photo: Tamaki Sono
Much has been said recently about the purportedly disruptive and dangerous behaviour of McMaster University students and community allies who protested a planned panel featuring Dr. Jordan Peterson. Yet surprisingly, most commentators have not even mentioned what led the students to protest in the first place: namely, that they were voicing their political opposition to how Dr. Peterson’s views further entrench the marginalization of gender-non-conforming people and deny their human rights. Many trans and gender-non-conforming students from McMaster received affirming coverage in media and accolades from city officials just a few weeks prior when they offered depositions at city hall in support of Hamilton’s now-approved Protocol for Gender Identity and Gender Expression. But when they took a stand to defend the principles enshrined in that Protocol, they have instead been largely vilified in the media and offered little public support or understanding from their city or their university.
The protesters have been heavily criticized for limiting Dr. Peterson’s freedom of speech and infringing upon his academic freedom — and so the conversation has become about academic freedom more generally. But with academic freedom comes responsibility. According to Universities Canada’s Statement on Academic Freedom, it must be exercised “based on reasoned discourse, rigorous extensive research and scholarship, and peer review.” To my knowledge, Dr. Peterson’s peer-reviewed research and scholarship are not on the subjects of free speech or political correctness (the topics he was invited to speak about at McMaster), nor on gender identity and gender expression. It is a matter of debate, then, whether his views on these topics are actually subject to academic freedom. But even if we determined that they are, the Universities Canada Statement also insists that “Faculty members and university leaders have an obligation to ensure that students’ human rights are respected,” and “that academic freedom is exercised in a reasonable and responsible manner.” This is precisely the obligation protesters were calling on McMaster to fulfil: the widely-circulated video clips of the protest don’t show the labour many students invested for months before this event raising important questions about whether this debate would be able to proceed in a “reasonable and responsible manner” that ensured respect for their human rights.
I affirm Dr. Peterson’s freedom of speech and his right to responsibly carry out his academic freedom, but I don’t believe the protesters at McMaster infringed upon either of these rights. After leaving the lecture hall of his own accord, Dr. Peterson apparently spoke to students on the lawn about his opposition to including gender identity and gender expression in human rights legislation. He then chose to exercise his freedom of speech by posting a video to YouTube expressing his irritation about a statement released by several equity groups at McMaster (one of which I am a member) in advance of his planned panel. The video includes a clip of an infamous gun battle in which Clint Eastwood shoots down one racialized man and then says to another, “In this world there are two types of people: those with loaded guns, and those who dig.” Since the video was posted, the equity groups at McMaster who issued the statement have been inundated with emails, voice mails and social media posts, many of them blatantly racist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, misogynist and transphobic. We have also received messages that called for violence against our members, and for our homes to be burned down, along with more innocuous calls for us to be disciplined, fired, expelled, our committee or offices disbanded, etc. This outcome points to what can happen when a group or individual publicly questions or challenges Dr. Peterson’s positions, and raises important questions about how we go about ensuring opportunities for responsible, respectful academic debate in the era of social media.
I am grateful to the students and community allies who turned up to protest Dr. Peterson’s talk at McMaster. They were not, to my mind, saying that academic freedom is unimportant, but they were asking us to consider how that freedom can be exercised responsibly with consideration for the human rights of marginalized groups. If we could tone down the rhetoric about academic freedom and freedom of speech, we might be able to have a more nuanced conversation about freedom and responsibility, including the responsibilities of universities to meaningfully address the ongoing inequities and exclusions experienced by trans and gender-non-conforming people and other equity-seeking groups. Free speech, after all, is not exercised on a level playing field — it is not equally available to all of us, and protest remains an important means by which marginalized groups attempt to convey our concerns about deeply entrenched inequities and injustices.