On June 22, Jordan Peterson penned a tweet commenting on a recent gender transition surgery undergone by an actor who now goes by the name of Elliot Page. Peterson was suspended from Twitter later that day for allegedly violating their rules against hateful conduct.
“You may not promote violence against, threaten, or harass other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or serious disease,” said Twitter in the notice. “By clicking Delete you acknowledge that your Tweet violated the Twitter rules.”
“I’ve essentially been banned from Twitter as a consequence,” said Peterson in a video responding to the incident. “I say banned, although technically I’ve been suspended. But the suspension will not be lifted unless I delete the ‘hateful’ tweet in question, and I would rather die than do that.”
“It’s a relief, in some real sense, to be banned,” Peterson concluded, “and I regard it under the present conditions as a badge of honor.”
On June 29, Peterson’s friend Dave Rubin took to Twitter to comment on Peterson’s suspension. Ironically, Rubin was suspended for that comment, he revealed Tuesday.
"I have been suspended by Twitter for posting a screenshot of Jordan Peterson’s tweet which got he himself suspended,” Rubin said in a statement. "While it is unclear how I broke their terms of service," he continued, "it is clear they are breaking their fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders by letting a bunch of Woke activists run the company."
As Peterson and Rubin both point out, it’s hard to know exactly what Twitter found objectionable about the Tweets in question. However, one likely explanation is that Peterson and Rubin both referred to now-Elliott Page using the person’s former name.
“I committed the fatal crime of what has come to be known in the appalling censorial terminology of the insane activists as ‘deadnaming,’” said Peterson, “which is the act of referring to someone who has ‘transitioned’—another hated piece of jargon and slogan—by the name, and by the inference, the gender, really the sex, that everyone knew them by previously.”
This, it seems, is the crux of the issue.
According to many trans-activists, deadnaming can be incredibly hurtful to people who have transitioned. It reminds them of the person they used to be, the identity from which they’ve escaped, and even that simple reminder can take a huge psychological toll.
Now, if trans-activists were merely pointing this out and encouraging people to be respectful, there would likely be little problem, and I suspect most people would be happy to abide by the request. After all, there are many ways we change our language and behavior to make people feel more comfortable. We use a preferred nickname when someone asks, and we’ll avoid bringing up a sensitive topic with them if we know the person doesn’t want to talk about it.
The problem, of course, is that many trans-activists don’t stop there. Instead of a respectful request, the exhortation to abide by the ever-evolving political correctness rules comes as a demand, and there are steep consequences, such as canceling, for those who don’t comply.
The Mindset behind Cancel Culture
While it’s easy to vilify the activists pushing for these suspensions and bans, it’s important to understand where they’re coming from. For most of them, the motivation is compassion. They are doing this because they care for the marginalized and downtrodden, and we need to understand that, even empathize with it, if we ever want to dissuade them from canceling people over names and pronouns. Think of a mother bear lashing out at an aggressor to protect her cubs. That’s effectively what’s going on here.
Compassionate people tend to sort the world into victims and perpetrators, those who need to be protected and those who need to be stood up to. If compassion is driving you, it makes total sense to attack the people you see as the bully, to viciously tear down that which is causing harm.
Notably, this kind of compassion often isn’t a bad thing. People in positions of power do cause lots of harm, and there are circumstances (such as genuine harassment) where it’s entirely appropriate to call out bullies and defend victims. Compassion has its place, even the ferocious compassion of a mother bear.
The problem is, compassion can be taken too far. Canceling people over names and pronouns is a clear example, but there are many others. Think about how many social programs, taxes, and regulations are promoted out of compassion for the poor. Think about how many industrial projects are opposed out of a deep-seated love for the environment.
Of course, the people who promote these things mean well for the most part. But in their misguided obsession with compassion, they often end up causing far more problems than they solve.
The Path to Peace in the Culture War
So what’s the right way forward? Well, I think it lies in the middle of two extremes: too much compassion and too little compassion.
First, we shouldn’t have so much compassion that we cancel and attack everyone who is deemed a perpetrator. For one, that approach will likely backfire, because it’s only a matter of time before we are all labeled perpetrators. What’s more, canceling people is antithetical to a genuine tolerance of diverse viewpoints.
LGBTQ activists, of all people, should appreciate the value of such tolerance. After all, it was this very tolerance of diversity that allowed them to get as far as they have come. It was free speech—not just as a legal principle, but as a cultural value to be upheld in social and academic platforms—that allowed them to get their ideas into mainstream culture in the first place. It would be incredibly hypocritical for them, having championed free speech as a means of advancing their cause, to suddenly turn their backs on it now that their detractors also have something to say.
Having said that, just as too much compassion can be a problem, it would also be wrong to completely neglect compassion. Just saying “deadnaming doesn’t matter, I’ll say what I want” is a callous approach that spits in the face of those extending tolerance in your direction.
“The protection of our rights can endure no longer than the performance of our responsibilities,” said John F. Kennedy. In this context, the right to free speech comes with the responsibility to speak judiciously. If you are asking people to let you speak freely, it is only fair that you at least consider their requests—and attempt to understand why they are making them—regarding what you say.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you should always acquiesce to their demands. That will have to depend on the context. The point is that you shouldn’t simply dismiss the voice of compassion, no matter how shrill it may sound.
The goal, then, is to get to a place where canceling and scoffing are replaced with dialogue and understanding, tolerance and respect. It won’t be easy, but if we commit ourselves to this process, we can create a society where compassion and free speech can both be celebrated and fostered.
This article was adapted from an issue of the FEE Daily email newsletter. Click here to sign up and get free-market news and analysis like this in your inbox every weekday.