Supposed 'Free Speech' Warrior Jordan Peterson Sues University Because Silly Professor Said Some Mean Things About Him
from the the-intellectual-derp-web dept
I have to admit that until earlier this year, I’d never heard of Jordan Peterson. I first heard about him when he was on Russ Robert’s Econtalk podcast, and it was sort of a weird discussion to go into blind, without any knowledge of Peterson. That’s because throughout the podcast I found him to be extremely defensive, as if he was constantly under attack and had to parry away an onslaught of criticism. Other than that, I thought he had a few interesting ideas, mixed in with some nutty ideas. Soon after, I suddenly seemed to be hearing about him everywhere. In the last two months, the NY Times did a giant profile on him (in which he does not come off very well). He then played a major role in another bizarre and silly profile of what has been dubbed the “Intellectual Dark Web” — a network of hilariously self-important people who seem to think they’re oppressed for having thoughts out of the mainstream… even though the NY Times article goes on to describe how they all (with Peterson leading the pack) have massive followings, pack stadiums, sell insane numbers of books, and make crazy amounts of money from crowdfunding.
A core piece of that NY Times editor Bari Weiss article was the ill-supported claim that “free speech is under siege” and that these members of the “Intellectual Dark Web” were the renegades being shunned for speaking the truth that no one wanted to hear. To me, it seemed more like they were a bunch of self-important semi-hucksters who lots and lots of people were listening to, but who some people have criticized — and they take that to mean that free speech is under attack. The more I read and watched about Peterson in particular, the more frustrating everything around him became. He certainly spews a lot of pseudo-intellectual nonsense, but so do many of the people who are angry at him. Many of the critiques of Peterson are, at best, sloppy and inaccurate. And Peterson has perfected playing the obtuse victim.
He’s obviously very intelligent and is able to key in on the inaccurate representations of him, and uses that as a wedge to try to discredit those who are criticizing him. But the debates always seem to be more about misunderstanding both sides, and Peterson often appears to embrace the idea that he’s a victim in all of this because people do such a poor job attacking his ideas (even if they’re nutty and borderline nonsensical). This now famous interview between Peterson and Channel 4’s Cathy Newman is a good example of this — as is the also famous video of Peterson debating some angry students. In both cases, the criticisms that people are making of Peterson’s ideology and viewpoints are a caricature — and Peterson seizes on the misrepresentations, but does so in a fascinating way. Rather than trying to increase understanding and agreement, both sides just dig in and speak entirely at cross purposes. It’s entertaining for people who support Peterson, who get to mock the silly misrepresentations of his critics, as well as for those who dislike Peterson, who get to mock his appearance of evading and sidestepping direct questions. It’s all theater, and no one comes out of these any wiser. No one is trying to move towards more understanding. They all seem to embrace the misunderstanding as evidence of just how wrong the other side is.
Of course, part of the irony is that as he’s perfected playing victim to what he (perhaps reasonably) considers to be unfair criticism, he seems to be adapting the very same stance that he accuses “the radical left” and “snowflakes” of embracing: he becomes quite intolerant of his critics. And now it’s reached a new level of ridiculousness (again on all sides) with Peterson suing Wilfrid Laurier University for defamation. It’s not often you see people who claim to be free speech warriors suing people for defamation, and especially not just because they said some not nice stuff about him. But, it appears that Peterson is really trying to come out as both a free speech defender… and a victim of free speech at the same time.
And, to be clear, the actions of Wilfrid Laurier University are completely preposterous and deserve to be mocked widely as they have been. It involved a teaching assistant at the school, Lindsay Shepherd, who had showed a clip of Peterson discussing gender pronouns (a topic that Peterson has strong feelings about) in a class. Shepherd does not appear supportive of Peterson’s position, but was clearly using the clip to inspire a conversation. That seems laudable. What seems preposterous is what happened next: Shepherd was pulled into a disciplinary hearing and basically told that merely playing video of a public debate of Peterson potentially violated the human rights of students and was the equivalent of playing a clip of Hitler. Shepherd recorded the meeting and it’s incredibly stupid. Shepherd, quite reasonably points out what she was trying to do, and the administrators come off as a caricature of the overly politically correct morons that some people (incorrectly) assume run every campus these days. Listening to the whole thing, is painful. Shepherd comes out looking reasonable. The school looks ridiculous. Indeed, the school apologized last fall soon after the audio of her meeting went viral.
Last week Shepherd sued the University herself, with claims of harassment, intentional infliction of nervous shock, negligence and constructive dismissal. It’s interesting to note that within the filing, Shepherd’s suit directly claims that the professors and administrators in the meeting with her defamed Peterson with their inaccurate portrayals of Peterson. Her own lawsuit, though, does not have any defamation claims.
And, then, this week, Peterson filed his suit — employing the same lawyer as Shephard. In a statement, Peterson claims that he decided to do so after seeing Shepherd’s lawsuit and speaking with her lawyer. Again, irony abounds, as his statement sounds quite a bit like those he was criticizing — stating that he hopes this makes them think twice before saying mean things about him. He first says he decided to file the lawsuit because he felt that the university “had learned very little from its public embarrassment,” and therefore apparently needed the power of the state to fine them for their own speech? That seems… very unlike a “free speech warrior.” And then there’s this:
I thought that two lawsuits might make the point, better than one. I’m hoping that the combination of two lawsuits might be enough to convince careless university professors and administrators blinded by their own ideology, to be much more circumspect in their actions and their words.
That… does not seem like someone who is a free speech warrior. That… does not seem like someone who believes in open debate. Even as ridiculous and silly as the University’s actions were — and they deserve tremendous mockery for their hysterical and bizarre response to Shepherd’s lesson — responding by suing for defamation is crazy. Canada, unfortunately, has defamation laws that strongly favor the plaintiff making the claims — unlike in the US where we have a strong First Amendment — but already experts seem to be suggesting his case is unlikely to succeed. If it were filed in the US, based on what I listened to of the meeting between Shepherd and the professors/administrators at the university, the lawsuit would be laughed out of court, and would be blasted as a censorial attempt to silence someone for protected speech, even if that speech is nonsense. Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to read the full complaint by Peterson as it does not appear to be readily available, so at this point I am only going off of the source material of the recording that Shepherd made, along with the claims that it is the content of that recording that is the basis of Peterson’s defamation claims. If there is something more in the actual complaint, I would be happy to revise my opinion of the situation.
The whole thing seems ridiculous, frankly, as with so many of the debates around Peterson. Lots of people are making silly arguments and talking at cross purposes. Almost everyone comes off looking silly. However, just because debates get silly and heated, or just because some professors or teachers make silly claims, the idea of running to the courts and crying defamation, while directly claiming you hope the lawsuit will silence other professors at other universities certainly suggests that Peterson is no friend to free speech.
And this brings us back around to the whole “Intellectual Dark Web” thing. This case suggests the same ridiculous pattern. This is not deep thinkers being oppressed for their heretical great ideas. These are insecure, thin-skinned people with silly ideas, playing victim when other silly people make silly statements about them. Everyone gets to play victim. No one seeks to actually build up more understanding or reasoned debate. Instead, everyone just gets to dig in on their own silly positions. It’s not the Intellectual Dark Web. It’s the Intellectual Derp Web. And now it’s attacking free speech, while pretending to be staunch defenders of free speech. Derp.