Uncivil Discourse: Experiencing the Inaugural Liberty Lecture
A look into what the Peterson lecture was like from the inside
For a number of years, there has been an ongoing spirited debate within the newsrooms, watercoolers, and social media platforms of the nation concerning the treatment and the role of free expression in Canada, the U.S., and the wider global community. Free expression on college and university campuses has become a significant microcosm of this greater debate because of the traditional understanding of post-secondary institutions both as educators and the proverbial “petri dishes” of ideas, ideologies, and schools of thought that run the gamut of the social, political, and economic spectrums. Before attending the liberty lecture, I had never experienced this debate personally, nor seen just how visceral the emotions surrounding it had become. Being an undergrad alumnus of U of T I had a passing knowledge of Dr. Peterson and his critiques of Bill C-16 and its language, but it always as second hand information through peers and my own little media bubble. When the opportunity arose to get a sense of this debate straight from the horse’s mouth, I figured it was time to see what it was exactly that Dr. Peterson was saying that had moved him so directly into the public consciousness.
The lecture, titled “The Rising Tide of Compelled Speech in Canada”, had a list of house rules that were sent to the registered attendees before it occurred. The rules laid out when to arrive and that the lecture was public, that questions would be allowed, and providing a list of prohibited items. These included signs with handles, flags, banners, drums, instruments (basically anything that’s purpose was making loud noises), and selfie sticks or any kind of camera stand. Large bags were also the subject of search by the staff. When I arrived at about 3:45 there was already a significant line for admission to Grant Hall and a small group of protestors had gathered. The hall is laid out like an old time theatre with main seating at ground level and balcony seating in the wings. Much of the ground seating had been taken when I arrived but by chance I found a seat in the front row towards the University Avenue side of the hall. For about the next 45 minutes, things were figuratively quiet. The hall filled up (a little over 800 people attended according to the Queens Journal), people chatted, photographers and videographers both professional and amateur did their thing. Dr. Peterson, Professor Pardy, and Dean Flanagan took to the main stage a few minutes after 4:30 to much applause, and once the crowd had settled the Dean gave a short introduction. Thanking the audience for attending and Mr. Greg Piasetzki for sponsoring the event, the Dean acknowledged the controversial nature of the lecture but reiterated the university’s commitment to open and civil discourse.
At this point Professor Pardy took the reins and set the tone for the event with a bit of a history lesson on the death of Sir Thomas More. A devout Catholic and councilor to King Henry VIII, More was convicted of treason and beheaded in 1535 after refusing to acknowledge Henry as the Supreme Head of the Anglican Church (Church of England) when it split from the Catholic Church, and refusing to sign the Oath of Succession which acknowledged the rights of Henry’s new wife Anne Boleyn as Queen and her children’s rights to succession. Before his execution, More was imprisoned in the Tower of London where some of his peers including Thomas Cromwell urged him to take to oath, alleging that he need not believe what he was saying, only that he must say it. More refused all attempts to persuade him. He was canonized in 1935 and was declared the “Patron of Statesmen and Politicians” in 2000 by Pope John Paul II. Professor Pardy then provided a few examples of what he considers compelled speech. These included the Law Society of Ontario’s policy on Statements of Principles as endorsing an obligation to promote certain values, the Canada Summer Jobs program now requiring applicants to attest to their respect for reproductive rights, as well as the current expression debate surrounding the decision to use preferred gendered and non-gendered pronouns.
It was at this juncture that I thought I heard someone’s cellphone going off, but when I turned to look it appeared some protestors had brought a banner and a noisemaking device into the lecture. They adamantly made their views that Bill C-16 (which added gender identity or expression to the grounds of discrimination in the Canadian Human Rights Act) was not an instance of compelled speech. The protestors exited the hall a few moments later but in the process of doing so sprayed a rather smelly aerosol into the hall. Once a bit of calm had been restored, Dr. Peterson took to the podium and likened the behaviour of the protestors to that of a toddler’s tantrum. Dr. Peterson took some time to extol the virtues of universities as remarkable institutions but asserted that they had lately been fueling a rather one-sided view of the world. However, the main thrust of his point in the lecture seemed to me to be the vital role of language and the linguistic domain in the personal, professional, and political development of every person. His position was that nothing can be more important than the words you use as your language reflects your thinking, so in a sense compelled speech becomes compelled thought or thought control. Even if the language used in a bill like C-16 comes from a place of benevolence, Peterson expressed concern that the language wasn’t itself properly understood by policymakers and was then working more incoherence than clarity into the law and clashing ideology with the legal system.
