Some Thoughts on Safety and Free Speech

When people hear that I’m an Epidemiologist, they ask everything from, “What kinds of insects do you study?” to “I have a mysterious rash here…” So for those people, I give you this:

The Overly Complicated Breakfasts™

From Nov 26: eggs scrambled in yogurt; kale, broccoli, spinach, and apple slices fried in ghee.

From Nov 27: eggs scrambled in yogurt; broccoli, kale, broccoli, and cauliflower friend in ghee; salsa; and Ikea veggie balls.

From Nov 28: oatmeal with cashew milk, chia seeds, homemade granola; two steamed eggs.

From Nov 30: Ikea veggie balls, chick pea salad, and my mother’s homemade dal puri.

From Dec 1: homemade muesli (with oats, granola, chia seeds, yogurt, and cinnamon); a freakin’ oil tanker of coffee; and two lentil-quinoa veggie burgers with mayonnaise, ketchup, and lettuce, served on my mother’s homemade dal puri.

From Dec 3: the previous favourite –lentil/quinoa veggie burgers on a dal puri with lettuce– along with three steamed eggs.

Onward to today’s topic…

I am reminded of the old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” It seems that we are in some ways indeed cursed, for these are, for lack of a better reaction, interesting times.

For the record, I consider myself a student of history. I’m not a scholar of history, so I welcome it when true scholars correct me on my assumptions. But, as a student, I am aware that these are also the best of times. (Ah, Dickens.) In most measurable ways, this era is the best time to be alive  –for most people, at least, but certainly not for all. And perhaps that’s the foundation of the mire that I wish to touch upon today: when physical needs are, for the most part, satisfied, perhaps society tends to magnify its softer divisions.

As both an immigrant from a low income country that has a recent history of dictatorial temptation and as a student of political history, I have always been acutely aware of how lucky I am to find myself living in a Western liberal democracy at the dawn of the 21st century. My perhaps ill-advised and risible tendency to style myself as an expositional thinker would have landed me in deep troubles in past eras and in other countries. But this nation’s tradition of respecting (or tolerating) extremes of expression has been beneficial to me. Even so, I’ve managed to piss off a few people by having the temerity of working through thoughts aloud, a pastime seen as offensive by some even in this heart of liberal civility.

In the decades of writing this blog, I’ve been called the best and worst of epithets (mostly racist), been challenged to physical duels, and been threatened with straight-up violence. While never fun, this is nothing new to me. Being a racial and religious minority, it was not easy growing up in Toronto in the 1970s. For the first 11 years or so of my sentient life here, I’ve been called a racist name, threatened with violence, or (much less frequently) been the subject of actual violence, every day before my teen years. That’s right: EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.

The frequency and nature of such disparagement faded as both I and society matured, but never fully went away. (With the rise of Trump and his dotard followers, those bad old days have returned to a limited extent.) Of course, mine is not an exceptional tale among minorities in the West. And if this surprises you, then you haven’t been paying attention.

I bring this up in order to, essentially, establish my victimhood bona fides. I know what it feels like to be threatened by both strangers on the street and by the faceless, nameless masses out in the electronic media wilderness. Being called names is not fun, neither is being regularly threatened with violence, and it all does have an emotional and psychological impact. Thus, I am all in favour of putting in place procedures and programs to prevent children from being similarly traumatized.

And yet, as an adult, I feel strongly that when describing and managing interactions between adults, “safety” should only be relevant in terms of physical security and threats of physical insecurity, and not in terms of marginalizing language or descriptors alone.

This is a dangerous perspective, I understand. In some ways, it opens the door to regimented and weaponized hate speech. So my perspective is not an absolute; there has to be room for exceptions. In fact, I fear that the tendency to reduce arguments to binary absolutes is a cognitive epidemic that currently infects public Western thought. Nuance has been lost, and no one seems eager to reclaim it. So before you write to decry, “But, asshole, what about **insert specific minority group here**”, please note that I have already conceded that I do not believe in absolutes; there is always room for exceptions and special protections, especially for children and other very vulnerable groups.

