The Pseudo-Scientific (and Dangerous) World of Jordan Peterson
Without having seen one of his YouTube videos or hearing him speak, I have to rely on second-hand accounts about intellectual and psychologist Jordan Peterson and his ideologies. From what I have read and witnessed about him, Peterson is a charismatic orator, a gifted debater, and intellectually brilliant. He’s also apparently arrogant, confrontational, and dismissive of opinions that are not his own. To even acknowledge his burgeoning popularity is to give credence to his platform and potentially invite a backlash from his adoring followers (though, given my limited readership, this probably all but negates the risk).
So, what is the appeal of writing a blog entry about Jordan Peterson, other than that I needed someone or something about which to write and I didn’t feel like writing about the Trump administration for the umpteenth time?
I suppose my interest was piqued in Peterson only in the last few weeks or so when I began to encounter an onslaught of negative press about the man, his latest book, 12 Rules for Life, and his musings about “enforced monogamy,” the latter of which supposedly is a not a dystopian, government-controlled “insistence” on the virtues of monogamy, but rather a socially and culturally promoted set of ideals which likewise supposedly is reflected in anthropological, biological, and psychological research and theory.
“Enforced monogamy” also informs Peterson’s belief as to a solution to the likes of the attack allegedly perpetrated by Alek Minassian in Toronto last month, evidently a participant in so-called “incel” culture comprised of “involuntary celibate” men who show resentment toward a society that denies them the ability to have sex, actively or otherwise. As Peterson sees it, enforced monogamy is the cure for that anger, and specifically, in Minassian’s case, he was angry at God. This despite any stated political or religious affiliations as indicated by authorities at the place and time of the incident. But, hey—maybe this is just another indication of Peterson’s brilliance that he was able to divine this information!
Some of you may read these musings of Jordan Peterson’s on monogamy and the Toronto van attack and think, “Well, this guy is full of shit—I’ve heard all that I need to hear.” Such is well within your right to believe. You may commence with skimming this article and head toward the conclusion. Still, for those of you like me who choose to dig deeper, beyond the headlines that may exist if only to bait you into clicking and to engender outrage (or are just plain masochistic), it’s worth it to study Peterson’s worldview with the help of those who have reviewed his public statements at length or those who know him personally.
One such reviewer is known by the nom de tweet Natalie Wynn, a transgender ex-academic with a background in philosophy who comments on the cultural and philosophical issues of the day from her YouTube channel ContraPoints. In her latest video, Wynn, while jokingly alluding to Peterson’s past invocations of hierarchies in lobsters in talking about human societal order and putting Peterson’s face on a dummy’s body and soaking with it in a bathtub—this is part of her offbeat charm—acknowledges that after listening to his podcasts, reading his books, and watching his videos on YouTube, she gets why people like him.
For Natalie, Peterson has real talent as a public speaker and life coach, with his major distinguishing quality being that Peterson infuses traditional self-help verbiage with biblical insights, Jungian psychoanalysis, philosophy, and psychology. In this respect, nothing that he presents is really new—especially if you’re familiar with the trappings of AA, Ms. Wynn quips—but as far as she is concerned, from a self-improvement standpoint, more power to the Canadian psychology professor.
The issue with Peterson’s life coaching, however, as Wynn views it, is that it is a “Trojan horse for a reactionary political agenda,” one that opposes progressive politics as something “totalitarian and evil.” Peterson refers to progressive politics by the term postmodern neo-Marxism, and Wynn, using her educational background, painstakingly dissects this use of the terminology. Going through a cursory-yet-lengthy history of modernism, she eventually gets to the point that Marxism is a fundamentally modernist worldview that theorizes the human condition in economic terms, while postmodernism is a kind of skepticism that denies humans’ capacity for knowing universal truths about the world around them.
