Is Jordan Peterson a Hypocrite?

We should be allowed to say offensive things when necessary, but rarely is it ever necessary to lie in order to characterise someone

6 July 2018

Opponents of Jordan Peterson were licking their lips with irony when the famous clinical psychologist recently announced that he would be pursuing legal action against Wilfrid Laurier University for defamatory comments made by their staff.

At first, this case seems like the perfect way to attack Peterson and his credibility. How could a man who fights so strenuously for free speech—who gained prominence for his stance on compelled speech laws—now attempt to control the words of an educational institution? He must be a hypocrite, one who disapproves of what you say and will sue you until you no longer have the right to say it.

If only the situation were so scandalous.

See, defending yourself from blatantly false and damaging comments is not incongruent with the belief that free speech should be upheld as a human right. You can champion the right to bear arms but still support responsible gun ownership. In that same vein, you can advocate for the protection of free speech but still believe individuals should be held accountable for statements that cause tangible harm.

That’s why defamation and libel exist as grounds to pursue a court case, and it’s a reason that separates them from the likes of hate speech and all the subjectivity that surrounds that matter.

While the effects of hate speech are rooted in subjectivity, dependent on what was said and how it was taken, the effects of defamation can be clear and definable, with evidence such as lost wages and unemployability being used to prove that a reputation has been harmed.

Indeed, slander falls under the various forms of unprotected speech, such as child pornography, incitements of crime, and perjury. I think even the most ardent of free speech advocates, including myself, would be willing to let these forms of speech go unprotected.

We should be allowed to say offensive things when necessary, but rarely is it ever necessary to lie in order to characterise someone. 

The comments made by the staff of Wilfrid Laurier University are indeed slanderous. Faculty members stated Peterson was ‘a figure’ that’s ‘highly involved with the alt-right’ and likened his speech to that of ‘Hitler or Milo Yiannopoulos,’ clearly showing that they’re unable to discern between the actions of a genocidal dictator and a flamboyant attention seeker.

However, articles such as ‘Hey Jordan Peterson, suing just makes you look like a hypocrite,’ attempt to frame this not as a man trying to set the record straight but as a public figure trying to silence criticism. If it were any other academic in the same situation, I would have no doubt that such aspersions would be refrained from.

The author’s biased position is evident from the first sentence, as he savours the ‘ultimate ironic—yet predictable—twist’ that has ‘free speech advocate Jordan Peterson’ suing for comments made about him. But as I stated before, you can be a champion for free speech without having to support the various forms of it that the law has rightfully deemed indefensible.

The article posits that ‘Peterson just looks like a hypocrite’ when he is ‘claiming to be free speech’s champion while stifling the free speech of others in very tangible ways.’

Peterson’s initial rousing of public attention came about due to his objection to what he believed was a compelled speech law. Essentially, he didn’t want the government forcing him to use particular words or imitate an ‘artificial’ and politically correct vocabulary. This in no way conflicts with Peterson’s current effort to seek remedies due to defamation.

First of all, Bill C-16 was a piece of government legislation that would see all of Canada and its citizens affected. Meanwhile, Peterson’s case only concerns university administration and a handful of faculty members. This distinction is important, as the intrusion of government in daily life is a key tenant of conservative and libertarian thinking.

Secondly, the two cases are in no way connected in terms of how they relate to free speech. Peterson doesn’t want the government to regulate his language; he also doesn’t want individuals to make defamatory statements and be able to get away with it. Those two ideas can exist in the same brain without contradiction.

By the end of the article, it is clear that the author has completely missed the point of Jordan Peterson and Lindsay Shepherd’s respective lawsuits against Laurier, stating that even if they’re ‘fruitless, the mere fact that Laurier and individual faculty and staff members are potentially on the hook for a lot of money will surely have a chilling effect on campus.’

In an interview, Peterson stated that the ‘only reason’ he ‘brought the lawsuit forward…was because of what happened with Lindsay Shepherd’ and Wilfrid Laurier’s ‘absolutely inexcusable’ treatment of her following the scandal, which Peterson alleges was ‘predicated on a lie.’

He had the grounds to pursue a lawsuit and did so after seven months of being more than unhappy about what had occurred and seeing that staff members received no disciplinary action.

I have my own reservations regarding the validity of Peterson’s defamation case, but he is more than justified in his attempt to prove it in a court of law. Doing so makes him neither a hypocrite nor a dolt.

When we advocate for the protection of free speech, we do so under the presumption that there are certain cases where speech can be rightfully challenged and result in little long-lasting implications on the provision of the right by government forces.

10 comments

  1. Great piece. Maybe you aren’t aware of the difficulty in proving libel or slander That’s because the harm done to the victim must include serious financial harm, which is seldom the case. Claims of damage to reputation alone aren’t enough.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh no, I’m well aware of how difficult it is to prove defamation. I just didn’t want to get into the nitty-gritty details of it. If it was as easy as alleging damage to one’s reputation, then we’d have a serious problem on our hands.

      In regard to Peterson’s lawsuit, I’m unsure whether it holds up, as although the statements were slanderous, they were not disseminated by the defendants.

      Liked by 1 person

    • He wasn’t an employee of the university in question. The main gist of the case is that a teacher’s assistant was unfairly harassed by the university’s administration for showing a class one of Peterson’s debates. This teacher’s assistant recorded the meeting she had with faculty, which was where they made the slanderous comments. Peterson’s case revolves around the idea that the university should’ve known that such comments could’ve been made public. However, the more you think about it, the less his case actually holds up.

