The pitfalls of counter-representation

From Indigenous reconciliation to free speech advocacy, we must cautiously examine how challenges to the status quo are portrayed in the post-truth universe

The pitfalls of counter-representation

Representation is necessarily misrepresentation. When an elite claims to reflect the complex interests of whoever they deem to be ‘the people’ — a people imagined to be singular —  institutions of power frame, define, and pursue the populace’s interests. Representation, in this sense, means simplification, homogenization, and reduction.

By creating a singular imagination and truth, representation marginalizes narratives that dominant groups find uncomfortable, and centres that which is palatable and affirming to the people.

The popular imagination of Canada — which is portrayed as a nation of diversity, openness, and tolerance — is one such representation that now faces challenges to its rhetoric in the form of counter-representations. In an era where governments are now speaking openly and frequently about reconciliation, the most relevant source of counter-representation is that of Indigenous peoples.

At the University of Toronto’s Art Museum, Cree artist Kent Monkman’s Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience exhibit told some of the stories that were necessarily lost in the forging of a Euro-Christian imagination. Whereas the nationalist celebration of Canada points to 150 years since Confederation this year, Monkman starts our story from 300 years ago and examines the colonial history of Canada from an Indigenous lens.

Paintings like “The Subjugation of Truth” and “The Scream” were among the exhibit’s dark, absurdist, and poignant animations of residential schools, urban violence, and land dispossession, demonstrating the intergenerational persistence of colonialism that continues to this day. These counter-representations remind us that the birth of Canada has two legacies: one that celebrates the creation of a Canadian identity, and the other that mourns the erasure of Indigeneity from the landscape.

To look past the singularity of representation and truth is to challenge the status quo and demand change. Fortunately, at U of T, Indigenous cultural counter-representation is more visible than ever. Re-Indigenized street signs, the REDress Project on campus, which draws attention to the ongoing crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women, and the Powwow and Indigenous Festival are among the most conspicuous examples. President Meric Gertler’s public embrace of the 32 Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations for the university in January projects bright possibilities for reconciliation.

One should, however, be hesitant to conclude that we are now moving past representation and embracing truth in its plurality — in its counter-representations. Quite to the contrary, the new culture of counter-representation can be used to obfuscate the persistence of representation and its colonial functions. For instance, Indigenous visibility at the university is meaningless if Gertler continues to refuse to divest from fossil fuels, since that refusal sustains the drastic impact of climate change and undermines the environmental stewardship worldviews that underline Indigenous self-determination.

In a recent CBC piece, Clayton Thomas-Müller defines “redwashing” as the process by which corporations and banks sponsor Indigenous visibility in the Canadian imagination to overshadow the destructive initiatives that they impose upon Indigenous lands. In other words, we now face the appropriation of Indigenous counter-representation to advance the original project of colonial representation.

This space of plural truths, and the perverse contribution of counter-representation to the advance of representation is not just exclusive to the Indigenous context. Around the world, the cascade of disillusionment with the status quo and elitist establishment has emboldened self-proclaimed alternative political movements that claim to speak for a majority of people.

However, rather than empowering marginalized narratives — like the colonized Indigenous do through counter-representation — the idea with these movements is that the majority identity narrative is itself marginalized and needs revival.

Enough analysis has been conducted about right-wing populism in the form of Trump, Brexit, and Marine Le Pen. However, its local replicas on campus are worth noting as part of the broader pitfall of counter-representation. This is especially true for figures like Professor Jordan Peterson and former Reboot candidate Micah Ryu: although they hold different levels of power, each has exploited counter-representation to advance the original intent of representation, which is to exclude and erase marginalized narratives.

Peterson occupies a high level of power on campus as a tenured professor. His conflation of gender self-determination with totalitarianism this year is well-noted — but it remains staggering how his counter-representation narrative frames the fact that the majority is allegedly marginalized and needs protection. The staunch opposition that he faces from the transgender community and their allies has been framed as an assault on free speech rather than a defense of human dignity.

Indeed, by many proponents of free speech he is lauded as a hero, earning him thousands of views online and numerous media appearances, more than doubling his income, and exporting him to other university campuses like McMaster and Western.

