The Current State of Free Speech


At the University of Toronto recently, a professor attempted to speak at an outdoor rally to students about, of all things, threats to free speech. And then his free speech was threatened.

Terminated, actually.

Jordan Peterson, a professor of psychology, attempted to explain why he is against Bill C-16, a federal initiative to add “gender identity or expression” to the Human Rights Act. Peterson’s objection seems to be that when one wants to discuss one of the many issues that touch on “gender identity or expression,” one should be free to do so without being compelled to use new pronouns (e.g., “zer,” “zir,” and the like) or in any other way to conform one’s speech to whatever happens to be in vogue among activists for LGBTQ+ concerns.

I say that that is what he seems to have been saying, because he really didn’t get very far into his speech before he was apparently sabotaged. The P.A. speakers kept blasting out noise instead of amplifying his voice, until he finally abandoned the microphone and began to shout.

That choice meant that he sacrificed the appearance of calm reason. But he didn’t get very far in that mode, either, before audience members began to chant, “Shame, shame!” or “Transphobe! Transphobe!” while his supporters responded with, “Peterson! Peterson!”

That exchange of views clearly wasn’t going very far, and things utterly broke down when a woman began to yell into a megaphone. Peterson quit the stage, and it appeared that the event had dissolved into disaster.

Unless that was what was intended.

Peterson is no newcomer to such controversy, although his student supporters seem perhaps to have been. It’s impossible to say for sure from the footage I’ve seen (from several sources), but the P.A. system, crucial to such encounters (as one notes when one watches a seasoned speaker deal with hecklers), seems not in fact to have been sabotaged as merely to have malfunctioned. And no one had the technical ability to fix it, nor the back-up equipment to replace it. Rookie mistake?

Peterson bravely carried on…but to what end? His voice couldn’t carry very far, and couldn’t possibly hold out for long the way he was forcing it. The opponents had already made their presence known very audibly, and he could barely string two sentences together before their stupid, but effective, chanting brought the whole thing to a shuddering halt.

Surely, however, Peterson could have predicted exactly such an outcome. And I daresay that outcome was exactly what he desired.

For this kind of event is not dialogue, but theatre. If one seriously wants to discuss serious ideas with serious people, one doesn’t set up outside a university building where anyone, including your most vociferous opponents, can have at you.

No, you set up such an event to goad such opponents into demonstrating exactly the thuggish behaviour you are intent on exposing and denouncing. And Peterson got exactly what he must have wanted: to put on display a Trumpism of the Left.

But how ugly. And how sad.

So what about Bill C-16?

Some Canadians, including many Christians, are rightly worried about the curtailing of freedom of speech in these zones, especially those who hold to traditional views of sexual identity and ethics and want to defend those views without fear of criminal prosecution.

Other Canadians, including many Christians, are rightly worried that people of various sexual identities are still liable to abuse, including within Christian institutions, and they want such harm stopped.

These are important and difficult issues to negotiate, starting with basic terms. What counts as “freedom” and what counts as “abuse”?

Let’s see if the House of Commons can debate such a bill more civilly, and without the mere gesturing we saw at the University of Toronto.

Or will it just quietly pass, because defenders of free speech on such matters are no longer plentiful in Parliament?

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 700 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book is scheduled for release later this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).