Chris Williamson/Getty Images

Is Cambridge broad-minded enough for Jordan Peterson?

His visit tests the self-appointed judiciary of acceptable ideas

Artillery Row

What is Professor Jordan Peterson doing in Cambridge and does his presence suggest the university is still a place where controversial views can, after all, receive a hearing?

The bestselling Canadian psychologist arrived in Cambridge last week without protests impeding his attendance at an ethics lecture, a Wittgenstein lecture, and a two hour seminar in the divinity faculty entitled “Friedrich Schiller and Immanuel Kant on beauty and play.” On Tuesday afternoon he will deliver a lecture to divinity faculty staff and students entitled, “Imitation of the divine ideal.”

It is hardly the itinerary of an incendiarist. Yet, Professor Peterson’s ability to interact with scholars during his visit to Cambridge assumes a greater significance given the university’s previous decision to cancel an invitation to him to lecture on the book of Exodus. As Arif Ahmed, a Cambridge reader in philosophy and defender of the university’s commitment to free speech, has stated, “the reaction to Peterson’s arrival will tell us much about whether Cambridge is on the side of the Enlightenment or the mob.”

In March 2019, the initiative to first invite and then disinvite Peterson came from the faculty of divinity’s research committee. When a photograph emerged showing Peterson standing next to a man wearing a t-shirt with the slogan “I’m a proud Islamaphobe ”, members of the faculty’s research committee speedily withdrew the (unpaid) research fellowship that Peterson had been due to take up. Rather than hearing first from anyone responsible for the decision, Peterson learned that his research fellowship was rescinded when he saw it proclaimed on Twitter.

Peterson was cancelled because of another person’s t-shirt

The decision to disinvite Peterson was taken without the involvement of Cambridge’s vice-chancellor, Stephen Toope, who was in China at the time, delivering a speech to Peking University, during which he saluted his Beijing hosts by telling them that, “at a time when many minds appear to be closing all around the world, it is reassuring to find here [in Beijing] a formidable institution that seeks an open world, open to ideas, open to the exchange of goods and people.”

However, upon being informed that his own institution had cancelled Professor Peterson because of another person’s t-shirt, Toope offered unequivocal endorsement for the faculty’s rush to judgement. “Robust debate can scarcely occur,” Toope expatiated in an official statement, “when some members of the community are made to feel personally attacked, not for their ideas but for their very identity.”

What Toope did next confirmed the suspicions of academics who feared Peterson’s cancellation represented more than a panicked response to an unfortunate photo and was, instead, part of an assault on the permissibility of certain opinions. The vice-chancellor sought to implement a new university-wide code on free speech in line with his insistence upon “balancing academic freedom with respect for members of our community.”

Toope’s code sought to make freedom of speech for Cambridge’s staff, students and visiting speakers conditional on their “respecting” the ideas and identities of others. Although not explicit in the statement, this would have muzzled opinions by risking a misconduct charge for anyone accused of causing or encouraging real or perceived offence. Had it passed, there was scarce prospect of Cambridge hearing again anyone like Professor Peterson who has, for instance, challenged speech-code-enforcement by transgender rights activists.

In an extraordinary act of disobedience, in December 2020 Cambridge academics voted down the contentious parts of the new code in the Regent House (the university’s parliament). Almost 87 per cent of votes cast amended the code’s wording from a duty to “respect” to merely “tolerate” – thereby neutering the risk of censorship.

Toope responded deftly to his humiliation by welcoming it: “The statement also makes it clear that [it] is unacceptable to censor, or disinvite, speakers whose views are lawful but may be seen as controversial,” he proclaimed, disingenuously.

But what did the vote mean in practice? The morning after the Regent House vote, Dr James Orr, a lecturer in the philosophy of religion, emailed Jordan Peterson with the idea of inviting him back to Cambridge in order to test whether the defeat of the “respect” code was more than a “paper victory.” Peterson was receptive, and Orr subsequently formally invited him to come to Cambridge in November.

It is sending the signal that free speech is alive and well at Cambridge

When news of the invitation became public, Orr was encouraged by the supportive messages he received from other academics, some of whom were understandably keen to signal their approval discreetly. He has not encountered any official attempt at faculty or university level to dissuade him or prevent Peterson’s visit from going ahead.

“It is sending the signal that free speech is alive and well at Cambridge, despite all the difficulties that are happening elsewhere” says Orr. The efforts to intimidate and cancel controversial thinkers is, he thinks, “coming from a relatively small group of people, often in administrative positions, and not the 87 per cent who said we don’t want this ‘respect’ language. We want to be able to disrespect views we find abhorrent whilst recognising we must nevertheless tolerate them in a free society.”

For his part, Peterson appears to be enjoying the welcome he has received from those academics and students he has thus far met at Cambridge. An attendee at the Schiller and Kant seminar observed the Canadian enjoying “a lively dialogue” with students. The centrepiece of his visit will be his lecture to divinity students and staff on Tuesday at the university’s Lady Mitchell Hall. “The plan had been to extend the invite to other academics and students as well,” explains Dr Orr, “but it sold out in twelve hours after just one email.”

As Orr sees it, “here is a man who has persuaded vast numbers of young people to open the book of Genesis and have a look at it, and that’s a start. Why wouldn’t scholars of religion and sacred texts want to invite someone like that? The important point is that he opens himself up to scrutiny and criticism.”

Toope has announced he is taking early retirement as vice-chancellor. His conditional freedom of speech codes have been amended out of existence and a further university-wide initiative to encourage students to report staff for perceived “micro-aggressions” was hastily withdrawn following a similar outcry. On Wednesday, Peterson will speak at the Cambridge Union, the student debating society whose vacillating president recently introduced and then abandoned a scheme to blacklist speakers who risked offending someone.

It is, perhaps, too early to assess whether Peterson’s visit marks a decisive defeat for Cambridge’s self-appointed judiciary of acceptable ideas. University-wide efforts to make a range of speech subject to policing may have wilted, but individual colleges like Wolfson and Downing are busy introducing speech-restrictive measures within their own domain.

It should also be noted that Peterson is visiting through the personal instigation of James Orr. It is an invitation from one academic to another. Whether such an invitation would still be made to someone with the viewpoint of Jordan Peterson by a university faculty or research committee remains to be seen, and if it was forthcoming, whether it might be rescinded as it was in 2019 at the first note of protest.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover