A Field Guide to Jordan Peterson’s Political Arguments
Jordan Peterson, a politically outspoken University of Toronto psychology professor, popped up on my news feed after he was invited to address a Monsanto audience about “The Danger of Allowing Ideologies to Grow Unopposed.” Sounded menacing! The invite garnered some thoughtful commentary from the scientific community as well as some illustrative pushback from Peterson’s supporters. And now Peterson is making the interview rounds promoting a new self-help book for young men, which has improbably become a best-seller. So I figured it’d be worth running through his political arguments, especially since I find them a bit lacking.
To be clear, I’ve worked with a lot of academics and public agency researchers who have been attacked by political ideologues, including facing subpoenas, Congressional investigations, and false accusations of fraud from axe-grinding political hacks. So I’m sensitive to the concerns Peterson has brought up about being silenced or intimidated by his political opponents, but I don’t think he has the goods and his claims about the political debates he participates in are muddled, at best. He also fails to directly engage his critics’ arguments and feeds into hand-waving, anti-leftist sophistry by accusing his political opponents of being “cultural Marxists.”
Peterson came to fame opposing a Canadian human rights law based on the mistaken belief that the law would force professors to address trans students by their preferred pronouns. He and his supporters lost that debate and their fears about the law have not come to pass. Never the less, Peterson and his supporters are insistent that PC culture, identity politics, postmodernism and “cultural Marxism” have run amok and that the libs are gunning for them. So here’s a quick field guide to the confused arguments you’ll hear from supposed worshippers of facts and logic.
Peterson’s free speech rights are not under threat
There are are a lot of important free speech issues out there, including newspapers’ right to publish national security leaks, access to a free and open Internet, and the right to protest. But Jordan Peterson’s “free speech” claims are confused and based on unproven claims around Canadian law.
In May 2016, the Canadian Parliament began debating bill C-16, which would add gender identity to forms of discrimination covered under Canadian human rights law. So, for instance, if someone lost housing or health benefits because of their gender identity, they could sue an institution under federal jurisdiction that denied them those benefits, just as they could if they were discriminated against based on their race or religion. It also added gender identity to the country’s hate speech codes, which cover the advocacy of genocide against a group of people, and its hate crime codes, which allow judges, for instance, to assign additional penalties for crimes that target particular groups of people.**
But Peterson claimed that adding gender identity to the protected classes could possibly, maybe, someday lead to him, theoretically, just maybe, being fined for refusing to use a student’s preferred gender pronouns. He even testified before Parliament on this, despite the fact that he has no expertise in civil rights or human rights law. Further, he said that if he were fined, he would refuse to pay it, and, if faced with jail time as a result of paying those fines, go on a hunger strike. To which I say, cool fantasy, dude. Or if I’m being charitable: that’s a heck of a slippery slope.
Now to be fair, Peterson did get letters from his university advising him that misgendering a student could be ruled a possible form of discrimination under a separate set of laws, in this case, Ontario’s provincial human rights code. One letter suggested that he could easily avoid contributing to discrimination (or being a jerk!) by using a student’s first name, for instance, skipping the pronoun debate he was having in his head, entirely. Those letters also affirmed Peterson’s free speech rights and his right to academic freedom. My professional opinion: I don’t think those letters were particularly useful and I see why he found them intimidating and shared them with the press, but they’re hardly leftist authoritarianism gone wild, as Peterson and his supporters claim, nor do they constitute what they call “compelled speech,” the idea that someone will be legally forced to address someone by their preferred pronouns. They read more like university lawyers and administrators covering their asses in the face of political controversy.
And if you take a look at what an organization like the Ontario Human Rights Commission deals with day-to-day, the gender issues involved cases like a student accessing a gender-appropriate locker room and a trans prisoner being afforded proper medical treatment while in custody. Misgendering someone is simply one of several ways the code says someone could possibly be discriminated against at the institutional level. Additionally, the commission balances rights to preserve individual freedom, including respecting people’s personal, political and religious views.
