Screen capture from "The Perilous State of the University: Jonathan Haidt and Jordan B Peterson"/Youtube

Bob Brehl: Free speech takes a beating at universities

  • March 25, 2018

Jordan Peterson is a University of Toronto psychology professor, best-selling author, cultural critic, international media celebrity — and lightning rod.

He is despised by many on the left, revered by many on the right and more-or-less viewed as a common-sense talker to those around the centre. 

Until 18 months ago, Peterson was hardly known beyond the U of T campus. Then he took a stand against Bill C-16, an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code. Now law, it states it “is intended to protect individuals from discrimination within the sphere of federal jurisdiction and from being the targets of hate propaganda, as a consequence of their gender identity or their gender expression.”

Peterson repeatedly criticized the bill, saying it is an infringement of freedom of speech by forcing others to call transgender people by pronouns that are not words. Instead of gender pronouns he or she, if one fails to use a person’s pronoun of choice — “ze,” “zir,” “they” or any other — one could be in trouble with the human rights commission.

To some, like Peterson, the law is Orwellian social engineering and political correctness at its finest. To others, it is a question of fairness and equality. Besides, they argue, the English language is perpetually changing. We don’t speak today with all the same words that were spoken during Shakespearian times.

Whether one agrees or not with Justin Trudeau’s new law, Peterson has a right to express his opinion on it and a whole range of other things. His opinions have made him an international celebrity.

For example, Peterson believes young people who don’t make their beds in the morning should not be out protesting and demanding change in the world if they can’t even do that little task in their own life. He wonders if men and women can work together in the age of #MeToo. He “acts as if God exists” but refuses to get “boxed in” when asked if he believes in God.

He has an eclectic range of opinions that can be viewed on hundreds of video clips on YouTube or in his new book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. He is a skilled debater and appears thoughtful and reasonable when laying out his arguments. At times, he appears a little arrogant, but there is no question he is highly intellectual and can boil down complicated issues and theories in thought-provoking ways.

You don’t have to agree with him on all things, but he is certainly a person worth hearing what he has to say.

Unfortunately, he’s become a pariah to the hard left and faces angry demonstrations most everywhere he appears to publicly speak. Agenda-driven journalists have attacked him relentlessly, and usually they’ve come out of the fight a lot worse for wear. The most famous evisceration was of British TV journalist Cathy Newman. Their interview has been viewed almost nine million times on YouTube since it aired in January.

Clearly, Peterson has the intellectual horsepower to look after himself. But it’s the shouting and taunting threats levelled at him from angry mobs on university campuses here in Canada that is most disconcerting. Such encounters are also readily available for viewing online.

Earlier this month, he was speaking at Queen’s University in Kingston. My nephew, who is in first year, witnessed the spectacle firsthand.

“I attended Peterson’s talk and it was quite concerning,” he wrote. “One hundred and fifty protesters were outside chanting and banging on doors. Eventually they began smashing the stain glass windows of one of Queen’s oldest buildings. The atmosphere inside the hall was calm and civil. The saddest part was not a single person of opposing view attended the talk or bothered to engage in a dialogue despite its open forum.”

There were Queen’s professors amongst the protesters, setting a fine example. Protesters hurled insults at everyone going inside, calling attendees fascists and bigots. My nephew was with a friend, a visible minority, and they called that young man a racist, too. 

“These people had no intention of engaging in an intelligent dialogue and most had no clue what Peterson was talking about,” he added. “It’s concerning to see freedom of speech attacked especially on a university campus where dialogue and diverse views are the whole point. Peterson put it best when he said ‘those are the barbarians at the gates, they are destroyers not builders.’ It was sad to see my peers engage in such childish behaviour.”

Sad, indeed, that universities seem to be driven by political correctness and are stifling free speech at most every turn.

Last fall, at Wilfrid Laurier University, a teaching assistant was severely chastised by faculty for using a TV clip featuring Peterson in a communications tutorial focusing on the complexities of grammar. The teaching assistant was harangued for saying nothing against Peterson’s views. Three staff members accused her of being transphobic and said her failure to condemn Peterson was akin to remaining neutral on the views of Adolf Hitler.

The incident surfaced only because the teaching assistant discreetly recorded the berating on her computer.

Once the beacons of diverse thought and free speech, universities are in danger of being overtaken by Orwell’s Thought Police.

(Brehl is a writer and author of several books.)

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