Thoughts on preserving and elevating the quality of discourse at McMaster University
v1 – March 19, 2017
Following the events surrounding Dr. Jordan Peterson’s appearance at McMaster, I believe it is an important time for the McMaster community to think hard about what direction discourse on our campus is taking.
This piece covers several different topics, each of which intended for different audiences. However, they are mutually reinforcing and I wrote each section hoping they would be read together.
A summary in three parts:
- To the McMaster Community:
- To Dr. Peterson:
- To PACBIC:
I believe that what occurred on March 17, 2017 was an affront to the core purpose of the university. I also believe that McMaster University must, as a matter of principle, address some aspects of what happened to ensure the free and responsible exchange of ideas on the McMaster campus.
I would like to offer a couple of corrections and perspectives based on my ~9 years of knowing administrators & staff at McMaster. I think a couple of things you’ve posted on your Twitter account may have been taken out of context, and I would like to make sure credit and understanding is given where it is due.
A number of people (including Dr. Peterson) have already stated, in broad strokes, what they thought of your statement released on March 16, 2017. I have some requests for clarification regarding aspects of your statement’s content, and some rather pointed questions as to whether or not you were acting outside of (and even in contradiction to) your mandate when you allowed subgroups of your organization to co-author that letter with various student organizations.
Living McMaster’s Purpose
“The institutionalization of education brings benefits, undoubtedly, but it also brings risks: entrenched dogma may prevail over liberation of the mind, and the imposition of uniform standards may erode recognition of and respect for individual perspectives.”
– Forward With Integrity: A Letter to the McMaster Community (2011)
Remember when there were angry protests at Yale over Halloween Costumes?
“Why the fuck did you accept the position?! Who the fuck hired you?! You should step down! It is NOT about creating an intellectual space […]You should not sleep at night! You’re disgusting!”
Such a complete breakdown of respect and decorum may seem far-fetched on a university campus. Yet it happened at Yale, a school consistently ranked as one of the top universities in the world.
The verbal abuse that Nicholas Christakis endured while surrounded by a mob of angry students has been well-documented, and it is profoundly disappointing that mobs of people shouting at each other – in person, on Twitter, or otherwise – has become the status quo for intellectual discourse.
Given the unique challenges our society is facing, such as hyper-partisanship, social media echo chambers, and poor information skills in young people, I have felt for several months that McMaster should be doing more to ensure that its campus develops a reputation as a place where people can disagree passionately, yet constructively.
I have been thinking about writing a piece like this for some time now, particularly since the 2016 alt-right poster controversy. I decided against it then, but given the events and reported violence that occurred during a guest lecture by Dr. Peterson, there are some questions I think that must be asked of McMaster as an institution, and as a wider community.
What is the purpose of McMaster University?
“At McMaster our purpose is the discovery, communication and preservation of knowledge. In our teaching, research, and scholarship, we are committed to creativity, innovation and excellence. We value integrity, quality, inclusiveness and teamwork in everything we do. We inspire critical thinking, personal growth, and a passion for lifelong learning. We serve the social, cultural, and economic needs of our community and our society.”
Like many universities, McMaster was founded to acquire, preserve, and disseminate knowledge in service of society. This is a noble goal, but how does McMaster achieve this in practice?
Putting McMaster’s purpose into practice:
Some modern perspectives on education hold that most knowledge transfer is actually an ongoing process of knowledge creation. In particular, according David A. Kolb’s work on experiential learning (which draws on the work of John Dewey, Kurt Lewin, Jean Piaget, Carl Jung, and others):
“Learning is best facilitated by a process that draws out the students’ beliefs and ideas about a topic so that they can be examined, tested and integrated with new, more refined ideas.”
Kolb also acknowledges that this process is rarely easy or straightforward.
“Conflict, differences, and disagreement are what drive the learning process.”
Intuitively, this should make sense to most people. It is often said that we learn more from our mistakes than from our successes – perhaps this is because our mistakes tend to arise out of conflicts and mismatches between us and our environment.
When thinking about this in terms of the university setting, it should be obvious that learning occurs both inside and outside of the classroom. Students should be encouraged to engage with controversial ideas and activities. This was expressed in the letter that sparked the aforementioned controversy at Yale:
“… universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience… Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”
In other words, students should be free to make errors in judgement, and they should be especially free to make errors in how they express themselves. Of course, this also means they should be prepared to accept reasonable consequences as a result of those errors.
