The Free Speech Debate Isn’t Really a Debate

And it’s not just about free speech, either

✎  Wayne K. Spear | March 8, 2018 • Current Events

MORE 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.

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.

We are going to lose the war with fanatical Islamism, and here’s how

CHARLIE HEBDO. A month ago, no one had even heard of it here in North America. And now? The magazine is selling millions of copies, many of them States-side. I see that for roughly $16,000 you can buy the first post-attack edition on eBay.

Is this a victory for free speech? I don’t know. I enjoy the irony that attacking the publication has only made it more widely circulated than ever before. Maybe that’s a victory for viral marketing, publicity and Capitalism. As for freedom of speech, I’ve lost count of the editorials here in the West explaining decisions not to show the offending covers. They are all of a cloth, and go something like this:

– The covers have no news value
– The images are readily available elsewhere, if you must see them
– The cartoons are deliberately offensive and in poor taste
– Viewers and readers will have their sentiments outraged

Now, there is no human right that says your cartoon must be shown on the news. And I agree that the images I have seen are strenuously rude and calculated to cause offence. I gather the Pope himself said, in an offhanded way, you should expect a punch for being so rude. (I’ll have more to say on that.)  But the arguments against showing the covers, above, don’t hold their marbles. Here’s why.

The covers have no news value

If you’re hosting a news program and find yourself saying, “this thing I’m talking about on the news, right now, has no news value,” then don’t expect to be taken seriously. Exactly this happened on PBS NewsHour Friday. The news value of the Charlie Hebdo covers is self-evident. You know what doesn’t have news value? The stuff that isn’t making the news. See how that works? You can argue with me about the judgements of news editors, but I don’t think you can deny that Charlie Hebdo is a for-real news item.

The images are readily available elsewhere, if you must see them

So what? Since when do you open the New York Times expecting to be told that you can read about something in the Wall Street Journal. Seriously, Main Street Media? You’re going to skip on printing the covers because , aw shucks, someone else went ahead and did it for you? Again, I can’t take you seriously. I call bullshit on this one.

The cartoons are deliberately offensive and in poor taste

Who is deciding for me what’s too offensive for my tender mind to handle? Who is censoring the news clean of the stuff I’m apparently not adult enough to take?

The guardians are.

Iran is “led” by something called the velayat-e-faqih. Do you know what that means? It’s the “Guardianship [velayat] of the Cleric [faqih].” Everyone in Iran is a ward of the state. The clerics are their guardians. The leaders make sure that the people are protected from anything un-Islamic. And, fortunately, they do a lousy job of it—but they do try.

Here’s a news flash: we don’t need freedom of speech laws to protect nice, friendly, middle-of-the road, feel-good consensus views. No one has to be placed under round-the-clock armed guard protection for writing books called “It’s a Swell Idea to Call Your Mother Once in a While” or “Ice Cream Goes Great with Apple Pie.” Non-offensive, non-challenging, non-controversial views protect themselves, by being boring and useless.

Once you decide to not protect the rude ideas, you’ve hollowed out free speech. It no longer exists. It’s a big joke. You’re saying, “I will bravely stand up for your right to say that puppies are cute.” B.I.G. D.E.A.L.

Here’s the truth: media people are afraid. I had coffee with a journalist friend of mine, and he told me there are now guards roaming the news floor. I get it. The world is scary. So admit, media execs, that this is about risking the loss of readers and revenue, and maybe even an attack. Be honest.

Back to the Pope. He says that if someone makes a rude comment about his mother, that person should expect a punch. I agree with the Pope on this one, and since I’ve never cared for Jesus’ stupid and dangerous teaching to turn the other cheek, I applaud His Holiness for advocating the defending of one’s mother.

But guess what? Punching someone is assault. In most jurisdictions, it’s illegal. And wrong. You might well be charged with a crime. If you seriously injured that person, you could spend time in jail—even though (in my view) you were justified in hitting him.

