Free speech is the foundation of a fair society (part 1)


I have a confession to make.

The Escape Artist is not a self-made man…I didn’t do it on my own.

There’s a saying it takes a village to raise a child. Well, it certainly takes a society to become wealthy.

I grew up in a society with the building blocks to allow people to get rich. If you’re reading this in the UK, the rest of Europe, the USA, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, India, Japan or in any other democracy then you inherited an incredible gift. What is that gift? It’s a society that draws on the wisdom of your ancestors. This was not something you made, this was something you inherited.

We benefit from ~100,000 years of human evolution, ~10,000 years of the agricultural (and then industrial) revolution and ~1,000 years of political progress. Landmarks in that political progress include the Magna Carta in 1215, the Bill of Rights in 1689, the American constitution of 1789 and universal suffrage (everyone getting the vote) in the twentieth century.

We know how to create a wealthy society. When people co-operate and trade freely, it makes the economic “cake” bigger for everyone. We make the cake bigger and stop fighting over the crumbs. This happens when the following building blocks are in place:

  • Free speech
  • Democracy
  • Capitalism
  • Free trade
  • The rule of law
  • Property rights
  • Protection of minority rights
  • A legal system independent of government

I put free speech at the top of the list for a good reason. Its the meta freedom. In other words, free speech is the freedom that safeguards all the others.

We are all standing on the shoulders of giants. The giants include the leaders and thinkers of the past that figured stuff out that we today take for granted. People like Aristotle, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Benjamin Franklin, Winston Churchill, George Orwell, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela (to include a variety of giants over different times and places).

The giants are also the ordinary people: our ancestors that fought and died in wars to preserve freedoms that we take for granted. It includes the generation of men that got wiped out in the trenches of Northern Europe in places like Ypres, The Somme, Paschendale. And the generation who stormed the beaches in Normandy. These people understood that it’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees.

Free speech is like good health. We take it for granted. We don’t even notice it until its gone. But when its gone, EVERYTHING IS FUCKED UP. So it’s important to talk about free speech and to understand what happened in history when its gone. History teaches us that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

Free speech is currently under attack. Its under attack from from politicians, bureaucrats and vested interests. Its under attack on university campuses. Bizarrely, its even under attack from much of the mainstream media.

I’ve seen this as a blogger. If you contradict their worldview, keyboard warriors don’t just disagree with your opinions, they try to stop you with personal attacks. In football, this is called playing the man not the ball.

But the real problem is not clowns leaving angry comments on the internet. The real problem is the “death by a thousand cuts” attacks on free speech by politicians and special interest activists. This has been incorporated into UK legislation and is now coming back to bite us.

Regular readers will be aware that The Escape Artist does not follow The News because its mostly alarmist bullshit. But sometimes things DO happen that you need to know to be a good citizen and use your vote wisely in elections.

You need to know that someone called Mark Meechan (aka Count Dankula) was recently convicted in the UK (under the Communications Act 2003) for making a joke. Yes really. His crime? He had posted a short (3 minute) film on Youtube in which we see him teaching his girlfriends dog (a pug) to raise its paw in a Nazi salute. Take a look for yourself.

Some background on Mark Meechan is relevant here. The guy is a call centre worker, amateur comedian and Youtube clown. He follows in the footsteps of a long line of loud-mouthed British working class comedians. He reminds me of a poor man’s Frankie Boyle. He may or may not be funny (humour is subjective) but he was trying to be.

There is definitely a class aspect to this. Meechan is not a nice middle class boy and clearly didn’t go to Eton. He’s gobby. He has facial piercings. I’m gonna be honest with you, if my daughter brought someone like that home, I’d be…errrr….unimpressed. But his charisma and social skills shouldn’t be the point here.

Meechan’s girlfriend had apparently said that everything about her pug was cute. Meechan bet that he could get the dog to do something horrible….he trained the dog to raise its paw in a mock Nazi salute when he said “Sieg Heil” and “Gas the Jews”.

I’ve read a lot about The Holocaust. I understand it as well as anyone that didn’t live through it themselves can. There is no more horrific (and therefore potentially offensive) subject. But, as Jewish comedian David Baddiel points out, there should be NO subject that you can’t make a joke about.

Humour is all about trangression of social norms: a good comedian knows where the line is and explores that. What makes the pug video comedy is the juxtaposition between the cute, innocent, dumb doggy and the appalling reality of the Holocaust. That’s the joke. You may not find it funny. Fair enough. I didn’t say it was a good joke….I just said it was a joke.

I don’t know what Meechan’s politics are and I don’t care…he should have a right to free speech. I haven’t met him but, from what I’ve seen he’s not anti-Semitic. And I don’t care if some of the people supporting him are idiots.