Further, C-16 doesn’t have anything to do with pronouns. You can read the entirety of the bill here. Peterson and his supporters are making a series of logical leaps, claiming that OHRC’s guidance on pronoun misuse will somehow make its way to federal courts, that institutions will get punished for misgendering alone as opposed to part of a broader set of discriminatory practices, and, most troublingly, that pronoun use will be mistaken for hate speech, which again, Canada defines as advocating for genocide, not just discrimination.
It’s also worth noting that Peterson’s supporters point to Lindsay Shepherd, a teaching assistant at another school, who was admonished by an assistant professor for showing one of Peterson’s interviews to students. My read of the transcript of Shepherd’s meeting, which she recorded, is that the assistant professor bought into the heated misinformation about C-16 Peterson and his supporters had spread, not that he was trying to enforce some new rule universities were following. Again, definitely a chilling decision not to highlight controversial views in a class discussion, but also not people getting fined or jailed or rounded up by the Mounties or whatever.
And to be clear, during the C-16 debate, civil rights lawyers and scholars repeatedly pointed out that the law does not compel anyone to address students by their preferred gender pronouns. In fact, they pointed this out to Peterson often, but he has never directly responded to their legal arguments, as far as I can tell, despite producing hundreds of hours of video content on his weirdly popular Youtube channel.
For instance, here’s a debate Peterson participated in with Brenda Cossman, a law professor who focuses on gender and sexuality. She debunks his claims about compelled speech under C-16, as she has previously done in writing, but then the debate moved on to academic freedom. And here’s an hour long panel discussion where another civil rights lawyer corrects Peterson, but Peterson responds to the arguments he finds more convenient to take on from other panelists instead.
Peterson and his supporters asked for an exemption to C-16 for misgendering and free speech. Their request was rejected. Canadian Senator Grant Mitchell did a nice job debunking Peterson’s arguments on legal grounds, particularly the way in which creating special pronoun exemptions for gender identity discrimination would set bad legal precedents for other parts of the law that govern racial, religious and other forms of discrimination. And, as he notes, Canada already has strong free speech protections and judges there have a track record of understanding cases in context and not over-reaching to single people out for speech, again, unless that speech specifically advocates for genocide against a group of people.
Finally, the Canadian Bar Association, weighed in on similar grounds, too, and well, their analysis carries a lot more weight to me than a psychology professor‘s, I have to say.
So to be clear, the entire premise of Peterson’s rise to fame is based on a slippery slope argument that conflates including gender identity in discrimination laws with “compelled speech.” And Peterson has consistently failed to answer his critics on the grounds of civil rights law. But as we know, if you cry about free speech hard enough, you can get a ton of media coverage and online sympathy.
Free speech grifting and playing footsie with white nationalists
The most polite thing I can say about Peterson’s claims on free speech are that they constitute a slippery slope argument. But it’s worse than that for two reasons.
First, he confuses being oppressed with people disagreeing with him in public because his arguments are bad. But conservative rhetoric constantly confuses disagreement with silencing because it confuses what’s culturally acceptable with what’s allowed under the law. My quick rubric? If someone is going on TV to talk about how suppressed their free speech is…their free speech isn’t being suppressed. And, indeed, Peterson’s claim that he’s suppressed is a great marketing tactic for getting people to see what the fuss is about and contribute to his Patreon, where he rakes in at least $50,000 a month.
Again, to be fair, Peterson has faced protests where students and activists have shouted him down and he’s simply lectured over them. Good for him — fight speech you don’t like with more speech, sounds great. But students aren’t the state. They’re just protesting. So when Peterson says they’re “social justice warriors” who are out to take away his free speech, he’s just being ridiculous. Does it feel good being protested? Of course not. But Peterson has also failed to respond to the arguments protestors have made about the need for anti-discrimination laws, even when they’ve engaged him directly in dialogue. And his arguments confuse protest power with state power.
Meanwhile, there are a lot of other threats to free speech and academic freedom that Peterson and his supporters seem to ignore or, in some cases, condone:
- Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin passed a bill that requires students who heckle speakers to be suspended or expelled from state-run universities. There’s a free speech restriction for you. I wonder what stand up comics think about it, too!
