Monday, November 21, 2016

An Open Letter to Professor Peterson from a Former Student

Dear Professor Peterson,

I am a former of student of yours – I took the “Personality and its Transformations” and “Maps of Meaning” courses that you taught at the University of Toronto during my undergraduate years, where I double majored in psychology and philosophy.

I am writing this letter to you directly, but also publishing it publicly in the hopes that it furthers the advancement of the current conversation/controversy that you are surrounded in at this time. I am doing this for three reasons: 
  1. I hope to provide you with some thoughts for self-reflection about the issues at hand, not because I am sure that you need assistance in your process of self-reflection or because I am sure that reading this letter will benefit you, but because I genuinely want to be helpful;
  2. I want to aid in my own process of reflection and to help contextualize my own thoughts and feelings on these matters (and I thank you for validating my proclivity for using the written word for such purposes during my time as your student); and
  3. I hope to provide some food for thought for others who are currently following the recent controversy (especially those who seem to follow you unquestioningly with the passion of zealots).
I distinctly remember a moment during one of your Maps of Meaning lectures years ago wherein a student raised his hand and asked a question: “Why are you teaching us all of this?” Your answer rings loud and clear to me in my memory: “I want you to be free of ideological possession.” Your thesis has stuck with me to this day because I find it cogently and concisely sums up a major reason why seemingly rational and normal human beings can seem to become the embodiments of evil, something we have seen (and continue to see) far too often throughout the course of history. It helped me to make a little more sense out of the unfathomability of my own ancestry: my grandparents were survivors of Nazi concentration camps. It has helped me to more clearly recognize and appreciate the strength with which underlying assumptions about the world – call them ideologies, schemas, or unconscious beliefs – shape the realities of individuals, families, communities, and societies as a whole. I say all of this because I want to be clear that I value and largely agree with your cautions about the dangers of being “ideologically possessed”; I hold you in high regard as one of the more insightful and thought-provoking professors I had during my undergraduate years at U of T.

I appreciate the extent to which you acknowledge the fallibility of human beings, particularly their blind-spots: their biases, their emotional reasoning, and their logical fallacies. It was a point you made again at the debate this past Saturday morning as you were pitted against (what seemed to be) two interlocutors who did not share your fears and concerns about the insidious motives lurking behind bill C-16 and the “social justice warrior” agenda to silence those whose views do not conform with theirs. To some who have been following this unfolding drama, you have been painted as a hate-monger, an ignorant bigot, and the prototypical “privileged white male professor sitting in his ivory tower.” To others, you are seen as a courageous martyr, a warrior for truth and freedom, and a brilliant psychologist/professor who is being fundamentally misunderstood by a naïve world. I would argue that those who view you at either end of such an extreme spectrum are, to borrow your phrase, ideologically possessed by polarized, overly simplified perspectives, the origins of which and the reasons for I will not begin to speculate here.

As for myself, in accordance with my own humanistic beliefs, I view you as a man who is striving to stand up for what he believes is right. I see a man who earnestly believes that there is danger lurking in the shadows and is trying his best to shine light on it in order to prevent its influence and reach from growing. And I see a man who feels that he has his back against the wall, who is afraid of what is happening in the world around him, and even more afraid of what may be coming down the road. 

As I think back at all of the knowledge I gleaned from you in your lectures and writing, all of the insights and perspectives you shared with myself and my fellow class-mates, I also recall certain off-hand comments you made to us at times. Some that I can still hear echoing in my memory include: “If you believe that, then you’re an idiot!” and “If you think that, then you’re just plain wrong.” I recall these comments now not simply for their (perhaps?) inadvertent crassness and their (unintentionally?) entertaining shock-value. I recall them because within the tone and the very nature of the content of these statements, I can’t help but find an inherent arrogance – a definitive, dismissive quality of cocksureness that is, I think, unbecoming of a man who claims to recognize the uncertainty, fallibility, and tenuous nature of the human mind’s grasp on reality. I recall these statements because I have seen/heard them again in some of your recent statements, lectures, and debates regarding the issues surrounding Bill C-16. I point them out to you now because I think they may be symptomatic of one of the reasons that you find yourself in the position that you’re currently in.

