Why silencing Jordan B. Peterson does little for our public debate

I grew up thinking that universities were places where ideas could be discussed, challenged, contested, and ultimately improved. I thought that they were places where anyone was welcome and where rigour of thought and evidence were valued more highly than political biases.

In this marketplace of debates, I assumed that populism and partisanship would be limited. Ideas would stand on their own merits without having to be labelled right wing or left wing.

So it surprised me when I discovered that the academy can be as susceptible to the marginalisation of views that have been prejudged as sitting on the wrong side of the political divide.

A few days ago I spoke to a friend in Canada who told me that an event at the University of Ottawa in which Jordan Peterson was due to appear had to be cancelled because of protests by students. They are angry at how his views have been adopted by the Alt-Right and used as justification for continued marginalisation of some groups. Because of this, he is prevented from submitting his ideas for public debate in the context of this university. 

My own opinion of Jordan Peterson is somewhat ambivalent. There’s a lot that I dislike about what he says and how he says it. He certainly loves a good argument and comes across as overly insistent on his view of the world. At the same time, he presents a way of looking at issues which is under represented within academia and our public debate. These are ideas which do not align neatly with a leftist liberal world-view, and which are therefore only given exposure in places where the debate is even more populist: Youtube, Twitter, glossy magazines and TV news programs. However, Peterson is an academic and works at the University of Toronto which is in the same province as Ottawa. In my view, he should be challenged by those who see things differently from him within an academic setting.

Of course, he has made appearances at other universities and also been rebutted in the intellectual press. I’m not saying that he has no platform, but I am arguing that the exclusion and attempts at marginalisation do us no favours. Calling him A Messiah-cum-Surrogate-Dad for Gormless Dimwits might be good for click-throughs, but it does nothing for the respect and openness that we need in our societies.

In a recent post, Ben Pollard refers to Bernard Crick’s argument that politics is “the negotiation of difference without violence.” He continues,

True politics is grounded in the ancient rituals of common life, not the divisive games of contemporary populism. Democracy began in the common spaces, the Greek agora, and the Syrian souk. Places where common rituals helped humans to negotiate their common good.

Ben Pollard, Politics is beautiful

I think universities should nurture this kind of common democracy, instead of pandering to the exclusion and polarisation of populism.

I want to live in a world where we learn to respect people who think differently from us; a world where a person’s views can be taken seriously and given the dignity of a reasoned response. I think that’s the kind of world where people’s minds can be changed. And even if their minds aren’t changed, their ideas are put through the fire of rigorous debate. Their thinking is strengthened. And those who disagree are also forced to explain why they disagree. They can’t fall back on lazy dismissals of “he’s right wing,” or “he’s not very clever.”

If there’s anything that is effective at enhancing the influence of an idea, it is dismissing it when it already resonates with a big enough number of people. Calling Jordan Peterson stupid just mobilises those who hate the left and see his ideas as justification for bringing back archaic practices. He becomes the underdog outsider who others use to give credibility to their own sense of victimhood.

Instead of lazy dismissals, I’d like to see more thoughtful deconstruction of ideas. I’d like to see those who are racist or chauvinistic or seem to be transphobic held accountable for these views, not just excluded from the public discourse.