About half a decade ago, Jordan Peterson was a psychology professor at the University of Toronto and clinical psychologist with little international fame and even less infamy. A talented teacher and skilled speaker, he conveyed expertise within his domain and gave prestigious lectures like “The Necessity of Virtue,” which is how I first encountered him. Like any professor, he wasn’t perfect, but largely credible.
Yet after spending many, many hours watching new and old footage of him, I am forced to conclude that his recent messianic quest to “defend free speech”—which, in its purest form, is noble—has destroyed his previous credibility by amassing paranoid and shoddy “evidence” at a great distance from his home domain of psychology (where he has merits). Though he remains an engaging public speaker with certain worthy insights, his recent claims about the nature of oppression, ideological language, and social justice are often baseless, tendentious, and would never be corroborated by scholars in the appropriate field from across the political spectrum (history, sociology, linguistics, anthropology, law, etc.).
His mistakes here are so egregious that even though I share and affirm certain values with him (pro-dialogue, pro-dissent, pro-viewpoint-diversity), and though I will take care to point out his wiser ideas, I cannot possibly trust him to advocate for these issues in a rigorous way. The incredibly sloppy and inflammatory arguments he now employs befit a YouTube celebrity or provocateur—but not a scholar. And now that he’s increasingly being played by the alt-right and right-wing media, and craves exposure more than rigour, this is precisely what he’s become.
My purpose here is to separate the scholarly Peterson from the conspiratorial Peterson, a balance which has unfortunately shifted towards the paranoid since I first encountered him many years ago. Regardless of his moral and intellectual failings—or merits, depending on one’s view—we need to understand how he represents much larger political and philosophical forces. These, I argue, have played Peterson, while he has indeed played himself.
When Peterson argues far outside of the domain of psychology (where he co-authors prolifically) he wields the confidence of a tenured professor and the ignorance of a first-year student who, when faced with the daunting task of finding evidence from scholarly sources, instead argues with maddening anecdotes and nasty generalizations. For instance:
[Interviewer:] Are you denying the existence of discrimination based on sexuality or race?
[Peterson:] I don’t think women were discriminated against, I think that’s an appalling argument."
Peterson proceeds to use an anecdote about his grandmother (she was too busy to be oppressed) to back up this claim that 99% of historians and sociologists would refute, even right-leaning ones. He moves from a true premise—brutal economics before the 20th century made life oppressive for both genders—to a ridiculous conclusion—women could not be oppressed under these conditions. A cursory look at the history of suffrage and gendered violence, a few page flips through sociological accounts of the era, would stifle this conclusion. Even vitriolic critics of feminism today often admit that historical oppression was real. As a clinical psychologist, Peterson’s excellence for the understanding the individual psyche is rivaled by an appalling ignorance of society: his preference for clinical, personal, and mythological anecdotes leaves him seemingly incapable of drawing correct inferences and generalizations about society at large. His classic move is to say X group cannot be oppressed because either (1) he knows a few individuals from that group who were “oppressing themselves” through a certain psychopathology, or (2) there’s another oppressor Y that somehow negates everything else.
Peterson is not all wrong—his advice to be more virtuous in the face of adversity is wonderful for individuals. Yet given the thousands of sociological, economic, and philosophical texts that prove the viciousness of systemic inequalities, Peterson reveals an egregious ignorance of how social science works (problems have more than one cause or factor!). As someone who said he admires and worked for the old-school NDP, and claims working-class politics are important, it is particularly sad to see him efface gendered and racial issues that compound the poor’s plight.
Peterson, as we all know, outrages many people. But in a sense, the pronoun debate at U of T and the accusations and defenses of his alleged bigotry have diverted attention from the sheer shoddiness of his recent arguments which no cautious conservative thinker would make. I will leave commenting on issues of gender to more qualified people (a phrase I wish Peterson would use) and instead critique his rhetorical strategies.
He stages himself a nonpartisan or centrist advocate of free speech—which do exist—but then promptly exposes himself as partisan via his implicit assumptions and screeds against the vast SJW/leftist/feminist/marxist conspiracy he alleges is putting us on the path to totalitarianism (for instance, he equates 20% of social scientists with Nazis—since their [“cultural”] marxism is “no better” than Nazism). Even if we trust him that he’s not bigoted, and agree with him that being politically tribal and intellectually homogeneous represent dangers (I do!), he has immolated whatever credibility and goodwill he’s amassed through such paranoid slippery slopes.
Though Peterson is well studied in the history of totalitarianism, he shares a key intellectual vice of totalitarian thinking: making sweeping statements about one’s ideological enemies, envisioning a grand conspiracy among a group of people who are quite diverse and might have their own internal disagreements and sympathies with him. The only intellectually honest way for him to proceed is to attack his opponents separately based on specific grievances. Instead, he lumps them all together, and he’d probably lump someone like me—who agrees with him on certain issues—in with the rest of the SJW/leftist/feminist/marxist “cabal”—because I believe that systemic oppression happens along multiple avenues (Peterson’s McCarthyism expands beyond McCarthy’s original purview). By refusing to understand his critics and their distinct and diverse views, he invites us to dismiss his thinking, just as his list of “great books” reveals his implicit dismissal of hundreds of vibrant intellectuals who aren’t predominantly dead Russian males or thinkers of archetypes or totalitarianism (where’s Hannah Arendt though?). There are scores of figures who resonate with his thinking on free speech and dissent—of the female, non-white, non-European, or leftist variety—but he’s largely failed to engage them (except the token Camille Paglia).
