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Jordan Peterson’s Thinkspot Probably Isn’t about “Free Speech”

“It makes sense to frame the issue as being about free speech, however, because it is likely seen as a much more worthwhile cause.”

A few days ago, Jordan Peterson announced that he will be launching a content creation and monetization platform called Thinkspot, which he talked about with the website NewsBusters. His selling pitch is that it will be radically pro-free speech, even saying that the only way a user could be kicked off the platform would be if a U.S. court orders the site to do it. This, of course, fits nicely into the sort of online (and on campus) cultural war which conservatives and other more radical right-wing groups, such as the alt-right, identify as an effort to silence them. They point to cases such as Carl Benjamin, aka Sargon of Akkad, being kicked off the popular monetization site Patreon, and users being banned from Twitter for telling fired ex-HuffPo journalists to “learn to code.” All of this is cited in the NewsBusters piece with Peterson as part of the context leading the launching of Thinkspot, which will allow creators to be directly compensated by users.

The first issue here is that none of that has anything to do with free speech, but with platforming, which are not the same. This might seem like an obvious argument, and that is not the core of the argument that I want to make; but I believe it is important to get it out of the way first. It makes sense to frame the issue as being about free speech, however, because it is likely seen as a much more worthwhile cause. That is also not to say that free speech and platforming are not related, but free speech on its own can only be related to state censorship. If we started to accept that private entities such as individuals or companies can violate free speech, it would imply that the State has the right to compel individuals to, for example, give someone a platform against their will, which is a rather clear violation of basic liberal democratic principles. That being said, I do think that there are arguments to be made in favor of platforming, and I have made them before elsewhere. But even if we grant that this project is really about platforming and not about free speech, there are several issues with the conservative and alt-right discourse that this matter exposes.

Before fully getting into the subject matter, it should be pointed out that, while deplatforming of conservatives has occurred on several occasions, it is hardly the one-sided issue that is often made out to be. In fact, according to The Heterodox Academy, a database of university professor firings put together by Jeff Sachs indicates that the Left should be as concerned by this issue as the right, if not more. Of course social media deplatforming is different from university firings, but it is, nonetheless part of the same culture of censorship decried by conservatives. Moreover, the same article by The Heterodox Academy points to the fact that liberal or left-wing professors face the same kind of online harassment on social media that conservatives do. This is just meant to show that the truth about deplatforming is much more nuanced than it is often made out to be. The point of all this brief detour from the main topic is not just to show that the situation is more complex than it appears. The fact that it is not one-sided is quite relevant when it comes to showing why the whole idea for this platform is built on a fundamentally flawed premise.

Countless commentators on the Right have made it almost a brand to defend not only free speech—but also the principle that no idea should be off limits, and they should all be openly discussed until the best ones remain. In principle that sounds good, and I think it is something that people on all sides of the political spectrum can get behind. The problem, in my opinion, is that it is incredibly hard to translate this into a real-world situation. Jürgen Habermas, one of the philosophers who has devoted much time and effort into analyzing and thinking about communication and deliberation, eventually abandoned the idea that ideal situations were even possible. But conservatives, at least online, have made this whole idea their primary concern to such a great extent, that they are now falling into their own trap. Whatever comes of this, will most like be nothing more than a mirror image of other social media platforms, albeit with a bias more suited to their particular tastes. Whether they realize this or not will depend on how honest they are about their enthusiasm for the so-called battle of ideas.

