Do you feel capable of speaking freely? How explicit is your awareness of what you can or cannot say?
Most people describe an inner hint that guides what they should or shouldn’t be saying, of what society deems acceptable and unacceptable.
There are different off-limit boundaries the world-over, and free speech faces different restrictions according to the norms of the society in question. What is acceptable in Germany and Britain is not acceptable in China; what is acceptable in all those countries may not be acceptable in Qatar.
What is acceptable or prohibited in a country often hinges on its values, and, of course, there is always some process to how these values are formed.
This naturally leads us to consider how do we arrive at our society’s values, and why free speech should be enshrined as part of that process. Should the rules of our societies be judged by which lobbying group currently has the most support to impose its will? Or, with the multitude of different people crammed together in the contemporary world, is actually talking to each other a better idea?
Free Speech Isn’t A Value
This brings us to Dr. Jordan B Peterson and his claim that a respect for free speech isn’t actually a value at all. Instead, he claims freedom of speech is a ‘meta-value’. Free speech is the intermediary between values, and not one in itself. For Peterson, uncensored speech grounds the possibility for any values to be formed in a society at all. To ban free expression is to put a lid on the possibility of new ideas, and the correction of malfunctioning social systems.
Unlike many other values, free speech can also be held by both parties without comprising one’s other opinions. To refuse to ban your opponent’s right to speak their mind is akin to the function of nuclear arsenals: mutually assured preservation through mutually assured destruction. In other words: be careful how much you weave censorship and punishment into the fabric of our governing institutions – you may be allowed to speak now, but perhaps this will not be the case forever. Perhaps, one day, the jackboot will be on the other foot and, to your horror, you will find your neck underneath it instead.
Therefore, Peterson’s view is that though we may hold violently different viewpoints, a mutually guaranteed process by which these viewpoints can be shared, articulated, argued, elucidated, is a release valve for the pressures that build up between individuals and groups. In essence, free speech is a common good, a means of solving problems without resorting to violence, conflict or tribalism. To progressively strangle it is to increase the likelihood of violent confrontation between groups, to hold a finger over the release valve.
Peterson himself has become intimately acquainted with various threats to one’s freedom of speech since posting a controversial YouTube video in October 2016. He has been disinvited to University debates (or, the whole event was shut down due to threats of violence), has been protested and blockaded into his room by protestors, came very close to losing his job at the University of Toronto, and has been the subject of innumerable petitions and journalistic hit-pieces proclaiming him to be ‘dangerous’ and a threat to other’s safety. An intimidating rap-sheet. But watching the cardiganed 56-year-old academic pace and ponder, offering measured thoughts on relationships, personality, myths, archetypes, and neurobiology often makes such accusations appear disturbingly alarmist.
The most common accusation thrown his way is that he is far-right. While Peterson espouses some traditionally conservative opinions and is likely economically right of centre (although ostensibly liberal on many issues), to claim he holds fascist beliefs is wildly hyperbolic.
As the doctor illustrates himself, he is branded with this label due to his opposition to the extreme left (who the far-right also oppose), and not due to affiliation with any kind of extreme right-wing politics.
Because we have become accustomed to this kind of reaction, I propose a thought experiment to bring us back to our senses.
A Different Kind of Witch-hunt
Aside from Dr. Peterson’s association with the far-right and, sometimes by implication, Hitler, let us take the twentieth century monster from the opposing team: Josef Stalin – and a popular academic from the opposing team – Slavoj Zizek.
Zizek is a self-proclaimed Marxist and communist. Currently, Zizek is allowed to exercise his right to defends these ideologies. But let’s conduct this thought experiment. Let us imagine we live in a far-right, virulently anti-Communist society, a viewpoint defended by all academics, journalists, and politicians.
If we had a Neo-McCarthyist inquisition into Zizek, we may well conclude he was a secret supporter of one of the most uncompromisingly murderous communist regimes in human history. Now, let’s imagine the type of article that would be produced, a mirror to that typical of Peterson:
I, myself, am fond of Zizek. His rambling, whirlwind oratory style, switching from Kant and Freud one minute to Gangnam style and toilets the next, has earned him a rightful popularity. But does a darker side hide behind his jolly, erratic frontier?
As revealed in a Vice interview, Dr. Zizek sleeps with a framed photo of Stalin outside his bedroom. He also repeatedly refers to himself as Stalin, ostensibly joking while dog-whistling to hardcore Stalinist supporters.
He is, in fact, carefully hiding his clear adoration of the mass-murderer through careful jokes and wink-nudge references. He clearly has a very detailed knowledge of Stalin’s life, perhaps more than the average observer ought to know. By his own admission, Zizek is an avowed Marxist, the very same lethal ideology espoused by the Man of Steel himself, used to justify murder, torture and enslavement on an unprecedented scale. To top it off, he even sleeps with a picture of Stalin near his bed! Isn’t this a bit much for someone who proclaims his love of Stalin is ‘one big joke’? When considering the millions of deaths, the tortures, the disappearances, the mindless purges, is it not conceivable that a man as dangerous as Zizek should be banned from ever speaking to impressionable minds every again? Could his support of such violent regimes even be met with… violence?
