Identity Politics: Is Jordan Peterson saying anything interesting?

Published by marco on

Updated by marco on

I read the article ‘We’re teaching university students lies’ – An interview with Dr Jordan Peterson by Jason Tucker & Jason VandenBeukel (C2C Journal) with interest. I’d never heard of Jordan Peterson. He was eminently quotable and I highlighted the following passages.

“Part of the reason I got embroiled in this [gender identity] controversy was because of what I know about how things went wrong in the Soviet Union. Many of the doctrines that underlie the legislation that I’ve been objecting to share structural similarities with the Marxist ideas that drove Soviet Communism. The thing I object to the most was the insistence that people use these made up words like ‘xe’ and ‘xer’ that are the construction of authoritarians. There isn’t a hope in hell that I’m going to use their language, because I know where that leads. (Emphasis added.)”

Marxism is the root of all evil

OK, so the sentiment is interesting and well-intentioned, but upon rereading Peterson, we see that he goes from a standpoint of “be careful what you wish for”/”be careful that you don’t end up being what you’re fighting” to bundling any request to veer from the current social and prejudicial paradigms we have right now with Marxism/Socialism/Communism/Totalitarianism, consigning them all to the “ultimate evil” trashbin, wiping his hands and walking off into the sunset with a smug look on his face and his spurs jingling. Too often, I feel that he’s done learning. He already knows everything.

This is unfortunately a not-uncommon attitude. The world of reason divides itself into those smart people who think they can solve everything with reason, analyzing every new concept into components to which they already have answers—and those who admit their increasing unsurety with each increase in knowledge. It’s not binary, of course, but those two groups are well-represented when painting in broad strokes (which I admittedly am).

And it’s not an accusation I feel I’m making: Peterson makes it himself. Listen to his interview with Joe Rogan (YouTube) (3hrs). Several times, he draws a direct line from the misguided stridency of SJWs to the killing fields of Cambodia (Pol Pot) and Ukraine (Stalin) with no apparent awareness or admission of hyperbole.

His overarching concern stems from the kowtowing of school administrations to SJW browbeating to remove mens rea from offensive language.

Peterson again,

“Are you suggesting they’ve altered the rule of law as we traditionally understand it? They have. They say ‘what you said hurt my feelings’ – and this is part of the assault on the objective world – your intent is irrelevant. My subjective response is the determining factor. The idea that they would dare to undermine the doctrine of intent is beyond belief.”

This is, of course, a great concern, as it opens up the legal playing field to anyone with a new set of terms and concepts to be offended about. But it’s not vastly different than things were before: it’s just a different group being privileged by law, a group that does not include well-educated and tenured middle-aged white males. His otherwise intelligent reaction to the affair seems to ignore this blind spot: he doesn’t once address the concerns of the “Marxists” as stemming from legitimate grievances, which they of course do. The grievance is legitimate, but the solution is lunatic. Failing to acknowledge that makes Peterson dig in against a world-girdling Marxist movement that exists largely only in his own mind.

On one level, I wholly understand Peterson’s position: it’s hugely annoying when people who fail to put any rigor into their argumentation waste your time—or when they force you to pay attention to them because they’ve altered the legal constructs that affect us all.

As a hopefully related example, it’s similar to the frustration we first-world elites feel when we’re forced to take our shoes off, put our arms over heads and place our liquids in little bags when we travel by airplane. We all know it’s bullshit and a waste of time and that the laws stem from the weakest, dumbest instincts—but we’re powerless to do anything about them. The frustration is real and those who rail against it are factually correct, but could perhaps spend their time in better ways.[1]

Intermezzo: A Rant about the Dumb

This is an unedited note I found on my phone from about year ago. I’m honestly no longer sure what inspired my ire, but the last paragraph suggests I was reading about some unfathomably irritating and inconsequential SJW spectacle.

It’s like when a mentally handicapped person asks you to stop doing something perfectly innocuous. You have no idea why, but you also suspect that neither do they. There is probably no rhyme or reason other than habit or acquired behavior or neuronal impulse, and yet it will govern your interaction. And woe betide you should you ignore what is for you an ad-hoc and nonsensical rule.