The test of free speech is not whether we support people’s right to say reasonable things. Its whether we accept people’s right to say things that we disagree with and even find offensive.

I would fight for his right to offend me. For example, what if he’d made a video poking fun at all FI-seekers? What if he said we deserved to get sent to Auschwitz and gassed? I would obviously disagree with that. I might find it offensive (or funny, it kinda depends on the context and his delivery). But I wouldn’t want to see him prosecuted.

But prosecuted he was. And on 24 April 2018 he was fined £800 for being in breach of the 2003 Communications Act. Meechan has refused to pay the fine and instead donated £800 to the Glasgow Childrens Hospital. He will probably end up in contempt of court and in prison.

When, back in 2003, the government was passing that legislation did you think it would be used to send comedians to prison? The politicians and bureaucrats who drafted the law probably had good intentions. But sadly, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. We need to stop and think about the unintended consequences.

My daughter is currently studying the rise of The Nazis in 1930s Germany. In case you’d forgotten, the Nazis were not big on free speech. The Nazis burned books. The Nazis sent people who dissented to prison or the gas chamber.

The irony is that what starts off as a reaction against Nazism actually takes us a step closer to Nazism. When you ban offensive speech, you succeed in criminalising normal people, but you fail to encourage tolerance.

There’s a book on my list of life-changing books called On Liberty. It was written in 1859 by John Stuart Mill who sets out three basic liberties in order of importance:

  1. The freedom of thought, emotion and speech
  2. The freedom to pursue tastes (even those considered immoral) provided they do no harm to others
  3. The freedom of association (again as long as no harm is done to others)

Mill argues that in contemporary and civilised societies there is no justification for the restriction of free speech. Even if what’s said is wrong.

First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.

Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.

Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds.

And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience.

In case you were thinking that Mill was some extremist weirdo, you should know that he was a liberal party Member of Parliament and the first MP to call for women to be given the vote.

[As an aside, some clown will no doubt read this and accuse The Escape Artist of being anti-free speech because I’ve deleted their angry comment on my blog. For the benefit of the hard of thinking, the way this works is that I say whatever I want on my blog and you are allowed to write whatever you want on your own blog or in your colouring-in book or other safe space.]

This saga has already run for 2 years. A 2 year legal battle would have destroyed the livelihood of a nice middle class person. But Meechan seems prepared to die in a ditch for his principles. I applaud him for this.

Meechan has raised money via crowdfunding to appeal his conviction (I went to donate but he’d already raised the money). But the main problem is not the judge’s interpretation…its that the legislation is so broadly drafted that it bans anything that someone perceives to be offensive.

Here’s what I’m going to do:

  1. I’m going to write to my MP saying the law needs to be changed
  2. Vote for anyone that protects free speech
  3. Get back to the business of becoming wealthy and enjoying life

I urge you to consider doing the same.

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  1. ChrisB · · Reply

    I agree as to the huge importance of free speech.

    However I disagree that it is top of the list: to me the ‘rule of law’ is the most important. It is rule of law that protects free speech. It is rule of law that makes everyone equal. It is rule of law that provides certainty for everything in life, including investment decisions.

    1. The rule of law is undermined with no free speech. If Meechan goes to jail, the law is no longer respected – so it trumps rule of law.

  2. Geoffrey Greene · · Reply

    I’m an American, and we take free speech the furthest of any society on earth. However, even in the US, the 1A right to free speech does have limits. The Supreme Court has confirmed these limits in common case law continuously. One of those limits is incitement (to violence), most famously enshrined in the Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969) ruling. I’ll emphasize that something like the 2003 Communications Act probably wouldn’t pass muster in the US, nor would the extent of British libel law. However, there is a legal and pragmatic argument for the curtailment of hate speech, especially when it fits into the category of incitement.

    Another example that makes this more clear: 1994 Rwanda. There, as in late-Wiemar Germany, a majority group used “free speech” to *punch-down* to a vulnerable minority. The incitement there was very clear, and its results are unfortunately quite visible. There’s a big gulf between what you see as merely a “tasteless” joke and getting on the radio and telling the community to kill the “cockroaches” whom they live next door to. But, the principle that unfettered free speech is *always* a net-good doesn’t hold muster.

    And, this comic’s tasteless joke drifts dangerously close to incitement because its’ *punching-down* and doing so within a society with a clear history of violent Antisemitism. It happens against the backdrop of a UK where the memories of the Holocaust are now “history” and therefore the urgency to prevent corrosive hate speech is slacker than it was when people still alive had actively fought the Nazis or else bore the tattoos of concentration camps. When he says “Gas the Jews” as a “joke,” that creates an atmosphere where Jews are dehumanized, just as they were in the early 20th Century, which is a crucial and inevitable step in the path toward persecution and eventually violence.

