At one time in the not too distant past, I dreamed of working in communications for Monsanto. There is something so appealing about a stable, corporate job that would allow me to advocate for a technology I believed in, from the front lines; I could put my passion for food security and my belief that better science communication would help the conversation around agricultural innovation to good use.
I wanted to first study these conversations and communication activities. I entered graduate school and slowly stepped away from practicing #scicomm to instead spend my time learning about science communication situated within science controversy. This exploration opened me up to the role of history, power, and social movements (ah, the humanities!) in understanding what I thought was merely a science and science communication issue. It has become clear to me that “science” does not tell the whole story; the unfortunate, recent decision by Monsanto’s Director of Millennial Engagement to host a “fireside chat” with controversial University of Toronto Professor Jordan Peterson at the American Farm Bureau annual meeting is just more evidence towards this conclusion.
Peterson Primer: Much of Jordan Peterson’s work builds on his critique of political correctness. Most notably, his discourse features his go-to adjective of “postmodern neomarxist” to pejoratively dismantle those who give credence to concepts of privilege and marginalization. Peterson is known for his criticism of transgender people, “safe spaces” on college campuses, women and gender studies, and related social justice activism. As Peterson allegedly spelled out in his PowerPoint slide during his presentation to the AFBF, “The Danger of Allowing Ideologies to Grow Unopposed,” he dislikes the words diversity, inclusivity, equity, white privilege, gender, and identity politics.
For the sake of my own thesis, however, it doesn’t matter how you or I feel about Peterson’s beliefs– it only matters that we know what Peterson’s fundamental argument is. My point here is that by Monsanto giving a pedestal to Peterson’s controversial ideology, there is now a fascinating rift brewing in the pro-GMO activist community. This has been a long time coming, though I think Monsanto’s ignorance to this (ironic) problem may be (even more) damning.
Regardless of your feelings on Jordan Peterson’s politics, the people he finds intolerable are precisely those who the Director of Millennial Engagement should be working to engage. This includes, for example, science activists with a proclivity towards social justice and concerns over corporate power that Monsanto still needs to acknowledge, given its tumultuous past. That the individual whose job it is to engage these demographics chose to invite a speaker who has found his notoriety through enraging social justice activists is a level of tone-deafness I cannot comprehend.
Pro-GMO activism is already an inherently dissonant, uphill battle. There are many people who align with “pro-science” ideologies (think climate change, evolution, vaccine safety, etc.) yet distrust the corporate control and “power” element of biotechnology. Power—not in the sense that activists have it and are stopping deregulation in other countries, but in the sense that corporations hold a significant amount of it and, therefore, activists have been pushing up against them for a long time—is a stumbling block for communication and advocacy around this technology. These critically thinking pro-science individuals are referred to in science communication spheres as the swayable “middle ground,” and are often the target of public engagement efforts. This is why Monsanto’s antithetical engagement with someone like Peterson is so, so puzzling to me.
I have many scientist colleagues who will push back on this aspect of “power”; they have been harassed and have to fight with all of their energy to do the work they believe in. But when communications and activist efforts are funded not by the grass-roots, but by multinational corporations and billionaire philanthropists, the perception of that power is what matters, and is what we need to be mindful of.
By dismissing gender, race, class, and privilege, Jordan Peterson’s work fundamentally counters this understanding of power. It literally counters Monsanto’s own Diversity & Inclusion statement. It is unproductive, and makes genuine science communication and engagement efforts by other scientists all the more difficult; it makes engagement with more progressive millennial thinkers impossible; it dismisses the truly important role of the university in the knowledge economy. This is not a free-speech issue, as Peterson would want you to believe; this is also not a matter of diversifying views, as Monsanto probably wants us to believe. This is an issue of whether this platform could have been better used in some other, more inclusive way.
I mean no personal disrespect by this essay (please read the title with your tongue in your cheek). However, I do worry that obliviousness to one’s audience and optics is poor engagement, and subsequent silence on this criticism is a political statement. This has consequences for all advocates of biotechnology.
THAT is how dangerous ideologies spread.