Jordan Peterson and the Unbalancing of Free Speech
A few weeks ago, spectators and protesters gathered outside Sidney Smith Hall at the University of Toronto. The battle lines were stark and deep. The subject of the frenzy was Professor Jordan Peterson.
Professor Peterson – a philosophy professor at the university – drew national headlines when he refused to use gender-neutral pronouns in his classes.
In a series of YouTube videos, Peterson defended his position by arguing that the proponents of “language politics” were forcing gender-neutral pronouns upon him, and he wanted to preserve his freedom of speech.
His opponents, however, declared his behaviour hate speech, that it propagated violence, and compromised the safety of the Transgender community. There were calls for Professor Peterson to undergo educational classes – and even to be fired.
In response, the University of Toronto issued him two letters of reprimand.
These reprimand letters, as well as calls for Peterson’s removal and re-education are very troubling trends.
Just to be clear, Peterson’s behaviour is not being condoned here. Personally, I would have no problem referring to any individual by their chosen pronoun, when asked. But the important word here is “asked”.
The suggestion that people should be required or coerced to say certain things on demand seems not only contrary to the most basic principles of freedom of speech, but also freedom of conscience. It is putting words in someone’s mouth by force – on pain of severe sanction or Orwellian ‘re-education’.
Of course in a university setting all students and faculty are governed by Codes of Conduct. Those codes exist at UofT and at Queen’s and at any other Canadian university. They provide a basis for curbing uncivil and hostile conduct.
But surely a university is also obliged to encourage free expression and an equally free exploration of ideas? These ideas may be unpopular or contrarian, but they are nevertheless an essential component of an intellectually diverse institution that promotes freethinking and inquiry.
At the moment, it seems that UofT are choosing to take the former side. Their letters of reprimand and official rebuke, although mildly worded, say only one thing: contrarian views are not welcome.
At this point, some may say that Professor Peterson’s language went beyond that. It creates the hostile environment that Codes of Conduct purport to prevent. It is violence. It is hate speech. It must be stopped.
I disagree. There is danger in casting the net of “violence” so broadly that it captures something as innocuous as a gendered pronoun. Violence against trans people is a real thing. An incorrect pronoun may be offensive, but it is not akin to assault or murder.
In an age of political correctness, where the words we speak come under increasing scrutiny, universities are faced with the challenge of balancing the need for preventing hostile conduct and preserving intellectual diversity.
Let us hope that free speech prevails in that balance. Because while it can sometimes be offensive and rude, it also forms the ground on which the marketplace of ideas is erected.
Adnan Subzwari (3L) is Co-Editor-in-Chief of Juris Diction.