Controversy recently erupted at Penguin Random House when it was announced that the company would be publishing Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson’s forthcoming book. Peterson rose to prominence in 2016 when he posted a series of videos on YouTube denouncing a Canadian law that, he claimed, would compel citizens to use gender-neutral pronouns upon demand. His forthright opposition to political correctness won him admiration and notoriety, transforming him into a lightning rod for the culture wars—admirers flocked to him as an icon of resistance to creeping left-wing authoritarianism and censorship, while detractors condemned him as a transphobe, a bigot, and even a white supremacist.
In 2018, Peterson published his phenomenally successful self-help manual 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos before embarking on an international speaking tour of packed venues amid a cacophony of adulation and consternation. Now, Peterson is back following a period spent recuperating from poor health and his new book, entitled Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life, will almost certainly repeat the success of its predecessor. However, some of the company’s staffers don’t see it that way, and town hall meetings held to address employee “concerns” have dissolved into tearful lamentations about the alleged harm the book will inflict on themselves and others.
This is hardly the only emotional staff mutiny to have been reported in recent weeks and months, and companies seem unsure about how to respond. Employees at Spotify threatened to strike if they were not given editorial control over the guests invited on Joe Rogan’s popular podcast. Abigail Shrier’s book Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters was briefly removed from Target’s inventory following complaints, only to be quickly replaced following a backlash. And students at the University of Chicago have sought to have Professor Dorian Abbot publicly censured for criticizing the university’s diversity and inclusion initiatives and the censorious climate on campus. Numerous other examples abound in academia, publishing, news media, and elsewhere. Anxiety about this trend peaked over this summer and led a number of commentators to sign the Harper’s Letter in an effort to defend free speech and inquiry (an initiative that produced its own furious row).
These emotional attempts to suppress controversial or unpopular speech have increasingly made use of what I call the “Mourner’s Veto”—individuals will say that a speaker or a piece of writing has caused them to become distressed or sad or angry or frightened, and they will support these claims with allegations of “harm” or even threats to their “right to exist.” Reasonable debate and discussion then becomes impossible as activists make unfalsifiable but furiously emotive claims about alleged threats to their safety and wellbeing amid much weeping and claims of exhaustion and mental fragility. It is not healthy for the limits of permissible speech to be dictated by the most sensitive person in the room, nor to allow emotional appeals to supplant robust argument as the most effective strategy in a debate.
The Mourner’s Veto is hardly an invention of the Left. Indeed, the Right has also relied upon it in an attempt to settle contentious cultural and political issues when expedient. The Mourner’s Veto has been used by invoking the threat to women and children as part of attempts to suppress films, violent video games, comic books, pornography, or even the use of slim models in advertizing (who are said—despite a dearth of evidence—to cause anorexia nervosa in young girls). In short—both Left and Right agree that some forms of expression should be forbidden because someone, somewhere, is dead, dying, or ruined as a result.
This kind of heightened emotional expressiveness can be difficult to contend with. A debate participant who dismisses the tear-streaked outbursts of an opponent can appear monstrously insensitive and callous, even if they happen to be right on the facts. On the other hand, indulging this kind of behavior only aggravates and encourages it and constitutes a surrender of reasoned argument to emotional blackmail—a lose-lose scenario for the person arguing from facts and figures. Social pressure and a desire to appear compassionate and empathetic may prevent us from challenging emotional narratives. Even requests for evidence are sometimes misconstrued as exercises in power and privilege even though they are the cornerstone of rational discourse.
There are at least three other problems with the Mourner’s Veto. First, the reliance on “lived experience” conflicts with a wealth of psychological research indicating that we routinely misremember, misattribute, selectively interpret, and/or distort (consciously or unconsciously) information to fit our personal narratives. This by no means invalidates the sincerity of every emotional outcry, but it is hopelessly naive to assume that they represent a more authentic or authoritative kind of truth. Second, to the extent that such strategies enhance social capital and power, it is inevitable that bad actors will exploit them, simply making stuff up in support of their agendas. People like this may be a tiny minority, but they can cause a disproportionate amount of havoc and it is not always easy to tell who is cynical and who is not. Third, by their nature, emotional appeals are often aggressive, daring opponents to question the veracity of claims and risk inevitable blowback.
