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Disinviting Jordan Peterson: The Faculty of Divinity, Cambridge and Approved Ideas

He has sent so many cliques and groups into titters of anger, and the indignant have attempted to turn on him. The university environment should be the last place where dangerous ideas, and views, are stifled and stomped upon. In actual fact, we are seeing the reverse; from students’ unions to middle and upper-managerial parasites and administrators, the contrarian idea must be boxed, the controversial speaker silenced and sent beyond the pale. Dissent and disagreement are lethal toxin to such affected notions as “diversity” and “inclusiveness”.

It should be very clear that meaningless terms such as diversity and inclusiveness do very little to the content of actual intellectual conversation. Ideas are there to be debated, not accepted by high caste strictures. The modern academic environment suggests something quite opposite: a policing rationale, an insistence on thought control that is insidious and all too common in managed structures. When incorporated into the university structure, the bureaucrat takes precedence over the intellectual, the mindless cherry picker over the polymath. The more ideas you have, the more of a threat you will be, requiring regulation and the occasional ostracising. In broader public spaces, this may even require you losing a platform altogether.

Which leads us, then, to Jordan Peterson, agent provocateur and psychology professor at University of Toronto who was led to believe that he would be taking up residence for two months at the Faculty of Divinity in Cambridge University in Michaelmas Term. In a statement to the Cambridge student newspaper, Varsity, a University spokesperson confirmed “that Jordan Peterson requested a visiting fellowship, and an initial offer has been rescinded after a further review.”

In a bitter irony that should have been apparent, the Canadian academic had his invitation rescinded in the name of “inclusiveness”, a baffling justification given its very opposite interpretation. In a statement to the Guardian, the University spokesman proclaimed Cambridge “an inclusive environment and we expect all our staff and visitors to uphold our principles. There is no place here for anyone who cannot”. Now there speaks the virtue of an intolerant tolerance.

Left hanging with menacing dullness is the entire lack of precision as to what those politburo designated principles are. Even more to the point, the Faculty of Divinity is left looking buffoonish having first extended an invitation in the first place, presumably because it was in the spirit of the University’s values. Those values, in turn, must have been flipped in an act of feeble mind changing.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s guide on Freedom of Expression for higher education providers and students’ unions in England and Wales is instructive here. It notes section 43 of the Education (No 2) Act 1986, which places a legal duty on universities and Higher Education Providers more broadly to take “reasonably practicable” steps to protect freedom of speech within the law for their members, students, employees and visiting speakers.

There is no “right” for any group or speaker to speak to students at Student Unions or HEP premises. But once a speaker has been invited to speak at any meeting or event, he or she “should not be stopped from doing so unless they are likely to express unlawful speech or their attendance would lead the host organisation to breach other legal obligations and no reasonably practicable steps can be taken to reduce these risks.”

As Peterson tetchily noted, he not only requested a visiting fellowship at the Faculty of Divinity but been extended an invitation. “You bloody virtue-signalling cowards,” he tweeted. He also deemed the Faculty of Divinity’s publicity on the issue misrepresentative, having “not equally” publicised “the initial agreement/invitation” while giving the impression that he had gone “cap-in-hand to the school for the fellowship.”

So what is it about Peterson that could possibly fall within those extreme instances? Causing offense, perhaps, but certainly nothing illegal or criminal. He had, after all, visited Cambridge last November during the course of a book tour. He spoke at the Corn Exchange. He met faculty staff members. He also recorded videos and podcasts with the noted philosopher and Cambridge don Sir Roger Scruton, presented at the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Platonism and Stephen Blackwood, founding President of Ralston College. But perhaps most importantly, he was invited to address the venerable, and student-run Cambridge Union to a packed house.

The Cambridge University Student Union had a different take. They were “relieved” at the rescinding of the offer. “It is a political act to associate the University with an academic’s work through offers which legitimise figures such as Peterson. His work and views are not representative of the student body and as such we do not see his visit as a valuable contribution to the University, but as one that works in opposition to the principles of the University.”