On a philosophical level, his thinking is prone to relentless essentialism, the use and abuse of mythic archetypes, false equivalences between “just as bad” groups, and opposes “postmodernism”—a great boogeyman since one can spin it to mean anything: “I’m not saying made up words generated by postmodern neo-marxists because I despise everything they stand for and so I’m not using those damn words and that’s that“.
Though I would agree with him in the harm of treating everything as pure social construct in need of a neologism, Peterson appears remarkably stunted in his ability to negotiate between or synthesize the biological and social levels, or the realm of essences versus representations.
Peterson’s understanding of intellectual history (my research area) is atrocious. Through a series of genetic fallacies and slippery slopes, identity politics and “political correctness” goes back to postmodernism, which goes back to Marx, and then all the way forward to the horrors of Stalinism. This is how, in Peterson’s hysterical strawman of the 20th century, the LGBT movement gets tenuously but deliberately associated with past or future genocide.
Mentioning an oppressed group tends to trigger Peterson’s argumentum ad Hitlerum or Stalinum; playing his wild associative games, we may as well blame the holocaust on the teachers who rejected a young Austrian man from art school. It’s no big deal for a psychologist to be ignorant of modern intellectual history—except when a malicious distortion of this history became the lynchpin of his argument. This is how Peterson convicts marginalized groups of being the “real” oppressor, which of course makes him the “real” victim. He deems “postmodern” French intellectuals to be, in effect, evil schemers of identity politics who don’t believe in truth. Had he learned his history better, he’d realize that it was one of his heroes, Nietzsche, who wrote a famous essay—I don’t happen to like it very much—that became an influential wellspring of “postmodern” thought. Sometimes Peterson gets played, but this time he clearly played himself. Using Peterson’s standards of historical argument, I could “prove” that Nietzsche “lead to” the Nazis, who sometimes read his work, and thus implicate Peterson in a Nazi conspiracy. Though I vehemently reject the Nietzsche-Nazi influence, such fallacies occur when we approach intellectual history with Peterson’s laughable level of rigour.
Though Peterson possesses vastly more substance and intelligence than Milo or Alex Jones types, he envisions himself narcissistically and fatalistically, as they do, as the persecuted hub of a great freewheeling conspiracy. Peterson largely praised Milo as a mythological trickster figure (an interesting idea to be sure) but failed to condemn his intellectual vacuousness, his bigotry, and his love for “edgy” or taboo statements which lead to his recent downfall.
Now that Peterson is a YouTube and Patreon star, his affirmation comes in the form of YouTube views and Patreon dollars—a perversion of traditional scholarly life, which is about being careful and correct despite meagre audiences. If he wants to be taken seriously an intellectual instead of a provocateur, he needs to bring his discussions back into a venue where they can be patiently evaluated. Since his psychology work meets peer review standards, he is certainly capable of scholarly thought in general, so he faces a moral decision here.
How should we defend and advocate for free speech in North America, given the famous paradoxes of “tolerating intolerance” that Karl Popper once defined? Though this is not an easy question, Peterson sadly represents a wrong answer.
Consider as a point of comparison the ACLU, who over the years has defended extremely unpopular people of every political orientation. Previously, they’ve defended right-wing extremists’ right to speak, whereas today they defend Muslims against Trump’s massive erosions of civil liberties. Even if the sometimes-villainous people the ACLU defends seem despicable, one has to admit it is a rather principled organization (see its campus policy.
Peterson, on the other hand, is getting played by the alt-right with no nonpartisan defense mechanisms against it. Though he claims to be against both left and right wing extremes, and has not explicitly endorsed the alt-right, we find him firmly embedded in alt-right and far right recommended viewing and social media networks, interviewing and interacting with outlets who are far more bigoted than he is. It’s a terrible deal for him: he gets a little exposure in exchange for a lot of reputational damage, while giving extremists the “centrist” legitimacy they crave. As a self-professed expert on authoritarianism, he should probably comment on how Trump is vilifying the free press, a classic authoritarian move. But he’s silent: Trump, as he said in December, is merely a “moderate”. Yet when it comes to islamophobia, Peterson critiques the term’s etymology and right to exist (it’s “ideological”) instead of condemning the resentment of brown people who merely look like they’re from a Muslim country (Sikhs and secular brown people still get murdered due to mere resemblance). What would Peterson prefer we call this phenomenon?
More fundamentally, why does Peterson get to claim that certain terms are ideological, like islamophobia and special pronouns—and that certain terms are not ideological—like SJW or PC? Pejoratives like these are indeed profoundly ideological. For instance, “PC” typically became a right-wing term used to slur left-wing identity politics. Yet there are dozens of ideologically powerful slurs and euphemisms used by the right or far-right (eg. “enhanced interrogation techniques” = torture or “race realist” = pseudoscientific racist).
