What are political beliefs and where do they come from? Discourses around the free speech debate on campus help us shed a light on this.
Reading Time: 15 minutes
By Jack O. Denton
I stood on the sidewalk in front of Sidney Smith Hall on October 5 with my notebook in hand. I was there to cover a teach-in and rally hosted by trans and non-binary students. Neither the attendees nor I expected a disruption — or what that disruption would entail for the next few months on campus.
Professor Jordan B. Peterson, a U of T Psychology Professor since 1998, had released a YouTube video on September 27 called “Fear and the Law,” the first part of a three-part series called Professor against political correctness.
In his first video, Peterson focuses on critiquing Bill C-16, a piece of legislation that proposed to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code to include harassment and discrimination based on gender identity, in the legal definition of what may constitute hate speech.
Speaking about non-binary gender identities in the video, Peterson says, “I don’t think that that’s a valid idea. I don’t think there’s any evidence for it.”
Peterson also claims in the video that he wouldn’t necessarily choose to respect the pronouns a student might request, saying, “I don’t recognize another person’s right to determine what pronouns I used to address them. I won’t do it.”
Organizers of the teach-in and rally expressed a desire to counter Peterson’s statements by affirming the humanity of trans and non-binary individuals. One of the organizers, Qaiser Ali, said that the goal of the event was to “humanize the issue” and “show that these are people you could walk by on the street, have a class with, or be your neighbour.”
Enter Lauren Southern, a young conservative activist and commentator for online right-wing media platform The Rebel, who began defending Peterson at the rally. Choosing to not identify herself as a media correspondent, she was quickly shut down by counter-protesters and showered with chants of “shame.” Pushing and shoving ensued as people tried to block The Rebel’s cameraman.
On October 11, I once again stood on the front steps of Sidney Smith Hall with my notebook in hand. Covering this event would be slightly different: it was a rally for free speech featuring Peterson and Southern as guest speakers.
As organizer Geoffrey Liew described, “The event was intended to be an affirmation of freedom of speech, which includes contrary views. We could’ve had a peaceful, agreeable afternoon which would’ve made it look like there was no issue at all.”
He went on: “Instead, we faced disruption, shouting down, cord-pulling, and white noise.”
Counter-protesters, including Ali and the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Vice-President University Affairs Cassandra Williams, who is a trans woman, went to the rally to blast white noise and drown out the voices of the people whose views they opposed and saw as an affront to their identities.
The rally devolved into chaos and outbursts of violence as Liew’s speakers were shut down, and it became a brawling, brash free-for-all characterized by disorganization and a smattering of isolated conflicts.
In the aftermath of the October 11 rally, there has been widespread debate about free speech on campus. A Ulife-recognized group called Students in Support of Free Speech (SSFS) was formed. A second, far tamer rally in support of free speech was hosted in the rain before the UTSU Annual General Meeting on October 27. Moreover, the university hosted a debate about Bill C-16 and freedom of speech featuring Peterson on November 19.
More recently, on February 4, SSFS co-hosted an event on campus called the Toronto Action Forum, which featured Peterson and The Rebel’s Ezra Levant as keynote speakers. The event was interrupted by protesters, including Ali and Williams, during Levant’s closing keynote speech.
Clearly, something far greater than an academic or philosophical disagreement about the logic and limits of free speech is at hand here; something powerful is pushing students to disagree on a fundamental level about what should be allowed to be said on campus.
At its core, that ‘something’ is a powerful difference in the value-driven political beliefs of participants on both sides of this debate. It informs their understanding of this issue, as well as the lens through which they view it.
Having observed a number of these events and the tensions they inevitably invited, I wanted to dig deeper. I sat down with a number of key participants in the free speech debate and asked them to discuss their political beliefs. I also sought the advice of two academics to help me learn more about the theories underlying how political beliefs are formed.
Betting on beliefs
Professor Emeritus Ronald de Sousa is a soft-spoken philosopher with an outspoken philosophy who made a YouTube video refuting Peterson’s videos.
“In both our mental and practical economy, there are two very different things that beliefs do. And for that reason, because they do very different things, they actually behave very differently. And we think of them very differently,” de Sousa tells me.
“One set,” he continues, “which are perhaps more readily called opinions, are attitudes that we have to certain statements, such that we would say that they’re true and would use them in arguments as the basis for saying other things. So, they are the things that you assent to.”
He is outlining a binary system of beliefs: either you believe something or you don’t. You may not be sure of it, but in this model to be on one side of an issue is to be opposed to the other.