Peterson finds himself connected to a transnational, trans-campus free speech movement, where the refusal of campuses to host the exclusionary vitriol of Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos grants the movement legitimacy by an ironic claim of victimhood. It is an infectious phenomenon, by which views that uphold the colonial status quo representation — whether it be the gender binary or the Muslim ‘Other’ — are framed as counter-representation, resistance, and freedom. Indeed, the loss of the right to oppress has now become oppression in and of itself.

Likewise, in UTSU student politics, Reboot presidential candidate Micah Ryu led a campaign that used this growing anti-establishment “outsider” framework to advance exclusionary politics. His criticism of student politics as the domain of an elite group of insiders is ostensibly consistent with the exclusivity of representation. However, his solution via austerity measures that would have cut down and decentralized the UTSU as a means of accountability only sustains the status quo de-politicization of the organization.

In fact, We the Students presidential candidate Andre Fast condemned the suggestion that the UTSU should remain distant from equity issues, and pointed out that, disappointingly, the union has become depoliticized this year. He stated that the union “does have a really big role to play on issues of social and environmental justice, on affordability issues” — all issues that matter most to marginalized students.

Ryu’s personal Queerphobic comments in light of this year’s gender identity controversy, and his campaign’s hostility toward the Black Liberation Collective’s condemnation of anti-Black racism within the UTSU only further demonstrates the bankruptcy of this anti-establishment narrative.

What’s more, in response to the accumulation of demerit points that led to Reboot’s eventual elimination, some students reacted in a way that suggested that this allegedly anti-establishment party was a victim and martyr of the establishment — inadvertently excusing Ryu’s otherwise inexcusable behaviour. Yet, Ryu’s exclusionary behaviour and pledges to de-politicize the UTSU under an anti-establishment outsider narrative have hardly helped the most anti-establishment outsider students on campus — Black, Muslim, and Queer folks — all of whom need more support from the student body given the events that occurred this year.  

What we can take from this is that it is necessary to challenge dominant narratives that become culturally objective, to shed light on marginalized narratives, and to turn discomfort into productive change. Indigenous resurgence on campus reminds us that counter-representation is possible and powerful.

However, we should also be wary of certain counter-representations that insidiously uphold and even deepen oppressive structures of power that correspond to the original exclusionary logic of representation. In this era of alternative facts and multiple truths, we should fight for a future that captures the imagination of the heretofore unrepresented.

 

Ibnul Chowdhury is a second-year student at Trinity College studying Economics and Peace, Conflict, and Justice Studies. His column appears every three weeks.

The criminalization of the oppressed

A personal reflection on how restrictive definitions of violence work against the marginalized

The criminalization of the oppressed

In the fall of last year I was involved in a somewhat controversial happening at UTSG. A group of students were hosting an event in response to Bill C-16, a bill that adds “gender identity and gender expression to the list of protected grounds of discrimination” under federal law. This reactionary rally was held because, according to some, the inability to discriminate against trans people constituted a violation of one’s fundamental freedom of speech.

Fear-mongering over alleged restrictions on free speech has been a particularly widespread and accelerated epidemic as of late. Anxieties over restrictions on speech are almost always retaliatory responses to being called out for bigoted or discriminatory behaviour. According to those that are concerned over restrictions on speech, the inability to perpetuate racism, sexism, transphobia, or otherwise oppressive dynamics through language, without any consequences, is a violation of freedom.

This is a deeply flawed understanding of freedom. Even with protections such as C-16, these people are still essentially free – free to believe in white supremacy, free to think of trans people as subhuman, free to harbour oppressive views of women. They are still free to own these thoughts, ideas, and opinions, and are even free to talk to others about these views.

However, when others begin to use these views to materially discriminate against the demographics concerned, when they start to do things like deny people of colour jobs, or use their positions as professors of prestigious institutions to publicly advocate for discrimination against trans people, consequences will result. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences. In cases like C-16, the state is the one facilitating these consequences because the groups targeted have no power to respond themselves.

This group was rallying against their newfound inability to discriminate against trans people without consequences. They invited professor Jordan Peterson, well-known for being outspoken on this issue, and Lauren Southern, a then-commentator for The Rebel.