Until he critiques right-wing political correctness along with the left, and admits that language is infused with all sorts of political tilts, I cannot trust him to advocate for true freedom of language and speech. Even on the level of just lexicon, the history of the English language represents a messy political battleground between institutional-philosophical Greek imports, clinical-sounding Latinate roots, aristocrat-leaning Anglo-Norman words, and Anglo-Saxon peasant terms, not to mention the linguistic spoils of later imperial conquest or the thousands literary and political coinages. Though there are dozens of recent academic terms (or corporate buzzwords) we might prefer not to use, the idea that language became ideological thanks to “SJWs” is a laughable one.
I find Peterson’s vilification of the figure of the SJW particularly hysterical because he relies on so many biblical images and stories from Jesus, who in many ways is the ultimate advocate of social justice in the Western imagination. And if one doesn’t like this equation, we should probably admit that “SJW” is an often meaningless term, or if it has meaning, it’s of a purely pejorative kind (why wouldn’t MLK be a SJW?).
Certainly, there are some excellent reasons to object to extreme speech codes (left or right wing) imposed upon us. But rejecting the idea of “social justice” as such is tantamount to rejecting religious or secular notions of what it means to live in a just society (shouldn’t true justice entail, a fortiori, social justice?). Peterson sets up a false dichotomy between the pursuit of truth—pure, scientific, and uncomfortable—and the causes of social justice and its “warriors”. There are plenty of hyper-rational, scientific people in STEM disciplines who are sympathetic to the allegedly nefarious causes of social justice—like feminism—that Peterson vilifies. But the real problem, according to Peterson, are the non-STEM disciplines:
I think huge swaths of the university are irrevocably corrupted: sociology, gone; anthropology, gone; history, big chunks of it are gone, the classics, literature, social work, political science in many places, and that doesn’t cover women’s studies, ethnic studies. They probably started lost, and it’s gotten far worse. I believe now, with the exception of the science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) branch, that universities do more harm than good.
This dismissive anti-intellectualism is particularly rich coming from Peterson, whose magnum opus Maps of Meaning is not exactly an exemplar of STEM rigor, and draws upon some of the same “corrupting” thinkers (Nietzsche and Freud) who played a key role in destabilizing some of those disciplines. Peterson’s lists of “Great Books” (which includes his own book, of course) features a few titles worthy of that name, but the overall selection reveals a stunted and paranoid view of the human condition. Though I entirely agree with him that we must study life in the concentration camps and at the extremes of inhumanity, we must also understand the everyday experiences of people not like ourselves, which for Peterson should certainly include women, trans and non-white people, and academics in different disciplines. The extraordinary claim that a major portion of the social sciences and humanities are “irrevocably corrupted” requires extraordinary proof that Peterson must offer. At a bare minimum, he would have to take dozens of survey courses at different universities and read hundreds, perhaps thousands, of representative texts. His arrogance that he’s knowledgeable enough to make such an assessment, clearly a prejudiced one, is of pathological proportions (but he’s the psychologist, so it’s up to him to figure out the diagnosis).
The saddest thing about Peterson is that his desire for validation has lead an admired pedagogue to rub shoulders with increasingly idiotic, hateful people. For instance, Peterson recently tweeted: “91% of those who view my videos are male. Why? Why so few women?” Then an account called The Wests Declines tweeted to him as a response a “women’s majors are correlated with low IQ” graph, insinuating that women are too stupid to appreciate his videos (The West Declines uses hashtags like #womenwillbethedeathofthewest and #suffrageequalssuffering). Peterson retweeted the graph without any disclaimer, fact-checking, or commentary. What kind of professor or “scholar” retweets such a graph within this context, and from such a blatantly hateful account no less? Without any comment on its veracity or its source? This is a Milo move, not a professorial one. Peterson’s attraction towards fringe media suggests he cannot cope with norms of rigorous intellectual debate on the causes of his recent fame.
If we consider ourselves students or scholars, then ultimately we must heed and affirm part of Peterson’s recent message, which is that dissent and debate are crucial pathways to the truth, and that truth can be disturbing, uncomfortable, and even terrifying; kneejerk reactions are bad news (I’d invite his critics to watch his videos without prejudice). Yet out of this same spirit, we must also condemn the willful ignorance, reactionary invectives, and conspiratorial delusions Peterson flaunts when he leaves his area of expertise. Speaking freely is only one of the many values essential to academia; respect and intellectual integrity will be difficult for him to regain. It is disheartening to see him admired and played by right-wing opportunists who are only interested in freedom of speech to the extent that they can advance authoritarian ideas that ultimately result in the suppression of dissent and the end of diversity. If he’s eventually able to heed his own advice—taking to heart opposing viewpoints to improve our grasp on reality—he will inevitably reverse some of his more outrageous and harmful positions. But this will require the judicious and generous use of the same principle where I most agree with Peterson: the necessity of virtue.
Originally published in Openwide Zine.