      Peterson pretty much just wants to punish the university for how they handled the situation, regardless of whether the defamation lawsuit comes to fruition.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I will add to your comment. In the case of that university tribunal. Calling Dr. Peterson “Hitler” was not just an opinion protected by free speech.
    They used the comparison to make and enforce university policy on what could or could not be shown in class.
    At that point, it is no longer opinion, and JP should be able to have his day in court to defend himself.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. If it was only the instance of suing Wilfred Laurier I might think that you had a point, but given that Jordan Peterson also threatened to sue a critic for calling him a misogynist I think it’s quite clear that he does not care about free speech. I don’t buy that libel is less subjective than hate speech either. For one, I think a good case could be made that Jordan Peterson is misogynistic. I’m not saying he is (I wouldn’t anyway, he might sue me), but it really depends on how we subjectively interpret everything he’s said. How do we determine what is or isn’t misogyny? And, how do we then determine that there is enough evidence to demonstrate (on the basis of the definition we’ve subjectively decided upon) whether or not someone is misogynistic? Neither is an easy task. Hence, it is quite clear that there is an enormous degree of subjectivity in many questions related to libel. Secondly, I don’t buy that the reputational harm that people suffer from libel is any less demonstrable than the reputational harm that someone can suffer from hate speech. It’s quite clear from studies that involve looking at employers hiring practices in relation to the names of applicants that negative stereotypes negatively impact people’s likelihood of being hired on the basis of their race, which quite clearly demonstrates that a person’s reputation can equally be harmed by prejudice and by extension speech that reinforces that prejudice. Furthermore, as is quite clear from the way libel laws have been used in The UK, strict libel laws can actually negatively impact freedom of speech. As Noam Chomsky (a free speech absolutist) puts it:

    “Freedom of the press from state control is very high in the United States, much higher than any other place I know. So take, say, England. They recently had a government investigation of the BBC to see whether they’re too critical of the government – the Hutton Report. There was a lot of debate about it, but it was mostly about the content of the report, not about the fact that it took place. I don’t think that in the United States it would have been possible for such an inquiry to take place. The protest would have been too strong. I mean, what right does the government have to investigate whether somebody’s being too critical of it? But in England, it was acceptable. In fact, English libel laws are designed so they sharply constrain freedom of the press. In the British system, if I accuse you of libel, you have to prove that I’m wrong. In the American system, I have to prove that I’m right. That’s a substantial difference, and it has a highly intimidating effect. In fact, it’s been used by big media corporations to put small journals out of business. One journal had claimed to expose something that a big media corporation did, and their reaction was just to threaten them with a libel suit. A big corporation can command legal resources, and so on, that no small journal can possibly deal with, so the journal went out of business. That’s almost impossible in the United States.”

    Which type of libel laws do you subscribe to and which ones does Jordan Peterson subscribe to? Because, if you, or he, thinks that a person should have to prove what they’ve said isn’t libel it’s quite evident that that is an enormous constraint on freedom of speech, which will favour the speech of those that can afford high powered lawyers. If this is what you or he believes in, then you don’t believe in freedom of speech. That’s why people are calling him a hypocrite and until he comes up with a convincing and reasoned defence of his legal action (and threatened legal action), then it is quite reasonable to call him a hypocrite (until he sues you for saying so).

    Like

    • Thanks for bringing that second case to my attention. I wrote this article back in July. Had I written this now, after the reports came out of him suing Kate Manne for calling him a misogynist, I would’ve definitely taken that into account. I’ll be the first person to admit that Peterson probably has a fragile ego, and I mentioned in the article that I had reservations regarding his defamation case. Specifically, the fact that the alleged slanderous comments were private and not disseminated by the defendants.

      In regard to the Kate Manne situation, I think there is definitely grounds to call him a hypocrite. However, I still back my belief that supporting free speech and suing for libel is not a hypocritical behaviour, in and of itself. If an advocate for free speech rightfully sues for defamation, that shouldn’t contradict their advocacy.

      You’re also assuming that I believe in some kind of ‘guilty until proven innocent’ situation when I definitely do not. If you want to accuse someone of a crime, take them to court, and prove them guilty. If you’re unable to, they’re innocent.

      In regard to the subjectivity argument, I think the impacts of defamation can be more effectively proven in a court of law than any kind of hate speech. If I were to publish a statement saying that an employee had embezzled their previous company or was a consistent malingerer, that would be far damaging (in a definable way) to their future job prospects than if I were to tweet a racial slur at them or call them mean things. At the moment, proponents for new and strict hate speech laws are yet to define their terms, when the terms of defamation are already quite clear, insisting that comments needed to be slanderous, disseminated, and cause tangible harm.

      Jordan Peterson is not a hypocrite because he’s a free speech supporter who’s suing for defamation. If there’s one point I want you to take away from this, it’s that you can champion free speech without needing to support all the forms of it deemed legally unacceptable, such as child pornography, slander, etc. If anything, Peterson’s hypocrisy comes from the fact that he threatened to sue for criticism of his work, but that news hadn’t come to my attention when I wrote the article.

      I’m not sure if Peterson has released a statement on the Manne case, but I hope that he would try to clear things up or admit fault.

      Like

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