A Postmodern Neo-Marxist's Guide to Free Speech
Jordan Peterson is a central figure in the so-called ‘culture wars’. Lumping together 'postmodern neo-Marxists', feminists, queer theorists and transgender rights activists as the ‘social justice warrior' blob he stands against, Peterson has become a poster boy of the transnational far right. This essay tackles Peterson’s conceptualisation of his enemies head-on, arguing that he identifies something real: unity among diverse critical traditions in our opposition to ‘free speech’. ‘Postmodern neo-Marxists’ may be an oxymoron, given the well-documented animosity between these two intellectual movements. But what postmodernists (or poststructuralists), Marxists, feminists, and gender and queer theorists share in common is a belief that the ways in which we theorise, explain, and act in, our world must stem from actual social practices rather than abstract, ahistorical principles. Whereas the ‘alt-right’ depicts a right to free speech as a universal principle, endogenous to ‘Western civilisation’, in practice it has always and everywhere been strictly limited. In Euripedes’ The Phoenician Women, Polyneices says that the worst thing about exile is that ‘the right of free speech does not exist’; Iocasta responds: ‘That’s a slave’s life – to be forbidden to speak one’s mind’. This is not a metaphor. Many thousands of slaves lived in Euripedes’ Athens, and freedom to ‘speak one’s mind’ exclusively rested with those who would say the right sorts of things, excluding those, like slaves, who might say things that endanger the social order itself. And so it goes today – not least in the culture wars, where, for example, women of colour calling out racism are routinely ‘shut down’ for ‘incivility’. A guide to free speech politics in the age of Peterson, this essay shows how inescapably raced, classed and gendered the exclusionary practice of ‘free speech’ really is, and what this tells us about liberalism’s inadequacy in responding to neo-fascism.
Citation : Whitham, B. (2020) A Post-Modern Neo-Marxist's Guide to Free Speech. In: Riley, C.L. (Ed.) Free Speech Wars, Manchester: Manchester University Press.