Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Denunciation of Jordan Peterson

Yesterday, a "forum" was held at the University of Toronto to discuss Jordan Peterson's opposition to the mandated use of so-called non-binary pronouns. A video of the event is available. There are lots of things to say about it (Christie Blatchford says some of them here), but I want to focus on the particular aspect of the proceedings that caused me to put those scare quotes around the word "forum".

It should be kept in mind that the event was originally planned as a debate. Instead, it became a "forum", which, I take it, implies something more like an airing of views and less like a confrontation of them. Peterson, we might say, was offered yet another opportunity to incriminate himself, and his critics were offered an opportunity, not to prove him wrong, but to denounce him. And this they very ably did.

Peterson himself pointed this out at about an hour and fifteen minutes in. "I have in fact been denounced today," he asked the audience to notice, "and what I am saying has in fact been described as hate propaganda." He was referring to this remark by Mary Bryson: "a lot of what we've been hearing here is hate propaganda." She* frames this remark by invoking the words of the justice minister, hot off the successful passage of the very law that Peterson believes threatens his freedom of speech. It's hard not to notice the implicit threat.

I think it is important to make these insinuations explicit. After all, Brenda Cossman, whose function seemed to be mainly to assure the audience that only the letter of the law, not its spirit nor its potential to be abused, is what matters, dutifully (but wrongly) denies that Bryson's remarks constitute a denunciation or anything other than criticism of his views. Indeed, throughout the event there was an unacknowledged tension between Cossman's assurances about the limits of the law's application and Bryson's very clear view that Peterson's work should not be allowed, i.e., should, for all intents and purposes, be illegal. Apparently Cossman simply doesn't notice that Bryson repeatedly questions Peterson's qualifications "to be employed at a great university" by suggesting that he is not up to speed with the relevant science. You'll notice that the moderator, a provost at the University of Toronto, thanks her for this smackdown.

And this brings us to the coup de grace that the moderator lets Bryson administer. It seems clear that Bryson had been deliberately brought in from outside the University of Toronto to serve this function. It's hard not to come to the conclusion that the question she received at the end had been prepared from the beginning—indeed, that her answer to it had also been prepared.

But before getting to her closing remarks, I'd like to go back to her opening remarks. Like Cossman, she expressed her displeasure at attending the event; she didn't, she said, want to dignify "this man and his ideas" through debate. Cossman had gone the extra step of stating her support for those who boycotted it.** Though I don't quite understand how one can support a boycott while participating in the event being boycotted, I suppose that is her right. I find it implausible, however, that the University of Toronto could not find two people who would be pleased to discuss these important issues. That they invited people who didn't really want to be there is telling.

Her response was to call on the University of Toronto to apologise for Peterson's "recent public works" (a phrase she used to distance them from serious intellectual contributions). More importantly, she framed this call for an apology by insinuating that Peterson's work is as contemptible as long-past pogroms against "homosexual" faculty members. It is very clear to me that Bryson undertook to denounce Peterson. It is almost as clear to me that she did this with the official approval of the University of Toronto. If the university does not immediately distance itself from her remarks, I will take my suspicion to be confirmed.

In fact, I think Jordan Peterson is owed an apology for this transparent attempt, not only to humiliate him, but to preemptively justify the disciplinary sanctions that are no doubt already being considered. I think his efforts have so far been heroic. His enemies seem intent on making a martyr of him.

*Obviously, I used this pronoun advisedly. Merely attending the event or watching the video would not offer any guidance about it. [Update 21/11/16 at 9:15: It turns out I missed Dean Cameron's guidance in his introductory remarks. He did not say explicitly that it's Bryson's preferred or mandatory pronoun, but he did twice refer to Bryson as "they" and "their".] Normally, there would be no doubt about how to refer to a person named Mary Bryson in the third person. But in this case I was, of course, unsure. Note, however, that I was not unsure about how to refer to Brenda Cossman. Context aside, this was mainly because of the differences in their style of hair and dress. I decided to find an online bio, hoping that it would refer to her in the third person. And I did. "Dr. Bryson is the recipient of multiple awards for her interdisciplinary scholarship," says her bio at UBC's Social Justice Institute (presumably they can be trusted to get this sort of thing right), "including most recently, a Senior Fellowship at Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, and in 2000, the Canadian Women in the Spotlight, Wired Women 'Pioneer in New Media' award." Not only did she seem to openly identify as a woman, she had accepted awards in that capacity. But then I read Blatchford's column and was surprised to see her refusing to address Bryson by her preferred "they". Blatchford had also found a university bio. So I don't know exactly what to think. But I'm going to let the feminine pronoun stand. If it is not what Bryson prefers, I will consider my options, political and legal. [See the update above. And this video, which makes Bryson's preferences clear. I'm not going to erase my original gendering in this post or my subsequent post, letting this footnote explain how it came about. I will, as promised, consider it going forward.]

**Update at 23:18: I got this wrong in the original post, where I said Bryson had expressed support for the boycott.

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