To anyone who has been paying attention, it is obvious that quite the storm has been brewing over the question of free speech. Common diagnoses of the current state of affairs tend to stack up at the fringe ends of the spectrum: either we are witnessing an all out assault on the capacity for free expression, or alternatively an emerging cohort of bad actors attempting to hide behind the shield of “free speech” in order to better conjure their dark magic (i.e. “F*ck free speech!”). Whatever the case may be—and it is most likely a less extreme version of the former option—the normal undercurrent of the debate does indeed seem to be shifting in recent years. It is worthwhile to examine a particular vein of this shift, and what that might entail as our free speech wars rage on.
This vein is inhabited by a subset of intellectuals who reside in various influential institutions. They are seemingly discontent with the usual framing of free speech discussions, and offer up an alternative. A rough paraphrasing of their position might look something like this: “Let the masses argue over and keep their free speech. What is truly needed in our time is a set of highly trained individuals to moderate the proper forums of debate, select the resulting ideas which are acceptable to adopt, and oversee the dissemination of those ideas to the broader culture.” For the sake of clarity, this position will be referred to as the argument for a class of Gatekeepers. While the Gatekeeping narrative certainly contains some attractive elements, it is also riddled with shaky assumptions and has an elitist hue to it.
For more precise articulation of the Gatekeepers’ position, we will turn to a Professor of Philosophy by the name of Bryan W. Van Norden. Van Norden recently published an opinion piece in the New York Times offering up his version of the above stated argument. The piece was derided and praised in the usual circles for the usual politically motivated reasons, but it is unproductive to simply rehash the peripheral Twitter banter here. Instead, the piece is worth a closer look because of its instructive value: Van Norden himself succumbs to the pitfalls which are embedded within the Gatekeeping model, thereby demonstrating its dangers if implemented on a larger scale.
As the backdrop for expounding his further ideas, he initially develops a less than stellar argument against total adoption of free speech practices and norms by our society. This accomplished, he eventually arrives at the meat of his thesis. A few lengthy excerpts here will provide the context needed to properly weigh its merits:
“Instead, I suggest that we could take a big step forward by distinguishing free speech from just access. Access to the general public, granted by institutions like television networks, newspapers, magazines, and university lectures, is a finite resource. Justice requires that, like any finite good, institutional access should be apportioned based on merit and on what benefits the community as a whole. ”
Near the end of the piece:
“What just access means in terms of positive policy is that institutions that are the gatekeepers to the public have a fiduciary responsibility to award access based on the merit of ideas and thinkers. To award space in a campus lecture hall to someone like Peterson who says that feminists “have an unconscious wish for brutal male domination,” or to give time on a television news show to someone like Coulter who asserts that in an ideal world all Americans would convert to Christianity, or to interview a D-list actor like Jenny McCarthy about her view that actual scientists are wrong about the public health benefits of vaccines is not to display admirable intellectual open-mindedness. It is to take a positive stand that these views are within the realm of defensible rational discourse, and that these people are worth taking seriously as thinkers.”
Indeed, how nice this all sounds. Van Norden couches the central ideas of his position in fairly unobjectionable language which only a lunatic would be apt resist. After all, what person in their right mind wants a bunch of bad ideas floating around? It seemingly makes sense to situate the wiser ones among us at the bottlenecks of our debates, allowing only the information and ideas they ultimately decide to be productive and true to flow downstream to the rest of us. Why not entrust them with the heavy lifting?
To be fair, there are many elements to this proposal which deserve praise. Part of what Van Norden is attempting to convey here is the need for socially responsible means of engaging in our public discourse. He rightly highlights the necessity of guarding against havoc that bad ideas can wreak upon a group of people, be that at a local, national or global level. The infiltration of misguided or malicious ideas can undoubtedly distort the behavior of individuals and groups within a political or social context, unleashing various forms of chaos and undoing much progress that has been carefully cultivated up to this point. As articulated above, his solution to mitigate this chaotic scenario is an institutional one. While it is certainly easy to be in agreement with him up to this point, when attempting to imagine the implementation of Van Norden’s brand of institutional safeguards some major issues arise.
The first criticism worth noting is actually quite a simple one: who is allowed entrance into the Gatekeepers Club? On its face, this may seem a superfluous question, but accrues more weight the longer one dwells on it. This is particularly a problem for Van Norden, because the supposed pariahs he cites in the piece (Jordan Peterson, Ann Coulter and Jenny McCarthy) are each ostensibly included in the various institutions to which he is appealing for the ultimate safekeeping of truth—namely the media and our network of universities. What is to be done in those situations? Is it necessary then, in order to reinforce the integrity of his original proposal, to delegate a higher set of Gatekeepers; the Gatekeepers of the Gatekeepers, so to speak? How many continuing levels of this stratification is required, and where does the process terminate? If there were to arise a hierarchical pyramid of Gatekeepers, is the ultimate power to mediate the flow of information finally deposited in a single person, or should it reside in an oligarchy of Gatekeepers? These are just a few of the very important considerations to be addressed, but Van Norden seems content to instead pass over them with vague language.