    That that risk seems less onerous than the “risk” of not being able to tell a joke or exercise your free speech is a function of your not being the likely target of said persecution. If a comedian “punches-up” about wanting to “kill Whitey!” that exists against another cultural context: one where “Whitey” is dominant and largely immune from violence. The object of the tasteless joke therefore laughs it off, and wonders why more vulnerable groups can’t do the same. But, rather quickly, that can change. Whitey could become as much a target of violence and persecution as “The Jews.” Dehumanization of currently-powerful groups happens in reality, too, especially in the post-colonial context. “Kill Whitey!” became quite literal in places like Zimbabwe.

    1. Hi Geoffrey, thank you for the comment.

      It seems like we both agree that the UK’s Communications Act 2003 is a shitshow. You put it more politely than me: “it wouldn’t pass muster in the US”, but I think we both know it’s unenforceable / unsustainable and oppressive as drafted.

      Because you’re American I’m going to forgive you for not understanding British society…but this is NOT a case of “punching down” as you put it. The Jewish community in the UK is highly successful, prosperous and well-educated (that’s a good thing). Meechan, who was a call centre worker, is at the bottom of the pyramid.

      1. FI Warrior · · Reply

        ‘ Meechan, who was a call centre worker, is at the bottom of the pyramid. ‘

        Surely his ilk are only a logical end product of a ruling elite’s dogwhistling that it’s now Ok to persecute minorities after half the electorate endorsed precisely that and which for the elimination of doubt, the latest elections so recently confirmed. A continuation of this is therefore guaranteed if those votes have proven a sure thing; (as predictable as new year’s day) first they came for Europeans, then Caribbeans, so how is it any surprise it had to come to the Jewish community?

        That’s the danger with lighting a fire, at some point even the arsonist too could end up burned, since nobody is 100% pure in the prejudiced view of others. As such, it seems of dubious value writing to those who are orchestrating the neanderthals to take up their cudgels in the first place.

      2. Chloe · · Reply

        Reply to FI Warrior:
        What do you mean ‘his ilk’? Meechan is a working class guy with a liberal perspective who makes comedy videos. You seem to have a very set worldview that I think is really corrupting how you see things, turning this into a chapter in a grand narrative. That is the danger of ideology.

        So, you seem to think there’s a grand narrative of Britain’s elite pushing for an ethnostate – after all, you’ve written a narrative of ‘us’ coming for the Europeans, the Caribbeans and now the Jews?
        But that’s a really twisted denial of reality. There were a whole host of reasons for Brexit, the Windrush scandal – which you will note received national outrage because the majority of the people support the Windrush folk remaining here – is more likely incompetance than mailice.

        As for coming for the Jewish community… this man was prosecuted for a joke AT Nazis. You have a very twisted view of what is going on here, try taking the ideological lens off.

  3. Well done. It seems hard for a lot of people – lawyers and lawmakers included (or, perhaps, especially) – to understand what free speech really means. There seems to be an overwhelming sentiment in U.S. and Canadian media to support government censorship of offensive speech, which subverts the primary purpose of free speech: protecting unpopular opinions from being stifled by the masses, regardless of the value of the opinion. The old works of people like JS Mill are as salient as ever for this purpose. A great recommendation!

    1. Geoffrey Greene · · Reply

      There isn’t, to my knowledge, any significant media push in North America to support government censorship of offensive speech. There certainly is a movement among both audiences and outlets to prevent offensive speakers from claiming the soap box. And, here’s the crucial thing about that: Free speech isn’t the *freedom to have your speech distributed.* In the North American legal tradition, free speech is a *negative freedom,* meaning that you can’t be prevented from speaking, but you aren’t guaranteed to be heard, either. If that were the case, then we’d have to require that every public and private outlet to not only be open to, but actively disseminate every imaginable opinion. I could claim, for example, that my dumb rant on the Internet–which was neither coherent nor interesting to the audience in question–was being “stifled by the masses.” Clearly, it’s not that I’m an asshole with half-baked opinions, it’s actually that I am a martyr to free speech! And, this is the crucial distinction of the 2003 Communications Act in the UK: it isn’t illegal to tell somebody that they’re a dumb Jew who deserves the gas chamber. It’s illegal to send such a malicious message or spread incitement on public media channels. You cannot get on the radio and call for the murder of the Tutsi cockroaches, as happened prior to the Rwandan Genocide, nor can you use broadcast channels (including Internet-based ones) to promote incitement. The FCC in the US has long prohibited the same, under the logic that the airways are the public Commons, and therefore can be regulated. There are also (uncontroversial) laws in the US against harassment, which the UK Communications Act clarifies extends to social media. You can argue that these are intolerable infringements on your Freedom of Speech, but you’ve never been free to incite violence, harass people, cause “clear and present danger” with speech, and a variety of other commonsensical curbs on Free Speech as an absolute, unqualified right. That’s nothing new.

