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Jordan Peterson Is A Fulcrum For Right And Left’s Switch On Free Expression


“What’s so dangerous about Jordan Peterson?” asks a recent biographical essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education. If you pick up Peterson’s new book anticipating jarring political provocation, you will be underwhelmed: the opening chapter discusses the evolutionary biology of lobsters.

In Canada, however, some find him very dangerous. Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, first garnered national attention opposing the Canadian Parliament’s Bill C-16. This bill added gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination and to hate speech provisions. Peterson argued it forced individuals to express opinions that they do not hold.

If you do not recognize sexes beyond male and female, and you address a person by a pronoun that person does not prefer, then under Bill C-16, now law, your action can constitute discrimination and hate speech—subject to fines and possible imprisonment. By compelling speech against one’s beliefs, Peterson concluded that the bill violated an individual’s freedom of speech and expression.

Peterson’s opponents countered that his argument refused to acknowledge the chosen gender identity and expression of transgendered persons, so was offensive and harmful, tantamount to hate speech. Opposition has been especially ferocious in Canadian academia, where there are open letters calling for the University of Toronto to terminate his employment because his behaviour is a “danger” “to both faculty and students.” These events have provided ample fodder for wider discussions about the state of academic debate in Canada and elsewhere.

But few have attended to the opposition he receives from Canada’s art organisations. Artists have deemed Peterson so dangerous that some have attempted to deny him use of their space for his lectures. This is an awkward issue because in Canada, art galleries and theatres are publically funded, and are regularly used for public lectures and book launches. Most recently, The Citadel Theatre of the city of Edmonton, capital of the province of Alberta, refused to host Peterson’s book launch.

This is a peculiar opposition. It places the art world, typically seen as a stronghold of individual freedom of speech and expression, against Peterson, whose only comprehensive political comments are about the importance of individual freedom of expression. Examining this paradoxical and underreported conflict of the Peterson phenomenon helps us better understand the stunning reversal in our political landscape that is now taking place. As the Left and the Right change, the fulcrum for this transformation is in their attitudes toward the individual rights of freedom of speech and expression.

When the Left Promoted Offensive Speech

It is a truism that for generations, artistic organisations have leaned left. But in the 1960s, artists had built up a tradition defending their avant-garde productions, whether blasphemous, scandalous, or obscene, by invoking individual freedom of expression. To encourage freedom of expression, they sought public funding.

In 1965, the United States government founded the National Endowment for the Arts, which stipulated that the purpose of public funding of the arts was to encourage liberal values of “freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry.” Artistic organisations were sceptical about the capacity of private organisations to protect freedom of expression. Private organisations, often traditional and religious, could regularly prohibit deviant members from engaging in artistic pursuits.

The novel “My Name is Asher Lev” dramatizes that conflict. Its protagonist, Asher Lev, is a Hasidic Jew whose artistic expression runs afoul of the Hasidic authorities, forcing him to choose between artistic individual expression on the one hand, and adherence to the Hasidic community on the other.

Lev knows some people within the Jewish community will find his art offensive and hurtful. In a moment of doubt, he agonises about this to an artist friend. Her reply is sharp: “Yes? So? Olympia hurt people. Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe hurt people. The Impressionists hurt people. Cézanne hurt people. Picasso hurt people.”

Lev chooses art. The scene for the final rupture is a public gallery in New York. Scandalized by his productions, the Hasidic elders excommunicate him. This novel, critically acclaimed in the world of arts and letters, suggests publically funded art galleries are the final guarantors of individual freedom of expression against the restrictions of private, traditionalist organisations.

From Progressive to Reactionary and Back Again

Although old-left artists were stalwart defenders of liberal individualism and concomitant values like freedom of expression, new left artists are dropping those values, hard. Now, defenders of Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre’s actions celebrate that they exercise the same right to exclude as yesterday’s forces of reaction, the religious organisation. While the artists of the 1960s were uncompromising in their commitment to individual freedom of expression, even when it “hurt people,” the artists of the twenty-first century are not. To them, an individual’s freedom of expression is a potential corruption of the community, to be purged. When Peterson’s speech hurts people, he should be punished.

Meanwhile, the strongest defenders of liberal individual values, like freedom of expression, speech, and conscience, come from the conservatives, notably religious conservatives. Yet religious conservatives inherit a tradition with some of the strongest critiques of liberal individualism. In the battles of the culture wars that burst asunder in 1968, Christian conservatism was hardly a defender of individual liberal rights.

In legal case after case, the old right argued for limits to freedom of expression. Whether the issue was blasphemous art, flag-burning, anti-war slogans, or pornography, Christian conservatives argued these should be banned because they were morally offensive to others. Jerry Falwell of the “Moral Majority” epitomized this way of speaking.

But since the early 2000s, Christian conservatives have dropped the language of the old right to become robust defenders of freedom of speech and expression. Alongside the American Civil Liberties Union, Christian legal groups defended a student’s right to display a blasphemous “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” sign on school property in 2007’s Morse v. Frederick. They defended the right of the Westboro Baptist Church to protest at the funerals of military veterans in 2011’s Snyder v. Phelps. Despite considering both actions wrong, they reckoned that government policing of speech sets a dangerous precedent.

New Right Advances the Values of the Old Left

The transformation, political scientist Andrew Lewis argues, has to do with how Christians responded to the epicentre of the culture wars: abortion. Lewis argues that Christian conservativism’s old right was often ambivalent about abortion. For example, in the early 1970s, the Southern Baptist Convention favoured legal rights for abortion. Public arguments were less concerned about abortion ending a human life, and—especially in Falwell’s language—more about how abortion affects sexual morality, encouraging promiscuity.

Critics accused Falwell of being sanctimonious about his values, judgemental toward neglected women, and obsessed with rooting out real and imagined dangers to communities. But another strand of the nascent pro-life movement, rooted among Catholics involved in the Progressive movement, emphasised the right to life of the unborn child. This rights-based argument shook up conservatives, giving them a new appreciation for individual rights, including the right to freedom of expression.

Christian conservatives, having rethought their positions over several decades, have transformed into a new right advancing the liberal values of the old left. This transformation is not simply about legal arguments. According to the General Social Survey, it has changed Christian conservatives’ attitude about free speech. One can spot this trend in evangelicals.

In 1976, evangelicals had very low support for the free speech rights of atheists, gays and lesbians, Communists, and racists. But now they nearly match non-evangelical levels of support. While trends here are promising for free speech advocates, they are distressing amongst other social groups. The social group least likely to have a religious affiliation, millennials, are those most opposed to freedom of speech. The difference is stark.

Becoming Their Own Opponents

Lewis’s basic observation is that the Christian conservatism of today is a very different creature from that of the 1960s and ’70s. Artists are changing, too. If artistic organisations are now focusing more on what deserves inclusion and exclusion in their space, then one can hope that it at least leads to a clearer understanding of what artists are about.

But there is an unremarked irony here. The nineteenth-century Parisian salons, so derided by artists since the Impressionist movement, were also obsessed with defining what should or should not be included in their premises, and what immoral Olympias might “trigger” their viewers.

Of course contemporary artists might say excluding Peterson is not about art, it is about what is offensive, hateful, or dangerous. So contemporary artists insist that they need to be more conscious of their social and political place, and act accordingly.

If they want to do so, very well, but it comes with a second unremarked irony. This kind of contemporary artist is what old liberals hated about the old, “moral majority” Christian conservatives: sanctimonious, judgemental, and always railing about dangers to the community. Welcome to the politics of 2018, a dark mirror of 1968.