Accordingly, these concepts would seem to be at odds, and Peterson’s use of the term would only seem to enhance the confusion. As Natalie Wynn outlines, Jordan Peterson’s animus is levied upon a rather nebulous group that includes administrators at colleges and universities, civil rights activists, corporate human resources departments, feminists, liberal politicians, Marxists, postmodernists, and so-called “social justice warriors (SJWs).” It’s a problematically loose association of leftists which ignores the tensions that tend to exist between so many of the subgroups under this umbrella and on which Peterson tries to pin the downfall of Western civilization amid his fearmongering.
Likewise problematic is Peterson’s concept of “the West.” As Wynn breaks it down, Peterson’s “West” is emblematic of concepts like capitalism, individualism, and “Judeo-Christian values,” while “postmodern neo-Marxism” is aligned with anti-Western sentiment, collectivism, relativism, and totalitarianism. Marxism and postmodernism, as Wynn elucidates, are Western philosophies, so this immediately calls Peterson’s framework into question, as does his insistence on SJW ideology as a non-Western function.
Moreover, Wynn argues, if Peterson was really concerned about celebrating individuality, he would be more open to, for instance, the use of gender-neutral pronouns to suit the needs of individual students (Peterson made headlines when he vowed he would refuse to comply with any provincial laws on the use of “alternative” pronouns). In addition, if he were more insistent on preserving “the West” as a geographical and philosophical construct, he would, you know, rail against Buddhism, or own that the Marquis de Sade, for one, was into some stuff that doesn’t really fit with “Judeo-Christian values,” and he was from the West. By these standards, Peterson’s categories seem woefully arbitrary and haphazard.
Thus, despite her mild admiration for Peterson’s attention to the tendency of some people on the left to shout down even slightly different opinions, as well as an appreciation for the need to provide folks with a positive, proactive ideology rather than a liberal focus on everything one shouldn’t be doing and a preoccupation with how society oppresses people without a path to corrective action, Natalie Wynn sees a real danger in Jordan Peterson’s anti-leftist rhetoric.
She’s not alone, either. Bernard Schiff, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Toronto and someone who knows Peterson well as one of his historically staunchest defenders against other faculty at the university, recently penned a special opinion piece for the Toronto Star regarding his change of heart, so to speak, on Peterson and his methods. In Schiff’s opening to his expansive essay, he sets the tone for the piece by explaining what he admires about his colleague, and why he has more recently pivoted on someone he has considered a friend:
I thought long and hard before writing about Jordan, and I do not do this lightly. He has one of the most agile and creative minds I’ve ever known. He is a powerful orator. He is smart, passionate, engaging and compelling and can be thoughtful and kind.
I was once his strongest supporter.
That all changed with his rise to celebrity. I am alarmed by his now-questionable relationship to truth, intellectual integrity and common decency, which I had not seen before. His output is voluminous and filled with oversimplifications which obscure or misrepresent complex matters in the service of a message which is difficult to pin down. He can be very persuasive, and toys with facts and with people’s emotions. I believe he is a man with a mission. It is less clear what that mission is.
So, why did Schiff have to defend Peterson as a fellow professor among the faculty at the University of Toronto? Shocker!—though his celebrity may be bringing out the very worst in him, Peterson was always kind of a son of a bitch. Schiff concedes that Peterson possessed a rather immaculate record before his arrival at the University of Toronto, and despite misgivings from others about his “eccentricity,” he advocated for Peterson because he thought he could bring fresh energy and new ideas to the department.
As it turned out, though, according to Schiff, Peterson wasn’t just a little “eccentric.” He sparred with the university’s research ethics committee, suggesting they lacked the authority and expertise to weigh in on his work (despite, you know, it being their government-mandated job to serve this function). He also, alongside numerous enthusiastic reviews from people who had taken his courses and a rapt audience of those who attended, repeatedly acknowledged the dangers of presenting conjecture as fact, and promptly went ahead and did it anyway in his lectures.