A few trans and non-binary people, including myself, showed up to counter-protest the event. We were rushed and disorganized. Being extremely new to activism, I was not really sure what to expect.

Someone had rented a couple of amps, thinking that we would try and out-voice them and deny them a platform. I suggested that we play harsh noise — music made up of abrasive, continuous, screechy and loud frequencies.

The harshness and violence of the music set the mood of the rally – it quickly became explicitly antagonistic and confrontational, instead of just implicitly so. Everyone became agitated and some became physical with us, attempting to sabotage our equipment or shove us aside. Many yelled slurs, while the official speakers for the event calmly droned on about the illegitimacy of trans and non-binary identities.

At some point, through all of this mess, Southern approached me and held out her mic to me. It felt to me that she genuinely took glee in our hurt and anger. Faced with such blatant disregard for both myself and for those like me, I snapped and lashed out at her, grabbing her mic and trying to yank it out of her hand.

Of course, I was arrested, charged with assault, and obliged to navigate the legal system for the next several months. This was all reported very publicly by Southern, The Rebel, and their fans. I continue to receive hate mail to this day.

There is a lot of discussion about whether actions like mine are justified, even within left-leaning groups. Consequently, I received essentially zero inter-community support after this happened. I was condemned online even by those who claimed to support the fight against transphobia, because I had become violent and had broken the rules. Yet, when rules are established and maintained by a system that condones and perpetuates consistent and pervasive discrimination against trans people, we hardly work on an equal playing field.

An expansive definition of violence is in order here, considering the many forms of harm that discrimination takes. And contrary to what is condemned by law, in exchange, the violence that others use against trans people is violence in accordance with the rules — it is legitimized and legal, and can be used to invalidate and erode our identities in a hundred different ways.

We do not have the power or the social capital to be violent towards our aggressors in non-physical, state-condoned ways. The system is set up this way – so that the only way we can fight back is with our bodies. When we do, we are unjustified, criminalized, penalized.

After I was charged, my only real option was to enter into a peace bond – meaning that I am not allowed to be in the same spaces as Southern. Because she’s a far-right reporter whose method is to enter politicized spaces and attempt to agitate the left, this essentially means I am altogether barred from entering political spaces.

After the terrorist act on the mosque in Montréal, people here in Toronto stood outside the US Consulate, in solidarity against Islamophobia and Trump’s attempted ban on immigrants from Muslim countries. I was barred from attending this protest because of the reporter’s presence there.

I am now, in a large way, denied political voice — denied the ability to exist in certain spaces. I decry this restriction on my freedom of movement, these constraints that play out on my body, as a form of violence enacted on me by the state that both justifies and continues to perpetuate anti-trans discrimination.

My crime here was nothing but becoming angered at those that deny the validity of my identity and my existence. Yet, the retaliations of the oppressed against their oppression will always be illegitimized.

 

Meera Ulysses is a first-year student at New College studying philosophy and equity. 

Respecting the pronoun means respecting the person

Peterson's refusal to use trans and non-binary pronouns is a fundamental denial of human decency

Respecting the pronoun means respecting the person

On November 19, Professor Jordan Peterson participated in a debate on campus on the topic of Bill C-16, which aims to protect Canadians from discrimination on the basis of “gender identity or expression.” To Professor Peterson, that means the legally mandated use of pronouns that go beyond the ‘male’ or ‘female’ binary, with associated criminal penalties for non-compliance.

Yet, Professor Brenda Cossman, the University of Toronto Law Professor who spoke in opposition to Peterson at last Saturday’s forum, disagrees that criminalization of the refusal to use one’s preferred pronouns is a consequence of the legislation. Speaking about the functionality of C-16 from a legal perspective, she firmly rejected Peterson’s statements that the official establishment of Canada’s language policy is imminent, saying, “Do these provisions criminalize the misuse of pronouns? Not even close.”

While legal debates may continue on this topic, any issue regarding the constitutionality of Bill C-16 is in fact only the second most important question that Peterson has raised over the past several weeks. Though Peterson’s concerns about enforced speech must be taken seriously, he should also be required to explain why he would so adamantly refuse to address a person by their preferred pronouns in the first place, regardless of the associated legal implications.