The natural response to these questions might appeal to some sort of a democratic process, whereby the majority of those in the academic realm, for example, would determine which ideas are outside the pale by attempting to arrive at a consensus via debate. This may sound noble, but it is merely appealing to the very thing previously discounted. Such a process can only operate by the mechanism of absolute free speech—which Van Norden spends a significant portion of time disparaging—in order to properly gain a purchase on which ideas deserve derision, and which deserve further examination. And if one were to argue that such free speech should only be allowed unfettered expression within those special circles, then they have already admitted their allegiance to an elitist logic.
While Van Norden’s proposal is already off to a shaky start, this is only the beginning of the trouble with his argument. As alluded to previously, for more on this we will turn to Van Norden himself. It is perhaps safe to assume that, seeing as he would most likely consider himself within the ranks of the Gatekeepers, he would subsequently strive to model the type of robust consistency required of such a vital societal institution. Unfortunately, the journalistic tale would seem to indicate otherwise.
Similar to his concluding remarks quoted above, he seeks at the outset of the piece to paint a dire landscape of ignorant ideas infiltrating our discourse by citing two examples: the “adolescent opinion” of Jordan Peterson and the “groundless claim” of Ann Coulter. While it might also be interesting to discuss Coulter’s comments, Van Norden’s characterization of Peterson is so bad it is almost comical, and therefore is a more useful springboard to further examine the merits of his piece. Here is the offending sentence upon which he proceeds to set the framework for his argument soon to follow: “Jordan Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, has complained that men can’t ‘control crazy women’ because men ‘have absolutely no respect’ for someone they cannot physically fight.”
To anyone even slightly familiar with the work and commentary of Peterson, this is a bizarre sentence and immediately sets off alarm bells. It conjures imagery of a misogynistic Peterson fantasizing about men punching women in the face in order to emerge with some sliver of respect for them. Furthermore, it implies that Peterson is prone to view women as “crazy,” and preoccupied with cooking up means of maintaining a patriarchal stranglehold on their autonomy (as articulated in all its foolish glory here). This would all be so laughable if it wasn’t the default type of characterization—in the New York Times especially—that has emerged from countless hit pieces on Peterson in recent months.
So then, if Van Norden’s narrative is misleading, what is it that Peterson was actually saying? For those that are interested, the full interview from which Van Norden conveniently plucked the quotes in question is available here. After watching it, the only apparently sinful behavior that Peterson appears to be guilty of is the taboo examination of the societal foundations upon which the interaction of the male and female sexes is predicated. He is simply interrogating the extreme fringes of the behavioral landscape; how should society seek to address those who are belligerently engaged in socially unacceptable actions? Specifically—and this is of course what got him in trouble—Peterson wonders how men and women should deal with such behavior when it spills over in aggression towards members of the opposite sex. He cites the timeless intra-male method of curbing such shenanigans—namely, bare fists—but is attempting to work towards a nuanced inter-sex solution as well. Simply put, the scenario he is describing is the classic quandary every schoolboy has inevitably come upon at some point in their life. They are faced with a female nemesis who is aggressively engaging in either speech or behavior that would have earned her a swift kick to the nuts were she a boy. Without resorting to underhanded or disrespectful measures, what is a boy to do in this case? What are his honorable forms of recourse to address the problem? In particular, what is to be done if the usual structures—higher authorities and traditional social norms—break down and allow an unchecked string of offenses? This difficulty is certainly not one which loses its potency as age progresses either—the rules of the game simply evolve. When it is transplanted into the world of adults it still maintains its core operative features, but is also couched in much more complex societal mechanisms for behavioral regulation. With all this said it is certainly possible that Peterson is mistaken in his assessments of or solutions to these issues. Nonetheless, he is simply engaging in discourse aimed at addressing what he rightly sees as an important conversation that needs to be ongoing between the sexes. Of course, resorting to a misogynistic labeling of him and his ideas is easier than diving into these questions.
In the event that all of this is read as a stereotypically dogmatic defense of Peterson, it should be noted that the intent here is not to shield his ideas from robust stress-testing as well. Although there may be plenty of other areas in which to do so, some of the most interesting happen to be an interrogation of his religious and philosophical stances. To offer some samples along these lines, something akin to guns blazing can be found here, while this summary offers a more even-keeled critique of his corpus of ideas.
Returning to Van Norden once again, the type of inaccurate representation of Peterson he displays is the kind one would only expect to find in a person already prone to dismiss another’s argument, and to weight evidence against it merely because said evidence falls in line with their previously formulated opinions. In other words, Van Norden is demonstrating another relevant observation for our conversation: the Gatekeepers are apparently just as susceptible to the infection of confirmation bias as the rest of us mere intellectual mortals.
