Because Cowardice has No Place in Law or Journalism
I’ll get down to the brass tacks here. This issue of Obiter contains two articles that might be controversial. One article is about Jordan Peterson’s opinion on personal organization in the context of cleaning one’s room, and while none of the article’s content is controversial on its own, people have been criticized for referencing Peterson with anything nicer than utter condemnation. The other article is about issues in the current articling process, and is perhaps only controversial in that such an article needs to be published anonymously. While neither is something like a 3,000-word essay on why we need to bring back eugenics and commit omnicide against anyone who looks at the author cock-eyed, they’re the sort of thing you have to think twice about publishing.
If that’s the case, why are we publishing these articles?
Because it’s wrong to silence any speech that isn’t truly dangerous.
Admittedly, “I have a right to free speech” has become something of a dog whistle for people who want to say awful things with impunity. It’s the battle cry of people who are desperate to be heard without having anything of merit to say, and the refrain of people who really have no defence for their words beyond having a right to utter them. Such people are right in that they do have a right to free expression, but don’t waste your time explaining to them that they don’t have a right to a platform or that people have a right to offer a rebuttal. The wisest course of action would be to invoke your right to not listen, and walk away.
But there are instances in which free expression is a real concern for people with something of value to offer. This issue’s article on the issue of unpaid articling is a must-read for law students, and it’s atrocious that one should even have to consider publishing it anonymously. We’re supposed to protect whistleblowers, dammit! Even the pro-Peterson article has its merits, and while I don’t see anything that really transcends the level of anything you might hear on a daytime talk show, to refuse to publish such a fundamentally benign article would be nothing short of cowardice. Not on my watch.
That said, it’s important to note that rights are not absolute, and even if they were, it’s ridiculous to do something just because you have a right to do it. You don’t have a right to shout “fire” in a crowded movie theatre, nor do you have a right to incite hatred against a protected group. Perhaps this is policing speech, but if someone else needs to police your speech, odds are you should be giving more thought to what you say. You have a right to call your boss a “dumb son of a bitch”, but unless he absolutely is a dumb son of a bitch and you’re done with that job anyway, it’s not something you should say (even then, it’s probably unwise). There’s a strong chance that you would be fired for insubordination. A person who polices your speech in that instance is probably less concerned with your rights and more concerned with you keeping your job and not making a fool out of yourself.
And on top of that, it beggars belief that free speech rights are being substantially threatened when the people who are most vocal about the threat are largely fighting for a right to embarrass themselves. The founders of Western democracy certainly did fight and shed blood for the various rights we enjoy, but they were probably a lot more concerned with your right to criticize government and not get murdered for it. Your right to call someone an ethnic slur was probably pretty low on the reasons to take a bullet. You’ll have to excuse people who are more concerned with people freezing to death in the streets than your right to abuse a civil liberty. There are much bigger fish to fry.
But despite my obvious disdain for those who trivialize free expression, Obiter is willing to publish anything that isn’t openly hateful, libelous, or especially obscene. Yeah, let’s put the boots to firms who think articling students should work for free. Sure, let’s publish an article promoting Peterson’s work outside of his campaign against pronouns. Hell, I was disappointed last year when the backlash to an article condemning a former Israeli Prime Minister didn’t materialize into a written response that we could publish. We’re adults, capable of having adult conversations, and we’re specifically training to have adult conversations on behalf of people who for some reason or another can’t have adult conversations. In the words of Professor Hutchinson to anyone brave enough to interrupt him with a question or comment: “speak up!”
To conclude, Obiter is for free speech (stereotypes about the liberal establishment notwithstanding). If you read something here you don’t like, a rebuttal is encouraged, and if you don’t want to read an article about Jordan Peterson’s work as a psychologist, just skip that article.