Tag Archives: Jordan Peterson

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.

Heroes, Saviours, and Jordan Peterson

Peterson is at bottom a generic conservative—a believer in the moral and civilizational necessity of established authorities and traditions

✎  Wayne K. Spear | November 14, 2017 • Current Events

IT’S BEYOND REASONABLE DOUBT that we are living in a time of cultural warfare, and as a rule at such times heroes or saviour figures are lifted up to lead in battle. For the self-designated enemies of feminism, political correctness, and leftism, Jordan B. Peterson is such a figure.

Jordan Peterson

I first stumbled over this University of Toronto professor for the reason many others did—his vocal opposition to Canada’s Bill C-16, amending the Canadian Human Rights Act to add gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination. C-16 further amends the Criminal Code

to extend the protection against hate propaganda set out in that Act to any section of the public that is distinguished by gender identity or expression and to clearly set out that evidence that an offence was motivated by bias, prejudice or hate based on gender identity or expression constitutes an aggravating circumstance that a court must take into consideration when it imposes a sentence.

Peterson objects to many aspects of this bill. He’s deemed it compelled speech and has stated many times that he will not use non-gendered pronouns such as xe or xyr. His broader objection to non-binary (or perhaps it is extra-binary) gender identity and expression is that these are make-believe notions with no grounding either in biological or social reality. And so he has declared war against something he calls cultural neo-marxism, as well as against postmodernism, principally in the form of the propositions that all structures are oppressive and that Western civilization is white supremacist patriarchal rot, and little more, and thus must be overthrown and replaced by more progressive, inclusive, and egalitarian arrangements.

A simple Google search will yield many interviews, podcasts, news articles, and university lectures featuring Mr. Peterson. His notoriety is worldwide, and despite his fame originating in a claim that the university and the laws were out to silence and imprison and ultimately ruin him, Jordan Peterson’s views saturate the air and earn him many hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. Between his income as a tenured professor and his $50,000USD/month (and growing) Patreon subscriptions, to say nothing of his other income streams, Mr. Peterson is a millionaire, or will be one soon. He has a large following, mostly made up of the alt-right, white nationalist, libertarian, and MRM, or men’s rights movement, types of person. He is also admired by a good many atheists, who see him (wrongly, in my view) as a defender of science against faith.

What is it that Jordan Peterson proposes, and why have his statements and positions raised him to his current prominence? These are the questions I am setting out to answer, and along the way I will consider secondary matters, for example the prospect of his efforts to starve certain university professors and disciplines of students and therefore of income.

At the highest level of analysis (and here I am relying on his published lectures) Jordan Peterson appears to be concerned with the relationship of truth and value. Or, to put it as a question, what truth or set of truths will provide the values that allow us to live in this world in a manner that fulfils our individual and collective human potential? It is worth noting that questions of this sort, having to do with ultimate truths and the ideal human society, will as a rule land us in the territory of religion and politics, and so it is in the present case. Jordan Peterson studied political science and was a member of the New Democratic Party until he decided that the political solutions on offer were so much nonsense and turned instead to clinical psychology. But even his interest in psychology is largely an interest in the truth-value of ancient myths and archetypes, as they are rendered in religion and in particular in Judaism and Christianity. So he has in fact migrated from politics to religion, and it is through the door of religion that his thinking is best approached.

Much can be learned about a man from the company that he keeps, and Peterson appears to have ingested a good deal of Nietzsche and Jung and Piaget and Dostoevsky. This is a logical diet of someone who is in search of values by which to live, especially someone of an unconventional, non-conformist outlook who desires a heroic inner life. In college I knew a few Philosophy majors enamoured of Nietzsche, and to a man (they were all men: I have yet to meet a female devotee of Nietzsche) they were oddballs and misfits but I suspected with an imagination that made up for their outward limitations. With Dostoevsky it is much the same, except that Dostoevsky is perhaps even more a moralist than Nietzsche and with somewhat less of the Nietzschean self-aggrandizing bombast—especially of the later, Ecce Homo years, when tertiary syphilis was just around the corner. Piaget is of course an authority of psychological development, having focused on the socialization of children, and from him Peterson would have got the evolutionary-biological basis of the psyche as well as the notion that identity is the product of social negotiation. From his other major influence, Jung, Peterson derived an interest in mythic archetypes and probably in religion also. This brief review covers about 80% of Peterson’s evident influences, and most of the rest has to do with ethology (especially dominance hierarchies and mate selection) and the five-factor model of personality, with which I happen to be very familiar.

Peterson often has recourse to Darwinian natural selection, as well as to evolutionary psychology, and for this reason many atheists mistakenly see Peterson as a fellow-traveller. On his surface he is a rationalist and empiricist, and even to a degree below the surface as well. But if you listen to Jordan Peterson carefully for even one lecture, it becomes clear that he is not a philosophical materialist at bottom but rather some kind of believing Christian. It becomes clear also that his ethology and Darwinism—which is to say his science—are in service of subjective concerns related to masculinity and competitive success and whatnot. (It’s not hard to see why Men’s Rights activists have gravitated to Peterson.) He’s not a doctrinal Christian of an identifiable denomination, but he is a Christian nonetheless. And, being a Christian, he believes—this is I think the proper word for it—in the moral and civilizational necessity of tradition, including the moral Christian traditions that inform marriage and gender roles and so on. In other words his interest in myth and archetype is a prescriptive interest and not a theoretical or abstract one, in the way that an evangelical Christian’s interest in Koiné or ancient Hebrew is not merely intellectual but rather serves a practical goal, that is, attaining a closer relationship with Jesus. He means to apply his observations of things like the hero archetype and the dominance hierarchy and the five-factor model of personality to his life, and it seems to me he wants his students to do the same. Nor is this remarkable, most professors being self-consciously evangelical where their pet ideas are concerned. In short, his life has been a quest for the Guidebook, and now that he has it, he is not going to give up its counsel, or witness its denigration, without a fight.