Having discussions about controversial topics is one of the most important things that students can do during university… not just so they can learn about the subject matter they are discussing, but so they can also learn how to discuss difficult things. It won’t be easy, it won’t be pleasant, but it’s an important part of adolescence.
The faculty are the foundation on which McMaster’s purpose is built:
I claim that the FACULTY are the group of people at the core of driving McMaster’s purpose forward. They are the ones in charge of discovering new knowledge through research activity, preserving it through publication, and communicating it through their teaching.
Students are surely stakeholders at McMaster University, but they do not enter school with a great deal of knowledge and wisdom; instead, they enter this institution with the potential and opportunity to become knowledgeable and wise, especially if they become active participants in their own education by creating knowledge for themselves.
Beyond research and teaching, faculty must also be good role models for students. To put it bluntly, young people are generally assholes, especially when they are discussing topics on which they place great importance.
I was certainly no exception, and was involved in my fair share of ill-advised (or at least poorly executed) advocacy. But this was a learning experience precisely because they were poorly-executed. After a great deal of reflection, I have since realized that although I learned a great deal about leadership just by virtue of how much I engaged with issues I cared about, a great deal of what I learned came from the McMaster faculty & staff who were always there to show me better ways of doing things.
Part of the university experience is learning how to discuss difficult topics, how to influence others and advance your viewpoints, and hopefully, learning that the best way to influence others is to listen a lot, and speak sparingly. I believe that this is something that, for the most part, is primarily encouraged and demonstrated by faculty.
But on March 17, 2017, McMaster failed to support its faculty, and by doing so, failed to live up to its purpose. Dr. Peterson’s talk was originally a panel discussion, but the three panelists (and eventually the moderator as well) bowed out due to public pressure. The fact that faculty members allowed themselves to be shamed into silence by angry teenagers is disappointing in and of itself. However, the larger issue at hand is that McMaster, as an institution, stood silently by as this occurred.
What kind of example is this setting for students?
What message is this sending to faculty?
If McMaster claims to be dedicated to the discovery, communication, and preservation of knowledge, than it must take an active role in making sure that happens. After many years of working alongside (and/or in nominal opposition to) the McMaster administration, I know that the school usually takes a “wait-and-see” approach with regards to most issues. However, when it comes to the sanctity of our lecture halls and the constructive exchange of ideas, a passive approach will not suffice.
Ultimately, by allowing faculty members to be intimidated into not participating in the panel discussion, McMaster denied its students the opportunity to not only hear a range of viewpoints on a topic they find interesting, but also denied them the opportunity to witness how experienced intellectuals engage in the dialectical process of knowledge creation through the exchange of ideas and constructive disagreement.
In sum, we clearly must do a better job of creating and defending an environment where we can disagree with each other constructively. In my opinion, the largest burden of responsibility rests on our faculty as facilitators and role models, and McMaster must do everything it can to support them.
What about no-platforming tactics? No-platforming tactics, although obnoxious, are technically legitimate expressions of free speech. Like many things I did in school, I would say that they are certainly ill-advised, and likely against McMaster’s Student Code of Conduct.
I would support McMaster recommending corrective action (read: encourage reflection and growth) among students who engaged in this protest. However, perhaps contrary to public opinion, I don’t think McMaster should take special steps to address passionate young people being passionate young people. It’s very much a learning experience for everyone. People who think otherwise are probably selectively forgetting all the stupid things they did in university.
In sum, I believe that McMaster should do the following:
- Take a much more active stance in defending the right (and obligation) of their faculty to engage with controversial subject matter.
- Make sure their faculty can be assured of their safety when they do engage in controversial discussions.
- Discourage (but by no means prohibit) students from using no-platforming tactics to protest ideas that they find distasteful.
- Address, in some form, the statement released on official McMaster University letterhead that could be construed as an insult to Dr. Peterson’s intelligence, as well as an encouragement to use no-platforming tactics to protest his lecture on March 17.
- As a show of good faith, invite Dr. Peterson back for a panel discussion moderated by a respected member of our institution.
