About a week ago my friend Matt linked me to a YouTube video of a recent protest at McMaster University in Ontario. Press play and you see Professor Jordan Peterson sitting cross-legged in a chair, calm but visibly annoyed. Then the audio: an ugly clatter of shouting, cowbell and air horn, and a voice that sounds like Mugatu during the brainwashing sequence in Zoolander: “NO SPEECH FOR JORDAN PETERSON! NO SPEECH FOR TRANSPHOBES!” This goes on for 17 minutes, until Peterson, his audience, and his protesters are asked to leave the room for fear of violating the fire code.
Jordan Peterson is a clinical psychologist whose academic work focuses on the value of religious archetypes and metaphor. Last Fall he attracted criticism for speaking out, via his YouTube channel, against Bill C-16, an act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code. C-16 extends current hate crime and discrimination law to include gender identity and gender expression. Here is the video that sparked so much outrage – if you’re interested in Peterson’s analysis of why the bill is flawed, skip to the 20 minute mark.
Whether you agree or disagree with his points on the bill or on gender issues at large, he is making an informed argument against a piece of legislation. He rarely uses truly hateful or pejorative language in his videos, and in fact frequently acknowledges that many people do not fit neatly into the traditional gender binary. Still, Peterson’s views run counter to the political goals and ideology of his detractors, who label his opinions as “hate speech” – by that logic, not inviolable “free speech.”
You’ve probably read about the riot that ensued when Milo Yiannopoulos attempted to address students at U.C. Berkeley a few weeks ago. Similar, less-publicized protests – like the one at McMaster – have been happening at campuses across North America under the banner of “hate speech is not free speech.” However, the targets are usually visiting professors and academics, not bleached-blonde professional provocateurs. Here’s a video from March 2nd of protesters at Middlebury College derailing a lecture by Charles Murray, author of the controversial social science work The Bell Curve. Around the same time, a University of Victoria lecture hall became a shouting match between protesters and a Skype call with utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer, who has made upsetting comments in the past supporting the euthanization of disabled infants. The purpose of the recent Skype call, though, was to discuss his support of effective altruism, a theory that people should concentrate their money and efforts towards the most effective charities and NGOs in the effort to best address climate change, human rights violations, malaria, AIDS, and other causes.
When asked about the discrepancy between Singer’s topic of effective altruism and the motivation behind the anti-“ableist” protest, one of the protest’s organizers, Luke Garvin, offered this explanation:
If it was, let’s say, Steve Bannon, talking about the merits of recycling, would you let him onto UVic? I don’t think so … Because Steve Bannon practices hate speech, and ableist speech is hate speech, no matter what you believe.
Garvin’s logic is flawed. People are not simply hate-speakers or non-hate-speakers, but autonomous clouds of freely swirling ideas, opinions, and intuitions. Sometimes these ideas are hateful, wrong-headed or insidious, and sometimes they are benign. The only way to know is for these ideas to become speech, and for that speech to be unfettered. However, protesters like Garvin have relied on the now-ubiquitous mantra that “hate speech is not free speech” to justify their efforts to de-platform and “shut down” controversial intellectuals.
My counter to sympathizers of these recent campus protests is less concerned with why hate speech is supposedly not free speech (though this is a very important idea that I’ll grapple with later) but what is gained by silencing speech?
In the absence of speech there is silence, and when a speaker is silenced the only gains are hypothetical. Maybe by temporarily silencing Milo, the identities of a few undocumented students were kept safe. Maybe by shouting out Jordan Peterson, a handful of students are now less “transphobic.” Maybe by shutting down Charles Murray, half a lecture hall of conservative students are less inclined to think there is a genetic predisposition to IQ deficiencies among races.
All these potential gains – no matter how tenuous or unrealistic – are still incommensurate to the one absolute loss: intellectual freedom.
A couple summers ago I trained to become a Multnomah County library volunteer – most of the training was devoted to ensuring that I never criticize or comment on the material that guests are checking out or returning, as this would be an impingement on their intellectual freedom, which is “the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction.” This definition derives from the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights, which was first adopted in 1939 and primarily intended to ward off government censorship. A similar commitment to the idea of intellectual freedom can be found in Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
A Facebook friend who supported the Middlebury protesters argued that they were simply exercising their rights of free speech and free assembly as a means of challenging Charles Murray. The value of intellectual freedom is that it should “break the tie” in these sticky examples of free speech vs. free speech: as soon as one group begins actively silencing another, that group is violating the other’s right to “seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction.” Right?
Well, as I mentioned before, intellectual freedom is not as famously protected as free speech, and thus a far more vulnerable and poorly understood concept. Ironically, though, aside from libraries, universities – both public and private – are where declarations of intellectual freedom are most widely codified, but also where the concept is most threatened.
An intellectual freedom clause is a fixture of most universities’ code of conduct. However, wording of these policies is inconsistent. At my alma mater UVA, a student can “freely examine and exchange diverse ideas in an orderly manner inside and outside the classroom.” At McMaster University, where Jordan Peterson attempted to talk about free speech, students have the right to “participate unhindered in their academic pursuits which includes the opportunity to participate in respectful dialogue that examines diverse views and ideas.”
Here’s what Middlebury College offers in their Student Life Policy, under the heading of Academic Freedom:
Middlebury is a community of learners and as such recognizes and affirms that free intellectual inquiry, debate, and constructive dialogue are vital to Middlebury’s academic mission and must be protected even when the views expressed are unpopular or controversial.
