What follows is my contribution to a recent email discussion of “free speech” with a handful of close friends.
It began with one of our group deploring the fact that Professor Jordan Peterson, who teaches psychology at the University of Toronto, is currently under fire for refusing to bend to “ppp” – “personal pronoun pressure” – from students and other faculty members at that lost institution.
There are many benighted folk at U of T who believe that when addressing another, the personal pronoun used to demarcate their gender must conform to the will of the addressee. These people apparently believe that human gender is not determined by God, human biology, procreative function, society, custom, or by anything other than one’s own personal Will, to which they expect society to conform. A boy on campus who for some personal reason fancies himself to be a girl on Monday, may legitimately demand to be addressed as “she”, but if sh/he changes hi/ser mind on Tuesday, may then as adamantly demand that we all revert to “he”, as previously. It’s a new form of speech control.
So I wrote what follows …
I admire the stout and rational defiance of Professor Peterson in the face of such leftist PC vitriol.
However, the truth is that university campuses have always been bastions of correctness, and have been attempting to control what people say and think for millennia. There is an extensive and bracing list of a wide range of different book-burning events on Wikipedia’s website, here:
So, sadly, it is not true that the universities of the West have been bastions of “free speech.” They have been bastions of qualified free speech. And this is still the case. So it seems the question is always – which group, or ideological belief system; in the name of what definable set of values – is speech to be qualified?
Seems to me that our widely-accepted definition of “free speech” until rather recently was qualified as follows: barring libel and slander, you can say anything you want that does not offend public standards of decency, morality, or common religious belief, is not treasonous, and does not incite violence. I think that what supported those commonsensical prohibitions were three widely-held beliefs:
1) A belief that what Burke called the “social freedoms” (as allowed by the common bonds and common sense of the community) were prior in importance even to many, if not all, individual rights and freedoms.
2) Accordingly, there was a widespread belief that “democratic sovereignty” should be about the common will of the whole society (about what is good for all, not just for me as an individual). In other words, in a mature and self-conscious democracy, we are expected to discern the public good, and to choose this, even if it means our individual good may not improve. Mature adults were expected to subordinate their personal desires for the good of all. In this light, democracy was held to be far more than a mere aggregate of votes (a tally of what is good for me, and for millions of other self-centered individuals). It sought a higher vision of the good of all, whether I agree with it or not. In the past, everyone allowed a vote in a democracy was expected immediately to start thinking about the good of all, and to subordinate their own Will to that ideal.
3) Finally, these two beliefs resulted in a third: a belief that human life and society is to be understood as indelibly rooted in natural human biology (for sexual and family life, and child-rearing); and in natural law (for all moral concerns). Accordingly, that the Good was to be determined according to what came to be called “natural law” which may defined as “A command of right reason, that follows nature for the common good.” So, a command, not just a personal urge of the moment; of right reason, not wrong reasoning; and that is rooted in human biological nature aiming at the common good – not just my personal good.
This has all been upended with incredible speed by what I describe (in The Great Divide) as “the triumph of Will over Nature”. And so, alas, we have now come to believe that the Will of the individual is sovereign even (according to many intellectuals and judges) over the Will of the community, and most definitely, over the Will of nature, so to speak. Hence, an abortion right is defined as an individual woman’s right, not in terms of the rights of society or the community as a whole, or by the natural-law idea that all life is naturally good and therefore to be protected, but rather, merely by the Mother’s will to kill her own baby for her own convenience. Human gender is said to be defined by individual Will, rather than by one’s natural biology, the idea being that individuals should not be slaves to nature; and marriage is now about “any two people” willing to marry, regardless of their natural biological genders, and so on …
So the three beliefs above, have been upended, as follows:
1) Our traditional moral and social freedom (freedom to will what is good for all, even if not good for ourselves), has been replaced with the primacy of individual Will and freedom. Society and traditional morality have thus been upended. We now have “the world turned upside down” – a phrase heard in the seventeenth century when Cromwell’s Army, close to revolt, voted in the idea that the soldiers should henceforth be giving orders to the Generals! … an idea that quickly descended into chaos.
2) Democratic “sovereignty” (the Will for a public, or corporate good (meaning, of the whole body of the people) that transcends any individual good) is now redefined as a mere aggregate of individual wills, held to be prior in importance to any prior common social or moral standard.
3) What was always considered biologically, sexually, and pro-creatively natural, has been replaced in importance by the strange idea that individual Will must be sovereign even over the dictates of one’s own natural biology and gender. So we now have so-called transgender rights, gay rights, abortion rights, and personal pronoun rights – all dictated by individual Will rather than according to any public moral standard).
I believe that this baleful trend of modernity – the root source of which lies in what I have called libertarian-socialism, which you can see spelled out in The Great Divide – has been aggressively dissolving the bonds of civil society. But historically it has been the strength of our social bonds that alone has served as a barrier to the invasions of state power. And so, with increasing speed, we have been been feeding ourselves into the hands of the state (“first individuate, the better to manipulate”)