It has become a popular view within many of society’s vital institutions that free speech is more a danger than a virtue.
Due to speech codes, safe spaces, and the outrage machine ready to take down anyone for wrongspeak, those working within these institutions have become more focused on protecting themselves from ideas and debate than pursuing them. Instead of working out problems, people are subjected to ridicule for things like making a joke that might offend those who adhere to the “woke” ideology.
This phenomenon has been described by British author Douglas Murray as the result of a “set of tripwires that have been laid across the culture.”
In his book “The Madness of Crowds,” Murray elaborates on how these tripwires usually are activated when someone transgresses certain sensibilities on matters of race, gay/trans rights, and feminism. Murray says there is a tendency among some adamant political actors to “wage a constant war against anybody who seems to be on the wrong side of the question which may itself have just been reframed and the answer to which has only just been altered.”
A recent case in point is that of feminist Meghan Murphy, a journalist who has been banned from Twitter and threatened for trying to point out the contradictions within the idea of gender fluidity and how they impact the law. Moreover, she has contended that “people who were born male, and have spent most of their lives as men, should not automatically be admitted to every space that is otherwise reserved for women.” For making these arguments, Murphy has been labelled a malevolent “TERF,” which in the trans-activist vernacular stands for “Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist.”
There was a campaign to cancel Murphy’s recent talks in Toronto and Vancouver. Despite an outraged mayor, city council, and militant protestors who tried to shut down her Toronto talk, the city librarian for Toronto Public Library Vickery Bowles admirably refused to cancel the event, citing the importance of free speech.
And a few days later, in spite of a last-minute cancellation at Simon Fraser University by the host professor, an event hosting Murphy and three others—free speech advocate Lindsay Shepherd and journalists Jonathan Kay and Anna Slatz—was held at another location in Vancouver.
Morgane Oger, a transgender politician in Vancouver, believes people like Murphy shouldn’t be provided a public platform because her views on transgenderism incite discrimination. Since Murphy “vilifies” people and wants to “deprive” them of their rights, Oger said in an interview, she should not be allowed to promote “hate propaganda” on “prohibited grounds” like a public university. She also claims that, under the veil of feminism, Murphy is trying to galvanize an “angry mob” with “populist fear-mongering.”
But there are a few questions that arise: Is there a proper way to express an opposing view when it comes to transgenderism without it being inherently bigoted? And if someone like Murphy is espousing some sort of bigotry, wouldn’t the public be all the better for hearing it so they can discern what is right and wrong? Makes sense to me, but it seems that no matter what anyone says on the opposing side, it’s automatically evidence of vile intent and the inevitable accusations of “transphobia” start coming.
In posing these questions to Oger, she referred me to how institutions like the Supreme Court and the Human Rights Tribunal have defined hate. The latter, we should keep in mind, has been abused by people looking to censor those who disagree with them because of such laws.
Murphy told me that her intent is not to show malice against trans people or deny them rights. She doesn’t care if one wants to identify as transgender, but “once you start trying to change legislation and policies and that has an impact on other people, we have to talk about it.” She said she’s open to being challenged at her talks by those who disagree with her, but most would rather stick with the tribal narrative.
What we have here is a problem of a double standard. Those advocating for free speech are routinely derided as fascists who are using free speech to oppress others. Someone like Murphy or Jordan Peterson is often compared to Hitler or some other infamous figure associated with mass murder. Believing this, activists feel justified in their malicious efforts to silence people, with their own behaviour resembling that of actual jackboots in the process.
As Jonathan Kay puts it, “Asking people to ‘punch TERFS’ is somehow cast as a legitimate thing, while disagreeing politely with any aspect of gender ideology is cast as intolerable (even murderous) hate speech. It’s easy to win an argument if people take that as your baseline, or if you can convince them that good-faith debate is a form of ‘erasure.’”
Enabling this, obviously, are administrators at places like college campuses who are more than willing to indulge this approach. Janice Fiamengo, an English professor who recently had a talk at the University of British Columbia cancelled, told me the reason administrators won’t discipline those who succeed in shutting down speakers is because “their hearts aren’t in it.”
“They support the so-called ‘anti-fascist’ activists,” she said.
And, of course, there is a double standard in how speakers are treated and protected.
“If I were a feminist activist speaking about rape culture and a group of men were trying to prevent me from speaking, you can bet the university administration would take decisive action and revel in it,” Fiamengo said.
All these challenges notwithstanding, is there reason for optimism when it comes to free speech? Recent events have somewhat evinced that the tide of “woke cancel culture” might be receding as more prominent people see it for what it is. The contradictions are becoming more obvious. For this reason, Kay is optimistic that things might be improving.
“On Twitter, many of the people who have tried hardest to police other people’s speech have now been called out themselves, and some of the biggest woke trolls’ accounts have gone dark,” he said. “And just look at the article the New York Times ran, giving me and Meghan Murphy a fair shake. This wouldn’t have happened a year ago.”
Shane Miller is a political writer based in London, Ontario. Follow him at @Miller_Shane94.