As I said previously, I think there are good arguments to be made for giving a platform to all kinds of ideas. On that alone, I have no problem with people on the Right creating a platform for theirs, and I don’t think anyone should. And whether the facts agree with this, conservatives clearly feel that they are being unfairly targeted. But Thinkspot is not advertised as a place for conservative thought; it is explicitly marketed as a forum for all thought. In all likelihood, though, it will not be that. It is hard to say if the platform’s creators are underestimating the extent to which people default to tribalism in online discourse—or explicitly counting on it as a way to ensure that conservative ideas are not shut down within the platform. Either way, the result is the same: Thinkspot will be largely populated by people on the Right. It is not hard to see why: Firstly, it was created and is being promoted by people heavily associated with the online right such as Jordan Peterson and Carl Benjamin. That alone makes it more likely that their followers will be the ones to populate the site. But beyond that, it is not unlikely that many leftists will simply find it distasteful because of its association with those people and decide to not join.

More importantly, however, if the association with certain figures alone is enough to deter a sizeable proportion of leftist internet users from joining, something like the downvote system will all but ensure no left-wing ideas are ever discussed on the site.

All of this put together, though, does have a significant impact on the potential for the platform to be a real space for free speech and the open discussion of ideas. For instance, let us look at some of the mechanics. To his credit, Peterson acknowledged that Internet trolls exist, and in the aforementioned interview he talked about some of the mechanisms that are planned to counter this. He says, for example, that comments will have a required minimum of 50 words, adding that “[e]ven if you’re being a troll, you’ll be a quasi-witty troll.” Further, he explained that users will be able to upvote and downvote comments, and those above a certain downvote-to-upvote ratio will be hidden.

I am skeptical about whether the word minimum is an effective method to prevent trolling. The sentence ‘learn to code’ might be only three words long, but repeat it 17 times, and it gets to 51. Now, it may be possible to detect when a comment is nothing more than repetition, but I doubt there would be any way of dealing with things such as copypasta: essentially, very long texts that may have started as a serious comment, but that end up being mocked and posted in full as memes. More importantly, however, if the association with certain figures alone is enough to deter a sizeable proportion of leftist internet users from joining, something like the downvote system will all but ensure no left-wing ideas are ever discussed on the site.

The creators of the platform seem to either overestimate or willfully misrepresent the commitment that those on their side of the spectrum have towards free speech. Peterson himself acknowledged to have considered the creation of a website that would function as a sort of watchlist of “postmodern” and “Marxist” professors. Again, to his credit, he decided against doing it. But that is not the only case. In fact, the watchlist was eventually created anyway by Turning Point USA. An organization whose whole mission is to fight against the perceived free speech crisis on college campuses. This is a list which includes individuals like University of Massachusetts Marxist Professor Richard D. Wolff, with ideas as dangerous as worker-owned cooperatives. This is far from the only instance. Mike Cernovich, another right-wing figure who produced the documentary Silenced. Our War on Free Speech, went on to get left-wing talk show host Sam Seder fired from his job as a contributor at MSNBC for a tweet from 2009. I could go on citing these kinds of cases of double standards, but that is not the point that I am trying to make. It is relevant, nonetheless, because I believe it is a pretty good indication of what would happen if and when someone attempts to make a case for the existence of white or male privilege on Thinkspot, given that a certain proportion of downvotes will make comments disappear.

The biggest irony is that they, unwillingly or not, are unable to see that the reason that their points of view are often dismissed without being discussed is solely because our own primitive version of the online marketplace of ideas is well at work.

I am not trying to argue that Thinkspot should be under any obligation to provide a platform to left-wing voices, nor that there is anything wrong with conservatives making their own platform. But the fact that it is being presented as a free speech alternative to other social media, and one where all ideas are up for discussion is either misguided or disingenuous. Even if we ignore that free speech should only be seen as freedom from state censorship, this does show that conservatives and others on the Right fundamentally misunderstand or misrepresent the reasons why their ideas are not being featured more prominently elsewhere as a particular bias against them. The fact is that the free marketplace of ideas envisioned by John Stuart Mill, while a noble goal, is almost a utopia in a context where mass, virtually anonymous participation, with little to no cost is available.

