An open letter to liberal supporters of Jordan Peterson
Let’s start by saying who this letter is for. This letter is not for all fans of Dr. Jordan Peterson. I want to address this letter specifically to his liberal followers. It’s because I want to specifically discuss liberal ideals. Specifically, I want to address several of my concerns about Peterson’s brand of liberalism.
NOTE: I am actually a fan of Jordan Peterson. What I am criticising here is his style of talking, and a few things that he said, that may not be entirely ‘classical liberal’. It is meant to be a constructive criticism.
On what liberalism is
Liberalism holds the promise of liberty, equality and fraternity for all, and if it cannot live up to this promise, it will be discredited, and lose support.
Dr. Peterson self-identifies as a classical liberal, and according to the principle that we always respect individuals’ sincere self identification, we accept that. Furthermore, his dedication to free speech and ardent opposition to top-down social engineering is very admirable, and his robust individualism is something most liberals would share. However, there are certain ideas, fairly or unfairly associated with the man, that seems to be against the spirit of liberalism, and could potentially misrepresent the liberal brand. This is serious, because misrepresenting the liberal brand would only help the so-called “Marxism” that Peterson himself so vocally opposes. More on that later.
Let’s start with gender diversity. Peterson arguably came to fame because of his opposition to a trans rights law proposed by the Canadian Trudeau government in 2016. While we do need to scrutinize every new law and make sure it doesn’t take away our fundamental liberties, it has since been proven that his assertions about the dangers of this law were generally unfounded. Furthermore, he has made a big deal about gender neutral pronouns for non-binary people, something that I believe rational liberals (as opposed to paranoid ultra-conservatives) should actually support, as long as it’s not legally compulsory (and it’s not, contrary to some of his assertions). After all, what’s wrong with treating a small minority of people with respect, and helping them feel better in life? The new culture of pronouns may need a little getting used to, but if it makes people’s lives better, I’m all for it. Besides, it’s not like the normal pronouns are being banned or phased out!
And then there’s his controversial views on marriage equality. Apparently, he would not support marriage equality if “cultural Marxists” were behind the push. When did liberalism’s decision to support certain things depend on what other political factions do? I mean, on this logic, one could also argue that the push for free speech is sometimes supported by the alt-right, so we may as well drop the free speech issue too. The truth is, liberals should never play political games with our fundamental values.
I hope I don’t have to remind anyone that equal treatment under the law is a fundamental value of liberalism. Furthermore, I believe liberals should generally support policies that are pro-family because strong families are important for preventing authoritarian control of society. As former British Prime Minister David Cameron put it, “I support gay marriage because I am a conservative,” because conservatives support family values. The alternative to marriage equality would just be a marriage-less gay culture, which liberals and conservatives alike shouldn’t hope for.
In these and other examples (e.g. how white privilege is a “Marxist lie”), Peterson gives an overall impression that he is all too ready to let minorities suffer. Liberalism holds the promise of liberty, equality and fraternity for all, and if it cannot live up to this promise, it will be discredited, and lose support. This support will likely go to the so-called “Marxism” he claims to oppose. (Especially since he has in effect told suffering minorities that white privilege and similar injustices are Marxist problems; I’m certain he doesn’t actually mean it that way but this is how it comes across to many people.) Therefore, while we don’t support divisiveness, political correctness and so-called “safe speech,” we should strongly support equal opportunity and liberty for all, both in law and in culture.
On radical identity politics
Truth to be told, I think that radical identity politics couldn’t have grown to its current extent without the likes of Donald Trump, Milo Yiannopoulos and perhaps Jordan Peterson himself.
As liberals, many of us are increasingly concerned about the rise of far-left influences that have attempted to clamp down on freedom of speech and conscience. It is therefore unsurprising that the voice of Jordan Peterson, a self-identified classical liberal, has been welcomed in many quarters of society at this time, including among liberals. Peterson has been able to provide a diagnosis as to what is going wrong, while many people continue to scratch their heads, uncomfortable with the new political climate but not quite able to pinpoint the reasons for it. In my opinion, this diagnosis is both substantially correct, but also substantially flawed.
