It’s Not Really About Free Speech

There was a time – it feels like forever ago now – that I was one of many Americans happy to rant continuously about the dangers of political correctness. Long before it was popular to deride people on the left as “social justice warriors”, or to mockingly refer to your opponent as “triggered” for even the slightest of disagreement, it was a familiar talking point to suggest that political correctness is the road to tyranny. It just felt like common sense that everyone should be free to speak their mind without fear of reprisal from the state. And I still feel very strongly about this, although I have become increasingly skeptical of how these accusations are often thrown about.

One topical example is the debate over gender-neutral pronouns and the ways people choose to identify themselves. I have heard more than a few men (and occasionally women) complain about this societal shift away from black-and-white categories. Frequently, the line is: “You can call yourself whatever you like, but don’t expect me to call you that.” Taken charitably, the person making such a statement probably isn’t aware of the hostility it expresses. In their mind, all should be well because you’re free to be you, and they’re free to be them.

Identity is something deeply personal, though. The questions of who we are and who I am are two of the biggest questions in the history of the West. We spend enormous chunks of our brief time on Earth trying to figure out what we want from life and where we factor into the whole grand picture of things. We have even created the term identity crisis to describe what is usually the most difficult and challenging form of this experience of self-examination. I rather like the synonym “soul-searching” because I feel it gives us a great idea of both the intensity and the elusiveness experienced during an identity crisis.

Now I can imagine someone suggesting that we should acknowledge this is a solo project. That word “self” is there for a reason, right? Well, this brings up the old Nature vs. Nurture debate. Some argue that we are born certain ways, while others argue that our environment determines who we are. I side with those that think the truth lies somewhere in between, but what I want to call attention to in all of this is the fact that our identities are not endowed to us whole-cloth by our genetics. We pick up some things from our parents, our other family, from our culture, and so on. Recognizing that identities are socially constructed does not mean absconding our responsibility or denying that some traits are inherited.

It should be abundantly obvious that if someone tells you how they identify, you are not respecting them in deliberately going against their wishes. Not only are you communicating that what this other person wants isn’t really important to you, but you are basically telling them no, I think you are this. And by “this” I don’t mean anything even like dishonest, bigoted, hateful, heartless, selfish, or the like. Those terms might suggest things about your behavior, but in telling someone their very identity, you’re telling them who they are at their most intimate, deep down inside. It’s understating things to say that you are in no real position to be able to tell someone else such a thing, especially in circumstances where you are barely an acquaintance.

“You can call yourself whatever you like, but don’t expect me to call you that.”

Stopping and thinking for a moment about the meaning behind this line reveals an expressed sense of identity. Don’t tell me what to say, it communicates, because I have the freedom to say what I like. Important aspects of this person’s identity, then, are things like their free will, their independence, and their individuality. It’s not a coincidence that these ideas are also heavily-emphasized and cherished in a culture like that of the United States. In fact, they have become so deeply engrained in us that we don’t always remember or appreciate the sources that have consistently upheld them as the norm for centuries.

There’s an interesting web of issues here that is well beyond the scope of this post, but it’s worth some exposure. Most of us are seeking to find ourselves, to know who we are, and to be respected as individuals. If we take individuality seriously, we can make our way to observing that what works for one of us isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and this can spark a rough agreement to generic freedom. You do you, I’ll do me. However, the flexibility of identity keeps us on our toes. We encounter people who are not like us, sometimes even radically different, at the same time we question what separates us. Because we don’t know the doubts, insecurities, or struggles the other might have, they can feel threatening to us, familiar as we are with our own doubts, insecurities, and struggles. They may appear to our minds as stronger examples of identity and individuality.

Of course, this changes as we get to know other people and learn who they really are. We find out they’re not so different from us, and this makes them feel less threatening to us. The unknown always seems to tantalize us at the same time it instills fear in us. And when we feel threatened, sometimes we become defensive. In this context, what else could our reaction be except to attack the identity of the other person or fall back on reasserting our own prized identity? My free speech is at stake. Respect my rights. To some, it even becomes a conspiracy where the great boogeyman against individuality, totalitarianism, is looming on the horizon and threatening all our individual liberties.

Jordan Peterson, a professor at the University of Toronto, made headlines last year for declaring that he won’t use “preferred pronouns” as part of his crusade against Bill C-16 in Canada. He wrote an article for the Toronto Sun purporting to explain his decision, and why we should all join him, that predictably throws in derogatory comments about “social justice warriors”, political correctness, and Marxism, but is very light on either facts or compelling arguments. Peterson presents the bill as a measure to regulate what can be said on his campus, but many have pointed out that he is just wrong on this matter. Bill C-16 is actually aimed at protecting against federal discrimination and updating that with protections against advocating genocide and incitement to violent hatred against an identity group.