The statement is riddled with daft, anti-intellectual claptrap. It is stingingly parochial. It is also dangerous. The only “political act” in this entire affair is one affirming that a speaker with certain views associated or otherwise with the student body cannot take up residence to discuss views that are not approved by prior screening. The CUSU has taken it upon itself to deliberate over what a “valuable contribution” from an academic might look like, suggesting that it already has a set of acceptable, stock ideas that are beyond challenge. The statement is also vacuous on one fundamental point: to merely allow someone to debate a position is to legitimise him (note – not even the idea, but the person), a position presuming that an attempt at understanding is the same as approval.

Varsity has gone through the supposedly precarious resume that is Peterson’s: his opposition to an anti-discrimination bill adding gender identity to the Canadian Human Rights Code in 2016 as an infringement of free speech; his refusal to use any gender neutral pronoun; his claimed defence of white privilege and masculinity. Even this laundry list is hardly a credible basis for denying him a place to engage in debate; if anything, those card carrying CUSU members, not to mention Faculty staff, might wish to engage and confront Peterson in gladiatorial bouts of the mind. But not so; far easier to pull the platform away, and simply claim to know the whole truth.

Instead of showing the very resilience that should be encouraged in thinking, the opposite is being fostered by such decisions. An enfeebled student and academic community is being encouraged, because it is free of controversy and packed with acceptable behavioural norms. The latter is distinctly geared towards a beastly toadyism at universities, where students prefer to attack certain contrarian ideas rather than the very class that detests them: university management.

When brands are being advertised, names promoted, thoughts only count in a bland, inoffensive sense. The sweet is preferred over the bitter; the discomforting eschewed in favour of Aldous Huxley’s pneumatic chair. Any complement of controversial ideas must be approved of in advance. Given that Peterson has no interest in complying with this diktat, he has become, inadvertently to many, a torch for intellectual freedom. Attempting to shut, and shutdown the man, is mere confirmation of many of his claims, even if you disagree with a good number of them.

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  1. Kaye Lee

    High-sounding words Binoy, the fallacy of which was forcibly brought home a week ago.

    Words have consequences. Words cause harm. Jordan Peterson is no better than Alan Jones or the anti-vaxxers or Pauline Hanson or Fraser Anning or Milo Yiannopolous or Blair Cottrel or the climate change deniers. They can hold whatever opinion they want but the enormous harm they do when given a public platform far outweighs any claim of free speech.

  2. king1394

    Controversial ideas need to be thoroughly examined and discussed. How else can arguments be formulated and errors exposed. Leaving things unsaid and keeping ideas under wraps does not defeat them but strengthen them.

  3. Kaye Lee

    That would all be very well king1394 if we were just having an intellectual debate in some university hall but when a politician says Islam is a disease which we must be vaccinated against, when the media makes a whole community responsible for the crimes of a few, others feel emboldened to take up their own war in their own way.

    If just shining a light on fallacious arguments worked, the climate change denialists would have been sent packing long ago.

    Peterson is a cult figure who gives an academic veneer to a lot of old-school rightwing cant like “The idea that women were oppressed throughout history is an appalling theory.” Islamophobia is “a word created by fascists and used by cowards to manipulate morons”. White privilege is “a Marxist lie”. Believing that gender identity is subjective is “as bad as claiming that the world is flat”, the notion that most academia is corrupt and evil….and so on.

  4. AllieAnnie

    What a ‘fanboi’ piece written by Binoy Kampmark.
    Very disappointed.

    Reading his tomes you find it very difficult to find ‘intellectual discourse’ or even careful thought throughout. The use of the Bible as a ‘reference book’ is Peterson’s fall from the start as an ‘intellectual’.
    Watching some of his YouTube ‘lectures’ you find yourself discombobulated by gobbledygook speech. His pretense is pretentious at best and dangerous at worst. His divisive language directed at women leaves any one with an ounce of Emotional Intelligence reeling at his barely covered misogyny.

    He declared once something about how “the Left” will call him names and declare him a Right wing misogynist for his works. What a way to deflect the truth from being noted!

    Seeing him on ABC’s “Q& A” was more shocking than expected. The Claque in the audience yelling their praises each time he spoke, laughing with derision at any woman speaking and behaving with such loutish disrespect spoke more of his influence and upon whom it falls than any words he could write.
    He was disrespectful of an Australian female MP who held such dignity, calm and control in the face of overtly repressed anger and impatience that I felt he was on the verge of showing he may indeed have some kind of psychological disorder of his own to investigate.