      1. I should rephrase: There is no serious consideration given to the idea of government censorship. There is an exceedingly common, emphatic expression that saying certain things or using certain symbols or words “ought to be outlawed,” like, for instance, the use of Swastikas. Yes, there are restrictions on free speech like the classic “yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater” example, but there’s an obvious distinction between that and simply carrying a flag with a Swastika on it. The former causes an immediate threat of harm to others; the latter merely implies that you support a group who harmed/harms others, which is obviously offensive but not causing immediate harm. My general statement is in reference to those who call for things like banning the Swastika. You can (and should, in my opinion) hate that symbol given it’s recent history, but you should not be able to restrict others from having it simply because you find it offensive.

  4. Great post, well done. What’s going on in America now, especially on college campuses, is appalling. I like to tell people that “you do not have the right to not be offended.” End of story

  5. BucketBabe · · Reply

    Extremely well articulated points and I agree wholeheartedly. And I agree with Accidental Fire. No one has the right to go thru life UNoffended. If you are offended, then go find a “safe” place where you aren’t and quit demanding others provide that “safe” place for you*. The extent to which PC has grown in the US is shocking. It’s really ok and refreshing when other’s do not share your entire world view. This should be interesting, not a cause for alarm. Can’t we all get along even though we don’t share the same sense of humor? For goodness’ sake….

    *I went on a long hike last weekend and the leader made a sexist and deameaning and patronizing comment – a few times. I will never hike with him again. I didn’t demand his head upon a spike or that he immediately step down from his position. He has a right to be a pig and I have a right to choose another group to hike with…

  6. The most important lesson I gave my kids when they were growing up was to simply be ‘unoffendable’. Wear it as a badge of honour.

  7. Survivor · · Reply

    Fully agree. I never thought that in my lifetime I’d see the so-call civilised countries comprising the ‘west’ backsliding into totalitarianism, but that’s certainly been happening now for at least a couple of decades. The mission-creep, erosion of civil liberties renders the mass of the populace into sleepwalkers marching to autocracy, cameras track our every move when we step outside of our homes, while even within we’re spied on 24/7 by technology, harvested by private corporations.

    One day, we’ll wake up and ask how it happened that we became serfs again, the only answer being gradually, then suddenly, while the next generation will ask how we could have fallen asleep at the wheel over such an existential threat. A generation of intellectual dumbing down of society has reduced us to not being able to think for ourselves – sadly while we will pay for being so easily infantilised by consumer baubles and distractions, the worse crime is that our children will be next.

    It is a supreme irony that when the various European conquistadors seduced the ‘newly discovered’ natives of the lands they avariciously sought, those peoples had no idea that the trade goods proffered were tat of little value & that the bearers had far from good intentions …..but what excuse did we have in our time?

  8. veronica · · Reply

    I’m glad you’ve posted this. People/society needs to talk about this more – in a mature way – because it is important. Your arguments are well presented and well reasoned. As someone who is in a demographic that is on the receiving end of hate speech occasionally, I would like to see some limits on it. But I am not in favour of “throwing out the baby with the bathwater”. So let’s discuss it and see if a consensus can be reached – a point where the freedom of and responsibility of free speech are agreed upon.

    So does this mean you will re-post the entry that was deleted? Because I swear I read a post sandwiched in between the fireman and weight lifting posts.

    1. Thanks for the comment.

      Not sure what you meant about a deleted entry? Did you mean the post with my recent interviews? You can see them all here.

      Otherwise I sometimes change the highlighted post at the front of the blog but I haven’t deleted any recent posts (I occasionally rewrite & re-publish old ones that needed improvement). Re comments: I mostly delete comments that are point scoring / incorrect / or just shite…but I occasionally leave them up to illustrate the problem.

  9. american college campuses have gone apeshit over squelching unpopular opinions. we have a bunch of so called social justice warriors who claim to be a very “inclusive” lot so long as you agree with everything they say. it’s not quite jail but these dildonic dildos put on campaigns to have people fired from their jobs for saying or posting material they disagree with. i’m not having it. come get some! i’m ready.

