Hero. Mentor. Thinker. Professor. Ideologue. Right-Winger. Transphobic Hate-Monger. “Mean Mad White Man.” These are but some of the epithets which have been used to refer to Jordan B. Peterson, an eminent clinical psychologist who became famous overnight for opposing legislation that intended to make it illegal for people to not refer to transgender people by their preferred pronouns. Since then, he has been at the epicentre of a raging controversy about political correctness that has made an impact over most of the Western Anglophone world.
Peterson is a professor at the University of Toronto. He earned his doctorate from McGill University and has taught at eminent institutions, including Harvard University. He is the author of Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief and a more recent international bestseller 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. An erudite Jungian and Nietzschean scholar and a gifted speaker, he has inspired countless young men to “embrace their masculinity”. However, his opposition to government-backed impositions on free speech and his critique of the feminist concept of patriarchy has made him an almost hated figure in some circles. The foundation of all these positions, however, is his staunch opposition to political correctness.
There are approximately 3 million people in the European Union and the United States of America put together who identify as transgender. The exact estimate the world over is difficult to ascertain. Nonetheless, however minute they might be in proportion to the total world population, this is a sizable number of people. But can a trans woman be considered a “real woman”? That is the question Jo Coburn of the BBC’s The Daily Politics asked Peterson. His reply was simple.
“No. […] Because I think that women are capable, generally speaking, of having babies and they have female genitalia and they have an XX Chromosome and I think the biological markers are relevant.”
Are Peterson’s comments controversial? Certainly. Insulting? For many, yes. But transphobic? Discriminatory? Prejudiced? Is Peterson taking his alleged “freedom of speech” a bit too far? How would we react if someone today claimed that a black person was not a “real person” or a “real human” and would use that as a basis for denying that such a person is entitled to human rights? I am not making this up. That is precisely what many Southern Americans believed about non-white people. The idea was that humanoid beings pre-existed before Adam, and that blacks were among the “beasts of the field” described in the initial chapters of the Book of Genesis. White supremacists used this religious belief in order to justify slavery.
If someone were to make this claim today, we would be appalled, and rightly so. But how different is Professor Peterson’s claim? At least, that’s the argument that might be made by some on the left.
Today, numerous trans-people claim a number of distinctive rights. The right to be called by their preferred pronouns is one of them. Another is the right to use public bathrooms of their own choice, that correspond to their “gender identity”. But are they actually entitled to these rights?
It is not my intention to comment on whether transgenderism is legitimate or not. That is a topic for the experts and I am not sure I have any opinion on this. What I want to focus on though is the concept of free speech. Nowhere is free speech upheld in an absolute manner, and rightly so because that would lead to dangerous anarchy. There are a number of things which people are forbidden from saying, which would constitute “hate speech”. We cannot, for instance, encourage people to engage in acts of genocide. Well and good. The real dilemma lies, however, in the simple fact that the precise demarcation between authentic speech and hate speech can be very blurred at times. Doubtlessly, many transgenders have probably felt Peterson’s comments to be extremely offensive. But does this constitute “hate”? The man has not called for violence of any kind; quite the contrary, he advocates treating transgender people with the same respect and dignity that we would any other ordinary human being. It is the same with Ben Shapiro. The latter is not calling for persecution; from his perspective, he is merely exercising his freedom of speech to express his genuinely held opinion that transgenderism is mental illness.
The question that arises then is this: What do we do when genuinely held opinions are so offensive for some on the other side that it almost sounds hateful to their ears? What opinions are permissible, and what are not? Who decides?
Some might say “Hate speech is when we call upon people to engage in violence”. But this presents its own problems. What if someone were to salute the grave of Hitler and publicly hang swastika flags over their homes? They may not be explicitly calling for hatred and violence, but can we deny that such actions are, at least to some extent, ‘hateful’? Others might argue, “We must restrict speech which goes against the common good of society”. This, of course, is even more vague – what exactly constitutes the “common good of society”? From such a perspective, it could be argued that “heretics” should be prevented from preaching, because by spreading heresies, they would be leading countless souls to hell – at least that was the argument of St. Thomas Aquinas. Or do we take a utilitarian view, and measure common good in terms of material happiness? Such measurements are, of course, very difficult to make. Because Stalin would probably argue that speaking out against Communism is against the common good of society because it creates unrest, raises discontent against the “ideal form of government” and misleads simple people, who are too illiterate and ignorant of the principles of economics to make a sound judgment in this regard.
It is in these dilemmas that we see the absurdity of liberal democracy. If the goal of the state is to provide ‘liberty’ to all, then failure is unavoidable. What is liberal to one is inevitably oppressive to the other. What is freedom of speech to one is violation of rights to another. There are, of course, many states which call themselves ‘liberal’. But in each and every one of them, one will find people who are discontented, for whom the revolution has not even begun. So, while Dr. Peterson may be offensive and hateful to so many, he cannot be deemed to lie in the hate speech side of things. To deem his exercise of free speech as hateful would be to draw an arbitrary line between free speech and hate speech on the basis of offense, which, like any other arbitrary separation explained above cannot be sustained. As Peterson pointed out in the Cathy Newman Interview, he has to be able to risk offense to be able to honestly communicate.
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