There’s also a difference, or should be, between attacking the ideas and behaviour of the mighty and powerful in print, and insulting someone’s poor mother. If the Pope can’t see the difference, he probably is not fit to pronounce on nuanced matters like spirituality, faith and theology. Maybe he should take up boxing instead.

Let’s get this straight. Islam is a religion of two billion followers. It claims for itself to be the final revelation of God. Mohammed claimed to be God’s Prophet, and his words are held by his billions of followers to establish eternal and universal truths whose authority commands our total obedience. Perceived disobedience, or even unorthodoxy, can lead to your disfigurement and death. Entire countries are now governed by clerics, under a harsh form of Islamic law called Sharia.

Does this sound like a poor, vulnerable target to you? No way. Islam has enormous social, ideological and military power. And it’s a set of ideas, some of which are stupid, irrational, dangerous and cruel. The same is true, in my opinion, of every other religion.

Anyone working for a satirical magazine whose purpose is to critique powerful and potentially dangerous ideas has a duty to ridicule the excesses of Islam’s self-appointed spokespersons and enforcers. It’s nothing at all like telling someone his mother is fat. I repeat: nothing at all. Unless, of course, this fat mother claims to have given virginal birth to a god who rose from the dead and took a magic-carpet ride in outer space before coming back to dictate The Bible 3.0—and that if you don’t believe all of this, you are an infidel who deserves death. Or, if they are feeling generous, maybe just to be a persecuted minority of second-class non-citizens.

Viewers and readers will have their sentiments outraged

Dear offended religious people: do you know that I have my sentiments outraged daily by the things you do and say? It’s true. I am outraged when I see Catholic propaganda that says we should ban assisted suicide because suffering is a beautiful gift from God. (If so God is a lousy gifter: He should have a Returns Policy.) I am offended when clerics and priests say that atheism is destroying civilization and that earthquakes are punishment for gay marriage and “you can’t be a good person if you don’t have God in your heart.” People actually have said that last one to my face, and every time I barf a little into my mouth.

There are so many religious ideas I find offensive and barbaric that I could write a book listing them. (Note to self.) I can’t get through lunch without  some offensive religious idea or pronouncement drifting into my personal space. My head is pounding as I type this, because I can think of hundreds of examples.

Do I insist that these offensive ideas be banned from being reported in the media? No, I don’t. I accept the fact that not everyone agrees with me. I deal with it by going to the market place of ideas, where I appeal to reason and argumentation. Some of the people on the other side of the argument believe that, with God on their side, they have the right and even duty to kill me for my views. (Someone described as a “Saudi Muslim leader” is going to the courts instead—that’s a somewhat encouraging novelty.) I notice these are also the people who are most vocal about not criticizing religion or offending religious sensibilities.

So to recap: I get to be offended every day by religious ideas and action, but—for goodness sake!—don’t say anything rude about religion, because that’s mean and offensive and in poor taste. Racist, even. Notice how it’s been mostly liberal, free-speech types who’ve caved in to this idea that we shouldn’t offend religious sensibilities. They point out to me that I wouldn’t tolerate anti-Semitism, ignoring the fact that I’ve protected the free speech of those losers, too. Because it is speech. If it’s something more than that, I’m open to the conversation. Just keep in mind that banishing speech does not solve any real-world problem—it only makes your precious sentiments feel better.

The next person to ban an “Islamophobic” university campus publication will most likely be wearing an “I am Charlie” pin on her lapel. It’s a truism worth repeating: the barbarians never charge the gate—it’s always opened from the inside, by self-loathing people who secretly wish for the destruction of their society.

This week the gate opened. All of the nice liberals have decided it’s more important to be deferential to religious sensibilities than it is to take a controversial stand for freedom of speech.

That’s exactly how we are going to lose this battle, folks.

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Sinkholes, Supreme Court, Toronto Crane Tweets, Free Speech, Dennis Rodman, Pessimism, Sequestration

Podcast 32 | Week of 03.03.2013


Download entire podcast (320 kbps mp3).