The old adage has it that “a picture is worth a 1,000 words.” But, as former Wilfrid Laurier University teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd showed Canadians last November, in academia 1,000 words — unexpectedly recorded — can paint a culture-capturing picture.
By now, the infamous interrogation Shepherd endured after exposing students to Jordan Peterson’s views on compelled speech is so widespread as to need no further elaboration. Lindsay Shepherd is a household name in a free-speech movement she has helped to create. But if she hadn’t had the presence of mind to record that session, it would be “Lindsay who?”
Amazing when you think about it: it took only a tiny poke on her laptop keyboard to overturn a long tradition of power imbalance between ideologically inclined professors and vulnerable students holding unpopular views. The ripple effect from Shepherd’s action is likely to be significant.
The ripple effect from Shepherd’s action is likely to be significant
It was, for example, a literal inspiration to Valerie Flokstra, a 22-year-old graduate of the University of the Fraser Valley’s teacher education program. Flokstra is now teaching at a private school in B.C., and is therefore safe from academic reprisal in speaking her mind about an incident that occurred last January, one that has striking similarities to Shepherd’s.
Flokstra is a devout Christian and pro-life. But, as she told me in an interview, “throughout the entire program I never expressed an opinion on the ethics of abortion.” The precipitating discussion was not about ethics, though. It was about the epidemiology of autism, which a growing number of school-aged children are being diagnosed with.
Flokstra’s teacher, Nancy Norman, had mentioned the known link between premature birth and autism. Another student noted the rising rates of autism. Flokstra adduced rising rates of abortion as a possible causal link. She had learned this from a pro-life documentary called Hush (in which I was interviewed), which asserts that multiple abortions are causally linked to a higher risk for premature birth in future pregnancies. Her remark did not arise from her opposition to abortion, but from epidemiology.
Flokstra states that no one objected to her allusion to the statistics. But a few days later, she was called to a meeting with Norman and department head Vandy Britton, which she recorded without their knowledge. I reviewed the recording in its entirety. In it, Flokstra was told that since it was possible someone in class had had an abortion (the numbers being one in 10 women), she was wrong to say that “abortion causes autism.” But that is not what she said.
Flokstra counters, “I did not say any opinion about abortion.” She had offered a medical statistic — a “big difference.” But Britton says her words were “hurtful to other students in the class.” But it’s not clear that anyone actually complained. If someone did, this was never made clear to Flokstra, then or since.
Flokstra is then accused of “shut(ting) down other people.” Flokstra says, “I don’t see how my comments shut people down. I think you are shutting me down.” Flokstra is told she must consider the other students’ “feelings” and their “safety.”
I think you are shutting me down
Like Shepherd, Flokstra becomes tearful out of frustration, yet manages to push back on the accusations, asking whether classrooms are about “feeling safe at all times, or if it’s about learning.” And, as in the Shepherd interview, outrageous comparisons are made. In the Shepherd interview, the supervising teacher compared Jordan Peterson to Hitler. In this case, Britton compares discussing actual facts about abortion to promoting hatred: “It’s not freedom of speech per se … we don’t just say whatever. Otherwise — that’s why we don’t have the KKK having a club on campus. That’s not freedom of speech. That’s hate, right?”
Flokstra’s experience is troubling on several levels, not least her teacher’s instinct to keep students ignorant of medical facts rather than risk creating ambivalence around multiple abortions.
It’s possible that the teachers, though polite, are uncomfortable with Christianity and Christians. According to Flokstra, another teacher commented in class, in these words or words to this effect (corroborated by a fellow student), “Christianity has been dominant in the past, and it needs to get brought down. If it ends up below other religions for a while, that’s OK. Things will even out eventually.” In voicing this opinion, she was not worried about Flokstra’s “feelings” or “safety,” needless to say.
After several requests for comment, the university got back to me. The relevant part of their reply said: “While UFV certainly acknowledges that this recorded conversation took place, the history and complex context of the conversation is certainly not encapsulated in this recording. It is important to note, the Teacher Education Department (as dictated by the B.C. Teacher Regulation Branch of the B.C. Ministry of Education) requires that teacher candidates are open to receiving all perspectives in the classroom and asks teacher candidates to keep an open mind to all perspectives — not only the ones they believe in — while teaching in British Columbia. This is some of the context under which the discussion took place. Other aspects will not be discussed due to privacy legislation.”
How did bringing up the KKK add to the context of the discussion?
It all sounds so reasonable. But how does what’s above relate, at all, to what Flokstra experienced? Why was the school concerned that she would not be open to perspectives she didn’t believe in? How did bringing up the KKK add to the context of the discussion?
Readers will know the answers — the school’s response is generic boilerplate because there’s nothing they can say about what Flokstra experienced that makes it any less odious (but it’s good of them to acknowledge that the conversation took place!). Students should know that recording meetings like this, regardless of their teachers’ wishes, is their legal right. En garde, smartphones!
The article and photos from the University of the Fraser Valley can be seen here.