About 30 people gathered outside the National Gallery of Canada Thursday evening to protest a talk by a University of Toronto psychology professor who has sparked controversy because he has refused to use gender-neutral pronouns when addressing transgender individuals.
The small crowd however did not deter about more than 300 people from attending the question and answer session between Jordan Peterson and the gallery’s director Marc Mayer. The session discussed the psychology of creativity, an area in which Peterson is considered an expert.
In fact staff turned people away when the gallery’s first floor auditorium room reached capacity. Aside from a few quips by the professor about the controversy and the protesters outside, the conversation stayed on topic.
“The topic was always about the psychology of creativity, so that’s really where the focus was, and that’s where we wanted to ensure the conversation stayed,” said Christiane Vaillancourt, senior manager of communications for the gallery. “He has a unique approach, and a very interesting approach, so that’s really what we wanted to bring to Ottawa.”
Meanwhile, the protesters, packing signs and a loud-speaker, gave voice to their concerns.
Protester Key Prempeh described Peterson’s stance as “transphobic” and “oppressive as hell, and it has no place here, or anywhere really.”
Prempeh is a social work student at Carleton University and programming co-ordinator of Carleton’s Gender and Sexuality Resource Centre.
In the run up to Peterson’s lecture, many people took to social media to express their displeasure and demand the gallery cancel the event. The protest, however, ended Thursday night before Peterson’s lecture was finished.
“We listened to our audiences, but we had a lot of people that were very supportive, and that were very interested in hearing what Dr. Peterson had to say,” Vaillancourt said. “We weighed, and we listened to all of our audiences, and based our decision on what we heard.”
Peterson is a tenured psychology professor at the University of Toronto, with research interests in creativity, motivation, and mythology. According to his website, he has taught at Harvard University, consulted for the United Nations, and written more than 100 scientific papers.
But his name became more publicly known in September when he opposed Bill C-16, which is intended to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code to prohibit “gender identity or expression” as grounds for discrimination. Peterson said he believes the bill could threaten free speech. When he also said he would not use gender-neutral pronouns such as “they” to address transgender people who do not want to be called “he” or “she,” he sparked an uproar.
“Free speech means you can’t be persecuted by our government for talking about your issues,” Prempeh said. “It doesn’t mean other people aren’t allowed to challenge your hateful rhetoric.”
For all those who oppose him, however, Peterson also has supporters.
“I think Prof. Jordan Peterson is really the closest thing we have to a prophet today,” said Rohan Pall, who said he was a longtime supporter. It was his first time seeing the professor in person. “I think he’s somebody that inspires massive amounts of people, because he’s not just talking about issues that are affecting society today, but also he’s bringing spirituality into it.”
Peterson — whose discussion with Mayer lasted almost exactly an hour and received a standing ovation — discussed in depth what makes a person a creative, and why society needs to both challenge and encourage creatives.
“That’s a lot better than the demonstration I was expecting,” he said of the applause in the auditorium.
In his remarks he talked about, for example, the difference between “liberals” and “conservatives.” The former are typically more open and creative people, but also disorderly, he said. Conservatives are conscientious about time and order. Neither, he said, were political identifiers, although he added that personality often informs politics.
“Liberals start companies, and conservatives run them,” he said.
He said the challenge is to take bright creative individuals help them advance society and art. He also discussed the discrepancy between grades and creativity, and said there is no correlation between the two in Canada’s education system.
School, he said, more often than not, trains students to be orderly and obedient conservatives, and it stifles creativity.
“The winner takes all, and that’s particularly true of people in the creative domain,” he said. “And for most people, it’ll stack up to zero.”
Peterson is also scheduled to speak at an event hosted by a group called Act! for Canada on March 11 at 2 p.m. at the Ottawa Public Library.
The library was urged to stop the event but also refused because of its stated mandate to support intellectual freedom as a key part of a democratic and informed society.
Spencer Van Dyk is a Master’s of Journalism student at Carleton University.