Saturday, June 30, 2018

Jordan Peterson Is No Friend of Free Speech


The worst enemies of a controversial opinion are not those who use facts and logic against it. If the opinion has any value, such opposition will only make the opinion stronger and better by provoking better arguments in its favor, or by leading its proponents to to revise it so that it becomes a more nuanced and fully-rounded picture of reality. John Stuart Mill pointed this out long ago, in On Liberty.

No, a much more damaging opponent is the proponent whose behavior is so venal and hypocritical that it gives the impression that people who defend the view have ulterior motives or do not mean what they say. This can bring on a phenomenon that I call “turning off the microphone”: proponents can talk and talk but people will not hear their words. The words will be perceived as a cover for something else, which what is really going on. Turning off the microphone can be a much more effective way to silence an opinion than threatening proponents with legal punishments.

Jordan Peterson is the most conspicuous proponent of free speech in the mass media right now -- unfortunately. He recently discredited himself as a proponent by launching one law suit and threatening another – for things professors have said about him! He even tells one interviewer that his motive it to get professors “to be a bit more careful with what they say.” This of course has been the motive of censors throughout history. Watch what you say, buddy!

Thus he strengthens the case for the old Stanley Fish line that nobody really cares about how much freedom of speech there is, they only care about how it is distributed.  It tends to justify the attitude that was pilloried in the title of Nat Hentoff's classic book, Free Speech for Me, but Not for Thee.

His justifications for this behavior reveal his cluelessness as to what freedom of speech is. In one interview he gives two explanations for why his law suits are not inconsistent with his status as a champion and standard-bearer for free speech. First, he claims that the professors who compared his views to those of Hitler “were breaking the law” in doing so. This is an almost incredibly lame argument. As any bright freshman would notice right away, it begs the question – obviously! – of whether the law in question, and his use of it, are themselves violations of the right of free speech. He seems oblivious to this obvious point. His second explanation is marginally less lame:

But there’s always risk in every decision, there’s the risk of doing something, and there’s the risk of not doing something. Both of those risks are usually catastrophic in every decision that you make in life. So I weighed up the risks and I thought, no, the risk here of not doing something is greater than the risk of doing something.

Once again, this is the point of view of the opponents of free speech. Any time you hear someone say that they are going to have to “weigh” or “balance” your freedom of speech against some other value, you can bet that they are going to favor violating your right of free speech. A freedom as fundamental as speech is not about weighing or balancing or compromising anything.

The most familiar argument for the contrary idea fails completely to support it: this is the idea that you can't yell fire in a crowded theater – because it is just too risky. As Alan Dershowitz pointed out once in a lecture, this case is actually not about speech at all. I would be committing exactly the same offense if I simply hit the fire alarm switch, saying absolutely nothing. If someone randomly murders several people by deliberately causing a panic, we will not prosecute them for expressing bad ideas or harmful attitudes. The charge will be some sort of homicide.  Some acts that violate rights involve the use of words and some do not.  What is legitimately a crime is not a viewpoint expressed by the words but the act of which they are a part.

To judge by his behavior, Peterson's advocacy of free speech seems to be an attempt to get something he wants -- for himself and people who agree with him.  That he views it as a right possessed by everyone, even those who say things that he finds abhorrent, is very doubtful at this point.

Advocates of freedom of speech who think that Peterson is their ally should turn their backs on him.  You are known by your associations, and association with him can only contaminate you.


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