Clearly, Peterson is in disbelief of theories of gender that diverge from the male-female dichotomy. This shouldn’t be surprising, given some of his other views; for example, Peterson began Saturday’s forum by asking all the men in the room to stand and then claiming that they were “higher in intellect” compared to women. This is clearly an archaic view.

With respect to pronoun use, Professor Peterson has made his point repeatedly; in an article he wrote for the Toronto Sun last month, he declares “[his] refusal to apply what have been known as ‘preferred pronouns’ to people who do not fit easily into traditional gender categories.”

What is crucial to take away from the controversy stirred by Peterson’s statements is that refusing to utilize pronouns simply because one ‘disagrees’ is a direct threat to the dignity and respect of trans and non-binary people. Addressing someone the way they would like to be addressed is perhaps the most basic decency and respect that can be afforded to them. For instance, every time we introduce ourselves to someone new, we immediately inform them of one preferred way of being addressed: our name.

This convention is so fundamental to our conversation and to our language that we rarely take note of it consciously. It would be an incredible display of disrespect to refuse to ‘recognize’ someone’s name and insist on referring to him or her by another. It isn’t acceptable to simply respond that you are not familiar with that name, that the name isn’t in the common vernacular, or that the English language wasn’t syntactically designed to accommodate that name.

In many ways, pronouns are no different; to refuse to address someone in the manner they would like to be addressed is an egregious sign of disrespect. Furthermore, considering the stress, harassment, discrimination, and violence that trans communities deal with on a daily basis, using a pronoun that does not match an individual’s gender identity constitutes a denial of that identity altogether — not just a trivial matter, as Peterson seems to think.

Whether or not such a sign of disrespect merits legal punishment is another issue entirely. Before this is a question of legality, it is a question of decency; even more fundamental than the language of Bill C-16 is the issue of human dignity and respect.

According to the National Centre for Transgender Equality, 90 per cent of transgender individuals surveyed “reported experiencing harassment, mistreatment, and discrimination” while at work. An astonishing 41 per cent of respondents had attempted suicide. The added difficulty of remembering non-binary pronouns with which one may not be intimately familiar surely pales in comparison to these daily struggles.

We should not be in the business of making the daily lives of transgender people even more difficult — using the appropriate pronouns is the least we can do.

In his article in the Sun, Peterson went on to write, “The demand for use of preferred pronouns is not an issue of equality, inclusion or respect for others. It’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’s a purposeful assault on the structure of language. It’s a dangerous incursion into the domain of free speech. It’s narcissistic self-centeredness. It’s part and parcel of the PC madness that threatens to engulf our culture.”

What Professor Peterson fails to understand is that the existence of transgender and non-binary people is not new. It is not the product of a tyrannical crusade by “social justice warriors” or politically correct madness; nor is it the result of a society that treats its citizens, as Peterson said on Saturday, like a “devouring mother.” Transgender people have always existed. The fact that they now feel comfortable and accepted enough to demand respect is not self-centered, and it is not an infringement on the liberties of others — it simply the realization of theirs.

As Professor Cossman eloquently put it, “How bloody hard is it to simply treat these people with respect and dignity?”

 

Zach Rosen is a first-year student at Trinity College studying History. 

 

Debating dignity

Confronting colonialism and what it means to be silenced in light of recent campus events

Debating dignity

The white Western man lives in a schizophrenic moment. Global migrant trends and demographic shifts disturb his sense of the world, although transatlantic, far-right, xenophobic movements, like those of Donald Trump, Brexit, and Marine Le Pen, give him solace. To him, the influx of coloured peoples are symptoms of the destruction of Western ‘civilization.’ He deeply wishes to make this chaotic world “great again;” to revert to a time in which he could fix demographics through the control of speech, expression, and definitions.

Indeed, he longs for a return to the era of colonization, centuries ago, when he first made contact with these foreign peoples of colour. Then, he was able to impose ‘civilization’ upon their ‘backwards’ ways, one of which was the prevalence of sexual and gender nuances within indigenous communities: for example, the hijra of South Asia and the Two Spirit peoples of North America.

