Free Speech Debate Resurfaces Amid Speaker Controversy
A GoFundMe effort launched by Madelyn Streb ‘21 and supported by a few other students and faculty to bring Jordan Peterson, a University of Toronto psychologist and controversial Youtube phenomenon, as a lecturer to Skidmore has been met with pushback from other students. In response to a Facebook post by Streb last week alerting others of the fundraising effort, a petition to counter the prospect of a Peterson appearance at Skidmore was immediately circulated. At the time of this article’s publication, the petition had 186 signatures.
It is hardly surprising why the idea of Peterson potentially coming to Skidmore has led to passionate opinions. Peterson’s career in academia, which includes time spent teaching psychology at Harvard University, extends nearly 30 years; yet it was until only recently that he achieved mass acclaim. His recently released book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, a self-help guide of sorts that draws on research in psychology, science, and religion, is the top-selling book on Amazon. But while becoming someone who, in the words of New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks, might be “the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now,” Peterson has ignited controversy. He initially rose to prominence in 2016 after posting a series of Youtube videos denouncing Canada’s laws regarding gender-neutral pronouns and transgender identities. More recently, he engaged in a widely-circulated debate with English journalist Cathy Newman on issues such as the gender pay gap, which Peterson, citing academic literature for his evidence, argued did not exist.
President Philip Glotzbach confirmed in a recent interview with The Skidmore News that the administration has not had any involvement in the movement to bring Peterson to Skidmore. Combined with his high speaking fee ($35,000 compared to the traditional $10 - $20,000 for accomplished speakers), the likelihood that Peterson appears on campus is small. Ultimately this hypothetical debate concerning free speech largely transcends Peterson, though, which is why someone like him should not be prevented from speaking at Skidmore.
While his views are undoubtedly debatable and abrasive, Peterson contrasts with others whose appearance would likely be regressive for an institution like Skidmore’s. For starters, his arguments are not intended to incite violence and he has no history of physical assault or abuse. And as opposed to someone like President Donald Trump, whose rhetoric is steeped in baseless and unapologetically inflammatory claims, Peterson’s arguments are grounded largely in scientific-based evidence acquired through years of clinical experience.
In other words, he is someone who is respected in the academic literature and not simply an internet sensation. As mentioned above, Peterson has taught at Harvard and works currently at another respected university. In addition, while not endorsing Peterson’s recent views, psychology professor Sheldon Solomon acknowledged that he is a “well-trained and accomplished academic psychologist.” Thus, Peterson’s opinions, while by no means politically-correct, are worthy of at least not being silenced.
Additionally, it would be hypocritical for us as a paper to support a movement against the right-leaning Peterson. To quote directly from one of our editorials last fall calling for greater civic responsibility:
“Exposing ourselves to opposing opinions and sources can be uncomfortable and difficult; but without this interaction, our community risks falling into an echo chamber free from critical thinking, let alone grappling with critical issues.”
This stance is also in accord with Skidmore’s educational goals. While commenting more generally on the merits of bringing speakers to Skidmore and not addressing Peterson specifically in our recent interview, Glotzbach remarked that there is “reason to listen” when serious scholars might have something of value to say.
Students who might feel attacked by some of his questionable ideas should take whatever precautions necessary to feel safe in the event Peterson actually speaks on campus, using their freedoms of speech and protest if they wish. Yet even if you disagree vehemently with opinions from people like him, there are still potential benefits to listening. As President Barack Obama once said, silencing conservative speakers in an effort to be “protected from different points of view” is “not the way we learn.” It may strengthen your counter-arguments, for instance, or it may prepare you for relatively harsh realities encountered outside of Skidmore.
Regardless, with respect to upholding the integrity of free speech amid increasingly stark political divides, it would be more productive to either ignore or respectfully protest someone like Peterson (via counter-events, perhaps) than censure him entirely.