In November, Dr. Jordan Peterson, Clinical Psychologist, will travel to Cambridge University to participate in seminars and lectures that engage with the book of Exodus. In 2019, Peterson’s previous invitation for the same purpose was rescinded in what many observers described as a limitation of freedom of speech.
Depending on which survey you choose, Cambridge University is currently ranked somewhere between the 3rd and 9th best universities in the world, and yet at this old center of learning we see the common shift in Western countries towards “canceling” speakers.
In 2020, continuing this trend, Cambridge’s Vice-Chancellor attempted to pass a policy that would allow the university to cancel any visitor to the university who could be deemed to affect student “welfare.” “Welfare” was left undefined, and many faculty at Cambridge were wary of this policy being used to limit freedom of speech and restrict students’ opportunities to grapple with ideas that they might disagree with.
Then, earlier this year, the Cambridge provost attempted a second policy that would create an anonymous “micro-aggression” reporting system which also alarmed faculty for its potential to restrict freedom of thought and intimidate faculty. A policy in which even a poorly timed raising of an eyebrow could be deemed aggressive seems vulnerable to misuse! Eventually, the dons of Cambridge overwhelmingly defeated these attempts to limit freedom of expression, thought and intellectual engagement with their students.
The Cambridge academic who led the opposition to these policies was Arif Ahmed, a reader in Philosophy at Cambridge (“reader” is a title awarded to scholars who have a significant international reputation in their field of study.) On hearing of Peterson’s re-invitation, Ahmed recently wrote the following: “The point is not whether or not we agree (and I suspect I disagree with much of what Peterson says, particularly about the importance of religion). The point is that there is a difference between agreeing with someone’s views and defending his right to express them. This distinction has been understood since the Enlightenment by everyone who is not a fascist.”
Ahmed’s words are strong words, but necessary words. ‘Fascist’ is a word that is used frequently today, often with little knowledge of what it actually means, but Ahmed uses it correctly. He could also use the term “totalitarian;” it doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily, but both of these words represent something truly dangerous — the use of power to control not just our political lives (as an authoritarian system would do) but also our inner lives — our thoughts, beliefs and speech. Liberalism, in contrast, is built on the free exchange and competition of ideas. If we limit this exchange we are no longer liberal.
Freedom of thought, belief and expression are the building blocks of our society. There is much that “the West” has not gotten right, but the freedoms that true liberalism advances are to be prized and protected. A simple fact is easily stated in international politics: where freedom of belief, expression and thought are not protected, humanity does not flourish. We threaten these rights at our great peril.
If you do not believe me, a simple question might suffice: “In which country would you choose to raise your children?” What is your answer? China? Cuba? Russia? Mali? Zimbabwe? Saudi Arabia? Or do you prefer Sweden? Norway? France? Australia? Singapore? South Korea? It is the countries that prize human freedoms that flourish the most.
Democracies are built on laws and on systems of government, but they are first built on ideas. They are built on the value of human individuals, on the right to private property (which foundation is your person itself), and the right to think, speak and believe. To ‘cancel’ a speaker — to refuse to listen and consider opposing ideas, to engage in a culture of offense rather than thoughtful truth-seeking — erodes the very foundations on which our society is built. We dismantle these at our peril, because if we do not have these freedoms we do not have liberal-democracy, and we will be moving in a direction that threatens the way of life we all take for granted, but which many over the centuries have considered precious enough to die for.