“But another function of belief is the way in which beliefs are involved in our actions,” de Sousa continues. Actions like, I thought, blasting white noise, pushing protesters, or hurling slurs. “And in that sense every belief is a bet, a wager.”
Every action is a wager of belief, informed by how much we want something and how much we believe in that thing’s relevance. Beliefs inform our attitudes and actions, and de Sousa says that these beliefs are applied in degrees.
Peter Loewen is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the Director of the School of Public Policy and Governance at U of T.
“When I think in political terms, I suppose I would think of political beliefs as a set of assumptions about what is right and wrong in the political world,” Loewen says. For instance, he asks, “What should governments and citizens do and why should they do it?”
Loewen tells me that first, this implies that there are values underlying beliefs — that there are normative reasons for citizens’ beliefs.
“Second,” he says, “I assume that most people seek out information in a motivated way — one that is more likely to expose them to information that is already consistent with their beliefs.”
What these academics are telling us is that there are two basic types of beliefs: simple, binary notions that you can assent to or refuse, and gradated beliefs — essentially, degrees of wagers based on how you believe you should act.
Where do political beliefs come from?
“A political belief isn’t a belief, it’s an attitude to the relative importance of different things,” says de Sousa. He argues that political beliefs are about personal, ordinal values imposed onto political priorities: “They have more to do with what you think is important and what your emotional attitudes are to certain things.”
Loewen believes that this is a complex issue, calling it “a very deep debate within political science.” He notes, however, that the field is reaching a resolution on the topic of where political beliefs come from and outlines three broad claims that he feels political science can make about the origins of political beliefs.
“First, political beliefs typically follow from a deeper set of values. We have basic intuitions or moral tastes, and our political beliefs often follow from these,” Loewen says.
“Second, politicians, political parties, and other ideological actors often form the link between those underlying values and political beliefs,” explains Loewen. “An example: left wing candidates are more likely to use the language of care and concern than right wing candidates, who are more likely to talk about order and tradition.”
Loewen is quick to point out that he makes no normative claims about the importance of one priority over another.
He continues, “Individuals who are higher in empathy are more likely to be attracted to left wing candidates, because of what they talk about and how they talk about it. In turn, they learn from these politicians what they should believe about individual issues.”
Third, and what seems crucial to the controversial subject matter debated in campus discourse over free speech this year: “Political beliefs are often subject to myopia, inconsistency, even hypocrisy, and certainly motivated reasoning,” he says.
What remains indisputable is that beliefs form a core part of how we view the world. Political beliefs seem particularly salient because they form the basis of how we interact and engage with society at large, which is political by nature.
Their political beliefs
I decided to interview four major student participants in the free speech debate to hear about their own political views. I made a number of attempts to contact Peterson to request an interview for this article, but did not receive a response.
Williams was a prominent figure at the October 5 teach-in and rally and was amongst both the counter-protesters who blasted white noise at the October 11 rally and the protest group at the February 4 Toronto Action Forum.
Liew is the Vice-President of SSFS and was an introductory speaker at the Toronto Action Forum.
Theo Williamson is the Equity Commissioner on the New College Student Council and a trans man. Following the October 11 rally for free speech he became a face for ‘social justice warriors,’ an often contemptuous label for people promoting social justice. Videos of him claiming not to have seen an incident involving Southern — whose microphone was grabbed by a counter-protester at the rally — were circulated online and turned into memes. He was also ‘doxxed’, meaning he had his personal information published on the Internet.
The outspoken Public Relations Officer for SSFS is Chad Hallman. He spoke to Southern during her coverage of the trans and non-binary teach-in and rally and spoke publicly at both the October 11 and October 27 rallies for free speech. Hallman introduced Peterson’s keynote speech at the February 4 Toronto Action Forum.
According to Williams, her politics “adhere to some sort of view in the family of socialist anarchism or anarcho-communism.” Her political beliefs, she says, do not fit neatly into a left-right or libertarian-authoritarian spectrum.
“I’m committed to something that is socialist and something that is anarchist in broad strokes. On a left-right spectrum, I tend to think of that as being a position that doesn’t really fall on the spectrum,” she explains. “I think that insofar as the political spaces that we were sort of interacting with are dominated by a capitalist, an imperialist, a neocolonialist worldview — something which is fundamentally a revolutionary or a radical viewpoint has to position itself in opposition to the spectrum itself.”
Liew says, “At heart, I am a person who is very concerned about freedom and liberty. Some would even call me libertarian.” He digresses, “Ultimately, I’m interested in people having freedom, whether it be in their social sphere or in their economic sphere. I don’t really care what sort of associations people have between them, what sort of things they want to do between them,” he says, “as long as nobody is hurt.”
Williamson says he is “definitely more left-leaning. Definitely somewhere in between communism and socialism.”
Hallman considers himself “a pretty moderate libertarian.” He explains, “On some economic policies I’m probably closer to a social democrat.”
Socially liberal, fiscally conservative is how Hallan sums up his philosophy. He’s also a card-carrying member of the Conservative Party of Canada, Ontario PC Party, and the PC Party of Alberta.
Where did their political beliefs come from?
Williams is quick to say that her political beliefs developed over time: “I think that initially they were very much informed just by my… own experiences. But that’s growing up, like how I interact with my family members; obviously you’re informed to some extent by what your family members believe and the way that the spaces you interact with constrain your access to knowledge.”
Over time, Williams has interacted with different communities and socialized with more people, creating experiences that she credits with shaping her political beliefs.
“Not only can you learn about the experiences of your peers, people who exist in different communities from you… You can learn about the history of these things, you can learn about these things in the abstract, you can learn about what people like throughout time, [and] what people around the world have to say about these issues,” Williams says.
Liew describes a process of growing up in the exceptional environment of Hong Kong and being educated at an English school as partly shaping his commitment to freedom and liberty.
“When you’re from Hong Kong, you have an understanding of how important freedom is… Most people who came to Hong Kong escaped communist China, and they lived through the Maoist period,” he says. “So they understand the price of freedom.”
Liew says that in the past he has supported and felt very strongly about liberal issues like marijuana legalization and gay marriage. A strong commitment to social freedoms came from years of curiosity, browsing the Internet, and a longstanding skepticism of authority during his teenage years.
“I listened to a lot of metal music. I like to smoke pot,” he says. Wider engagement in socially liberal values, he went on, “came together and created a lot more individualist, rebellious attitude that was the genesis of all this.”
And then things got political for Liew. “I paid attention to a lot of figures like Ron Paul, [von Mises], and Rothbard, all these libertarian philosophers. Since that time, my beliefs have become set in those ways.”
Williamson credits his religious — “Christian, not like super hardcore” — upbringing for the instillation of wholesome values centred on helping, being kind, and loving. “Love your neighbour, treat others how you ought to be treated, that sort of thing,” he explains.
Growing up with disabled parents, too, showed Williamson from a young age what discrimination can be like.
“My parents are very caring and loving people, and I grew up watching them helping their friends and helping family, and volunteering,” he says.
Hallman describes an experience of having shifted political beliefs away from the far left.
“I think everyone would like to think they sit down and think meticulously through what the best beliefs are,” Hallman says. “When I was younger — you know, a lot of people are naive and stuff and are very far to the left. I was totally a militant communist.”
It was watching the Barack Obama and Mitt Romney presidential debate that changed his mind from communism to libertarianism and more conservative sensibilities. “I was in grade 10 at the time, and I don’t know what it was but something just clicked. You can’t really ignore money or quality of life,” he explains.
In one way or another, each of these students can identify how their values were shaped by social and educational processes set in motion by family, friends, society, or self. These factors, moral tastes, as Loewen calls them, root political beliefs.
Discourses in the free speech sphere
Belief in freedom of speech? Not really. “It isn’t really a belief, it’s a value,” de Sousa says. “So when Peterson says that free speech is at the very core of the possibility of democracy, well, that means that he thinks that free speech is more important than any single value.”
de Sousa argues that free speech is too complex to be in the first category of binary beliefs; you can’t just assent to it or refuse it. It does not fit into the category of wagers either. Free speech is too relative and too contextual to be a “wager,” which involved taking action based on personal beliefs or ideals.
Free speech is part of a wider hierarchy of values that are ordinal, as decided by individuals, according to de Sousa. “It looks like whether free speech is respected or not has consequences for democracy, which are more important than the consequences for any other thing you might value,” he explains. “But of course, one of the specific things that [Peterson] thinks is a competing value, but should be held much lower in its importance, is the value of respect for people’s individual differences.”
Does Williams believe that she and others were stifling free speech at the October 11 rally by blasting white noise? “I think that was a group of students or a group of people showing resistance to hatred that they face,” she says.
“My actions were deliberately meant to shut out speech that was meant to incite hatred for trans people, speech that was deliberately meant to degrade trans people and which, incidentally as it happened at the event, was also a speech that ended up degrading Black people, that ended up celebrating police violence against Black people,” Williams says.
