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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 April 2019

Words and actions matter. Jordan Peterson found that out this week

Despite his cult following, he has become something of a pariah in both Britain and New Zealand post-Christchurch

Cambridge University said alt-right favourite Jordan Peterson held views that went against its values. Newspix via Getty Images
Cambridge University said alt-right favourite Jordan Peterson held views that went against its values. Newspix via Getty Images

As Christchurch grieved last week over the 50 Muslims gunned down during Friday prayers, one of New Zealand’s leading bookshop chains took the decision to ban the works of Jordan Peterson, a right-wing Canadian psychology professor with a growing global following.

Slick and polished, Peterson has made his name by presenting himself as the antithesis to political correctness. His writings and YouTube videos are filled with over-simplistic tropes that appeal to the right. Among his theories, for example, he has decried the existence of the patriarchy and described Islamophobia as “a word created by fascists and used by cowards to manipulate morons”.

As a nation came together in mourning, the bookseller Whitcoulls pulled Peterson’s bestseller 12 Rules for Life from its shelves, a decision made, according to one worker, because of "some extremely disturbing material being circulated prior, during and after the Christchurch attacks". That material is thought to be a photograph taken on the Canadian’s tour of New Zealand in February. While meeting fans, the author posed alongside one, wearing a tee shirt printed with the slogan “I am a proud Islamaphobe”. Peterson, his arm draped around the man, is pictured staring at the camera with a look of solemn sincerity.

Ever since I first saw that image, it has disturbed me. Public figures have a responsibility not to condone such hatred – although too often, they don't.

Ordinarily, I would not give much credence to the wider controversies surrounding Peterson. By and large, I take the stance that views should not be censored, regardless of whether I agree with them or not.

But it seems Peterson’s objectionable views have finally caught up with him. He was incensed after Cambridge University this week withdrew an invitation to him to undertake a visiting fellowship. A clearly rattled Peterson railed that the institution had “made a serious error of judgment”, blamed “social justice warrior, left-wing, radical political activists” for the decision and described its announcement as conducted “in a manner that could hardly have been more narcissistic, self-congratulatory and devious”. He has been backed by sympathisers such as Toby Young, who ranted in a blog post in the Spectator about the apparent intolerance of the “snowflake generation”. “There was I thinking the purpose of university is to introduce students to work[s] and views they might not be familiar with and don’t already hold,” he wrote. Instead, he contended, students were idealising an echo chamber that would have excluded Charles Darwin if he were alive today and the genome duo James Watson and Francis Crick.

Peterson’s ideas are populist and have a large following, certainly, but that does not make them worthy of the legitimacy of a university platform, particularly not one as rarefied and respected as Cambridge.

Words have consequences. The alleged Christchurch attacker Brenton Tarrant absorbed reams of European extremist ideology during his radicalisation.

At a British prayer meeting, the UK’s Home Secretary Sajid Javid spoke of the need for words of love, not hate, to become the default setting in the aftermath of the Christchurch attacks.

Islamophobia has not been given the recognition it desperately needs in western society. It is not that this is a new phenomenon. It is the fact that the scale of the problem has grown enormously and has reached a point of mass that cannot be ignored.

If that is not realised in the aftermath of Christchurch, the dangers will increase exponentially.

Key politicians like Mr Javid and his colleagues in the Conservative Party must acknowledge this wake-up call.

The party is accused of doing too little, too late to battle the problem within its own ranks. If it led the way, there would be a knock-on effect in other western countries dealing with their own problems with Islamophobia.

Peterson and his ilk are entitled to their views but must recognise those who use intellectual works as vehicles of hate bear responsibility for any damage. It is time to be clear-eyed about the threat.

Updated: March 25, 2019 01:56 PM

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