A recognition of this bias at work is helpful in determining how in the world he arrived at this contorted view of Peterson. Conveniently for us, it is his own admission while engaged in defending the piece on Twitter that does him in. This he willingly produces in response to Peterson himself, who called him out directly:
This may come as a shocker, but the article provided by Van Norden here is far from the mighty weapon he presents it as. At best, it is underwhelming; at worst, completely embarrassing. It is certainly not the zinger one would hope to be able to produce while defending themself against the person they have just very publicly accused of being the new mascot for misogyny—in the pages of the New York Times no less. It is instead exactly the kind of fluff that someone who already believes something comes upon in their online wanderings (most likely with the help of some convenient algorithms), quickly scans, and subsequently places in their growing arsenal of pre-cooked arguments.
Furthermore, the fact that Van Norden had no qualms admitting in a public forum that he was just then (a full day after publication) double checking his shallow source material, after publishing a piece in arguably the most visible publication in the entire world, is—to put it mildly—truly mind-boggling. It simply demonstrates the entirely bizarre journalistic world in which many of our Gatekeepers seem to be operating. To clarify, this is in no way intended as a slight against his character. He is doubtless an amiable enough fellow, and has most likely produced perfectly legitimate academic work within his arena of study. Instead, the observations so far hint at something significantly more concerning: Van Norden and his Gatekeeping comrades are too often operating on the assumption that their audience—or at least the part of their audience that matters—already agrees with them. Any lack of a rigorous process whereby sources are vetted to a near prohibitive degree now begins to make sense. Why bother when no one will ruthlessly check your work, and those who happen to occasionally are already in your camp? When the dust has settled then, we have here a textbook case of error begetting error begetting more error: Van Norden’s previously mentioned confirmation bias has led to cursory research, all in pursuit of crafting an argument which bolsters the clout of the elite class to which he already belongs.
Unfortunately for Van Norden, this isn’t quite the end of the story. Besides his misunderstanding of Peterson’s actual arguments and ideas, there is another level of ironic error happening here. As the alternative option to Peterson’s apparent misogyny, he offers up to his readers the shining example of Kate Manne instead. While commentary on Manne’s potentially valid academic work—to which Van Norden was referring in his piece—is not relevant to this discussion, at the very least her interview with Vox regarding Peterson’s new book does not exactly inspire confidence in her ability to properly understand and represent his ideas. Here is Peterson’s response to Manne’s treatment of his work, in which he details many instances of a fundamentally misleading and incomplete representation of the book—and ultimately the man behind it.
So far the track record is not looking good for our Gatekeepers. To sum up: one of them (Van Norden) has engaged in a mischaracterization and subsequent surface-level dismissal of an intellectual counterpart’s public statements, and the other (Manne) has pursued a highly visible line of argumentation about that intellectual’s work which is flat out incorrect. To make matters worse, they are referring readers to each other. It must be nice indeed to be in this club.
Returning to a birds-eye view of this discussion may help to crystallize some important takeaways. It is vital to reiterate that there is nothing inherently problematic with a body of societal institutions that serve as lighthouses of truth and knowledge for the broader culture. This is the operative structure that has propelled the academic and political engine within Western civilization. Those institutions are and should be uniquely positioned in society in order to properly delineate between truth and falsehood for the benefit of all those whom they are serving.
The real problem lies then in the establishment of a kind of religion, with all its attendant doctrines, priests, and councils. Part and parcel with this is a deep flaw woven into Van Norden’s brand of the Gatekeeping proposal: the inability of the common folk to see themselves—their inner debates and intellectual quests for truth—reflected in those institutions. Instead, those debates are happening behind tightly shut doors; establishment of an acceptable belief one can hold nowadays is akin to the selection of the Pope. Furthermore, any induction of the common folk into these hallowed institutions hinges upon them either already adhering to the doctrine of the Gatekeeping class, or an immediate jettisoning of the “problematic” convictions they once held in ignorance.
The contention here is not against the productive contributions institutions are able to offer our public discourse, but instead centers around how this can be accomplished in a healthy manner. Of fundamental import is the fact that Gatekeepers to these institutions should be handed the keys to the intellectual strongholds by the very people they are serving. This should occur only after said Gatekeepers have repeatedly and reliably demonstrated to them their ability to illuminate truth and defend against falsehoods. Naturally this entails an eagerness to wade into the very questions—and engage with the associated thinkers like Peterson and Coulter—Van Norden was so willing to dismiss outright at the beginning of his piece. After all, that trust cannot be earned by any potential Gatekeeper unless they demonstrate in a very visible manner reasons they should be trusted at all.
And why shouldn’t they have to do so? Historically speaking, this requirement is one that all sane societies have placed upon their own Gatekeepers in order to provide for their protection against attack by outsiders. What rationale could justify failing to adopt the same stance in our cultural and intellectual contexts?
In this spirit, proposals championing the kind of Gatekeepers’ Club Van Norden is so fond of should receive robust examination, and be promptly discarded if they cannot live up to their own standards. As the final bit of irony, it seems fitting that in the wake of such an interrogation, Peterson himself—and by extension the Intellectual Dark Web cohort to which he belongs—should emerge as far better equipped with the curiosity and humility required for such a serious undertaking as the one proposed by Van Norden.