Fresh from his Cambridge visit two years after being no-platformed, the scholar says free-thinking institutions could be a beacon to others.
Cancel culture is personal for Jordan Peterson. His voice rises in emotion as he recalls the indignity of finding out on Twitter about his Cambridge lecture series, subsequently reinstated, being cancelled. "Sorry, it's a bit of a sore spot," he says, taking a drink of water.
But it's also a great deal more than that to him: "This isn't a battle between two viewpoints, it's nothing that trivial."
Peterson, invoking his professional experience in clinical psychology, believes that "if you can't say what you think, soon you won't be able to think, because mostly we think in words".
Herein lies the real danger of cancel culture, particularly at universities, whose primary function is arguably to nurture thoughts and help students learn to think for themselves: "The issue is there is no distinction between free speech and free thought. And there's no thought without free thought. Thought by its nature is either free or it doesn't exist.
"This isn't a battle for some right. This is a battle for the heart of universities. And Cambridge has been a beacon and so has Oxford. You might even say the beacon for the world in such matters."
The U-turn of university U-turns
Invited to speak at the University of Cambridge by the Divinity Faculty in 2019, Peterson had his invitation unceremoniously rescinded, ostensibly for being photographed with a man wearing an offensive T-shirt.
The clinical psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, who is also a best-selling author, has won both praise and criticism for being an unflinching advocate for free speech, inevitably clashing with the currently established dogma of identity politics.
The curious thing about Peterson is the extreme reaction he seems to invoke. Venerated by some as a prophet, to others he is "tantamount to Satan himself". Marvel comics parodied him as Captain America's nemesis, Red Skull, this year. "It's been a weird year because it's the same year that a book written about my ideas was given to the Pope. I'm somewhere on that spectrum, let's say."
A group of Cambridge dons, determined to take back from university authorities the right to invite speakers, decided to fight against cancellations such as Peterson's and won. An invitation was reissued, and Peterson has just completed his Cambridge visit, a successful one by all accounts.
What is it that's allowing Cambridge to resist the cancel culture when other Western universities are embracing it? The answer, according to Peterson, lies, at least partially, in the decentralised collegiate system of Oxford and Cambridge.
"The problem with a highly centralised structure is that it's amenable to capture. I have seen more academics in Canada fed up with this than anywhere else yet. Although it hasn't resulted in the same kind of action as at Cambridge, partly because the governance structure of universities [in Canada] are such that now captured administrations have the upper hand, which is a huge mistake on the part of the faculty to ever allow that possibility to emerge."
The University of California comes up as an example. Peterson claims that applications for permanent posts (tenure) awarded to professors for Stem posts (science, technology, engineering and maths) can be rejected on the basis of the candidates' diversity and inclusion statements, "without any evaluation being given whatsoever to their research programme".
He is sceptical of the claim – predominantly from the political Left – that these statements are well-intended. "Are they really so well-meant? Just exactly what set of ideas are they attached to?"
Take equity, for example, the pursuit of which we are told is crucial in fighting discrimination. Is it even possible to have diversity and equity at the same time, he asks. "Because equity means the equality of outcome, which is exactly the opposite of any conceivable diversity.
"So how are we supposed to manage this? You'd think people who are concerned with words, academics, say, would be a little more cautious about such things. Words matter as far as I'm concerned, I weigh my words."
Weigh his words he certainly does. It is clear that each word is being carefully chosen before it is delivered, which gives Peterson's audience a sense of being privy to his thoughts. But it also makes it hard to know when a point has been made and the conversation can move on.
No discipline appears to be immune from being "captured" by what Peterson often characterises as the new unholy trinity of diversity, equity and inclusion.
"It's happening in medicine, it's happening in chemistry," he warns, the latter a reference to a set of guidelines reported by the Canadian National Post as having been issued by the Royal Society of Chemistry staff, to help the editors of its journal "minimise the risk of publishing inappropriate or otherwise offensive content".
The guidelines reportedly went on to state that in order to determine offence, "it is the perception of the recipient that we should consider, regardless of the author's intention".
When contacted, the Royal Society of Chemistry directed The Telegraph to a different set of guidelines on their website, but no comment was offered on the existence of those to which Peterson refers.
It is, says Peterson, "barbaric" to judge people "merely as a consequence of the outcomes of their actions".
"That is what law used to be 5,000 years ago, before we got sophisticated enough to consider intent. We are just reversing now, casually."
Worried about the West
And so when asked if he is worried about the rise of authoritarian China and Russia, Peterson responds with: "I'm also worried about the West! If we got our act together, we could be a light to" those countries.
"China and Russia are capitalising on our corruption at the moment. It's bolstering the Russian regime in particular, and the Chinese regime to some degree."
Western corruption, in this context, is "our foolish demolition of our own traditions. There are many people in Russia, Hungary, Poland who are looking at what's happening in the more liberal West and saying 'no, we're not doing that here', and they might be erring too much in the opposite direction. These things are always subject to debate, which is the whole purpose of freedom of speech, by the way. But again, we look to ourselves first".
Looking to oneself, whether as a nation or as individuals, forms a significant part of Peterson's philosophy: "If we are better at being what we could be, then the alternative would look less attractive. That's a good doctrine for life, isn't it?"
This self-reflection and self-criticism also plays a crucial role towards building bridges and crossing divides. That, and judicious praise of one's opponent where it's due, as he likes to make a point of doing, whether lauding US President's Joe Biden's Bipartisan Infrastructure Law on Twitter and braving vitriol, or travelling to Washington DC to "bring together" politicians across the aisle, as he is scheduled to do in January.
"The proper idea," he says, drawing again on his background as a psychologist, "is to look at the benevolence and the capacity for atrocity that characterises you. Because if you don't see that within you, as the responsibility you have in relation to ethical struggle and in relation to conducting an ethical life, then you will absolutely see it in someone else, because it absolutely exists and has to find its place."
Can this self-awareness, or even guilt – which "the Left has been extremely good at weaponising" – be channelled to achieve something positive? It must, says Peterson: "Anyone with any sense who has any privilege has guilt about it. We know perfectly well that we are the undeserving beneficiaries in some sense of what our culture and our parents have arbitrarily bestowed upon us", where arbitrary means "not through our own efforts."
One must then "try to live a life that justifies those advantages. You take the burden of the catastrophe of history on to yourself and you take that seriously. And so then you try to act like a noble and outstanding person, moving forward. If you don't do that you'll suffer for it. Because we have a conscience and it will take us to task".
Keeping faith in humanity – only just
It is Peterson's faith in the human conscience that makes him optimistic, though perhaps only marginally so, given that he is only too aware of the capacity of mankind to destroy ourselves as well as the world around us.
"There were hundreds of millions of people killed in the 20th century, unnecessarily, for ideological reasons. And we can certainly manage that on a magnificent scale if we so choose. We're in a state now where our technological prowess has hit an inflection point. It's all we can do to keep up with it. We have no idea what's on the horizon.
"Not that we ever did in some sense, but the scope of technological transformation has broadened substantially. So we can do terrible things or great things. What are we going to do? Well, I'm optimistic because fundamentally I believe that men of good will can prevail."
Optimistic he may well be, but Peterson is also mindful of the dangers of fashionable ideologies which "seriously compromise everything that we've accomplished, that is allowing people to lead lives more abundant in a material sense" and threaten to bring the house down.
"Misplaced guilt and a hatred for human enterprise, and the belief that we're a cancer on the face of the planet and that the planet would be better with fewer people on it or perhaps none. That's not the rock you build your house on."