Smear pieces are nothing new for Jordan Peterson. For example, see MacLean’s is the Stupid Man’s Stupid Magazine. Now the Guardian asks How dangerous is Jordan B Peterson, the rightwing professor who ‘hit a hornets’ nest’? Ooh, he’s ‘rightwing’ and ‘dangerous’. Is there any merit to these claims?
The Canadian psychology professor and culture warrior Jordan B Peterson could not have hoped for better publicity than his recent encounter with Cathy Newman on Channel 4 News. The more Newman inaccurately paraphrased his beliefs and betrayed her irritation, the better Peterson came across. The whole performance, which has since been viewed more than 6m times on YouTube and was described by excitable Fox News host Tucker Carlson as “one of the great interviews of all time”, bolstered Peterson’s preferred image as the coolly rational man of science facing down the hysteria of political correctness. As he told Newman in his distinctive, constricted voice, which he has compared to that of Kermit the Frog: “I choose my words very, very carefully.”
Newman did more than paraphrase. She continually claimed he was saying things that he wasn’t, and came off looking like a liar. See my post Trolls Attack Cathy Newman – All White Men Blamed.
The confrontation has worked wonders for Peterson. His new book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos has become a runaway bestseller in the UK, US, Canada, Australia, Germany and France, making him the public intellectual du jour. Peterson is not just another troll, narcissist or blowhard whose arguments are fatally compromised by bad faith, petulance, intellectual laziness and blatant bigotry. It is harder to argue with someone who believes what he says and knows what he is talking about – or at least conveys that impression. No wonder every scourge of political correctness, from the Spectator to InfoWars, is aflutter over the 55-year-old professor who appears to bring heavyweight intellectual armature to standard complaints about “social-justice warriors” and “snowflakes”. They think he could be the culture war’s Weapon X.
And the smearing begins. Not just implies is. So Peterson is a troll, narcissist, and blowhard, and his arguments are made in bad faith, petulance, intellectual laziness and blatant bigotry who merely conveys the impression that he knows what he’s talking about? Hope you are going to back this up.
Not everybody is persuaded that Peterson is a thinker of substance, however. Last November, fellow University of Toronto professor Ira Wells called him “the professor of piffle” – a YouTube star rather than a credible intellectual.
You can read my rebuttal of Wells’s “piffle” in Marxist Apologist Attacks Jordan Peterson.
Tabatha Southey, a columnist for the Canadian magazine Macleans, designated him “the stupid man’s smart person”. “Peterson’s secret sauce is to provide an academic veneer to a lot of old-school rightwing cant, including the notion that most academia is corrupt and evil, and banal self-help patter,” says Southey. “He’s very much a cult thing, in every regard. I think he’s a goof, which does not mean he’s not dangerous.”
You can read my rebuttal of Southey’s stupidity in MacLean’s is the Stupid Man’s Stupid Magazine.
So, what does Peterson actually believe? He bills himself as “a classic British liberal” whose focus is the psychology of belief. Much of what he says is familiar: marginalised groups are infantilised by a culture of victimhood and offence-taking; political correctness threatens freedom of thought and speech; ideological orthodoxy undermines individual responsibility. You can read this stuff any day of the week and perhaps agree with some of it.
I agree with most of it.
However, Peterson goes further, into its most paranoid territory. His bete noire is what he calls “postmodern neo-Marxism” or “cultural Marxism”. In a nutshell: having failed to win the economic argument, Marxists decided to infiltrate the education system and undermine western values with “vicious, untenable and anti-human ideas”, such as identity politics, that will pave the road to totalitarianism.
If you read the Wikipedia article on the Frankfurt School, you will find that it too claims that cultural Marxism is a conspiracy theory. And yet, among the facts it presents:
- The … Frankfurt School [was] founded in 1923, by Carl Grünberg, a Marxist professor of law at the University of Vienna. As such, the Frankfurt School was the first Marxist research center.
- The Frankfurt scholars applied critical selections of Marxist philosophy to interpret, illuminate, and explain the origins and causes of reactionary socio-economics.
- The Institute … moved … to New York City, in 1935, where the Frankfurt School joined Columbia University.
- The School’s important work in Marxist critical theory … gained acceptance among the academy, in the U.S and in the U.K.
