Mitu Sengupta is an associate professor in the Department of Politics at Ryerson University.
Great outrage has ensued over the reprimanding of Lindsay Shepherd, a teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University, for showing a controversial video in her class about the use of gender-neutral pronouns.
I am on board with much of this outrage. Yes, Laurier administrators handled the matter horribly, using their institutional power to come down hard on a young graduate student who was only trying to do her job. Yes, there are few or even no subjects that should be considered beyond the pale of classroom discussion – and, even if denying the Holocaust is one of them, the use of gender-neutral pronouns is arguably not. And, yes, invoking Hitler in this context was a cheap rhetorical trick meant to end the conversation.
As an educator, however, I worry that the importance of framing controversial subjects with sensitivity in the classroom is being lost amid all the outrage. Sensitive framing is crucial for topics that may strike a personal note with students. We are right to be angry about how Ms. Shepherd was treated. But let's not overlook the concern expressed by the student (or students) who complained about the video she screened in class.
The panel convened to respond to this complaint shouldn't have rebuked Ms. Shepherd for failing to voice disagreement with Jordan Peterson, the professor in the controversial video. She was under no obligation to do so. What the panel might have done was to simply advise her to show more regard in the future for students who might feel distressed by any aspect of a difficult class discussion. This might involve nothing more than uttering a few short sentences at the start of the session, such as, "For some of you, our discussion today might feel very personal. If you feel upset by the conversation, please come speak to me after class."
I do this quite often, taking my cue from the eminent Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, who was my favourite undergraduate professor at McGill University more than 20 years ago. I remember we were discussing colonialism, and Prof. Taylor read out the following excerpt from British historian Thomas Macaulay's Minute on Indian Education: "A single shelf of a good European library [is] worth the whole native literature of India." Prior to doing so, however, Mr. Taylor went red in the face and said, "This is embarrassing and a horrible thing to repeat."
I was the only Indian in the room. I remember feeling acknowledged, grateful. It wasn't much, but Prof. Taylor had given me relief from the weight of Macaulay's scathing, racist remarks. I felt better able to listen and more willing to engage.
We are taught to have the highest regard for free speech, the cornerstone of our liberal democracy. We receive less instruction, however, in understanding that free speech is still an ideal, not a reality.
We should recognize speech is usually more "free" for some people than for others. This may not be due to any tangible constraint, and may even occur despite our best efforts. In my classes, for example, I try to provide a supportive environment for everyone, but find that men consistently speak up more often than women. This is unsurprising. People who command social power – derived from their class, race or gender – tend to have more confidence while speaking, and are better at getting themselves heard. While I'm not recommending that anyone be shut down, we do need to be wary of how the ideal of free speech plays out in practice, in our very non-ideal world that is rife with deeply rooted inequalities.
We have a problem when the ideal of free speech imposes a heavier burden on some more than others – women, people of colour, sexual minorities – who constantly find themselves on the defensive in discussions about class, race and gender. This can be an extraordinarily taxing, alienating experience, and sometimes the safest option for the person involved is to mentally exit the conversation. This, of course, is terrible for the "debate" in progress, not least because you do not, in fact, get to hear "the other side."
To me, the power and privilege of being an educator comes with the special responsibility of keeping an eye on the well-being of students who are likely to find certain conversations especially stressful, and taking a few extra steps to ensure that they feel recognized and included. Far from snuffing out debate, doing so enriches the conversations that follow.
I think that our younger generations actually have a better grasp of the complexities and challenges surrounding free speech than do our older generations. I remain astounded by the compassion with which my students treat each other. They are creating a kinder and more open learning environment than the one that was thrust upon me during my undergraduate years. And, if students are pushing back against any perceived insensitivity on part of their instructors, I applaud them for taking ownership of their education, and for having the courage to actively protect their self-esteem.