Dr. Peterson’s Lecture: A Lost Opportunity
All things considered, it seems like our university community missed out on a great opportunity to hear one of Canada’s most prominent intellectuals deliver a great lecture. Here’s an excerpt from a London Free Press article about a lecture delivered at Western University by Dr. Peterson on March 18, just one day after the events at McMaster:
“”I was ready to disapprove of him, but pretty much everything he said I agreed with,” said Ingles, who came to London to see him.
“Everything he said was well thought out. I am female-to-male transgender, I have spoken to people about him and people are really against him. I wanted to see what he had to say. I did not want to make assumptions based on what others say.”
He found him more “inclusive” than he expected. His message on the strength of “individuality,” a common theme in the talk, resonated with Ingles.”
Corrections & Context For Dr. Peterson
In all fairness to McMaster University, what happened on March 17 was the first time I have ever witnessed that kind of protest at McMaster. As someone who was a student there from 2008-2014, and who is still involved in various capacities with the school, my experiences have pointed to the McMaster student populace being extremely even-tempered overall. I wouldn’t be surprised if a bunch of the protesters were non-student agitators.
Overall, I would like to stress that McMaster University’s administration is extremely measured in how they respond to things, and in most cases this turns out to be the best possible approach. They do not meddle in student affairs, and have a very positive mindset in terms of treating controversies and transgressions as a learning experience for all involved (especially the students). I can speak from vast experience here, although I won’t elaborate on the specifics.
Regardless, I am happy to say that throughout my ~8 years that I’ve spent interacting with faculty, staff, and administrators at all levels of the institution, I have found them all to be reasonable, intelligent, even-tempered, and wise. It is thanks to their patience and guidance that I am a relatively well-adjusted person today.
“Prof thinks taking photos at McMaster event will hurt people” (Tweet): The person depicted in this video isn’t a professor, but she works for McMaster’s Equity & Inclusion Office. Over the past seven years of knowing and collaborating with her, I have found her to be exceedingly kind, honourable, understanding, helpful, and not dogmatic at all.
Given this perspective, I believe what she meant was that taking photos of people with the intent to distribute them online could lead to people being doxxed, harassed, and/or hurt. I think this is a reasonable position to have, and I think it is also fair to remind passionate students of potential unintended consequences of their actions. That said, I do realize that people were anticipating violence from protesters, and justifiably so. That said, I don’t think she was incorrect or overreaching in reminding students to exercise good judgement.
“[Fire alarm pulling] is something that universities should handle, from a security perspective” (Tweet): It was being handled. There were ~10 pull stations throughout the IAHS building where the talk occurred, and Mac 5-0 was keeping tabs on all of them. As to why they didn’t advertise their presence more, I’m sure they had good reasons for that. Mac’s head of security is the former chief of Hamilton Police Services, so I will trust his judgement.
Personally, I also found it curious that the event organizers were a bit ambiguous regarding the level of security that they would be receiving for the event. In all honesty, it seemed they were a bit out of their league when it came to event planning, although having been in that boat myself I can’t fault them. It is a learning experience for them, too, I would imagine.
“Read this, and weep for the university” (Tweet): Yeah, I agree, that statement was pretty awful. During my time at the university, PACBIC was an advisory group that did important work addressing a multitude of issues, most of them not having to do with the pet causes of “social justice warriors”. For example, navigating our campus in a wheelchair sucks. A lot. Having an advocacy group at the highest level of administration is important for issues like that.
I suspect that this statement was primarily authored by students and not approved by PACBIC as a whole, as it seems to be outside of PACBIC’s mandate (see the below).
PACBIC’s Statement & Mandate
For those interested, I would like to expand on my concerns regarding the letter released on March 16, 2017 by the President’s Advisory Committee for Building an Inclusive Community (PACBIC) and co-authored by MSU Diversity Services, the MSU’s Queer Students Community Centre, and the MSU’s Women’s and Gender Equity Network.
REQUESTS FOR CLARIFICATION
Although I certainly believe the letter was well-intentioned, it includes a significant amount of poorly-defined language, as well as a few statements that seem to be partially incorrect.
As someone who has worked in public relations, I understand that complexity must sometimes be sacrificed for brevity and impact. Therefore, I will be listing some excerpts from PACBIC’s statement below, alongside dissenting opinions and/or requests for clarification.