I believe that Peterson has been quite correct in his identification of the source of this new leftist authoritarianism, in what he incorrectly calls “cultural Marxism.” I personally refrain from using that word myself, for several reasons, including its linkage to a right-wing anti-Semitic conspiracy theory about the Frankfurt School that isn’t supported by reality, and its potential to evoke strong emotional responses of all sorts, which is unhelpful. Plus the fact is that, the “cultural Marxism” he talks about is not really similar to orthodox Marxism at all, like the fact that “social Darwinism” does not have much to do with Darwin’s theory of evolution, but merely borrows language and concepts from it.
In fact, most orthodox Marxists hate radical identity politics with a passion. Peterson is, however, correct about the origins of radical identity politics as it exists today. As I have previously observed, for some historical reason, the Marxist idea of economic class struggle had somehow been taken up by groups with a cultural-identity (rather than purely economic) focus, and distorted into a theory calling for identity-based group struggle. Needless to say, the fruits of this kind of politics will be a very divisive society, and such us-vs-them collectivist attitudes are also totally incompatible with liberal values.
As liberals, we now have no choice but to stand firmly against divisive identity politics on both the left and the right, and to strongly promote our alternative in the free market of ideas. To this extent, I generally agree with Peterson. But I believe that he has also been mistaken in several of his observations, and these are mistakes that may fatally weaken any movement against divisive identity politics.
Secondly, I have noticed Peterson’s tendency to deliberately take positions opposite to those he believes are advocated for by radical identity politics, as most evident in his thoughts on gay marriage. He seems to think that they have a clearly planned agenda to control the way society thinks, and we need to avoid letting them succeed that way. But I believe this is mistaken. Radical identity politics is essentially a distorted form of class struggle politics, and for practitioners of identity politics, much of the time the value is in the struggle itself.
By deliberately aligning oneself against radical identity politics, one can only give fuel to the struggle, which in turn emboldens the growth of identity politics. Truth to be told, I think that radical identity politics couldn’t have grown to its current extent without the likes of Donald Trump, Milo Yiannopoulos and perhaps Jordan Peterson himself.
We need to completely drop the illusion that identity politics, whether of the far-left variety or the alt-right variety, is somehow about controlling thought and behavior through specific policies or actions. It’s not. History has taught us that the most effective way of gaining support for otherwise unpopular and illiberal ideas is when you have a divisive situation, where people feel oppressed, or are in a struggle state of mind. Therefore, for extremists of all stripes, it’s really all about creating the struggle. While the free speech we so value is often the first victim, we must not fall for their invitation for struggle. Instead, we need to re-assert the importance of free speech, but we also need to bring those on both sides of each argument along, and be able to re-assure them that the liberal democratic process, including free speech and the free market of ideas, is a fair one for all.
On the liberal way forward
As liberals, our historical achievements in social reform include the equality of political rights regardless or race or gender, the end of slavery and segregation, the end of colonialism and the establishment of a system of international diplomacy, and yes, marriage equality.
The best alternative to radical identity politics is liberalism, with its message of liberty and equal opportunity for all, and treating each individual as independent and equally important rather than as members of a class or group. In a society where the great ideals of liberalism are commonly accepted, there simply will be no place for group-struggle-based divisive identity politics, and the authoritarian control of thought and speech that inevitably comes with it. However, I must stress again that for liberalism to have widespread support, it must be seen as truly serving everyone, and living up to its promises. It must also be seen as a more moral ideology than its rivals.
Therefore, as liberals, we need to abide by the core principles of liberalism, and apply it equally to all sectors of society, majorities and minorities. I believe what makes liberalism different from (and better than) all other ideologies is its commitment to giving everybody equal moral agency.
As reformists (rather than revolutionaries, because we naturally understand the Burkean case against revolution), we understand that we won’t get there overnight, but in each era of society we try to make things more liberal, for example by upholding everyone’s equal right to free speech, by encouraging rational and objective debate of social issues, and just as importantly, by trying to remove discrimination and prejudice using liberal means.
As liberals, our historical achievements in social reform include the equality of political rights regardless or race or gender, the end of slavery and segregation, the end of colonialism and the establishment of a system of international diplomacy, and yes, marriage equality. We must not downplay this legacy just because we are currently engaged in a bitter argument over freedom of speech and conscience with the far-left. Especially when these achievements would have been impossible without free speech and the free market of ideas.
TaraElla is a singer-songwriter, independent journalist and author, who is passionate about liberty and equality. She is the author of the Moral Libertarian Horizon books, which focus on developing a moral case for liberal politics in the 21st century.