Instead, we are left with spaces in which ideas that a majority find objectionable are simply cast aside with little to no serious consideration. Again, despite their claims to being principled defenders of free speech, conservatives and others on the Right readily resort to silencing tactics without discussing ideas on their own merits. I find it extremely unlikely that anything on this new platform would make things any different. The biggest irony is that they, unwillingly or not, are unable to see that the reason that their points of view are often dismissed without being discussed is solely because our own primitive version of the online marketplace of ideas is well at work. It might still be argued that the status quo in that regard is less than ideal and that people should be more open. I have no problem defending that position. But that is something that requires a lot more work than simply creating yet another online space.

Néstor de Buen holds an M.A. in social sciences from The University of Chicago. He has previously written at Quillette.

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John Domlinson
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John Domlinson

I take issue with the idea that Peterson and his ilk have denounced Twitter purely for their exercise of censorship on their site. Ask any one of the men in the Intellectual Dark Web, Twitter is a private comany, just like Facebook, Patreon, and all other social media platforms. The issue, as I try to understand it, is that Peterson and his peers do not like the fact that there is no platform that is safe from censorship. They may not like the fact that the previously mentioned sites took action in opposition to free speech, but recognize the legality… Read more »

Dan C
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Dan C

An interesting, well rounded response Sir! I would maybe offer up one change (open to debate of course) ; I think espousing hate should be allowed, espousing harm shouldn’t be tolerated. Why can’t someone hate something?, and voice it so? If someone Truly believes something they should get to voice it, the more ridiculous the more we roll our eyes (at least it was that way when Muslim clerics would yell about gays, Jews, whatever), if it’s not harm, its discussion! In the nicest possible way ‘feelings be damned’.

Jeremy White
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Jeremy White

At the point that the platform starts censoring certain speech it gives up being a platform and becomes a publisher, therefore, becoming liable for what is posted on their site

Ookami
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Ookami

Why? If I type that Hitler was a cool dude that was just trying to protect us from what we have today, how is that anyone’s business and how can you press the button to stop me from expressing myself?

Lollipops
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Lollipops

So what you are saying is that YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter is in fact a publisher and not a platform? Because they have been censoring quite a bit. Also, google has become so terrible about this that they have cut out any news that is not far left when you try to search through the news. The author is so upset at the fact that Peterson is opening up this platform for people to be more intellectual.. it is not for alt-right conservatives! Peterson says it’s a platform everyone to have conversations and debates and never once said that… Read more »

Nestor
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Nestor

Thank you for your reply. I enjoy reading opposing viewpoints when they are carefully considered. As I said, I do believe that giving a platform to different points of view is important,and I link to a previous article of mine where I make that case. However, I do believe it’s important to make the distinction between legal free speech and access to a platform, because if the latter were considered a part of the legal right to free speech, it would make it impossible to put into practice. For instance, how do you decide which platforms are people entitled to?… Read more »

Jesse
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Jesse

Well since there is a legal protection in place for platforms like Facebook and YouTube that immunized them from liability as though they were a place for free speech. I think that those platforms need to choose weather they are private publisher or a free speech platform and if they are choosing a publisher then their legal protections need to be revoked quite simple fix really.

Just Me
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Just Me

I would argue that free speech is, above all, a basic philosophical and social value. Some societies have enshrined it in law, ensuring that the government cannot impede it, making it a right, because governments were the only real danger to it at the time. Anyone could start their own newspaper or publishing house, only a government could censor it. As a society, do we still hold that basic value, and if so, why do we not expect that the new, very powerful public platforms that have become essential to public life, not be expected to operate in ways that… Read more »

Marcus
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Marcus

“How do you decide what platforms people are entitled too?”
The debate is often misrepresented in this manner. Its not a matter of people being obligated to ‘give’ others a platform. Rather, if they already have a platform, then they are entitled to keep it!
Nobody is demanding media organizations ‘give’ them a platform. When people have already built themselves a platform, whether on social media, college campuses, or speaking tours.
Then those with political, social or financial power. Should not be able to use that power to take away those platform’s.

