Shame on Mac, shame on pro­fes­sors

De­fence of acts that cur­tail free speech is dis­turb­ing

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - PAUL BENEDETTI

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.

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