Anonymous Submission to North Shore Counter-Info
Next week, a speaking event is scheduled at Queen’s University featuring alt-right-connected and self-styled ‘free speech warrior’ Lindsay Shepherd. Posters have appeared in Kingston calling for a counter-demonstration. It feels like a familiar story is unfolding, one in which we play our parts in a script already written by the strategists of the campus right. Wanting to contribute to an ongoing discussion about how to engage with these kinds of events, I reached out to an anarchist comrade in Kitchener-Waterloo who is familiar with Shepherd’s strategy and has experience with various efforts to counter her events. What follows is a reflection without an obvious solution, but my hope is that it will encourage creativity, strategic thinking and effective practice. We did this interview over email; it has been edited for clarity and length.
Who is Lindsay Shepherd?
Shepherd really comes onto the whole alt-right/free speech scene after she, as a TA in Commmunication Studies at Laurier, decided to show a film clip of Jordan Peterson debating Steve Paiken on the topic of pronouns. This led to complaints from some students and a subsequent meeting between her, someone from the diversity and equity office, the prof she was working for and another person from communication studies. While perhaps bad process – three senior academics/staff meeting with one TA – they did challenge her directly on why she used this clip, why it was inappropriate etc. There has been lots of ink spilled about academic freedom etc. but from the start it has been clear that she has another agenda. The fact that she audio recorded the meeting, leaked it to the press etc. shows a certain degree of intentionality on her part I think. As a result the prof was made to apologize to her, the university admin apologized and created a academic freedom committee and overall did absolutely nothing to support trans students on campus who were now being attacked in the backlash. Despite Shepherds claim that she should be able to show such a clip to promote debate/discussion etc., the fallout shows very clearly the climate of transphobia at WLU, and shows the ways that Shepherd has been wholly willing to stoke this. Her twitter is a great example of her alt-right style politics. Overall, freedom of expression/academic freedom has been a convenient gloss for right wing students, allowing them to control the narrative on campus and force the university admin to respond to them, rather than students affected by transphobia etc.
Somewhat hilariously, Shepherd also has a YouTube video where she says that she previously considered herself part of ‘the left’ because she recycles etc., but now rejects the left’s authoritarianism or something like that. All along she has played the victim, the innocent white girl, ganged up on by tenured, lefty cultural marxist profs and an unresponsive university admin, and framed everything as academic freedom and free speech, as if neither has limits or better yet consequences. She has also used this media spotlight to fashion herself a significant number of speaking engagements and turned herself into a celebrity of sorts to reap the benefits. She is also the head of the WLU group Laurier Students for Open Inquiry (LSOI), strategically titled no doubt, which is the group that tried to bring Faith Goldy and anti-indigenous academic hack Frances “residential schools were a good idea” Widdowson. Her boyfriend is also one of the people behind the alt-right Free Bird Media, who has covered all of this from the start.
What are her politics? What is her relationship to white nationalism?
Politically, I think she can be easily aligned with the alt-right. Her twitter is a testament to this, with various ongoing jabs against “lefty snowflake” causes, and also who she associates with. She has used free speech and academic freedom as strategic spring boards to give her a spotlight to talk about other politics and/or bring them up with other guest speakers through LSOI. Is she a white nationalist? I don’t think so. But she’s willing to give them a platform. Shepherd claims to disagree with Goldy, but still firmly believes she has a right to speak and be challenged through some sort of civil political discourse. She hasn’t, as far as i know, condemned any of Goldy’s direct associations with white nationalism. She is clearly willing to enable it.
What is she trying to do with the so-called “Laurier Society for Open Inquiry?”
I think this is a strategic extension of her narrative about academic freedom/free speech, which again seems to be mistaken for something that has no consequences. It’s a way to add some very slim legitimacy to her ongoing arguments about the need for engaging with ideas, “even the ones we don’t like.” LSOI also gives her a group identity, so it’s not just her, it sounds like a legit student group (it’s not).
