Canadians must resist the liberal desire to censor and remove speech
The most recent iteration of the opposition to free speech started out as a University campus phenomenon. It has differed from previous manifestations of the urge to censor and control thought in the name of progress in that this version has been marked by an attempt to avoid judgment and valuation in the name of pure positivity—good feelings and strict acceptance of all things non-threatening, and a denouncement of anything else with ironically, some of the most vitriolic and threatening behaviour.
Politics is always downstream of culture, and we are now seeing this particular brand of censoriousness play itself out in Canadian politics. The trend has been one in which many see the Conservatives backing down in the face of pressure from the public and opposition parties, in particular the Liberals and the NDP.
Michael Cooper was recently suspended for remarks he made to a witness concerning the shootings at Christchurch and had his statement expunged from the records. Lindsay Shepherd, Mark Steyn, and John Robson were set to testify, when MP Randal Garrison decided that it should not be televised, just recorded. Conservatives also seem to be staying silent and within the realm of political correctness on a number of contentious issues—using the language of the left when it comes to climate and diversity in what seems like an attempt to play the pragmatic and conciliatory card in light of the upcoming election.
There has been a tendency among whistleblowers to treat every free speech and political correctness issue similarly, while paying less attention to the nuance that exists between cases. I want to draw attention to these differences to shed some light on the extent of the censorship problem and show that there is an element of permanence to it, which may make it less threatening, though not any less worthy of confronting.
Michael Cooper is a Conservative MP who stood on the Justice Committee until recently. During a hearing on online hate at the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, various groups gave testimony and perspective on issues pertaining hate, discrimination, and terrorism. One of the witnesses—Faisal Suri of the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council—drew a link between consumption of conservative media sources and hate crimes, by citing the online viewing habits of Alexandre Bissonnette, the Quebec Mosque shooter. This familiar move is made by lumping all conservative commentators into the “alt-right” and “far-right” category in order to besmirch the views of vast swaths of people. Michael Cooper took offence to this, calling Suri’s attempt to imply conservatism is hateful and racist ‘shameful’. He pointed out that Bissonnette was critical of conservatism, and his viewing history included many other sources, including communist, Stalinist, and Maoist videos and commentary. He crossed the line by reciting passages from Brenton Tarrant’s manifesto— the New Zealand mosque shooter. He apologized for ‘shaming’ Suri, and for reciting passages from Tarrant’s manifesto. Andrew Scheer removed him from the committee but has retained him in caucus.
This was essentially the right decision. First of all, Cooper’s statements were factually correct, and well-reasoned. He pointed out that the witness selectively chose to comment on one common variable among hateful behaviour, ignoring obvious and more salient points of consideration in an attempt to smear conservatives, and regulate speech and views that he disagrees with. It is not this that the Conservative party, nor Mr. Cooper would have apologized for.
Mr. Cooper holds a dignified rank on the Justice Committee and was dealing with an extremely sensitive issue. He used accusatory language, a certain tone, and recited lines from a horrible event that is still too fresh in the public consciousness. The tone, language, and subject matter were not commensurate with the dignity of the position, and the context of the case in question. Nothing more, nothing less. He is an MP in good standing and should be kept on.
It is still the case that examples such as these reveal—well, more like underline—a major double standard. Left-leaning politicians and commentators routinely engage in smears of anyone who does not subscribe to the pieties of their “progressive” fundamentalist worldview. A view that is constantly changing because it is rooted in an incoherent subjectivity based on the emotions of care and compassion, that are, like any emotion—ambiguous with respect to their value, given that many other factors come into play in the determination of anything as good or bad, valuable or invaluable.
The problem, of course, is the liberal desire to censor and remove speech that they deem hateful. As many have now said ad nauseam, people cannot agree on what this is, nor will they. Given the fact that this is the case, censorship is a losing proposition, as the core differences in ways of thinking that divide us will always remain, and their expression is likely to become all the more acrimonious if smothered.
The worrying thing is that Cooper’s remarks were expunged from the record after a vote by Liberal and NDP MPs.
On the one hand, we might be witnessing the development of a new status quo wherein parties capitalize on mistakes by the other side and use the public perception and attention to score points on certain issues. In this case then, the individual case is merely a stunt. If, however, it is a growing trend, then it is cause for concern.
