Another Professor Shouted Down—This Time Over Pronouns

Universities in the United States do not have a monopoly on intolerant and disruptive students. Canada has them too, as shown by a recent incident at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.

The school had arranged for a panel discussion on the subject of free speech and political correctness in Canada. Four speakers were invited and one of them was Jordan Peterson, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. Peterson is a staunch opponent of what he calls “the radical postmodern left” and its plans for reforming society. That opposition extends to the demand that people use gender-neutral pronouns when referring to transgendered individuals.

When McMaster announced that Peterson would be one of the panelists, opposition quickly mounted, much as was the case with the talk by Charles Murray last month at Middlebury College. The other three panelists backed out when protests were announced by the Peterson resistance.

Professor Philippa Carter expressed concerns over her safety, no doubt prompted by the violent attack by Middlebury protesters that injured Professor Allison Stanger. She said in this Inside Higher Ed story, “I think his views are wrong…. But my decision didn’t have anything with not wanting to be in the same room with him. I had heard there were going to be protests and I wasn’t persuaded that the [student] organization had taken enough precautions around security at the event.”

So, what was meant to be a four-person panel discussion about free speech and political correctness was reduced to just Professor Peterson and that made it much easier for his opponents to shut the event down.

When Peterson attempted to speak, he was drowned out by protesters using air horns, cowbells, and a megaphone. Among their chants: “This is where we draw the line!” and “Trans rights are human rights!” Some audience members asked the protesters to stop, but they refused, displaying the same lack of concern for the rights of everyone else that we witnessed at Middlebury and other schools where intolerance triumphed.

Video of the incident is available here.

The reason why the protesters were so adamant that Professor Peterson should not be allowed to speak is that he will not adopt the gender-neutral speech that “trans” activists demand. He uses the traditional English pronouns “he” and “she” even though the activists say that they are offended when others use those words when referring to them.

Peterson, quoted in the story above, argues that there is “no clinical evidence that gender-neutral pronouns benefit trans people.” Moreover, he resists the coercion of being told to conform to other people’s language conventions—what he calls “compelled speech.”

Because Peterson is one of the few outspoken critics of the gender-neutral language campaign and his opinions are well known in Canada, he has become a lightning rod for protesters, much as Charles Murray is in the U.S. Zealous opponents don’t want him to be able to speak. Disrupting an attempted discussion of free speech and political correctness is supposedly justified since Peterson is so wrong on his views about the proper use of English.

If the protesters had waited until Peterson had finished his talk and then asked why he won’t adopt their gender-neutral, “inclusive” language ideas, a fruitful exchange would have occurred. Peterson would have had to explain his position and defend it against criticism. People in the audience who were undecided on the issue would have heard his reasons; some might have been persuaded while others not.

But if you engage a scholar in public discussion, you’d better be ready to present and defend your own case. Evidently, the protesters were not willing to do that. It is much easier just to make noise to drown out someone you dislike than to prepare a set of arguments and counter-arguments. It is also psychologically safer, since there is always the risk in a public debate that you’ll come off badly—that previously undecided people will decide that your case is weak.

McMaster’s president, Patrick Deane, released a statement after the incident in which he denounced the stifling of debate. Quoted here, Deane said, “Taking the opportunity to listen to a speaker, even one with whom one may vehemently disagree, is an important aspect of education and a cornerstone of academic debate. It has not, therefore, been my approach, nor that of this University, to intervene to shut down events, exclude speakers, or prevent discussion of issues even where controversial topics are under discussion.”

He’s right, but after-the-fact statements of regret from college presidents are not going to stop people such as those who rioted at Berkeley over Milo Yiannopoulos, mobbed Charles Murray at Middlebury, or blew air horns at Jordan Peterson at McMaster. Those who feel that shouting and rioting are acceptable means of registering disagreement aren’t likely to pay any attention to college presidents telling them to respect freedom of speech.

It’s time for college presidents—and indeed educational leaders at all levels—to see that we’re facing a deep educational failure when students won’t listen to someone they’re sure they disagree with and cannot see that they’re doing something wrong in preventing civil discussion. They have been imbued with a primitive, “our side good, your side bad” mentality. That is what college leaders must tackle.

College officials should focus on the grave educational deficiency that some of their students don’t comprehend the crucial role of debate in a civilized society. Instead of larding the curriculum with more “diversity” and “identity” courses, they ought to require students to take a course on the importance of free speech and argumentation.

In that course, students would learn that there can be no progress in society if some people are allowed to use force to silence others. They would learn that their own freedom of speech depends on norms of tolerance and mutual respect. And they would study the history of human intolerance for dissenting ideas, some of which turned out to be perfectly true.

Among the books they’d read should be John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, with special emphasis on his point that “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute then. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.”

In sum, the roots of student intolerance must be pulled out. College leaders are in a position to do that. They should recognize this as perhaps their highest priority.

  • I was unaware of this incident but I am not surprised that Canadian universities are as violently opposed to freedom of speech as American ones. In a sense, the increasing violence is an indication of free speech activists “winning” because it is a last resort but it has become the first response. “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” – Mahatma Gandhi

    • George Leef

      Thanks, Wendy. You’re right about thuggery becoming the first response. These nasty young people don’t even bother to find out if they have a good reason to object to a speaker. Someone tells them “This is a bad person — go disrupt” and that’s all it takes.

      • DrOfnothing

        I think you speak from complete ignorance, and doubt that you have ever set foot on the campus of a Canadian university.

