This week’s controversy about Lindsay Shepherd, the Wilfrid Laurier TA who got in trouble for airing a Jordan Peterson clip in class, has opened up the same old tired debate around “freedom of speech.” This isn’t to say that such debates are of no importance, but they often tend to focus on the voices of white, cis-gender persons who already have a platform to speak from. This is evidenced in the overwhelming support and amplification that people such as Lindsay Shepherd—the TA in question who gained 12,000 Twitter followers in a week—and Jordan Peterson receive when these controversies emerge.
For many of us, debates centred around gender pronouns aren’t just intellectual exercises. I’m a trans woman and a PhD student at Carleton University, and little has been heard from the transgender perspective throughout this entire ordeal, despite the fact that we are at the center of this debate.
For freedom of speech to work in practice, the argument goes, we must accommodate even the arguments we don’t like. At its most absolute, this argument advocates giving voice to those who would target the basic human rights of vulnerable populations.
I would like to humbly suggest that free speech is threatened in university campuses across the nation. However, the ways in which I think it’s threatened have been obscured by the entitlement of those whose voices are met with few barriers.
Freedom of speech isn’t a neutral topic. And it’s very complex in practice. From a sociological perspective, our society suffers from extreme stratification along the lines of race, gender, sexuality, and class. Your identity shapes where you might be located within society’s opportunity structure. Where you were born and what body you were born with matters and has a significant impact on your material and symbolic wealth.
For transgender folks, this positions us in a precarious reality. A great portion of Canadian society doesn’t recognize trans folks as real persons. And when they recognize us, it is often filtered through crude stereotypes that emphasize perversion or mental illness. The point is, we must go to great lengths to justify and defend our very existence in everyday situations. This extends to the classroom where many undergraduate trans students, who already face risky social situations, may find themselves working under prejudiced instructors.
To have the existence of your identity made into a debate within a classroom setting directly impacts trans students. And due to the number of us who are forced to stay in the closet for fear of the impacts of discrimination—an instructor can’t even be certain who is and isn’t transgender in their class.
There are tangible consequences to being transgender in the university. I began my transition shortly before my MA convocation ceremony at Queen’s University. It was certainly a surprise for my peers and professors when I came to the ceremony presenting as a woman. Largely, my colleagues were accepting. But one professor ignored me flat out in a blatant exercise in transphobia. For a graduate student, our professional integrity is intimately tied up with our social connections. There is a reason most of us stay in the closet. There is the omnipresent chance of having doors slammed in your face.
To return the controversy about Lindsay Shepherd, the topic of trans folks has been conveniently sidestepped in favour of oversimplified arguments for free speech in universities. In these arguments, the instructor’s right to present opinions supersedes a trans person’s right to be treated with dignity and respect. This is important, because after all, we pay taxes and tuition just like our cisgender counterparts.
Trans folks have been historically marginalized by academics who have been embroiled in debates concerning the authenticity of our existence. Many of these debates have centered around the medicalization of our identity through pseudo-scientific diagnosis of “transvestic fetishism,” “transvestic disorder,” and “gender identity disorder.” Up until 2013, scientific consensus had reduced our very personhood to a mental illness. This is further aggravated by the refusal to acknowledge our existence through the act of misgendering. This is when a someone refers to a transgender person by the sex they were assigned at birth which delegitimizes our right to our identity.
The threat that we face from instructors who insist that they must have a right to revoke our dignity because they do not recognize us as real persons has a silencing effect on many people who identify as transgender. This is compounded with the wider societal intolerance towards us. I spent 28 years of my life in the closet for fear of the harassment, stigmatization, and violence that accompanies being an openly identified trans person.
The pressures of daily transphobia and cissexism push us back into the closets where we are unable to express our voices. The “freedom of speech” of those who hold bigoted views silence the freedom of speech of those they target. So yes, this debate is important. The silencing effect this has is consistent over many vulnerable populations.
On top of this, there is the pressing issue of online vitriol that is unleashed on those who stand up against this injustice. This is reminiscent of the Gamergate controversy—but has become a normal routine in the lives of those who dare to challenge the dominant order of things in our society. Emma Jane, a social scientist focused on digital forms of misogyny, coined the term “e-bile” to characterize the kind of seething hatred that is deployed against (trans) women who speak out against injustices. This is evident when Jordan Peterson doxxed two protesters over his Twitter last month for challenging his “free speech” event—they were subsequently targeted with “extensive hate mail and harassment via Facebook, some of which have bordered on death threats.” In order for Peterson to have it his way, other voices must be silenced.
The Chicago principles were a response to the protests at universities that sought to de-platform controversial speakers. They are a statement that the university allows for any and all speech to occur on its campus as long as it does not breach the law. Though this is good in theory, such blanket statements ignore the sociological stratification that is already at play in silencing vulnerable populations. In other words, it doesn’t address wider systemic issues in favor of reinforcing the status quo.
To be clear, I am not against freedom of speech. But I am skeptical that the Chicago Principles work in practice as it results in privileging some voices over others. Instead, we should be focused on implementing fresh models of free speech that balance the need to express our ideas with the human rights and dignity of those around us. In this way, we can strive to uplift the voices of those who are silenced. After all, we need to share the same university campuses to learn.
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