Defending free speech or entertaining free-market-speech?

free speech
Photo by Tim Tadder. From the project "Nothing to See" which raises the question whether truth and equality have been replaced with deception and division. The pigment represents the grains of truths falling away one by one.

Pseudo-fascism is entering our campuses via the invitation of Jordan Peterson at Room for Discussion. The events in Pittsburgh cut through our souls, and we still have to explain this pseudo-fascism of his? This is the speech I had prepared for the counter-event Jordan Peterson: Symptom of A System in Crisis. It’s a strange time to hear Peterson’s lamentations.

I really recommend reading the letters of our FMG colleagues and especially the efforts by Polly Pallister-Wilkins (Folia), those of Bezorgde Amsterdammers, the pieces by Vino Avanesi, and Annelies Moors, as well as the article by Jeroen van der Starre in De Socialist about the so-called ‘Cultural Marxism’ propagated by Peterson, and in The Netherlands by Paul Cliteur and his protege Thierry Baudet. I have five short points I would like to share.

1 There is power

We live in a society where particular power relations and a related ideological (or even cultural) hegemony means that there is no free or neutral public debate. Just look around you, note whether you can actually hear the ‘controversial’ voices from e.g. a Jihadi organisation or radical left opposition that is either treated without challenge, with respect or as an equal partner that doesn’t have to be ridiculed. I don’t, so don’t lie to me about defending ‘free’ speech, since there is no freedom, there is no free speech, though there is plenty of free-market-speech. Thus unequal power relations are more than class, race or gender.

Having watched the live streaming of Peterson’s interview today, I find that there was no professional debate and no inquiry either — Peterson could be himself and was in his comfort zone. He sometimes sheds a sad tear, especially when he is uncertain. The emotional manipulations applied are torturous to watch. If a POC had reacted this way, the audience would burst out laughing. The interviewers compliment him a lot but interrupt him none — not even when he talks complete gibberish — let alone exhibit a critical approach as interviewers by exposing the premises of his arguments, and showing the contradictions. What we saw in part today, was the white-male fanbase, clearly alive and kicking, being entertained.

One said: “I am 20 years old and I’m your biggest fan already. What is your advice for me?” It was at this point, towards the end, that Peterson was coming out stronger. He was giving advice right in front of our noses on how to organise right-wing ideas and espouse them efficiently. Let’s deconstruct what he tells the guy. He says “you should write, engage, read, iron out the contradictions … then elegantly mediate them.” He adds “organise your ideas, summarize them, be coherent, hone your words,” and finally, he adds “then you get all authority, […] then you are deadly in the best way.” This is populism 101. We can see where Baudet has learned his tricks. But therefore,

2 There are consequences

There is a link between speech and actions. Injustice is not a magical phenomenon, it’s a matter of scale. Nor does it occur from one day to the next, it’s a process.

Listen to the speech of Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh: “It starts with speech,” as he said this in the synagogue and added that “words of hate are unwelcome in Pittsburgh.” There was an outburst of emotion and a standing ovation because everyone knew what and who this was about. Words matter.

As we watch how in the highest power echelons of the US the allegiance between Trump and racial violence become causal, we are not shocked but remember that this has been the case for a while in The Netherlands. We here know well that once racist language becomes bon ton, racist practice is around the corner. And thus the idea of free speech, opinions, or debate does not exist in a vacuum,

3 There is context

In The Netherlands there is a high degree of racism denial in line with a worldwide process of a sharp increase in violent right-wing groups. Context matters. More importantly, what do we do about this as a university? Are there organisations or campus based campaigns, can we organise debates to talk about justice, about how to get it?

Why so much the emphasis on discourse? Let us challenge the reactionary prejudices about universities as ‘elite spaces’ and make them into activist strongholds that are part and parcel of the struggle rather than only engage in debates about them. And the university as a certain kind of public institute matters. This also assumes that,

4 There is accountability

Our university cannot be complicit in racism and misogyny, and must be reminded of a conscience it carries on our behalf. The University of Amsterdam (UvA) has a responsibility and can not hide behind a commercial or independent Room for Discussion entity as she has delegated them — for money, obviously — to organise events, the UvA clearly also wants to profit from the fame Room for Discussion provides them. But we, the 99%, the working class, minorities, LGBTQ, trans, etc., we pay the price for that fame.

Yet the real the question is: who determines the policy? What are the conditions of Room for Discussion? Why do we constantly get neoliberal and right-wing ideologists whether Christine Lagarde (IMF) or Jordan Peterson (Social Darwinism) pushed down our throats? What is the added value? Why this procedure, and not another one? Why is so much of our public space and so many of our intellectual tools being privatised and given to corporate companies, such as those behind Room for Discussion?

Again, there is accountability: note the contradiction with Peterson’s interview. In his answer about Trump he calls him a trickster and gives examples, so why doesn’t the interviewer interrupt him in the end, during his own answer to the “I am your biggest fan” with advice about how to conquer the debating field with a friendly reminder “but you mentioned these very traits just before, when describing Trump as the trickster … so, do you mean Trump is doing it well? Don’t you think your advice comes down to the same as Trump’s approach?”

Differently said, Room for Discussion should ask for some clarification at least in the parts that are dubious: “what do you mean with ‘then you get all authority?’ or with ‘then you are deadly in the best way’ — what is ‘deadly’, just to be clear?” In other words, if its about debate only, Room for Discussion should also show Peterson’s brown and populist side, not just his Dr. Phil side. Instead, the analysis we got from the organisers was: ‘Well, this is such a beautiful way to end the debate … .” No, this was not a debate, this was free advertising for Peterson. However,

5 Let us not forget that there is hope

Because there is also something that corporates and their corporations cannot buy: unity and the power of solidarity. I just read how the Muslim community of Pittsburgh raised money for the funerals and offer protection to their Jewish neighbors and synagogues. And I saw Palestinian Linda Sarsour at a rally yesterday explaining what unity means in these very dark times. She said: “There are a lot of forces that are trying to divide us. We are in a movement where unity is not uniformity or agree on all the same political issues.”

So, let’s also find the lowest common denominator of justice on our campuses and share it through cooperation. This university is not only of the white-male-privileged but this was fought for in 60s, 70s, 80s, and we still do. The university as the upper-white(male)-class comfort zone is over. But that doesn’t mean they like it. With the surge of right-wing conservatism they feel confident to push back, reverse progress, and this is precisely why Peterson and the like want to go back to the 1950s.

In times of so much counter-revolution in the world, the dividing lines are sharper. We are scared, we feel rage, there will be anger about the lack of justice, but we will have to channel that together. Therefore, it’s not just about Room for Discussion but about the fact that the choices about getting and welcoming Peterson are also a reflection of the current balance of forces and the shifting boundaries.

We should not make it only about these elite clubs or the media-slick events, but about ourselves and that we are saying:

Let’s also challenge the cause and the problem, not just the symptoms.


 

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