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Ominous censorship and the degradation of language

In Canada, a professional group uses vague statements against Jordan Peterson to intimidate its members

Jordan Peterson addresses students at the Cambridge Union on Nov. 2, 2018 in Cambridge, England. Getty Images/Photo by Chris Williamson

Ominous censorship and the degradation of language
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Jordan Peterson, Canada’s foremost public intellectual, has been ordered to pay a $25,000 fine and undergo a six-month “coaching program” in social media or lose his licence. Peterson requested a judicial review of this decision and on Aug. 23 the court upheld the judgment and disciplinary actions by Ontario’s College of Psychologists and ordered Peterson to comply.

Even though Peterson’s comments did not break any Canadian law, they were deemed to have contravened specific rules that exist for members of the college. Peterson claims that none of the people who complained were his clients. So the issue has nothing to do with his counselling practice but is to do with the college’s supposed right to monitor and regulate his public opinions on politics and other controversial matters.

Peterson argued that he has the right to free speech and so his public statements of opinion should not be controlled by the college. Some of the complaints against Peterson included his attack on climate change hysteria and his outspoken criticism of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Peterson views this as “forced re-education” and has said that “If you think you have a right to free speech in Canada you’re delusional.”

But the college, acting on complaints against Peterson for his comments on the Joe Rogan podcast and in other public venues, found that he “may be engaging in degrading, demeaning, and unprofessional comments” and that some of his comments posed “moderate risks of harm to the public” including “undermining public trust in the profession of psychology.”

The judge, Paul Schabas, stated that “The panel concluded, reasonably, that Dr. Peterson’s behaviour raised a moderate risk of harm to the public.”

It goes without saying that this kind of attack on free speech has a chilling effect on public debate and damages society by silencing dissent. But the problem is even bigger than the issue of free speech versus censorship. The even more serious problem here is the degradation of the English language.

You are not supposed to understand clearly what Jordan Peterson did wrong. The language is meant to shut down speech and confuse thought.

Peterson is being fined and subjected to forced re-education but for what? You can read the media reports all you like, but the wording of the censors is full of vagueness and displays a lack of clarity. He may have posed a risk of harm. What kind of “harm”? Harm to whom? Just saying “the public” leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Maybe they mean the Liberal Party of Canada and their supporters and grifters. Maybe not. It is impossible to know from the weasel words employed by the college.

There is a reason for this, and George Orwell explains it in his classic essay, “Politics and the English Language.” Orwell explains the decline in the English language in his day as one expression of the general decline of our civilization. He writes:

It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

In other words, we don’t speak clearly because we don’t think clearly. Meaningless words (which are such because they are characterized by excessive equivocation in meaning) and lack of precision render our language unclear.

Orwell also points out that “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” He uses as examples of imprecise language phrases such as “not an unjustifiable assumption,” “leaves much to be desired,” and “would serve no good purpose.” All the nebulous language of “harm” and “may cause” and “the public” appears to convey reasons for why the college is disciplining Peterson but, upon closer inspection, they tell us nothing of the sort. The reader is left to read into these phrases whatever the reader thinks might be appropriate.

The purpose of this imprecise language is not to convey with accuracy the reasons why the action is being taken, but rather to intimidate you into wondering if you too might be guilty of “harming the public by your speech,” whatever that might mean. The fact that you cannot work out what it might or might not mean is a feature, not a bug. You are not supposed to understand clearly what Jordan Peterson did wrong. The language is meant to shut down speech and confuse thought. It is meant to make the average citizen wary of saying anything that could be construed by somebody, somewhere in authority, as improper.

Orwell warns us: “Political language ... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” He could have been writing about the College of Psychologists and the Ontario Superior Court in 2023.

Craig A. Carter

Craig A. Carter is the research professor of theology at Tyndale University in Toronto, Ontario, and theologian in residence at Westney Heights Baptist Church in Ajax, Ontario.

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