In the ultimate ironic — yet predictable — twist, free speech advocate Jordan Peterson is suing Laurier University and three faculty and staff members for comments made about him in a private meeting.
That meeting was held with first-year graduate teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd to admonish her for showing her class a video clip of Peterson saying that he would not use gender-neutral pronouns.
Shepherd is also suing because of that meeting, which she taped and released to the media, because she alleges it left her unemployable in academia.
These related cases, whatever their outcome, are almost certain to foster a chill in the academy to the detriment of academic freedom and free speech.
But as an infamous character from a classical Athenian comedy demonstrates, such suits are unlikely to make the plaintiffs look any better.
‘The most violent man in Athens’
Most readers will have heard of Aristophanes, the famous playwright who in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE penned such enduring comedies as the Lysistrata, in which the women of Greece go on a sex strike until their husbands agree to end the Peloponnesian War.
Fewer readers will have heard of Cleon, and those who have will almost invariably have a negative impression of him.
Cleon, whom Thucydides called “the most violent man in Athens,” was a hawk and demagogue who represented a marked shift from the enlightened leadership of Pericles, or so our elite literary sources tell us. In Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War, Cleon’s most notorious act was advocating the slaughter of all the men and the enslavement of the women and children of the city of Mytilene, which had revolted from the Athenian Empire in 427 BCE.
The Athenians only narrowly voted against Cleon’s proposal, but would be more eager for such ruthlessness in the years to come.
As a favourite of the common people, Cleon was a frequent target of ridicule in the comedies of Aristophanes, himself an elite author like Thucydides. While there can be no doubt that a certain degree of class bias is at play here, Aristophanes wrote for a broad audience and to win a prize, so his portrayal must have been at least funny to a decent segment of the Athenian population.
Aristophanes did not pull any punches.
Demagogues vs. comedians
Think of Aristophanes’ type of comedy, called Old Comedy by scholars, as the classical Athenian equivalent of Saturday Night Live, full of topical jokes lampooning real public figures by name, and employing healthy doses of scatological humour.
That leading politicians and military leaders could be called out and savagely ridiculed, even while sitting in the audience themselves, was a mark of the free speech afforded by Athenian democracy.
After the fall of democracy at the end of the fourth century BCE, the Athenians had to content themselves with New Comedy, a type of slapstick drama that centred on generic stock scenes and named no one explicitly – lest a ruler or friend of a ruler should be offended.
Cleon, however, was not particularly big on free speech, at least not as it was practised by Aristophanes. The demagogue apparently took Aristophanes to court several times in an attempt to silence him, as historian Todd M. Compton recounts in detail. Aristophanes, however, only resolved to intensify the barbs he slung at his rival. In The Acharnians, produced in 425, Aristophanes lets loose:
“And Cleon. Him I know from —shall we say? —personal experience. Last year’s comedy provoked him. To say the least. He dragged me into the Senate House, sued me, and opened the sluicegates. Slander and lies gushed from his tongue in torrents, and down the arroyo of his mind there roared a flash flood of abuse. To purge me, he purged himself —and in the offal, filth and fetor of his verbal diarrhea, I nearly smothered, mortally immersed.”
Three years after The Acharnians, Aristophanes produced a comedy called Wasps, in which two competing characters are respectively named Philocleon and Bdelycleon. The former means “Love Cleon” while the latter means something like “Cleon Makes Me Puke.” So much for being deterred by lawsuits.
Lawsuits and reputations
In reality, Cleon was likely not as bad as the literary sources portray him, just like Pericles was not a god. Cleon actually achieved some military success early in the Peloponnesian War (before he was killed in action in 422) and clearly enjoyed tremendous popularity among the people, enough to be awarded several commands.
But the upshot is that his litigiousness did nothing to protect his reputation and instead only egged on his detractors. It was also against the spirit of Athenian democracy and the vigorous — and often vicious — debates and discussions it encouraged.
Peterson became famous for fighting against the “compelled speech” supposedly entailed by Bill C-16, affording protections against discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression.
Though his interpretation of the law seems far from correct, Peterson warned that having to use the preferred pronouns of trans persons would be a form of “compelled speech.” His crusade against compelled speech and in favour of maximal free speech has made him famous and snagged him invitations to speak at leading universities.
The disciplining of Lindsay Shepherd for showing a clip of Peterson has also been used as an example of the decline of free speech, especially on university campuses.
But in recent weeks, Jordan Peterson himself, through his lawyer, has literally compelled speech. Philosopher Wendy Lynne Lee was told to retract and apologize for a statement made about Peterson on Twitter to her followers, who number only in the few hundred, or face a lawsuit. Aside from the free speech implications of this case, I, for one, would never have heard about the offending tweet had Peterson not demanded an apology. Now Lee’s slight against Peterson is famous.
The lawsuit against Laurier and its members seems even more disturbing and dangerous.
First of all, the statements made about Peterson were behind closed doors. Peterson claims that the faculty and staff members should have known that Shepherd might have made the statements public, and thus they are responsible for publicly defaming him.
Second, like Lee’s tweet, the Laurier members did not say anything about Peterson that countless others haven’t said about him, in far more public venues.
And finally, this lawsuit only brings this meeting and its statements once again under the media spotlight, circulating the allegedly defamatory remarks even further (just like Shepherd’s own lawsuit brings her own post-meeting behaviour into the spotlight, which might affect her “employability” far more than the private meeting ever would have).
Real danger to free speech, academic freedom
Even if the lawsuits against Laurier are fruitless, the mere fact that Laurier and individual faculty and staff members are potentially on the hook for a lot of money will surely have a chilling effect on campus.
Who is going to talk about Peterson negatively now without worrying that they might be contacted by a lawyer and have their livelihood threatened? Peterson is by any measure a public figure, and is quite forceful —and even deliberately provocative — about getting his own views across. He should be fair game. I worry now that he’s not.
In the end, Peterson just looks like a hypocrite, claiming to be free speech’s champion while stifling the free speech of others in very tangible ways. Like Cleon, this suit makes him look ridiculous. Perhaps someone should write a comedy about Peterson with a main character named “Peterson Makes Me Barf” or a new name in the spirit of Aristophanes, like, say, “Rottenlobsterpeteypants.”