Freedom of speech is a relative thing. By that, I mean it’s not as pure as its most ardent advocates claim. For example, the wealthy and powerful have more of it because they have greater access to media. They can even purchase entire newspapers, magazines and television stations. Similarly, the traditionally privileged — white, male, western, straight — have also enjoyed the benefits of free speech far more than those outside the circle of comfort. In other words, context and nuance are at play.
We saw this once again at the end of last year when Lindsay Shepherd, a teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., was reprimanded after showing her class a video of controversial academic Jordan Peterson. The University of Toronto professor has attracted attention for his vehement opposition to accepting new pronouns to accommodate trans students.
Shepherd secretly taped a subsequent conversation with three university officials who told her certain students had felt uncomfortable and that she had not behaved appropriately. Shepherd was understandably upset during the meeting, cried a little and then released the recording to the media. At that point, she became a champion of the right because she had, apparently, stood up to the storm of censorship on university campuses.
Oddly enough, I am a university student. I graduated many years ago, but I returned for a master of divinity at the University of Toronto in 2016. I argue, debate and speak freely almost every day in class and in social settings, and I simply don’t see this horrible left-wing campaign to silence dissent. I don’t see it because, generally speaking, it’s a chimera, a false monster created by the right to preserve their influence and, ironically, to make it much more difficult for a new wave of young people to be heard.
In fact, dialogue on campus is becoming more courteous, informed and respectful. Yes, of course teething problems exist, and certainly extremists may try to exploit the new tolerance, but none of that is insurmountable.
Those on the right insist the left is denying their freedoms when in fact they are just being asked to be more responsible and to allow previously unheard voices and opinions. But change can be intimidating to those who have only known power.
We’re told, for example, that opponents of abortion are under siege. The truth is that women have a perfect right to question whether having control over their bodies should be compared to the Holocaust. There’s a major difference between freedom of speech and the abuse of liberty to offend others. The freedom of my fist, as it were, stops at your nose.
I’m truly sorry Shepherd was upset, and it doesn’t have to be this way. It seldom is. I see young Christians speaking to others about their faith all the time on campus, but they’re being polite rather than pests. So just settle down everyone — it’s going to be fine. And that speech is free!
Michael Coren is an author and journalist in Toronto.
Anne Bokma left the Dutch Reformed Church as a young adult and eventually became a member of the United Church and then the Unitarian Universalists. Having long explored the "spiritual but not religious" demographic as a writer, she decided to immerse herself in practices — like hiring a soul coach, secular choir-singing and forest bathing — for 12 months to find both enlightenment and entertainment.
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