It’s been about six weeks since I retreated from active participation in social media, and have only just today started tweeting and posting Facebook one-liners again. I’m still exploring what it has meant to be separated from the online world of single sentence communication. But one of the more immediate findings is that I feel that I am now much less inclined to see complex issues in simple terms. Someone on the political “other side” may say something of which I disapprove; but I am now much less likely to dismiss that person outright based on one or two of his problematic positions.

In other words, I seem to have evolved a super power: the ability to see people and positions as complex and not black-and-white. I know, I’m shocked, too.

Winston Churchill is seen by many, if not most, Britons as the greatest leader in that nation’s modern history. And yet he is known to have offensive racialist views, particularly toward Indian people.

Speaking of Indian people, Mahatma Gandhi is celebrated by most of the world as one of humankind’s most saintly people. Yet his personal history is filled with problematic behaviour, especially when it comes to his early attitudes toward women and Black people.

Thomas Jefferson is undeniably one of the greatest political thinkers of American history, yet was a slave owner whose relationship with Sally Hemings would be seen today as sexual assault.

Edwin Hubble spoke with a slap-worthy affected British accent, and is said to have been quite the misogynist and racist. And yet we celebrate Hubble’s contributions to science by attaching his name to both the Hubble constant and the famous space telescope. He was undeniably a great scientist who measurably pushed civilization further in a positive direction, despite personally being distasteful to many.

There is nothing about being “great” that says anything about being “good.” And yet I think we can all agree that in today’s political climate, we would never allow a modern Hubble, an undeniably great man, to have his name uttered in anything other than dismissive tones. I’m not even allowed to watch Louis C.K. videos anymore.

This is all to introduce, shakily and trepidatiously, the topic of one Dr Jordan Peterson, perhaps presently the most famous academic in Canada. Dr Peterson is famous for his opposition to Canada’s Bill C-16, which adds “gender identity” to the protected list under the human rights criminal code.

Dr Peterson is famous for other reasons, as well, including an ill-advised plan to make an online list of university classes he feels are “indoctrination cults” that push ideology over evidence. In recent months, he has become celebrated by the regular right-wing media venues, and has been accused of giving intellectual cover to the discriminatory alt-right.

It was the airing of ihs segment on TVOntario’s The Agenda that got graduate student Lindsay Shepherd in trouble, and that has subsequently caused a ruckus at Wilfrid Laurier University. If you haven’t been paying attention: Shepherd was chastised and threatened by her university, whose officials compared Peterson literally to Hitler.

Instantly, she became a hero for free speech and academic neutrality, which naturally drew the unfortunate support of the traditional alt-right trolls who mysteriously saw Shepherd’s proper stance as a denial of the existence of white privilege (I don’t see the connection either) and made her a star on the dude-bro podcasting circuit.

Of course, the backlash to the backlash was that some Left-leaning factions on the Laurier campus claimed that they do not feel “safe” in light of the now vocal calls for so-called “free speech”, though originally the issue was academic neutrality. I have seen Shepherd attacked online as a “racist”, “transphobe” and “Nazi.” And I’ve seen her attackers subsequently attacked by actual racists, transphobes and Nazis. (The last time I saw transsexuals and Nazis interacting in the same world was likely in a VHS tape I got from the back of the video store back in the 90s. You know the one.)

This excitement has further led to a call for the University of Toronto to terminate the employment of Dr Peterson. And anytime anyone calls for the termination of a tenured professor in Canada, you are sure to get my attention.

This has become such a toxic and divisive topic that I know of many academics (myself among them) who are afraid to have an open, honest discussion about it all. The fear is that one is expected to line up behind tribal lines and reduce the opposition’s arguments to its simple binary (“Jordan Peterson is a transphobic asshole” vs “Jordan Peterson is a free speech hero.”) Gone are the days of nuance.

A colleague from a university on the other side of the country recently came to visit, and I broached the subject of the Peterson/Shepherd controversy.  He leaned over, looked to the left and the right, then whispered loudly, “I’m dying to talk about this! But I can’t do it safely in my own university!”

