[Written by Rafe Uddin]
[Image by Julia Rosner]
The ability to speak freely and without fear of persecution can be seen as essential for human rights, net neutrality, and human evolution—a precondition of our progress as a human civilization. This argument is increasingly polarising and often at the centre of conflict between either side of the political spectrum. However, one wonders what an emerging trend of “uncompromised free speech” truly represents and what it contributes to societal cohesion. What are the true benefits of an individual espousing racist, classist, or homophobic views in the name of free speech? Could this relate to an innate human want to offend? Does it point to an endemic issue of individuals utilizing core liberal principles to promote ideas designed to repress and encroach on individual civil liberties, in order to both shield and maintain the status quo?
The right to offend is not a new concept, existing as a by-product of free speech principles. If we were to delve into the depths of the historical cornucopia relating to freedom of speech, we would find ourselves confronting the patriarchal societies of the Greco-Roman BCE. From Aristotle to Cicero, notions of oration and free speech are often limited to a segment of society, rather than being understood as a common right. Indeed, the monotone and often masculine nature of political thought in the Ancient period persists through to the modern era.
Whilst Gayatri Spivak and other sub-alternative figures have increasingly played a role in broadening the applicability of such notions, the right to offend has not been a universal tool for long. The simple act of engaging in speech can cause offence; the mere presence of people of colour employing public platforms to voice their opinions enrages some. In no way am I suggesting that this is a wholesale issue within Western society (at least in the physical reality, away from the digital realm). Instead, this point simply serves to demonstrate that the point of offense is easily reached, when its minimum threshold is set so low.
In contrast, the principled view on freedom of speech in modern society is one of universal application. It is assumed that providing fair access for individuals to voice their opinions allows us to better understand the outlook of wider society. This carries further than simply expressing views; it also allows individuals to seek and receive information. Thus, individuals maintain the liberty to pursue alternative perspectives, rather than being the audience of a sole orator in a one-sided debate. In the digital age, this has allowed for the wide dissemination of research papers at best, and the creation of ‘alternative facts’ at worst.
It is imperative to explore the demographics of the digital realm and how they have filtered into the domestic reality we find ourselves in. Free speech isn’t hyperbole—it physically manifests itself in our everyday. For instance, one cannot ignore the influence of patriarchal notions in shaping the outlook of the men who espouse repressive views. The deep-rooted socialisation of young men along a narrow binary has rendered individuals unable to express their emotions in a productive and non-nihilistic manner. This makes them easily susceptible to strong-men public figures/academics who suggest that their issues lie not wholly in themselves, but in a wider society that is enforcing a politically correct culture. If we take the example of Jordan Peterson, one is invited to explore several hundred hours of video content that seeks to educate individuals on a wide array of issues—from drawing them away from nihilism through self-help guides, to attacking what he declares are neo-Marxist student bodies.
An area of concern is Peterson’s belief that universities have created left-wing activists who define individuals by race, sexuality and other factors in a drive to make explicit the diversity of society. He argues that this does not actually create a diversity of ideation, suggesting instead that the identity-political groups created by this discourse have become almost hegemonic concepts. Of course, this argument neglects the very nature of ideational diversity being derived from a diversity of experience. Peterson also seeks to challenge intersectionality, in an apparent attempt to stray away from discussions surrounding inequality. In his aggressive polemic of ‘universal man’, he does little to recognise that presently, vast differences do exist between individuals of different genders, races, and ethnicities. In this context, arguing for a ‘humanistic’ reinterpretation of society means obscuring and naively overlooking the reality on the ground.
When interviewed by Cathy Newman of Channel 4, Peterson argued that the gender pay gap was not real. This holds true when one looks at men and women who take up the same position within an organisation. However, the argument does not take into account the inequalities limiting the promotion of women to senior positions. When arguing that women innately lack the assertiveness of men, Peterson overlooks at least half a millennium of religious and secular conditioning, founded in the belief that women are sexually precarious, in need of domestication, and preferably silent. Peterson’s self-defined social conservatism is quite literally medieval—if not ancient—by reiterating concepts and notions that have been seemingly perpetuated across time. Nevertheless, he resonates with a youthful audience caught unaware by such familiar yet distant ideology. This was evidenced by the ensuing abuse that Newman received online via Social Media from purported Peterson followers.