As Peterson moved into a discussion of what he believed was a conflict caused by continual agitation by a small group of the radical left (the phrases Marxism and Postmodernism were used), the crowd of protestors outside – which had swelled to around 150 people – began turning up the volume. They began to pound on the stained-glass windows on both sides of the hall as well as using air horns, and other noisemakers in an attempt to drown out the speakers. Peterson likened it to “barbarians at the gates”. I was sitting only about 15 feet away when one of the protestors broke the glass on one of the windows and cut themselves. Media reports suggest that this protestor, a 38 year old who was not a Queen’s student, was later arrested for mischief, assaulting the police, and the possession of a concealed weapon called a garrote. Despite this the banging carried on for perhaps twenty or thirty minutes before the Kingston Police arrived. At this point Professor Pardy called for questions from the assembled crowd and a small group took him up on his offer. Most began their statements by thanking Dr. Peterson and Professor Pardy for taking part in the event as some felt that they could not freely express their views for fear of censure and a sense of being ostracized by the campus community. The questions covered a wide range of topics including economics, religious belief, social and political philosophy as well as inequality, liberty and the role of language in society. On the subject of liberty, there was an understanding of liberty not as the right to demand that the world validate or agree with your choices, but rather the ability to make those choices. The choice to agree with your decisions or not is then the liberty right of others. Peterson also spoke of his brushes with the legal system when the lawyers for U of T first wrote to him to stop his YouTube critiques of bill C-16, the lawyers feeling that the videos might themselves have been transgressive of the new law. He said that even though a person may come away from the legal system without facing punishment the process is slow, anxiety inducing, and more than capable of destroying personal and professional reputations.
Perhaps the most poignant question was asked by a student dealing with the dilemma of wanting to give his honest opinions in his paper writing but prescient of the fact that all of us, including professors and TA’s, have biases and that his opinions could harm his academic and professional future should they rub his assessor the wrong way. To this, Peterson charged the student to never write what he thought his professors wanted to hear as this was nothing less than a falsification of his character which Peterson likened to “warping your soul”. It was argued that a person’s character is their most important resource and that to mortgage that character by using the expected language is anathema. As soon as a person uses the language demanded of them by another they surrender the “linguistic domain” and in doing so forfeit valuable ideological ground in favour of the divisiveness of identity politics. From what I gather, this reasoning is the thrust of Peterson’s argument against the language in Bill C-16.
As things began to wind down, Peterson began to speak about the value of civil debate. He asked, if it is impossible to have an honest and serious discussion about difficult issues without someone getting upset, then what can be done? In his eyes, speech cannot simply be cordoned off to subjects that no one finds uncomfortable. What is reasonable to one could be offensive to another, so the question becomes to whom do we look to draw that line in law or in expression? Peterson’s want is for there to be a distinction between childish grandstanding and informed opposition. (Of course, which is which is in the eye of the beholder.) At some point, so the argument goes, everyone has to have a real conversation or else face the consequences of avoiding or silencing that conversation, since these days most folks would prefer to reach for the pen before they go for the sword. In Peterson’s eyes, freedom of expression is then a tool for finding out what issues engage your morality and creating solutions to deal with those moral quandaries. Peterson then spoke of the “silent majority” in our society and encouraged the assembled crowd to never fear to speak their minds because while getting pilloried is possible, you never know who you’ve reached with your message.
The questions were brought to an end, and Professor Pardy and Dr. Peterson thanked the crowd for their presence and their civility and remarked that the lecture was an important step in the life of the university. I joined the throng trying to exit the building only to find that we were required to use a different exit than the one we came in. Whether this was over safety concerns, I can only speculate. As I moved with the crowd towards the exit we were greeted with what I would describe as a hall of shame. The protestors had lined the long hallway to the other exit and were quite vocal about their opinions on the views of Dr. Peterson, and the apparent complicity of the attendees in transgressions against the rights of Trans and non-binary persons by attending the event.
Christopher Pegg is a 1L Staff Writer.