The white Western man’s colonialism effectively criminalized and erased these peoples and cultures, and forcefully normalized hetero-patriarchal binaries of sexuality and gender within these societies. Perhaps that is why even women and people of colour supported today’s white Western man Professor Jordan Peterson at the recent ‘free speech’ rally. Colonialism lives on in the norms we internalize, defend, and perpetuate as collaborators.

Professor Jordan Peterson’s criticism of the defence of gender identity and expression through Bill C-16 and the Ontario Human Rights Commission, as well as the University of Toronto Human Resources Department’s mandate for anti-racism training, speaks to a deep sense of insecurity of those holding onto a centuries-old power.

When minorities of colour, gender, and sexuality demand that their speech, expression, and very existence be protected through bills like C-16, they are delegitimized as threats to ‘free expression.’ Ironically, the dominant culture, which already defines civilization, argues that they deserve even more freedom. Those who were always denied self-determination of body and spirit, are given no freedom at all. In doing so, these marginalized groups have been written out of law and culture at the paternalistic behest of those with power.

Perhaps that is why even women and people of colour supported today’s white Western man Professor Jordan Peterson at the recent ‘free speech’ rally. Colonialism lives on in the norms we internalize, defend, and perpetuate as collaborators.

In the recent past, we have seen a pattern of ‘free expression’ favouring those in power. When Muslims demand dignity and autonomy in Western spaces, they are met with hostility: Islamophobic cartoons in defence of ‘humour’ and ‘free speech,’ and with the demonization of the burka to ‘free’ their women. Likewise, transgender individuals demand that their identities be recognized through pronouns and gender-neutral bathroom admissions. However, they are misgendered and met with anti-transgender laws to ‘protect’ women from ‘pedophile men dressed as women’ in bathrooms.

In other words, the audacity of the oppressed to challenge historical oppression is itself interpreted as oppression of those in power. Ultimately, Peterson and his ilk of ‘free speech’ supporters work to uphold asymmetrical enjoyment of speech; in turn the very identities, speeches, and expressions of transgender and racialized peoples are disrespected and erased.

Thus, these laws, sit-in rallies, and professors in solidarity with transgender and racialized folks apparently “scare” Peterson and his free-speech supporters. To him, culpable is a “Marxist” conspiracy by “politically correct social justice warriors.” He reduces the complex and cross-cultural existence of sexual and gender nuances to “ill-informed opinions” without “scientific standing,” and polices the grammar of their self-definitions. This parallels the cultural imperialism of the colonial past in which the oppressor demonized, excluded, and erased the oppressed.

Most importantly, Peterson ignores the crucial fact that the systematic denial of such groups in terms of speech, in this case correct pronouns, inevitably leads them to be dehumanized and “othered.” Once they are stripped of their humanity, they become legitimate targets of violence. This is exemplified in the victimization of many groups, including attacks on Muslim women on the streets of Canada and massacres against queer Puerto Ricans in Orlando nightclubs.

When these groups refuse to accept the violence inflicted upon them, those with power only react with further violence. This often reveals that the dehumanization of one identity is linked to that of another. For example, the presence of the Black Liberation Collective, in solidarity against the transphobic undertones of the free speech rally, was met with calls for “more Michael Browns.” Peterson’s own video, in a pseudo-multicultural gesture, used the “conservative culture” and “discomfort” of Muslim women to justify transphobia — an example that further essentialized Islam. Finally, online threats were made against the transgender community following these recent tensions at the university.

The intersectionality of violence deserves expansion, especially regarding the Black connection to queer issues. Earlier this year, Black Lives Matter protested the Pride Parade with a sit-in in to demand the removal of police floats, given the violent history of police against marginalized groups. This form of protest, however, was itself ‘speech’ that was widely criticized for being divisive and disruptive.

When these groups refuse to accept the violence inflicted upon them, those with power only react with further violence.

Yet, those with power seem to refuse to understand that, through centuries of determining the terms of discussion — in the form of ‘respectable’ speech and civil obedience — they have failed to protect marginalized groups. If the latter are excluded from using speech for their own grievances, in the manner they see most effective, how free is speech at all?