Peterson’s lacuna of academic rigour is further evidenced by his persistent attacks on individuals he views in opposition to himself. Indeed, when Peterson argues that those he dislikes are neo-Marxists, he is engaging in little more than name-calling, grouping his apparent opposition into one form of political identity whilst retaining the privilege to define himself as a “British Liberal”. This is both oxymoronic and symptomatic of the entitlement he has emboldened his persona with. When conflating those on the left with Maoist regimes that led to the death of several million people, he creates a culture of fear and hostility, regardless of the actual philosophies and principles of those he identifies as “the left”.
Figures such as Peterson are symptomatic of a culture that is willing to facilitate inflammatory discourse and narrative, where it ought not to. The right to not engage is overlooked by many. Simply retweeting (or writing an article in GUM) is enough to provide broad popularity, and access to figures such as Alex Jones, Milo Yiannopoulos or Laura Ingraham. Ask a large, random sample of people whether they have heard of Jordan Peterson, and the reality dawns that despite large followings (in the millions), the world is so much bigger. These normative ‘influencers’—public figures who write books, go on speaking tours and engage in strange video podcasts—are cashing in on the reaction to their ideas. The more extreme soundbites they or their opposition produce, the more traffic they seem to receive. In not engaging with figures we effectively remove them from the plane of ideation and diminish their impact. Censorship and restriction provide ammunition for the victimhood narrative that has increasingly been monopolised by the right wing. When an individual hurls racist abuse, or makes hideously offensive jokes, they do so because they crave response, attention, and opposition.
Furthermore, the right to not engage reinforces the principles of free speech, because it does not encroach on individual civil liberties. Indeed, when discussing this matter, it’s important to highlight the relationship between fringe/radical views and censorship. Simply put, it is a matter of extending rights to others that you would like to enjoy yourself. There is a need to protect the rights of individuals, even when those who attack you based on personal identity do so using those freedoms. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Liberty are both major proponents of freedom of speech. In fact, that ACLU defends American Nazis, the KKK and others for this very reason. When it comes to restrictive forms of censorship, it would be easy to impose legislation that clamps down on offensive speech. However, such legislation makes individuals vulnerable to hostile interpretations of the law; this notion applies equally in democratic states as it does under authoritarian ones.
Admittedly, it is not realistic to apply turning the other cheek to every issue – some concepts need rebuttal, some figures should be met with protest. Protesting against apartheid, marching for civil-rights, lying across a runway in protest against punitive immigration law are all necessary conduits for progress and reform. Indeed, when inflammatory language becomes tangible – visible in government and on the street – we ought to respond with our votes and our voices. As consumers we can take lessons from grassroots movements like Sleeping Giants who engage in practices of demonetising organisations such as Breitbart – not through nefarious action – but simply by notifying companies that their products were being advertised on the site. The issue lies in how we respond to issues with the same level of gravity as all others, when it is a matter of knowing when to turn away and when to be proactive and engage.
This piece set out to discuss a toxicity present in the current political narrative. It is one that allows self-serving individuals to vilify and persecute others—prompting digital witch hunts and trolling. White male figures continue to seemingly dominate the established governance and media structures that exist in Western society. Increasingly conservative and alt-right figures are able to utilize mass media platforms, from media interviews on the BBC to all-day rolling coverage on networks such as Fox News. There is a strange irony that emerges from figures who claim to be marginalised due to their race and gender, all the while benefiting from the power structures that maintain the privilege they conveniently overlook. However, whilst there is value in actively opposing such views through protest and other forms of civil disobedience, Twitter sniping will not foster dialogue—the algorithms are not designed to do this. The act of not engaging with these figures is a matter of political agency, it is a form of resistance that is easily achieved. Ultimately, the limiting factor in the perpetuation of such views lies with the consumer, the individual who chooses to simply let go.