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A few days ago I rewatched a talk that Jordan Peterson gave at the oxford union back in 2018. An idea that he shared during the Q&A portion in response to one of the students’ questions really got me mulling over the phenomenon of ideology, particularly in the realm of politics. Peterson was making a point in the context of a question about free speech and hate speech, but I think something more general, and in some ways, profound can be abstracted or generalized from Peterson’s idea. I’ll play part of the clip of Peterson’s answer, but just to summarize: a student asked, what I think, is a very well reasoned question which was: if one of the primary purposes of the freedom of speech is the recognition that the more voices and opinions that are heard, the more likely we are, collectively, to arrive at the truth, what are we to do about certain speech that is so offensive, so degrading to a person that the target of that speech is made to feel they don’t belong and are not welcome in public discourse that they refrain from contributing their ideas resulting in their views being absent from the public dialogue thereby detracting from the pursuit of truth. Put another way, the question is: given that free speech is not a value in itself, but is only valuable in service of a purpose, that purpose being arriving at the truth through competing ideas and robust debate, could it not make sense to forbid certain types of speech because they contribute nothing towards this goal and, in fact, detract from it. This is the notion of the marketplace of ideas, a concept developed by before the enlightenment, then picked up and expounded upon by enlightenment thinkers and perfected by thinkers such as John Stuart Mill in his book “On Liberty”.
Jordan’s answer was very interesting. He did not deny that hate speech does exist, that it’s a problem and that it could have precisely the negative impact the student was pointing out. So what do you do about it? Jordan suggested that you let those who wish to utter hateful speech do so and let everyone hear them bc that’s the best way to make sure what they’re saying will be understood and rejected. He points out that, of course, this presumes that the population of people who will hear that speech is wiser than it is foolish. If we don’t assume that, then there’s no justification for the assertion that the ideas will be rejected by allowing them to be heard out in the open. Notwithstanding this, Jordan DOES acknowledge that hateful speech does pose a problem and can be incredibly damaging, even to the very goal which freedom of speech seeks to attain. But the problem, he says, with regulating so called hate speech, is who defines hate? The answer, he says, is that over a long enough period of time, it will be exactly the type of people that you would least want to define hate. What this means is that the consequences of the regulation of hateful speech becomes far worse than the problem which they were designed to address. Let’s take a look at the clip:
The part I wanted to highlight here is how Peterson frames the problem here as two shitty states of affair and using your judgment to decide which was one is less shitty. In other words, rather than propose some kind of utopian vision or framing free speech without any regulation on hate speech as an absolute good which carries with it no negative aspects, he acknowledges the students point that there is a legitimate concern about certain types of hateful speech. Notice how non-ideological this answer is. Jordan’s doesn’t just take some unflinching position on the continuum of political ideology. He doesn’t answer the question by trying to claim that regulation of hate speech is poorly motivated, that’s it’s not based on any legitimate concern and then pretending that unfettered free speech presents no problems. He doesn’t see this issue as pure good vs pure evil. Instead it’s to shitty situations either way and the question is which one is less shitty.
Our society and politics appear to be on the edge of a precipice. If we are to avoid violence, the only tools we have at our disposal are dialogue and conversation.