Opinion piece on intellectual freedom and the rise of the right wing at universities

Today this piece of mine was published on a Dutch political opinion site. I’m adding the English version of it here:

The UvA should not have offered Jordan Peterson a right wing “safe space”

Last week, I joined dozens of UvA academics to sign a letter asking that the controversial political speaker, Jordan Peterson, be joined by a debate partner when he appears on stage at the UvA. One of the main reasons was to address Peterson’s selective account of the state of scientific knowledge, including about the biological differences between men and women. Peterson’s written response, much like the responses of his defenders on Twitter, misrepresented our demand as a form of silencing and called its signatories “totalitarian wannabes.”

Similarly, Maarten Boudry’s opinion piece for the NRC was based entirely on comparing our letter to cases in the US where student activists prevented speaking events from proceeding as planned, a tactic commonly known as “no-platforming.” Whatever Boudry’s opinions are about political “no-platforming,” I don’t see their relevance, as the letter I signed made no such threat, and the event at the UvA took place without incident. That is, if you don’t count the death threats that UvA academics received from Peterson supporters for writing a letter.

What we did see there was Peterson’s view of gay marriage as an elaborate “social experiment” with unknown long-term consequences go unquestioned, along with his account of the “solid” science justifying the socio-economic inequalities between men and women. We also got a rambling description of a game he plays with his granddaughter, which in no way answered the audience question about contemporary sexism. And we witnessed him moved to tears, as he has been more often in interview moments when he describes how deeply he has touched the lives of his lost, young, male fans with his self-help books. In short, no sign of scholarly discussion or diversity of academic opinions, the ideals that the UvA and the organizers claim to strive for.

It remains curious that the request for open debate was consistently framed as just a milder form of “no-platforming”. Surely, a demand for open discussion is the opposite of silencing? After all, the organization that invited him, ironically enough, is called “Room for Discussion.” At an institution where students are taught that ideas must stand up to scrutiny, we can hardly accept the claim that being asked to defend one’s ideas against scholarly criticism is tantamount to being silenced. So, why this willful blindness to the otherwise obvious difference between silencing and a call for debate?

This was no simple misunderstanding. For Boudry, like Peterson, the recent rise of “safe space” politics and the tyranny of “political correctness” on university campuses is the reason why it’s difficult for right wing political figures and thinkers like themselves to spread their ideas freely. But this didn’t start with left wing “safe spaces” in North America. The debate about intellectual freedom at universities today is copying the playbook of the longer-running societal debate about free speech: conservative and far right figures constantly claim they are being silenced while at the same time reaching the largest possible mainstream audiences with their message. I’m not interested in silencing Peterson or asking for a space safe from his ideas. I asked for the space to frame his ideas so that political and intellectual disagreement with their content is possible – to give students and the public a better chance at discerning the science from the pseudoscience that Peterson systematically switches between. If this work isn’t done at the university, where in society will it be done?

What Peterson and his defenders did by rejecting an opening for discussion at the UvA was neither protecting intellectual freedom nor any universal rights. Rather, they demanded a space within the university where Peterson could comment without substantive critique – a “safe space,” if you will. And the organizers of the event and the UvA gave that to him.

Boudry is concerned about the stifling atmosphere that left wing and progressive “safe spaces” purportedly produce on North American campuses and how this might be transported to the UvA. But we need look no further than the EU to see what is happening at Hungarian universities, where far right wing political appeals to the so-called biological differences between men and women are leading to the defunding and dismantling of entire fields of academic knowledge, something Peterson has also called for. That’s what silencing looks like. Not someone disagreeing with you in an intellectual debate.