Yet, from a higher level of abstraction, we can see the dynamic between expression and censorship as one that waxes and wanes over time, but constantly tracks majority/minority dynamics in any given society, and arena of discourse therein. Many do not see the importance of issues like those in question, when they think of the fact that so many groups have faced stronger forms of persecution and censorship in the past. This does not excuse it, but it does explain some of the apathy.
It is very important to pay attention and call out infringements, but it is wise to recognize that the tendency to censor and render taboo are permanent, and that efforts are better spent modifying existing, and cultivating new institutions and platforms when old forums dry up. This is more effective and will win people over in the long run. The boundaries of the public and the private are always shifting; it is better to swim with the tide than headlong against it.
Let us hope that the seeming Conservative acquiescence to the Cooper, and Shepherd/Steyn/Robson incidents are calculated, and prudent. Let us also hope that people will not back down in the face of calls for censorship, and that efforts to cultivate spaces for vigorous debate on the issues that matter most are continued with increasing vigour.
Is Dr. Jordan Peterson a “gateway drug” to the alt-right? Heterodox Academy has published a research summary that attempts to answer that question. What’s weird is that these kinds of questions keep being asked of a mild-mannered psychology professor and author who has helped thousands upon thousands of young people straighten out their lives.
This study used machine learning tools in a similar way that Becca Lewis did in her infamous and debunked Data and Society report. (Lewis, by the way, was recently caught spreading misinformation about Peterson and his daughter on Twitter.) It also cites as evidence this panic-driven Cornell study that embarrassingly refers to moderate Conservative Canadian MP Michelle Rempel as “alt-lite” (whatever the hell that means).
Much of Peterson’s draw has been from the young, white, male community, and once he realized they were listening, he has reached out to this demographic. This is the same demographic that, in the spirit of righting old wrongs, has been so vilified. However, to say that he reached out to this demographic because of their identity would be a mistake.
Prior to the YouTube video on pronouns that sparked his international fame, Peterson was giving lectures on religion, mythology, and virtue. He was talking about the importance of personal responsibility and the lessons of western culture. The people who wanted to hear how they could change their lives for the better, without waiting for an organization, or government, or society to change it for them, listened. Once Peterson emerged onto the bigger stage, that message was amplified, and even more people were able to hear it.
Are those people hateful? Are these folks who go to YouTube to try and make themselves better, bad? How can this be quantified? The way that these people are organized into groups is pretty much arbitrary, as are the groups they are classified into. Studies like this look first at viewers because it is so hard to quantify what constitutes hate speech.
What this means is that instead of trying to identify the language that is hateful, those who are “hateful” are identified, their language analyzed and tracked across the platform. After users have been assigned to groups based on perceived identity, the language within the channels used by those groups is deconstructed to see where it overlaps.
This is the information that is used to determine whether or not Dr. Jordan B. Peterson is a “bad guy” or whether he should “do better.” The conclusion is that he isn’t quite, but he should do better somehow, use different language. The idea is that he should not make himself attractive to those individuals who may otherwise tend toward disenfranchisement. We’ve got to a point where a person’s perceived proclivity is enough to make them untouchable.
But here’s the thing: Jordan Peterson’s entire project is not about identity, not even a little. It’s actually anti-identity. Identity politics is being grafted over him where it does not actually exist. The reason people feel comfortable doing that is because we live in an identity-based age, where it is assumed that everything boils down to identity eventually. It is probable, even likely, that for many people, identity factors are irrelevant to how they live their lives.
The authors claim that they do not want Peterson to “self-censor.” But then they go on to say, “Instead, we would encourage Peterson et al. to consider ways they may be able to make the same points, just as forcefully, while avoiding a particular set of tropes.”
What is “avoiding a particular set of tropes” if not self-censorship? You can use as much window dressing as you want on your authoritarianism but it doesn’t change the fact that you are an authoritarian.
Sometimes a problem requires a simpler explanation. Yes, there are bad actors in the world. And yes, the internet is full of them. The alt-right spreads hate and panic and their vile ideas must be combatted. But the notions of guilt-by-association or guilt-by-proximity that studies like this propagate are dangerous and counterproductive. We used to know this.
Peterson has been able to tap into the hated white cis male category of people, and for that he is vilified. It’s been determined that people who fall into that identity category are a problem, but they deserve compassion, too. How people are identified is not always how they identify, and either way, a person’s identity should never be used against them. We used to know that, too.
Peterson is as clear and concise as possible, and if his ideas reach people who are operating in the world in dangerous, destructive ways, there’s every reason to believe that they will rethink that behaviour. Not all audiences can hear the same message in the same way. If these angry young people can’t hear messages of inclusivity, anti-racism, and personal responsibility from the trending leftist sources, there must be voices, like Peterson’s, speaking in a way that they can hear.
Regardless of their mindset, these young people do not deserve to be lost, tossed aside, or dismissed. Their lives have meaning and Peterson tells them that. The truth of the matter is that Jordan Peterson has been a great force for deradicalization in ways that are not easily explained by elaborate data sets. There are countless examples people whose lives have been improved by his advice that will never be tracked by IP address or pixel.
It seems strange that of all platforms, Heterodox Academy, which purports to promote “open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement in institutions of higher learning,” would run such a narrowly defined piece of research. It appears to be the kind of identity-obsessed scholarship that Heterodox Academy usually fights back against.
We live in an era that depends too heavily on machine learning. Peterson preaches the exact opposite of this: deeply personal, human, and humane learning. He is not easily quantified because his message based in neither identity nor algorithm, but in classical values. Concepts that can’t be instantly categorized as either left or right don’t have a place in the easily digestible, portion-controlled ideological landscape.
For years, conservatives have claimed that Twitter censors their views; that Twitter has a “left-wing bias” and purposely blocks opinions on the right.
They are only partially correct, however.
Twitter does censor, suspend, and ban users and their tweets. Yes, this is prevalent on the right-wing.
However, Twitter is not a leftist haven either. In fact, Twitter has increased censorship leftist opinions, especially those that are on the more populist brand.
For example, a “Democratic Socialist” candidate for Congress, Joshua Collins, saw a one-week ban on Twitter after quarrelling with Republican congressional candidate Joey Saladino.
What this demonstrates is that Twitter does not have an explicit or implicit bias against the right-wing. Nor does it have a similar bias against the left-wing.
Twitter censors anyone that challenges the status quo from either side of the political spectrum.
The bias against the right
In a discussion on the Joe Rogan podcast, Tim Pool sat down with Jack Dorsey (Twitter CEO) and Vijaya Gadde (Twitter head for legal, policy, and trust and safety).
Pool described the platform as heavily favouring the “left” by enforcing rules such as misgendering. He said many Conservatives do not believe in this, and hence, there exists bias.
So Pool is right, but only partially.
Slavoj Zizek, the most prominent leftist philosopher alive today, is one of the fiercest critics of political correctness. He has, in fact, labelled it as one of the “most dangerous forms of authoritarianism.”
This form of radical liberalism, according to Zizek, has no real place on the actual left-wing. It is a form of liberal political discourse that is used by the establishment to divide people into competing identity camps.
Pool further claims that holding such an immense monopoly over online information, and enforcing its own biased set of vague rules, as Twitter does, are not conducive to free speech.
Gadde responded that Twitter “doesn’t look at the political spectrum of people when looking at their tweets.”
She may be right. However, when your platform already has an inherent bias, anyone who doesn’t wish to conform to this bias is at risk of being expunged.
And according to Pool, that is wrong.
The bias against the left
Leftists on the more populist side of the argument, such as Berniecrats and Marxists, have faced explicit censorship and bias on Twitter.
Joshua Collins, a socialist candidate running for the Democratic nomination for Congress (WA-10), personally faced the wrath of Twitter’s censorship.
Collins has more than 40,000 followers on Twitter. His fame has resulted in numerous fake accounts popping up using his name.
“I attempted to get verification because there were, at one time, five people pretending to be me, with my same display name and profile picture,” Collins told The Post Millennial.
According to him, he should thus be verified. But Twitter changed its rules fairly recently.
