First published in October 2018
Peterson should be met with critical, but intellectually honest, thought rather than adulation.
People can’t stop talking about psychology professor and intellectual dark web thinker Jordan Peterson. Charismatic personalities are emotionally compelling, for better or for worse.
But I have mixed feelings about him. I agree with Jordan Peterson’s basic psychological message: we must get our personal lives together before we try to change the world—otherwise we’ll do more harm than good. And related to this is that with equal rights comes equal responsibility.
Peterson’s straw men
But I think Peterson’s politics is too alarmist, and this detracts from his psychological message.
It’s easy to talk past each other, offering straw man arguments rather than accurately representing our opponent’s positions. We’re all guilty of this to some extent, and I am no exception. But some are more egregious than others, and I include both Peterson and many of his critics in this category.
Peterson rose to fame when he objected to Bill C-16 (now law), which added gender identity to Canada’s civil rights law. Peterson is clear that he doesn’t believe transgender women are actually women. He claims C-16 would force people to use alternative gender pronouns, which if true would violate their free speech rights. He says this could result in civil fines or even jail time for those who refuse to pay the unjust fines.
Further, he advanced the alarmist claim that alternative gender pronouns are “the vanguard of a post-modern, radical leftist ideology” that is “frighteningly similar to the Marxist doctrines that killed at least 100 million people in the 20th century.”
Nowhere does C-16 explicitly compel the use of alternative pronouns, however. His claim is based on a slippery slope argument. Though Wilfrid Laurier University tried to censure Lindsay Shepherd for showing a video clip of Peterson debating C-16—but failed due to public pressure—this is hardly comparable to a Soviet gulag. And notably, this case involved a university, not a governmental entity.
“Postmodern neo-Marxism” is Peterson’s favorite boogeyman. But this is a conflation of two different, and sometimes opposing, ideologies.
Postmodernism is notoriously difficult to define. The best definition of postmodernism I can offer is that meta-narratives—the big stories we tell ourselves about why the world is the way it is—are socially constructed to serve the interests of privileged groups. And postmodernists like to deconstruct the power interests of Western society’s meta-narratives. This can include skepticism toward science and reason even to the point of denying there’s any such thing as human nature.
Marxism, however, promotes a particular meta-narrative. And that’s a problem for postmodernists.
Still, there are similarities. Postmodernists think the meta-narratives of Western society serve the power interests of white male elites. And neo-Marxists see a complex array of power struggles—the rich oppressing the poor, men oppressing women, whites oppressing minorities, cisgender heterosexuals oppressing sexual and gender minorities, and so on.
But while there is some agreement between postmodernists and neo-Marxists, it’s a mistake to conflate them just as it would be a mistake to conflate Christians and Muslims because both believe in God.
Progressive straw men
Peterson’s progressive critics are no better, however. They claim he opposes equality when in fact he supports equality under the law but not equality of outcome.
They say he wants gender norms to return to the 1950s when in fact he’s saying that there are scientifically verifiable personality differences between men and women, which greater gender equality amplifies rather than diminishing. And this results, on average, in different career choices.
Peterson is also critical of fascism and the alt-right, though this doesn’t stop his critics from disingenuously trying to associate him with the alt-right.
That Peterson is all about oppressive hierarchies another favorite straw man. I’ve read both of Peterson’s books and watched many of his videos, and what he’s saying is quite different.
In the first chapter of 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos Peterson says hierarchy in some form is unavoidable because it’s built into our biology. He disagrees with the claim that hierarchy is a social construct, though manifestations of it can vary greatly from culture to culture. Peterson notes that even lobsters, with whom we share an evolutionary ancestor that lived hundreds of millions of years ago, have hierarchies. That’s how deeply biologically ingrained it is.
However, Peterson is clear that hierarchy is not inherently good or bad. It just is. But you don’t want to find yourself at the bottom if you can help it. And because societies that think they can eliminate hierarchy end up with horrifically murderous hierarchies—such as every communist country that has ever existed. As such, he opposes both far left and far right identity politics and instead advocates hierarchy based on merit.
Of course, intersectionality unwittingly creates its own hierarchy based on who is more oppressed than whom. This progressive belief that some people belong to multiple oppressed groups—which creates a unique experience of oppression that is greater than the sum of each oppression taken separately—also creates a negative hierarchy where the more privileged are considered more problematic. Call-out culture—trying to lower other people’s status by publicly castigating them for oppressive or culturally insensitive behavior no matter how small (“microaggressions”)—is a prime example of social justice activists jockeying for status.
With Peterson and his critics talking past each other, we are still waiting for a serious debate.