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Behind the Lens
Why I organized a free speech rally and invited Jordan Peterson
By Geoffrey Liew

In October 2016, I organized the “Rally for Free Speech” at the University of Toronto in response to the calls for the resignation of Jordan Peterson, a controversial psychology professor. His popular video, “Professor Against Political Correctness” claimed that Bill C-16 – a bill aimed at criminalizing discrimination on the grounds of gender identity – was actually part of a larger legislative effort to curtail freedom of speech.

Although this particular claim has shown itself to be questionable over time, my intention was to create a much-needed public space for dialogue. Both Jordan Peterson and Lauren Southern, a Canadian far-right political activist and then-journalist for Rebel Media, were invited to speak, followed by an open forum for all who wished to voice their opinion.

As is seen in the CBC Docs POV film, Shut Him Down: The Rise of Jordan Peterson, what followed was absolute chaos. Protesters showed up with speakers blasting white noise, people shoved each other in the tumult and Southern was struck by an enraged activist on camera. Meanwhile, opinions flowed forth, some eloquently calling for freedom of speech and dialogue, some decrying social injustice and bigotry, and yet others voicing ugly slurs and obnoxious sentiments.

Do I still believe it was important to give Jordan Peterson a platform? Yes, absolutely. The fact that someone’s controversial opinion brought forth a torrent of violence, incoherent chanting, and streams of epithets indicates that our universities are only open to a select group of ideas belonging to a predetermined narrative. It seemed to me that these activists who attended the rally believed that some ideas of his were so dangerous that their mere utterance would infect the minds of others — and so they wanted to shut him down.

The events of the rally were not surprising, as identity politics had already taken firm hold of public discourse during my time at the University of Toronto. When a former UofT executive was accused of financial fraud, The Black Liberation Collective protested the student union on the grounds that the lawsuit against the former executive was anti-black racism. When the Ryerson Men’s Issues Awareness Society applied for club status, it was repeatedly rejected, as it did not run consistently with the student government’s “core equity values.”

These events reinforced my perception that only a certain set of ideas are acceptable in public discourse. If my concerns were unfounded, then the rally would have been a quiet, unremarkable affair. But the fact that the free speech rally was met with such rage and vitriol demonstrated that I had struck a nerve.

Jordan Peterson is central to this debate. He has garnered many supporters because he dared to question the narrative of what was acceptable political discourse. However, his exposure to the international stage was also beneficial for his opponents, as it revealed some of his poorly-conceived notions. I personally have some issues with his ideas.

He has made a daring and much-needed stand against political correctness. However, in doing so he has mischaracterized his opponents as a monolithic group of “postmodern neo-Marxists.” I feel that this greatly discounts the complexity of thought behind post-modernism, Marxism, and LGBT+ thought.

Peterson is also an enchanting orator who utilizes archetypical biblical stories and his experience as a clinical psychologist to expound on self-help, positive psychology, and meaningful living. He also espouses a traditional notion of the meaning of life, centred around family, productivity, and spiritual beliefs.

While his message is inspirational for many people, I also feel that it is deeply at odds with values of individualism and self-determination at the core of our culture. As someone who has chosen to leave home to come to Canada, I see this as a society where you can choose to live your life according to your true self — this might mean you do not follow societal norms when it comes to relationships, spiritual beliefs, and identity. But, I would never propose to censor those who advocate for a traditional way of living either.

Social justice is meant to remove unjust barriers that keep people from living their lives. Surely, this is something that people on both sides of the spectrum can agree on — to a point. When social justice becomes more about micromanaging people’s language and shutting down the discussion of uncomfortable topics, it becomes overbearing. People have firmly held beliefs about gender, race, and sexuality that will not change if you insult them.

Clearly, these are complex and nuanced topics. Still, even if you vehemently disagree, this does not mean you have a right to silence your opponents. Bad ideas can only be refuted if they are challenged in public to rigorous examination. Good ideas can only take root once they have been able to withstand the criticism of skeptics.

Since organizing the rally, I have become more questioning and less certain of all opinions that I had firmly held before. There is beautiful nuance in all ideas and I still engage in heated, contrarian discussions. It is important that we continue to consider all perspectives. Especially if you disagree.

Watch Shut Him Down.

Geoffrey Liew is currently studying nursing at the University of British Columbia. He graduated from the University of Toronto in 2017 after completing a degree in history and political science. During that time he co-founded Students in Support for Free Speech and the University of Toronto Students For Liberty.