Most recently, Dr. Peterson has gained notoriety for his refusal to use the preferred pronouns of trans- and gender- non-conforming colleagues and students at U of T, defending his callous disregard for their personhood through a misguided deference to his freedom of speech and his distaste for “political correctness.”
Incorrect or Imprecise: To be specific, Dr. Peterson seems to be refusing to comply with legislation that would compel him to use terms such as ‘zir’ to refer to people who identify as gender non-conforming.
Dr. Peterson has also engaged in public discourse with trans people like Theryn Meyer (link), and has done so while respecting not only Theryn’s gender, but her perspectives and ideas as well. In fact, they seem to be in agreement on several issues.
- Request for clarification: Given the above, do the authors wish to clarify this part of their statement? If not, what aspects of what I have provided are, in the opinion of the authors, incorrect?
… freedom of speech doesn’t now, and hasn’t ever, meant that we can or should be able to say whatever we like in public spaces regardless of the impact of our speech on others. Freedom of speech was also not conceived as a means to protect normative ideas from contestation by marginalized communities, but to protect those whose speech might actually contest normative or nationalist ideals from censure, punishment, or retaliation by state forces.
- Generally correct: I accept as valid that the concept of “freedom of speech” is usually invoked to protect people from being punished for expressing controversial ideas. I also accept as valid that like most other rights, freedom of speech comes with an associated responsibility: to be mindful of others during public discourse. However, whether or not such a responsibility is a legal obligation is up for debate, and often depends on the circumstances.
There is nothing rebellious or revolutionary about insisting on the naturalness of the (now long debunked) gender binary…
Request for Clarification: Debunked by whom? How long ago? In the opinion of the authors, is there a consensus in the biological sciences on the presence of a gender “spectrum” as opposed to a gender “binary”?
Request for Clarification: Make no mistake; I have read literature on the topic and do not require education regarding the concept of a gender spectrum. However, in the interests of understanding how PACBIC informs their thinking and policies (and therefore the policies of the University of which I am a stakeholder), I believe there would be value in the authors stating their sources publicly. This would also serve as a public service for those who would like to learn more about the topic, as well as your perspectives on it.
…or of what Dr. Peterson describes as the “biological fact” of sexual difference neatly categorizable as ‘male’ and ‘female’…
Partially Incorrect: Placing “biological fact” in quotation marks seems to imply that there are no biological differences between “male” and “female” individuals.
This would seem to be a difficult position to take, especially considering as there is a significant body of research that has been produced by scholars around the world (including McMaster University) that would suggest that there are significant differences between “male” and “female” individuals.
Request for Clarification: Am I understanding this statement correctly, or was the intent to suggest that it is difficult to neatly categorize people into “male” and “female”?
Request for Clarification: Are the authors of this statement claiming that scholars in the humanities and social sciences are also entitled to claim expertise in the biological sciences, presumably without any formal training in the field?
…which demonstrates the limited extent of Dr. Peterson’s knowledge on this subject, since he seems either entirely unaware of this body of literature or else unwilling to engage with the challenge it poses for his own arguments…
Request for Clarification: Are the authors aware of, and willing to speak to, the body of literature that supports Dr. Peterson’s positions?
Request for Clarification: Is it the intent of the authors to attack, in broad strokes, Dr. Peterson’s intelligence or body of knowledge?
There is nothing subversive or radical about suggesting that one ought to be entitled to read the complexities of gendered identification on the basis of a quick and unwanted scrutiny of others’ bodies and appearance.
Request for Clarification: With maximum respect to the authors of this statement: are the authors implying that people should generally be discouraged from looking at each other in order to make quick judgements?
Again, this seems to be a difficult position to take, as quickly scrutinizing new elements of our surroundings (and making judgements on that basis) is how I understand we are “wired” to interact with the world. Please clarify whether or not I am misunderstanding this aspect of PACBIC’s statement.
There is also little to be gained by debating Dr. Peterson because he presents no argument founded on evidence that would actually be worthy of debate…
Request for Clarification: Are the authors of this statement, which was released on official McMaster University letterhead, aware of the implications of suggesting that an academic of Dr. Peterson’s standing and reputation has no ideas worthy of debate?
As an expression of good faith, would the authors be willing to expand on this position by supplying an expanded understanding of Dr. Peterson’s (supposedly flawed) position alongside rebuttals? I would suggest a “steelman” argument, whereby the authors would construct the best possible argument to argue against.