For Schiff, this was fine, albeit vaguely concerning; no one was getting hurt, and Peterson’s sermons were largely confined to the classroom. The turn came, however, when Peterson not only misrepresented the relationship between biology and gender in his opposition to Bill C-16, the aforementioned gender-neutral pronoun policy but misrepresented his own risk at not supporting the law:
Jordan’s first high-profile public battle, and for many people their introduction to the man, followed his declaration that he would not comply with Bill C-16, an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act extending its protections to include gender identity and expression. He would refuse to refer to students using gender neutral pronouns. He then upped the stakes by claiming that, for this transgression, he could be sent to jail.
I have a trans daughter, but that was hardly an issue compared to what I felt was a betrayal of my trust and confidence in him. It was an abuse of the trust that comes with his professorial position, which I had fought for, to have misrepresented gender science by dismissing the evidence that the relationship of gender to biology is not absolute and to have made the claim that he could be jailed when, at worst, he could be fined.
In his defence, Jordan told me if he refused to pay the fine he could go to jail. That is not the same as being jailed for what you say, but it did ennoble him as a would-be martyr in the defence of free speech. He was a true free speech “warrior” who was willing to sacrifice and run roughshod over his students to make a point. He could have spared his students and chosen to sidestep the issue and refer to them by their names. And if this was truly a matter of free speech he could have challenged the Human Rights Act, off-campus and much earlier, by openly using language offensive to any of the already-protected groups on that list.
Perhaps this was not just about free speech.
Subsequent actions by Peterson to oppose legislative attempts by the province of Ontario to defend additional trans rights grew all the more worrisome. Peterson railed against the proposed Bill 28 under the premise that it “subjugates the natural family to the transgender agenda.” First of all, and apropos of nothing, the man missed an obvious opportunity to coin a portmanteau in transgenda. Secondly, what the heck is the “transgender agenda,” anyway? And how does it relate to a bill that sought to change the language about families away from “fathers and mothers” to “parents”? Bernard Schiff, for one, is confused, and I find myself similarly perplexed. You might, too.
This sense of wonderment quickly gives way to genuine fear, meanwhile, when considering Jordan Peterson’s conflation of Marxism, the left, and murderous regimes like those of Joseph Stalin that pervert their professed ideology to serve the purposes of the individual at the helm. Here is where Bernard Schiff’s concerns begin to echo those of Natalie Wynn’s. Wynn explicitly states her belief that Peterson is not a fascist. Whether or not Schiff believes Peterson has fascist tendencies is less clear, though he does make allusions to other people’s characterizations of Peterson and fascists in general, so that might tell you all you need to know. Regardless of exact labels, Schiff sees parallels between Peterson’s anti-Marxist, pro-status-quo language and Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist, anti-immigrant fervor. Obviously, this is not a flattering association.
Ultimately, Schiff puts forth that while he may be overstating the potential threat posed by his colleague, to remain silent presents its own risk—one he is not willing to take. Schiff, in suggesting that Peterson does not play by some of his own 12 rules—notably the ones involving assuming the other party knows something you don’t, pursuing what is important and not just what is expedient, telling the truth, and using precise language—expresses regret. Part of that regret lies in his inability to see Peterson’s rise as a self-styled cultural “warrior” coming despite the apparent warning signs. The other half of his regret, if you will, is his role in bringing Peterson to the University of Toronto in the first place. As Schiff plainly writes, “I have been asked by some if I regret my role in bringing Jordan to the University of Toronto. I did not for many years, but I do now.”
Part of what makes Jordan Peterson so frustrating to talk about is his seemingly intentional inscrutability, a quality his devotees laud as a virtue in that the “liberal media” can’t neatly fit him into a box. Indeed, Bernard Schiff goes to great lengths trying to plot out Peterson’s inconsistences. He defiantly asserts his right to free speech, but then actively tries to steer students away from professors whom he associates with “postmodern neo-Marxism.” He claims to be a champion of scientific research and inquiry but rejects attempts by university administration to scrutinize his methods and cherry-picks data to prove his point. He, like so many conservatives, decries those on the left he sees as willing victims but plays the martyr when challenged all the same. He’s calm and collected one moment, and angrily confrontational and defensive in the face of criticism the next. It’s a pretty maddening study in contracts.
