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.