It would seem that Dr. Peterson is quite willing to debate with the authors on this topic as well.
“We stand in solidarity with trans and gender-non-conforming members of our communities who have been called upon repeatedly in the last several months to publicly respond to and challenge Dr. Peterson’s views, and to articulate again and again why they should be able to participate fully and meaningfully in public institutions in ways that reflect their humanity.”
Generally Correct: As stated by Mary Rogan during their TVO panel discussion with Dr. Peterson, it is curious and unfortunate that this debate on “free speech” has been conflated with the struggles that trans individuals have undoubtedly faced.
Somewhat Imprecise: Dr. Peterson, to the best of my knowledge, has never stated that trans people should not be able to participate fully and meaningfully in public institutions. The nuances of his arguments against Bill C-16 have not been addressed by any of his critics, despite his clear willingness to engage in debate and discussion.
In the present climate, proponents of free speech may try to paint such opposition as just another indicator that Dr. Peterson’s freedom of speech is in fact under threat. Instead, we suggest that wherever free speech is valued, protest too must be valued as a legitimate exercise of that freedom.
Conditionally Correct: After reviewing the video footage of the event, and after talking with a number of people who were present, I believe that the protests carried out by those who disagree with Dr. Peterson’s views were generally a legitimate expression of their free speech.
Despite the fact that many people viewed the protests as obnoxious and intrusive, the fact is that protests are supposed to be obnoxious and intrusive. That’s kind of the whole point of protests.
HOWEVER, there were at least a couple reports of violence, including a video where a protester was remarking casually that he had stolen someone’s hat “as a souvenir”. Do the authors condemn this sort of grade-school behavior?
Request for Clarification: Do the authors of this statement, some of whom are in a position to inform University policies, believe that no-platforming tactics are a responsible and effective way to exercise free speech within the context of a university campus?
Was PACBIC acting in accordance with its mandate in co-authoring this statement?
I would like to respectfully inquire whether or not releasing statements of this sort falls within PACBIC’s mandate.
In most circumstances, I wouldn’t pose this question, as telling other people how to do their job is generally quite rude. However, since this statement was released on official McMaster University letterhead, and contains poorly-defined language, incorrect statements, as well as rhetoric that is seemingly at odds with purpose of McMaster University… I am making an exception. Please forgive my insolence.
PACBIC’s mandate is as follows:
- Identify and anticipate issues affecting equity-seeking communities (including but not limited to First Nations, Métis and Inuit persons, members of racialized communities, newcomers and refugees, members of diverse faith communities, persons with disabilities, LGBTQ-identified individuals, and women) both within the University and relevant to those seeking access to the University, and advise the President on such issues;
- Provide a forum for discussion, reflection and learning on issues of inclusion, equity and community-building and, in keeping with the spirit of the University, create spaces for respectful debate on important social issues;
- Provide advice to the President on the planning and development of policies and programs related to “building an inclusive community with a shared purpose” (the third strategic goal of Refining Directions), both within the University and the broader McMaster community;
- Meet with the President at least once a year to discuss PACBIC’s work and progress;
- Provide reports and make recommendations for action to the President, the University Planning Committee (UPC) and other relevant University bodies in order to channel advice through the University structure and thus sustain a University culture that advances equity and inclusion;
- Monitor and evaluate the implementation of recommendations;
- Communicate implementation plans and progress reports to the university community.
I do not see where public advocacy and position pieces, such as the March 16 statement, are included as part of this mandate. The only public communication PACBIC seems to be entitled to make is in the form of implementation plans and progress reports; this statement was neither.
Furthermore, I believe that the language included in this statement, which actively discouraged debate (and could be construed so as to condone the no-platforming tactics used) actually runs counter to part of PACBIC’s mandate:
Provide a forum for discussion, reflection and learning on issues of inclusion, equity and community-building and, in keeping with the spirit of the University, create spaces for respectful debate on important social issues;
As I mentioned above, I do not think this was a statement endorsed by PACBIC as a whole. Rather, this seems to have been a student-driven initiative that was approved outside of the proper channels.
Ultimately, it is unfortunate that this statement has negatively affected public perception of both PACBIC and McMaster University as a whole, and I hope that the misunderstandings are addressed so we can move forward discussing, reflecting, and learning together.