All posts filed under: Free Speech

Enlightenment Literature as Foreign Aid

“If God were to humiliate a human being,” wrote Imam Ali bin abi Talib in the sixth century, “He would deny him knowledge.” If the woeful state of knowledge in lands beset by authoritarian regimes is any indication, a great number of human beings in our world have been lavishly humiliated, albeit by natural rather than supernatural forces. Nearly 20 years ago, a clique of Arab intellectuals sounded the alarm about this widespread denial of knowledge in their realm, and its many malign effects. The Arab Development Report of 2002, published by the United Nations Development Program, vividly illustrated the miserable condition to which Arab societies had been reduced at the dawn of the new millennium. It called attention to the “closed circle” that had long held sway across the region. In the past 1,000 years, the authors declared, Arabs collectively have translated as many books as Spain translates in one year. This is a breathtaking fact, notwithstanding a thriving black market for prohibited books that escaped the official tally as well as the habit of …

Resisting the Mourner’s Veto

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 …

Why Do Progressives Support the Unfettered Use of Private Property?

In mid-October, Twitter took the unprecedented step of preventing its users from sharing a link to a New York Post story reporting allegations about the Biden family’s foreign financial interests. Whenever controversies about social media censorship arise, a mantra is repeated in their defence, usually by progressives: these are private companies and, as such, they can regulate speech on their platforms however they wish. Notice that this claim does not simply maintain that companies can restrict information in pursuit of specific policy aims (like thwarting criminal activity such as human trafficking efforts or combating terrorist networks). Instead, they can restrict expression on their platforms simply because those platforms are company property. Among the most familiar responses to this argument is the view that, even though these tech giants are private entities, they function like public forums in which free expression should be upheld. Here, I spell out a different approach: that while social media companies are indeed private entities, they should nevertheless be unable to regulate non-criminal activity on their platforms for a variety of moral …

Race and Social Panic at Haverford: A Case Study in Educational Dysfunction

“You have continued to stand as an individual that seems to turn a blind eye to the stuff that’s going on, as a black woman that is in the [college] administration,” said the first-year Haverford College student. “I came to this institution”—and here she pauses for a moment, apparently fighting back tears—“I expected you, of any of us, to stand up and be the icon for black women on this campus… So, I’m not trying to hear anything that you have to say regarding that, due to the fact that you haven’t stood up for us—you never have, and I doubt that you ever will.” The school-wide November 5th Zoom call, a recording of which has been preserved, was hosted by Wendy Raymond, Haverford’s president. At the time, the elite Pennsylvania liberal arts college was a week into a student strike being staged, according to organizers, to protest “anti-blackness” and the “erasure of marginalized voices.” During the two-hour-and-nine-minute discussion, viewed in real time by many of the school’s 1,350 students, Raymond presented herself as solemnly …

I’m a Professor from an Immigrant Family. Please Stop Telling Me That My University Is Racist

On June 24th, the University of Calgary leadership team published its response to an open letter, dated June 9th, from hundreds of students, alumni, and faculty. The original letter had called on the university to make a series of anti-racist statements, and commit to a series of actions to address racism on campus. The specific statements and actions were helpfully catalogued in the open letter. While the university president declined to give details on his plan of action, he declared in his June 24th response that “it is no longer adequate to simply not be racist, it is time to be anti-racist”; and that “systemic racism exists, and we allow it to live on when we fail to address it meaningfully and with urgency. There is systemic racism at UCalgary, and it is incumbent upon us to tackle this challenge with vigour and purpose.” This is all very familiar. In recent months, we have seen countless organizations re-affirm their commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI), tout all the good work they have already done …

