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Cambridge and the exclusion of Jordan Peterson

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Cambridge and the exclusion of Jordan Peterson

The facts are these. Jordan Peterson is a fully paid-up and tenured professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, who, earlier in his career, taught at Harvard. In a letter of 19 February he was offered a visiting fellowship by Cambridge University’s Divinity Faculty, which had been formally approved by the Faculty’s Research Committee. The following month, on Monday 18 March, Peterson referred to the offer on his YouTube channel. Two days later, on Wednesday 20 March, news that the Faculty had cancelled the fellowship was first published on Twitter by the Cambridge University Students Union (CUSU) at 5.55am, followed shortly by the Faculty at 5.58am. The Faculty did not communicate the decision to Peterson himself until 9.01am, when it sent an email, which simply announced that “the Committee which offers visiting fellowships has reconsidered your application with care. After further deliberation the Faculty has decided to withdraw the offer of a visiting fellowship”. No explanation was offered. Later that day, the Guardian reported a comment on the decision by a University spokesperson, saying that “[Cambridge] is an inclusive environment and we expect all our staff and visitors to uphold our principles. There is no place here for anyone who cannot”. On Monday 25 March, the University’s Vice-Chancellor, Stephen Toope, made a formal statement, explaining that “early last week, the Faculty became aware of a photograph of Professor Peterson posing with his arm around a man wearing a T-shirt that clearly bore the slogan ‘I’m a proud Islamophobe’. The casual endorsement by association of this message was thought to be antithetical to the work of a Faculty that prides itself in the advancement of inter-faith understanding”. And he added, “Robust debate can scarcely occur … when some members of the community are made to feel personally attacked, not for their ideas but for their very identity”.

These facts reveal two remarkable things. The first is that the Faculty communicated its decision to CUSU, and tweeted it abroad, before it wrote to Professor Peterson. What this suggests is that the Students Union was the source of pressure to rescind the offer, and that the Faculty was so eager to appease them that it was willing to behave in a grossly discourteous, indeed humiliating fashion to a Canadian colleague. It’s also worth noting that, while it confidently claimed that Peterson’s “work and views are not representative of the student body”, CUSU itself has little claim to be representative: like student unions throughout the country, it occupies the attention of only a small minority of students and commands the political loyalty of even fewer.

The second remarkable feature is the reluctance of the University to back its decision with reasons, for which it could be held accountable: it gave none at all to Peterson himself, offered the press only a vague reference to the fuzzy norm of ‘inclusiveness’, and then — a full week later — appealed to a single, ambiguous photograph. Of all institutions, universities should model the giving and taking of reasons, offering well considered rational explanations, exposing them to criticism, and either rebutting it or yielding to it. Cambridge’s reluctance to be rationally accountable was a betrayal of its vocation.

What’s more, the poverty of the reasons it did eventually give do little to uphold its reputation as one of the premier institutions of higher education in the world. ‘Inclusiveness’ might look nice and play well, but it barely survives a moment’s scrutiny. To begin with, it’s not indiscriminately welcoming. Indeed, in the case of Jordan Peterson it was used to exclude. So in order to know what to make of it, we need to know the criteria of discrimination.

Enter the Vice Chancellor with his distinction between ideas and identity: all ideas and identities are welcome, except those that make people feel personally attacked, threatening their identities. But this doesn’t really work either. Certainly, no one should have to suffer intemperate contempt or gratuitous insult, and especially not just because of their skin colour or place of birth or social status or the orientation of their sexual desire. But identities are more than that: they’re not just accidents of fate, but choices. Not everyone who happens to experience same-sex attraction chooses to be ‘gay’ (in the sense of ‘out and proud’). Not every person of non-white hue chooses to identify themselves with ancestral victimhood. Not every citizen of the United Kingdom chooses to call themselves ‘British’. Not every child born a Christian or Muslim chooses to remain an adult believer. Identities involve interpretations of facts, interpretations involve ideas, ideas are chosen, our choices are accountable to reason, and what’s accountable is fair game to criticism.