Rather than make psychoanalytic assumptions about you, I would like to pose you a series of questions – ones that I have been wondering in light of recent events:

Is it possible for any human being, including yourself, to be fully free of biases, mental blind-spots, and underlying assumptions that may be erroneous? Is it possible for any human being, including yourself, to be completely “free of ideological possession” of one sort or another? Is there such a thing as a “completely analyzed analyst,” one who can view certain phenomena which such a degree of objectivity that he/she/they/[insert preferred gender pronoun here] are free of the grips of the unconscious? Can anyone truly see so clearly that they have broken free of the inherently subjective nature of human consciousness itself? If I had to venture a guess, I imagine that your answer to these questions would be: “probably not.”

I implore you then, Dr. Peterson, to ask yourself how you can justify presenting yourself as being so sure as to the rightness of the stance you have taken recently regarding Bill C-16 and the issue of transgender rights? Is it not possible that the decades you have spent researching totalitarian regimes and their ideological underpinnings, your own education and theoretical orientations as a psychologist, your own personal upbringing, history, and life experiences have led you to see things in a certain way? Is it not possible that given your own beliefs, your own findings based on your extensive study of various texts and academic research, that you have nurtured in yourself a bias to assimilate your perceptions of events and personal experiences to fit a particular worldview? Is it not possible that in your attempts to make sense of what seems to be an often dangerous and unpredictable world composed largely of irrational and idiotic human beings, you have oversimplified your views on the nature of good and evil, right and wrong, freedom and oppression?

I ask you these questions not because I am sure that you’re wrong about what you believe to be the truth in these matters. I ask, rather, in the hopes that you will not take your sense of rightness as proof that you are, in fact, right – no matter how logical, rational, intuitive, or well-informed your arguments seem to be. I remember you cautioning myself and my fellow students against putting too much stock the in veracity of rationalization – the most valid of arguments does not guarantee its soundness. The human faculty of reason can justify just about any position, provided that certain premises remain beyond the reach of scrutiny and thorough questioning.

For what it’s worth, here are some of my brief reflections on recent events:

            I think that you’ve made some harmful overgeneralizations about the people who are advocating for the rights of transgendered people. In labelling the entire cause of transgender rights as a front for “PC authoritarians,” “Marxists,” and the “radical/fringe left,” you have also (perhaps inadvertently) called into question the validity of the cause itself. This sort of “guilt by association” reasoning, which you may or may not actually espouse, is communicated to those who look up to you: students who listen to your lectures, watch your videos, and hang on to your every word. I do not doubt the existence of the “radical leftist” people of whom you speak (I encountered my fair share of them during my undergraduate years), and I agree when you say that they are likely not representative of the trans-rights movement as a whole. However, by focusing so exclusively on them and what you imagine their motives and influence to be regarding bill C-16, you have framed the issue of transgender rights in a very particular way – one that I believe suits your own motives, beliefs, and worldviews much more than the actual spirit and letter of the law itself. 
You, yourself, have been accused of fostering intolerance and fomenting aggression towards transgendered people on campus, largely because certain ill-informed, neo-Nazi types seem to gravitate toward your messages and use them as fuel for their own intolerance. Would it be fair to say that because such people have been drawn to your rallies, people who wave the banner of “free speech” over their heads as justification for their own transphobia and hatred, that your motives must secretly be steeped in neo-Nazi ideologies? Of course not. But when you frame issues a certain way based on your own preconceptions about the world (which we all inherently do), you are likely to start mistaking shadows for actual monsters. 
            There is much more I could write, but I realize that this letter has already become quite lengthy and that both time and attention are precious, limited resources in our world. I would like to end with one final point: I don’t believe that there is such a thing as absolute freedom. The freedom of speech that we enjoy must be tempered by our own sense of responsibility for what we say. As a psychologist sworn to a code of ethics which includes a responsibility to society at large and as a professor at a prominent academic institution, this responsibility is amplified for you. If the way in which you frame your arguments and exercise your right to free speech does, in fact, lead to ostracism from your colleagues, anger from minority communities, and the increased boldness of racists, misogynists, and bigots, then you have a duty to very seriously examine the impact of your words and actions. 

I would be happy to discuss these matters further with you, if that is something you would like to do.

Best wishes,

Daniel Farb