    1. Geoffrey Greene · · Reply

      This is one of the most exaggerated stories of the present day. A few overzealous activists at Berkeley and Oberlin get carried away with their Social Justice Warrior schtick, media outlets pick up the triggering story as buzzy clickbait, and all of a sudden our *4,000* campuses and *20 million* students therein are “going apeshit?” Comeon. Just in March of this year, a survey of 3,000 American college students found that 90% believe free speech protections are very or extremely important to American democracy. They also believed overwhelmingly, though, that promoting a diverse and inclusive society was important (80% agreed). College students, like other mature adults and legal scholars, realize that this isn’t black-and-white. Civicness is key to democracy. Otherwise, we get the corrosive atmosphere that we find today. Civicness is the promotion of a public sphere wherein people include and respect each others’ dignity. An important part of civicness is, for want of a more delicate way of putting it, just not being an asshole. Do I think people should be put in jail for walking up to a synagogue and shouting “Gas the Jews” (as a joke!)? No. Do I see the (pretty lame) irony that this guy was trying to achieve with his “funny” video. Sure. But, I also don’t think that public airwaves should host that kind of speech, and the Supreme Court and FCC agree. This is not the thundering approach of Gestapo jack-boots: He’s facing a fine under the UK Communications Act, just like I would from the FCC if I shouted “Gas the Jews!” on my public access TV show.

      1. if my opinion has offended your delicate sensibilities you’ll have to fill out a hurt feelings report.

    2. Geoffrey Greene · · Reply

      Another part of civicness is not reducing the tone of important discussions to the schoolyard level. I’m not offended by anything you said. I’m just arguing that you’re not correct. And, trying to shirk out of backing up what you’re saying by displacing like that is juvenile. TEA has given his considered opinions on this complex issue above, and so have I. It’s an issue that’s so fundamental to our democracy that it’s been the subjects of dozens of Supreme Court cases, argued by constitutional lawyers and judges far more intelligent and venerable than either of us are. It’s been the subject of Summits and Covenants and Conventions at the regional and global level. It was at the very heart of the European Enlightenment, passionately thought through by men like Voltaire, Milton, Locke, Spinoza, and JS Mill who had actual skin in the game. And, you’ve settled on wasting your own exercise of that hard-fought right to free speech with lazy bravado:.”Deal with it, dildonic dildos!” That’s all you’ve got? Is that the best speech you can offer, standing on the shoulders of people who fought and died to give you that right to speak truth to power and contribute to the greater dignity and freedom of mankind? You’ll have to excuse me if I’m a little underwhelmed.

      1. you must be so wise and learned. so am i. i just have no value for interaction with you. hard to believe, isn’t it? you seem humorless to me, but another 1000 word reply might change my mind.

        1. Geoffrey Greene · ·

          If that were true, you wouldn’t have bothered to reply here. You can call me a “spaz” or a “nerd who uses big words,” if you like. Much more constructive would be actually putting some thought, of which you are entirely capable, to a response, if you bother to give it. There’s an intellignet argument to be made for unfettered free speech, and, if you believe in it enough, you should make it. If you couldn’t be arsed, then don’t be surprised when the opposite argument wins.

  10. Aspirational Millennial · · Reply

    Wonderful post and exceptionally relevant. I couldn’t agree more that people are becoming offended at the slightest of things, creating a mountain out of a mole hill.

    For further entertainment on this topic, Dr Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist, silenced a particularly annoying lefty news reporter Cathy Newman on freedom of speech.

    Here’s the youtube clip.

    Thanks TEA.