- Conservative legislators in at least six states have introduced bills that would allow people who run over protestors with their cars to avoid legal penalties. Seriously.
- Nearly 200 people were charged with rioting in DC after protesting Trump’s Inauguration, including journalists who were covering the event.
- Last year, 34 journalists were arrested in the United States while doing their jobs and 44 have been physically attacked, including one journalist who was body-slammed by a Republican member of Congress.
- This month, federal law enforcement officials detained an immigrant rights activist during a routine check-in, sparking protests in New York City at which even more people were arrested.
- Federal science agencies discouraged employees from using the term “transgender,” along with several others, when making budget requests to Congress.
- Campus Reform and other right wing groups routinely target and harass professors who work on justice-related issues.
- Peterson himself got blowback from his peers after he said he was going to create a website that would analyze professors and their courses and expose their “postmodern radical” philosophy. Looks like this goes both ways, huh?***
So their concerns about free speech are selective and self-serving, which brings me to my second point:
Conflating discrimination and free speech is exactly what white nationalists do. To be clear, Peterson is not a white nationalist or member of the “alt-right.” He says he hates those guys and tries to steer his followers away from them. At the same time, if you watch a few Peterson videos on Youtube, the site’s algorithm will send you down the rabbit hole of “alt-light” to “alt-right” hate accounts. Unfortunately, Peterson and his followers don’t seem to understand why that’s happening.
It’s pretty simple: white nationalists understand that if you have shitty views it’s easier to argue about your right to espouse those views than it is to defend the views on their own merits. White nationalists, for instance, want to use police power to forcibly expel millions and millions of people from their homes, strip non-whites and non-Christians of their political rights, start race wars, and commit genocide. Extremely shitty. So instead they try to goad liberals and centrists and the media into focusing on their right to espouse their views instead.
When recently confronted with photographic evidence that the alt-right is trying to co-opt him, Peterson doesn’t really seem to process why that is, but offers up a video analysis of the “Pepe the Frog” symbol instead. Come on, dude.
Again, to be clear, Peterson disagrees with these guys as almost all of us do, thankfully. But in falsely claiming that an anti-discrimination law violates his free speech rights, he is unintentionally re-enforcing arguments that white nationalists also use to spread their message.
“Political correctness” and “identity politics” are used as lazy, handwaving terms— so are “postmodernism” and “cultural Marxism”
One fundamental argument Peterson and his followers are making is that liberals have gone too far pushing for equality, to the point where they are discriminating against white males. Oh noes! Almost all of these arguments involve pinning ideological positions on their opponents that they don’t actually have and then running down a wild, slippery slope to gulag, free speech restrictions, and murder. Seriously.
Peterson, for instance, recently called out Canada’s liberal prime minister for praising the women’s marches, linking them to a “murderous equity doctrine.”
Culturally, we’ve fought a lot of battles on things like sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia and bigotry. People know that expressing personally bigoted views is wrong. So when people like Peterson oppose anti-discrimination policies and laws, they’re careful to dress their arguments up in more sophisticated terms, just as the old opponents of civil rights laws would claim they were really just all about those state’s rights.
Enter the following terms…
“Political correctness” is usually defined by those on the right as someone on the left trying to criticize their speech or pointing out the discriminatory nature of a given system. In practice, the term is used to dismiss a person’s arguments while failing to grapple with them. At the same time, people on the left are trying to argue about fundamental political and economic rights, so it’s telling that conservatives try to wedge that into a culture framework with the label of “PC culture.” Again, it’s not about culture, it’s about the law.
At the same time, the right is no stranger to its own forms of “political correctness” which usually revolve around attempting to enforce norms around protest and power. For instance, claiming that the NFL #TakeAKnee protests were actually about the national anthem or the troops, not discrimination and police brutality. For a lot of people, it’s more convenient to enforce right wing political correctness around patriotic symbols than it is to acknowledge and deal with the police discrimination the players were actually protesting.
