On a cold March morning, 700 people lined up outside Western University’s Natural Sciences building to hear Jordan Peterson, the psychology professor at the University of Toronto who made national headlines when he refused to call students by their preferred pronoun.
The crowd of students and London residents that wrapped around the building was punctuated with a handful of red “Make America Great Again” hats. Several individuals in attendance said they were watching Peterson because of his vehement support for freedom of speech.
Given the vociferous opposition that Peterson has faced at other universities, his Western visit was decidedly different. The only people outside the venue cheering or holding signs were those trumpeting freedom of speech.
Universities are often regarded as extremely liberal, left-leaning and politically correct space that don’t allow views from the right to be heard — a columnist at The Washington Post even referred to this as “illiberal leftist militancy.”
“We don’t have that much freedom to exist on campus, but we do [have some] and we have to make sure we have that voice on campus,” said Marisa Maslink, the president of the UOttawa Conservatives. “Because if we don’t have that voice it often gets drowned out by the lack of free exchange on campus.”
A survey from the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA found that 43 per cent of students now agree that “colleges have the right to ban extreme speakers from campus” — double the number from the 1970s and 80s.
Peterson’s warm reception begs the question: does Western stand among the so-called “liberal” campuses accused of stifling free speech?
Although student debates for years focused on issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, gender identity has become a central topic in recent years.
The Peterson debate highlights the gender identity conversation which is arguably shaping the definition of free speech on university campuses.
“Gender identity is the thing that has shifted the most. Queer activism, trans-activism; those are important issues for this generation and the speed to which they have progressed is remarkable,” associate political science professor Dan Bousfield said. “Which I think is interesting because it’s led to a proliferation of ideas and identities in a way that I don’t think any of the other debates did in the same way.”
On March 30, a bus sponsored by various conservative groups arrived at Harvard University’s campus. Printed on the bus was a clear slogan: “It’s Biology: Boys are boys… and always will be. Girls are girls… and always will be. You can’t change sex.”
The Harvard Crimson reported that the bus was part of a campaign to promote “a renewed policy debate [on transgender issues] that tries to accommodate for everyone,” according to a spokesperson.
With “#FreeSpeechBus” plastered on the side of the bus, it was met by protesters who chanted and held up posters in solidarity with the trans* community.
At his Western appearance, Peterson — a former Harvard professor — challenged the ideology behind the new Bill C-16 in front of the Canadian Parliament. He began with examining the ideology behind C-16, which, according to him, purports that gender identity, expression, birth sex and sexual orientation are societally formed and independent of biology.
He stated that these presuppositions are false:
“Nature doesn't arrange itself so that everything it presents to us is in keeping with what we would like to be true politically; in fact, quite the contrary.”
Peterson argued that these differences are not only biological, like chromosomal and hormonal differences between men and women, but are also psychological.
While no protesters were seen at the sold-out Western event, Peterson’s talk at McMaster University was interrupted by air horns and megaphones.
Newspaper columnists of all political stripes have weighed in — speaking mostly of the attack on free speech on university campuses.
“Universities used to be about dangerous ideas. Now they’re about social work. You’d have to laugh, if it weren’t so sad,” said Globe and Mail writer Margaret Wente in her column titled “Why campuses are ditching free speech.” She pointed out in her column that Peterson received a warm welcome at Western.
On Western’s campus many students have openly discussed their views on LGBTQ issues and gender identity. The Gazette’s editorial board stance that Peterson should not be provided a platform at Western received backlash from many students.
A Facebook comment defending Peterson’s right to visit garnered 111 likes stating: “God forbid we invite a speaker who might challenge our views at an institution of higher learning. I think we should start padding the walls in every classroom with bubble wrap and maybe hang snowflakes from the ceilings too.”
But at Western, gender identity is just one of the many controversial topics students are open to discussing. Just this year, Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) — a Palestinian-led movement for freedom, justice and equality — made its way to Western with King’s University College Students’ Council (KUCSC) hosting a hotly contested referendum on BDS. After almost an entire academic year spent debating the issue, the BDS motion failed due to a low voter turnout, although 76 per cent of students who turned out voted in favour of BDS.
In recent years, Western’s hosted several controversial conservative speakers including Conrad Black and Conservative leadership candidate Kevin O’Leary. Jian Ghomeshi’s lawyer Marie Henein received a positive reception when she visited in 2015. Even Ann Coulter spoke on campus in 2010.
Students at other Canadian universities have been less tolerant of controversial speakers.
After Coulter spoke in 2010, she headed to the University of Ottawa (U of O) for the next part of her Canadian campus tour. She didn’t even make it into the venue as 2,000 protesters gathered outside the building, prompting security officials to cancel the event due to concerns for her safety.
Andrew Potter, director of McGill's Institute for the Study of Canada, resigned just last month following criticism for his article in Maclean’s on Quebec.
Maslink spoke about Janice Fiamengo — a U of O professor well-known for her advocacy for men’s rights groups and what many cite as anti-feminist beliefs — was unable to attend a speaking engagement due to protests and safety concerns at a venue near the university. When Fiamengo was speaking at U of T in 2013, her speech was quickly interrupted after someone pulled the fire alarm. After the disruption, her talk continued with little fanfare until the question and answer session.
Marie Henein’s visit to the Nova Scotia university St. Francis Xavier gained a public outcry with many calls for her visit to be cancelled.
While expressing concern over the willingness of a large community willing to spend money to listen to Peterson speak, Noah Reid, a third-year engineering student who identifies as trans* believes all opinions should be open to debate.
However, Peterson’s perception of free speech is “deluded,” says Reid. “All opinions have the right to be shared,” he adds, but free speech is different than “intentionally insulting someone [by] not using their pronouns.”
And as the free speech debate continues to intersect with gender identity on university campuses, Western’s institutional stance on the conversation is summed by President Amit Chakma, who spoke to the University Senate before Peterson’s visit.
"I think we've been an open and inclusive community, but at the same time I think we are also equally responsible for respecting all people's right to express their views. I think as an academic body, we fight ideas with ideas," Chakma said.
"We don't try to prevent people from speaking their minds ... I think our student body and community is mature enough to be able to make up their own minds."
Many evidently did make up their minds. The large lecture hall in Natural Science filled up quickly in anticipation for Peterson as the hundreds took their seats. As he entered, everyone shot up to their feet, giving Peterson a rapturous standing ovation.
His talk was interrupted at several times — not by protesters’ chanting or distracting airhorns or the sound of a pulled fire alarm — but by excited applause from the Western audience.
Editor's Note (April 5, 2017):
Noah Reid's comments about Jordan Peterson were further clarified to adequately reflect Reid's opinion on the matter.