For sure, lots of us are personally invested in our chosen identities, and deeply attached to the ideas they involve. As a self-consciously Anglo-Scottish Briton, l lost nights of sleep in 2014 worrying about the prospect of losing my identity to Scottish independence. And as a Christian, I find the lazy contempt of ignorant atheists very irritating. But that doesn’t mean that my identity as a Briton and a Christian should be beyond criticism, does it? So the fact that some students are upset by certain views, become indignant about them, or even feel existentially threatened by them, is not a reason to exclude those views. Rather, it’s a reason to teach the students the virtues of courage, self-restraint, patience, and critical openness necessary to cope with alien ideas liberally and responsibly—which is a university’s most important civic duty. No doubt some members of CUSU are really irked by what Jordan Peterson has to say, but that’s hardly a reason to exclude him. Besides, judging by his packed reception at the Cambridge Union in November of last year (as at the Oxford Union the previous May), thousands of students find his views interesting, convincing, and indeed exhilarating.

But what about that photograph? What about the damning evidence that was supposed to explain how Peterson had violated the norm of inclusiveness — namely, by casually endorsing Islamophobia? One question this raises is how exactly ‘Islamophobia’ differs from criticism of Islam, since it’s a common ploy these days to dismiss any criticism as ‘phobic’, just as many Zionists dismiss any criticism of Israeli government policy as ‘anti-semitic’. But that question doesn’t need tackling until we’ve first established that Peterson did indeed endorse Islamophobia — whatever it is. And that needs establishing, since he himself was not wearing the T-shirt. So what was the context? Had Peterson just finished giving a rabble-rousing speech to the New Zealand Society of Muslim-haters, for example? No, the banal truth is that the photo was just one of 30,000 taken with fans at live events in the past fifteen months. Angela Tilby’s description seems on point: “The picture showed a glazed eyed Jordan weakly smiling for the 100th time as his misguided fan preened for the camera” (Church Times, 5 April 2019). Did Peterson even have time to take in what was on the T-shirt? Or did he see it, realise the danger, make a sharp intake of breath, decide not to make a fuss, and grit his teeth? We don’t know.

Of course, if we did know that Peterson had a record of expressing indiscriminate hatred and contempt toward Muslims, then we could reasonably infer that his momentary physical association with the T-shirt was also an endorsement of its message. So does his record damn him? Not as far as I can tell, and certainly not as far as the University of Cambridge has shown. Had a member of the Divinity Faculty’s Research Committee googled ‘Jordan Peterson Islam’, as I have just done, they would have discovered, seven items down the page, an article written by Bilal Muhammad and published in August 2018 by the Berkeley Institute for Islamic Studies. Muhammad is critical of Peterson’s lack of nuance, but nevertheless reports that “when asked about Islam, Peterson humbly clarified that he had not done much research on the topic and would be open to dialoguing with ‘moderate Muslims’”. He also reports that Peterson has inadvertently acquired something of a Muslim following.

So Stephen Toope had no good reason to infer from a single, ambiguous photograph that Jordan Peterson endorsed ‘Islamophobia’. He failed to ask the obvious questions that any fair-minded observer would have asked. He, along with his colleagues, rushed to judgement. But why?

The full significance of Cambridge’s reaction in this case only becomes clear when related to an earlier one. This occurred in December 2017, when my ‘Ethics and Empire’ project attracted three online denunciations, one of them led by Dr Priyamvada Gopal, Reader in Cambridge’s Faculty of English and a Teaching Fellow at Churchill College. Dr Gopal’s earliest tweet ran thus: “OMG. This is serious shit. We need to SHUT THIS DOWN”. This was then followed by others that described my scholarship as “supremacist shite”, me as a “racist” and a “bigot”, and whatever came out of my mouth as “vomit”. All this in reaction to my modest view that ‘empire’ can mean a variety of things, is capable of good as well as evil, raises ethical questions worth thinking about, and requires sophisticated moral evaluation.

