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Disinviting Jordan Peterson: the Faculty of Divinity, Cambridge and Approved Ideas

He has sent so many cliques and groups into titters of anger, and the indignant have attempted to turn on him.  The university environment should be the last place where dangerous ideas, and views, are stifled and stomped upon. In actual fact, we are seeing the reverse; from students unions to middle- and upper-managerial parasites and administrators, the contrarian idea must be boxed, the controversial speaker silenced and sent beyond the pale. Dissent and disagreement are lethal toxin to such affected notions as “diversity” and “inclusiveness”.

It should be very clear that meaningless terms such as diversity and inclusiveness do very little to the content of actual intellectual conversation.  Ideas are there to be debated, not accepted by high caste strictures.  The modern academic environment suggests something quite opposite: a policing rationale, an insistence on thought control that is insidious and all too common in managed structures.  When incorporated into the university structure, the bureaucrat takes precedence over the intellectual, the mindless cherry picker over the polymath. The more ideas you have, the more of a threat you will be, requiring regulation and the occasional ostracising. In broader public spaces, this may even require you losing a platform altogether.

Which leads us, then, to Jordan Peterson, agent provocateur and psychology professor at University of Toronto who was led to believe that he would be taking up residence for two months at the Faculty of Divinity in Cambridge University in Michaelmas Term.  In a statement to the Cambridge student newspaper, Varsity, a University spokesperson confirmed “that Jordan Peterson requested a visiting fellowship, and an initial offer has been rescinded after a further review.”

In a bitter irony that should have been apparent, the Canadian academic had his invitation rescinded in the name of “inclusiveness”, a baffling justification given its very opposite interpretation. In a statement to the Guardian, the University spokesman proclaimed Cambridge “an inclusive environment and we expect all our staff and visitors to uphold our principles. There is no place here for anyone who cannot”. Now there speaks the virtue of an intolerant tolerance.

Left hanging with menacing dullness is the entire lack of precision as to what those politburo designated principles are. Even more to the point, the Faculty of Divinity is left looking buffoonish having first extended an invitation in the first place, presumably because it was in the spirit of the University’s values.  Those values, in turn, must have been flipped in an act of feeble mind changing.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s guide on Freedom of Expression for higher education providers and students’ unions in England and Wales is instructive here. It notes section 43 of the Education (No 2) Act 1986, which places a legal duty on universities and Higher Education Providers more broadly to take “reasonably practicable” steps to protect freedom of speech within the law for their members, students, employees and visiting speakers.

There is no “right” for any group or speaker to speak to students at Student Unions or HEP premises. But once a speaker has been invited to speak at any meeting or event, he or she “should not be stopped from doing so unless they are likely to express unlawful speech or their attendance would lead the host organisation to breach other legal obligations and no reasonably practicable steps can be taken to reduce these risks.”

As Peterson tetchily noted, he not only requested a visiting fellowship at the Faculty of Divinity but been extended an invitation.  “You bloody virtue-signalling cowards,” he tweeted.  He also deemed the Faculty of Divinity’s publicity on the issue misrepresentative, having “not equally” publicised “the initial agreement/invitation” while giving the impression that he had gone “cap-in-hand to the school for the fellowship.”

So what is it about Peterson that could possibly fall within those extreme instances?  Causing offense, perhaps, but certainly nothing illegal or criminal.  He had, after all, visited Cambridge last November during the course of a book tour.  He spoke at the Corn Exchange.  He met faculty staff members.  He also recorded videos and podcasts with the noted philosopher and Cambridge don Sir Roger Scruton, presented at the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Platonism and Stephen Blackwood, founding President of Ralston College.  But perhaps most importantly, he was invited to address the venerable, and student-run Cambridge Union to a packed house.

The Cambridge University Student Union had a different take.  They were “relieved” at the rescinding of the offer. “It is a political act to associate the University with an academic’s work through offers which legitimise figures such as Peterson.  His work and views are not representative of the student body and as such we do not see his visit as a valuable contribution to the University, but as one that works in opposition to the principles of the University.”

The statement is riddled with daft, anti-intellectual claptrap.  It is stingingly parochial.  It is also dangerous.  The only “political act” in this entire affair is one affirming that a speaker with certain views associated or otherwise with the student body cannot take up residence to discuss views that are not approved by prior screening. The CUSU has taken it upon itself to deliberate over what a “valuable contribution” from an academic might look like, suggesting that it already has a set of acceptable, stock ideas that are beyond challenge.  The statement is also vacuous on one fundamental point: to merely allow someone to debate a position is to legitimise him (note – not even the idea, but the person), a position presuming that an attempt at understanding is the same as approval.

Varsity has gone through the supposedly precarious resume that is Peterson’s: his opposition to an anti-discrimination bill adding gender identity to the Canadian Human Rights Code in 2016 as an infringement of free speech; his refusal to use any gender neutral pronoun; his claimed defence of white privilege and masculinity.  Even this laundry list is hardly a credible basis for denying him a place to engage in debate; if anything, those card carrying CUSU members, not to mention Faculty staff, might wish to engage and confront Peterson in gladiatorial bouts of the mind. But not so; far easier to pull the platform away, and simply claim to know the whole truth.

Instead of showing the very resilience that should be encouraged in thinking, the opposite is being fostered by such decisions. An enfeebled student and academic community is being encouraged, because it is free of controversy and packed with acceptable behavioural norms.  The latter is distinctly geared towards a beastly toadyism at universities, where students prefer to attack certain contrarian ideas rather than the very class that detests them: university management.

When brands are being advertised, names promoted, thoughts only count in a bland, inoffensive sense.  The sweet is preferred over the bitter; the discomforting eschewed in favour of Aldous Huxley’s pneumatic chair.  Any complement of controversial ideas must be approved of in advance.  Given that Peterson has no interest in complying with this diktat, he has become, inadvertently to many, a torch for intellectual freedom.  Attempting to shut, and shutdown the man, is mere confirmation of many of his claims, even if you disagree with a good number of them.

 

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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