Jordan Peter…son

Haley Beardsley, Opinions Co-Editor

I realize that my last article about Jordan Peterson received backlash. While the article could admittedly have maintained a more well-supported argument, I nevertheless stand by the foundational claims made. After hours of watching videos of Peterson debating, theorizing and speculating with other academics, reading expert reviews of his self-help books, and communicating with campus community members supportive of Peterson’s appearance, I did my due diligence and attended the live, on-campus lecture; I hoped these efforts would lead to a more comprehensive and informed critique of his work.

The audience, as well as myself, were prepared to hear a discussion on “The Liberal Arts Tradition versus Totalitarianism,” as the talk was billed in promotional materials. Peterson’s foreword to the fiftieth anniversary edition of The Gulag Archipelago served as a primer to the dialogue – this proved an interesting read, and was sufficiently topical to the subject. However, during his introduction to his lecture, Peterson revealed that the topic would instead concern “Free Speech as a Precondition for Mental and Social Health,” a quite radical departure from the original theme.

Why change the topic? Why dispose of the anti-totalitarian talking points espoused in his most famous YouTube talks, and instead venture into the more personal, clinical, and safe?  

One major theme Peterson touches on throughout his discussion was the necessity of listening to opposing views. From clinical diagnoses to political discussions, Peterson views listening as essential to maintaining social and mental health. He was handed the optimal opportunity and audience to articulate his broadly “anti-totalitarian,” free speech fixation, but instead delivered vague, forgettable truisms that stressed the importance of “free speech” without making particularly interesting use of it.

Peterson started strong, exploring how listening leads to expansion of thought and a greater understanding of the nuance of every position. Particularly, his explanation of our suffering being attributable to our ignorance – and how the sharing of knowledge may “ameliorate” parts of that suffering – was admittedly valuable. Yet, beyond these few choice phrases and aphorisms, Peterson largely digressed into cryptic language that failed to give larger meaning to these disjointed bits of wisdom.  

No collection of two minute anecdotes about divorce or eyeballs can supplement the lack of a fundamentally new or interesting thesis, leaving the weight of his jarringly disconnected observations without fundamental foundation. Chrisitina Emba, a Washington Post Opinion columnist, similarly notes the essential simplicity of his message: “I was surprised, reading the book and going to [a] lecture, by how simple his message was. How self-evident it seems to me.” 

Compared to Peterson’s other lectures – such as his “Identity politics and the Marxist Lie of White Privilege,” offered on invitation from the University of British Columbia Free Speech Club in 2017 – no clear narrative emerged from this set of folksy adages and ambling digressions. At the former lecture, Peterson at the very least had notes and seemed to re-center himself frequently; while at our University, however, he seemed incredibly befuddled and generally without focus. Peterson’s lecture proved difficult to follow; the thinker would regularly lapse into tears, pausing sometimes as long as eleven seconds—as if searching for some new meandering path to plod. In all, I expected more, and I hardly doubt the rest of the audience felt the same.

If we assume Peterson aimed to uphold the significance of free speech on college campuses, the utter about-face in the topic rendered his lecture ineffectual. BPAL and ODC aimed to expand viewpoint diversity, but “Free Speech as a Precondition for Mental and Social Health ” ultimately did not deliver a comprehensive defense of its own stated subject, let alone the subject it purported to discuss in prior materials. 

A presentation of diverse viewpoints would be beneficial, as our University is not protected from the national “liberal skew” of campus climates. However, Peterson was not the appropriate choice to promote viewpoint diversity at Bucknell. During his lecture, he emphatically touted viewpoint diversity as “not another diversity,” rather dismissively comparing his speech’s topic with diversity of race, gender, sexuality, class, background, and other forms of representation that our university claims to hinge on. Viewpoint diversity is vital, but to imply its superiority or essentiality to “another diversity” as Peterson does is, at least, ignorant of the constituencies the University has historically served and disenfranchised. Indeed, the significance of representative diversity derives importantly from the university’s insulation from non-White male experiences, a far more pervasive and disquieting phenomenon than Peterson’s histrionics about the “totalitarianism” of “identity politics.” 

The psychologist’s main claim to fame was his response to Canadian Bill C-16, a Bill passed by the Canadian Parliament which amended the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code to include gender expression and gender identity as protected personal characteristics. In a video of his response to trans-rights activists outside the Canadian House of Parliment, Peterson remarks that “this is not about non-binary people. We are pushing over a line we shouldn’t cross. The newest legislation is requiring people to use a certain language.” Since these remarks were first issued in 2016, he has not expressed any change in perspective, and has in fact pursued civil lawsuits against two Ontario professors who denounced the content of his testimony.

While his response is unsurprising because of his “free speech martyr” persona, the amendment is about non-binary people. 

The inclusion of gender identity and expression serve as protection for non-binary people against discrimination—it is not inteded as an inhibitor of language. Protecting maginalized groups and identities from discrimination is a broadly accepted social good, not the radical left-wing tyranny that Peterson so adamently protests. Using the correct and preferred pronouns is simply a matter of respect and acceptance of another person’s identity; while Peterson is free to refuse these principles, he should not expect adulation or esteem for doing so.

Outside of legislation, the abuse of “free speech” has long served as an excuse for blatant disregard and disrespect for people’s identities. On campus, we have committed to an “inclusive, diverse campus community” that is working on making “underrepresented groups feel respected, safe and secure, and can thus experience Bucknell as their own.” Peterson’s disregard for gender expression and gender identity—as well as a number of his other views—fundamentally undermine the community of respect we are striving for. While I hardly argue Peterson should be arrested or imprisoned for his speech, this benefit is—as those of us familiar with the Constitution know—where his free speech rights begin and end. Like all Americans, Peterson has no Constitutional right to be paid a speaker’s fee by a nonprofit, nor a right to advertising, an event space, tech support, and so on.

We should be inviting speakers from all areas on the political spectrum, thus informing our peers and allowing them to grow intellectually through viewpoint diversity, but Peterson and his views specifically threaten Bucknell’s promise of respect and security to its students. As a private institution, Bucknell has a unique obligation to uphold this mission through its tacit endorsements—who it allows to rent out space and issue pronouncements to its student body.

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