    I am pleased Cambridge University has upheld its reputation of high intellectual discourse.
    Just because someone is ‘controversial’ doesn’t not mean they should be tolerated or even heard within the sphere of higher education and thought.

    Peterson will find his audience elsewhere amidst the intellectually dispossessed, confused and desperate. For those who feel the changes within accepted thought and behaviour has passed them by ( or over, as in the case of Feminism or the growing importance of Humanity and wider acceptance of multiculturalism), or for the apologist male cohort mourning the passing of the dominance of males as a way of keeping order he will find enough adoring followers to keep him being invited to speak at halls and rooms within a nation. Institutions of higher learning throughout the world need not bother with this arrogant, aggressive, self aggrandised, appalling self promoter.

    One thing is for certain.
    He is no great Intellect. He’s just an angry, manipulative, naughty boy.

  5. Phil

    ‘ One thing is for certain.
    He is no great Intellect. He’s just an angry, manipulative, naughty boy.’

    He’s a creep. Who appeals to other creeps.

  6. corvus boreus

    Jordan Petersen was not ‘disinvited’, which implies that Cambridge approached him rather than vice-versa.
    More accurately, Petersen made an application for fellowship which was tentatively accepted, then, upon further reflection, rejected.
    Part of this decision may have been because he deliberately provokes controversy and division not only in the views he espouses but also by the incendiary manner in which he expresses them, but it may also be due to the fact that, in his specialised field, he is considered, at best, a highly flawed mediocrity with an obsessional fixation on gender issues.

    Ps, the author’s penchant for championing ‘absolute’ free speech brings to mind a previous article where he decried the online ‘censorship’ of Alex Jones whilst failing to mention that Jones had been barred from those social media providers for serious breaches of their stated service policies, namely using their platforms to baselessly accuse a senior public official of complicity in paedophilia then publicly call for his murder.
    Little details like that should probably not be omitted or dismissed, even if they are inconvenient to a partisan narrative.

  7. DrakeN

    Standards in academia have to be upheld.
    Peterson is entitled to his own opinions, but not his manufactured ‘facts’.

  8. Kaye Lee

    From his position as a privileged white heterosexual male, Peterson uses his Youtube stardom to tell us there is no such thing as female oppression, racism, gender fluidity, or white privilege whilst selling us his self-help books, videos, courses and speaking tours.

    If you want to champion free speech, how about Behrouz Boochani or Malala Yousafzai or Greta Thunberg or Somaly Mam – people who want to make the world a better place.

  9. AllieAnnie


    ( I was trying for a semi-Monty Python dismissive joke at the end.)

  10. Josephus

    While up to a point this article is fair enough, there have to be boundaries- imagine Goebbels being invited to speak. At University/conferences and public venues some care is required. There should be intelligent and educated listeners at these events, who can challenge fallacies and bigotry, but who draw a line if hate of others is disseminated as opposed to calm evidence based discourse.

  11. Dr Tristan Ewins

    Peterson has a very strong following in the West. It’s not enough to “ignore in the hope he will go away”. He now represents and appeals to too many people ; and on the Left we have to ask “how did this happen?”. “How can we respond to this?”. Better to debunk the views we disagree with thoroughly ; and in the hope that engagement will bring people to our side rather than be counter-productive. At the end of the day Peterson appears to me to be proposing a mix of social conservatism and classical political and social liberalism. Pluralism means we have to deal with the views we disagree with ; and only the worst of all (hate politics, fascism, holocaust denial) should be ‘suppressed’. Suppression can create a ‘political pressure cooker’ that can eventually explode. The ‘pay off’ is that we (the Left) need to be considered a legitimate part of the debate ; and hopefully that leads to our own political success based on the strength of our ideas further down the track. I wrote the following on Peterson re: his views on communism ; which sums up much of my views on him:

  12. Lambert Simnel

    Watching the fella on QA, I thought, a complete crackpot. Even the village idiot could see through him, surely?

  13. Kaye Lee


    I think you exaggerate the following of Peterson. He has NO credibility amongst his peers. He is an online Youtube self-help charlatan who is riding the wave of hatred of feminists, trans people, “political correctness”, etc

    I wouldn’t waste my breath trying to refute the views of a man who thinks there is no such thing as, for example, gender inequality…particularly when his most commonly used adjective is “Marxist”. Too silly to bother with. Unfortunately, his followers are those angry white men, young and old, who can see their privileged domination slipping away. They don’t need more oxygen.

