A Defence of Jordan Peterson
Peterson – and the controversy enveloping him – are more nuanced than detractors and supporters would admit
Due to the controversial nature of this topic, The Tab would like to note that this is an opinion piece and does not reflect views beyond those of the writer.
"If you don't think Jordan Peterson is a misogynist, then you are one," opined a particularly staunch friend of mine on a Facebook status I had made in defence of the beleaguered Canadian iconoclast. Alas, the foremost feminist of our age, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, unwittingly married a misogynist, as her husband, public intellectual Niall Ferguson, tweeted: "Having taught at Cambridge for three happy years I am dismayed at the shabby treatment of @jordanbpeterson. All concerned should … hang their heads in shame." I'll fetch the annulment papers…
But wait! Could it be the truth is more nuanced than that, that both Peterson and his acolytes aren't the rabid transphobic, homophobic, woman-hating, lobster-fetishising goons they've been caricatured as? If only for the sake of saving Ferguson and Ali's marriage, I'll be arguing that Peterson's treatment was indeed shabby, and that the vilification of a thoroughly decent, fecund and intellectually brilliant academic should have our heads hung in shame.
Peterson himself has branded the Divinity Faculty "cowards and mountebanks" in light of their decision to rescind his visiting Fellowship. The description is perhaps hyperbolic and certainly does nothing to vitiate the impression Peterson is a fledgling Bond villain, but it is apt. To withdraw an offer of a fellowship – a wholly unpolitical one centred on an exegesis of The Book of Exodus – is the height of intellectual cowardice. The reason given by a university spokesperson was "[Cambridge] is an inclusive environment and we expect all our staff and visitors to uphold our principles. There is no place here for anyone who cannot." Herein lies the central paradox of our purportedly liberal and tolerant university; our ostensible "inclusivity" is maintained by a rigorous process of exclusion. The only thing we won't tolerate is intolerance, as the adage goes. But this leads us ineluctably to the questions: who defines "tolerance" and "intolerance," and why do your values assume primacy over mine?
As usual, CUSU had all the answers, brilliantly obviating the need to actually find out what the student body thought by telling them what they thought, writing the below in a public statement.
Peterson's complaint that the Divinity Faculty "handled publicising the rescindment in a manner that could hardly have been more narcissistic, self-congratulatory and devious" could hardly be more germane to the complacent didacticism of CUSU. The specious claim that offering Peterson a fellowship to study the Old Testament is either political or an endorsement of Peterson's personal beliefs is stated without an iota of evidence or analysis. The conjuration of some fictitious, monolithic student body universally sighing in "relief" that some nebulous, unnamed "principles of the university" have not been compromised epitomises CUSU's – and increasingly the student Left's – presumption to have a monopoly on truth and the vox populi.
As CUSU did not think it worth elucidating what values they felt would be compromised by Peterson's fellowship (because of course, as one great monistic hive mind the student body should intuitively have the university principles embalmed on the mind as indelibly as our Hermes Logins), I will briefly outline the controversy that catapulted Peterson to both fame and infamy.
In 2016, Peterson publicly opposed a piece of Canadian legislation called Bill C-16, a Bill which could make not referring to trans people by their opted-for pronouns punishable by "fines and damages to mandatory anti-discrimination training," but not by criminal conviction as Peterson has erroneously claimed. Peterson has clarified that his contention is not with using transgender people's preferred pronouns, but with the heavy-handed, Orwellian enforcement of this by the legislature. He has stated his unwillingness to use preferred pronouns in certain situations isn't out of a contention with, or antipathy towards, transgenderism (which swiftly rubbishes the pervasive calumny that Dr Peterson is a transphobe), but out of a reluctance to "cede linguistic territory to post-modernist neo-Marxists."
Dr Airton, Peterson's colleague at the University of Toronto has accused him of resorting to alarmism and "slippery slope fallacies" and the legal consensus seems to be that Peterson has either misunderstood or mischaracterised Bill C-16. Oscar Wilde's aphorism "The truth is rarely pure and never simple," springs to mind. Peterson is by no means perfect; he has on occasion used hyperbole to convey his views. But he is emphatically not a transphobe, homophobe or sexist of any shade.
Peterson's agenda is Faustian, not Mephistophelean. His loftiest ideals are Truth and its free dissemination, not polemicising for an alt-right he has explicitly disavowed repeatedly. "I've studied authoritarianism for a very long time – for 40 years – and they're started by people's attempts to control the ideological and linguistic territory," said Peterson in defence of his opposition to Bill C-16. These are not the words of a fascist; they are the creed of a man who rightly argues "free speech is not just another value. It's the foundation of Western civilisation." With the rescindment of Peterson's fellowship, this foundation has suffered yet another effacement. Wittgenstein once wrote "the limits of language mean the limits of my world."
CUSU stalwarts may believe they have created a "safer environment;" in reality, they have merely created a smaller one by curtailing free speech. I, and many others, believe this intellectual philistinism to be the most egregious abnegation of the "principles of the university."
Header credits: Gage Skidmore.