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Jordan Peterson's Ugly, Race-baiting War on Political Correctness

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Jordan B Peterson, Professor of Psychology and  Clinical Psychologist at the University of Toronto and enemy of 'political correctness'
Jordan B Peterson, Professor of Psychology and Clinical Psychologist at the University of Toronto and enemy of 'political correctness'Credit: Lars Pehrson / SvD / TT NEWS AGE

Jews have always understood that language has power.

The Torah begins with God’s creation of the world through speech. The particular words of prayers carry spiritual and halakhic weight.

Jewish history also teaches the terrible impact of hate speech.

Blood and host desecration libels led to untold numbers of Jewish deaths in the Middle Ages. The hatred that the masses of Europe felt for Jews after centuries of anti-Jewish preaching and texts like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion resulted in a widespread susceptibility to Nazism. Trump’s promotion of hate speech and opposition to "political correctness" has ushered in an era of increased hate crimes, some of which have been deadly.

Speech and action are inarguably related. Why does Jordan Peterson, the psychologist-turned-pundit who has built a phase of his career railing against the tyranny of "political correctness" and was recently featured in an interview in Haaretz, refuse to see that?

Why is the conservative hard to far right - from Charlie Kirk to Richard Spencer to Tommy Robinson - so keen to defend the freedom to incite and abuse on college campuses, falsely framed as "free speech," a crusading slogan that it now appears President Trump himself will seek to enshrine in law?

The term "political correctness" is a catch-all for social pressure regarding certain kinds of language. Those of us who are "politically correct" try to be intentional and ethical about our language and behavior - for example, by taking care not to misgender trans people or incite violence against minorities - and to improve ourselves and our communities by respectfully learning from those who critique us.

We understand that our own knowledge and experiences are limited, so we try to be sensitive and responsive to the needs of other people. In Peterson’s mind, that is a violation of his right to "free speech."

Language has always been limited by social boundaries. If I was to use the "F" word in this article, some readers would probably take my writing less seriously and might be less comfortable sharing it with others. If, during a conversation, I called a friend "ugly," that friend would likely take offense and be less inclined to socialize with me; others who overheard the conversation might feel similarly.

These are more or less consensus issues. Swearing in public writing and calling friends "ugly" are clearly transgressions of social norms, and anyone who does those things risks appropriate social consequences.

Other norms are more contested. In the United States, for example, undisguised declarations of anti-Semitism are generally considered outside the boundaries of normal political discourse, while thinly veiled anti-Semitism is not.

Richard Nixon’s agreement with Billy Graham (caught on tape) that "the Jewish stranglehold has got to be broken or the country’s going down the drain" would not be acceptable today. Donald Trump’s accusation that George Soros funded protests against the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, however, is kosher within the Republican Party.

So is National Rifle Association head Wayne LaPierre’s accusation that specific Jews are responsible for all of the problems of America (among them, the surge in politically correct discourse.)

Trump and LaPierre benefit politically from anti-Semitic dog whistles, even though explicit anti-Semitism is frowned upon among Republicans as well as Democrats.

The choice to call undocumented immigrants "illegals," dehumanizes them and legitimizes the separation of children from their parents at the border and other atrocities committed by the American government. Not everyone who uses the word "illegals" does so intentionally in order to promote racism, but racist ideas are nevertheless encoded in that choice of language.

It's really not a stretch to suggest that when debate about immigration is couched in that language, it is more likely to result in policies that treat migrants both as people of lesser value, and as oversized threats.

Who decides which words and ideas are politically advantageous and which are taboo? Ultimately, regular people do. Or at least we should. The movement for "political correctness" is about claiming the right to draw our own social boundaries and choosing to do so on the basis of morality, respect, justice, and human dignity. And, bit by bit, it is working.

The racial epithets once common in American life are now increasingly confined to the consciously racist. The sexist slurs to the deliberately misogynist. The much-maligned "political correctness" has raised the social and political cost of prejudice.

In other words, language matters.

Why, then, should social justice activists not advocate for the kind of language that promotes respect, morality, and social good over the kind of language that breeds hatred and violence?

People like Peterson work hard to cultivate a campaign of disinformation about "political correctness." In part, this is a way for Peterson to dismiss and ignore his critics, who have pointed out the flaws in his various specific arguments.

In reality, contrary to Peterson’s characterization of it, "political correctness" is a popular social movement to be intentional about the ways in which we approach language and policy.

If we do not deliberately shape the contours of discourse, the ideas that have been baked into our societies by centuries, sometimes millennia, of oppression - racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, transphobia, and others - will continue to flourish.

"Political correctness" is about making conscious choices about who we want to be, what ideas we want our cultures to legitimize, and what kind of world we want to inhabit.

Those railing against the "narrowing" of the American mind, because of a newfangled sensitivity to racism, are defending a macho, exclusive form of freedom that is actually far narrower, and has far more tragic real-world consequences.

Benjamin Gladstone is currently in Jerusalem on a Fulbright Scholarship for a history research project before starting doctoral studies at New York University

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