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How Cambridge flunked the Peterson test The University's shabby treatment of the psychology professor smacks of intellectual cowardice

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March 25, 2019   4 mins

There is an oddity about almost every ‘scandal’ involving Jordan Peterson. Each time a person or institution tries to diminish him, they end up revealing far more about themselves than their target. When Cathy Newman tried to assail him for Channel 4 News, it wasn’t just her interviewing skill that was shown up, but a rottenness in the media industry as a whole.

Perhaps it will be the same with the latest scandal surrounding him and – this time – Cambridge University. Late last year, some people associated with the university raised the possibility that Peterson (who is currently on leave from his teaching position at the University of Toronto) might like to take up a temporary post as a visiting fellow in the Faculty of Divinity. Peterson had planned to use the position to prepare for a series of lectures on the book of Exodus (following on from his hugely successful lectures on the book of Genesis).

The arrangement could have benefited both parties. Peterson would have been able to enjoy the contributions of other fellows at Cambridge, while the university could have shown itself to be at the absolute forefront of the great discussions and the big issues of our time.

Aside from his body of academic work, one of Peterson’s achievements as an intellectual has been one that very few academics in our age has managed – he has taken academic discussions out into the widest possible public realm. Is there any other public figure who can fill auditoriums around the world night after night with people willing listen to serious and deep lectures on everything from the Bible and Dostoyevsky to neurology and metaphysics? Cambridge would be hard pressed to find another such person. Or anyone who could even come close.

But it wouldn’t have simply been a matter of the University acquiring his ‘star status’. Nor of giving the students greater access to someone for whom they have a great appetite – as Peterson’s packed audiences in the city (including at the Cambridge Union) last year showed. Most important was the opportunity it would have given Cambridge to show that it was a class apart. Specifically, that was above the kind of low-grade, intellectually numbing, identity-politicking of our time.

There is a tendency to assume that the worst of the no-platforming, safe-space, snowflake ideology only exists at the lowest-grade universities, and that the higher up the academic food-chain you go, the less the insistence on intellectual uniformity is tolerated. Certainly, the University of Chicago has tried to lead a way out of the anti-free speech movements of our time, as did Oxford a few years ago when the Chancellor of that University told students that those unwilling to embrace freedom of thought should “think about being educated elsewhere”.

That is the attitude that a world-class university should take. By giving Jordan Peterson even a temporary berth, Cambridge could have demonstrated that it too was going to lead the way out of the mire that lesser institutions have positively immersed themselves in.

But it has not. Before the university even had the decency to alert Peterson to the fact, it was announced that the offer of a visiting fellowship had been rescinded. And the University itself was not even the one to break the news that the offer had been rescinded. That pleasure – for pleasure it must have been for them – went to the Cambridge University Student Union (CUSU) which announced the news on social media before the faculty itself made the announcement.

It is clearly this group of students who have put pressure on the academics of the Divinity Faculty to rescind the offer. And it is clear from the content of this article on Varsity what the basis of those complaints must have been.

The laundry list of insinuations and accusations include the issue of gender pronouns (naturally) and also such damning facts as the claim that the accused has “further described the concept of white privilege as a ‘Marxist lie'”. As though anybody could ever have even thought such a thing.

Crowing about their victory, the CUSU said:

“We are relieved to hear that Jordan Peterson’s request for a visiting fellowship to Cambridge’s Faculty of Divinity has been rescinded following further review. It is a political act to associate the University with an academic’s work through offers which legitimise figures such as Peterson.”

They went on to claim, “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 one that works in opposition to the principles of the University.”

It would require a thesis to unpick the number of fallacies and presumptions in that statement.  For example, the idea that employing Peterson is a political act unlike the recruitment of other academics (are other academics either wholly non-political or political in the ‘correct’ direction?) and the assumption that in order to be at a university, a professor must be “representative of the student body” and much more.

When Peterson was in Cambridge last year he was certainly of enormous interest to the student body. Otherwise he would hardly have packed out of each of his venues. All that the CUSU exercise in neo-bureaucrat-ese proves is that the standard of students, like the standard of faculty, has obviously diminished in Cambridge of late.

Peterson has issued a statement that is justifiably angry. Everything about the University’s behaviour has been shabby – up to and including the claim that Peterson chased the divinity faculty to have a place at the university, rather than the other way around.

But as with most other episodes involving Peterson, what starts out as a controversy turns into a societal biopsy. On this occasion, it is not only Cambridge University which has been exposed, but other institutions, including the media. For how did the London Times choose to report the news? By running the story under the headline Cambridge turns away alt-right darling Jordan Peterson.

You can learn so much about from a headline like that. Not about the subject of the piece, but about the media that would run it. Of all the things they could have used as a prefix to discuss Peterson (global bestselling author, internationally renowned thinker, world’s most famous Canadian), why choose that drive-by shooting of a description: “alt-Right darling”. A claim which is simultaneously just short of libellous, craftily misleading and undisguisedly contemptuous.

But as I say, this just goes to prove something that Peterson has proved plenty of times before. Those institutions and entities that try to assail him inadvertently end up revealing far too much about their own presumptions and prejudices. And they, not him, are left looking not just shallow, but unmistakably callow.

Douglas Murray is an author and journalist.


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3 years ago

The hatchet piece by Decca Aitkenhead for The Sunday Times recently, illustrates exactly the same pathetic rush to capitulate to the woke agenda which certainly lost any respect I ever had either for the paper or Aitkenhead, whose work I used to admire. I listened to the interview on which the article was based which further increased my horror at Aitkenhead’s choice to jump on the bandwagon of unfairly demonising Peterson at a time when he is obviously still vulnerable and fragile after a year of severely compromised health.