When dissent is punished, we are polarized


One of the requests UTMSU makes in its letter to U of T administration regarding Jordan Peterson is “the deletion of his ‘transphobic and racist’ lectures from YouTube”. Regardless of the specifics of the case, this response is typical of a prevailing attitude towards dissent that leads disastrously to balkanization, or fragmentation into ideological groups.

Whatever we think of those we disagree with, we can’t stick our thumbs in our ears and pretend they don’t exist or haven’t spoken up. We live in an era in which technology (among other factors) polarizes us: as our ability to filter what we look for improves along with the algorithms that guess, with some accuracy, what we want to see, we will see less that challenges our mindset and more that confirms it. The result is that we can see our position from every angle and the other’s position from none. But hearing many good arguments for only one side does not make you well-equipped to debate it. It just makes you predisposed.

Recently an older friend made the observation that when watching the September 26 U.S. presidential debate, it was the first he could remember in which there was apparently no shared set of values. I would go so far as to add that there was not even a shared set of facts to which the two candidates could appeal. Nor a shared set of rules of debate. They were almost living in two different worlds. Another friend saw two polls circulating on his news feed: one in which 70% said Hillary had won and one in which 70% said Trump had won. When we see the issues through tinted lenses, whether or not it’s the “right” tint, we end up not communicating, and in fact not even seeing each other.

It’s important that we see each other and address each other’s views with frankness and consideration. We can’t make what we don’t like go away by deleting videos. Nor can we do it by banning speakers or jeering them away, another tactic U of T students have shown themselves capable of in the recent past. In another video uploaded on Tuesday, Peterson is seen speaking at a public rally and being disrupted by white noise, indecipherable shouting, and chants of “Shame!” and “Transphobe!” This shuts down conversation in a dangerous way. The only reliable consequence is both sides’ hatred, fear, and delegitimization of the other.

Almost inevitably, people take this dehumanization as a licence for violence, whether verbal or legal or physical. This year has been no stranger to such violence, both in the U.S. and the U.K. Tragically, it is partly the very strategy of restricting dialogue, an unacceptable means to the otherwise good end of fostering a “safe campus learning environment”, that create the conditions of underlying hostility in which people interpret any dissent as a call to attack.

Incidentally, this is also why I can’t condone Trudeau’s famous “Because it’s 2015” quip. Treating our values as self-evident is a way to divide, not to make peace or win over obstinate minds. We blind ourselves to alternatives, which we must always be humble and honest enough to remember have been considered true at other times and are considered true in other places. If we believe our particular values are the best ones, we must be willing and able to defend them—not to shut out the alternatives.

As an afterthought: I did watch Peterson’s videos, and several other videos and responses in the aftermath. I think Peterson is wrong about sex and gender, and must close a wide gap in his understanding of the issue. He doesn’t seem to treat the topic fairly, but makes broad statements about evidence without citing any in particular. But the subject is one part of his primary, better-made argument about political correctness as short-term conflict aversion that paradoxically drives hatred deeper beneath the surface where it festers and becomes more dangerous. He also critiques some very poorly articulated and poorly thought-out equity policy that ought to cause concern whether you’re on the right or left.

Most importantly for my point, however, his videos are a far cry from the “rants” described in the letter I mentioned above, and just as far from hate speech. He disavows discrimination and violence. He is mostly calm and reasoned, and structures his comments around citations of those he disagrees with in order to examine their position critically. In other words, he’s providing one side of a dialogue. My hope is that the response can rise to the same level.

Luke Sawczak
2013-15 Editor-in-chief