lindsay shepherd
© Dave Abel/Toronto Sun/Postmedia
Teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd speaks at a rally in support of free speech at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., on Nov. 24, 2017.
It's only when progressives lose control of an issue that they agree to even have it discussed. This is then called a conversation

The president of Wilfrid Laurier University recently published a statement on free speech at Laurier and in the academy generally. It was a sad effort.

She built a Giza-sized pyramid of clichés and virtue-speak about something she was pleased to call "better speech" - as opposed to that decayed old concept, hustled by the likes of John Stuart Mill, Voltaire, and the framers of the American Constitution, known as "free speech."

Amid the vast waste of anodynes, platitudes and non-sequiturs, it was difficult to pick out a winner - the most tired, numb and vacant verbalism. But I struggled and chose, from her opening sentence, her claim that Laurier "has been at the centre of the campus free-speech conversation during the past year."

I see. Laurier's been having a "conversation," has it? Or has been at the centre of some fictive "conversation?" People have conversations. Usually no more than two of them. Conversations are informal usually. Social lubricants. Conversations are about hockey, or the weather, or in brutal lost moments, about the Housewives of Toronto. Conversation, however, doesn't quite cover the typhoon of public comment, editorials and protests that whipped over Laurier following its acknowledgement of its treatment of a young teaching assistant, Lindsay Shepherd. Public relations nightmare might work. Painful public scrutiny of Laurier's understanding of education and free speech could work, too.

The use of conversation in the piece stems from its more extended, though equally deplorable, formulation in virtue-speak from the progressive lexicon. You often hear the cry "we need to have a conversation about race, some new species of sexuality, plastic straws, the fate of the puffin ..." spilling from the lips of people who very clearly do not wish to have any conversation at all about any of these topics.
lindsay shepherd protest Wilfrid Laurier
© Tyler Anderson/National Post
Wilfrid Laurier University students rally in support of free speech and teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd, seen at left, in Waterloo, Ont., on Nov. 24, 2017.
You hear it when any real designated-as-politically-correct issue has escaped from the closed-thought cloisters of university safe-spaces and univocal "studies" programs. Having escaped from these sealed chambers of prescribed thinking and speech, and entered into open debate, into actual discussion and contest, a defensive reaction sets in. Ideas that were before off-limits, ruled beyond debate, declared the only right way to speak and think - once under challenge, very often even ridiculed and mocked, are suddenly reframed by their former jailers as candidates for a "conversation." It's only when progressives lose control of an issue that they agree to even have it discussed. This is then called a conversation.

"We need to have a conversation" is the white flag of the politically correct brigade.

What provoked the Laurier president's call for a conversation? It all sprang from the now infamous interaction between Lindsay Shepherd and her two bullying Laurier faculty overseers. Shepherd, you recall, had within the sacred walls of the Laurier academy scandalously played all of five minutes of TVO's notoriously toxic panel program, The Agenda, to a class - there was no limit to her depravity and malice - on media and communications. Funnily enough, media and communications were the topics of the Agenda show.

The clip came from an episode, hosted as always by the feral rabble-rouser Steve Paikin, that featured the arch-heretic from the Universalist Communion of Right-Thinking Social-Justice Whiners Inc., Prof. Jordan Peterson.

(I must halt here in needful digression: Why Steve Paikin, the Guy Fawkes of Canadian broadcasting, has not been jailed years ago for disturbing the slumbers of Ontarians with his wicked symposia on such intemperate subjects as Great Lakes catchments and the Zen of bike paths, reveals a great gap in the laws against public incitement and riot. Doug Ford, take note.)

jordan peterson
© Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star/Getty Images
Prof. Jordan Peterson of the University of Toronto is the author of the best-selling book “12 Rules For Life.”
Storms ensued. Laurier was pockmarked with fusillades from free-speech sentinels and the dwindling files of those clinging to the belief that the purpose of higher education is ... higher education. Not incidentally, the Laurier intervention provided just the rocket-booster Prof. Peterson needed, but could never have supplied on his own, to launch his campaign for sanity on campus and an end to the academy's squeamish genuflections to fad and folly, into the sweet altitudes of a world audience.

And now, a year or so after the brutalizing of the young teaching assistant, Laurier's president issues a feeble squeak calling for protection of "the humanity of students, faculty and staff" (that riotous TVO Agenda again) and proposing "better speech" as a presumed antidote to free speech. Areopagitica the piece was not. Milton weeps.

As a footnote, Jordan Peterson spoke in Kitchener, Ont., on July 22, back as we might say, to the scene of the thought-crime. No buildings levitated, no trauma teams were needed or called, lightning did not spike the night sky, security teams spent the length of his lecture playing cribbage, and the "humanity" of all present, I may report, was left unimpaired, and in many cases quite enhanced. Free speech is not better speech. It is the best speech.
Rex Murphy has wandered the wide open spaces of journalism since the early 70s. He began at VOCM radio during an heroic period in Newfoundland politics when a (virtually) tied election left Joey Smallwood premier with one seat less than the opposition who were intent on ousting him. He joined CBC Newfoundland's Here and Now program when it was launched as a nightly supper hour news program. There have been dips into politics and magazine writing since then, and currently he writes and reports for CBC's The National and hosts Cross Country Checkup.