If my admittedly superficial analysis is correct, what Jordan Peterson proposes is what all tradition-minded conservatives propose—that the answers to our most pressing questions will be found in the past and not in the innovations of radicals and revolutionaries, or even of liberals. Peterson’s exchanges with the podcaster and neuroscientist Sam Harris exhibit a clash of left-versus-right thinking, Harris taking the “left” position that myths from tribal bronze age societies, no matter how laden with practical wisdom, can not guide us successfully through the terrain of urban, high-tech societies. Peterson evidently not only believes that Christianity can guide us, he believes that if we abandon it we will find ourselves between the Scylla and Charybdis of nihilism and totalitarianism. When the news of Louis C.K.’s sexual assaults broke last week, Peterson tweeted that “we are going to soon remember why sex was traditionally enshrined in marriage….” The many casual observers of Jordan Peterson who had assigned him to the Darwinist-materialist camp were confused by this leap, but those of us who have discerned the conservative Christian moralist lurking within his views were not. Without believing in the literal truth of the Christian story, Peterson nonetheless is able to believe in its practical and prescriptive truth. His allegiance to Judeo-Christian values puts him in the company of many radical right figures who are fighting for Western civilization (their preferred tactic is always war) which is to say the institutions, laws, habits, and arrangements of Judeo-Christianity.

The answer to the second question is obvious once the first has been answered. Jordan B. Peterson’s statements and positions have raised him to his current prominence because the need of a strong leader and even of a fierce hero-saviour type is hardwired into the conservative-traditionalist worldview, an essentially hierarchical world that defers to authority. As Jerry Falwell Jr. correctly said of Donald Trump, “We’re not electing a pastor. We’re electing a president.” In Donald Trump, white conservative evangelicals found their outspoken, combative, strong-man leader. They were not looking for meek and mild Jesus and did not want him for the mission. And of course candidate Trump, like Professor Peterson, says what many are thinking, in a way that makes clear his indifference to political correctness and hurt feelings. The main difference between Trump and Peterson (whose constituencies largely overlap) is that Trump dissembles in plain language whereas Peterson is candid but in terms that are complex, hence easily misconstrued. The result is that both have within their followings people who are in the dark where the actual convictions and objectives of their hero are concerned.

As for the prospect of Peterson’s efforts, a few observations seem in order. The first is that Peterson is fighting over, and for, real-world things that go far beyond pronouns—things like traditional gender roles and marriage and sexual norms and the cultural authority of Christian teachings and values. In the future we will either be saying faerself or we will not, most of the battles being of the zero-sum variety. In a society where a minority of people read the Bible and where the general drift has been away from traditional authorities like the church and toward secularism and plurality, only an aggressive and sustained reaction to the developments of the modern world seems likely to reverse course. Such a reaction is not impossible to imagine, and in fact it is now underway both here and in Europe, but by definition the conservative cause is a doomed one. No one knows this more than conservatives, whose conception of historical development has at its core the notion of decline, or, in other words, the abandonment of a golden age and its values and institutions and the drifting away from natural law. If the tendency of the world were stasis, there would be no need of conservatives or of conservatism. The whole point of being a conservative is to fight for the impossible, which is to say the preservation of a world that is forever changing.

On the other side of this argument are the agents of change, who believe in the future perfection (or at least improvement) of the human being, as well as in the upward arc of human societies, driven by repudiation of the revealed wisdom and the norms embedded in and perpetuated by ancient institutions and authorities. Their disagreement with Peterson is deep and will probably occupy our species for the next century and more. In the meanwhile should Jordan Peterson be fired or silenced, as some of his opponents foolishly hope he will be, his followers will add martyr to the CV and promote him further up the dominance hierarchy, where greater helpings of prestige and American dollars and media celebrity await.

There is no use ignoring the points on which Jordan Peterson is doubtless correct. A society can not undergo rapid and enormous changes and not suffer, often in ways that are wholly unanticipated. Whatever its advances and improvements, the culture that jettisons its traditions and re-invents its values wholesale will invariably introduce an element of uncertainty and even of chaos. But no one born in the past one hundred years can believe that the world will not continue to change, likely at an increased pace and in ways it is impossible to imagine. We are, all of us, wondering what is going to happen and hoping it will not be catastrophic. Peterson’s defiance is doubtless grounded in a pessimism informed by this very point. Nor is he foolish to posit a future in which we have leapt the rails. Such a thing may well occur, and the agents of progress and social justice could well be responsible, and probably will be, since the most dangerous thing is to leap into the unknown. Whenever and wherever the refashioning of societies has been undertaken along tribal identitarian lines, the result has been bloodshed and barbarism, so much so that our survival will likely come down to our ability to transcend the evolutionary inheritance of our tribal ape ancestors. Here we are in a world of particle accelerators and nanorobotics, with our reptilian brains primed for a flight or a fight. One day we will have to learn how to live with this unfortunate paradox, if we are to live at all.