Twitter brings out the worst in us. This is especially true of Jordan Peterson, who took to the social media platform on October 26 to air his latest grievances in notably unorthodox fashion.
The U of T psychology professor was lamenting the postponement of a panel he was scheduled to partake in at Ryerson University titled “The Stifling of Free Speech on University Campuses,” featuring notable figures like Gad Saad, Oren Amitay, and former Rebel Media reporter Faith Goldy. The panel was cancelled due to safety concerns, according to Ryerson, followed by organized protests by student and non-student activists alike.
Among the protesters were two activists, George Brown student Marco La Grotta and U of T graduate Christeen Elizabeth, who became the targets of online harassment after Peterson tweeted URL links to their personal Facebook profiles in retaliation for the panel’s cancellation. “Communists,” who “celebrated the shutdown of our Ryerson talk,” he captioned the tweets.
Some of his Twitter followers, a horde of over 245,000, quickly assumed mob mentality. “She is utterly insane, fck that dumb btch,” wrote one, replying to Peterson’s tweet. “The s*** truth Seekers have to deal with,” wrote another. The few users who questioned Peterson’s decision to link to the activists’ profiles were quickly dismissed as ‘concern trolls.’ Peterson’s tweets have received a total of 108 retweets as of press time.
As a result of this sudden exposure, both Elizabeth and La Grotta opened their Facebook inboxes to discover extensive hate mail and violent threats. “Im coming after your kids you bitch,” wrote one user to Elizabeth. “You deserve the bread line and the gulag,” wrote another. Following numerous messages and anti-semitic depictions sent his way, La Grotta temporarily deactivated his Facebook account.
Below: messages sent to La Grotta and Elizabeth’s Facebook inboxes following Peterson’s tweets.
The Varsity first reported on the incident two weeks ago.
Exposing the Facebook profiles of two student activists is, especially for a tenured professor earning a six-figure salary, a sad display of bullying and anti-intellectual behaviour. But it’s not the professor’s first endorsement of online harassment. More recently, Peterson announced his plans to launch a website that would allow students to identify left-leaning faculty members and “postmodern” course material, what U of T’s faculty association says has “created a climate of fear and intimidation” at the university.
Meanwhile, Peterson’s increasingly erratic behaviour has gone almost entirely overlooked by the university itself. Peterson has demonstrated a deteriorating ability to interact maturely with many of those he is paid to interact with — a pattern that should give any employer cause for concern in any profession — and yet time and time again, the university has cowered to him, leaving students and other faculty to bear the brunt of his antics.
The trouble began in September 2016 when Peterson first stepped into the ring with campus activists following his statements on Bill C-16 and his refusal to use gender-neutral pronouns. Ever since, Peterson has found himself in numerous public yelling matches with students protesting his events or rallies.
While not necessarily the fault of Peterson alone, the exchanges have been anything but productive, serving only to foster animosity between the professor and swaths of the student body. Peterson has become so engulfed in ideological warfare that it’s unclear whether he could detach that from the necessary fairness required of a professional academic.
This inundation extends to Peterson’s interaction with student media as well. In October 2016, a staff writer at The Varsity reached out to Peterson for comment on a news story they were writing. The writer took all the necessary steps in assuring the due diligence of a reporter: they provided Peterson with the premise of their story, a sincere set of questions, and a deadline for when to respond.
Peterson, who normally declines to provide comment for The Varsity’s reporting, responded by threatening the writer, telling them they were “playing with serious fire” and that “reality [would] arrange itself so [they would] have serious cause to regret it” if they didn’t “play it straight and careful.”
It’s instances like these that make us question Peterson’s capacity for moral judgment, and how someone displaying such a lack thereof could be employed at a university where students and faculty are expected to work amicably with one another.
Peterson’s recent actions have only made us question this more. In July, he shared an article from InfoWars on Twitter, a publication known for actively spreading falsehoods and baseless conspiracy theories. In October, he railed on what he referred to as “female insanity,” arguing that men can’t control “crazy women” because men are not allowed to physically fight them. All the while, Peterson has been profiting greatly off his antics: in exchange for lectures and panel discussions on political correctness run amok, Peterson earns tens of thousands of dollars from Patreon subscriptions on a monthly basis. He offers video recordings of his lectures to his subscribers and promotes ‘anti-PC’ sticker-sets for the real keeners among them.
In an academic setting, it is detrimental to the pursuit of truth and understanding to embrace fake news, to use terms like ‘crazy’ and ‘insanity’ without an inkling of actual medical diagnosis, and to exploit divisive political issues in order to turn a profit. Moreover, it is antithetical to a safe and productive learning environment to threaten students and faculty, and to expose their personal information online when you disagree with them.
It is evident, too, that the university is unsure of how to handle this problem, and it’s not hard to see why. When the administration fails to intervene in Peterson-related controversies, they are scolded by his opposers on account of complacency. When the administration makes an effort to chide Peterson, as they did so delicately last year through an open letter asking him to respect students’ personal pronouns, Peterson cries oppression.
As a result, the administration has become like the parent at daycare who doesn’t know how to discipline their petulant child. When The Varsity asked the media relations office if the university believed Peterson’s actions toward the two students were appropriate behaviour for a professor, they declined to answer directly, replying that “universities are places where people can express opinions that are controversial and sometimes unsettling.”
This response was disappointing, to say the least. Peterson’s latest actions are not a matter of free speech. Of course free speech and free expression are imperative to a properly functioning liberal democracy. Of course these principles are paramount to a healthy learning experience in a university setting. But Peterson’s latest actions are a matter of harassment, and if the administration cannot distinguish this matter from a matter of free speech then students and faculty alike should be gravely concerned.
The administration must recognize that Peterson’s latest actions extend beyond the realm of ideological debate and into the realm of ideological aggression and, in turn, it must reconsider the values it holds in teachers. It must ask if it is appropriate for its employees to threaten students and incite harassment onto dissenters. It must ask if it is prudent to indulge a professor who has exchanged nuanced, intellectual thought for the inflamed rhetoric he knows will tickle the fancy of his rabid fanbase.
Should Peterson be made aware of this editorial, he will inevitably dismiss it as the rhetoric of the ‘neo-Marxist postmodernists’ that oppose him — overreacting, triggered leftists that need to sort themselves out. Many of his followers will mindlessly agree.
So, given the futility of confronting Peterson directly, our attention turns instead to the administration, whose role it is to reflect on the core values of the institution it leads, and to judge whether Peterson’s recent behaviour has a place at this university. Because in our opinion, it doesn’t.