The Intercept mentions that “Twitter’s government relations team has been telling candidates seeking verification that they won’t be giving any new contenders a blue checkmark until after they win the state’s primary.”
Mckayla Wilkes, another socialist candidate for Congress, told The Post Millennial, “This leaves unverified candidates who are clearly public figures, like Cory Bush and Paula Jean Swearengin, and gives yet another advantage to incumbents.”
Rebecca Parson, a third socialist candidate for Congress, informed The Post Millennial that this decision by Twitter has, “made it harder to get found by media and to raise money through organic online traffic.” She says this is important for grassroots campaigns like hers.
Collins, Parson, and Wilkes mentioned that Twitter, “seems to make exceptions to their own policy, in opaque and arbitrary ways.”
In another instance, many Berniecrats were unable to check replies to a tweet by the Working Families Party. The WFP chose to endorse Warren over Bernie, and Twitter blocked Berniecrats from viewing replies to the tweet (and hence replying), but others were able to freely reply.
Parson also confirmed she couldn’t see the replies on the tweet.
In a more recent case, Joshua Collins was suspended from Twitter for proving that Joey Saladino, a YouTuber running for Congress as a Republican, drank his own piss in a video and used black people as a prop to propagate racist views.
Censorship affects populists, on the left and right
With the cases highlighted above, it is clear that Twitter’s arbitrary policies and lack of transparency is hindering discourse on its website.
As many on the right and left notice the challenges big-tech poses to discourse and politics in general, they are raising their voices.
It seems like it will only be a matter of time until these voices reach the doors of Congress.
Free speech is under threat, and the calls for censorship are coming from journalists. In the past few weeks, op-eds have been published in The Washington Post and The Walrus, as well as many other outlets, demanding that action be taken by legislators and corporations to restrain and control speech online. The writers of these op-eds are certain that the problems of violence and intolerance in our society can be solved by quieting those who espouse views that are anathema to a tolerant, equitable society. But there is something else at play here. They are not merely concerned for the public at large, but for the viability of their own outlets.
These op-eds that oppose free speech are chock full of good intentions—enough to pave a superhighway to hell. Indeed, it almost seems that the people running these establishment outlets want this more than anything. They pour out ink and pixels to evidence compassion for those who might feel hurt by words, fear that violent speech is a slippery slope to violent action, or that the population lacks enough discernment to parse speech for themselves, but none of these is a good reason for placing limits on our fundamental liberty.
From governments to establishment media outlets to corporations, the push for censorship is on. The op-ed in the Washington Post called for the U.S. to draft hate speech laws that would modify the First Amendment’s provision for free speech. While Canada has hate speech laws enshrined in its Charter of Rights and Freedoms, The Walrus’ essay demands that those restrictions tighten. Media outlets and authors demanding more censorship, not less, foolishly deny that free speech is essential for journalistic integrity.
In the case of WaPo’s Richard Stengel, he notes that it’s his career in publishing and diplomacy that gives him the bonafides to tell Americans what’s best for them and that it’s time for limits to their own free speech rights. He found that free speech rights were an “outlier.” This is not surprising. What is surprising is that a man who should know first hand how precious free speech is, is dazzled by censorious foreign nations.
Stengel’s critique of the First Amendment is that “it should not protect hateful speech that can cause violence by one group against another. In an age when everyone has a megaphone, that seems like a design flaw.” But this is a feature, not a bug. We must not change our core values simply because others don’t share them.
A bigger problem is how to determine just what constitutes hate speech. Stengel defines it as “speech that attacks and insults people on the basis of race, religion, ethnic origin and sexual orientation.” At first glance, that looks fine, until we realize that the definitions of all of those words and concepts are currently being interrogated and rewritten.
Meanwhile, North of the border in the more censorious landscape of Canada, Erica Lenti has penned an essay basically demanding that Canadian hate speech laws be strengthened. She advocates for the aims of the Canadian Digital Charter—an initiative to force social media companies to regulate and censor the content of their users. Lenti cites a Ryerson University professor who claims that “so much of the internet’s hate and violence problem can be blamed on a lack of oversight: the internet is the only global industry without regulation.” But we do not live in a global democracy, and if we did, Lenti would find that many of her values would be upended.
