I’m sorry. I really am. But we have to talk about Jordan Peterson. The controversial author and former University of Toronto professor is back in the news, this time for disciplinary action meted out by the College of Psychologists of Ontario and his predictably furious response to it. The college, which governs his activities as a clinical psychologist, has responded to a growing number of complaints about his unprofessional conduct with a recommendation that he undergo social media training — one he’s turned into a (yet another) national controversy.
“For my crimes,” Peterson wrote in a column for the National Post, “I have been sentenced to a course of mandatory social-media communication training with the college’s so-called experts (although social media communication training is not a scientific and certainly not a clinical specialty of any standing).” Noted “free speech absolutist” Elon Musk (who has fired Twitter employees for disagreeing with him), Conrad Black and Conservative Party of Canada Leader Pierre Poilievre were among the high-profile allies that rallied to Peterson’s side.
Peterson hasn’t committed any crimes, of course, unless being excessively dramatic has been added to the Criminal Code of late. And his now-deleted post in which he accidentally released the full names and detailed personal information of the people who filed the complaints against him — in essence, doxxing them to his 3.6 million followers — shows that he might be in need of some social media training after all.
That’s not the only irony here. Despite his enthusiasm for preaching the gospel of personal responsibility to other men, Peterson takes a pass on it here. “The fact that it is happening (and that physicians and lawyers have become as terrified as psychologists now are of their own regulatory bodies) is something that has definitely happened on your watch,” he wrote in a performative letter to the prime minister, “as a consequence of your own conduct and the increasingly compulsion-based and ideologically pure policies that you have promoted and legislated.”
But once you set aside Peterson’s well-honed bluster and bravado, a few important facts emerge. First, as Peterson himself acknowledges, he hasn’t actually practised since 2017, when “my rising notoriety or fame made continuing as a private therapist practically and ethically impossible.” And second, while he desperately wants to make this about Justin Trudeau and his government, the College of Psychologists of Ontario is, as its name suggests, a provincial organization.
There is nothing unjust or illiberal about professional organizations enforcing codes of conduct for their members. The government is not restricting Peterson’s speech or telling him what he can and cannot say, and he’s welcome to tweet all the bile and invective he likes at whichever politicians he chooses. But his professional organization, which is responsible for protecting the best interests of its members and the public they serve, can also make its own choices.
Peterson is right about one thing, though: this isn’t really about him. It’s about our collective understanding of free speech rights and how they actually work in Canada, one that Conservatives seem determined to conflate and confuse with the American approach. There is, for example, no guarantee of free speech in Canada’s Constitution. Canada safeguards the “freedom of expression” but weighs it against the rights of other Canadians. There are no unimpeachable or absolute rights in Canada, as Section 1 of our Charter makes clear. Instead, those rights are “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”
In his entirely predictable video about Peterson’s predicament (how could he not comment on something that combines “cancel culture” and “gatekeepers”?), Poilievre skips right past that small detail. Instead, after the usual hand-wringing about “cancel culture” and “the woke movement,” Poilievre points to Section 2(b), which guarantees “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.”
“2-B or not 2-B? That is the question,” Poilievre says. “And the answer is that, as Voltaire has been quoted as saying, ‘I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to my death your right to say it.’”
What do Jordan Peterson, Pierre Poilievre and Elon Musk have in common? None of them understand how free speech actually works — especially in Canada, writes columnist Max Fawcett. #cdnpoli #FreeSpeech #Opinion
Peterson, of course, has not been denied that right. But neither has he been excused from the potential consequences associated with exercising it, especially when it comes to his own professional body. That’s how free speech actually works in Canada, much to the chagrin of those who would like their opinions to be sacrosanct.
According to a recent national survey by the University of Saskatchewan’s Canadian Hub for Applied and Social Research, most Canadians are fine with that. While 12.4 per cent of respondents said Canadians have “very little” or no free speech, 85.9 per cent said they felt we “fully” or “somewhat” have it. Nearly three-quarters (72.9 per cent) support stronger government action against hate speech, while 68 per cent want private companies (like social media platforms) to “crack down” on hate speech.
The federal government would do well to remember this as it contemplates potential legislation that would combat the sort of online hate speech that has spread and multiplied in recent years. That legislation was supposed to come within 100 days of its 2021 election victory, and it’s now more than a year overdue. Yes, they’ll get yelled at by Poilievre and any number of Postmedia pundits for bringing it forward, and there will be Petersonian accusations about the war on free speech. But Canadians, by and large, are on the government’s side here. If nothing else, it could serve as an important learning opportunity about how our Constitution, and our country, actually works.