Evidently, free speech only respects the freedom of those in power. Peterson proposes discussion between groups for “consensus” to be reached. But human dignity, existence, and freedom from violence are not matters of policy that can be debated. Such dialogue inherently legitimizes violence against oppressed groups. Indeed, human dignity should not be contested, but guaranteed in speech.

Such dialogue inherently legitimizes violence against oppressed groups. Indeed, human dignity should not be contested, but guaranteed in speech.

In ceding power — the monopoly on speech and expression, in this case — the white Western man and his collaborators are now somehow the victims. They erase their own colonial accumulation of power, and with this amnesic sense of history, see demands for change as a totalitarian conspiracy against them.

To turn the tides of colonial oppression, we must go beyond free speech to equitable speech. We must wake up, acknowledge our privileges, and in some cases cede speech for ears towards the unprivileged. We must practice justice and democracy by enabling marginalized people to speak on their own terms, to assert their nuanced existences, and to self-determine their place in a postcolonial world.

Ibnul Chowdhury is a second-year student at Trinity College studying Economics, International Relations, and Peace, Conflict and Justice Studies.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to clarify the author’s biographical information. 

Drowning out discourse

The flaws of the social justice warrior movement remind us of the importance of open and reasoned debate

Drowning out discourse

I recently took a bioethics course with a serious and thoughtful professor. For the final paper, I suggested the issue of reassignment surgery for trans children, a topic I thought was relevant, important, and philosophically interesting. The professor agreed that the issue was a good one, but seemed hesitant to assign the question out of fear that it might offend students.

I was left feeling deeply troubled. It seemed that the political correctness (PC) frenzy, which had been building momentum for the past several years, had finally reached such a fever-pitch that the most important bioethical topics — difficult issues with serious consequences for vulnerable, marginalized people — couldn’t even be discussed in bioethics departments because of the threat of controversy and reprisal. The PC or ‘Social Justice Warrior’ (SJW) movement, which had sought with considerable success to roll back free speech on campuses across North America, was now beginning to harm the very groups it purported to defend.

Over the last few years I had become deeply concerned about the brazen attacks on free speech being launched by SJW activists in the name of, among other things, anti-racism, anti-sexism, and gender equality. While ostensibly fighting the good fight, SJWs were taking their reformism to new extremes. They were seeing discrimination everywhere, and reading hate-speech into seemingly innocent, or at worst, poorly-worded remarks. Rather than expressing concerns or requesting clarification, they were clamouring for resignations and mandatory ‘sensitivity’ training — a measure which, along with demands for ‘privilege-checking’ and other attacks on ‘unconscious prejudice,’ smacked of Maoist re-education programs.

Armed with an ideology that considers basically any disliked speech to be equivalent to violence, SJWs were getting events cancelled in order to keep themselves ‘safe’ from any and all ideas with which they disagreed. Several talks at U of T have recently been disrupted by protests of this kind.

SJWs were eager to make strong claims — like allegations of racism or sexism — but seemed staunchly opposed to rationally defending any of their theses – even those used to justify censorship, like their persistent equation of speech with violence. Emphasizing ‘impact’ and ‘experience’ above reason and objectivity, SJWs maintained that they didn’t have to explain their experiences to anyone. They asserted the unquestionable right to censor and punish, while steadfastly refusing to justify the tremendous powers that they had unilaterally arrogated to themselves.

More disturbingly still, SJWs openly attacked free speech, academic freedom, and even reason itself — as one notable activist put it, “reason should be wielded as a tactic, not adhered to as a rule.” Proceeding as they did from an intellectual tradition which sees virtually all institutions, including reason and logic, as instruments of oppression by powerful groups, SJWs had few qualms about responding to requests for reasoned argument with grand proclamations of the ‘validity’ of their ‘lived-experiences.’ Similarly, they were perfectly comfortable with using actual violence to suppress ideas and speech that they perceived to be violent.

One can imagine my relief, then, upon learning that a U of T professor, Jordan Peterson, had taken a public stand against neo-political-correctness, expressing his concerns about the rise of the regressive left in a series of YouTube lectures. Academics, Peterson observed, are increasingly afraid to voice dissenting opinions for fear that they may find themselves in the crosshairs of a highly-organized and effective protest-movement which has proven its ability to have controversial speaking events canceled, and get even the highest-ranking university employees fired and black-balled; Tim Wolfe at the University of Missouri and Jodi Kelly at Seattle U are two prominent examples. In such a climate, Peterson observed, the free exchange of ideas — which ought to be the hallmark of higher education — was all but impossible.