Loewen offers a partial explanation for why individuals might disagree on the degree of importance of protecting freedom of speech.
“When one understands free speech to be a fundamental right and one that can be exercised without regard for the feelings of others, then one might be more likely to want to protect it, especially in the extreme,” he explains. “But if one is more inclined to be sensitive to the feeling of others — if even occasionally at the cost of not telling the truth — then perhaps there’s more of a willingness to see more expansive restrictions on speech.”
Debates about free speech vary and, unsurprisingly, seem to accompany controversial topics witin the current sociopolitical climate. Our own free speech debate, for instance, centres around the discourses of identity and gender politics. Loewen says that despite the particulars of free speech debates, some considerations apply to them universally.
“I think principles are very important in this, but we should also be realistic in how we analyze and assess these conflicts,” Loewen explains.
“I am inclined to think that most of these debates are actually about something else, or several other things at once,” he suggests. “Some of it is about giving offence or taking a radical position for the sake of being radical. Some of it is about actual principled opposition to some policy or idea.”
Other aspects of a free speech debate, he says, are “about trying to suppress the speech of someone else for reasons of pure power or politics. And some of it is genuinely about trying to protect vulnerable populations or groups.”
As for Hallman, he is staunch in his free speech philosophy. “I don’t think the government has any place in moral questions really, and I don’t think there is any need to legislate morality,” he says. “As a general rule of thumb, I’m against hate speech laws because I think it drives that sort of movement underground and I’d rather it be exposed.” This is consistent with Peterson’s arguments about the importance of free speech and the airing of all opinions.
Hallman believes that all opinions, no matter how despicable, should be allowed to be heard, at least in order to be derided. “You know, if you give an idiot enough rope he’ll hang himself,” he says.
Beliefs, values, and the post-materialist age of politics
Post-materialist politics is the idea that the traditional social divisions that defined political life are being pushed aside for more abstract, moral, social, humanitarian, and environmental issues. These issues transcend traditional divisions defined by class, race, nationality, gender, and policy topics like tax rates, infrastructure, and foreign policy.
The free speech debate is a typical post-materialist issue. Is it representative of society increasingly engaging in discourse and making decisions based on post-materialist values and beliefs?
“I think this is probably right, in broad strokes,” Loewen says. “We’re living in a pretty lucky time — the best of all time, actually. We are richer, more peaceful, more free than any time in human history. We are healthier, smarter, and more humane.”
Loewen says, ironically, this doesn’t mean that people should be more content with the world: “Instead, it invites them to find other sources of injustice and unfairness, and I suspect more esoteric ones will be found. It’s as though we’re going the last few steps, and I suspect they’ll be the hardest.”
Loewen thinks the social topics that will dominate and define political discourse in the future will include gender and identity. He calls this part of a broad trend “towards something like personalized, self-constructed differences, where fundamental identities are not determined by the more obvious categories of class, race, and gender, but instead by other things.”
de Sousa is not so sure about the post-materialist age of politics, but he thinks that a lot remains to be said about material influences on political beliefs and behaviour.
de Sousa stands by a more traditional approach to social cleavages and political beliefs that inform, for instance, voter choice. In addition to a person’s identity, he cites time and place as determining factors for political views.
The students involved in the free speech debate are hesitant to accept it as a notion of a post-materialism shift.
Liew says,“There is a lot of work out there that is post-materialist, post-20th century, post-modernist thinking, but it would be a rather presumptive conclusion to say that we have completely escaped our material bases for beliefs.”
Williams says she is opposed to making political decisions based on post-materialist values. Political beliefs and “political activities have to be informed by the material conditions that we experience in the world, like both in the present and also our historical conditions,” in her view.
What about abstract, moral discussions based on post-materialism? “Those sorts of discussions miss the point. I think that political activities have to be grounded in the actual goings on of the world,” Williams says.
Incongruence, not enmity
Loewen told us that most debates surrounding free speech have two distinct parts: principle and application. Whether fighting for the principle of free speech or applying their right to challenge statements threatening their identities, both sides have points to make.
de Sousa told us that values lead to wagers, especially in how they connect to action. Liew, Hallman, Williams, and Williamson all continue to make wagers in this debate.
Wagers, by their very nature, do not have to stand in enmity of each other. While there may be incongruence in the beliefs of the participants in the free speech debate, that does not mean that they stand in necessary opposition.
At least, that’s my wager.