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Navigating free speech when the 'debate' is you, and you're not invited

Photo: Adobe Stock, with modification by author

Part one of a two-part series. Read part two.

There's a duplicitous game of sleight-of-hand that is taking place in discussions about freedom of speech in academia and the public square.

Here's how it works: at first, a person fishes for controversy by saying several things that they know will offend people. If this garners enough attention, then the process recurs organically -- say, whenever a politician wants to reference the controversy as a coded dog whistle to their base, or when a teaching assistant replays a recording in class because she thinks the discussion is interesting and challenging.

And the moment the people targeted by that discussion get angry and protest, they're described not as being upset about the content of what is being said, but rather their protest is reframed as opposing freedom of speech itself.  Whether you see that as accidental or deliberate probably depends on how cynical you are about the whole issue.

And often in their anger and rush to respond, that target group will unwittingly play along and demand things that create the appearance of doing exactly that, rather than directly challenging the offensive comments. (Though to be fair, it's incredibly insulting to expect people to participate in a debate when said debate is about whether they exist and should be treated with dignity). 

Media, meanwhile, doesn't have much incentive to challenge that narrative, since controversy sells -- and the simpler and more iconic that controversy can be made, the more effective it becomes at drawing in readers.

That's why even when it's acknowledged that the protesters are also exercising freedom of speech, it can be made to sound like a perplexing situation in which "counter-protesters use free speech to protest free speech."  It makes the protesters sound idiotic, reframes their protest and demands as unreasonable, and their actual objections are erased entirely.  It also helps validate manipulative messaging that transforms a group of people who are concerned about their human rights and their acceptance in society into some vague and deceptive "agenda" that is maliciously transforming our nation in ways that no one actually ever has to clarify or substantiate -- because by this time, the people doing the framing already control the debate completely.

This also makes it possible to recast the substance of what is being debated into something that is so delicate and fragile that it shouldn't ever be subjected to any scrutiny or challenge whatsoever, lest free speech itself be irreparably harmed. It redefines free speech as speech-without-consequence, becoming "a little free speech for me, and a little shut-up-and-take-it for you." The intended result is to bring about a "discussion" which is apparently about you, but ideally doesn't involve you.

This is how freedom of speech -- a principle which Canadians rightly value highly -- can be weaponized. It's an effective quandary to dupe people into, seems to work every time, and Canadian social conservatives love and have perfected it. In fact, it's become a lucrative source of income for some of the better-known personalities who use it (albeit with some hypocrisy).

Such is the nature of University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson's battle to deliberately disregard trans* peoples' requested pronouns -- he was so adamantly determined about it, in fact, that he urged the Senate to oppose a law to extend basic human rights protections to trans* people, for fear that he might be obligated to call someone "ze."  While there are similar debates being engaged in regarding Islamophobia, immigration and abortion (and LGBTQ human rights are simultaneously being reconceptualized as religious persecution), trans-bashing continues to be a favourite and effective political strategy. Apparently we're today's lucrative low-hanging fruits.

And so, the "Debate™" manages to fluctuate from the question of whether trans* people deserve to be dignified as the people they claim to be, to whether political correctness creates a toxic environment on campuses -- the moment one is challenged on the former, one hides behind the latter and plays the victim.

Of course, you experience the debate a little differently when the "Debate™" is you. 

Peterson's debate arose from his objections to respecting trans* peoples' choice of pronouns. In the process, he casts dubious aspersions on the whole question of trans* identity (and, if you listen long enough, chalks it all up to a Marxist/feminist conspiracy to destroy academia and society). If you're willing to plumb it to any depth, it quickly becomes a discussion about whether trans* people should have their identities respected... and by extension, whether they have any right to dignity. You can't have a debate like that without getting a lot of angry speech in response, especially if the people at issue don't typically have a voice in that debate (or at least not one that is given any weight or credibility). Even if Peterson himself isn't intending to make trans* people the issue, it's certainly where his proponents quickly go.

