Jordan Peterson and the New York Times — a Rorschach test for the new culture wars
Jordan Peterson has turned into a kind of Rorschach blot for the renewal of the culture wars, with seemingly everyone seeing their own version of the Canadian psychologist and famous intellectual.
For one side of passionate fans he is a fearless warrior for truth, on the other, equally passionate, he is a retrograde crank trying to take us back to the 1950s.
The latest New York Times piece “Jordan Peterson, Custodian of the Patriarchy” seems to me to be a significant moment in the ongoing parable of Jordan Peterson, and I feel somewhat uniquely placed to unpack it.
I’m a filmmaker and journalist, I made the first full-length documentary about Jordan Peterson, “Truth in the Time of Chaos”. I also happened, for a decade, to work for Channel 4 News, home of the infamous Cathy Newman interview that rocketed him to fame. So I have a wealth of experience within the “liberal media bubble” also.
In fact I also made a documentary about that experience — “Glitch in the Matrix”.
Additionally — my media platform Rebel Wisdom is apparently part of the newly coined Intellectual Dark Web (Critical Darker Web, according to this website — which means we can provide something of a wider view maybe).
I’m clearly someone who thinks Peterson has something of immense value to add to the conversation, but I will try to take a dispassionate view here and include criticisms of Peterson. Whatever you think of him I would urge you to try to keep an open mind while reading.
The journalist, Nellie Bowles, spent a couple of days with Peterson, and also clearly has at least a passing familiarity with his work. The quotes are mostly his own words.
Overall the tone of the piece is that he is at best an anti-feminist and at worst an outright misogynist who wants to return to the 1950s.
Peterson is certainly a traditionalist — and relies on scientific (biological and psychological) data to make the point that men and women have evolved to have different temperaments based on biology and historical roles — and left to their own devices will make different life choices.
Alongside many other scientists, he argues that this is borne out by the fact that — in countries that have moved furthest towards gender equality — eg: Scandinavia, what we see is more men choosing typically masculine occupations such as engineering and more women choosing more caring occupations (increased testosterone making men more interested in things, rather than people).
Many on the liberal left will hear his words as arguing that human nature is immutable and we have to accept that we will be doomed to play out the roles of the past and roll back the clock to 1959.
A more nuanced version of Peterson’s argument is made by Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying — husband and wife evolutionary biologists. They are left-wing former Occupy supporters and fellow members of the Intellectual Dark Web. They have very similar arguments, that we evolved with different skills and dispositions — that there is wide overlap (eg: for male animals, human males are pretty maternal (feminine), and females are pretty masculine) — but they then go on to say that we have to recognise this human toolkit we have been given by evolution and see what we can make of it.
Moreover that we HAVE to evolve beyond that toolkit if we are going to survive — because if we don’t — also in that toolkit is a hardwired tribalism that is increasingly playing out in our social media/politics/culture and is likely to end in a self-extinguishing event if we don’t get a grip on it.
Bret Weinstein also says that — while humans are not a blank slate, our experience of the world is framed by our biological heritage — we are nonetheless the “blankest” slates in the animal world — we can and do adapt.
But that until the left in particular accepts biological and evolutionary reality then they will be effectively fighting against reality and wasting effort on battles that cannot be won (or should not be won).
I genuinely don’t know if that’s also what Peterson believes — that human nature has given us certain tools, but it doesn’t mean we are fated to return to the past — but if I was advising him on media strategy I would suggest that if it is, he should make that really clear each time he addresses these issues.
Media strategy — or not
As a journalist, it seems that Jordan Peterson has been treating the media world in a fairly unique and trusting way for months now. Most public figures in his position have people advising them on media strategy, what to say, and what not to say — how to frame things so you are not misquoted. Which interviews to take on and which to refuse. Moreover, probably not to allow two solid days behind the scenes to someone who you think may have an agenda.
As far as I can tell, he doesn’t have this and has embraced and is fully living out his own dictum — “speak the truth and let the pieces fall where they may”.
So far speaking the truth has worked out well for him — he was lucky that Channel 4 News put up the Cathy Newman interview unedited — a decision I’m sure that they quickly regretted. This New York Times piece feels different — that it will solidify impressions of him on either side.
