November 24, 2021 - 7:00am

Last night, at Lady Mitchell Hall at Cambridge University, the Canadian psychologist and intellectual Dr Jordan Peterson made an appearance that has been more than two years in the making.

His speech was was preceded by an announcement by two of the university proctors, dressed in full academic robes, that they were “present to uphold freedom of speech.”

In an hour-long address, delivered without notes, an upbeat Dr Peterson took the theme of “perception” and moved through neuroscience, theology, politics and opera to argue against the idea that our understanding of categories and reality is determined by oppressive or patriarchal cognitive habits that must be unlearned. Instead, he said, the truth of things calls out to us and, being moved to tears more than once, described how great art and religious buildings made the miracle of perception apparent.

A lone female demonstrator emerged from the wings at one of these more dramatic moments, dressed as a lobster (in reference to the famous invocation of lobsters as an example of a dominance hierarchy in Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life), shouted ‘feminism’ and disappeared. Dr Peterson laughed and said that, as far as protests go, he found it quite witty. There were no protestors outside the auditorium.

In early 2019, an invitation to spend time at Cambridge as a visiting academic was rescinded after a small campaign of complaints. It became one of the most talked-about examples of “cancel culture” and spurred into action a network of faculty members at Cambridge who were determined to reverse what they saw as a descent into intellectual cowardice and a surrender of the principles of free enquiry.

Arif Ahmed, David Butterfield and Douglas Headley are some of the academics in this group, but on this occasion Dr Peterson was invited by James Orr, a member of the faculty of Divinity. Stephen Blackwood of Ralston College was also closely involved in the trip.

They spoke of how warmly received Peterson has been in Cambridge, with almost no negative reaction on the streets of the university campus but much interest.

Concluding proceedings, Philosophy professor Arif Ahmed said:

This event does mark, I hope, the close of a disgraceful chapter in the history of this university. For too long we have laboured under the absurd ideas that words are a form of pressure, and that speech is a way of perpetuating harm, when the opposite is true. Words are instruments of liberation, and speech is an alternative to harm

Things have been improving, we’ve started to win a few things. So I was delighted when I heard, this Autumn, that Jordan would be coming back to Cambridge. It represents an important victory in this battle to get back this ancient institution which has played such a great role in the history of this country, and freedom in this country.

- Dr Arif Ahmed

Dr Peterson will speak at the Cambridge Union tonight, the Oxford Union tomorrow and will attend various events in Westminster next week.