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Jordan Peterson and the Freedom of Expression

[Peterson] can write papers, produce videos, speak to the media, serve on a panel forum, and deliver lectures to a captive audience. What he can’t do is use the dignity of his students as a platform.

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According to Peterson’s allies, he is defending an essential freedom in a place where that freedom should be most respected: the university. Peterson sees himself as a hero of free speech, bravely standing against a tidal wave of activism that seeks to suppress dissent by coercion; No longer is he able to freely discuss his views, but instead receives orders from an authoritarian administration concerning what opinions he is allowed to publicly express. He has decided to fight against this new development, in the name of freedom of speech and academic freedom. I hope I have given his view a fair reading.

Most public discussion on this issue has given short shrift to the actual legal situation. It all begins with a letter from administration, advising Peterson not to refer to students by other than their preferred pronoun. He is upset, because he believes that the new gender politics is an activist fiction, at odds with biological and psychological reality. Consequently, he feels as though he is being compelled to say something that he believes is false -an unfathomable perversion of academic and personal freedom.

Perhaps the administration is simply going along with the gender progressive zeitgeist; or perhaps they are proactively responding to the Ontario Human Rights Code. If students were discriminated against by Peterson on the basis of their gender identity, a protected class under the ON Human Rights Code, then the adjudicating body -the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal- would find that to be a basis for (non-criminal) sanctions. To be clear, intentionally referring to students by other than their preferred pronoun would constitute a form of harassment. Peterson and his employer, the University of Toronto, are right to be concerned.

That’s not the end of the legal story. The ON Human Rights Code must be consistent with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is the legal source for the freedom of expression in Canada. That determination would be made on appeal from the ON Human Rights Tribunal’s decision, if such a decision were to be made based on a complaint (this hasn’t happened yet). This would require a determination that Peterson’s right to expression was infringed, followed by a consideration of whether the infringement was allowable under section one of the Charter, which is the internal balancing mechanism used when Charter rights conflict with pressing and substantial legislative objectives.

There is also the vaguely looming spectre of amending Canada’s Criminal Code to include gender identity as a protected class, which Peterson seems to suggest would mean criminalising improper pronoun usage. It doesn’t. The change means that the law will recognise hate crimes against gender non-binary people in the same way that it recognises hate crimes against other protected groups. This change will not in any sense criminalise speech, as some people have implied or inferred. At all. This is a red herring, either the result of ignorance or deliberate distortion.

That’s the legal side of all this, in broad outline. The issue is further complicated by the content of Peterson’s expression itself. An entire side debate could be spawned on the complex relations between sex, gender, and society, without ever touching on the issue of free speech. This is made even more challenging by the lack of clear data on gender non-binary people. We don’t know what percentage of people we are talking about, partly because of a social stigma that is only now beginning to erode. What we do know is that younger people are more likely to identify as gender non-binary, suggesting that the vanguard of gender conservatism was blocking a group of our people from receiving their due recognition, concern, and understanding.

In order to discuss this complex constellation of issues, the University of Toronto held a panel forum, what some people have called a debate. This was Peterson’s opportunity to take a very public stand on his views, to decry the activism that is eroding academic freedom, while staring into the eyes of the very people who embrace that erosion -his enemies, the turncoats who have forgotten the importance of the freedom of expression.

In a way, the debate was over before Peterson stepped up to the podium. Here he was, embroiled in a public controversy over statements he had made in various forums, standing in front of a microphone in a lecture auditorium at the University of Toronto, in an event held specifically to address his positions, and complaining that he doesn’t have free speech. Evidently, Peterson has all the free speech he could possibly need, and a larger platform than most people enjoy. He can write papers, produce videos, speak to the media, serve on a panel forum, and deliver lectures to a captive audience. What he can’t do is use the dignity of his students as a platform. He doesn’t have that right.

Let’s be clear. Peterson’s freedom of expression has been restricted. It has been restricted in the very narrow context of the gender identity he is allowed to ascribe to his students. The law says he can’t refer to students by other than their preferred pronoun. This is undeniably a restriction on his freedom of expression, albeit in a narrow context.