Children do this, too. They make up rules in order to exert a modicum of control over a bewildering world around them. This control is, of course, superficial, based as it is on a nearly utter lack of understanding, but it is very real nonetheless. It will govern interactions with those more intelligent or wise or learned, subverting that power.

Does it deserve to do so? Is something gained for either party or for society? The imposer gains short-term and likely fleeting satisfaction. The wise have their time wasted, and society gains nothing. Who does this? Children, the mentally handicapped, the stupid, the uneducated, the otherwise ignorant.

And now we have hordes of fools both attending and having already completed degrees in institutions of supposedly higher learning, wasting time with what they clearly consider to be worthwhile and at least quasi- intellectual pursuits: hunting and killing micro-aggression and carrying what they call political correctness to a place so ludicrous that even the irredeemable idiots of the eighties and nineties would gasp at their audacity and utter lack of any form of nuance.

Is your identity wholly yours?

So I can understand where Peterson is coming from. Let’s read some more of his interview.

“Your identity isn’t just how you feel about yourself. It’s also how you think about yourself, it’s what you know about yourself, it’s your educated judgement about yourself. It’s negotiated with other people if you’re even vaguely civilized because otherwise no one can stand you. If your identity isn’t a hybrid of what you are and what other people expect, then you’re like the kid on the playground with whom no one can play.”

This is, I feel, a good and indisputable point. It is, however, perhaps slaying a dragon that doesn’t exist—making it a straw man. I feel Peterson takes the easy way out by locking horns with the most unreasonable of his opponents—and then pretending that the perfectly reasonable concerns and difficult ideas have also been eliminated.

“There’s also this idea that you shouldn’t say things that hurt people’s feelings – that’s the philosophy of the compassionate left. It’s so childish it’s beyond comprehension. What did Nietzsche say: ‘you can judge a man’s spirit by the amount of truth he can tolerate.’ I tell my students this too, you can tell when you’re being educated because you’re horrified.”

This is another sentiment that I can agree with wholeheartedly, but I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop now. I’m just waiting for Peterson to now jump to a conclusion that I don’t feel he’s justified in doing. I wonder how much of Peterson’s opponents actually believe what he says they believe. I mean, I leave open the possibility that he’s seeing a societal trend that will lead to to an intellectual evisceration of North America in short time—but it feels much more like he’s really deep into the argument now and can’t see out of the local minimum in his isolated world of Canadian academia.

“But they put a restriction on me: at the debate, I’m not allowed to repeat the statement that I won’t use these preferred pronouns. It’s a little absurd that we’re going to go forward with a debate about freedom of speech, and I can’t repeat the central claim that initiated the debate.”
“looked at the policies on the Ontario Human Rights website because I think those are the people that are behind all this. The writing on that website is appalling from a technical perspective – it’s incoherent. They’re the semi-literate, philosophically ignorant, malevolent little coterie who are behind it. You would expect better than that from quasi-judiciaries.”

This is exactly my point: Peterson is intelligent, well-read and eminently coherent. His is a scientist in a world that doesn’t generally work much with logical chains of reasoning. This is a good thing, I think. But he seems to, time and again, willfully ignore that he is fighting the dumbest and most “incoherent” of his opponents. It’s low-hanging fruit.

Talking to everyone at once

He goes on to make good points about human communication—in the first world, another point he fails to make at any time—and the ephemerality and speed of it.

“For the first time in human history, the spoken word has the same reach and longevity as the written word. Not only that, the space between the utterance and the publication is zero.”

This is an interesting topic but a carefully considered opinion would admit to both the pros and cons of this age. On the positive side, historically silent parties can now participate in universal conversations. That’s the negative side as well. If you re-read my rant from above, it describes the negative side.

The newcomers are unschooled in debate and logic and rhetoric and they can drag the whole conversation either down into the useless minutiae or they constantly revisit already-settled topics. A constant need to reaffirm terminology leads to an inability by those more advanced to build on existing knowledge.