Such would be the mindset of people if we lived in a staunchly far-right society. It would be easy to conclude that, in our hypothetical far-right government, a slew of circumstantial evidence indeed points to the philosopher feeding some kind of extremist, Stalinist core of supporters. Indeed, in the McCarthyist era, such witch hunts did occur, and it’s important for journalists to guard against their current re-emergence and not be tempted to make outrageous accusations to garner clicks.
The reason we know with a certainty that Zizek is not a Stalinist is because he has no reason to lie about it. Such an inquisitionary mentality only occurs when a particular viewpoint is flattened or forced underground. Then, the body, which does the flattening, takes on a paranoiac state; not knowing how many people really agree with the suppressed view, they begin to see budding flowers of it everywhere. Every mild criticism seems like a peremptory strike, every melody sounds like a dog-whistle, every argument for principled free speech a defense of the worst arguments themselves.
Alain Baidou, for example, is a popular philosopher and Maoist, and despite his ideology of choice leading to perhaps the largest genocide in human history, his right to espouse it remains unrepressed. Him doing so, thankfully, has not led to another 60 million deaths.
While on the topic of Stalin, just one year ago, a Labour rally in Trafalgar square featured acolytes waving banners emblazoned with Stalin’s face, and drew understandable condemnation from Ukranian Londoners. Nevertheless, I have voted for Labour without the fear that my vote would enable a tyrannical communist terror-state, to lead me to later watch, in regret, as my neighbours are carted off, black bags over their heads, to an unlisted territory somewhere in northern Siberia.
I am glad the Conservatives don’t wave around pictures of Franco, and I would prefer if Labourites didn’t wave around pictures of Stalin. But, crucially, the waving of Stalin’s face did not induce a rabid public support of show trials and public executions. We didn’t descend into tyranny and the world did not look on in horror as Great Britain, to everyone’s surprise, erupted into a NeoStalinist authoritarian dictatorship with pictures of Corbyn saluted by schoolchildren at the start of each day.
At the same time, I’m equally certain that allowing Jordan Peterson to lecture about the dangers of Marxism and post-modernism will not erect a tyrannical fascist dystopia, and his relatively mild critiques of identity politics do not warrant violent protest nor academic blacklisting.
Why Free Speech Matters
Speech restrictions drive unpopular opinions under the skin, where they fester and grow. Unless we actually take a leaf from Hitler and Stalin’s books, and kill all our political dissidents, they do not go away because we force them to be cautious. Rather, they re-group and form toxic, self-contained feedback loops. And that’s dangerous. Without the moderating influence of social discourse and the humanizing effects of actually interacting with members of the group or person we take issue with, mutual resentment grows. While compromise enables both parties to fully express their grievances freely, an air of censorship creates hostile and determined factions, propelled forwards by their own echo chambers.
We should take note of how so many terrorists, mass shooters, and serial killers are described by those who knew them. “They were a little quiet, but never violent” or “He was the life of the party, I’m in shock” have become well-established clichés. Oftentimes, extremists are people who lead double lives, carefully crafting their public identity in order to supplement their eventually chaotic, violent private lives. Perhaps we can take from this that those who wear their hearts on their sleeves are the most obvious dangers but… never the most dangerous.
In addition, we may even find more in our opponent’s that we originally thought. Despite his admittedly excessive intensity, Peterson’s view of humanity is often more optimistic than some of his liberal interlocutors. Rather than framing the history of humanity through a prism of group conflict, domination, tyranny, corruption, and greed, Peterson likes to point to our interstellar technology, our life-saving medicine, on-demand electricity, our charity, general kindnesses, and global co-operation. Such a view is a far cry from an embittered shriek that life is nothing but an un-ending power play, and that one must attach oneself to their group and seek to gain power, not responsibility.
He is also at pains to reiterate our massive, boast-worthy progress as a species; that 127,000 people are lifted out of poverty every day, that tomorrow many more people will have access to clean water than yesterday (or ever before in history for that matter).
Additionally, Peterson used his Maps of Meaning lecture series to offer a highly interesting critique of fascist extremism. He notes a correlation between such beliefs and a pathology of hygiene and contamination, hypothesising that such traits emphasise an individual’s splitting of the world into ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ peoples, and that the left has not incorporated this powerful critique against their opponents, highlighting their current inability to learn from those who differ even moderately from their camp.
It seems difficult to know which direction the world is moving. At present, it seems increasingly international, a ‘global village’ as some say. In that global village, the implementation of progressively harsh, life-ruining punishments for merely uncomfortable opinions is a poor way to achieve societal cohesion. In fact, it’s counter-productive, bordering on dangerous. The misunderstandings and disagreements that occur when groups learn to live with each other is inevitable, but outright censorship, in fact, serves only to increase group conflict, not abate it.
Featured Image Credits: Sarah Matray