Michael
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Michael

So the big companies are enjoying all of the legal benefits of a platform but regulating like a publisher.? That’s the argument, and it’s very obvious that it’s tilted towards silencing dissenting views(aka views not radically on the the left) free speech is under attack and the precedent of free speech has been set clearly by the Supreme Court. Either A: the platforms stay neutral and be platforms (not being liable for what Jan posted)or B: they regulate like the are and are held by that standard of the law, liable for what is posted and all.

Pablo
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Pablo

How is Jordan Peterson aligned with the Right? Unfortunately, when a journalist leads with a categorization, they need to substantiate that categorization. Instead, as usual, we have a subjective journalist masquerading as an objective fact teller. I am not a right wing person. I belong to no political party or movement. I have voted for candidates on the left and right, but more often seek centrists. However, I am sure that if I admit that I like Dr. Peterson, I will also be categorized as a right winger via guilt by association. This “journalist” has continued the tactics of defamers… Read more »

Ruggles
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Ruggles

I agree, the author didn’t provide a lot of substantiation for their characterization of JP as an individual on the “right”. Here is what I offer: JP made his fame by sensationalizing, and to a degree, misrepresenting the intent and effects of Bill C16. Even if he isn’t personally anti trans, this stance certainly put him in the company of those on the right. JP is decidedly pro-hierarchy, a generally conservative/right leaning stance. JP is pro capitalist, an opinion more popular on the right than on the left. JP is hyper individualistic. He generally rejects commenting on systemic problems of… Read more »

Aaron Willey
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Aaron Willey

Why is every statement a stated assumption or predetermined prejudice?
It might be helpful to critically think of what he’s saying and if it’s actually true. What if there are psychological fundamental ethics that emerge from within society rather than are imposed on it? I’ve been thinking about that for some time now. What are your thoughts?

Jorin Applegate
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Jorin Applegate

So if you don’t subscribe to the most hardcore leftist ideologies, you are on the right, got it. It is basically equivalent to saying “Jordan Peterson doesn’t like fish. He won’t eat salmon, or tuna, or bass. Because those are my favorite fish, he clearly does not like fish. He tells me he will eat any other kind of fish, but if you don’t eat the fish I like also, then you are just pretending to like fish to appeal to other people who don’t like fish.” It is a totally irrational stance, and it really only holds up to… Read more »

Nestor
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Nestor

Are we still having this discussion? What the previous commenter said is accurate and it’s completely unnecessary to make that case every time someone talks about JP. The man himself has even repeatedly made arguments explicitly from a conservative point of view (see for example, him laying out principles for conservatism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nyw4rTywyY0 or or him making a conservative argument for income distribution: https://youtu.be/M3XYHPAwBzE?t=169). More importantly, though, how is saying that someone is right-wing “name-calling”? That says more about your own assumptions than about my arguments. Categorization, sure, but categorization is value neutral. I’m left-wing, but I have never argued that… Read more »

DanO
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DanO

Of course you are denigrating him for his views. In this very article you have indicted him for a thought crime. You state that Peterson has “acknowledged to have considered the creation of a website that would function as a sort of watchlist of “postmodern” and “Marxist” professors.”
He admitted to considering an act and further admitted that such act would be wrong so he didn’t do it. And yet, you besmirch him and frame him as having committed that act. You engage in deceit and then claim innocence. Its pathetic.

Nestor
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Nestor

Yes, I did say that. Immediately after I also said, and I quote, “Again, to his credit, he decided against doing it.” I don’t know what’s so hard to understand about that. Nothing I said is deceitful. He did consider doing it, he also decided against it, I gave him credit for not doing it. Now, if you mean to say that someone’s ideas cannot be scrutinized unless carried out, I beg to differ. If someone plans to commit a bank robbery, but ultimately decides against it, I think that person should be commended for realizing the fault in their… Read more »

Elijah
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Elijah

The only real issue I have with this article is the title. It appears to frame Peterson’s motives as though he isn’t trying to expand free discourse. Because this is certainly what he is trying to do— fraught as that task may be with challenges to address— I think this is a mistake. Forming a platform that competes with YouTube is certainly a heroic task, but is also an important one in my opinion.