On the other, other hand it’s always good to have new, intelligent people reexamine supposedly rock-solid and factual and axiomatic premises. They often find that these axioms are based less on fact than on subconscious prejudices. It takes a long time and a lot of patience to be rational and scientific about concepts like these—and the farther we move from STEM concepts, the more labile we must be. That’s just how philosophy is.

But an increase in participants can crowd the space with the frankly incapable. That’s the other, other, other hand. It seems endless. It can be very frustrating, especially for people like Peterson (or like Sam Harris, his intellectual compatriot) to want to just nail things down once and for all . When new people show up and start poking around the age-old foundations, it’s hard to keep an open mind about it.

Add in the stridency of the ignorant and the overarching desire to win and it’s understandable how even the ostensibly wise can be ground down by it.

Swerving into the infomercial

I hadn’t noticed when I originally included the following citation from my original reading, but in light of the Joe Rogan interview, it’s now clear that Peterson cannot help but guide the conversation onto the topic of his for-pay YouTube video courses on “sorting yourself out”. Good advice but, given how closed he seems to be to certain paths of thought, I wouldn’t want his help in getting there.

“Three months ago, I had some research assistants writing out the transcripts of my lectures so people could watch my lectures with the subtitles because its easier for people to follow and I was looking at my growth in terms of subscribers, and I half-jokingly thought I could soon have more subscribers to my YouTube channel than U of T has students. I don’t know what the significance of that is.”

He’s also not particularly humble, unfortunately. There’s another strain to his personality that rears its (possibly ugly, depending on your point of view) head later on.

But let’s examine the point that Peterson makes about what can even be taught at a university these days.

“It might be that the university is already dying. It wouldn’t surprise me. I mean, 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. I think they produce indentured servants in the United States because tuition fees have gone up so much and you can’t declare bankruptcy on your student loans. We’re teaching university students lies, and pandering to them, and I see that as counterproductive.”

That’s a lot to take in all at once—and it mixes up a bunch of at-best distantly related topics: how the humanities has lost its way, that only STEM can possibly save the world from itself and then the failure of the financing model.

For the first point, he seems to ignore how the capitalist underpinnings of our societies have ideologically hollowed out any form of learning or intellectual exploration that can’t be proven to directly lead to a short-term gain. Everyone loves to hammer on the women’s studies/interpretive dance/poetry majors—probably with good reason. But again, this is low-hanging fruit. There is plenty to save in the older, core humanities that have also been ignored because of their lack of easy measurability and their often contra-ideological narratives—history, economy, sociology. So many of these topics become corrupted by the often capitalist requirements of the grant-based research system and by the strict ideologies of the think-tanks, universities and government posts that are the only foreseeable jobs for those graduates, useful as their knowledge is. It should be acknowledged that it wasn’t the SJWs who broke higher-level learning in North America.

The second point is that STEM is doing just fine and is the only thing worth concentrating on. Here I fear that Peterson outs himself as a technocrat, like all the other otherwise-intelligent pseudo-philosophers who are seemingly so easily seduced into believing the Silicon Valley billionaires achieved what they achieved because they somehow see more clearly than anyone else. That the fact that they clearly won at the money game behooves us to listen to everything else they have to say. It ignores the strong likelihood that the rest of their philosophical underpinnings—such as they can even be called that—are designed to support their continued position at the top of the capitalist food chain.

The third point is utterly unrelated to philosophy and as an offhand comment about financing education seems utterly at-odds with Peterson’s otherwise libertarian (or, at the very least, anti-socialist) capitalist approach.

On Patriarchy

Peterson continues, this time focusing on the “ingratitude” of the “PC authoritarian types” for the institutions that even allow the to be ungrateful.

“Do you view social justice culture as a threat to democracy, and why? Absolutely. There’s nothing about the PC authoritarian types that has any gratitude for any institutions. They have a term – patriarchy. It’s all-encompassing. It means that everything our society is, is corrupt. There’s no line, they mean everything. Go online, go look at ten women’s studies websites. Pick them at random. Read them. They say ‘western civilization is a corrupt patriarchy right down to the goddamned core. We have to overthrow it.”

