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Inside the fight between free speech and hate speech on Canadian campuses

At universities across the country, contempt among right wingers is brewing—and lefties are swinging back

Jacob Lorinc

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Between the hours of 1 and 2 p.m. on Thursdays, Jordan Peterson briefly assumes the guise of an ordinary, tenured professor at the University of Toronto. His psychology classes, in a dimly lit auditorium on the second floor of midtown Toronto’s Sidney Smith Hall, are of the usual academic breed: a PowerPoint slideshow, a series of readings, and a half-empty lecture hall. In a class of roughly 150, only about a third show up, and of those that do, most spend the majority of the time scrolling endlessly through Facebook.

Nonetheless, Peterson fights hard for their attention. During his lectures, he paces around the room, his voice fluctuating in tone and dynamic as he waxes theoretical on a string of elaborate hypotheses. He likes to sporadically lock eyes with individual students in the first few rows, approaching them swiftly and raising his voice to get his point across. In one moment he’s dissecting the philosophy of Carl Jung, and in the next he’s reciting the contents of a dream he had the previous night (an incoherent recollection about posing as a Vitruvian man when suddenly the room fills with snakes). “Your mind is a very strange space,” he once told his audience, mid-ramble. “The minute you give it an aim, a genuine aim, it’ll reconfigure the world within keeping that aim—that’s how you see to begin with.” Most of his students let the statement pass, immersed in their social media pursuits.

It isn’t until class wraps up that Peterson becomes the centre of attention. The 54-year-old packs up his belongings and navigates past the foot traffic toward a clear space in the outside corridor. Instantly, eight students line up to speak with him. A short, bearded man, no more than 21 years old—perhaps one of Peterson’s students, perhaps not—shakes his hand vigorously. “I just want you to know how much it means to me, what you’re doing,” the man says. Peterson nods, and wishes him well. A similar exchange transpires with the next three students in line, keeping Peterson in the hallway for the next 10 minutes. These are the Peterson followers, the devoted fans that have emerged on campus to support his ideas.

Earlier in the school year, he turned heads after publicly declaring he would never use gender-neutral pronouns. He rejected the notion of a non-binary gender spectrum, and openly criticized Bill C-16, a federal bill tabled in May 2016 that would amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code to include discrimination on the basis of gender identity. He equated the requests of transgender and non-binary people to use pronouns other than “he” or “she” with the suppression of free speech, asserting that his refusal to use such pronouns could land him in hot water with human rights commissions. While many condemned Peterson’s controversial claims, he was simultaneously rewarded with a swath of devoted fans both in Canada and abroad—some of whom even show up in his weekly classes.

Mari Jang, a neuroscience and bioinformatics major at U of T, is one of them. She had only heard Peterson’s name in passing before he made headlines, but now she attends his Thursday lectures regularly. Jang finds Peterson to be a very compelling speaker. “You feel like you’re talking to a human being, and not some foreign entity standing up at the front of the classroom spitting out lecture material at you.”

Many of his fans would agree. Online, praise for Peterson’s speaking abilities seems endless. His YouTube videos receive tens of thousands of hits; more than 200,000 people were subscribed to his channel at the time of publication. Images of Peterson looking thoughtfully into the distance, accompanied by a quote of his in cursive text as though he’s Mahatma Gandhi, circulate regularly within right-wing online forums. An entire subsection of Reddit, a massive online forum, is dedicated solely to Peterson jokes.

Historically, university campuses have served as a space where authority is challenged and met with protest, often from a liberal vantage point. But Peterson has become something of a folk-hero for students opposing what they see as a status quo of liberal discourse on Canadian campuses. As “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and perceived identity politics play an increasing role in student politics—what an article on American university discourse in The Atlantic once referred to as the “coddling of the American mind”—room for discussion on sensitive subject matter is seen to have come under threat. Many students have sparked a movement that’s centred itself on the value of free speech—a fundamental right that Peterson and his fans alike say has been suppressed. In turn, campuses have become battlegrounds, pitting left-leaning students against their far-right counterparts and resulting in ugly spats that teeter on the edge of hatefulness.

***

In the mid-afternoon of October 11, 2016, a large group of students gather on the steps of Sidney Smith Hall, packing in front of the building against one another’s knapsacks. It’s just one week after the release of Peterson’s initial YouTube series, and a rally has broken out to defend Peterson’s controversial claims.

The gathering attracts both sides of the disagreement—the leftie students furious with the havoc Peterson supporters had unleashed, and the supporters themselves. Lauren Southern, a former commentator for right-wing news organization The Rebel Media, known for a stunt in which she received a doctor’s note stating she was male by pretending to identify as transgender, showed up. So did the Black Liberation Collective (BLC), fundamental dissenters of Peterson’s claims. Eventually even Peterson himself ventures outside Sid Smith, greeted by a mixture of jeers and applause. When he tries to speak to the crowd, he is drowned out by a white-noise machine that a counter-protester has hooked up to a speaker.

