If you ask Professor Jordan Peterson’s supporters what they find so appealing about him, many will probably cite his supposed quest for freedom of speech. Indeed, Peterson has championed himself as a fighter for free expression, constantly battling against “political correctness” on university campuses. Given his most recent antics, however, we might question Peterson’s actual commitment to academic freedom.
Firstly, Peterson and his supporters have repeatedly tried to shut down anyone who has dared to criticize or question him by labelling them as “neo-Marxists” or as “social justice warriors,” discrediting their positions without engaging in debate. He has done this to everyone, including those protesting events he is scheduled to speak at, and even journalists at The Varsity who have tried to interview him. The anger Peterson has directed towards his opponents has gone so far as to take the form of harassment, as we saw recently when he exposed the Facebook profiles of two student activists to his massive Twitter following, prompting his supporters to harass them with anti-Semitic and sexist language.
Peterson has also called for several studies to be completely removed from universities, particularly programs related to equity. Peterson apparently believes that “a huge chunk of the humanities and the social sciences have turned into an indoctrination cult.”
One of my majors is Women and Gender Studies (WGS), a program that is hardly an “indoctrination cult” but rather a wide-ranging program that teaches us to examine the world through a more critical and informed lens. It’s hypocritical of Peterson to claim to champion academic freedom whilst calling for certain departments to be shut down.
Sadly, this is not the first time the WGS department has been threatened. Just two years ago, online trolls threatened violence against Women and Gender Studies students and professors, as well as feminists in general. I remember being in my first-year WGS160 course with Campus Police stationed in the lecture hall. The threats — which luckily did not escalate into actual violence — did not make me afraid; if anything I was more determined to study the subject.
WGS, along with other equity programs, are meant to represent those who are marginalized, and examines their perspectives in a world that does not believe those perspectives are worthy. Since most of the people studying these topics are often already marginalized, these types of threats can feel especially severe.
Moreover, Peterson also came forward with the idea of creating a website that uses an algorithm to determine if user-submitted course materials or professors align with so-called “postmodern neo-Marxist” ideology. Though Peterson has since decided to abandon this idea, it still gives us a great deal of insight into his views. We already know that Peterson and many of his supporters harbour hostility towards students and academics in fields related to equity, and given what happened to the students he doxxed, it’s easy to see how the website could have been used to target people and courses associated with such subjects.
Peterson’s use of phrases such as “neo-Marxist” and “social justice warrior” are also questionable. Though apparently common in his vocabulary, these terms are also frequently used as dog-whistles to target anyone who holds views in the spirit of creating a more equitable world. Not only is it silly to assume that everyone in the WGS department is a Marxist or a neo-Marxist, but Peterson twists those labels out of context, using them to mean essentially anyone with left-wing views. The term “social justice warrior” is frequently used online to belittle those interested in equity by dismissing them as oversensitive or irrational.
Even the idea of Peterson’s proposed website contradict his supposed obsession with free expression in the academic world. Imagine if someone created a similar website with a list of, say, professors who promote transphobic and misogynistic views — like refusing to use they/them pronouns and suggesting men cannot control “crazy women” because they aren’t allowed to use physical aggression. Peterson and his supporters would likely be upset by this or feel they are being unfairly targeted due to their viewpoints — despite those viewpoints actually being based in discriminatory logic.
Over the past months, Peterson has demonstrated he is not a champion of academic freedom. In the past year, he has spent his time making a spectacle of himself and raised quite a bit of money through Patreon.
Two years ago, Jordan Peterson was a well-respected psychology professor, and not nearly as famous as he is now. Today, he has developed a new reputation as a provocateur, attacking what he sees as political correctness, the campus left, and so-called “social justice warriors.” And instead of at least engaging in debates about the ideas and departments he finds so abhorrent, he is content to simply say they need to go. Instead of speaking to those who protest him, or accepting that they also have the right to free speech, he posts their personal social media profiles to his Twitter and lets his supporters attack them.
As students, we should not consider Peterson’s tactics as something to strive toward in our academic lives. Instead, we should learn to respect each other and engage in healthy debate, as opposed to resorting to attack.
Adina Heisler is a third-year student at University College studying Women and Gender Studies and English. She is The Varsity’s Student Life Columnist.