Although I didn’t hold out much hope for immediate change, I was glad to see someone standing up to the cadre of activists who had unilaterally appointed themselves arbiters of campus discourse, and I admired Peterson’s courage – risking his reputation, career, and livelihood to defend free speech.

Unfortunately, and predictably, the response to his videos has been far from constructive. As if to prove his point about their suppression of dissent, PC activists ignored Peterson’s arguments about free-expression, and instead zeroed-in on incidental remarks about gender-identification. Peterson, a renowned clinical psychologist, feels that the terminology underpinning recent human-rights legislation is vague and under-supported by the scholarly literature – in particular, he feels that terms like ‘gender spectrum’ are poor descriptors of the extant data.

Seizing upon this rather banal statistical distinction, SJWs denounced him as a hatemonger, called for his dismissal, and shamelessly attempted to associate him with neo-Nazis. When the dust settled, they had succeeded in drowning out the substance of his remarks — on one occasion, they did this quite literally with a white-noise machine.

Peterson criticized SJW arrogance and smear tactics, and SJWs responded by dismissing his meticulously formulated arguments out of hand and attempting, rather clumsily, to smear him. The irony would be absolutely delicious if the movement from which this response arose wasn’t so powerful — despite their claims to the contrary.

The backlash against Peterson’s videos is emblematic of the unabashed intolerance, reflexive hostility, and pathological incapacity for introspection which has increasingly driven left-wing commentators like myself away from the modern social justice movement.

Unlike protest movements of yore — including civil rights, gay rights, and the Suffragettes — SJWs don’t simply advance and argue ideas, but they attempt to silence anyone who disagrees with them. Rather than trying to demonstrate that they are right, as those propounding new ideas typically must, they take it as a given they are right, and move straight on to punishing sedition. They attack anyone who disagrees with them, often ruining their lives and careers, and they attack anyone who comes to the defence of the people they’re attacking – a modus operandi reminiscent of the darkest days of McCarthyism.

It’s bad enough when the people trying to muzzle those who disagree with them are obviously right. The whole point of free speech is that being right doesn’t justify silencing one’s opponents. After all, who ever thought their own ideas were wrong?

But the SJW movement is so hopelessly confused and maddeningly fickle that the prospect of their rising powers of censorship is nothing short of terrifying. Not satiated by the traditional right-wing targets of progressive indignation, they eat their own: feminists who criticize the treatment of women in Islam are racist; Muslim women who feel uncomfortable with biological-men using ladies-rooms are trans-phobic; Caucasians who show solidarity with ethnic-minorities by sporting traditional garb are guilty of cultural appropriation. Keeping up with the ever-changing party line, it seems, is a full-time occupation.

Perhaps their willingness to suppress dissent without justification is related to SJWs’ rather odd relationship with truth. As a Western-white-cis-male construction, truth is relative, and logic and reason are tools of oppression, especially when they underlie arguments in opposition to SJW ideas.

Consequently, their theses don’t have to make sense: all that matters is the feeling, impact, and experience of the people on the ‘right’ side of the debate. Not only does this assume correctness without proof, it doesn’t even make sense — how can SJW ideas themselves be ‘true’ when right and wrong are social constructs? I suppose that once one has freed oneself of the shackles of logic and reason, questions of this sort become uninteresting.

SJWs want to be free to insult, vilify, demonize, and ostracize to their hearts content. Whenever anyone has the gall to question one of their manifold, shape-shifting theses, they scream for censorship and censure. They invariably attack even the mildest opposition to their ideas by contorting it beyond recognition, interpreting it as bigotry and oppression, and concluding that the people who expressed it have no right to speak.

Free speech isn’t just a right, it’s a fountainhead of rights — a ‘meta right,’ if you will — whose safeguarding enables marginalized groups to gain new rights despite majoritarian opposition. It is also historically young, and geographically sparse. Throughout history, and around the world, people have fought and died for the freedom to say what they think, regardless of how the majority or powerful minorities feel about it.

