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.
[pullquote-features]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.[/pullquote-features]
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.
[pullquote-default]When these groups refuse to accept the violence inflicted upon them, those with power only react with further violence.[/pullquote-default]
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.
[pullquote-features]Such dialogue inherently legitimizes violence against oppressed groups. Indeed, human dignity should not be contested, but guaranteed in speech.[/pullquote-features]
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.