Best-selling author Jordan Peterson first shot to fame by styling himself as a free-speech warrior at the University of Toronto, where he teaches psychology. Objecting to trans people’s requests that he use their preferred pronouns, Peterson said in 2016, “I don’t recognize another person’s right to determine what pronouns I use to address them.” Later, he told the BBC, “I’ve studied authoritarianism for a very long time — for 40 years — and they’re [sic] started by people’s attempts to control the ideological and linguistic territory.”
But Peterson’s affection for unbounded “linguistic territory” only goes so far, it seems. In June, he threatened to sue Down Girl author and Cornell University assistant professor Kate Manne for defamation, after she criticized his book, 12 Rules For Life, and more generally called his work misogynistic in an interview with Vox. (Peterson previously filed a lawsuit against a university whose faculty members, in a closed-door meeting, argued that showing his videos in a classroom created an unsafe environment for students.) In letters to Manne, Cornell, and Vox, Peterson’s lawyer, Howard Levitt, demanded that all three parties “immediately retract all of Professor Manne’s defamatory statements, have them immediately removed from the internet, and issue an apology in the same forum to Mr. Peterson. Otherwise, our client will take all steps necessary to protect his professional reputation, including but not limited to initiating legal proceedings against all of you for damages.” (You can read the full letter below).
Among the statements Levitt objected to: Manne’s contention that Peterson’s book included “some really eyebrow-raising, authoritarian-sounding, and even cruel things,” as well as her observation that “it doesn’t seem accidental that [Peterson’s] skepticism about objective facts arises when it’s conveniently anti-feminist.” The lawyer and his client were equally unhappy with this line: “I also suspect that for many of Peterson’s readers, the sexism on display above is one tool among many to make forceful, domineering moves that are typical of misogyny.”
Manne, who coined the instantly immortal portmanteau “himpathy” to describe the disproportionate sympathy our society extends towards men, says her fellow academic’s letter is “morally disappointing, but seems quite predictable.” So far, Peterson hasn’t made good on his threat to file suit, though neither she, Cornell, or Vox have complied with his requests. “It’s a classic attempt to chill free speech,” Manne says. “Like many of his ilk, what he really seems to be demanding — when one examines his actions rather than words — is to be able to speak free from legitimate social consequences, such as other people talking back.”
Ironies abound, but one is that Manne — a young, untenured scholar who argues that misogyny isn’t about hatred as much as it is about enforcing hierarchies — is being threatened with legal action by an older man who ranks much higher than she does in the professional and cultural pecking order.
Another irony is that Vox’s Sean Illing wrote that he interviewed Manne precisely because she, “unlike many Peterson critics, actively engaged with his ideas.” Says Illing of Peterson’s saber-rattling, “I found the request absurd and forwarded it to our legal advisers, who confirmed that it was baseless, and then I happily ignored it. We did not alter the piece and we did not take it down.”
Peterson threatened to sue in Canadian courts, which makes some sense, given that he lives there. But then again, says Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher who frequently litigates press freedom cases, that choice of venue could well be an attempt to avoid being subject to American law. “The United States to this day has the strongest protections for free speech, so you often see people threatening to sue in another country,” he says.
Still, Boutrous says, the case wouldn’t be a sure bet in Canada, either. The country has fairly strong free speech laws, he says, and Manne’s interview is “exactly the kind of rigorous, thoughtful dialogue and critique we want in our society. [The threatened suit] is hypocritical in the extreme.”
Levitt, not surprisingly, disagreed. There’s a difference, he said in an email, between academic debate and “viciously libelling [Peterson] by referring to him as a misogynist, as dishonest, by impugning his honesty and integrity.” Viewing the legal threat as an attempt to shut down the conversation, he continued, would only “encourage the radical left practitioners of identity politics to avoid such debate by castigating our client with libellous false aspersions to avoid engaging in the constitutionally protected (and desired) clash of ideas.”
Levitt also represents Peterson in his defamation suit against Wilfred Laurier University, in which he’s demanded $1.5 million in damages from the school and three faculty members over a meeting in which they chastised a teaching assistant for showing a communications class one of Peterson’s videos. The school has since apologized to the TA, whom Levitt is also representing in her own lawsuit.
“I’m hoping that the combination of lawsuits will be enough to convince careless university professors and administrators blinded by their own ideology to be much more circumspect in their actions and their words,” Peterson opined in a YouTube video.
The university seized on those comments when it asked a judge to dismiss the case last month, according to a statement printed in The Globe and Mail: “There is inescapable irony in the fact that Peterson, who has come to prominence through vehement advocacy of free speech principles, is bringing a claim for the stated purpose of causing academics and administrators to be more circumspect in their words.”
Read the full letter below: