What Is Freedom Of Speech? A Genuinely Illuminating Exchange

 Cathy Newman  grills University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson on gender and equality

Freedom of speech is the right to say whatever you like about whatever you like, whenever you like, right? Wrong. Freedom of speech and the right to freedom of expression applies to ideas of all kinds including those that may be deeply offensive. But it comes with responsibilities and it can be legitimately restricted.  For example Channel 4 has been forced to call in “security specialists” after a combative interview with a controversial Canadian psychologist spawned a series of online abuse and threats directed at presenter Cathy Newman.  Ms Newman grilled University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson, who has attracted a following from the far-right, on gender and equality, including his claims that the pay gap between men and women cannot solely be attributed to gender. Prof Peterson also defended the interviewer, writing on Twitter: “If you’re threatening her, stop. Try to be civilised in your criticism. It was words. Words, people, words. Remember those?”

In a statement, a Channel 4 News spokesperson said: “Following her interview with Psychology Professor Jordan Peterson broadcast earlier this week, our presenter Cathy Newman has been the target of unwarranted and unacceptable misogynistic abuse and threats.

“As journalists in the public eye, our presenters expect criticism, but we will not tolerate this level of abuse towards our staff. We have taken immediate steps to ensure Cathy’s safety and security and continue to offer her our full support on this matter.”

Now, I know what some of you are thinking: what right does a white, middle-class, straight, cis male who turns 50 this week have to say anything about this? There are plenty of people who think that Peterson has no place on a mainstream news programme, or even in academic life. The far right, on the other hand, believes that Newman personifies an elitist media caste that is obstructing a great populist revolution. Both groups are ridiculous, and spectacularly ignorant of what constitutes a progressive civilisation.

Though it is unfair to pigeonhole two such intelligent people, the conversation between Peterson and Newman, distilled to its essentials, was an argument between classical liberal ideas and modern identity politics. Peterson made his case with reference to individual characteristics and attributes; Newman challenged him to consider the structural disadvantages facing, say, women in the workplace or transgender students.

The answer is: I say what I like, within the law, and so do you. It cannot be said too often that the first amendment to the United States constitution was adopted with the explicit purpose of protecting minority opinion. Though we have no such jurisprudential protection in Britain, and we – like most democratic societies – curtail speech that is libellous, incites imminent violence or whips up racial hatred, our inherited presumption in favour of free expression is more important than ever. A pluralistic, diverse society needs more free speech, not less. It needs fewer safe spaces and bans, and more civility and resilience.

Of all the delusions that grip our fractious era, one of the worst is the confident belief that greater restriction of speech will necessarily serve progressive ends. There is no logic in that whatsoever. Reforms can turn into chains of enslavement and we are seeing this come out of the Right-wing as well.  As Peterson warns, everyone finds something objectionable or upsetting. It would be a moment of maximum peril if the primary test applied to expression became its capacity to offend. Why assume that those setting the rules would necessarily support the powerless or the disenfranchised? The injunction “You can’t say that” leads just as plausibly to Margaret Atwood’s Gilead or to Oceania.

Even though there are good intentions involved, it’s the Liberals who think by enacting progressive and reform minded legislation to create further protections for women against violence and discrimination, the dangers exist, at the same time, in the further curtailment of all human rights.  Let’s be more thoughtful about what we wish for before we lunge forward with new reforms. It is an assault both intended and unintended on humanity. In a recent turn of events Canadian feminist author Margaret Atwood faced a social media backlash after voicing concerns about the #MeToo movement and calling for due process in the case of a former university professor accused of sexual misconduct. Atwood  states:

“In times of extremes, extremists win. Their ideology becomes a religion, anyone who doesn’t puppet their views is seen as an apostate, a heretic or a traitor, and moderates in the middle are annihilated.”

You might not expect to hear this, but in certain circumstances free speech and freedom of expression can be restricted. Governments have an obligation to prohibit hate speech and incitement. And restrictions can also be justified if they protect specific public interest or the rights and reputations of others. Any restrictions on freedom of speech and freedom of expression must be set out in laws that must in turn be clear and concise so everyone can understand them. People imposing the restrictions (whether they are governments, employers or anyone else) must be able to demonstrate the need for them, and they must be proportionate. All of this has to be backed up by safeguards to stop the abuse of these restrictions and incorporate a proper appeals process. However, restrictions that do not comply with all these conditions violate freedom of expression. Consider people put in prison solely for exercising their right to free speech to be prisoners of conscience.

To be a citizen is to engage, and the Newman-Peterson interview is a model of that engagement. Unless you believe that history has a self-evident direction – and it really doesn’t – you must accept that almost all progress is achieved by the hard grind of negotiation, tough debate and busy pluralism. The aphasia of “no-platform” and the bedlam of the digital mob add nothing to the mix. To quote the great African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates: let them talk.

Sources:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jan/21/banning-jordan-peterson-causing-offence-cathy-newman-free-speech

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/jordan-peterson-cathy-newman-interview-channel-4-news-security-consultant-university-of-toronto-a8169401.html

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About Art Selectronic

Art Selectronic is an artist-led initiative, that supports grass-roots contemporary art that remains unswayed by fashion, trends or the whims of government funding. The project involves ongoing research into the placing of contemporary art, it’s audiences and it’s relationship to the everyday. We place great emphasis on context. Our mission is to support new works of contemporary art and foster an audience from a wide range of backgrounds.
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