It’s not long before ad-hominen attacks and bursts of violence break out across the rally. A man wearing a Hells Angels jacket is isolated by police. Another man shouts, “We need more Michael Browns,” referring to a Black man shot and killed by police in Missouri in 2014, at the group of counter-protesters—suggesting more members of the Black community should be slain. A member of the trans and non-binary community smacks Southern’s microphone from her hands. By the end, a man claims to have been briefly strangled by another protester before campus police came to break it up.

In the aftermath of the heated protest, Jang decided to make a Facebook group to promote free speech on campus. She worried that many who opposed Peterson’s beliefs wanted to censor him entirely. For years, Jang worked as an interpreter for North Korean refugees, where she heard harrowing stories of the consequences the country’s laypeople would face should they say the wrong thing. Obviously, she said, Canada is nowhere near the dystopian reality of North Korea, but “one of my biggest fears is living in a world where freedom of speech is questioned.” Her experiences informed her need to defend free speech, and seeing Peterson’s willingness to defend his own motivated her to do the same.

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A screenshot from the SFSS Facebook group.

Jang opened Students in Support of Free Speech (SSFS) to anyone who believed in Peterson’s right to speak his mind, whether they agreed with him or not. Almost instantly, the group gained hundreds of members. They consisted primarily of U of T students who gathered online to laud Peterson’s bravery, vigorously reminding each other of free speech’s intrinsic value in a democratic society. They praised Peterson for his brilliance and showed disdain for his dissenters—“radical leftists,” “social justice warriors,” and “the regressive left,” as they called them. (Peterson did not respond to requests for comment from This.)

The Peterson story embodied the clichéd narrative of the valiant professor fighting solo against an amorphous horde of radical, irrational college students with nose rings—and it quickly drew in students at other universities. At the University of British Columbia, the UBC Free Speech Club emerged, declaring their commitment “to cultivating an open dialogue on campus, where arguments are made with wit and reason rather than rhetoric and personal attack.” One day after Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president, about a dozen members of the club held a “coming-out party,” setting up a table outside the student commons and donning red “Make America Great Again” hats. Three hours south of UBC, the University of Victoria’s Students for Free Speech and Accountability came to fruition; within 24 hours of its inception, founders had to deny allegations that they were affiliated with neo-Nazi organizations. The groups remain niche—neither tops more than 600 students at universities with undergraduate populations well over 10,000, and their gatherings primarily remain online.

The bulk of their discourse appears to situate them in opposition to “social justice warriors”—a derogatory term to describe those who lean left and are outspoken about issues of race, gender, and sexuality. They oppose what they see as identity politics, and—as testament to their widespread adoration for Peterson—they champion the need for public debate rather than polarized silence. For dissenters, that debate is often reviled as hateful.

And hateful it became. In the months following SSFS’ inception, dialogue among its members turned from the usual Peterson praising to a mixture of sexism, anti-Semitism, transphobia, and particularly rampant xenophobia. The group attracted not only U of T students but also Facebook users in rural America sporting Make America Great Again hats, in support of President Donald Trump, in their profile pictures and images of Pepe the Frog, a cartoon that has been appropriated as a mascot for racist and sexist ideologies, as their cover photos. “Women are offended to know their place, which is to take care of children develop raise and hold families together,” wrote one member. “I present you with something whose threat to science is even more cancerous than creationism: postmodern feminism,” wrote another.

Nonetheless, the administrators held fast to their convictions—the members would not be banned, nor would their posts be removed. “There are many nasty things from both sides in the group, but that’s just a reflection of where our society has progressed,” SSFS vice-president Geoffrey Liew tells me over the phone. “This is a space where we can actually confront those different views instead of segregating them off into different spheres where people don’t come into contact with them.”

The group’s public relations officer, Chad Hallman, tells me he much prefers arguing with someone’s outlandish opinion rather than silencing it. “There are some pretty despicable views toward certain groups,” he says. “But when there is backlash [to those views], and people see how overwhelming [the backlash] is toward that individual spreading hate, that’s more reassuring than just deleting a post.”

The standards Hallman and his group uphold are not completely far-fetched in a larger educational context. The university has long been a site for the free exchange of ideas, and debate is encouraged among students, viewed as an opportunity to learn and grow intellectually. But as human rights commentator Steven Zhou notes, the university is also positioned as a microcosm of society at large—and when certain beliefs infiltrate campus, it’s a signal of changes to come outside of school boundaries. “The campus propaganda is a sign that this wave has reached an outer fringe of the right wing that’s looking to regain a certain kind of footing among the youth,” Zhou writes for CBC, referencing the widespread appearance of white nationalist posters on campuses across the country.

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A screenshot from the SFSS Facebook group.

In early December, just two months after its inception, administrators abandoned the Facebook group, sensing that a U of T-only group would be more effective in defining the boundaries of discourse. The group quickly went the route of Holocaust denial. “Yall [sic] realize the six million number is bullshit? ” one member asked. “More Jewish propaganda trying to draw Goy sympathy.” Meanwhile, at the University of Calgary, the right-wing Wildrose Club on campus came under fire after circulating an email to its members reminding them that “feminism is cancer.” In the UBC Free Speech club Facebook group, one member asked that everyone please “keep the ad-hominen attacks to a minimum.”