Why is it that writers—of all people—are advocating for external regulation of citizens’ expression? Are they simply motivated by the fear of losing their jobs? In a recent Quillette article on free speech, Jon Kay revealed to us the current lay of the land in establishment media:
As recently as the late 1990s, which is when I began my career in journalism, media organizations were able to insulate themselves against social panics and fads through the employment of a large corps of experienced, risk-averse, highly professional desk editors and middle managers. They supplied a sort of ideological ballast, so that a small number of activist journalists within the organization couldn’t exert veto power on controversial issues. Over the last 20 years, that entire stratum of professionals has been packaged out, and the editorial staffing in these organizations generally consists of just two groups: (a) a small corps of managing journalists in their 50s and 60s who are desperately trying to make it to retirement; and (b) a larger corps of poorly paid 20-somethings.
Perhaps the prospective retirees are just trying to hold on to their jobs as long as possible, but the poorly paid 20-somethings are probably naive enough to think that preventing people from expressing their opinions will lead to a “safer” environment where they will finally be able to thrive. The truth is, they are signing the death warrants for their own careers.
Their view that safety is more important than liberty will eat them as well as the rest of us. The things that matter most are not how we deal with our day to day concerns, but how we maintain a viable process to continue making decisions that ensure the greatest individual autonomy so that each person feels determinacy over their own lives. We are not our groups. We are much more.
For decades, legacy publications have had a monopoly on perceived veracity. The New York Times surety that it contained “all the news that was fit to print” went largely unquestioned. Now that anyone can access the digital megaphone, outlets fear that they will no longer have the final word. There is something of a power vacuum in media right now, and while that may be terrifying, it is actually a good thing. There are more people able to speak their minds, more ears that can hear them, more minds that can evaluate for themselves and think critically. There will be some rough spots, but the goodwill outweigh the difficulty. And even if it doesn’t, we have to uphold our principles, because without that we have nothing. The fact that we do not always live up to our highest expectations does not mean that they aren’t worth having.
The New York Times, the Washington Post, The Walrus, Vox, HuffPo, Slate… the list of outlets with editorials decrying free speech goes on. All of these “concerned” establishment media outlets don’t want speech restrictions for themselves—they want them for you. The scary news is that it seems to be working. The cries for silence are coming from those who already have a platform to speak. Interests of authoritarians are meeting those who want to keep their jobs, and those who feel cowed by an overindulgence of compassion. These writers would have us believe that there is nothing more frightening than a bigot with a microphone, but a populace that is not permitted to speak in full voice is substantially worse.
The Trudeau Liberals plan to regulate and censor your social media if reelected, according to a new report from Blacklock’s Reporter.
“To help stop the proliferation of violent extremism online, we will move forward with new regulations for social media platforms starting with a requirement that all platforms remove illegal content, including hate speech, within 24 hours or face significant financial penalties,” the Liberal Party of Canada responded to a questionnaire distributed by the Ukrainian Canadian Congress.
The Liberal statement was in response to the question: “Does your party support the development of a national strategy to combat online hate and disinformation?”
It has been noted by many experts that Trudeau’s plans for censoring social media are dangerous and Orwellian. Parliament had previously repealed Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act that had banned posts on the internet that were considered to spread “hatred or contempt.” Trudeau and the Liberals have been exploring reinstating that section.
Last year, Mark Steyn warned the Parliamentary Justice Committee’s task force on hate speech that “Ultimately, free speech is hate speech, and hate speech is free speech. It’s for the speech you hate, the speech you revile. The alternative to free speech is approved speech, and that necessarily means approved by whom?”
Free speech activist Lindsay Shepherd added that reinstating Section 13 would “cast too wide of a net and extremists who are already intent on causing real-world violence will go to the deeper and darker web to communicate whilst individuals who shouldn’t be caught up in online hate legislation will inevitably get caught up in it.”
This election, political censorship has already reared its ugly head. A few weeks ago Facebook censored a Toronto Sun opinion piece, deeming it fake news.
In the past, Trudeau and his ministers have had private meetings with top Facebook execs asking them to censor content the Liberals find problematic. Trudeau also announced his party was planning to implement a Digital Charter in May of 2019.