Just a couple of days ago, a student wished to talk about this issue with me. I deliberately delayed the conversation until we were at a local pub where the conversation could be had away from campus ears, and even then was careful not to speak in too declarative tones.

In my heretical desire to actually listen to arguments, I took a deep dive into Dr Peterson’s writings, lectures and interviews. This was in large part due to my discontentment with the effect of social media, which reinforces simple political takes amplifies shallow and dismissive interpretations of actually complicated issues… on both sides of the political spectrum.

Most recently was the recurring meme that Jordan Peterson “wants to beat up women”, or Tabatha Southey’s article, “Is Jordan Peterson the stupid man’s smart person?” The latter was being celebrated by all my smart friends, so imagine my surprise when I found it shallow, unfunny and pointless. Mind you, I strongly suspect that many people consider me to be “the stupid man’s smart person”, as well as “shallow, unfunny and pointless”, so maybe it cuts too close for me.

I understand that Southey is a humourist, so I don’t really give her piece any weight. But that got me looking for a serious critic of Peterson’s work, which was difficult to find, since most critics actually hadn’t read much of his work.

I found Ira Wells’s “The Professor of Piffle” and was excited. I enjoy Wells’s writing. Earlier this year, Wells had penned, “The Age of Offence: The politics of outrage, and the crisis of free speech on campus“, which I found quite insightful.

I particular like these words from Wells, which for me summarize well the morass in which we presently find ourselves:

“On the political left, the capacity to articulate outrage toward offence reads as a sign of progressive thinking: taking offence is a marker of cultural status. On the populist right, a willingness to offend manifests as a brave repudiation of orthodoxy, or as base-level authenticity.”

However, Dr Wells disappointed me.  I found that his criticism of Peterson boiled down to a disgust with whom his most vocal followers tend to be (alt-right assholes) and with how much money he makes from private donations (a lot).  Neither argument is worthy of an intelligent analysis, in my opinion.

I went looking for a reasoned criticism of the crux of Peterson’s arguments for one reason alone: the simple name-calling that has been levied against him is simply unfair and not useful; this is clear once you read his actual words.  He is a very intelligent man whose positions have been well resourced and expressed. Even so, there is something off-putting about his perspective, and I am clearly not sufficiently intellectually equipped to articulate the offence.

And I’m not talking about his specific objections to Bill C-16, which have been shown to be legally incorrect. Fact checking is an easy thing. It’s his larger philosophical points, that post-modern Leftist though it inconsistent with positivist scientific thinking, and that ideology now shapes ontology, that I am ill-equipped to consider and contest.

However, a commenter (Mohammad Shaban) after an online news story gave me what I wanted:

“To [Peterson], factual truth is meaningless unless it is nested within some overarching Darwinian framework with implications on survival, in his case, a ‘Judea-Christian metaphysics’ [sic] or something of the sort…

“This is the oldest trick of the game that sophists like Peterson use for their ideological gain: project alternative definitions of reality and redefine basic epistemological terms to circumvent the intellectual responsibility of a rational explanation…”

In other words, Dr Peterson decries Left-wing postmodernism but unconsciously celebrates Right-wing postmodernism, which also de- and re-constructs reality based upon a set of ideological assumptions. While the Neo-Marxist ideologues deconstruct the world to reveal a lost path to an imagined Utopia of universal unacknowledged victimhood, the classical Liberal (or Libertarian) ideologues deconstruct the world to show how far we have strayed from the supposed objective truth and natural state of an imagined pre-civilization, Darwinist biological essentialism.

As always, reality is likely somewhere in between.

When thinking of Peterson’s unabashed reliance on the Christian mythos to inform his worldview, I am reminded of a quote from philosopher David Dieteman: “For [conservative] writers … the war [on terror] is a chance to sing paeans to Western civilization.” I am also arrogantly reminded of something that I myself once wrote about another problematic academic, that “well-heeled academics, like Victor Davis Hansen, give intellectual cover to …racist attitudes,” which is the criticism now placed at the feet of Dr Peterson. So these games and counter-games have been going on for at least a few years now.

