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.