Let’s also be clear about constitutional law. The freedom of expression is not absolute. Like all of the Charter rights, there can be reasonable exceptions for pressing and substantial objectives like, for example, protecting the well-being, dignity, and equal rights of students in university classrooms. Peterson stands to do real harm by his refusal to treat non-binary students with equal respect, and it is exactly this sort of damage that the law seeks to prevent. Not only is his behaviour immediately damaging to gender non-binary people on campus, not only does it create a hostile environment for them, but there are also lingering discriminatory effects (for example, pronoun mismatches in official correspondence can create problematic legal situations, loss of future opportunity, refusal for various applications, etc). Peterson seems to believe that freedom of expression means he is entitled to use the identity of students in his classroom as his personal soapbox, stepping on their dignity in order to make an academic point. If he ever has to go to court on this issue, he will assuredly lose his appeal, and hopefully also his professorship. Since no legal action is currently forthcoming, all he stands to lose now is whatever is left of his credibility.

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So Trump got elected? Everybody fucking relax.

Four years of Trump, if it means a progressive DNC shakeup and killing the TPP, might end up being preferable to eight years of Clinton. If he is half as stupid and half as incompetent as he appears to be, his presidency will be ineffective and stumbling. The worst damage he stands to do is in his appointments. After that, the country will coast on institutional momentum, and Trump will rely heavily on the same insiders who have been running the show (that is, the DNC and RNC actors who, for all their mutual dislike, operate within the very narrow Overton window of American politics).

Trump will push for policies to benefit the rich, not because he is beholden to them but because he is them, and the elites will be happy to play along, business as usual. Trump might be a shit show, terrible for the poor and the middle class, terrible for the environment, terrible for militaristic overreach, terrible for the global economy, terrible for ordinary people. And in all these ways he will be indistinguishable from Bush, Obama, and Clinton. But if he attempts anything truly insane, he can expect opposition. After all, he is an outsider to the political establishment. Unless we are to imagine that Trump is somehow a secret political genius, able to manipulate established players in a way that Obama apparently could not (for those of you who still believe Obama actually cared about progressives), then the worst fears of the doomsayers won’t come to pass.

There is, of course, the lingering damage done by emboldening racists through extremist rhetoric -an effect which is felt outside the country. For this, we have both Trump and the DNC to blame -the latter’s complicity revealed through the Pied Piper CNN media strategy. But this is no longer a matter of politics; it’s strictly a social one, the sort of thing that we use the freedom of speech to combat. We should ignore Trump, and the trolls among his followers, and the racists among his followers, all of whom are powered by the attention they derive from being loathsome. Ignore trolls; that’s the only appropriate response. Instead, focus on progressive messaging, stay positive, and maybe in four years, America might finally get the opportunity to vote for a progressive candidate (that is, if the DNC and a complicit media don’t cheat the country out of one).

 

A politically neutral farewell to Obama

Farewell to the orator in chief -he really gave a great speech. His political triangulations were greater than the legendary Bill Clinton. He knew exactly how to make promises to the left, while still delivering to the right. He maintained an image of a progressive through the most brazen assaults on democracy and progressive values -from raids on medical marijuana dispensaries, repealing habeas corpus, overseeing the gutting of the middle class, bank bailouts, government surveillance programs, and bombing seven different countries- Obama has proved himself a political manipulator par excellence. Among those who weren’t paying attention, he will be missed.

The Toxic Fallout of Identity Politics

On certain controversial issues -like race, gender, and religion- public figures are rarely in danger of receiving a fair reading. This is the nature of identity politics: the purpose of discussion is no longer to interpret arguments charitably in search of the truth or common ground -it’s to ferret out the enemy. One speaks not to understand the opponent, but to gather evidence of their hidden motives or moral inferiority. The game is played by catching your opponent uttering words that will allow you to say, “aha! I knew you were ‘x’,” where ‘x’ can be ‘sexist’ or ‘racist’ or ‘Islamophobic’.

Are you with Clinton, or are you sexist? Are you with Black Lives Matter, or are you a racist? Do you believe Islam is a religion of peace, or are you Islamophobic? One takes a contrary position on these issues at their own risk. They are minefields, and the slightest misstep could have you blown up on social media. Tread carefully.

In the game of identity politics, opinions are not the result of considered argument, but merely the flags we wave for our respective camps. Media platforms are not used for fruitful conversation, but rather to exchange linguistic tokens of allegiance. The discourse of identity politics supplants the discourse of rationality. Are you with us, or against us? There is never a middle ground in identity politics. If you’re not on board, then you’re the enemy.

