Martyrs and Millionaires

Why I defend free speech rights

✎  Wayne K. Spear | November 23, 2017 • Current Events

THE KERFUFFLE THIS PAST WEEK over Lindsay Shepherd looks like a debate about free speech, but it isn’t. In reality it’s yet another ingroup / outgroup event in the culture war.

We wouldn’t be discussing gender pronouns had transgendered and non-binary people not fought across past decades for recognition of their experiences and humanity. First-wave feminists fought to be at the table and second-wave feminists pointed out that it was a rotten table, accessible to white men and middle-class white women but not much else. Accessible spaces were not granted by the able-bodied, they were demanded by folks who faced everyday and omnipresent mobility barriers. Indigenous people in Canada were not given constitutional recognition and affirmation of their rights, they raised hell to take them. The history of social and economic progress is a history of struggle—of oppressed and silenced and exploited outgroups refusing to be kept forever to the sidelines of a society governed by privileged ingroups.


That’s the context for the gender pronoun battle, as well as for every other aspect of left-progressivism and anti-PC conservatism. Seen from one point-of-view, university safe spaces are a logical next-step from intellectual analysis and consciousness raising. First you identify and catalogue offensive speech, then you purge the speech and, with any luck, the oppressive systems and ideologies that go with it. From the opposing points-of-view, attacks on free speech are offences against liberalism itself: intellectual freedom, individual rights, the free-play of ideas, and progress through dialectic.

When I was a university student I had unpopular ideas. I got into arguments with professors over Duncan Campbell Scott and the prevailing notions of Canadian literature and history in general. The university may well have been incubating radical leftism: nonetheless I had no trouble finding conservative professors (and yes, they were usually white, cis-gendered and male) to tell me I was wrong. But I refused to be silenced. As a Haudenosaunee person, my ancestors’ lives and experiences had been undervalued and dismissed and erased, to make way for the views of colonizers, and every day the formal education system proved it to me. For a long long time in this country freedom of speech meant tolerance of diversity within the ethnic and cultural homogeneity of a dominant ingroup. “Should we turn these inferior savage Indians into labourers, or do they have the potential to be domestic servants? Discuss.” The aspirations of Indigenous people were beyond the boundaries of polite conversation.

The environment of the university is bad today, but it was bad in my day also. There’s no use pretending there were no unpopular nor unallowable ideas in the past, or that we’ve lost some golden age. But it was much easier to police and limit speech in the past than it is now. Unless you owned a newspaper or a television studio or a radio station, it was near impossible to get your perspective out into the world as little as 20 years ago. It’s ironic that we’re even discussing free speech at a time like this. Only hours after Lindsay Shepherd was disciplined, an electronic device that fits in a pocket allowed her to broadcast the event to the world. Similarly Jordan Peterson has made his silencing into a speaking point, and the speaking point has enriched him while broadening his fame.

I’m a free-speech advocate, and I’m dismayed to find that this position now puts me in the company of the alt-right, mens-rights, Jordan Peterson ingroup.

ABOVE: a typical alt-right Jordan Peterson shithead fanboyIf I were the only person on earth who felt the defence of unpopular views was a vital principle, it would be logically necessary for me to defend that position with greater eloquence and vigour, not less.  I’m certainly in the minority among the Indigenous people I’ve heard from. I have always defended the freedom-of-speech rights of people with whom I disagree, including my greatest enemies, because the rights of people who think differently are the only rights that need defending. Harmony can only be arrived at through negotiation and consensus building or by suppression and repression of offending ideas. In the latter case, who is going to be the judge and arbiter of admissible speech? There isn’t anyone I would trust to edit the world on my behalf. To enter into such a bargain is to invite the silencing of one’s own voice at some future point. And I will not abide that.

I don’t know where all of this is going, but I suspect that the Overton window is shifting, as it always has and always will. I don’t think pronouns are going to be a big deal for our grandchildren. Jordan Peterson will not be silenced (and I don’t think he should be) but we’re also not going to return to the days when girls were girls and men were men. The world is changing. In place of the old we will negotiate, and struggle for, the new. There will be disagreement and litigation and protest. People’s sentiments will be outraged on all sides. In an age of YouTube and Twitter it will be impossible to silence anyone, and the attempt to do so will only create martyrs and millionaires.