‘Ottawa’ How Controversial U of T Prof Jordan Peterson Became a Lightning Rod
Jordan Peterson says he never set out to be a centre of controversy. But when that controversy came, he also didn’t turn away.
The University of Toronto psychology professor has found himself at the centre of a firestorm involving, depending on whom you ask, gender identity and freedom of speech — the result of his now-famous/infamous declaration to only call students “he” and “she,” and not “they” as some individuals in the transgender community prefer to be known. He also announced he was steadfastly opposed to Bill C-16, federal legislation that seeks to add gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination.
Making this stand on YouTube took Peterson onto computer screens around the world, and made him an academic celebrity of sorts.
He’s in Ottawa for two public speeches this week — one Thursday, the second Saturday at the Ottawa Public Library at 120 Metcalfe Street. (It’s from 2 to 5:30 p.m., seats are first come, first served.)
So how did this university prof become a figure of such controversy? What motivates him to say the things he does?
“I’ve been watching the rise of political correctness on campuses basically since the early 1990s,” he said Friday in an interview with the Citizen. It seemed to go away for a while, he said, then “over the last five years, it has come roaring back.”
Here are some of his takes:
• Universities, he said, now run “quasi-judicial entities” to deal with sexual harassment, and he called it “insane to set up a parallel judicial process without the proper checks and balances or proper traditions.”
• He said he was further upset last fall when his own university brought in mandatory training on unconscious bias in human resources, and rules for equity that call for strict adherence to equal representation of different parts of society in each level of the organization. As a psychologist, he said, he has little respect for the unconscious bias training. He called the foundation of it “pseudo-science” and “political indoctrination masquerading as science.”
By last fall, Peterson was noticing that his lectures, on his own YouTube channel, were getting tens of thousands of views apiece, and a million in all. That’s far greater than the number of people who will ever read his writing, he knew.
“To master a new technology you have to play with it. I said, I’ve got something I have to think about. I’ll try thinking about it and do a YouTube video at the same time and see what happens.”
He made shorter YouTube videos with his thoughts on what he saw as authoritarian oppression.
There was some reaction early on. But the real reaction came after a demonstration by some people on his side of the argument, at which he also spoke. Video of that — it included some protesting and shouting — is what really took off. And from there, his earlier videos took off as well, and Peterson was a sudden celebrity.
“I hit a hornets’ nest at the most propitious time,” he said.
He feels the galvanizing moment was when he refused to call a single person “they,” the gender-neutral pronoun that some prefer. That question of pronouns became a specific point that anyone can latch on to, he believes.
His university bosses at first told him to watch what he said, but lately, he says, this has not happened and his relationship with U of T’s administration is cordial. But there are other protesters, including some who wanted him prevented from speaking at the National Gallery this past Thursday.
Cara Tierney, a part-time University of Ottawa visual arts professor and local artist, was among those who protested the gallery’s decision to invite Peterson to speak.
“We don’t believe federal funding should be used to endorse individuals who have exceptionally problematic views, and who attempt to block human rights legislation to protect some of the most vulnerable people in our society,” she said.
“For the National Gallery to hire this individual sends a message to the trans community that we’re not valued in this space, and that our bodies are not considered valid.”
About 300 people who lined up to hear Peterson speak at the National Gallery were turned away from the venue because it wasn’t big enough for the overflow crowd.
Peterson’s sudden, polarizing fame, is something he seems comfortable with. He said he has no plans to bow out of the picture and relax in private life again.
That would be “an attractive option. In some sense it’s not actually possible,” he said. “I’m not feeling oppressed by this. It was nasty for about two months.”
“I’m not complaining about it. It’s ridiculously interesting. Weird things are happening all over the place partly because of what I said. … We are also in very interesting political times, so I don’t see any rationale for stepping out of it.”
“The students have been incredibly welcoming,” he said. “The comments (on videos) of what I am saying are running, I would say, 300 or 500 to one in favour of it.”
We asked how long he will keep up this phase of his life. He said he doesn’t know.
“In a sensible world, I would have got my 15 minutes of fame,” he said, but “these are unpredictable times.
“I feel like I’m surfing a giant a wave … and it could stop, it could come crashing down and wipe me out, or I could ride it and continue. All of those options are equally possible.
With files from Andrew Duffy