It’s a bit of a contortion, but I see what he’s saying. That line of argument in no way addresses whether those people are wrong. If they’re wrong, they’re wrong regardless of their level of gratitude. As soon as you pull their rudeness into the argument, you’re in a sense admitting that they might have a point, but that you’re going to avoid addressing it.

Of course the characterization that Western civilization is irredeemable is hyperbolic—clearly there’s a lot worth saving. But smashing that argument to the side without even considering how large the kernel of truth is at the center of it is not constructive. As I noted above, we might just be hearing from someone who remained open at first, but talked to too many close-minded people and is now irrevocably broken. I leave that possibility open: the bastards really can grind you down. I’m just evaluating Peterson in light of what I think I can learn from him.

His next step was the first one that made me suspicious when I read the first interview with him. The following citation is from near the end of the relatively long interview.

“Why do you think the feminists would go after Ayaan Hirsi Ali? She’s a hero, that woman. She’s from Somalia. She grew up in a very oppressive patriarchy – a real one. She escaped from an arranged marriage, and moved to Holland and she fell in love with Holland. Two things really struck her initially before she went to university and become a student of the Enlightenment. Number one – she would stand where there was public transport, and a digital sign would say when the public transport was going to arrive, and it would arrive exactly when it said it was going to. It was unbelievable to her. And the other thing she couldn’t believe was that police would help you. You know you’re in a civilized country when the police don’t just rape you and steal everything you have. The radical left people don’t give a damn about any of that.”

I think that’s pretty specious and anecdotal reasoning. I’m not even sure what point he was trying to make about feminists. That they’re antifeminist because they don’t immediately side with every woman in the public sphere?

Final notes from interview with Joe Rogan

Although Peterson seems to be quite strong in reasoning, and he makes some strong points, he’s just as susceptible to propaganda as his purported enemies. The more I read and view of him, the more I feel like he’s another Sam Harris: very intelligent, but utterly incapable of seeing how biased he himself is.

He rails against the ridiculousness of his opponents, but then starts off an interview with Joe Rogan by crowing about how he’d just re-tweeted “news” about what a big monster Castro was because he “sold enemies’ blood for $50”, which sounds utterly laughable and has a very small chance of being true.

He probably also believes that Saddam Hussein killed babies in Iraqi hospitals in the 90s. Those are all propagandistic rumors floated by the war hawks to inspire patriotic/belligerent fervor. And he buys into it unquestioningly. Joe Rogan did too, by the way.

When Peterson then named a number in the multiple tens of thousands for number of dissidents killed in Cuba, I was very skeptical. A web search of both theories turns up only right-wing blogs for the former rumor and really no information on the second one. And yet he faults his opponents relentlessly for their lack of rigor.

Although sometimes very erudite and well-reasoned, at other times he sounds like a libertarian or a conspiracy nut. He wants to kill funding for the universities so that they get rid of anything he doesn’t like, leaving only STEM. At heart, he seems an unalloyed technocrat. He repeats again and again that the humanities are worth nothing because his enemies seek refuge there. But at times he sounds like the anti-intellectual Marxist he decries. He doesn’t exactly want to squash a line of thought, but to remove it from all power. In the end, though, he’s very capitalistically motivated—he always ends by up-selling his video courses for “cleaner thinking”.

So he’s basically a guy who thinks he’s smart because he spends so much time fighting against people who are really stupid. I think it’s a good thing that he spends time pointing out the idiocy/unconstitutionality/logical fallacy of his opponents’ arguments, but he could try a bit harder to avoid falling into the exact same traps himself.

As I listened to more of his talk on Joe Rogan (Joe can’t get a word in edgewise), he weaves a picture of the world that feels strongly warped by his experiences at the university. He seems to ascribe a lot more power to women’s studies movements and Marxists than anyone else does. As far as I can tell, women and Marxists aren’t winning much of anything and certainly don’t have much control over the major levers of power—yet in Peterson’s view, they’ve very near to toppling everything that Western civilization has wrought.

