kind of leftist ideology. And I think you just need to have those self-talks and realize you’re not a bad person, and don’t try to have to prove to them that you’re a good person. Don’t try to cave into leftist ideas just to try to prove to them that you’re a good person. You don’t need to prove anything to them because they’re always not going to like you.
Blair: Those are fantastic things to keep in mind. That was Lindsay Shepherd. Her new book “Diversity and Exclusion: Confronting the Campus Free Speech Crisis” is available now for purchase. Lindsay, thanks again.
Shepherd: Thank you.