During the second world war, German Marxist intellectuals fled to America and brought their ideology, in the form of Marxist critical theory with them, and colonized academia. And yet we are told that cultural Marxism is a conspiracy theory? See my post How #MeToo Revealed the Marxist Roots of Feminism for more on Marxism’s influence on the social sciences.
Rather than promoting blatant bigotry, like the far right, [Peterson] claims that concepts fundamental to social-justice movements, such as the existence of patriarchy and other forms of structural oppression, are treacherous illusions, and that he can prove this with science. Hence: “The idea that women were oppressed throughout history is an appalling theory.” Islamophobia is “a word created by fascists and used by cowards to manipulate morons”. White privilege is “a Marxist lie”. Believing that gender identity is subjective is “as bad as claiming that the world is flat”.
While his rhetoric is pointed, I agree that there is no vast patriarchal conspiracy (talk about a conspiracy theory!), that smearing any criticism of Islamists as “Islamophobia” is manipulative, and that gender identity is not entirely subjective, at least not for the vast majority of people.
Unsurprisingly, he was an early supporter of James Damore, the engineer fired by Google for his memo Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber.
And Damore was another victim of a massive smear campaign. See CBC is Schizophrenic Over Google Memo.
Peterson is old enough to remember the political correctness wars of the early 90s, when conservatives such as Allan Bloom and Roger Kimball warned that campus speech codes and demands to diversify the canon were putting the US on the slippery slope to Maoism, and mainstream journalists found the counterintuitive twist – what if progressives are the real fascists? – too juicy to resist. Their alarmist rhetoric now seems ridiculous. Those campus battles did not lead to the Gulag.
And yet we see Antifa setting fire to Berkeley and smashing counter-protesters with bike locks, and the universities doing nothing to stop them from shutting down free speech on campus. The ‘alarmist’ rhetoric doesn’t seem so ridiculous.
In many ways, Peterson is an old-fashioned conservative who mourns the decline of religious faith and the traditional family, but he uses of-the-moment tactics. His YouTube gospel resonates with young white men who feel alienated by the jargon of social-justice discourse and crave an empowering theory of the world in which they are not the designated oppressors.
Most young white men are not oppressors. Why wouldn’t they want a message that doesn’t paint them as such?
Peterson’s audience includes Christian conservatives, atheist libertarians, centrist pundits and neo-Nazis.
Who cares if neo-Nazis listen to him? Considering he denounces them at every turn, it’s hard to believe that they like him. Guilt by association is a basic smear tactic. Just stop.
His more extreme supporters have abused, harassed and doxxed (maliciously published the personal information of) several of his critics. One person who has crossed swords with Peterson politely declined my request for an interview, having experienced floods of hatemail, including physical threats. Newman received so much abuse that Peterson asked his fans to “back off”, albeit while suggesting the scale had been exaggerated. “His fans are relentless,” says Southey. “They have contacted me, repeatedly, on just about every platform possible.”
Peterson is not responsible for what others do and, as pointed out, calls for people to back off.
While Peterson does not endorse such attacks, his intellectual machismo does not exactly deter them. He calls ideas he disagrees with silly, ridiculous, absurd, insane. He describes debate as “combat” on the “battleground” of ideas and hints at physical violence, too. “If you’re talking to a man who wouldn’t fight with you under any circumstances whatsoever, then you’re talking to someone for whom you have absolutely no respect,” he told Paglia last year, adding that it is harder to deal with “crazy women” because he cannot hit them.
Peterson’s point is that men are careful about what they say to other men because they know if they go too far, they may get hit, whereas women don’t have to worry about this. He is not condoning violence, merely explaining why interactions between men are different that interactions between men and women.
His fans post videos with titles such as “Jordan Peterson DESTROY [sic] Transgender Professor” and “Those 7 Times Jordan Peterson Went Beast Mode”. In debate, as in life, Peterson believes in winners and losers.
In debate, as in life, there are winners and losers.
“How does one effectively debate a man who seems obsessed with telling his adoring followers that there is a secret cabal of postmodern neo-Marxists hellbent on destroying western civilisation and that their campus LGBTQ group is part of it?” says Southey. “There’s never going to be a point where he says: ‘You know what? You’re right, I was talking out of my ass back there.’ It’s very much about him attempting to dominate the conversation.”