“Orderly manner,” “respectful,” and “constructive” are operative words that protesters have spun to their advantage – for example, Charles Murray’s protesters at Middlebury College began their chanted litany with “This is NOT RESPECTFUL DISCOURSE …”
Ostensibly all these policies cover the right bases, yet universities are still helpless to enforce their own policies. The following sentence is from a letter to the Middlebury student body after the Charles Murray incident, from university president Laurie L. Patton:
We must find a path to establishing a climate of open discourse as a core Middlebury value, while also recognizing critical matters of race, inclusion, class, sexual and gender identity, and the other factors that too often divide us.
Whether of a university or a country, presidents are expected to be diplomatic when addressing the people – which is why the opening imperative sounds so pathetic, and the subsequent concession to campus identity politics so half-hearted and vacuous (and why Donald Trump’s more abrasive but equally empty rhetoric is attractive to many people).
A kinder reading of Patton’s appeal, though, is that she insists students do a better job of protecting each other’s intellectual freedom – after all, universities are not law enforcement agencies, and the onus of maintaining a Code of Conduct, Student Life Policy, etc. rests primarily with the students themselves, an idea stated however vaguely in accompanying “Responsibilities” sections.
Outside of schools, we cannot – and should not – rely on the police or the government to preserve our intellectual freedom. That said, it is not helpful to view law enforcement as an antagonist, a force that does more harm than good when tasked with protecting its people. Imagine that Milo Yiannopoulos was able to speak to a captivated crowd at Berkeley, that a peaceful protest surrounded his venue but allowed the event to continue as planned. Imagine the worst thing happened: Milo’s audience became an angry mob, intent on hunting down the most vulnerable students on campus, along with their allies. Surely the police – and the press – would not turn a blind eye to this, the threatened students would find safety in numbers, under the watchful gaze of police officers, and equally watchful journalists would ensure that the victimized would enjoy the benefit of a sympathetic story the following morning.
Is this too benign an expectation of a civil society? That the police protect us from violence, and we as citizens stay informed, be mindful, and, when necessary, protect each other’s freedoms?
De-platforming protesters have a different vision of civil society. The Middlebury protesters’ cry of “not respectful discourse” attempted to color Charles Murray’s (would-be) speech as defamation; sympathizers of the Milo protest, like filmmaker Lexi Alexander, suggested that his “hate speech” amounts to incitement or fighting words, another form of speech not protected by our First Amendment.
I am certainly no legal scholar, but it does not take much research to realize how half-baked these arguments are. It should be obvious that legally, a claim of incitement or defamation requires a specific incident and a specific context, as in the famous “fighting words” case of Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire. “Hate speech = incitement” – as though the meaning and application of these terms are self-evident and universal – is an ill-informed logical leap (not to mention that a specific incident is impossible when the speaker isn’t allowed to speak!). Consider that a few years ago, the Supreme Court ruled 8-to-1 in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church’s special protection under the First Amendment – they were picketing the funeral of a U.S. soldier who was killed in Iraq, hoisting their typical signs of “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God For Dead Soldiers” and “God Hates You.” I strongly recommend reading both Roberts’ opinion and Alito’s dissent; at least, I found them fascinating.
It may be an uncomfortable reality, but in this country most hate speech is indeed free speech.
And why go to such lengths to censor it? The best antidote to bad ideas is to have them out in the open so that they can be challenged and debated and eventually debunked. The ACLU echoes this idea in their succint Hate Speech on Campus brief, and Jordan Peterson offers a more colloquial explanation at about minute 23 of his Bill C-16 analysis. Of course, allowing haters a platform requires a bit of faith that most people are not bigoted-to-the-bone, and are open to being persuaded by ideas that counter their previous understandings or prejudices.
In America everyone has the right to free speech, but it is a privilege to be persuaded. This is the ultimate privilege of a free and open society; ideas are available to everyone. The privilege of being persuaded transcends all other forms of identity. It must. Because the privilege to be a free thinker requires open, unrestricted access to all kinds of ideas from all across the spectrum, and for the powers-that-be to honor all forms of speech so these ideas may reach us. Our courts and our libraries have historically proven effective in counteracting government censorship, but self-censorship is far murkier terrain. The biggest failure of recent social and protest movements – of identity-motivated politics – is that they have begun to encroach on our collective intellectual freedom and honesty. And this is a big, disturbing failure.
Obnoxious campus protests are only a particularly bright and bubbly symptom of a far more pervasive and pernicious cultural trend towards illiberalism. I do not want to go down a rabbit hole here; instead, I strongly recommend that you read this transcript of author Lionel Shriver’s keynote address at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival last September – it is a wonderful rallying cry against self-censorship and identity politics in the arts.
And in the spirit of discourse, also check out this response from a young crowd member, who fled the auditorium in outrage.
It is a shame that universities are finding themselves helpless to ensure their students’ right to freely exchange ideas, but ultimately the gauntlet of protecting intellectual freedom is on our hand (yes, pun very much intended). We must actively seek out viewpoints that run counter to our own, if only to more incisively debate them. We must treat everything we read with due skepticism. When someone at a party says something eyebrow-raising, you shouldn’t “shut them down,” but ask “why?” – unless you’re not up for clearing the room.
These imperatives may not carry much water coming from a 24-year-old straight-white-male-upper-middle-class-vanilla-Democrat like myself. Perhaps I should “check my privilege.”
Sure. It is always worth considering that your perspective on any given issue may be limited by your upbringing, experiences, what-have-you. But this is true for everyone, and to everyone belongs the ultimate privilege of thinking freely, questioning everything, and being persuaded.
It is never shameful to lose an argument. Only to let your voice go silent.
And for the record, I would love to hear Steve Bannon discuss the merits of recycling.