A clique of myopic bullies, who use ad hoc jargon and smear tactics to dismiss the fundamental rights of those who disagree with them, threaten to wipe out these important advances in a few hysterical years. We owe it not only to ourselves, but to the countless martyrs to free expression and to future generations, not to let this happen.

 

Simon Capobianco is a fourth-year student at Woodsworth College studying Bioethics and Mathematics.

White noise and public representation do not mix

Cassandra Williams’ actions at the U of T Rally for Free Speech are inappropriate for a UTSU executive

White noise and public representation do not mix

At the Rally for Free Speech on October 11, UTSU’s Vice-President, University Affairs Cassandra Williams suppressed the free speech of the students she is supposed to represent. The rally was meant to promote freedom of speech in the U of T community and in society at large. Anyone was allowed to take the microphone and speak their mind. The organizers strove to ensure no opinion was silenced, and that whoever spoke was heard without disruption.

However, some individuals, including Williams, used speaker systems to blast very loud white noise while people were speaking. Not only was the sound unappealing, it became difficult, or sometimes impossible, to hear what people were saying. Organizers asked for the noise to stop, but Williams and other anti-rally protesters sat on the speakers, preventing anyone who wanted to shut off the sound from doing so.

The hypocrisy of Williams’ actions was evident after considering that she helped out one week earlier at a different rally, when a group of students came together to give out “basic 101 information about trans folks and non-binary folks,” as she explained. Anyone who spoke at that rally was heard without any disruption close to what she imposed at the Free Speech rally. Photo and video evidence of the Free Speech rally showed Williams at one point publicly communicating her opinions to Professor Jordan Peterson, a promoter of and speaker at the rally, while later playing white noise when Peterson spoke out to promote freedom of speech.

Free speech is not only a fundamental right granted to us by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but also central to student life at the University of Toronto. The university’s Statement on Freedom of Speech states that the members of the school have “the right to examine, question, investigate, speculate, and comment on any issue,” and to “criticize the University and society at large.” It further states that the University “should not limit that debate by preordaining conclusions, or punishing or inhibiting the reasonable exercise of free speech.”

Anti-rally protestors cannot argue that the dialogue was ‘unreasonable’ if they shut down speech before any voices are even heard. By creating an environment where we cannot hear the opinions of the members of our community, the actions of the protestors inhibited the ability for free speech to be exercised at the university.

Most importantly, as a member of the UTSU executive team, Williams’ role on campus is different from that of any other student. She is paid just under $30,000 a year from mandatory fees by over 50,000 undergraduate students. Her mandate as Vice-President of University Affairs includes representing all students, and being highly involved in the Academic and Student Rights Commission. These students did not pay fees to have one of their most important rights stifled on campus. The fact that Williams is a public official, paid from students’ fees, and making such a drastic statement against a large portion of the student body calls the legitimacy of these actions into question.

Consequently, many students have realized that what she did was not appropriate for a public official that is supposed to represent them, and went online to voice their concerns. Facebook posts condemning Williams’ actions were posted, and the video showing her taking part in creating the noise became one of the top Reddit posts of all time in the U of T subreddit. Calls to impeach Williams were even made on social media, and a petition to this effect garnered over 300 signatures.

In comparison, Williams has remained relatively silent. Her only public statement on the matter thus far was in an article in The Medium, where she explained that it was “noise-music,” and not white noise, as if this excused her actions. The UTSU, in turn, has yet to make any public statement about her actions. When asked directly about her actions, her thoughts on the calls for impeachment, or whether she would consider resigning, for the purpose of this article, Williams did not comment.

A member of a student government should not take part in disrupting reasonable discourse. Student politicians do not have executive power over the students they serve, and they are given a salary not to oversee or impose restrictions on the student body, but to fulfill their duties and responsibilities in line with the university community.

Of course, student officials have their own beliefs and opinions, but raising those above the thoughts of the students they claim to represent, and acting as if those ideas are not as important, is unacceptable, indefensible, and not what student governance is about. If the UTSU purports to represent the student body as a whole, Williams’ actions at the rally greatly failed to promote that mission.

Robert Tran is a third-year student at New College studying Geography.