So, that's the context that needs to be kept in mind.  Out of a sense of decency, we don't debate other groups' right to dignity, or argue about whether someone from a different characteristic class should be dignified as "Mr." or "Ms." (which is itself a relatively recent development in language). I'm sure if the debate was about whether clinical psychologists are true academics or just "mentally ill" (playing on the same negative and stigmatizing attitudes prevalent in society about mental health issues that anti-trans* speakers typically exploit), Peterson would find it very insulting very quickly -- especially if he kept having to contend with those arguments constantly. So to have that debate without remembering the responsibility to approach it with empathy, care and to elevate the voices of people being talked about...that is always going to be trouble.

As an example, let's look at one snippet from the extended discussion about the Peterson controversy, courtesy of Rebel Media's Ezra Levant:

"I have no patience for the predators. For the sex offenders who just want to sneak into a women's jail rather than a men's jail. Makes sense: if you're a sex offender, sometimes you get killed in a men's jail -- but you get into a women's jail, well, now you get to be the rapist. I'm against the predators in the Girl Guides. Don't foist yourself into a girl's cabin at camp. I'm against the cheaters who want to compete in women's sports leagues instead of men's sports leagues. I'm hardline on that stuff. 

"But for the truly troubled men out there -- and it's almost all men -- I have concern and worry and sorrow, and I don't want them to kill themselves. I want them to get help. Don't cut things off your body. Being straight, being gay, whatever, do not cut yourself up.

"The American Psychiatric Association is using the dead bodies of these suicides as political weapons. So is the New York Times. And frankly, politicians like Justin Trudeau and Hillary Clinton, and the politicians at Wilfrid Laurier University are too. If you care about transgender people -- especially youth -- stop normalizing their troubles. Stop accelerating it. Stop coaching it. Stop pushing them down the road to what the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention says is a death sentence. Just stop it. And no, it is not transphobic to say so. It's the opposite, actually..."

If Levant isn't equating trans* women (who he essentializes as men) with sexual predators, then he at least certainly doesn't see a need to make any effort to differentiate the two. He still equates being trans* with mental illness (which in addition to invoking stigma also deliberately suggests that trans* peoples' experiences are not "real"), and displays no understanding whatsoever about what gender dysphoria is (nor any apparent interest in finding out).

In his accompanying article, Levant goes on to warn about "insane attacks on society...done in the name of trans rights," claims that Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU, which reprimanded teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd for playing a recording of Peterson, and then subsequently apologized) has a "massively-funded Transgender Office," and suggests that there weren't any trans* people attending WLU (emphasis his) "until it became cool -- free stuff, special rights, lots of attention." Oh, those lazy socialists: exceedingly wealthy and powerful, yet totally unambitious until there's free stuff going around. And I'm not even going to dignify his "not transphobic" nonsense.

But he goes further to allege that acceptance, accommodation and medical transition are responsible for an extremely high rate of suicide among trans* people. Levant appears to refer (but does not link) to a 2014 report that the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention co-authored (Ann P. Haas and Philip L. Rodgers) with UCLA's Williams Institute (Jody L. Herman), entitled Suicide Attempts among Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Adults: Findings of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, documenting the effect of stigma and transphobia on escalating suicide ideation. If this is indeed the report that Levant is referring to, then he is certainly mischaracterizing their findings.

So in other words, Ezra Levant is so willfully blind to the stigmatizing effect that attitudes like his have on trans* people (or as he dismissively minimizes whenever it comes to human rights issues, "hurt feelings") that he has to twist the high incidence of suicide back into his "illness" paradigm by asserting that all of their troubles would be solved if they would simply stop being trans* -- which is an easy expectation to have when you start from a premise that the existence of trans* people has no basis in reality whatsoever.

It should be no surprise to anyone that trans* people find the "Debate™" to be triggering and toxic.

Crossposted to Dented Blue Mercedes.

Photo: Adobe Stock, with modification by author

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