Elijah
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Elijah

The best description of Peterson’s political views that I have seen is that he flaunts aspects of both liberal and conservative thought. There are numerous examples where he critiques both schools of thought on particular issues. The reason he is so often labeled as a conservative in my opinion, is that society has shifted dramatically to the left in the last decade or so. This makes Peterson (and other classical liberals such as Steven Pinker or Alan Dershowitz) appear more conservative than they did in the past. This relative labeling is much less informative than Peterson’s own self-identification as a… Read more »

andrew heiss
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andrew heiss

I think that you do not only identify him as being on the right, but you identify him as being alt-right which is used as a pejorative to link him to radicals who do not really reflect his views.That being said I agree with you about Twitter, it is a private company and conservatives should quit crying about being banned for typing “learn to troll”. They should stand aside and let the Jacobites do their work. The party of science will ban their own for pointing out chromosomal differences. The thing that bothers conservatives is that alt-leftists like yourself, haha… Read more »

Darren Iversen
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Darren Iversen

I dunno, if I was a lefty who wants to argue and debate I’d be raring to get into Thinkspot.
File under: pre-emptive negativity

Gordon Fiala
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Gordon Fiala

It’s not for Free speech, it is for uncensured Productive Thought.

Gordon Fiala
Guest
Gordon Fiala

Methodical and (presumably) unonemotion evaluation

Gordon Fiala
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Gordon Fiala

BTW. Thanks, for being one of few news articles you can , just, respond to.

You have no clue how appreciated that is.
When we have so much bigotry.

Gordon Fiala
Guest
Gordon Fiala

I counter, extra curricularly, that The Right is,
COGENT. And that is all Dr. Jordan Peterson advocated.
Case, solved. Regardless of all else

_ the obligatory Cogency is the Crown Authority. Right means, having a rule of Authority. (Sorry…_ authority is not a title. It’s a fact, or is in fact falsified. Cogency is the only true authority.)

Ryan
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Ryan

The author argues that “if we started to accept that private entities such as individuals or companies can violate free speech, it would imply that the State has the right to compel individuals to, for example, give someone a platform against their will, which is a rather clear violation of basic liberal democratic principles”…that free speech issues can only be related to government.censorship, and as such, implies that Peterson’s argument that his platform relates to free speech is nothing more than a dog-whistle for his alt-right , Nazi supporters. That may be the case, but I wonder if the author… Read more »

Nestor
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Nestor

I quote from the article: “I am not trying to argue that Thinkspot should be under any obligation to provide a platform to left-wing voices, nor that there is anything wrong with conservatives making their own platform.” I have no idea how, even after I em explicit about this you could come to the conclusion that “The author clearly does not want Peterson to have a platform.” I also link to another full piece I wrote a while ago where I explicitly make the case for why giving a platform to all ideas might be useful. To your other questions:… Read more »

Maxime
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Maxime

I have been educated with a different logic about freedom of speech. I believe a baker should be entitled to sell his cake to any client that would want it, because it has nothing to do with freedom of speech, or even of thought, but is rather about equality of rights and access to equal services in the society we live in. He should not have the right to refuse to serve a client on his own beliefs, a concept I find firmly rooted in slavery, apartheid and other forms of condemnable behaviors, again in my sense. That said, the… Read more »

Lollipops
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Lollipops

I think the whole article is misleading no matter how many times the author sits there and cries that he is not trying to do that. He uses words like alt-right when Jordan Peterson is not even on the right, he is a classic liberal! It sounds to me like the author clearly uses bias because he himself is “alt” left. The author has the right to say what he wants but it leaves him open to the face that nobody is going to take him seriously when reading his articles in the future. Sounds to me like the guy… Read more »

