Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The Unreality of Free Speech: Toxic Environments that Might Not Exist

I don't like to blog on current events all that much because I like to have some distance from the subject at hand to gain perspective. Not everyone is like this but I hope it works for me and prevents me from saying things that I'd regret later. I'm going to break from this pattern because of the sur-reality that is starting to surround the Wilfrid Laurier-Lindsay Shepherd free speech/toxic environment discussion. You can find the latest information here and here and likely in other places as well. Here is the upshot. For those who need a refresher, a TA named Lindsay Shepherd who works at Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU) was reprimanded by panel consisting of her supervisory faculty member, another faculty member, and an administrator after, they said, a -- and potentially more -- student(s) had complained that she had created a toxic environment in a tutorial she ran by showing a short clip of a televised debate about gender-neutral pronouns. One of the debaters was an individual well-known for biased and, it appears, homophobic and transphobic views. This occasioned an extensive debate about free speech versus safe learning environments in which LGTBQ and other advocates urged WLU to take steps to support a safe environment and to ensure that marginalized individuals were not subject to harassment, threats, denial of identity, etc., and so-called free speech advocates who argue that free speech was paramount and that the rough equivalent of secret trials that censor people should not take place at universities. There was a certain level of extremism to this debate whereby alt-right groups came to support of the TA (despite her denial of their politics) and a series of others claimed that she was standing on white privilege, etc.

The surreality of this debate -- its oddity -- became more odd when a WLU investigation could find no complaint against the TA involved. That's right. It appears that the complaint that supposedly underscored -- and, in fact, supposedly triggered -- the hearing in which the TA was reprimanded never existed, even as a less-formal expression of concern (say, an inquiry or even a "gee ... that made me ...."). This, of course, begs a whole bunch of questions to which we will likely never have answers because it appears WLU does not want to release the report to the public and does not want to make its internal disciplinary procedures matters of public debate. (I kind of agree with this because of the heightened tensions that now surround this issue). We are left to wonder: did the faculty make up this complaint? Was it something that they, say, overheard and magnified? In other words, was there ever a shred of truth to the supposed complaint or was it constructed out of whole cloth? Were all members of the tribunal involved in a deception or only, say, one with the other two taking that person at their word? To whom are complaints supposed to be made and why were red flags not raised when a complaint -- on which disciplinary action was being taken -- was not in some way officially registered? In other words, why did it take an investigation to discover that there was no complaint? Who is supposed to check these things and why didn't they? If only one member of the tribunal claimed to have a complaint, and the others accepted that person at their word, why did they not ask to see the complaint before they began disciplinary proceedings and certainly before they made a decision to reprimand the TA?

The other day, I was chatting with a friend about this matter -- before I had read this news -- and we agreed (and this has been the point of my other blogs on this subject) that there was more than enough blame to go around and that just about everyone who had commented one this issue was wrong in one way or another. That might have been an overstatement. If, there never was a complaint, if no LGBTQ person found what was going on in the tutorial to be of sufficient concern to complain ... then ... it is not clear that there was a substantive issue in the first place. In my previous blogs on this subject, I assumed, as a thought exercise, that the TA was guilty. That thought exercise was designed to serve a certain point. It was designed to show how problems such as this could have been avoided *if* greater attention were paid to establishing proper procedures to address complaints and impose discipline. I assumed that there was a complaint and that that complaint reflected a real sense of marginalization coming out of the classroom. It appears that that assumption was wrong. That thought, however, exercise is still valid. In fact, I'd contend that it is even more valid as a result of this revelation. 

Why? Because proper procedures would have show up the fact that there was no complaint. If you look over the list of procedures that I tried to argue were reasonable (and, by extension, tried to argue that the vast majority of people will find reasonable), you will see that I contended that someone accused of misconduct had a right to know:

  1. The number of complaints against them
  2. The specific rules that they violated
  3. And the complaint itself. 
If these procedures had been in place (and, I had others but this is the short list with which I began), the matter would have stopped right then and there.

What would have happened? Well ... because there was no complaint, there could not have been a disciplinary tribunal (or, whatever the precise forum that was convened). Perhaps the faculty member involved might have said "gee, I heard that ... " and it would have provided an opportunity to chat with the TA about the matter. 

There are, I think, some real problems with this issue and I'll address that sometime in the future but for now, without being arrogant, I write this blog to maintain my point. Regardless of all the oddity of someone inventing a complaint, the basics with regard to free speech, education, and disciplinary action are exactly the same today as they were a week ago. I am as curious as the next person about why someone, as it were, fabricated a crime. But, that does not change the fact that the "debate" around free speech at WLU needed to move in a different direction. 

As An Addendum: 

In the same way that one might ask me -- as I did rhetorically in a previous blog -- are you not neglecting issues (in that case with regard to LGBTQ issues), one might ask "Should I not say strongly that the TA -- Lindsay Shepherd -- was innocent?" She is. But, I want people to understand that my point was not to enter into a debate about her and her teaching tools. I was using her situation as a real world example to illustrate another point and I think that point still stands. I feel bad that someone was accused of a made up crime. In the same way did a month or so ago, however, I feel odd and uncomfortable commenting on specific cases where I do not have all the details. Moreover, I don't think one's free speech should be contingent on one being "innocent." In fact, the substance of my argument -- I hope --  runs in a different direction: toward a procedural mechanism that protects free speech by ensuring the rule of law, as it were, as opposed to ad hoc decision making processes. I'd stand by that. 
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