One could say exactly the same thing about a woman who is obsessed with a secret patriarchy hellbent on oppressing all women.
This staunch anti-authoritarian also has a striking habit of demonising the left while downplaying dangers from the right. After the 2016 US election, Peterson described Trump as a “liberal” and a “moderate”, no more of a demagogue than Reagan.
When Reagan was president, Trump was a Democrat. If he were a Republican twenty years ago, he would have been considered a moderate. The Overton window has shifted, making him look radical today.
In as much as Trump voters are intolerant, Peterson claims, it is the left’s fault for sacrificing the working class on the altar of identity politics.
His point is that by endorsing globalism and hollowing out the rust belt, the Democrats alienated the working class, who rightly saw their jobs being given to the Chinese and to Mexico.
Because his contempt for identity politics includes what he calls “the pathology of racial pride”, he does not fully endorse the far right, but he flirts with their memes and overlaps with them on many issues.
I would expect a psychologist to understand and appreciate memetics.
“It’s true that he’s not a white nationalist,” says David Neiwert, the Pacific Northwest correspondent for the Southern Poverty Law Center and the author of Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump. “But he’s buttressing his narrative with pseudo-facts, many of them created for the explicit purpose of promoting white nationalism, especially the whole notion of ‘cultural Marxism’. The arc of radicalisation often passes through these more ‘moderate’ ideologues.”
Cultural Marxism is not a white nationalist idea. That academia and the culture have been influenced by Marxist thought is a belief widely held by conservatives and libertarians. Constant demonization of men, Caucasians, and straight people by the media and left wing politicians supports this belief. If you want to stop ‘radicalizing’ people, stop calling them names.
“The difference is that this individual has a title and profession that lend a certain illusory credibility,” says Cara Tierney, an artist and part-time professor who protested against Peterson’s appearance at Ottawa’s National Gallery last year. “It’s very theatrical and shrewdly exploits platforms that thrive on spectacle, controversy, fear and prejudice. The threat is not so much what [Peterson’s] beliefs are, but how they detract from more critical, informed and, frankly, interesting conversations.”
This sounds like pure snobbery.
Consider the media firestorm last November over Lindsay Shepherd, a teaching assistant at Ontario’s Wilfrid Laurier University, who was reprimanded for showing students a clip of Peterson debating gender pronouns. Her supervising professor compared it to “neutrally playing a speech by Hitler”, before backing down and apologising publicly. The widely reported controversy sent 12 Rules for Life racing back up the Amazon charts, leading Peterson to tweet: “Apparently being compared to Hitler now constitutes publicity.”
A perfect example of left wing demagoguery, as a young woman was harassed for showing her students an opinion that differed from theirs. Of course the publicity led to interest in Peterson’s work. But why was there publicity? Because Shepherd taped the reprimand, and when the truth came out, people were rightly incensed by the behavior of Laurier’s administrators.
Yet Peterson’s commitment to unfettered free speech is questionable. Once you believe in a powerful and malign conspiracy, you start to justify extreme measures. Last July, he announced plans to launch a website that would help students and parents identify and avoid “corrupt” courses with “postmodern content”. Within five years, he hoped, this would starve “postmodern neo-Marxist cult classes” into oblivion. Peterson shelved the plan after a backlash, acknowledging that it “might add excessively to current polarisation”. Who could have predicted that blacklisting fellow professors might exacerbate polarisation? Apparently not “the most influential public intellectual in the western world”.
How is creating a web-site doing anything counter to free speech?
The key to Peterson’s appeal is also his greatest weakness. He wants to be the man who knows everything and can explain everything, without qualification or error. On Channel 4 News, he posed as an impregnable rock of hard evidence and common sense. But his arguments are riddled with conspiracy theories and crude distortions of subjects, including postmodernism, gender identity and Canadian law, that lie outside his field of expertise. Therefore, there is no need to caricature his ideas in order to challenge them. Even so, his critics will have their work cut out: Peterson’s wave is unlikely to come crashing down any time soon.
This entire article fails to challenge to any of Dr. Peterson’s ideas, and does caricature them as conspiracy theories. I believe he can be criticized, and have done so in the past (Jordan Peterson is Wrong on Forced Monogamy), but if you want to criticize, you need to do more than slander.