“Bad faith changes everything”
As Eric Weinstein, Bret’s brother, and another member of the unofficial ‘intellectual dark web’ said — “bad faith changes everything”. It’s possible to have any kind of discussion with people you disagree with so long as they are approaching it in good faith — as soon as they are not, they’re just looking to boost their position, look good in front of others or advance their career within their tribe — as Peterson alleged Cathy Newman was — then true exchange of ideas is impossible.
I would argue that this journalist is indeed acting in bad faith. Some of the misrepresentations cannot be put down to simple misunderstanding.
The piece of the interview that has been seized upon is this:
“Recently, a young man named Alek Minassian drove through Toronto trying to kill people with his van. Ten were killed, and he has been charged with first-degree murder for their deaths, and with attempted murder for 16 people who were injured. Mr. Minassian declared himself to be part of a misogynist group whose members call themselves incels. The term is short for “involuntary celibates,” though the group has evolved into a male supremacist movement made up of people — some celibate, some not — who believe that women should be treated as sexual objects with few rights. Some believe in forced “sexual redistribution,” in which a governing body would intervene in women’s lives to force them into sexual relationships.
Violent attacks are what happens when men do not have partners, Mr. Peterson says, and society needs to work to make sure those men are married.
“He was angry at God because women were rejecting him,” Mr. Peterson says of the Toronto killer. “The cure for that is enforced monogamy. That’s actually why monogamy emerges.”
Mr. Peterson does not pause when he says this. Enforced monogamy is, to him, simply a rational solution. Otherwise women will all only go for the most high-status men, he explains, and that couldn’t make either gender happy in the end.”
The framing of it makes it sound like he’s advocating for some kind of “government/state enforced” monogamy — which is malicious. He — as anyone who has been listening to his lectures will tell you — is making a more subtle point.
That monogamy is an evolved trait to stabilise societies — it’s “enforced” only as a social rule. Many societies in the past have had polygamy or other situations where a small number of men had access to many women (as do many animal societies), and that proved to be unstable and a bad long term solution to social harmony.
So in this argument, the reason that monogamy evolves (and is socially enforced) is to avoid the kind of situation where you end up with too many bitter young men wanting to tear things down. Which — whether you agree with his reading or not — seems to be happening.
And he also argues — that one of the consequences of the sexual revolution of the 60s is that it has loosened sexual behaviour. When that happens, and there are less social and physiological downsides (pregnancy is not inevitable) — and more sex is being had — the spoils go disproportionately to the most attractive men.
He is arguing that there are deeper reasons for the morality that we evolved over our history, and that there are consequences to the kinds of lifestyle experiments that we saw start to accelerate in the 1960s. This is what the essence of Peterson’s message is about.
You can disagree with Peterson, but many people are recognising that this fits their experience of the world — hence his popularity. That the increasingly boundary-less world we’ve created is not working and we need a reintegration of these traditional values.
Personally I agree with Peterson that much of our culture and media is in the grip of an ideology that styles itself as open, inclusive and tolerant, but actually has a shadow side of intolerance towards those that don’t share their values.
One of the sacred cows in this is the belief that the only reason that men and women don’t have equal representation in many industries and top jobs is because of discrimination, not differing choices. This was famously the subject of the clash with Cathy Newman.
If these activists (and the liberal left generally) has to accept that there are measurable differences in temperament, values and life choices made by men and women, and that some of them are likely tied to biology and evolutionary history — then the entire edifice of this ‘gender ideology’ movement starts to shake. We would realise that it would be irrational to expect 50/50 representation in many jobs, for example.
And realise that this is not just a social movement — this ideological framing — it’s a big industry. There are charities, organisations and groups that are funded on the basis of this that have huge impact on the media conversation, and business practice.
So left-wingers who are usually concerned about the impact of money on ideology and political decisions from corporate interests, might wish to look at the fact that these are major financial interests as well. It is not possible for this entire industry to look at the data accurately.
I would also frame it in this way that might resonate with left-wing thinkers. Why are you using capitalist metrics like pay to decide on whether women have achieved equality? Isn’t that just another version of the ‘patriarchy’ controlling your minds? How has “the man” persuaded you that equal pay is the right metric to look for equal respect and value?