Secular Modernity under Theocratic Assault

Professor Leszek Kołakowski, one of the great Polish intellectual dissidents from the Stalinist period, liked to say that when he debated with apologists for the system, he often found himself almost on the losing side. Kołakowski hastened to add that this fact did not owe to the superior arguments of his opponents. To the contrary. The arguments of his opponents were so foolish and antiquated that he’d simply forgotten what the original refutations were. A similar phenomenon can be registered in the West today with respect to heady accusations of blasphemy. With homicidal religious maniacs avenging the hurt feelings of the faithful, many liberal-minded people have taken to questioning fundamental republican norms and the basis of secular democracy. The recent events in France, which has again become the target of Islamist menace, provide a useful occasion to review the newly contested principles of the Enlightenment. This autumn has brought news of three separate Islamist attacks on French soil. It began with a knife attack last month in Paris outside the former office of the Charlie Hebdo magazine. A few weeks …

How The Intercept Abandoned Its Truth-Seeking Mission—And Lost Its Best Journalist

Journalist Glenn Greenwald shocked his global readership on Thursday, when he abruptly announced his resignation from the Intercept, the six-year-old site that became famous after publishing documents released by Edward Snowden. The incident that sparked Greenwald’s departure was the Intercept’s refusal to publish in whole an article he’d written criticizing much of the US media for failing to seriously cover allegations by a former business associate of Hunter Biden—son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden—that the Biden family had used its name to profit from business deals in foreign countries where the United States has important foreign-policy interests. Since his early days at the Intercept, which Greenwald co-founded in 2014 with left-wing journalist Jeremy Scahill and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, he operated under an agreement stipulating that his columns would be published without the requirement that they be edited by colleagues. In a lengthy statement posted to his new Substack page, Greenwald argues that politically motivated Intercept editors violated this agreement in regard to his latest article, by “refusing to publish it unless I remove all …

Bruce Gilley vs Cancel Culture

Professor Bruce Gilley of Portland State University is a man not unfamiliar with controversy. In 2017, he wrote an article titled “The Case for Colonialism,” which argued that Western colonialism was “both objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate in most of the places where it was found.” Soon after the article appeared on the website for Third World Quarterly, the journal where it had been accepted for publication, two petitions were launched demanding its retraction. One of these, which got more than 7,000 signatures, claimed that sentiments expressed in the article “reek of colonial disdain for Indigenous peoples and ignore ongoing colonialism in white settler nations.” (The other petition, incidentally, got more than 11,000 signatures.) By the time the dust settled, Third World Quarterly’s editor had received “serious and credible threats of personal violence,” 15 members of the editorial board had resigned, and Gilley’s article had been retracted. For Gilley, however, things were just getting started. A group of current and former students from Portland State University wrote to his bosses to express their “collective outrage, …

How Availability Cascades are Shaping our Politics

“When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.” – Eric Hoffer, 1955 We are the company we keep. Although our beliefs and actions are personal, they are often heavily affected by the people around us. When everyone else seems to be thinking the same way, we may succumb to crowd pressure rather than thinking for ourselves. When all available information seems to indicate that everyone is falling in line with a certain belief, we may be under the influence of an “availability cascade.” Today, our politics and public discourse are being poisoned by availability cascades. Thanks partly to partisan domination of the media and academia, many people are being pressured into publicly espousing beliefs that are not their own. Two components make up an availability cascade: an informational cascade and a reputational cascade. An informational cascade creates genuine changes in people’s beliefs by providing plentiful but misleading information. A reputational cascade is a vicious cycle in which individuals feign expressions of conviction to retain social approval. In the 2007 …

The Importance of Blasphemy

Anyone who thought the age of plague might have banished the specter of religious fanaticism was disabused last week when a middle school teacher in a Paris suburb was beheaded by an Islamist fanatic for displaying caricatures of the prophet Mohammad during a class discussion about free speech. The assailant, a teenager of Chechen origin, murdered and then decapitated his victim before being killed by French police. Less than a fortnight before, there was a stabbing outside the Parisian offices formerly occupied by the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, which France’s interior minister also described as an “act of Islamist terrorism.” The stubborn persistence of Islamist terror speaks to the durability of ferocious faith-based dogmas, one of which seeks to reintroduce secular Western democracies to the long-forgotten notion of “blasphemy.” This will only come as a surprise to those with short memories. Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa suborning the murder of Salman Rushdie for merely writing a novel reignited the old debate about the place of tolerance in an age of religious hatred. More than 30 years …