“Identity politics” is another loose, rarely defined term. Again, it’s often invoked when someone is uncomfortable dealing with the actual arguments being made about discrimination against black people, women, trans people, Muslims, immigrants, etc. Here’s the thing…when people are discriminated against based on their identity, that’s also “identity politics.”
For instance, gerrymandering and voter suppression keeps black people from having their votes counted in our democracy to this day, sixty years after MLK Jr.’s “Give Us the Ballot” speech. Alabama legislators who restricted voting rights, claimed they were working to take down the “black power structure” in the state. Similarly, North Carolina’s district lines and voting laws are getting overturned because they targeted black communities based on race with “almost surgical precision” according to a recent court ruling.
Hate crimes are also on the rise in the United States. According to FBI statistics, in 2016, there were more than 6,000 hate crimes committed nationally. More than half were motivated by race, ethnicity or ancestry. Twenty-one percent involved religious discrimination. The balance targeted people based on their sexual orientation, gender identity and ability.
That’s the real identity politics. But when someone says they’re against “identity politics” what they usually mean is that addressing discrimination makes them uncomfortable. To which I say, get over yourself and ask how your politics does or doesn’t address the real “identity politics” that are actually hurting people.
“Postmodernism” —This term is often used to imply some divorcing of a political debate from objective truth or reality and isn’t actually rooted in an understanding of postmodern philosophy. Instead, it’s used to downplay evidence someone doesn’t like as being subjective while upholding evidence someone does like as objective.
“Cultural Marxism,” — This is a bullshit concept that’s used to try to wedge modern cultural debates into Cold War political frameworks so a speaker can smear someone who disagrees with them as being a secret leftist authoritarian.
In politics, everyone bring their own “facts” to the debate
Despite the obvious slippery slope nature of their arguments, Peterson and his followers insist they have The Facts and Logic on their side. And, well, everyone likes to think they have the facts on their side and that they’re being logical. And conservative commentators can get a lot of free passes from the mainstream press if they dress their arguments up with enough statistics, numbers and appeals to philosophy and science, or in Peterson’s case, personality traits in psychology. But political debates aren’t really about who has the most or best facts or even who has the most consistent logic. Politics is about which facts are considered relevant to a debate and what kind of logic we should follow in creating, following and enforcing laws.
So when Peterson supporters try to drop a bunch of perceived “facts” about there being only two “genders,” for instance, the reality is that their “facts” are irrelevant to the debate. They don’t want to acknowledge the difference between biological sex and gender identity, even when one points them to scholarship on the subject, let alone people’s lived experiences, including scientists who have transitioned. More deeply, there is no level of scientific evidence required to guarantee someone their civil rights. For trans people, in particular, research into gender identity hasn’t exactly been a booming industry, largely due to discrimination in the scientific community. So the idea that they have to “prove” they exist to Jordan Peterson or his supporters is frankly, stupid as hell.
Similarly, when Peterson recently argued about women’s rights with a Channel 4* interviewer, he tried to make the pay gap debates sound a lot more complex than it needs to be, insisting that we have to understand all the trends that contribute to the pay gap before we can say whether or not there is discrimination at play. Along the way, Peterson argued there are plenty of successful women, that the pay gap is part of career choices women make and that there are just as many female medical degree seekers as men. Those may all be true facts, but they can also be irrelevant to political debates about what gender pay equity laws actually do: they give women the right to sue for lost wages and rectify discrimination under specific circumstances against specific employers, just as expanding discrimination laws in Canada empowers transgender people to rectify discrimination they face. (And again, the cultural debate is not the political debate.)
At the same time, Peterson has held up complexity around climate change as a reason for avoiding addressing it, too, claiming both that no one is an expert on climate change and that he doesn’t trust climate models. (That’s a head-scratcher, huh?) Putting aside his lack of expertise on most of the things he opines about, there’s no level of perfection for climate modeling that would somehow demand or preclude specific emissions reduction policies. It’s just hand-waving.
