Re Jordan Peterson: On the Vital Necessity of Free Speech
NOTE: For my latest thoughts on why criticalism (i.e. so called neo-Marxism) isn’t Marxism, see this 2021 post.
(TaraElla News 08/27/18)
Dr Peterson made an interesting case for free speech in one of his most recent speeches, which he has also uploaded to his YouTube channel. He made many points in his speech, too many to cover here. But I think there were a few special points that merit particular reflection and discussion. I believe in having a continued discussion around free speech. As I always say, if the free speech movement is to be successful, we will need to provide a convincing case for the merits of free speech that is rooted in moral principles. Free speech naturally upsets people, and is not naturally utilitarian, so it must be justified on moral grounds.
Firstly, Dr Peterson made a point about what he said was an Old Testament hypothesis: that if truthful speech gives rise to the order, then that order will be good. Now, this goes to the heart of free speech being a moral matter. Free speech is moral because it gets us closer to the objective moral truth. I am a moral libertarian, and I believe it is a moral imperative for every individual to have equal moral agency. Why do I insist on this? Because, as human beings, none of us are always right, even when we sincerely wish to be. For some individuals to be able to override others’ moral consciences is to inevitably cause the wrong to triumph over the right at least some of the time. Instead, so that the right can triumph over the wrong, we all need to be able to participate in the free market of ideas on an equal footing. Our ideas need to be tested, corrected and refined in the free market of ideas. For this process to work, we must have an unbiased free market of ideas, and that can only come from having absolute free speech. Free speech without social consequences, without social punishment, as I often say. And this goes for both progressive and conservative ideas.
Secondly, Dr Peterson made a point about free speech reflecting the sovereignty of individuals, and even the divinity of mankind. And this is a very important point. Historically, the left used to be all for free speech, and leftist students started a Free Speech Movement as recently as the 1960s. So something must have changed within the left. I believe the most important reason for the left’s change on free speech is the influence of critical theory ideas.
Personally, I have long supported social justice in the traditional sense, but I am concerned that critical theory ideas are being made mainstream using the language of social justice. In the critical theory worldview, people are divided into antagonistic groups, people are helplessly influenced by a cultural hegemony that creates a false consciousness, and our culture is the product of oppressive systems that need to be dismantled. In this worldview, there isn’t much space for the free will and moral agency of individuals. Hence there won’t be much respect for the sanctity of free speech. Instead, speech is seen as a device of power, in that struggle of oppressor vs oppressed.
Now, you may wonder why the critical theory worldview has so little respect for individual agency. I believe this goes down to its roots. At the root is the idea that, if you don’t do what I think you should, then it’s not your free will, but a systematic fault. As a moral libertarian, I think that’s very disrespectful of the moral agency of other individuals. To uphold free speech is to reject the critical theory worldview, and to re-affirm that the individual is sovereign. That we make the decisions that we make because we have a moral conscience and we want to do the right thing, not because we are hopelessly oppressed by the system. And that intellectual elites don’t get to dictate what their fellow citizens choose, or label them wrong if they choose differently.
Finally, Dr Peterson also made a point that free speech is how we get to think about issues. In other words, no free speech, no free thought. This goes back to the free market of ideas. If the market of ideas is deliberately engineered to be biased, people’s thought processes will be biased. Therefore, we need to ensure that the free market of ideas is truly free. And the only way to ensure that is to uphold free speech in all situations.
TaraElla is a singer-songwriter, independent journalist and author, who is passionate about free speech, liberty and equality. She is the author of the Moral Libertarian Horizon books, which focus on developing a moral case for freedom-based politics in the 21st century.