Shame on Mac, shame on professors
Defence of acts that curtail free speech is disturbing
Twice in two months, McMaster University professors have written to denounce Dr. Jordan Peterson and defend protesting Mac students (“Jordan Peterson: A little shy on proof,” by Patrick G. Watson, March 25, and “Mac protesters were defending their principles,” by Amber Dean, April 15).
What’s disturbing about both articles is not the faulty logic and weak arguments — though that is troubling enough — but what is really disturbing is having academics writing in favour of curtailing the free expression of ideas.
Peterson, a University of Toronto psychology professor and practising clinical psychologist, has become a lightning rod of criticism for his writing and videos. He was invited to speak at McMaster but was unable to deliver his talk because students’ loud, unrelenting protest made that impossible.
What is unbelievable about Dean’s article and the one that preceded it, is that neither affirms the paramount duty of universities to be bastions of the free expression of ideas. Freedom of speech is a fundamental right, perhaps the fundamental right, in a democratic society and it should be defended on campuses everywhere. Why? Because the essential role of the university is to educate students to be able to think. To do that, the university must be a place for the creation and exploration of new ideas, and a place for the open critical examination of those ideas. In this way, good theories — whether scientific, social or cultural — survive and develop, and bad ones fade, becoming part of the junk heap of pseudo-science, irrationality and nonsense. But even more troubling is the lack of accuracy in Dean’s description of what happened at McMaster. After affirming “Dr. Peterson’s freedom of speech and his right to responsibly carry out his academic freedom,” Dean states, “but I don’t believe the protesters at McMaster infringed upon either of these rights.” Her statement is objectively false. I invite you to watch — if you can stomach it — the full video of Peterson trying to deliver his talk: https:// www.youtube.com/watch?v=-1P_1mLlJik
He calmly attempts to talk, but he cannot be heard over the protesters’ relentless chanting, drum banging and air horn blasts. I invite you to listen to what they shout, including, “Shut him down,” “No free speech for transphobic bigots,” and, “Transphobic piece of shit.”
I fail to see how shouting down a speaker is acting in a “reasonable and responsible manner.” Students have the right to free expression, but their right ends when it infringes upon the speaker’s right to do the same. McMaster officials failed by not ensuring that Peterson be allowed to speak.
Dean’s other assertion — that Peterson’s freedom of expression does not extend into areas in which he is not a recognized expert with a record of research and peer-reviewed publication — is bizarre. She writes, “It is a matter of debate whether his views on these ideas are actually subject to academic freedom.” Really? And who would decide who can speak about what? Dean herself ? Selfappointed panels? The government? Regular citizens, including professors, can speak about whatever they like. If their ideas are ill-informed, they will see them critiqued and dismantled. That’s what universities are all about. And if their ideas constitute hate speech, they will be punished by the law.
Finally, Dean calls for a “more nuanced conversation about freedom and responsibility.” Indeed, Peterson came to McMaster to have just that conversation but, as Prof. Watson wrote in an earlier piece, “Peterson was to be joined by a panel of scholars to discuss ideas of free speech. In the end, his copanelists cancelled without clear explanation.” So, neither Watson nor Dean nor, apparently, any other profs were willing to engage in a “conversation” with Peterson. Instead, he was met with students who shouted, “Shame on Jordan Peterson.”
I say, shame on the professors and shame on McMaster for not defending the essential purpose of the university — the free and open exchange of ideas.
Paul Benedetti teaches journalism, writing and critical thinking in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at Western University.