Peterson is a psychology professor and not a legal expert, it bears mentioning, and his article comes across as highly alarmist. So what – other than his obvious defensive need to safeguard his own identity – could possibly be so unbelievably urgent? Likely it would be argued that the wording is vague and ambiguous enough that it poses some hypothetical risk, but it’s a wonder then why Peterson expends all his energy blasting the ‘radical left’ instead of proposing language that might be better suited for the bill. It sure seems like if his goal is actually to defend free speech, he could do so perfectly fine without any of the ideologically-motivated liberal-bashing that adorns his writing like lights on a Christmas tree.

All this would look terribly bad if it were only the case that folks like Peterson were being socially condemned for their choice to not acknowledge another person’s identity. It’s tough to justify outrage on that premise alone, but if you find a piece of legislation to whip yourself up into a frenzy about, it no longer seems like you’re just upset that people aren’t giving you undue deference anymore. However, it’s common to find that people who do whip themselves up into a frenzy tend to have an exceedingly hard time not divulging what it is that really bothers them.

I use the pronouns I use because everyone else does. That’s how language works. When suddenly put on the spot with regards to exactly why I do that, and not something else, I am rendered speechless. Justification of this sort has never been required previously. It’s convention, and it is not a simple manner to understand the evolution of or rationale for convention.

One thing I will say is that we all need to acknowledge that we’re capable of making mistakes. There needs to be more understanding, regardless of how we affiliate. This part of Peterson’s article gives the impression that he is tired of being criticized for how he speaks to people. I do understand this, and I get that there are those on the left who can be unfair in the way they interact with people.

But there is a side of the excerpt above that feels like somewhat of an excuse. The very idea behind the push of some on the left to socially encourage the use of gender-neutral language is in recognition that this is how language works. The attempt is to change the language we use to be more inclusive, not through legal mandate, but through the social tools of praise and condemnation, among others. And yes, being criticized sucks. That’s kind of the whole point here. If justification is being asked of Professor Peterson, it may not be for any initial use of certain pronouns, but for his repeated insistence on refusing to respect the wishes of his students after they have expressed how they want to be identified.

Without question, the immediate reply to this is probably that students today are too coddled as it is, or that the professor isn’t there to be their friend or family member. But such a reply may be doing more harm than good. Peterson uses the analogy of a bank teller in his article, talking about how their interaction doesn’t require her to reveal anything about her personal life to him. “To do her job,” he writes, “she has to dress in a relatively innocuous manner, and present herself in [a] way that enables particularized, efficient and relatively shallow interactions.”

I can’t help making note of how amazingly apt this specific analogy is for raising a particular point. Paulo Freire and others have criticized what’s called the banking model of education, which views students as passive receptors waiting to have the knowledge of the professor ‘deposited’ into them. For all sorts of reasons, this approach to education is regarded by many modern educators as outdated, too focused on memorization instead of real learning, and as having a less than helpful view of the role of students. Problem-posing education, which Freire advocated, gives students a more active role in their education, where the teacher facilitates discussion rather than dominates it, and where knowledge is presented in terms of questions for critical study instead of passing down a laundry list of facts through mere recitation and memorization. It certainly sounds from his analogy as if Peterson just wants more passive and less interactive students in his classes.

Peterson also works a job. Why shouldn’t his job description be just as open to change as anyone else’s? If a university wants to hire professors that are friendlier to students of different identities, what would be so wrong with that? It never ceases to baffle me how some conservative educators, who otherwise loudly defend the rights of employers and businesses, suddenly want special treatment when it comes to their own standing with their university. If your attitude towards a student disliking your use of a pronoun is essentially, “Tough, deal with it or transfer”, then I’m not sure how you can become indignant when a school expects you to abide by certain codes of conduct, too.

I’ve used this example of Professor Peterson because I think it illustrates a lot of what I’ve seen and heard from those who take a firm stand against so-called identity politics. Free speech is very often a red herring, just as it is when Christians with a persecution complex lay claim to it in defense of their discrimination against homosexuals. It isn’t really about that right being suppressed, it’s about someone wanting to be able to speak their mind without reprisal. Like I said, I support this in the context of federal and state powers, and nowhere have I even implied that I think some legislation or university code of conduct ought to enforce what language we use. But it’s not even clear that this happens anywhere close to as often as some on the right seem to allege it does. The bigger takeaway should be that we have to stop pretending that criticism and expressed disapproval from our peers (or students) is somehow a violation of our free speech.

Political correctness is frequently spoken of in this way, too. “You want to tell everyone what they can and can’t say!” There is a world of difference between attempting to persuade others through reason and argument and attempting to force your will on them by legal means. This gets obscured so much in these types of debates it makes one wonder as to why. As if some among us feel so greatly threatened and averse to critique that they see the two as being one and the same.

We have to be careful what we buy into. Some like to throw out extreme analogies like whether we’d appreciate someone asking us to call them a word or name that we really wouldn’t want to call them. Of course, that isn’t at all like the idea behind respecting the way people honestly want to identify. And when I say that I wouldn’t disrespect a friend or family member by calling them someone else’s name, this doesn’t need to be a one-to-one correlation in order for the point to be clear. We have no good reason for refusing to defer to another person on how they want to self-identify.

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