How have anarchists and radicals in KW attempted to confront her ideas and events? What has worked, what hasn’t and why?
The article on North Shore touches on this, but in general it has been difficult. Some students firmly feel as though the campus is theirs and therefore they should call the shots and have the final say. This is in contrast to some other anarchists in the IWW-GDC who has generally decided to do what they want. There’s been a direct head-butting between these two groups, and there’s a bunch of us in the middle, I would say, who don’t think either side is being that strategic. Showing up in a small anarchist crew with matching red and black bandanas and your IWW sign doesn’t really add a degree of effective militancy to confronting someone like Shepherd or Goldy, and honestly it just looked odd and out of place. Most people didn’t know who these people were or what their intentions were. Masking up for security purposes and being ready to throw down, especially when these sorts of things attract Proud Boys, is potentially useful, but it needs to be thought out and coordinated. This group also called for a masked counter-demo against Frances Widdowson, and then showed up late to their own protest, and mostly just yelled “no fascists on campus”. I’m being a bit simplistic here obviously, but my take is that there isn’t a lot of what would be effective or necessary in this specific context.
Same goes for the campus radicals and liberals who don’t seem to actually hold much space for deplatforming or confronting things more directly. They have been more focused on having alternative rallies, rather than counter-rallies. Mostly, the rest of us anarchists have tried to support opposition efforts in general but don’t feel that great about them or their effectiveness. I’ve tried to push for more direct forms of discussion and coordination of tactics, but that mostly results in lip service with little actual willingness to hash out what might actually work in the long run.
So i’m kind of in the middle, critiquing both sides. I think for things to be effective we need to be clear about our language and what our lines are. Deplatforming doesn’t work, in my opinion, for a group that’s primarily talking about free speech. The narrative is already against us. Goldy is different – she has clear white nationalist identifications and can and should be shut down proper. But Lindsay Shepherd isn’t a fascist, and calling her one just makes us and our analysis look ridiculous. This is something that is quite common, slogans like no fascists on campus, no nazis at Laurier, etc. Of course we’re against nazis and fascists but who are we actually talking about, and what are their politics? Calling everyone a fascist because they have shitty right wing politics just empties out the word and leaves us looking out of touch. I think we need to work on being clearer and more direct with who these people are and how we can effectively oppose them. A fire alarm getting pulled on Goldy definitely scuttled her talk, but that won’t work for Shepherd in general. In fact, it just gives her more attention and ammunition. Same with Widdowson – does she need to be militantly opposed? Maybe. But honestly has anyone heard much about her B list academic garbage since her book came out in 2008? Sometimes i think we can leave things alone, to let them fade into obscurity. Again not as a general rule but with particular attention to the context of the speaker and the implications of their speech.
Are there pitfalls in asking university administrators to censor or expel students like Lindsay Shepherd? What is an anarchist perspective that can break through a discourse that pits right-wing conceptions of “free speech” against liberal calls for censorship?
There absolutely are. Do we want to actually give university administrators more power? Hard no. But for me it does come back to strategies – what are we trying to do? Are we trying to get Shepherd kicked out of school? Are we confronting the ideas she is giving platforms to? Are we building a specifically anti-fascist movement? Are we shrinking the alt-rights exposure to wider society? These are all different strategies that require different approaches. I don’t know the exact right approach for each strategy, but they are pretty different. I think it’s useful to isolate Shepherd – removing her access to funding, classroom booking space, sympathetic profs. This removes her from the spotlight, which so far, has been one of her greatest assets. The admin at WLU has also been so wishy washy and afraid of appearing to violate free speech that they will likely do very little anyway. So it doesn’t feel like a good use of our energy to focus on the admin, even if they are some of the bigger power holders. Pushing them on other fronts – supports for trans, or indigenous, or POC students seems potentially more useful and might have a greater impact.
