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20/12/2017 1:01 AM IST | Updated 21/12/2017 7:46 PM IST

So-Called 'Free Speech' Isn't Worth Fighting For

A woman stomps on a free speech sign after commentator Milo Yiannopoulos spoke to a crowd of supporters on the University of California, Berkeley campus on Sep. 24, 2017.
JOSH EDELSON via Getty Images
A woman stomps on a free speech sign after commentator Milo Yiannopoulos spoke to a crowd of supporters on the University of California, Berkeley campus on Sep. 24, 2017.

On Monday night, the president and vice-chancellor of Wilfrid Laurier University released a statement announcing the results of an external fact-finding report launched to investigate what happened after teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd played a clip of University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson on The Agenda with Steve Paikin, where he explained why he refuses to refer to some people by their pronouns. According to the actress and transgender advocate Laverne Cox, misgendering people is an "act of violence."

Despite the controversy regarding Shepherd's decision, the report concluded: Shepherd did nothing wrong, no students actually filed a complaint about her showing the clip and the professors who interrogated her will be punished.

The pundit Jonathan Kay, who, as he admits, has made a career complaining about what's happening on campuses he was a student at decades ago, captured the mood among "free speech advocates" across Canada.

Despite their celebrations, this supposed victory of free speech is not a win for all.

There is no such thing as a neutral free speech, an objective ideal we can reach, from which everyone benefits. Instead, the abstract idea of free speech is filtered when it passes from the pages of its inception into the world, being shaped by class, race and other factors. In the end, only the most privileged benefit from free speech.

The Shepherd incident, and the way it has been handled compared to a somewhat similar case, is a good example of how this works in practice.

The issue is not with those who inconsistently defend free speech, but rather with the myth that free speech is possible under capitalism.

This summer, Masuma Khan, a student leader at Dalhousie University, was put under investigation by the school's administration for expressing opposition to Canada Day 150 celebrations. She called them an ongoing "act of colonialism," and described the opposition to the student union's decision not to take part in the celebrations as an example of "white fragility."

Some leftist commentators have been quick to point out that Khan received far less support from free-speech advocates than Shepherd, with many of Shepherd's eventual supporters actually attacking Khan. They argue this unequal outrage at the perceived limiting of expression is an example of hypocrisy among "free speech advocates."

They may be right, but that's not the real problem. The issue is not with those who inconsistently defend free speech, but rather with the myth that free speech is possible under capitalism. That's why Shepherd's reply to the apparent contradiction between how her and Khan's cases were handled is illuminating.

It's not a coincidence that you'd need a microscope to find out Khan and Shepherd's circles of supporters are actually chunks of a Venn diagram, as very few people supported both, and those who have are effectively irrelevant in the broader conversation. This is because Shepherd, who is in the midst of an Olympic-speed turn from supposed leftist to right-wing pundit, was advancing an already dominant, but dehumanizing, idea, which naturally attracted the ravenous flock she now leads. Khan, meanwhile, was challenging the foundation of the system that has propped up those in power, a position that has naturally been less popular.

"Free speech advocates" love to cite the oft attributed to Voltaire quote, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." The reality is, they aren't putting themselves on the line for anyone they disagree with, nor should they be expected to, as free speech advocacy is never neutral.

Many white people perceive themselves as the default from which everything else departs, so reminding them they're white is disorienting because they are no longer centred.

Yet, as another recent incident illustrates, the veneer of ideological impartiality is critical for "free speech advocates." On December 17, a panel on the "Sunday Scrum" segment on CBC News discussed people of the year. The Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson cited Shepherd, claiming she made free speech part of the national discourse. Another guest, Metro News Canada national columnist Vicky Mochama, replied by arguing Shepherd has only received so much attention because she is a "young, crying white girl," and stating she is not the right person to have ignited this debate because she "leans hard-right."

Shepherd, Peterson, Kay, a Toronto Suncolumnist and others, have all been melting down since, labelling Mochama, a black woman, as a racist. Their reaction illustrates how whiteness and the ideas of those in power have intersected in this case, as they often do.

Many white people perceive themselves as the default from which everything else departs, so reminding them they're white is disorienting because they are no longer centred. People in power, meanwhile, see their ideas as non-ideological, or even as common sense, and those who point this out are accused of having an agenda.

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As such, people like Mochama, who will identify this impartiality, are essential, because they undermine the appearance of neutrality "free speech advocates" need for their fight to be successful, and prevent right-wingers from browbeating people for not being part of their cause. This is the first step in the necessary fight against the "free speech" movement.

"Free speech" is too costly for the disenfranchised, and this will never change when the system in power profits from this imbalance.

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