Dr Peterson, it seems to me, also “sings paeans to Western civilization”, which to his mind is founded solely upon Judeo-Christian ideals; and efforts to deviate from those ideas are antithetical to civilization itself. I wonder if he feels, at a certain level, that Leftist post-modern thought is simply a set of egregious assaults against Judeo-Christian fundamentals. In other words, is it possible that much of his oppositional framework is religious in nature?

I don’t know. But the man does fascinate me. And while I have noted that I find much of his ideology distasteful, I do admire the man’s eloquence, intellect, paedagogy, and his mentoring philosophy.  Much like in the cases of Hubble, Jefferson and the like, it is possible to see the man as a complex, multifaceted human being with much to offer beyond simple sound bites that many would use to define him.

For example, he has a “10-step guide to clearer thinking through writing“, which is an excellent document for any student who struggles with writing. His clinical psychology background underpins his strategy for using self-reflective writing as a treatment for social anxiety, a mental issue that is now at epidemic levels among Western young people.

I particularly enjoy his philosophy of self-development and personal heroism, that everyone should be the hero in his own life, and that in the modern world, true heroism can no longer be achieved through great deeds of violence, but through the speaking of truths. He says that “we must seek out challenges and exalt in their existence” as a path toward self-satisfaction and contentment with one’s place in the world.Those are wise words, as are these:

“The well developed individual is the antidote to the tyranny of biology and society.”

Don’t think he has anything interesting or useful to say? Listen to a brief 7 minute answer he gives to a question on the crisis of delayed maturity among today’s youth. It is possible to extract wisdom and guidance from the perspectives of those who might hold politically oppositional views from you. But these days, even that is a dangerous idea that I am sure is offending or triggering one of you reading it right this very moment.

In the wake of the Peterson and Shepherd events, more campuses are feeling the conflict between individual political identity and group expectation.  Evergreen State College went crazy a few months ago when, during its ill-advised “Day of Absence“, during which White people are encouraged to stay away (as a visible demonstration of the effects of historic European colonial misadventure) a White professor decided to go to work.

And some serious shit went down.

For the abuses he endured, the Evergreen professor is suing the college for close to $4 million, which, in my opinion, is likely to be successful and therefore likely to bankrupt the college. Who benefits from any of this? And what has been achieved?

NYU’s celebrated scholar Jonathan Haidt recently launched the Heterodox Academy, a website seeking to identify and re-address political imbalance on university campuses. But while Dr Haidt claims that the organization celebrates members and perspectives from both ends of the political spectrum, a quick scan of members –from Canadian universities, at least– seems to me to reveal a noticeable Right wing bias, based on things those members have been tweeting.

So the problem is not just on the Right or the Left.  While the Shepherd and Evergreen College stories are clearly episodes of Leftist overreach, there are plenty of stories of Rightist thought suppression, as well. A branch of my own employing institution, Saint Paul University, recently got the attention of the federal government for their cancellation of a film festival that included a documentary about abortion. Conservatives eager to decry Laurier University’s quashing of Lindsay Shepherd’s free speech rights have been silent on the quashing of the right to express these Left-leaning sentiments.

The problem, then, is not ideological, at least not inasmuch as that word still refers to a 19th and 20th century Left-Right spectrum.  Rather, it is corporatist, or even statist. Increasingly, I feel the two are the same. Institutions (and governments) quash rights based on whether such an action is most expedient of the institution’s corporate goals, not not based upon whether it aligns with any social, cultural, or philosophical value.

So what does any of this have to do with me being a student of history? Historically, nothing good has begun with a call for the revoking of tenure of any academic based upon his opinions alone. The nature of academic freedom, the very existence of tenure, is to protect those people who speak truths (as they see them) that others will find uncomfortable, dangerous, and even offensive.

The enemy here is not the Right or the Left.  Rather, the enemy is the corporatist mentality that tolerates the tyranny of the convenient majority of the moment.