I feel like he pigeonholes people’s arguments into Marxism, then straw-mans them as part and parcel of the worst of Stalinism. It makes it really difficult to side with him because he runs to extremes himself at such a blistering pace. It feels like if you don’t agree with everything he says—or you concede that some of his sworn enemies have a point, but go about it supporting it poorly—he will just call you a conciliatory Marxist who doesn’t care about dead people.

And I don’t think he’s seeing something that we’re all missing about the power and evil of women’s studies/GLBSA/etc. They have power in universities where the next generations are trained, but only in Canada and America. I’m not seeing similar trends in Switzerland and Europe, but I admit I don’t have my finger on the pulse of the higher-education systems in any country.

He talks about how awful Marxism is and how we absolutely don’t need to go there again, when we have a very destructive system right now. The reason people turn back toward other systems is because they recognize such harm coming from their own system. The killing fields in Cambodia were filled with millions of dead intellectuals. Our society doesn’t kill bodies; it kills minds. One way is quicker, granted.

But it’s dishonest not to at least acknowledge the impetuses that might be driving the admittedly misguided reaction of social justice warriors. You have to be able to separate the cause from the reaction. If you don’t understand—and possibly address—the cause, then you’ll end up fighting the same battle over and over again. Maybe Peterson’s OK with that, because he gets to prove himself right again and again without putting in too much more effort. Now that’s validation!

The common thread I see is the love of the straw-man. He seems to love to cite the biggest idiots in opposition, as if there is literally no-one who disagrees with him who is making a worthwhile point. Sure, some of these people are professors, and it’s embarrassing that they’ve risen to where they are with clearly retrograde logical skills, but still avoid basing his arguments on opposition to these people. I think he’s shell-shocked. I also feel like he’s misrepresenting what’s legal and not—and he certainly doesn’t point out what’s legal in which countries.

Whenever someone is as mystified by the world as he is, I’m forced to wonder when he last checked whether he might be mistaken. He’s similar to Sam Harris in this: he makes what looks for the all world to be a reductio ad absurdum argument about his opponent’s line of reasoning and then, instead of backing off of the absurd conclusion, he doubles down. This may also be the reason why he sounds so disappointed when something he talks about is less than appalling.

He is the guy who would let the all-powerful anti-Marxists/capitalists win while keeping the powerless Marxists at bay. He invokes the Pol Pot/Khmer Rouge pogroms as the literal end-station of all of these movements he rails against. He shows no evidence of understanding where they’re coming from—even if they deal with their problems badly. He just sees the Marxist bogeyman everywhere, with the only logical conclusion of even thinking about taking a step on that path being the outright incarceration or slaughter of anyone who thinks differently. His critique does not once extend to the current way of running things. I fail to see the huge difference between 20th-century Marxist anti-intellectualism and the Capitalist flavor we’re currently enjoying. Peterson blames the first for everything, but doesn’t acknowledge the second in any way.

I’m almost certain that he would hate labor unions. The logic would be the same. They have tended to corruption in the past, so there is no way to ever do them right, so forget them. He would utterly fail to acknowledge the need that a labor union fills in order to focus on how poorly that need has historically been filled by them.

It’s as if you tried to drink water three or four times and each time caught dysentery. Would you then decide that you didn’t ever need to drink anything again because drinking is stupid and dangerous? That since you’ve satisfied the need poorly several times, the need no longer exists? Or would you try to figure out how to satisfy the need in a better way?

The need is still there. There is massive inequality. The students he rails against are probably being given too much power given their emotional and political immaturity. But their hearts are, in some cases, in the right place. They may have veered far off course, but they aren’t anywhere near the Killing Fields. I agree that the examples of their issues that he cites are silly—and dangerous to anchor in law—but I don’t agree that there is absolutely nothing behind the ideas. They’re just poorly thought-through. These ideas’ proponents grasp for simple solutions that are just as unjust as existing systems, but this time its the historical winners who suffer. It’s hard to join their pity party.