Of course, anecdotal accounts verified by evidence or eyewitness testimony can be helpful (although eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable), and we should always be willing to listen. But that’s different to simply accepting stories as fact, particularly if any skeptical challenge to emotional narratives is treated as taboo. So what then are we to do about the Mourner’s Veto? That depends upon whether the veto is employed in a context of organizational decision-making or in an open forum as part of a wider cultural debate.
Organizational decision making
First, offer unhappy employees a graceful exit. In response to the outcry at Penguin, some commentators suggested that the insubordinate employees should be fired. This is a mistake. Those employees have a right to hold and express their views. Although authors’ speech rights should obviously be paramount at a publishing house, we needn’t sacrifice those of its employees. The firm Coinbase recently offered an excellent model in the face of political pressure from staff—they offered any employee who wished to leave a generous severance package. My understanding is that few took it up. Firms such as Penguin or Target, or even universities, could do the same. This places the decision back in the hands of the upset individual. People can make bad decisions when they’re emotional (another reason we shouldn’t give credence to emotional mobbing), and giving them some time to reflect before deciding how to proceed can be helpful.
Second, companies need to get into the habit of ignoring social media and discontinuing the practice of outsourcing their public relations or editorial decisions to Twitter (New York Times, I’m looking at you). Social media has many advantages, but it can often swirl into a cesspool of performative outrage that in no way reflects what the average person cares about. In August, American grocery store chain Trader Joe’s simply brushed off outrage about their supposedly insensitive brands of ethnic foods (e.g. Trader Ming’s and Trader Jose’s) and suffered no obvious adverse consequences as a result. Although companies should of course be mindful of customer concerns these are not necessarily well-reflected in belligerent campaigns mounted by online activists. Companies need to develop the backbone to tell such people to ignore moral grandstanding—capitulation is what further empowers campaigners, not indifference.
Third, organizations need to develop clear free speech policies with which all employees are familiarized when they are hired, and to which managers can then defer in times of controversy and crisis.
A trickier issue develops when the Mourner’s Veto is employed during public debates. What do we do with the tear-streaked individual at the microphone? Best practices can vary, depending upon the verifiability of the scenario in question. A person testifying to a well-documented experience of abuse, violence, or maltreatment differs from a person making unverifiable claims. That is not to say that examples of the latter are never true, just that we can’t always tell which are true and which are not; which have been distorted by good-faith cognitive processes, and which are bad-faith fabrications.
First, receive testimony with compassion but not credulity or unchallengeable belief. It is generally a good idea to assume good faith on the part of a speaker and offer a kind word where appropriate. However, we need to be aware that a person’s perspective is not evidence. We must resist the social contagion that encourages us to applaud claims just because others do so when the “harms” invoked are unverifiable. Some personal anecdotes may be brave, but others are simply emotionally manipulative. It can be difficult to know which is which. We need to return to a healthy level of skepticism.
Second, we need to develop robust civil norms for debate. Explaining the difficulties that arise when arguing from emotion or anecdote can help people understand how destructive this approach can be. They may think twice about opening their personal experiences to challenge and scrutiny, and we should encourage widespread understanding that nothing should ever be accepted as fact unless an attempt is made at authentication. Taboos discouraging skepticism of personal experience should themselves be discouraged, so we can better discern between those that seek to inform an audience and those that seek to manipulate it to exert power through emotional means.
Finally, we should discourage unkindness. Nothing I’ve written here should be interpreted as support for cruelty, rudeness, aggression, or incivility. Even personal anecdotes can be challenged in ways that are charitable and sensitive to the speaker’s dignity.
Those who defend the authority of the most sensitive among us to censor the rest ought to consider what will happen when the same standard is employed by their opponents. We must work to restore clearer norms for civil debate, and diminish the power of emotional arguments. Emotions almost invariably lead to bad decisions and the sooner we recognize this in our public discourse, the sooner we’ll be able to tackle our formidable challenges with rational and empirically informed discussions about the many complex issues we face.
Christopher J. Ferguson is a professor of psychology at Stetson University in Florida. He is author of Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games is Wrong and the Renaissance mystery novel Suicide Kings. His new book How Madness Shaped History was released in April 2020. You can follow him on Twitter @CJFerguson1111.
Photo by Aliyah Jamous on Unsplash