Our Opinion: Durham City Council trying to censor Jordan Peterson

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Elected officials waded into constitutional quicksand Friday, opposing psychologist and author Jordan B. Peterson's Sept. 10 appearance at the Durham Performing Arts Center and pressuring the theater to deny him a platform.

Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson released a statement on Facebook co-signed by Mayor Steve Schewel and council members Vernetta Alston, Javiera Caballero, DeDreana Freeman, Mark-Anthony Middleton and Charlie Reece claiming without evidence that Peterson espouses "racist, misogynist and transphobic views," noting that DPAC is city-owned and assigning responsibility — read: blame — to theater management companies Nederlander and PFM.

"We would like to be clear that we respect Mr. Peterson's right to hold his opinions and to freely state his opinions without government interference," Johnson writes. "However, we wish to emphasize that a person's right to free speech does not include the right to a platform or an audience."

The implication couldn't be clearer. City council members won't impose strong-arm censorship, but they will abuse the offices they hold to exert improper influence on theater management. A velvet-gloved hand held over a speaker's mouth can muzzle just as well as an iron fist.

Peterson, a University of Toronto psychology professor, is touring to promote his bestselling book "12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos." Critics generally can't find fault with the self-help manual, but they chafe at his popularity as a crusader against political correctness.

The mild-mannered academic rose to prominence during debate over C-16, an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code that added gender identity and gender expression to nondiscrimination law. Peterson's beef with the bill was its provision requiring people to use transgender people's preferred pronouns under threat of fine, which he correctly identified as compelled speech.

Here in the United States, the First Amendment protects citizens' right to say things others find offensive and refuse to parrot government messages. Canada has no such free-speech foundation. Peterson drew widespread praise for his principled stand against the law.

"I'm not going to be a mouthpiece for language that I detest," Peterson said, referring to the panoply of pronouns such as ze, xe, ey, ne, co and hy invented to refer to people who are transgender, gender-fluid and genderqueer.

Peterson says he's honored the wishes of individual students who have asked him to use non-standard pronouns in the past, but he draws the line at the threat of state sanction. A clinical psychologist, he explains that it's egocentric for folks to believe they can impose their view of themselves on everyone with whom they interact.

"Your identity is actually a negotiation from moment to moment and also through the course of your life," he said in one lecture."...Your identity is actually part of the public commons, and the idea that it's your subjective determination is so primordially wrong psychologically that it doesn't even register."

We can tell people we're charitable or patient or outgoing, but if we don't act out those qualities in our lives, it's unlikely others will describe us that way. You can add "Esquire" to your signature, but unless you're British nobility or an attorney at law, good luck on that ever catching on.

Johnson's statement said she and her colleagues learned of Peterson's appearance from IndyWeek, the Triangle's alt-weekly newspaper. In a recent column, Laura Bullard takes DPAC to task and calls on theater managers to "reconsider your invitation."

The journalist, however, didn't do her research, and her commentary hinges on a false premise.

"The Durham Performing Arts Center did not invite me," Peterson wrote on his website. "I rented the theater. There is a world of difference. But, of course, without the allegation of 'invitation' there is no one to cast into disrepute."

Peterson describes himself as a classical liberal, and free speech and tolerance for dissent are indeed bedrock liberal values. Durham Democrats would do well to recommit themselves to authentic liberalism and disavow the far-left authoritarianism of nanny-state censorship.

Johnson and her colleagues are wrong to lean on DPAC to cancel Peterson's appearance because they dislike (or more likely misunderstand) his message. The show must go on, and city council members should be in the front row — they just might learn something.