I think there is an anarchist perspective here – the state, like the university admin, wants to be the final arbiter of disputes and have the final say on freedom of speech. But this is a constructed idea. Free speech is a legally defined thing, same with hate speech etc. Adding more laws to the books just makes more laws that will no doubt be used against anarchists and the radical left. I mean we want a fucking revolution and aren’t opposed to using violence to get it. So I think that more admin control of speech can blow back on radicals, maybe not right now at WLU, but it could. If anything we should probably be thinking about how to weaken the university admin, and institution as a whole, rather than letting it decide more things. So what do we do? Hopefully organize better collectively, and make it so it’s not worth it for Shepherd to carry on like this. Whether that’s isolating her, cutting off her funding, ridiculing her, there’s a bunch of possible ways to do it. Reminding her that just because she can legally say something doesn’t mean there won’t be social or political consequences for it.
Both “free speech”, so defined right now, and censorship give more power to those who already have it, and do little to actually protect people. We’d be better off being organized and letting them feel the consequences of their speech and actions rather than waiting for someone else to do that who might turn on us one day.
Do you think it makes sense to try to deplatform Lindsay Shepherd? If not, what alternative strategies would you propose?
In short, no I don’t think that she should be deplatformed. I think that is very likely just to add to her arguments (however wrong they are) and give her more traction with the right wing media. It is also clear that there are plenty of so-called leftists who still prop up the ‘all speech must be free’ idea (some add “unless you are an actual nazi”) so deplatforming her is likely to a generate sympathy among left-leaning folks as well.
In some cases I think people can be ignored. Despite how vile and anti-indigenous some of the things Widdowson has to say, that might have been an example where we can let her stay in obscurity. Aside from one “free speech” rally, all Shepherd does is organize talks, and the tone of specific talks is something to consider.
What is the danger in letting her or the people she platforms speak? A white nationalist is different from a lawyer who specializes in constitutional law and wants to talk about the charter (an early one of her events). In a couple cases radicals tried to increase Shepherds security costs by putting pressure on the university and hyping a counter rally, but WLU didn’t shut it down – they just charged her more money that she easily crowdfunded. She has those kinds of right wing deep pocket connections now. The University of Waterloo did attempt to charge Shepherd something like $20,000 for security for the Faith Goldy event at the last minute, and she didn’t try to crowdfund that, but she potentially could have. I don’t think pricing her out is going to work. It might work as an initial tactic, similar to pulling a fire alarm to disrupt an event, but these sorts of things usually only work once.
Ridicule is one type of tactic, people could attend her events and just heckle, just throw out random shit to disrupt the event, without a full on militant deplatforming action. Ridicule can be very creative. Think about the video of the guy with the tuba trolling the KKK – i mean yeah its the KKK so shut those fuckers down, but that video also made a pretty solid mockery of them. Maybe there is a way to do that with her and LSOI.
Overall, I think deplatforming needs to be deeply contextual. It can’t and shouldn’t be a one size fits all strategy. There are times where it is clearly important – Faith Goldy, white supremacists, nazis etc. – and others where it might only strengthen Shepherd’s position. Shutting her down, in some ways, means sapping her exposure and giving her less time in the spotlight, not more. So what does that mean when she herself is the speaker? Part of it should be countering the free speech narrative – which gets lost if she just gets shut down – and also bringing up all the rampantly homophobic, transphobic, racist garbage she spews, mostly on her twitter. She isn’t a ‘free speech defender’ but an alt-right/right wing mouthpiece with a specific agenda. Her goal has never been to debate uncomfortable ideas. She is attempting to normalize alt-right viewpoints on campuses and in the public sphere. It is about using the language of free speech to actually carve out greater space for attitudes and positions that are rooted in hate and oppression, which very directly fuel on-the-ground alt-right backlash and attacks. There is a reason why her events attract white nationalists and proud boys, and it’s not just the free speech angle. And so this could be countered with counter-information campaigns, postering, teach ins, all that education kind of stuff. Again, the context here matters, and should change the way we approach strategies and tactics.