“Words are violence.” “Cultural appropriation.” “Cisgender norms.” “Intersectionality.” These are some of the phrases aggressively (and endlessly) foisted upon American society. They are employed to attack and vilify the critics of wokeness. And they are spawned and perpetuated in the bogs of the liberal academy.
Canadian free speech activist Lindsay Shepherd knows something about this pseudo-intellectual claptrap. She suffered through years of it at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada, both before and after her now-famous decision as a teaching assistant of a communications studies course to present a Jordan Peterson clip regarding pronouns.
The fallout from that, which I reported on a 2018 Federalist article, dramatically changed her life, and made her a heroine of those who prize free expression and are concerned about the intellectual decline of university campuses. Her new book, Diversity & Exclusion: Confronting the Campus Free Speech Crisis, exposes how morally and intellectually bankrupt the academy has become.
Yes, It Really Is That Insane
Shepherd’s story proves the risible and ridiculous character of the contemporary university. Much of this falls within what she calls the “oppression Olympics.” One professor discouraged white students from raising their hands during class, alleging they have more opportunities in society than students of color.
Other professors put “land acknowledgments” — recognitions of the indigenous peoples who earlier inhabited a certain piece of land — in their email signatures. At one campus demonstration, a speaker claimed that adding yogurt to hummus is cultural appropriation.
It’s not just the asininity of the academy, but its pettiness. When Shepherd tweeted part of a syllabus from a professor regarding land acknowledgments, the professor threatened to silence her with intellectual property violations.
Another time, a grad student who engaged in online sparring matches with Shepherd demanded she leave the communications study lounge, where she was printing some documents. When she refused and called him “petty and pathetic,” he lodged a formal complaint with the university. Shepherd was eventually cleared of the charge.
During the tribunal with three Wilfrid Laurier employees to discuss Shepherd’s provocative video clip, professor Nathan Rambukkana referred to Shepherd’s “positionality.” He further chastised her for making her students feel “uncomfortable” and fostering an “unsafe learning environment” by allegedly promoting “gendered violence” and “transphobia.”
Diversity & Exclusion also exposes how universities have become places not to inculcate portions of the Western tradition, train young people how to think, and prepare them for professional life, but centers of intellectually incurious indoctrination.
“I had been under the impression graduate school attracted the most open, inquisitive, and curious minds, but instead I was finding rigid ideological conformity and disavowal of those who deviate ever so slightly,” writes Shepherd. Her readings had titles like “Dialectics of Colonial Sovereignty” and “The Future Birth of the Affective Fact: The Political Ontology of Threat.”
According to Shepherd, the currently popular “biopolitical theory” is a study in nothingness. She explains:
The biopolitics acolytes deployed a specialized, obscure language that made it seem like they were doing something so distinguished that a layperson just could simply not understand it, when really there was nothing substantive about what they were saying. The nothingness of their endeavor was cloaked with fancy terms like ‘necropolitics,” ‘subjectivity,’ and ‘governmentality.’
The perverse effect of this indoctrination is visible in how students responded to Shepherd’s battle with the university over free speech, which originated in her simply raising for discussion the use of pronouns (which faculty described as “violent speech” and “gendered violence”). The university’s “Rainbow Centre,” for example, declared: “Debates about gender neutral pronouns or the validity of trans identities are not only discussions about (dis)allowable speech but, also, affronts on the reality of trans experience.” Such debates, it claimed, even “constitute a form of epistemic violence that dehumanizes trans people by denying the validity of trans experience.”
What Shepherd experienced first-hand are the tactics employed by tyrannical ideologues to defame and delegitimize opponents. In an irony student activists seemed unable to appreciate, they characterized a free-speech rally as “actually silencing trans and non-binary students” and engaging in “transphobia.” As R.R. Reno has noted at First Things, by accusing one’s intellectual opponents as suffering from some sort of “phobia,” the activist ideologue leverages the supposedly clinical and scientific against the allegedly backward and bigoted.
This uneducates students in logic, rhetoric, and debate, teaching them instead to vilify their opponents via name-calling, caricature, and “guilt by association.” Peterson, according to one student petition, engages in “gendered white supremacist ideology.” Shepherd, one Canadian professor claimed, is an “alt-right provocateur” who deploys “White Lady Tears.”
Shepherd, they declared, was supposedly alt-right because she showed a video of Peterson, a bestselling mainstream author some alt-right people support. This is utter nonsense.
We Need More Lindsay Shepherds
For most of her life, Shepherd by default considered herself a leftist. She was not religious (and enjoyed listening to prominent atheist intellectuals); she favored pro-choice, environmental-conscious policies; she was concerned about wealth inequality; she harbored no opposition to gay marriage. Yet she, unlike many of her classmates, was intellectually curious and uninterested in simply regurgitating Michel Foucault and other postmodernists. In other words, she was willing to have her intellectual premises tested.
For that, Shepherd was attacked and maligned, not only by the academy, but by much of Canadian media. No longer at home among the liberal intelligentsia, she joined the Conservative Party of Canada. She now has had trouble finding employment because of her reputation.
Her $3.6 million lawsuit against the professors and administrators at Wilfrid Laurier, as well as the university, for harassment, intentional infliction of nervous shock, negligence, and constructive dismissal, is still pending. I hope she gets every penny.
What’s to be done? Shepherd calls for the closure of campus diversity offices, which she believes undermine the pursuit of knowledge by elevating identity politics over uncomfortable truths.
That’s just a start. The purpose of the academy in the Western tradition is to transfer to students a conception of objective truth. The very name “university” derives from the idea that a diversity of subjects (mathematics, science, history, language) are all unified as part of a broader, coherent human understanding of reality.
Now the academy peddles in postmodern deconstructionism that questions whether objective knowledge is even possible. Even math and logic are now said to be “racist” and “colonialist.”
Yet if the deconstructionists, postmodernists, and adherents of critical theory are correct that our intellectual and cultural traditions are inaccurate, immoral, and incoherent, what’s the point of even having a university? They have, in effect, argued themselves out of their jobs.
State governments, which possess the power to influence public academic institutions, need to take more interest in what is happening in state universities and apply the necessary pressure to stop these worrying trends, which evince not only an intellectual suicide but a socio-cultural one. Our leaders must demonstrate the courage to curb what is killing us. What we need are politicians who demonstrate the kind of courage displayed by Lindsay Shepherd.