But straw-manning the whole school of thought without once acknowledging that there is something of philosophical value—even if it’s only a kernel from which more mature minds could build something—is just as immature. Just seeing how eagerly Peterson glommed onto any false factoid about Castro—regardless of the source, which was the right-wing blogosphere, well-known for vetting information—shows that he is intellectually unsound and has himself veered too far from the path he initially set out on.

I just saw a snippet of a video by Keith Olbermann going completely off the rails against “Russian scum!” in his weekly reports for GQ. Peterson seems more restrained but is in the same category of hyperbolic, unquestioning and blinkered thinking about the new evil of communism. They are utterly blind to any history but the one of a century ago, under Stalin, and utterly ignorant—or oblivious—of U.S. history and the alternative that capitalism offers. They don’t care about evidence, about truth, about the history of lying.

Peterson says that “it’s more difficult to rule yourself than to rule a city.” He says that people should “sort themselves out properly” first before they try to save the world. This is a decent point, but I feel he is the wrong person to make it.

I think it probably makes him less judgmental of society when he constantly thinks that people themselves are broken. Second-guessing yourself is good, and it makes sense to shut up while the grown-ups are talking, but he doesn’t strike me as too grown-up in his own arguments. In too many cases, he’s just too self-satisfied and looking for a win.

Not only that, but he’s totally trying to sell his video series, which sounds like a ludicrous pseudo-science “self-authoring” suite, which sounds verrrrrry woo-ey. “You’re trapped in the past.”, he says. This sounds logical, but he doesn’t seem to practice what he preaches. He spent 2 hours railing against fundamentalism on one side … in a very fundamentalist and selective way. Then he tries to sell a program about becoming a better person—that it sounds like he himself doesn’t even prescribe to.

At the end of the Rogan interview, we get a strong clue as to why he seems so intolerant, why he sees everything in terms of black and white. He doesn’t ask what “better” means, just claims that people have a “deeply held idea of what’s better”. He was raised a fundamentalist Christian and hasn’t shaken that. He’s quite well-read, but he jumps to conclusions that I feel aren’t justified by the evidentiary basis that he provides.

He quotes a ton of children’s stories and shows how J.K. Rowling got the paradigm right with Harry Potter: because it’s a classic, religious story—which is right, according to him. “A properly balanced story.” He’s a control freak. And he’s a pro-capitalist and unquestioning know-it-all. Once he gets rolling, he claims that it’s not possible to take part in modern society and be anti-capitalist, telling anyone who does that, “[y]ou’re deeply confused.”

Capitalism and 2000-year–old stories are the only way to structure human society. Ever. Give up everything else. Grow up. Release your past (don’t be trapped in it). He has the typically overarching need to nail everything down and explain everything according to his one or two maxims. The curse of the almost-brilliant. He says “that only God knows everything” but then goes on to claim that everyone but him is wrong.

Should you even toy with ideas that he’s already told you are stupid—well, that makes you stupid, too. “A human being in the ultimate in complexity in the universe.” So he’s also neatly put an end-cap on complexity. He redefines the universe in terms of what he understands. Anyone who claims anything else is wrong, because he’s super-smart. Then Rogan agrees with him and says that the we are more advanced than Liberia, where he saw a VICE video about eating human flesh, Peterson just agrees and plows onward. I suppose that’s the pinnacle of scientific rationalism and rigor he’s promulgating?

His final advice is to “sort yourself out” (by taking his “Future Authoring” exercise) “before you try to figure out the world”, “ marshal your arguments and put yourself in order”. That’s fine. Agreed. Physician heal thyself.

At the time I read some of his essays and listened to some of his interviews, I was reading Dostoyevsky’s excellent Notes from Underground. The narrator writes skeptically of God,

“But if you saw how proud is that mighty spirit who created this colossal setting and how proudly convinced this spirit is of its victory and of its triumph, then you would shudder for its pride, obstinacy, and blindness, but you would shudder also for those over whom this proud spirit hovers and reigns.”
Location 98-100

Unlike Peterson, I am more likely to reject religion than to try to reconcile it as intrinsic to the human condition.


[1] I’ll be the first to admit that I’m absolutely terrible at taking this advice whenever I travel by air.