    1. Geoffrey Greene · · Reply

      Jordan Peterson is the pinnacle of mediocrity. Nothing he writes in his “12 Rules for Life” is unique or profound (“Stand up straight!” K, thanks…). And, clapping at him playing “ha, gotcha!” with a “lefty news reporter” isn’t exactly consistent with the goals of either a clinical psychologist or a self-styled public intellectual. Does he even follow his own advice? His Rule 9 says: “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.” So, shall we then listen to feminists who might argue that feminism has an important point to make, instead of waiting to land jabs on “annoying” people for entertainment, YouTube virality, and Patreon dollars? Yay, he wins! But, wins what? Convincing his audience of fawning butt-hurt young men that they have the right to offend other marginal groups because, actually, *they* are the victims, you see! Victims of what? What is it that he’s even campaigning against? Let’s “dig a little bit,” as Peterson was telling Newman that smart people should do. He has assured his audience that he “chooses his words very carefully,” so we can examine those words for what he believes, then. He names the enemy: “Postmodern Neo-Marxism,” which is ruining society and bringing us closer to totalitarianism. Man, that sounds a little like nonsense… What is that, even? Don’t worry, he’s clarified that Postmodern Neo-Marxism is synonymous with “identity politics” (…which is actually the opposite of Marxism, famously based on class-identification and materialism). Yes, the “cultural Marxism” (which is pretty un-Marxist, strangely enough) is infiltrating the academy and the media with “vicious, untenable and anti-human ideas.” (Gosh, this is starting to sound like a lot of other bullsh*t conspiracy theories, now…) I wonder why this secret cabal of Leftists *hysterically hate* everything so much! He’s a clinical psychologist, so perhaps he can tell us… Nevermind, their motivation isn’t rational, because they’re Postmodern Neo-Marxists, you see! Like other conspiracy theories, this YouTube-era conspiracy theorizing offers us secret knowledge that is pleasingly self-serving. Feeling a little bitter about women? Well, as Peterson assures us, “The idea that women were oppressed throughout history is an appalling theory.” Totally! Our erudite professor spoon feeds us with a bunch of faux-intellectual nonsense peppered with enough obscure allusions to make it seem profound. His mesmerizing discourses are captivating without us knowing why, just like another viral YouTube public intellectual similarly popular with The Kids These Days, Slavoj Zizek. Again, when we get back to what he’s actually advocating for, it’s pretty mundane. But, even in its mendacity, he (and his audience) seems to totally miss the point. Such as with Rule 6 (“Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world”). Are we taking responsibility for ourselves when all the problems that poor, beleaguered young men face are the fault of mean feminists and Social Justice Warriors?

      1. Chloe · · Reply

        A highly cited star academic is a pinacle of mediocrity? That’s an interesting claim.

        I think you’re being startlingly disingenuous – I’m 4 chapters into 12 Rules for Life and I think profound is a good description of it. The rules are not unique, but he goes into deep psychosocial and evolutionary reasons for why they are important and why they will improve our character. I think you’ve taken a very uncharitable view, likely influenced by a heavily biased media – the Cathy Newman interview is a good example of that bias.

        He very clearly does listen to others, as he synthesises their arguments and engages with them. You’re writing off his explanation of postmodern neo-marxism as a conspiracy theory, but not engaged with the evidence. Are you denying that identity politics is a major force in academia and politics now?

        You’ve built up a strawman of his position and it’s disingenuous. He doesn’t say that all the problems that men face are the fault of Social Justice Warriors – he does highlight it as a negative impact that will cause problems, but over and over he encourages people to take individual responsibility for improving their own lives.

      2. Geoffrey Greene · · Reply

        It’s fair to say that Peterson does engage with people. And, he was patient with the interviewer (for the record, I’d put almost all TV interviewers at an even higher (lower?) pinnacle of mediocrity. What I would roast Peterson for is his newfound fame as a guru for angry Internet boys. He’s way out of his wheelhouse when he goes from clinical psychology toward being some modern-day Stoic (with an insidious undercurrent of misogyny).

        I will disagree with your description of him as a “highly cited star academic.” He is highly viral on YouTube, yes, but cited? By whom? His work in clinical psychology is on solid ground, and that’s where he should have stayed. His philosophy and public intellectual persona is widely ridiculed by moral and ethical philosophers.

        His description of “Postmodern Neo-Marxism” is extremely fumbled. Marxism is *the opposite* of identity politics. Right or wrong, Marx described a history of of the world based on *materialism,* which defines world-historical processes as a function of technology and the means of production rather than ideology or primitive identities. Marx was not a “Blood and Soil” kinda guy. Many thinkers since have criticized Marx for his neglect of “identity politics,” in fact, and his blindness to how normative identities do move people. To Marx, we are our job or how we make money. The stereotype of the “Social Justice Warrior” is that they can only see the world through the prisms of race or religion or sexual orientation. Again, exactly the opposite of each other.

        Now, this is a very common misunderstanding. 2017’s favorite Trumpian Svengali, Steve Bannon, was fond of self-identitifying as a “Leninist,” sounding intentionally ironic for a right-winger. In that. he meant that he saw himself as a member of a revolutionary (or, rather, reactionary) vanguard. That Bannon’s description was foolish isn’t a commentary on his ideology. It’s just inprecise language. If Peterson wants to be a philosopher, he needs to know better. He needs to use words precisely and accurately.

        The sin, in my mind, is that Peterson is making this gloss intentionally, to condemn all the “bad stuff,” in one, pseudo-intellectual swoop. His audience has some frustrations with the new gender politics shaking out, so “Feminism” is bad (again, *which* feminism?). His audience trends Conservative, and Peterson is, himself, more of a paleo-Conservative or traditionalism. He makes associations as if they’re descriptions: Marxism is bad, and Marxism is Leftism, and Leftism is Liberalism, and Liberalism is Progressivism. That’s sloppy reasoning and would get you laughed out of a Philosophy 101 course.

