Last week, the University of Wisconsin Young Americans for Liberty and the Center for the Study of Liberal Democracy brought a controversial speaker, Jordan B. Peterson, to give a talk about political indoctrination on college campuses. Dr. Peterson is a psychologist at the University of Toronto who has done research on the connections between personality and political orientation, among other topics, and had a book investigating the causes of ideological violence titled Maps of Meaning published in 1999. He became more widely known last year for opposing a change to Canadian human rights law that added “gender identity and gender expression” as protected classes for being unnecessarily vague and inviting legal trouble for not using made up third-person pronouns.
Dr. Peterson’s talk wasn’t about pronouns or Canadian law, however. It was about the concepts of equity and inclusion are new words for ideas that have made historically made people resentful and destructive, criticism of the ideas of social theorist Michel Foucault regarding power and narratives, and encouraged strengthening the individual and understanding the deeper meaning of traditional stories as the best way to respond to suffering. I found it a refreshing antidote to the hostility towards liberalism.
However, you’d have a completely different idea of the speech from reading the letter from the ASM Legislative Affairs Committee sent to the Daily Cardinal. They began by announcing they decided not to protest, which should be commended, but also suggests a cavalier attitude towards dissenting ideas that is only dampened by the Regents’ new policy on disrupting campus speakers.
Attacking a student organization or their chosen speaker is not what the Legislative Affairs Committee is for. From the ASM bylaws, 3.07(4) (a):
The Legislative Affairs Committee is responsible for researching and advocating on the behalf of the ASM membership on issues of student and higher education importance in legislative bodies including, but not limited to, the Madison City Council, Dane County Board of Supervisors, Wisconsin Assembly, Wisconsin Senate, US House and US Senate.
A Canadian psychologist and a libertarian student organization are not legislative bodies, and this is entirely out of bounds for an ASM committee to abuse their role and name like this. The thing one would really hope is that the committee chair would read her own bylaws and stick to the committee’s essential mission.
Ironically, the letter itself is deeply ideological, poorly researched, and serves an example of the kind of corrosive thinking that Dr. Peterson is concerned about. The authors use a plural version of truth and assert a right to be referred to indirectly by an invented word as part of a “defense of student power.” Whether the authors know it or not, the influence of Foucault comes through strongly here. It’s hardly settled that this is the right thing to do to advocate for students.
Then of course, there is the ASM Equity and Inclusion Committee that held a “safe space” to counter the talk. I don’t find Dr. Peterson a particularly intimidating figure, and to my knowledge, nobody was armed, so I don’t know what students need to be kept safe from. Dangerous ideas, perhaps?
In light of this letter and my own past experience in student government at a community college, I have some recommendations for the members of the Legislative Affairs Committee. Stop hijacking the committee to advance your personal political views. You can empower other students by educating them how to advocate for their own beliefs and informing them of the details of upcoming legislation. It’s meaningful to learn strategies for lobbying and where and when to go.
Also, don’t attack student organizations or students in an official capacity. That only serves to undermine the influence these students have, and makes it clear that you’re taking sides against them. While the ASM Student Council isn’t bound by viewpoint neutrality like SSFC is, it nevertheless reflects poorly on the body and contributes to its negative reputation by members exhibiting clear bias.
And finally, be a little more diligent in your research. I would expect that a body tasked with researching legislative issues to do better than make a misleading claim that a speaker is coming who wants to ostracize minorities when his recent claim to fame is more about criticizing the possible unwanted ramifications of legislation. Just recently, a recording of a TA at an Ontario university unfairly being reprimanded for violating human rights for talking about the pronouns debate with her class was shared by Global, one of Canada’s broadcast TV networks. Insisting on nuance and caution is not the same thing as trying to harm a group.
Amanda Love ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in mathematics.