Equally frustrating is trying to engage Peterson in a conversation on his terms. Natalie Wynn provides examples of Peterson’s rhetorical style, which essentially puts earnest interviewers like Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News in a no-win situation. As Wynn frames it, Peterson verbalizes something generally accepted to be true, while at the same time implying something more controversial and possibly unrelated. For instance, he’ll say that “there are biological differences between men and women,” but in the context of the underrepresentation of women in government. Your apparent choice is either to fall into the trap of arguing against the factual information Peterson presents, or to try to infer a meaning by which he can argue that you’re misrepresenting his point of view. Whatever that may be.
Wynn highlights how Peterson used this kind of argument with respect to his famous/infamous “lobster” comment, when he led with a discussion of the notion that human social hierarchies are a construct created by Western patriarchy, and followed that with a note about how lobsters exist in hierarchies and how this structure has existed before Western patriarchy. The problem with this line of discourse, instructs Wynn, is that no one is arguing hierarchies are a product of “Western patriarchy,” and that lobster hierarchies are a non sequitur to the discussion of human social hierarchies. That is, no one is trying to start a lobster revolution. Peterson’s argument, as intellectual as it sounds, is gobbledygook, more or less.
Another oft-cited moment in the Newman-Peterson interview was when Newman asked Peterson why his right to freedom of speech should trump a trans person’s right not to be offended, and Peterson countered by asserting that “in order to be able to think, you have to risk being offensive,” and answering her question with another question: “You’re certainly willing to risk offending me in the pursuit of truth. Why should you have the right to do that?” Peterson’s extended response left Newman all but speechless, to which he interjected, “Ha! Gotcha!” Newman, flabbergasted, conceded defeat on this point. This moment is Exhibit A in Peterson’s supporters’ evidence that their icon “won” the interview over Ms. Newman, or “destroyed” her, or “obliterated” her, or did something else to nullify her very existence. Because there has to be a winner or loser in these types of discussions. Right.
Looking back at Peterson’s statements, it’s easier to find the flaws in his reasoning. To equate his personal offense at being challenged to a trans individual’s right to self-identification is a false comparison. This is to say that Peterson’s taking umbrage to a reporter’s queries results in nothing more than his personal irritation, while attacks on personhood for the trans community, a minority group, can lead to continued abuse and physical assaults. It’s not the same thing, something Cathy Newman might’ve been able to express given the time to parse out Peterson’s logic. You or I might’ve found ourselves similarly flummoxed in the same situation against such a skilled orator.
On top of this, Cathy Newman’s reward for attempting to take Jordan Peterson to task for expressed viewpoints and for inadvertently helping to elevate his stature? Numerous vicious personal threats. Peterson did intercede amid the harassment to ask his followers to back off, but his is the kind of sermonizing about the need to defend “Western” culture with obvious appeal to straight white Christian males that lends itself to preemptive strikes against members of the LGBTQ community, people of color, women, and everyone in between. When cultural debates are characterized in the context of a “war,” those who take up the fight with earnest believe all is fair, but this is not automatically the case.
Natalie Wynn ends her segment by abnegating personal responsibility in the debate about Jordan Peterson’s merits, professing she only likes to make YouTube videos for their production value. Bernard Schiff ruefully acknowledges his personal failure in identifying Peterson’s dangerous patterns of behavior and likens his (Peterson’s) desire to preach from the pulpit to the designs of late evangelist Billy Graham. Perhaps there is no single conclusion to be reached about Peterson that would prove satisfactory.
A common thread between the analyses of Wynn and Schiff, though—and one to which I might subscribe in my own thinking—is the idea that maybe those outside his vanguard need to take his meteoric rise more seriously. The “experts” who downplayed the threats of a “Brexit” or a Donald Trump presidency were summarily proven wrong. The hubbub about Jordan Peterson could be much ado about nothing. As with Schiff’s decision not to stay mum, however, do you believe it’s worth the risk of ignoring him?