        But, to an audience primed to *want* simple enemies to fight, this is a thick chocolate cake to bit into!

        You’re right, if Peterson’s readers would read his whole corpus (and indeed, if he, himself, would contend with the full implications therein), they would come away with a more nuanced conclusion. Maybe Peterson’s fans are like the average 19-year-old who first discovers Nietzsche. I’m an Übermensch! The reason why I have disappointments and social anxiety is that people around me are stuck in their *slave morality* and they don’t acknowledge my Greatness! The women who spurn me have mushy minds! Give it another few years of Nietzsche studies, though, and you see the contradictions, depth, and irony in his thought. “The Gay Science’s” parables have seemingly little resonance to “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.” Obviously, the Nazis who later appropriated Nietzsche didn’t get that memo.

        Peterson is an educator first. It is his *responsibility* to make his audience see this. When he makes generalizations about “Feminism” and “identity politics,” he might mention that Feminism is what got women the right to vote and identity politics very rightly fought for Civil Rights. The simple story is viral, but it’s not true.

      3. Chloe · · Reply

        S’up Geoffrey, good reply.

        By highly cited, I did mean in academia. He’s applying his academic expertise in psychology and political theory to current issues, so I don’t see him as being out of his wheelhouse.

        I don’t think you (or many of his opponents) understand Peterson’s use of ‘Post-Modern Neo-Marxism, as I see the same points made repeatedly. So, yes, ‘PMNM’ is oxymoronic but that isn’t Peterson’s fault. E.g.The internal contradiction of a philosophy that is against grand narratives (Post Modernism) and builds grand narratives (Marxism) IS a flaw in that philosophy. It’s maintained by flawed selective reasoning: i.e. Deconstruct western modernity, nationhood, capitalism, meritocracy etc… but do not deconstruct non-western standards, Patriarchy, Marxism.

        It’s neo-marxist in the sense that Marxism built a narrative of the oppressed (proletariat) v the Oppressor (the bourgeoisie) and the intersectional feminist influence expands that into multiple oppressor/oppressed distinctions – this has been explained as the Charmed Circle, the oppressive stack, various ‘______ privileges’. It bundles people up into classes and defines one as oppressing the other, and explains that differing identities mean one can be both oppressor and oppressed depending on the axis being discussed.

        That is why post-modern neo-marxism is also referred to as identity politics and I don’t think you can deny that it’s resurgent right now. It’s not a coherent ideology, but it IS the social justice ideology.

        I do think Peterson is precise enough in pointing out the aspect of feminism/PMNM/IdPol, but maybe that’s personal preference. You are absolutely right to ask *which* feminism, as there are disagreements, but I think they all share the concept of female oppression and Patriarchy. I don’t agree that he’s making glosses, I think he accurately targets the bad aspects of ideologies – that they have some good points doesn’t justify moves to collectivism.

        I am absolutely fascinated that Steve Bannon called himself a leninist though. Thanks for that jaw-dropper. I don’t know any Nietzche, so can’t comment on that aspect.

        You finish by making the case that some ideologies achieved good things, but the reverse can be claimed too. Why even mention them if they are common knowledge? And do you need to invoke collectivism and class narrative to get rights? Maybe it’s a successful approach, but leads to other problems versus an approach based purely on defending equality? And why focus on the mixed-bag of achievements in the past when the ideology at present is generally harmful?

  11. I’m not offended when people dress-up as peasants at a medievel gathering despite the fact that my decendents were serfs – treated in a completely inhumane way, flogged and worked till they dropped for some lord.

    Is it offensive that people dress-up as WW1 soldiers knowing that these poor folk were forced to walk into machine guns?

    Today I read that some boys at a school have been reprimanded for dressing up as slaves.

  12. Survivor · · Reply

    @Aspirational Millennial – I find Peterson very interesting & he is incredibly articulate even if I don’t agree with everything he says – so I respect that & his undoubted intelligence …..but I don’t think Newman tried to brow-beat him because of her politics. She’s clearly a massive narcissist and was simply trying to bully him to get attention – if you follow up that story, the most amazing part is that she’s blissfully unaware that she didn’t come out of the encounter well. [To normal people anyway]

  13. Another interesting, well-written article. The comments were an added bonus!
    I’ve just come back from a trip to North Korea. Life is slightly different with regards to free speech over there…

  14. Thanks for your post. It reminded me of the five things Tony Benn said we should ask people in positions of power :

    “What power have you got?”