Ultimately, we’re dealing with denial
Working with climate scientists for so many years, I’ve steeped myself in the social science of denial. People make incredible mental leaps to stay in denial about obvious scientific realities like industrially driven climate change, evolution by natural selection, and the fact that vaccines prevent disease rather than cause them. Humans are AMAZING at ignoring unpleasant information as well as information that contradicts their beliefs.
But climate denial has nothing on racism denial. Or bigotry denial. Ultimately, I’ve come to view the sort of arguments that Peterson indulges in as yet another form of that denial. For many people, Peterson included, it’s more psychologically convenient to complain about “PC culture” than it is to ask ourselves how we can actually help trans people who are being discriminated against.
For people in positions of privilege and power, it takes far more courage to confront their own biases and stand in solidarity with people who are being discriminated against than it does to complain about people who disagree with them being mean on the Internet. Peterson and his supporters have yet to find that courage. Many never will. But I know that at the end of the day, Martin Luther King Jr.’s politics are a hell of a lot better than Jordan Peterson’s.
A few more notes on silly things Peterson and his supporters do and say
Taking disagreements personally —Saying “Jordan Peterson has bad ideas” isn’t calling him a bad person. Peterson’s followers have been hyper-sensitized to ignore arguments by accusing the person they’re talking to of being irrational, emotional or having cartoon versions of “social justice warrior” beliefs they don’t actually have. There are all just defense mechanisms people use to ignore actual arguments about discrimination. It’s a cottage industry and one that Peterson is cashing in on.
But these trans people like him! — There are several videos of trans people who say they support Peterson’s position on pronoun use. They also misunderstand how the relevant laws work. Citing their arguments is akin to politicians who support racist gerrymandering and voter suppression policies standing behind their black friends and allies. The fact that some black people like them or even agree with them doesn’t mean the policies they support don’t discriminate against black people generally.
You’re misrepresenting his argument! — Because Peterson has produced hundreds of hours of videos, his supporters can point to some random nuanced point about postmodernism he made or whatever and claim that’s his real point. But this is silly: you don’t have to watch hours and hours of video to sufficiently analyze an argument. Weirdly, Peterson himself has even used the “ah, but have you watched all my videos?” gambit when confronted by trans rights activists at a rally. Basically, if your points are so complex and nuanced it takes hundreds of hours to explain them, your points are probably not particularly relevant to a political debate.
But look at what these mean SJWs did!—There are a bunch of videos of students protesting Peterson. Wow! Students protested something. That’s never ever ever happened before in human history! The truth is that protests are a feature of democracy, not a bug. And more fundamentally, complaints about student protests confuse who has power and responsibility in these situations, too: shouldn’t a professor with controversial views work harder to help students who are protesting him understand those views? I think so, but Peterson hasn’t done that. And shouldn’t professors also work harder to understand why they are being protested by talking to the people organizing the protests? I think so, too, but doing so would require humbling themselves, so many simply don’t put in the work, even as they demand respect and deference for their views. This video, for instance, is meant to make fun of protestors, but it’s actually a great example of Peterson ignoring and downplaying the points trans rights activists are making, even when they are making them to his face and asking him to respond directly. Maybe if he had better arguments, he’d be more convincing.
Okay, but extreme ideologies are bad on both sides — When a discrimination denier is pushed on a particular point, they try to find comfort in acknowledging that “both sides” have done something bad. But this analysis isn’t particularly useful. “Both sides,” are not equally bad on these issues and false equivalencies downplay discrimination generally. Students protesting Peterson are not as bad as a white supremacist who ran people over in the streets in Virginia. Similarly, a university sending Peterson a letter is a far cry from a state attorney general subpoenaing a climate scientist. More broadly, the extreme right in the United States has a great deal of political power; the extreme left does not.
Errate: Brenda Cossman, not Barbara. Thanks!
*Originally had that as the BBC. My bad. Thanks for the note, @djnrrd.
** Added a link to the full codes, per @dtgill. Thanks!
*** Peterson abandoned this idea in November, per @DCHetson. Thank you!