        Your new favourite word seems to be “thuggery.” Given that both Civitas and the PC/JMC have a history of using their deep pockets and influence to threaten and intimidate their political opponents, this is hardly surprising. Nasty is exactly the right word for it.

        • Pachemina

          The above poster doesnt refer to students as nasty young people. He said ‘these nasty young people’, referring to the ones who overran the debate room.

          • DrOfnothing

            I’m afraid that you are mistaken. He he claims that those who overran the debate room were students, which they were not (they were from the local anti-Fascist league in Hamilton).

          • jbwilson24

            Evidence please.

        • jbwilson24

          Deploying an airhorn next to someone’s ear is thuggery, period.

          • DrOfnothing

            I have to disagree. A “thug” employs violence. This is obnoxious, but it’s not actually violent. People frequently employ air-horns at football games. Are they thugs as well?

          • jbwilson24

            I have never ever seen someone at a football game (or any other sporting event) deploy an airhorn within a few inches of someone’s ear with an intent to cause irritation or harm.

            I take it you aren’t aware of the cumulative nature of damage to auditory organs, are you?

            So yes, doing that is thuggery.

            You seem like one of those pasty, beta males who takes a high school course in philosophy and thinks they have some high level of critical thinking ability.

          • DrOfnothing

            You seem like one of those people who resorts to personal insults when they have nothing of relevance to add to a conversation.

  • dao1

    Expel the protesters, every one of them. Now.

  • Bob Leydon

    Look where Ms. has led us. It seemed so innocent at the time.

  • gregpiper

    “Video of the incident is available here.” It’s not there anymore.

  • E_Pluribus_Pluribus

    In the debate over which contributes most to intelligence, environment or heredity, James R. Flynn is perhaps the most esteemed environmentalist, Arthur Jensen, the most esteemed advocate for a substantial role for heredity. Here’s Flynn’s tribute to Jensen:

    “The question now is how to fill the void Jensen’s death leaves, particularly for scholars open to scientific inquiry who challenge some of his conclusions. There is no substitute for someone of great intellectual caliber who disagrees with you. With Jensen no longer alive, we will have to invent him. But we cannot really do that, because no one is so constructed as to put the same energy and imagination into a fictitious opponent as we put into polishing our own ideas. No one can pretend to believe what they do not believe, but I hope there is a young scholar out there with the convictions and mind of Arthur Jensen. I am sometimes asked why I spoke so well of him. The answer is that it was easy.”
    SOURCE: Flynn, James R. “Arthur Robert Jensen (1923–2012).” Intelligence (2012).

  • Rob Jenkins

    The only possible reason not to allow someone to speak is that you’re afraid they might make too much sense to too many people.

  • tj

    He did not say he would not use the pronouns, but that he does not agree that there should be a law making it illegal not to use the pronouns. Do not legislate speech.

  • Eric Holp

    Well said! Time for some real action to fight the anti-free-speech Fascists on campuses by those in charge.

  • DrOfnothing

    The disruption was organized by the local anti-Fascist league (i.e. not students), which is known for being on the militant side. Both the students and faculty at Mac were in agreement that it would have been better if the speaker had been allowed the floor. But Mac, like many campuses, is an open community, and short of draconian security measures, cannot prevent such unwelcome interference in public events.

    In future, it would be better if the author first established the facts of the matter, rather than relying on assumptions and inaccurate, second-hand accounts for his analysis.

    • Celsius1939a

      The university could have restricted the people who attended to those with university id. Then these “outsiders” would have been banned. Then we would see who would disrupt the speaker. I doubt that it would have solved the problem as you would suggest.

      • DrOfnothing

        I can see how the first part is a reasonable measure, though as a public university, I’m not sure what the rules are with regard to screening attendees without a _compelling_ reason. Universities in Canada and the UK, which are more accountable to public oversight, tend to have stricter rules about to what degree they can limit access to public events.

        As for the second point, it’s entirely hypothetical. We should stick with the facts of the matter, the most salient of which is that this was not student protesters (it’s worth noting that outside elements are also suspected of responsibility for the worst behavior in the Dartmouth incident, though that can’t be proven since protesters were wearing bandannas and other face-coverings). Nevertheless, as this is confirmed (by eyewitness accounts), in what happened at Mac, Leef’s commentary is neither objective nor accurate.

        • jbwilson24

          “this was not student protesters”

          And you know this how? It is impossible for someone to be a member of an ‘anti fascist’ group and a student at the same time?

          • DrOfnothing

            I know this because I spoke, at length, with someone who was present at the event itself and has lived and worked in the community for nearly two decades. What’s YOUR source of information?

    • jbwilson24

      “Both the students and faculty at Mac were in agreement that it would have been better if the speaker had been allowed the floor”

      Your evidence for this claim is what, exactly? You have a survey in hand? Perhaps you tagged the students with RFID chips and used parabolic microphones to listen to their conversations?

      • DrOfnothing

        Again, I have numerous connections to the university itself, both faculty and students. But please, don’t take my word for it. Investigate the story for yourself rather than taking the word of obviously biased commentators here (who are largely drawing on _other_ equally biased commentators for their own conclusions). Don’t just defend individualism, be an individual!

  • gregpiper

    The YouTube video you link has been removed.

  • RalphF

    The academy has failed utterly to lead. Students who disrupt speakers on campus should be expelled, and prosecuted if possible. Non-students should be prosecuted for civil rights violations. If that happened, these disruptions would end almost immediately.

    However, I am not holding my breath waiting for college administrators to do the right thing.