***

In mid-November 2016, when it seems as though the Peterson controversy has hit its inevitable tipping point, the University of Toronto hosts a public debate on Bill C-16 between Peterson, U of T law professor and director of the Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Brenda Cossman, and Mary Bryson, a professor of education at UBC. It is intended to bring the controversy’s opposing dialogues into contention. But by its end, everyone’s pre-established notions are only reaffirmed. Peterson calls human rights tribunals “kangaroo courts” that should be abolished as fast as possible. Cossman rebuts that all human rights are about is respect and dignity; if you can throw a bit of kindness on top, even better. Bryson says Peterson’s videos provide a fabulous case study in the cultural production of ignorance in an age of reactionary populism. Peterson adds that the “political-correctness police” have brainwashed everyone. There is little consensus.

But following the debate, Bryson, who identifies as non-binary and uses the pronoun they, received extensive online threats targeting their gender identity. “The best part about you being a dyke bitch, this shit dies with you, you fucking nasty subhuman piece of trash,” said one message, delivered through Facebook. In the comment section of an article by Christie Blatchford in the National Post, one person wrote: “Things like Bryson remind me of the repulsive, repugnant creatures Clint Eastwood had to deal with and eradicate in his Dirty Harry series.” (Bryson declined to speak to This for matters of safety.)

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A Facebook message to Bryson following the debate.

Such instances of bigotry on campus are not confined to the Peterson controversy, but have rather expanded to form an uptick in discriminatory sentiment among many university students. “White Students Union” posters were discovered on York, Ryerson, and U of T campuses last fall, depicting two white men posing stoically in front of the CN Tower. The group responsible for the posters lists “organiz[ing] for and advanc[ing] the interests of Western peoples” as a mission statement online. Other posters reading “Fuck Your Turban” were found on the University of Alberta campus. Anti-Muslim and anti-gay graphics accompanied posters on McGill campus with “Make Canada Great Again” emblazoned as the headline.

When outgoing vice-president, university affairs of the U of T Students’ Union Cassandra Williams expressed anger over the swath of threats made toward Bryson, she was met with a distressing response. “If a trans person puts themselves out publicly, then they can’t expect to not experience violent harassment,” someone told her.

“I think that’s kind of what the culture is right now,” Williams says. “There’s an expectation that it is fair, or justified, or it’s ‘just the way things are,’ that a trans person, should they choose to speak out in defence of themselves in their community, should they choose to just be visible or have a high profile, is bringing that sort of harassment or violence upon themselves.”

If human rights commentator Zhou’s theory that the campus signals change for society at large is true, the treatment of Peterson dissenters like Williams is a troubling sign: It suggests a level of comfort to express such hateful ideology. “That some of the more extreme and explicit forms of this rhetoric are being found on campuses is alarming,” Zhou writes. “It’s a sign that whoever’s responsible is looking to young people for a response and to campuses as a possible setting for mobilization.”

Countering the values of Peterson and the SSFS administrators, Williams participated in #NotUpForDebate, a protest of the forum between Peterson, Bryson, and Cossman, on November 19. “Debating whether or not different classes of people are deserving of equal rights… has always been happening with marginalized groups,” Williams, who identifies as trans, explains. “By saying that these things are not up for debate, we’re saying, ‘Look, we’re here, and we’ve always been here,’ and just [by] virtue of being humans and by virtue of us being members of society, we have, automatically, the expectation of equal rights and the expectation of freedom from discrimination.”

SSFS public relations officer Hallman fervently disagrees with #NotUpForDebate: “If there was one thing that we could do to really de-escalate the general situation, it would be to bring it more toward the space of dialogue and discussion.”

***

In recent months, Peterson shifted the arena of his discourse from U of T to a number of other universities—receiving predictably mixed reception in turn. In mid-March, he stood outside a lecture hall at McMaster University, surrounded in equal part by admirers and protesters. It was a relatively warm day for the season, and the afternoon oxygen appeared to have effectively energized both sides of the campus debacle.

“Shut down Peterson,” chanted the protesters in unison, clanging on pots and pans as they worked to drown him out.

Peterson, red in the face and unwilling to back down from a fight, vociferously reprimanded them. “You, like it or not, only have the interests of your group,” he shouted back. “And the world is nothing but a battleground between groups of different interests!”

Video clips of Peterson’s rather unflattering altercation with the angry protestors would later circulate the Free Speech clubs’ Facebook groups.

“These leftists are some of the worst activists I’ve ever seen,” wrote one. “I really wish I was back in school to fight back against these degenerates,” wrote another.

The noise peaked. Peterson lost his train of thought. A woman in front of him appeared to ask a question, but his response was drowned out by the surrounding chaos.

Eventually, both sides went home.

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