    “Where did you get it from?”

    “In whose interests do you use it?”

    “To whom are you accountable?”

    “How do we get rid of you?”

    “Anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system.”

    The last one was my favorite. People in positions of power sometimes don’t always seem to like the idea of free speech, in which case we should strive to get rid of them.

    1. Geoffrey Greene · · Reply

      The “How do we get rid of you?” part is what the US really suffers from. We’ve never successfully impeached a president (Nixon quit under pressure). “You’re fired!” might be our current boss’ favorite catch-phase, but firing him is near-impossible, by Constitutional design. In the UK, and other Westminster parliamentary democracies, reassembling a Government and a PM is very easy, fluid, and common. It’s a far more self-regulating system. Presidential republican democracy was only emulated in the American hemisphere, and for good reason: it not infrequently gives rise to despots. The only saving grace is term-limits, which are only in place because the opposition worried that FDR would be a president-for-life (had he not died in his fourth term). I like FDR, but he shouldn’t have be president for over a decade. Nor should Putin. Merkel in Germany has ruled for as, long, and she’s well-respected, but even the best leaders get stale and out-of-touch. So maybe term-limits should be in place in Westminster parliamentary democracies, too.

  15. I don’t think unlimited free speech is a good thing. As a society we’ve also come to that conclusion as there are limits in what we should not say.

    That said, the Communications Act 2003 is an appalling piece of legislation. Whilst it may have good intentions at heart (preventing cyber bullying, trying to curtail the spread of extremist or hate crime) it is poorly drafted.

    Mr Meechan is not the first ‘victim’ of the legislation. Back in 2012 there was the “Twitter Joke Trial” (R v Chambers).

    An accountant, Mr Chambers, went to catch a flight at Nottingham Airport only to find it closed due to snow. He tweeted (to his 600 followers): “Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!” A week or so later a member of staff noticed it and reported to the police. The airport didn’t think it was a credible threat. But the police still arrested him, storming into his workplace, and confiscated all his electronic items. He was found guilty in Magistrates Court (bear in mind magistrates in the UK are not required to have ANY legal qualifications or experience). He appealed to Crown Court and also lost. As a result he lost his job. Eventually he appealed to the High Court and with the help of a number of backers and lawyers he had his conviction overturned.

    There are big problems with the law as it drafted. There’s also problems with how the police and CPS apply that law. And the person who was in charge of the CPS, and the ultimate decision to keep pressing on with trying to prosecute Mr Chambers, is now Shadow Brexit Secretary, Kier Starmer…

  16. iamthewalrus · · Reply

    Great list. I’d add two items to the list and one modifier. These combine with the other items to make things like ‘the rule of law’ possible. First addition, a constitution, which clearly defines individual rights and protections of those rights. The constitution needs to be very difficult to change. The second addition, an elected system of government with division of power, checks and balance, and deference to local government over central. The modifier? I’d qualify democracy with “representative democracy”. Pure democracy doesn’t solve the “tyranny of the majority” problem, and potentially leaves decisions to the emotional swings of a reactive populace. You have to slow down the emotions and the mob mentality a bit.

    With these, you have a system whereby individuals can confidently arrange their lives to solve problems, create progress, develop specialization, set up markets with buyers and sellers, and be confident some thug or mob won’t take all you have created.

    1. FI Warrior · · Reply

      That is just perfectly articulated. I wonder if there’s any country on our planet that has something like this, at least on paper, even if not actually practised.

    2. Thanks…I was so keen to get onto to the main point about free speech, that list of building blocks was just my working draft…I will probably update it at some point….suggestions welcome. As for the need for checks and balances, see this:

  17. Steve · · Reply

    A great article and I have to admire TEA for daring to write about this and other controversial issues.

    I finally got off my arse and wrote to my MP using about this. Frankly I don’t think it will do much good, but WTH, at least I tried. I wasn’t quite sure what to write, but in the end I worked on the assumption that I’m not going to persuade my MP to act by my golden eloquence – what matters is that if he receives many letters from people who don’t appear to be raving loons about this, it may influence his behaviour in the future. So just write a short, civil, coherent note is as good as anything else.

    Loved the Mill quotes in the article and was surprised at how readable they were, I will have to read the book itself.

    1. Yes, thank you and well done for writing to your MP on this issue

  18. Little Miss Fire · · Reply

    I love how appreciative you are about the society you grew up in. We never really stop to think about how lucky we are that we are in a society that ALLOWS for FI and that it even EXISTS! Whilst we are concerned about our stock portfolios, savings rate and increasing our income there are people out there who have no idea when they will next eat.

    I’m with you on the freedom of speech as well!

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