Canada’s punditry just created the world’s newest alt-right folk hero. And it only took them 10 days.
That has to be a record for them, really quite the feat.
Here’s a quick primer on the ever-growing dumpster fire: Lindsay Shepherd, a 22-year-old teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, showed a video of notorious transphobe and alt-right sympathizer Jordan Peterson to a class of first-year communications students. At least one student complained that it was inappropriate to display such content without sufficient context.
Shepherd was then pulled into a meeting with three academic staff, which concluded with her being instructed to show all future media and seminar notes to her supervisor prior to teaching.
Then, she leaked secretly recorded audio of the meeting to the media.
The punditry immediately exploded. Almost every major commentator, including many self-described progressives, wrote a steaming hot take. The thesis was universal: Shepherd was a free speech hero, faculty and admin were censoring her and gender pronouns are very much up for debate in the classroom. Her freshly created Twitter account racked up thousands of followers in mere days: she now has more than 15,000 followers.
No mainstream pundit stopped to think about what they might be creating until it was too late. And in showing such unabashed support, they outed themselves — once again — as willing accessories to transphobia, white supremacy, and ongoing colonial violence.
Shepherd Corresponded with Neo-Nazi Blogger
Despite her initial claims, Shepherd wasn’t just someone looking to innocuously stimulate the intellectual journey of her students.
The most obvious indication of this was her willingness to speak at a ‘free speech’ rally on campus, which was littered with dog whistles to the alt-right such as “leftist authoritarianism” and “radical leftist indoctrination.” Another rally hosted by Proud Boys, a far-right group with ties to the Charlottesville standoff, was cancelled last minute due to the presence of anti-fascist organizers.
There were many other warning signs.
For a while, she was only following two other accounts on Twitter: Jonathan Kay (former editor of The Walrus and vehement advocate of free speech for white people) and Jordan Peterson himself. Recently, she also started following a militant vegan and fellow Laurier student who has expressed support for Shepherd.
In the past week, she’s retweeted the likes of Conservative leader Andrew Scheer and far-right columnist Barbara Kay. Shepherd has also happily cozied up to Sam Harris — one of the most renown New Atheists and “woke Islamophobes” in the world — and Faith Goldy, a former employee of the Rebel Media who was fired for her appearance on an actual neo-Nazi podcast.
Shepherd has repeatedly mocked the university’s Rainbow Centre for opposing her position and described Dalhousie University student Masuma Khan as “contemptuous and insolent” for criticizing the colonialism and white supremacy inherent in Canada 150.
Then, in response to reports that trans students on campus have been facing increased discrimination since the incident, she actually tweeted: “I wonder if these profs have taken into account that maybe, if it’s even true that harassment against trans students has gone up, it’s not because of transphobia, but because the campus LGBTQ community is now associated with being anti-free speech, thanks to Rainbow Centre.”
You read that correctly.
Shepherd actually asserted that increased oppression against trans people has increased because people dared to criticize her implicit endorsement of transphobia.
Trans Lives Are Not Debatable
It’s amazing that this has to be done, but let’s make one thing very clear: the lives and dignity of trans people are not up for debate.
This year has been the deadliest for trans people in recent history. The rally hosted by the Proud Boys which Shepherd spoke at happened only four days after the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance. Trans people experience much higher rates of poverty, suicide, unemployment, homelessness and violence. In addition, lifetime suicide attempts are especially high for Indigenous, black and Hispanic trans people.
Using proper pronouns is absolutely integral to respecting and validating the lives of trans, non-binary and Two Spirit people. Misgendering or deadnaming helps to dehumanize them and allows for acts of violence and oppression.
While many subjects may remain open for argument within classroom settings, there are some which simply aren’t. Those range from whether the Holocaust happened, to phrenology, to child pornography, to whether the earth is flat. Such concepts may be presented through the lens of history, but they would never be offered up without enormous amounts of context and caveats to ensure that students aren’t led to believe that they’re legitimate positions to hold.
Especially to first-year students.
Shepherd didn’t do this. The Peterson video was offered up as a neutral text, something that’s worthy of locking intellectual horns with. She reiterated in the meeting with the three university staff that “in a university all perspectives are valid.”
That’s simply not true. While fostering debate is a healthy practice — especially within the (hopefully) professionally mediated ecology of a post-secondary classroom — there are obvious lines that must be drawn in order to protect the literal lives of students.
Speech is not a thought experiment. It has distinct material consequences, especially for Black, Indigenous and people of colour, and trans, non-binary and Two Spirit people.
Furthermore, it’s not something that must be guaranteed for “both sides.” Leftists are under no obligation to battle for the rights of Nazis, transphobes, colonizers and pro-lifers to speak in some attempt to ensure similar respect for rights. “Free speech” has never existed for oppressed peoples.
As identified by Davide Mastracci in an important Twitter thread: “Free speech isn’t an objective ideal we can reach. Instead, it’s filtered through class, race, etc, meaning speech will always only ever be truly free for the ruling class. By design, not coincidence.”
We must not tolerate hatred that threatens lives. Ideologies are in clear conflict. It’s not simply a war of ideas, but a war being waged against vulnerable people and communities.
Media Successfully Framed Issue As One of Censorship and Free Speech
Yet this shouldn’t entirely fall on the shoulders of Shepherd.
For one, there’s a very legitimate argument that her supervisor and faculty failed to do their jobs.
Direct involvement by professors in the work environments of TAs can vary a great deal by department and institution, but there should be a basic level of monitoring and guidance. We’re talking about an entire web of issues related to that including wages, unionization and power dynamics for TAs that should be addressed in another space.
It’s also clear that regardless of the circumstances, Shepherd shouldn’t have been subjected to a closed-door meeting with three university staff who wielded a great deal of power and influence over her.
Bringing in the actual law into the discussion was also incredibly unhelpful, and undermined what could have been a productive learning experience for all parties.
But even more responsibility lies with the media itself for enabling and legitimizing Shepherd’s position as one of “free speech” and censorship. Without such cheerleading, this situation would have likely died down and Shepherd would have resumed her responsibilities as a TA, including submitting seminar notes to the professor ahead of time.
Thanks to the efforts of many players including (but certainly not limited to) Conrad Black, Christie Blatchford, Rex Murphy, Heather Mallick, Jonathan Kay, Barbara Kay and Emmett Macfarlane, the situation took on significance of legendary proportions.
This was no longer a workplace issue about lack of training, pedagogy and monitoring. It literally became a fight over whether it’s acceptable to debate the right to actively dehumanize trans, non-binary and Two Spirit people.
Shepherd ran with it. She’s almost certainly guaranteed a career in right-wing media if she decides not to continue with academia. You can rest assured that her Peterson-like resistance to gender pronouns will play a crucial role in her ongoing ascent, playing directly into “anti-PC” discourse.
Some pundits have already started to display buyer’s remorse. It’s too late. Shepherd and the alt-right just conned the same pack of pundits who got duped by the Rebel.
And they’ll never learn! As they’re almost entirely cis white people, there’s no real need to. There are no stakes. It’s all a game. Shepherd will spend the coming years in the alt-right spotlight, while trans, non-binary and Two Spirit people suffer the consequences.
And Canadian pundits will continue legitimizing outright oppressors under the guise of free speech, treating language like an abstract concept instead of what is actually is: something that harasses, wounds and kills.
James Wilt is a freelance journalist based in Winnipeg. He holds a journalism degree from Mount Royal University in Calgary, and contributes to DeSmog Canada, VICE, CBC Calgary, Alberta Oil, Fast Forward Weekly and Geez magazine.