Dr. Jordan Peterson, Canadian clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, has been the subject of many controversial debates. Last Wednesday, on October 31, UvA’s Room for Discussion received him as the final interviewee for the last part of their Lustrum interview series at Roeterseilandcampus, despite students attempts to avoid the occurrence of an interview with him altogether. Nonetheless, the discussion hardly seemed to justify the uproar. Students following the talk seemed mostly surprised about Peterson’s civility and respectfulness, a feeling shared by the organisers.
About 80 UvA students and faculty members signed an open letter addressed to Room for Discussion, or RfD, demanding to counter the views of controversial professor of psychology and internet celebrity Dr. Jordan Peterson by an additional guest. The organization settled with an additional 20 minutes to ask questions. Bader Elboazzati, a psychology student at UvA, rejected the criticism of the visit and stated he preferred an open debate in a respectable manner.
Peterson reacted to this on his website in which he linked the letter to previous protests held against him at other universities. This hardly served to calm the controversy either. It certainly failed to prevent students from attending the talk. Two rooms and a few benches at CREA, in which the discussion was streamed live, were completely filled. Against all odds, the event went smoothly despite RfD’s decision to stick with the original setting of two interviewers and one guest.
Before the talk, members of the organization Bezorgde Amsterdammers handed out leaflets that read “12 objections to Jordan Peterson,” referring his book “12 Rules for Life.” The objections, which ranged from misinterpreting legislation to fallacies in his argumentation to his fights to maintain the status quo, were accompanied by a detailed document outlining sources and further information on each point. According to students involved in this initiative, this aimed to provide counterarguments to those of Dr. Peterson. Based on past events, they said, they feared that RfD’s interviewers would not be critical enough of him.
Room for Discussion announced earlier last week that only staff members and students from UvA would be allowed to attend the discussion. Additionally, the building was highly secured. Only 10 minutes after the interview started, tensions in the room seemed to indicate that a protest was about to break out. However, the only sign of conflict was a group of students from the back rows calling for people to sit down so they could have a better view of Dr. Peterson.
Bader Elboazzati, who was already familiar with Peterson before the event, admitted he did not learn anything new from the talk, but came to see him in person. Elboazzati was impressed with the precision of his argumentation. For him, Peterson’s points, based on science, made them very convincing.
Elmer and Sara, two members of RfD, agreed with him. They emphasised the relevance of listening even to opinions one does not support, and also pointed out that they respected the critics of the event. However, it was not possible for them to meet the demands for a second guest on such a short notice, as such a guest would not have been as prepared as the interviewers or Dr. Peterson himself. Nils, a former student who joined the talk and considered himself “neutrally agreeing” with Peterson, thought that the whole controversy was unfounded and a product of both supporters and adversaries of Peterson no longer thinking for themselves.
Despite sparking a lot of anger, the talk itself did not seem to upset the attendees as much as they thought it would. Nevertheless, Peterson referred to the open letter during the discussion. He admitted he was disappointed to learn that professors rejected talks given by other academics, such as himself. Aside from this, he overall defended individualism and the status quo. Among the topics Peterson mentioned, he said he believes problems need to be fixed on an individual level, with few answers as to what that response should look like.
During the 20 minutes given to the audience to ask questions, some students tried to destabilise Peterson in several occasions. Although the answers to the questions seemed familiar to audience members who already followed his work, Room for Discussion certainly achieved its goal of making its audience retrospect on the ideas discussed.