And it’s not just about free speech, either
✎ Wayne K. Spear | March 8, 2018 • Current Events
ORE AND MORE, I’ve been avoiding Twitter. It seems there’s always a dumpster fire in my feed, which may be an ill-suited metaphor, since I’d probably want to watch a dumpster fire.
What I have in mind are the routine and fierce online exchanges which begin with someone defending the free speech of a self-described ethno-nationalist, or some similar kind of provocateur, whose views are being condemned by others as hateful and racist, and so on. These exchanges often devolve into declarations concerning nomenclature and semantics, for example “you are defending x, and x is a Nazi,” followed by, “x is not a Nazi, a Nazi is y, and x is not y.” I realize that if you’re not on Twitter, this will make no sense at all. But stay with me.
The online debate about free speech isn’t really a debate, at least not on Twitter. It’s more like a sorting of people into teams, whether intentional or not, to conduct a game of language. This free speech game is furthermore a proxy battle, between various types of liberals and progressives, on one side, and conservatives, centrists, and traditionalists on the other. This much should be obvious to even a casual observer. In its present form, the free speech game is a cultural and ideological disagreement at the centre of which are gender identity and expression and the cultural authority of Western liberalism.
Young women—and especially black, Indigenous, people of colour, or BIPOC—are doing most of the heavy lifting on the progressive side of the ledger. On the other side, there are a good many men, but also quite a few white women who self-describe as anti-feminist (or perhaps first-wave), conservative, and/or traditionalist. The labels themselves are less important than the substance of the disagreement, which I will try to capture in a precise and economical way, for it tells us something about the time in which we are now living, as well as about what may lie ahead.
Even though something objectionable to progressives is often the origin of these free speech exchanges, there is almost never a discussion of what free speech actually is and why it might matter. Nor are the objectionable views themselves given much attention, expiration, defence, or rebuttal. Attention is drawn to a comment made, offence is expressed and then, in turn, dismissed, and invariably everyone, irrespective of their position, scrambles for a patch of moral high ground. Whatever the name for this, it is not debate, and nor is it discussion. Much is said, but much is also left unsaid. It is the unsaid, so far as I am able to tease it out, that is my present concern.
America is a country established on paper, at an early stage of the Enlightenment, and as such may be subjected to a critical reading. The Declaration of Independence begins, as everyone knows, with the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” The men who wrote these words owned slaves, and in fact had men and not women in mind—and not all men, either, but land-holding men, otherwise known as gentlemen. From this it follows that, at the time of the American Revolution, probably no more than 40 percent of the American population enjoyed the full meaning of the phrase “all men are created equal.” Following the revolution, the work of slavery and genocide would be taken up in earnest, at the expense of much life, liberty, and happiness.
I mention this only to suggest that the hypocrisy of liberalism has a long pedigree. The inspirational music of Benjamin Franklin’s “We hold these truths to be self-evident” would have been deeply touching for the land- and slave-owning founders, but not so much for black and Indigenous people. Something of the same is going on with what I am calling the free speech game, and there is no use dismissing it in a country where most of the top-earning columnists at the major newspapers are white, and where many are also men.
Anyone who is paying attention notices that certain kinds of views are more lucrative than others. A simple thought experiment will make my point. Imagine that you are setting out on a life as a political writer, and that you must choose one of two kinds of writing, with your goal being to earn the most money possible. Your first option is to write as a champion of anti-capitalist radicalism, anti-hetero-normativity, and BIPOC feminism, and your second option is to defend the status quo, to champion free enterprise, and to argue that the established institutions and authorities have our best interests in mind, that white supremacy is a lie and also a delusion, and that corporations should pay lower taxes in the interests of workers.
With few exceptions, the person who chooses the first option will drift into the employ of a fringe publication sustained by volunteerism and bake sales, while the second option has much more potential to lead to Fox News or the Wall Street Journal and other corporate media. One is free speech, and the other pays handsomely. This may be one reason (there are others) why freedom of speech is less compelling for some on the left.
For at least a year now, and probably more, Jordan Peterson has claimed that the censor is at his door and that he is in imminent danger of imprisonment for expressing his views. But far from being silenced and ruined, he is now a wealthy international celebrity whose speech saturates the airwaves. When I recently walked into my local bookstore, my first sight was a wall of 12 Rules for Life. Peterson is of course known foremost as a University of Toronto professor of Psychology and as a defender of free speech who refuses to use non-gendered pronouns, gender identity and expression being, as I stated earlier, one of the battlegrounds for which freedom of speech is a proxy issue.
No one knows what the future holds, but we are living in a time when both the progressive left and the traditionalist right suspect the enemy of a secret plan to destroy the world. Jordan Peterson frequently adverts to something he calls postmodernism and cultural Marxism, which he maintains leads to fascism, nihilism, and the collapse of Western values and civilization. And the progressive critics of Peterson suspect him of being sympathetic to the alt-right, if not to neo-Nazism. This disagreement, it seems to me, concerns many things but above all else the fixed versus fluid nature of human beings and human societies. Progressives seek to jettison the oppressive baggage of the past, while conservatives look to the past for meaning.
But are the rejection of free speech by progressives, and the threats of violence against those with objectionable speech, merely a matter of cynicism, as I have suggested above? The position of progressives at the moment is felt to be a defensive position. Since at least the 1960s, a form of liberalism, driven by feminism and the fight of black people for their civil rights, as well as by suspicion of established authority, has predominated in the Western nations. But there are signs of a resurgent anti-liberalism, up to and including open expressions of admiration for Hitlerism. The victory of President Trump has greatly emboldened those members of society who had long ago learned to keep their illiberal opinions to themselves. Now they feel the time has come to organize, to rally, to salute their flags in public, and to put up posters on university campuses.
As some have stated on Twitter, Nazism was a historical artifact inseparable from the National Socialist German Workers Party and the cult of Hitler, defeated and eradicated in 1945. The crimes of the Nazis, he points out, were war, genocide, and vast human misery: they are not remembered for the crime of putting up posters or giving lectures. The problem with this position however is that there was a point in time when Hitler was the leader of a rabble that few took seriously and who were known mostly for meetings and speechifying. Today, in Canada, there are efforts underway to constitute a National Socialist political party, along the German model. Simply defending the freedom of speech of this group, without submitting that speech to vigorous criticism and counter-offensives, seems to me a remarkably casual posture.
As I have said elsewhere, in one hundred years hence we will either be saying ze and zir or we will not. The Judeo-Christian values will continue to inform the laws and cultural norms of America, or they will not. The descendants of Western Europeans will constitute a majority population in places like Texas and Alabama and Saskatchewan, or they will not. As for gender identity, and identity in general, it is difficult to imagine human nature as fixed and immutable, when artificial intelligence and bio-engineering and nano-technology are just around the corner, and when medical science will make it relatively easy to transform from one sex to another (and back again) and when human beings might soon be composed, perhaps even mostly composed, of synthetic and robotic parts. Seen in this light, the argument over pronouns seems a small and risible sideshow. Soon we will be dead, and given the increasing pace of change, the world that is coming is likely unimaginable for us. To survive we will need new myths, new ideas, and perhaps even new values.
Or maybe not. We simply don’t know where we are going.