University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson is what newspapers like to call “controversial.” Peterson made headlines, sparked protests — and rose to fame — last fall, when he refused to call his students by their preferred pronouns. He released a YouTube video called “Professor against political correctness,” in which he criticizes Bill C-16 for adding gender identity and expression protections to the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code. He’s since argued that the new legislation is “unconstitutional.”
It seems he believes cementing legal protections for transgender, non-binary, genderfluid, and genderqueer people will turn Canada into Soviet Russia. “Bill C-16 contains an assault on biology and an implicit assault on the idea of objective reality,” Peterson told C2C Journal in December 2016. “The thing I object to the most was the insistence that people use these made-up words like ‘xe’ and ‘xer’ that are the construction of authoritarians. There isn’t a hope in hell that I’m going to use their language, because I know where that leads.”
But if Peterson is controversial, he’s also incredibly popular — popular because of his hatemongering and his knack for wrapping up discrimination in ostensible free-speech advocacy. He gives the alt-right high-brow credibility, elevates them beyond the stereotypes of basement dwellers and rednecks. He’s positioned himself as an intellectual leader of the backlash against so-called political correctness and social-justice values. And his fans pay him thousands of dollars a month to create content. (In July, Peterson was earning $50,000 a month through Patreon.) He uses the funding to create YouTube videos and to live-stream Q&A sessions for his Patreon subscribers.
Since July, Peterson’s brand of activism has attracted another 2,000 patrons, bringing the total to more than 6,200. His monthly Patreon earnings are now hidden, but you can bet they amount to more than many of us earn annually. As of mid-2017, his videos have been viewed a combined 17 million times. All of which made his most recent venture particularly troubling.
That venture (on hiatus as of this week) was a website that would’ve allowed students to search university course descriptions, professors’ names, and more, all to determine whether Peterson deems them “corrupt” — i.e., whether they are “radical left, social-justice-oriented courses.” Namely, gender, ethnicity, and race studies involving feminist, anti-oppression, and critical race theory frameworks.
We can listen to what Peterson has said in the past about feminist and anti-racist movements to get a sense of what his website might’ve looked like: “The idea that women were discriminated against across the course of history is appalling,” he told C2C, after also positing that women on birth control don’t like masculine men, and that that’s likely a truer underlying reason for women’s current unrest. (“Well, all women on the pill are as if they’re not ovulating, so it’s possible that a lot of the antipathy that exists right now between women and men exists because of the birth control pill.”) Peterson also believes the glass ceiling and workplace discrimination don’t exist, because what women truly want is to have babies. (“They want to have a family, and they’re out of time … It’s got nothing to do with prejudice, it’s got everything to do with choice.”) He dismisses movements such as Black Lives Matter and Idle No More as ridiculous and repugnant.
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Yet beyond undermining the so-called compassionate left, it’s unclear what Peterson actually envisions for a perfect future state — of academia, of the world. Where will his “free speech” movement lead us? The problem with a free-speech argument that defends limiting the rights of — and, yes, sure, compassion for — those who are routinely discriminated against is that it’s not really about free speech at all. Spreading vitriolic rhetoric about women, members of the LGBTQ community, people of colour, and Indigenous people who are standing up for their rights is not about protecting people from being persecuted — it’s about protecting the status quo.
I doubt Peterson and I would agree on much, but I do think he’s right about one thing: summarily clamping down on ideas with which we don’t agree is dangerous, and only gives the other side legitimacy. “If they’re paranoid, you just justify their paranoia,” he told C2C. “By pushing them underground, you don’t weaken them. You just give them something compelling to fight against. You make them into heroes in their own eyes.” Of course, he’s using this argument to justify giving platforms to ideas like his. I think, though, that if we ignore such ideas, we cannot engage with them, we cannot dismantle them, we cannot fight them.
It is scary to think there could one day be an official landing spot for students to gleefully bash the left. It is scary to think that it would masquerade as haven of logical thinking, where disciplines such as gender studies — which, as the fallout from the Harvey Weinstein allegations proves, are vital — are dismissed entirely. But let’s also give those students some credit: despite the notion that academia is forcing progressive values on students, it’s often the other way around — students are pushing academia to reconsider the ways in which we previously ordered the world. They, along with many others, are demanding change and are dismantling old systems. They are fighting. And, when it comes to the backlash against that fight, well, I’d rather know what the other side is saying about us. I’d rather be able to fight that, too. I’d rather know how scared they are.
Lauren McKeon is the digital editor of The Walrus. She's the author of F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism, published by Goose Lane Editions.
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