Human rights protections raise new questions for freedom of speech

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David Bromwich, the incisive American scholar, says free speech has always been an aberration. What a daring thing to say about a basic right that elicits knee-jerk deference. It's a good thing he's free to say it. He claims it existed mainly in a small historical window between the rise of Puritanism and perhaps the Rushdie affair: about 400 years, and it's now in decline.

Free speech was always an arena for individuals; it's different from freedom of religion, which is about collectivities. You can have the latter without the former and you usually do. The case of whether Rev. Gretta Vosper can stay inside the United Church as an outspoken atheist is a good example.

So is the case of psychology professor Jordan Peterson at the University of Toronto. He adamantly refuses to address transgender students by their pronouns of choice, like "zie" or "they." "I don't recognize another person's right to determine what pronouns I use to address them. I won't do it."

He links this in what I find a bizarre way to a left-wing undercurrent stretching back to the 1960s, ("the game is … to find racist and horrible people"), which relates to the rise of Soviet death camps and may evoke a terrible response: "I'm afraid that this continual pushing by radical left wingers is going to wake up the beast." To get the full flavour you have to watch his videos online.

It's enough to make you blurt: I totally disagree with you but I'll defend to the death your right to say it -- as if nobody like Voltaire ever had. The point about free speech was always that it's unnecessary if everyone agrees with it; it's only required if some or all find it offensive. The argument isn't that speech is OK as long as it does no harm; it's that it may well do harm but is worth the cost. If you're really committed to free speech, Peterson gets to call his students whatever he chooses, to their dismay and pain; and they can call him Stupid or Jackass in return, because of the greater good incurred.

This commitment doesn't reconcile easily with human rights codes that may compel respect and courtesy toward specific groups -- including their right to be addressed as they choose. You might admire gracious behaviour but if it's not forthcoming, is free speech still good to go or not?

In the past I've fallen strongly on the free speech side of these debates, to the point that friends were surprised at how "American" I appeared. I preferred to think of it as an unreconstructed Enlightenment viewpoint. We like to think we base our stands on elevated intellectual principles.

But there's almost always an autobiographical component, too. In my case, I experienced a fair amount of effective censorship during my first 20 years or so as a writer -- usually based on charges of being a Communist agent or dupe. It was ridiculous -- my relations with the Communist party or any party were wretched. But it got in the way. That kind of interference started to wane along with the Cold War, though other forms of suppression remain; but it contributed to my free speech predilections.

Eventually though, new issues arise. We may be at such a point, as Bromwich suggests. Perhaps the free speech era coincided with the age of print, which also seemed eternal while it lasted. Minority and gender rights appear central now. There may even be a side benefit for free speech. If it's going to maintain any kind of privileged status, it has to make its case again.

I'd also like to dissent from claims that the current crop of student protesters are coddled, the spawn of helicopter parents, who can't stand criticism and want to tyrannize everyone else. As I've said, I think it's more complicated and has to do with shifts in what's especially valued.

You couldn't really hear the echo of jackboots at a mild rally held at U of T on Wednesday ("These are my pronouns.") You could even argue these protesters are uniquely brave since they're exposing themselves in ways that earlier demonstrators didn't. You don't personally expose yourself when you march against a war elsewhere, or in the name of an identity (politics) you evidently already have. Less judgment and more attention; everybody gets their turn.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Alternative libertaire/flickr

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