Travis Suvil
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Travis Suvil

The error here is in the comparison. Very few on the left have paid any price for extremism. Parity? Who on the left has been silenced and demonized? Unnamed professors are a weak argument. On the other hand, I’m a classical liberal by many standards and plan to post on ThinkSpot

Aaron
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Aaron

How does using the term “giving a platform” not qualify as impingement of free speech. Why should it be left up to private companies to define guidelines and decide what should or shouldn’t be shared publicly?

Nestor
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Nestor

Because not every platform is as big as Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube. Accepting the idea that the right to free speech entitles you to a platform would imply that every platform would be barred from moderating their own content. It’s easy to say that those three platforms, for example, should not be able to restrict speech, because they are so ubiquitous in our culture that it’s easy to simply think of them as the public square. But as it stands at the moment, they are still private social media sites like other smaller ones. If you have a social media… Read more »

Just Me
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Just Me

Phone companies are public utilities or nationalized, they are private companies, but would they have the right to cut service to people found to have had telephone conversations that were objectionable, or even to people convicted of a crime?

There laws against using the phone for things such as harassment, scams, etc., but those are crimes in themselves that just happen to use the phone, and it is the crime that gets prosecuted, by the government, the phone company could not decide to refuse service to someone because they have had conversations glorifying Hitler, etc.

J D
Guest
J D

It is for publishers to be left or right. It is for platforms to be for freedom of speech. And as is noted here as well, they aren’t any more. ThinkSpot is not a platform for left or right, but for ideas and rational.

Andre Roy
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Andre Roy

It’s sad & disturbing that ppl with right wing concepts must resort to a “ private” platform to avoid be banned repeatedly ( as myself & friends whom I know for years)

J D
Guest
J D

You are accussing him of the problem he is trying to solve.. Like this article already mentions ThinkSpot follows only the law and does not apply any political sensorship… Unlike here, where my yesterdays comment is now deleted.. If you don’t listen to both sides, you will not learn…

Desert Rat
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Desert Rat

The trouble with this piece is that the premise- as repeated and defended by the author in response to comments – is that only the government can infringe on speech and the “public square” argument for social giants is only valid if the government regulates the platforms. This completely ignores the long history of government regulation, which is slow and reactive and clearly has not caught up with these new business models. There may well be regulation at some point, but for now these platforms are openly censoring content, to the delight of some and the dismay of others. A… Read more »

Jorin Applegate
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Jorin Applegate

Couple weird points here. 1. You say platforming is the issue, not free speech, but most likely are part of the group that claim Trump should not be able to block people on twitter. Kind of a contradiction no? Though maybe my assumption is wrong, I suspect it is more likely you will excuse that for some reason and claim it is not the same. 2. You compare university professor firings to Social media censorship, which is very odd, considering the two are completely unrelated and one is you would assume is earned via credential and performance. Equally odd in… Read more »

Yeppi Yeffen
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Yeppi Yeffen

[more suited to their particular tastes] The account for pre-destination lay within time in the microcosm, whereas free will exist in time within objects in the macrocosm. (di-synchronous time) What comes out of his mouth is backed up by both aspects from Isaiah 45:7 which is why Oxford or Cambridge could not allow this (individual) presence into their external matrix where he would rightfully fit… Jordan Peterson pulls Aye, what do you think about James Cagney and Niall Ferguson being the same individual in two different places in one universe? James Cagney Accepts the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1974… Read more »

Quietmike
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Quietmike

it would imply that the State has the right to compel individuals to, for example, give someone a platform against their will, which is a rather clear violation of basic liberal democratic principles.

Like with bakers?

Joe Barnes
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Joe Barnes

Conservatism is not the alt right. Stop conflating the two.

david
Guest
david

Say more with less words.