  14. Dr Tristan Ewins

    He makes one good point ; and that’s that when people talk about “white male dominance” the reality is largely white male bourgeois dominance. At least ‘at the top’. Which in that aspect also excludes and oppresses most men. That said we live in a society which has excluded women from the heights of prominence in public life and sport, and where ‘feminised’ professions have been systematically exploited ; and where domestic labour has been exploited ; and when women historically have been left with most of the responsibilities in the domestic sphere. The old division of domestic labour and the (capitalist) labour market also promoted dependence. Peterson does not sufficiently recognise all this. But for a person who is hostile to Marxism he does one good thing (in a video I’ve just been watching) in emphasizing white bourgeois men and not just ‘white men per se’ as occupying ‘the heights of power’. Class is so often ignored in modern analysis – including on the self-identifying Left.

  15. Dr Tristan Ewins

    BTW it follows from what I said above that the bourgeoisie is the most truly dominant force in society. Even more so than the heights of purely-political power. And here the ideal solution is not just to ‘bring women into boardrooms’ and promote women capitalists. There is a broader problem with capitalism itself. Which is harmful to both women and men. Though capitalism and capitalists benefit from the devalorisation of feminised labour ; it enables the exploitation of child care workers, aged care workers etc (mainly women) – which cannot be stopped without government intervention ; and probably higher taxes. (including higher corporate taxes)

  16. guest

    I love Peterson’s “lobster” theory. lol. He is really loved by the Murdoch stable. Wonder why.

  17. Kaye Lee

    Peterson’s lobster theory is about as well-informed as Maurice Newman’s views on climate change which are also embraced by the Murdochracy. Go figure.

  18. Dr Tristan Ewins

    This in response to Peterson on Marxism:

    Marxism is nowhere near as simplistic as Peterson argues ; it is a plural tradition ; and there are many Marxists who have understood that ‘perfect and absolute equality’ is not achievable or even desirable for the foreseeable future. Even the ideal of communism holds that there will be differences in skill and aptitude ; and people with skill and aptitude will contribute on the basis of that. But ‘real communism’ is also founded on the assumption of ‘abundance’ ; which means in a practical sense everyone can take what they need , and contribute to the best of their ability. This is also empowering of personal liberty because providing the opportunity to exercise creativity. The problem, though, is that even ‘abundance’ is relative. And there is what Marx called ‘the coercive laws of competition’ – which means corporations and (upon a reformulation) states as well need to compete in order to survive and prosper… There’s a positive side to this: innovation and market responsiveness. The bad side of this is is that capitalism – in particular US capitalism – depends on class stratification including a class of working poor and destitute – in order to ‘discipline’ the working class… And this creates suffering and insecurity. Finally: just assuming ‘abundance’ was achieved in a meaningful and permanent way ; you would still need to delegate responsibilities. There would be structures of responsibility. The question is whether or not greed is the only viable motivation ; or whether people can be motivated by the desire for recognition, and a commitment to civic responsibility….. Also the debate about ‘real communism’ is in some ways premature because the preconditions do not exist for its realization. But a ‘democratic socialism’ based on a ‘democratic mixed economy’ IS doable and should not be stigmatised on the basis of critique of Stalinist regimes that have very little in common…. Venezuela is suffering because of a collapsing price of oil, as well as sanctions and other destabilisation. Arguably there was a problem with corruption as well… But ‘socialism’ as such was not the problem. Many socialisms are possible just as many capitalisms are possible. Revolutions often degenerate into tyranny because of the internal and external pressure they are placed under ; which leads to Terror and Centralisation ; which historically led to Stalinism. The same problems arose with the French Revolution – but we didn’t dismiss liberty and democracy as a consequence… By contrast the Austro-Marxists in interwar ‘Red Vienna’ were a completely different story ; showing the potential of ‘counter-culture’ and social provision of core goods and services (eg: Public Housing) ; but also the dangers of leaving the state apparatus of force open to take-over by reactionary forces. That kind of Revolutionary Social Democracy is a completely different creature from Stalinism, Bolshevism or Trotskyism…

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