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Much Ado About Free Speech: A Canadian Professor Responds

Quillette contributors have done an admirable job of documenting recent cases in which free expression is no longer truly free at institutions of higher education, including in such articles as “The Free Speech Crisis on Campus Is Worse than People Think,” and “The Hysterical Campus.” But while these articles present the problem as international, they typically rely on examples sourced almost exclusively to the United States.

I am a psychology professor at a large, public Ontario school, the University of Guelph, where students can choose from 40 different majors, most of which will allow enrollees to earn a bachelor’s degree without ever once hearing the word “intersectionality.” Yet based on what Canadians see in the media—not just Quillette, but also local sources—they’d be forgiven for thinking that we academics spend most of our time gazing at our navels, memorizing the latest politically correct jargon, and rooting out hate speech.

I have been teaching at my university for almost 20 years, yet I cannot recall a single instance in which my students protested the expression of an offensive idea. Nor has an administrator ever told me what I can and cannot say. The most newsworthy local example occurred at a neighboring institution, Wilfrid Laurier University, where teaching assistant Linsday Shepherd was famously reprimanded (and then exonerated) for showing a Jordan Peterson video to her students. Yet the public has become so convinced that these episodes are epidemic that Doug Ford, Ontario’s new premier (and brother to the late mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford) has threatened to withhold funding from universities that fail to enforce free-speech policies.

As an educator, I am not one to walk on eggshells with my students, so it is possible that Ford’s new rules might save my bacon someday. But my experience suggests they probably are unnecessary so long as academics exercise a baseline of common sense and decency.

A few years ago, I put together a reading list for students (mostly women) to discuss in small groups. The overarching theme was that women often disagree on the question of what constitutes feminist “progress.” Should female U.S. voters have supported Bernie Sanders, because his policies were seen as more progressive on women’s issues; or Hillary Clinton, because she is a woman? Should women prefer employee benefits that cover the cost of egg freezing, so that they can delay motherhood while building their careers—or seek to recoup the cost of extended maternity leave, so they can take time off to spend with their children when the time is right? Has the sexual revolution helped women, who can now pursue their sexuality in a way that is detached from maternal obligations and even romantic commitments—or has it primarily worked to the advantage of men, who now have more access to sex with no strings?

Most readers would probably agree that there is nothing particularly controversial here. And to my knowledge, these readings inspired no ire among my students. However, there was another reading that, in hindsight, I regret having assigned, and which I have removed from the reading list for future classes.

It was a short excerpt of a 1994 Harper’s essay by David Foster Wallace about his visit to the Illinois State Fair. Wallace was accompanied to that fair by an old high school acquaintance, dubbed “Native Companion,” who was very different from the cosmopolitan women he had met since leaving Illinois years earlier. The assigned excerpt recounted Native Companion’s ride on the Zipper, “a kind of Ferris wheel on amphetamines,” with caged cars that could rotate 360 degrees. The “carnies” operating it deliberately stopped the ride while her car was upside-down—knowing that gravity would make her dress fall up—so they could “ogle her nethers.” Afterwards, Wallace was gobsmacked by her reaction, or lack thereof, to the carnies: “So if I noticed or didn’t, why does it have to be my deal? What, because there’s assholes in the world I don’t get to ride the Zipper?” (For clarity, the word “Native,” as Foster used it, related to Illinois residency, not Native American identity.)

Wallace added an analysis that would sound familiar to today’s culture warriors: “The core value informing a kind of eroto-willed political stoicism on your part is your prototypically Midwestern appreciation of fun—whereas on the East Coast, eroto-political indignation is the fun. In New York a woman who’d been hung upside down and ogled would get a whole lot of other women together and there’d be this frenzy of eroto-political indignation. They’d confront the guy. File an injunction. The management would find themselves litigating—violation of a woman’s right to non-harassed fun. I’m telling you. Personal and political fun merge somewhere just east of Cleveland, for women.”

Now, I know what some of you are thinking. This spineless professor—i.e., me—cravenly quashed a perfectly legitimate, harmless, even funny and incisive, anthropological analysis of political correctness written a quarter century ago. Perhaps, your suspicion goes, I was worried that my students might find the Zipper episode “triggering.” After all, social-justice enthusiasts are notorious for ignoring historical context and imposing today’s values on yesterday’s words and actions. Or perhaps you might suspect that I was worried that feminists would object to the whole idea of a male professor assigning a reading about feminism by a male author, especially one who is known to have had unhealthy relationships with women. But you would be wrong on both counts.

To understand my motives for removing the reading, you first have to understand my motives for assigning it in the first place. The star of the piece, in my mind, was Native Companion rather than David Foster Wallace. It seemed to me that she handled the “asshole” carnies in a very effective way. She did as she pleased, and did not give them the satisfaction of preventing her from having fun. I admired her, and I thought that she could serve as a source of inspiration to my female students. I was worried, frankly, that their only role models were of (in Wallace’s words) the “eroto-political indignation” variety, and so I wanted them to see that there were other ways to handle assholes, who cannot always be avoided.

But then I started talking to my female students. Most of these conversations were initiated by me, but at least one student “confronted” me about her objections to the reading. Their perspectives were informed by their personal experiences with men, as well as the experiences of other women they knew. Student became teacher and teacher became student.

I learned that no two women are alike in terms of how they’ll respond to an encounter with a man. One might be traumatized by something that seems fairly benign to an outside observer, while another might be comparatively unscathed (or at least appear to be) by something unequivocally horrific. What is important is that the survivor not be judged for her reaction. And I learned that by offering up Native Companion’s reaction as an implicit ideal, I was suggesting that there was something wrong with other types of reaction. You are welcome to disagree with this logic, but I do not, and that is why I no longer assign the reading.

I am also happy to report that this process never resembled the type of free speech confrontation that looms large in the mind of the public. It was calm and respectful and deliberative rather than charged and reactionary. No one went over my head and filed a complaint with my superiors or went to the press. No one shouted me down. The student who confronted me was not looking for a fight, although I think she was prepared for me to be defensive. When I instead gave signs that this was an opportunity for a teaching moment, she obliged with grace and respect.

It is reasonable to wonder whether this anecdote is any more meaningful than the other anecdotes that get reported, suggesting a crisis on campus. But you should know that I am not a particularly PC guy; and yet this is the only incident I have experienced in two decades of teaching, which has included interactions with tens of thousands of students.

Every year, I teach an introductory psychology course to groups of 600 students. One of the sections covers evolutionary psychology, which tends to emphasize biological sex over gender identity, and focuses closely on biological differences between males and females. You could easily see how this perspective would fly in the face of material that students might learn in one of their humanities courses. But not once have I had a student openly object to me teaching this material. The reason, I think, is that I teach controversial topics in a way that comes across as food for thought rather than dogma: There are these scientists who apply a biological approach to understanding human behaviour. They call themselves evolutionary psychologists. You might find their methods and conclusions appealing. Let me know if you want to learn more.

Indeed, I sometimes wish that students were more confrontational. At least then I would know that they were engaged by my lectures. These days, this is a common complaint among professors, who must compete for attention against iPhones during class. You can imagine how depressing it is when students who are considering your course are far more likely to ask “How many exams will there be?” than “What topics will be covered?”

Provocation is an effective way to get people to pay attention. And I wonder sometimes whether the only reason I originally assigned the Wallace essay was to indulge some subconscious urge to stir my students from their usual passivity.

Dan Meegan (@DanMeeganJr) is associate professor of psychology at the University of Guelph, and the author of America the Fair: Using Brain Science to Create a More Just Nation, forthcoming in 2019 from Cornell University Press.