It would be putting it mildly to say that this is bad. It is the antithesis of reason, it is counterproductive to social progress, and, on a personal level, it’s just kind of a dick move (you should listen to what people have to say, not call them names and cast aspersions). We need to remind ourselves of the central democratic function of rational discourse: it is the peaceful means by which we resolve differences of opinion. If we can’t talk over our differences, we will fight over our differences.

This is the toxic fallout of identity politics. People are incapable of rational discussion, incapable of meaningful communication, incapable of reaching common ground. The only thing left, then, is tribalism: pick what team you’re fighting for, and get ready to fight.

“Hey! Show a little respect!” -Why the meme of universal civility needs to fuck off and die.

One of the most pernicious memes to infect our political discourse is the misguided notion of universal civility -that all ideas and the people holding them should be treated with equal respect; That so long as someone is able to articulate an opinion, however heinous, stupid, ignorant, or reprehensible, that person deserves the courtesy of a polite response. The r/politics subreddit, as a particularly egregious example of this bankruptcy of moral discretion, enforces universal civility as a fundamental rule. It is as if merely expressing an opinion entitles that person to respect. But it doesn’t. Some ideas are not worthy of respect. Some deserve the opposite.

In a discussion about the use of prolonged torture and human rights violations against peaceful protesters -in which protesters were attacked with mace, tear gas canisters, fire hoses in freezing weather, rubber bullets, and concussion grenades- one comment read, roughly, “good. If someone made me work during Thanksgiving, I would shoot them in the face, too.” I called them a fascist piece of shit. Because they are. In defence of the fascist, someone responded, “very mature. Name calling!” as if this scumbag deserved respect or consideration. I don’t fucking think so. Those violent, fascist sentiments do not deserve respect. They deserve condemnation. I will not extend the benefit of my respect to fascist pieces of shit. Not going to fucking happen!

“But isn’t it more persuasive to be respectful?” I don’t know. Maybe. But maybe I am less concerned with changing the mind of one fascist than I am in signalling the type of attitude that I think is appropriate for these people. Let’s say that by calling them a fascist piece of shit, I lost whatever miniscule chance I had of changing their mind. Granted. Even so, that is far less important than the damage I would be doing by pretending their sentiment deserves even the smallest degree of respect or consideration. We don’t need to show respect to fascists. We need to tell them to shut the fuck up, because their views are not worth our respect.

Every single cop in Standing Rock is a piece of shit

I know, I know -morality isn’t black and white. Sometimes good people do bad things. Sometimes they have to. But here’s the thing: if you consistently and reliably do bad things, then you’re a bad person.

The cops in Standing Rock were doing shitty things yesterday, they did shitty things today, and they’re going to do shitty things tomorrow. That’s because they’re shitty people. Every single one.

Every single cop in Standing Rock is a piece of shit.

“Oh, but they were just doing their job!”

Doing your job is not an excuse -it’s an explanation. If you get paid to do the wrong thing, you still did the wrong thing. It means that you think money is more important than doing the right thing. And if you’re taking money to abuse and assault peaceful protesters, you’re a piece of shit. A decent person wouldn’t follow those orders. A decent person wouldn’t mace peaceful protesters. A decent person wouldn’t shoot rubber bullets at peaceful protesters. A decent person wouldn’t use a fire-hose in freezing weather on peaceful protesters. A decent person wouldn’t throw grenades at peaceful protesters. The cops in Standing Rock are not decent people -they’re fascist pieces of shit.

Every single cop in Standing Rock is a piece of shit.

“Oh, but they’re not all bad! There was a story about two cops who turned in their badges!”

Yeah. They turned in their badges. There were two good cops. They’re gone now. The rest of them are pieces of shit. Every single one.

Every single cop in Standing Rock is a piece of shit.

“Oh, but you don’t understand! Doing those things is just part of the job!”

No, it’s not. It’s the part of fucked up jobs. If every day at work you have to do some shitty, immoral thing, that means your job is fucked up. The police situation in Standing Rock is fucked up. It’s not normal. If there was any justice in America, if America was a functional democracy instead of a police state, then officers wouldn’t have to go to work every day and do shitty, immoral things. In some places in the world, in real democracies, for example, you can go to work as a police officer and be confident that you’re doing the right thing. Not in America. In America, cops need to be ready and willing to do something fucked up every day. That’s why the system selects for pieces of shit. That’s exactly what they’re looking for. Bullies and psychopaths and boot-licking fascists. They hire those people on purpose -because they are better for the job.

In fascist america, shitty people make good cops. That’s why every single cop in Standing Rock is a piece of shit.