On Monday, the vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, Stephen Toope, issued a statement defending the decision of the divinity faculty to rescind its offer of a visiting fellowship to Jordan Peterson. The world-famous professor had been invited by the faculty to give a series of lectures on the Bible later this year, but was disinvited after some academics and students objected.
Not that the faculty had the courtesy to inform Peterson of this, mind you. He learned about it through the grapevine and then saw it on Twitter. He was left to work out what had prompted the volte-face by reading the various statements given to the media. For instance, a spokesman for the university told the Guardian that Cambridge ‘is an inclusive environment and we expect all our staff and visitors to uphold our principles’. What these ‘principles’ are is anyone’s guess, but presumably they do not include free speech.
We now know a bit more about what went on behind the scenes, thanks to Toope’s statement. It was all to do with a slogan on a T-shirt, apparently. Five hundred years ago, biblical scholars at Cambridge poured over Erasmus’s translation of the New Testament into Latin; today, it’s a T-shirt slogan. And the offending item of clothing wasn’t even worn by Peterson. No, his sin was to be photographed at a public-speaking engagement next to someone in a T-shirt that read ‘I’m a proud Islamophobe.’ According to the vice-chancellor, ‘The casual endorsement by association of this message was thought to be antithetical to the work of a Faculty that prides itself in the advancement of interfaith understanding.’
The words ‘casual endorsement by association’ are doing quite a lot of work here. At Peterson’s public lectures, a VIP ticket entitles you to be photographed with him and, typically, hundreds are sold. One of the rules is that you’re not supposed to stop and chat to Peterson while having your photo taken, because if everyone did the people at the back of the line would be waiting for hours. So he has only a few seconds with each person — they appear, he puts his arm round them, the photo is taken and then it’s on to the next one. Not enough time to scrutinize what’s written on their T-shirts, let alone cross-examine them about their political views. So the fact that Peterson was photographed next to this ‘proud Islamophobe’ does not constitute an ‘endorsement’ of such views, ‘casual’ or otherwise.
To put this in perspective, I once persuaded Jeremy Corbyn to pose next to me in the green room of The Andrew Marr Show. To date, no one on the left has suggested Corbyn isn’t fit for office because he was once photographed next to a Tory.
Several Cambridge dons have been in touch to express their dismay at this craven capitulation to the mob. One sent me a string of pictures of Toope ‘casually endorsing’ the political views of a variety of people who haven’t done much to advance the cause of multiculturalism, including the Chinese diplomat who compared the people of Japan to Voldemort. And this was an official portrait by an embassy photographer, so he doesn’t have Peterson’s excuse that it was the 100th person he posed with that day.
These dons were at pains to convey that only a minority of faculty staff and students have embraced left-wing identity politics and most would have welcomed Peterson. They pointed out that last November he played to packed houses at the Corn Exchange and Cambridge Union. ‘I know that many of the students were over the moon at the thought of an academic rock star of his calibre spending a couple of months with us,’ wrote an anonymous correspondent.
It’s all so depressing. Say what you like about Donald Trump, but at least he’s taken a stand against this kind of virtue-signaling censorship. Last week, he issued Executive Order 13865, which is intended to address the free speech crisis at American universities. Henceforth, if a university fails to protect free speech, the federal government can withhold millions of dollars in research funding. That’s speaking to them in a language they understand.
The new English universities regulator, on which I briefly served last year, is supposed to defend intellectual freedom on campus and has similar levers at its disposal, but so far it’s been pretty toothless. And to think, this assault on our cherished freedoms is occurring under a Tory government! Imagine how much worse it would be if Labour ever gets re-elected.
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.