'Hijacking a Fundamental Right'

Shouting down of a controversial speaker -- a professor who opposes the use of gender-neutral pronouns -- at McMaster University raises new concerns about academic freedom.

March 21, 2017
 
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Jordan Peterson attempts to speak at McMaster University Friday.

Has American-style “campus illiberalism” reached Canada? That’s what some are wondering this week in the aftermath of the shouting down of an invited speaker at McMaster University in Ontario.

Jordan Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and an outspoken critic of what he calls “compelled speech” -- including the mandatory use of gender-neutral pronouns such as the singular “they” -- was invited to McMaster by a student group to participate in a panel Friday on free speech and political correctness. Peterson ended up being the only participant out of four slated panelists, however, after news of protests spread.

Various videos of the event have been posted online. One posted by Peterson shows dozens of protesters gathered at the back and to one side of the lecture hall, using various tools -- from cowbells to air horns to a megaphone -- to disrupt his speech. Peterson attempts to deliver his talk to a larger group of interested students, but he is nearly inaudible at times due to ongoing chants, such as “This is where we draw the line” and “Trans rights are human rights.”

Members of the audience ask the protesters to stop, to no avail. After approximately 30 minutes, Peterson takes his talk outside. The protesters follow, but he continues to speak, explaining that he opposes a controversial Canadian bill to move to protect gender identity and expression in a non-discrimination human rights law and in the national criminal code. That's because, in his view, in part, the proposed legislation has implications for the use of certain kinds of language and enshrines an insufficient definition of identity. 

He says the protesters are inspired in part by a “radical postmodern” philosophy in which there is only group, not individual, identity, and in which dialogue between groups can never lead to consensus. He urges those listening not to go “down that road.”

Peterson, who is no stranger to controversy, in an interview with Inside Higher Ed called the event “theater of the absurd” that left him speech speechless -- almost.

“The borderline between uncivil and violent behavior is very thin, and what happened at McMaster, where someone with a bullhorn dominated the entire event -- repeating the same inane phrases over and over -- subjugated the desires of all the people who came there to listen,” Peterson said. “We’re talking about hijacking a fundamental right.”

Peterson has previously said that he opposes gender-neutral pronouns outright, including student requests that he use them. His home institution, Toronto, has supported his right to free speech while warning him to observe the provincial human rights code and his responsibilities as a teacher. He said Monday that he opposes being required by “fiat” to refer to anyone by anything, especially mandates from groups that say that they represent the interests of large swaths of individuals. He generally addresses trans people using pronouns based on how they present themselves, he said. Moreover, he said, there’s no clinical evidence to his knowledge that gender-neutral pronouns psychologically benefit trans people.

Peterson has many critics within academe, and he’s been compared by fellow professors to the late John Philippe Rushton, whose work on race and intelligence earned him a reputation in the eyes of some as Canada’s Charles Murray. (Murray, of course, was at the center of the recent Middlebury College protest that turned violent.) But Peterson denied that he was transphobic or racist or any number of other things he’s been accused of, saying if there was evidence of that out there it would already have been unearthed by his critics. The pronoun debate and others are essentially a way in which “the radical postmodern left is using the trans issue to push their political agenda forward,” Peterson said, adding that activist academics have had a hand in that. (For the record, he said he’d be equally opposed to such activism coming from the academic right.)

McMaster’s president, Patrick Deane, released a statement about the incident Monday, saying that “defending academic freedom is not always easy to do,” and that the university was pressured by various people and groups prior to the event to denounce Peterson or the protesters or cancel the event altogether.

“I chose to do none of those things,” he wrote. “The event was framed and organized as a discussion of political correctness and freedom of speech on campus, which I regard as an important and entirely appropriate topic for discussion at an institution of higher learning. The fundamental mission of the university is to provide opportunities for education, both within and beyond the classroom. Taking the opportunity to listen to a speaker, even one with whom one may vehemently disagree, is an important aspect of education and a cornerstone of academic debate.”

Deane said he reaffirmed the university’s commitment to diversity, including that brought by trans people. So, he added, “the presence on campus of a speaker who may challenge the rights of any particular group should not be seen as undermining the university’s commitment to inclusivity but merely as an opportunity to explore and debate the topics under discussion.”

Peaceful protest is welcome, he said, but in the event that “the tactics employed by such protesters violate the laws of our land, or the codes of conduct of our community, appropriate sanctions can and will be applied.”

Gord Arbeau, a spokesperson for McMaster, said the university expects one nonstudent with no affiliation to the university who was involved in the protest to face unspecified criminal charges.

Two professors who bowed out of the event declined immediate interview requests. The third, Philippa Carter, teaching professor of social psychology and religion, said she canceled due to safety concerns only.

“I think his views are wrong,” Carter said of Peterson, saying that “language evolves” and academics should, too. “But my decision didn’t have anything with not wanting to be in the same room with him. I had heard there were going to be protests, and I wasn’t persuaded that the [student] organization had taken enough precautions around security at the event.”

Carter said the protest confirmed her decision was the right one, and that having to be concerned about her physical security at an academic event “really pisses me off.”

“I don’t think [Peterson] should have been invited, but once he had, then he had the right to speak,” she said. “We are not a high school. I don’t think that universities or colleges are obliged to protect students from having their feelings hurt -- primarily because that’s impossible to do. How do we know what’s going to hurt someone?”

In Canada, she added, “We have a fairly widespread affirmation of diversity and multiculturalism, and universities should try to protect that diversity, to include diversity of opinion.”

Campus protests surrounding inclusion issues haven’t reached the pitch they have in the U.S. in Canada, Carter said, likely because of that ingrained multiculturalism: there’s less controversy surrounding diversity because diversity is less controversial. So concerns about academic freedom aren’t as heightened as they are in the U.S., either, she said.

“But if stuff like what happened at McMaster keeps happening, I think people will start to voice a little more concern,” Carter added.

Peterson is no stranger to controversy, and students at Toronto protested against him at a free speech rally in October. But he said the event at McMaster was the worst behavior he'd seen. Also this month, Peter Singer, Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, who has argued in favor of abortion and euthanasia for severely disabled infants in some instances, was interrupted by disability rights protesters throughout an appearance via Skype at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.

David Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said student protests of invited speakers come up “now and again,” but not with the same frequency they seem to of late in the U.S. “But oftentimes what happens in the U.S. spills over very quickly.”

Similar to the American Association of University Professors, Robinson's association's view is that “no matter how provocative or offensive someone may be, they have a right to speak.” Protesters have rights, too, he said, and may express their disagreement by turning their backs or heads, handing out leaflets or, especially, sharing their views during questions-and-answer periods -- not by shouting someone down.

“One of the few places in our society where we can really engage in adult conversations about controversial issues” are college campuses, he said. “Doesn’t mean we agree with them. On the contrary, the more we shine the light on and speak about the issues we find offensive, the more we put them to the test.”

Peterson said Canadian students tend to be more politically "sedate" than older Canadians or nonstudents, in that they're focused on job preparation in what looks like a challenging economy. But going forward, he said, much will depend on how colleges and universities respond to incidents like the one at McMaster.

“The more these provocations are allowed to manifest themselves” without sanctions for those involved, “the higher the probability that someone is going to get hurt."

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