Incontinent abuse on Twitter is, sadly, so common as to be unremarkable. But this was remarkable, since its author is a senior academic at one of Britain’s most prestigious universities. So in January 2018 I decided to write to the relevant heads of college and faculty. I had no complaint about being at the sharp end of criticism, for that comes with the academic territory. Besides, in this case there was none to complain about: criticism requires an objection supported by reasons, but these tweets didn’t rise above the level of spitting hatred.

No, my complaint was about the uncivil manner. I held that this was an inappropriate way for one academic colleague to express disagreement with another, and, more important, that it was an appalling example to set students. I could have added that, if a university teacher is seen to treat an academic peer with such hissing contempt, then intimidated students are likely to be discouraged from speaking their dissenting minds. So what did the two heads plan to do about it?

Nothing. Neither could bring themselves to say that the Twitter conduct I reported was wrong. Dame Athene Donald, Master of Churchill College, managed to admit that it wasn’t “as temperate as one might hope for”. Peter de Bolla, Chairman of the Faculty, kept safely clear of any moral judgement, arguing that such speech is simply conventional for its medium, albeit in tension with “accepted manners or styles of address” in more traditional contexts. Neither touched the issues of a teacher’s responsibility to model behaviour or of the intimidation of students. And both upheld their colleague’s legal right to behave as she did, invoking “freedom within the law”.

Later, in April 2018, after Dr Gopal had come under severe criticism in the press, Professor Martin Millett, Head of the School of Arts and Humanities at Cambridge came to her defence, stating that “The University upholds freedom of speech as one of its primary values, as we have already made clear in response to media enquiries about Dr Priya Gopal. We would also add that we abhor personal attacks of the nature currently being directed at Dr Gopal”.

The fact that the issue was not one of freedom of speech, but rather of its abuse, somehow seems to have escaped every one of these institutional leaders at Cambridge. And the fact that Dr Gopal’s behaviour was in direct violation of their university’s own Social Media Guidelines seems to have bothered them not at all. Those Guidelines state that “digital communications by staff should be professional and respectful at all times”, that staff should “be respectful to all parties … [and] express opinions … in a balanced and measured manner”, and that “unacceptable conduct (e.g., defamatory, offensive, harassing content) will be considered extremely seriously by the University of Cambridge”. But evidently not in the case of Dr Gopal and her like.

When one puts Cambridge University’s serial inaction in the case of Dr Gopal alongside its precipitate action in the case of Professor Peterson, what is revealed is this: the University does in fact discriminate on the unjustifiable grounds of race, gender, and above all morals and politics. If you’re non-white, female, and aggressively ‘woke’, then you’ll be accorded maximal benefit of doubt, given a pass on official norms of civility, let free to spit hatred and contempt on social media, and permitted (probably) to malform and intimidate students. However, if you’re white, male, culturally conservative, and given to expressing reasoned doubt about prevailing mores, you’ll be given no benefit of doubt at all. And, should you do so much as appear to transgress ill-conceived norms of inclusiveness, you’ll be summarily and rudely excluded.  

The implications are grim. Students or academics who are thinking of applying to Cambridge for a place on a course, a teaching or research post, or just a visiting fellowship, should either scrub their records clean of anything that might appear transgressive of the reigning orthodoxy, or turn elsewhere. And if they do get to be included, then they should take care to suppress their doubts, bite their critical tongues, and go into Inner Exile.

I take no pleasure at all in saying all this, since in talking about ‘Cambridge’ I’m also talking about friends and colleagues. But the conduct of University’s institutional leaders in the Gopal and Peterson cases has done serious damage to the cause and substance of intellectual freedom—and thereby to its own reputation. If that damage is ever to be repaired, it will require the University to become alert to its own lack of moral and political diversity, to the distinction between accidents of fate and idea-infused-identities, to another distinction between disturbing criticism and abusive manner, and to the fact that woke members of CUSU are not the only ones watching. Then, when the penny has dropped, it needs to muster the courage to issue a public apology to Jordan Peterson.

Member ratings
  • Well argued: 91%
  • Interesting points: 89%
  • Agree with arguments: 90%

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