What makes women actually fulfilled and gives genuine meaning in life? Is it the same as for men? I doubt it, and I personally know many women who made that realisation too late in life to easily have a balanced life that included children.
But anything that argues against leftist ideology is attacked and smeared. For example the infamous ‘Google memo’ was a case in point, being described as an ‘anti-diversity screed’ throughout the media despite the author, James Damore, specifically making suggestions that would increase the representation of women in tech. This article from the Atlantic — from a writer who doesn’t agree with Damore’s conclusions — gives good context to its misrepresentation: “To me, the Google memo is an outlier — I cannot remember the last time so many outlets and observers mischaracterized so many aspects of a text everyone possessed.”
Liberalism as an ideology, with those inside and outside the tribe. Those outside the tribe, like Peterson — deserve scorn, derision, and even misrepresentation.
Another hard to explain mischaracterisation, if the journalist had any familiarity with Peterson’s work is this:
“Mr. Peterson illustrates his arguments with copious references to ancient myths — bringing up stories of witches, biblical allegories and ancient traditions. I ask why these old stories should guide us today.
“It makes sense that a witch lives in a swamp. Yeah,” he says. “Why?”
It’s a hard one.
“Right. That’s right. You don’t know. It’s because those things hang together at a very deep level. Right. Yeah. And it makes sense that an old king lives in a desiccated tower.”
But witches don’t exist, and they don’t live in swamps, I say.
“Yeah, they do. They do exist. They just don’t exist the way you think they exist. They certainly exist. You may say well dragons don’t exist. It’s, like, yes they do — the category predator and the category dragon are the same category. It absolutely exists. It’s a superordinate category. It exists absolutely more than anything else. In fact, it really exists. What exists is not obvious. You say, ‘Well, there’s no such thing as witches.’ Yeah, I know what you mean, but that isn’t what you think when you go see a movie about them. You can’t help but fall into these categories. There’s no escape from them.”
He is deliberately framed here as an old crank, an eccentric who believes in dragons and witches. Yet throughout his lectures he has made clear he is talking psychologically, archetypally and mythologically.
In this view they exist in our mythology in a very real way as representations of psychological realities, for example that the dragon is the mythological representation of the ‘unknown’. Throughout our history if you ventured out into the unknown you could die — but there was no other way to discover new information or new rewards.
So the dragon is a composite predator of all the animals that used to prey on humans — a cat/snake/bird — and of course in mythology dragons have gold (or virginal women in captivity). The deep psychological story is that by confronting the unknown, you can achieve riches. He’s made that abundantly clear in every lecture.
What is becoming ever clearer (and again is something Peterson points out) — the death spiral of the print media is speeding up polarisation — in even the most reputable organisations such as the New York Times start to produce clickbait such as the Jordan Peterson article.
Perhaps the New York Times have decided to take a leaf out of the book of the 4chan culture, and provocateurs like Milo Yiannopolous who made whole careers out of provoking the left into overreaction. In this case — the NYT have placed this article behind a paywall (I’m told) — so to read it, outraged Peterson fans will have to subscribe to the paper.
Then to unsubscribe — I know because I just checked — you cannot unsubscribe online, you have to call them. This seems at least unethical.
The most dangerous part of this whole enterprise is that Peterson has now become pretty much the singular focus of the ramping up of the culture wars — the lightning rod, if you will. Articles like this add hugely to the polarisation he warns about.
On one side you have literally tens of thousands of people (mainly, but not all men) who have had their lives changed, and many claiming actually saved, by listening to Jordan Peterson’s words. On the other side you have a mix of hard core ideological opponents to him, and a vast middle ground who don’t know him well — but are almost certainly thinking that there is no smoke without fire.
He has argued frequently that we are in an increasingly polarised world and that individual actions can have serious consequences, if we don’t act with integrity, or we sacrifice our morality and conscience in any way.
This journalist spent two days with Peterson in his house, she seemingly has some familiarity with his work, and yet chooses to characterise him in this way.
The treatment of Jordan Peterson is speeding up the irrelevance of the mainstream media at an increasing rate. Too many people are aware of his work and who he is and what he believes for the hit pieces to stick.
In the language of the internet subculture — the treatment of Jordan Peterson by the mainstream media is showing up their ideology, and Red Pilling an entire generation.