It is easy to make anyone look moronic or sinister when you control the means of their representation. It is trivially easy to hang someone by their own words when you control where the sentences begin and end. You decide whether to seek clarification if someone speaks in an ambiguous or ungainly manner. You decide whether to print or broadcast the clarification. You place the words into a sequence that confers meaning onto them, or strips them of their intended meanings. You can use free indirect discourse to inject your own construction of your subject’s ideas in a way that preserves or alters their meaning.
All this came to mind as I read a profile published in the New York Times Style section of the University of Toronto psychology professor turned YouTube celebrity Jordan Peterson, and the thunderstorms of tweets that it engendered.
Peterson is by temperament exactly the sort of person born to be a target for digi-journalists and social-media mobs. He has an absolutist commitment to speaking his own truth at all times regardless of the consequences. He has opinions that cut against the grain of some of our most ferociously policed orthodoxies. He often speaks in a rather involuted private jargon with little concern for general intelligibility, and lacks awareness of how he comes across. There is something laughably sophomoric about the unbounded scope of his 19th-century intellectual ambition. He speaks to journalists, even those who plainly have it in for him, in exactly the same forthright manner as he does anyone else—as if he is free to indulge any thought experiment or rhetorical gambit he likes with a willing and sympathetic interlocutor in pursuit of the truth. He has behaved abominably at times and refuses contrition or regret on principle. He is stubborn as hell.
For all these reasons, Peterson is both an archetypal victim and beneficiary of these polarized times. In less than two years he has become, with the exception of the American president, perhaps the single most loathed person by the journalistic and intellectual classes in Canada and the United States. He has also become, by orders of magnitude, the most widely disseminated lecturer in the history of the world. He is the sole possessor of a personal platform many multiples the size of all his detractors combined. He does not rely on the gatekeepers of the progressive consensus for his livelihood; indeed he prospers precisely by flouting it. It was his very success in managing this feat at the outset that made it urgent to target him, thereby ramping up the cycle of escalation that has made his platform as enormous as it has become.
The Times profile was widely construed on social media to expose Peterson as a word-salad-generating pseudomystical obscurantist who “believes in witches” and also as a cartoon misogynist who supported the government-mandated assignment of wives to appease the murderous rage of the male supremacist subculture known as incels—Deepak Chopra meets The Handmaid’s Tale. How could such a depraved figure, attacking “mainstream and liberal attempts to promote equality,” have ever become famous in the first place? That Peterson doesn’t actually hold the opinions ascribed to him doesn’t matter at all to the keepers of the social media consensus. They’ll just keep repeating false claims, based mainly on cherry-picked quote fragments and evidence-free assertions, until they harden into social fact, immune from correction or clarification.
The Times piece brought to its conclusion a dialectic that has increasingly consumed the news media in the age of Twitter. A narrative generated on social media is fed back into the “mainstream” press, and then in turn fed back into Twitter in the form of reporting that appears to confirm the pre-existing narrative. It acquires along the way the force of sanction, rewarding those who participate in the dissemination of the narrative, and punishing those who dissent from it in the form of mob-style attacks and ostracism. This machinery for the spontaneous coordination of orthodoxy exploits vulnerabilities in our evolved psychology. “Confirmation bias” is the tendency to lower our threshold of proof for claims that conform to what we are already primed by habit, familiarity, and the desire to believe. “The availability heuristic” is the tendency to mistake the vividness of an occurrence for its frequency. Use these quirks of the mind to feed the bias held by partisans that the only people that could possibly oppose them are knaves and fools, and you can gaslight even otherwise bright and skeptical people into accepting and repeating blatant falsehoods.
The narrative was too good to resist. He rose concurrently alongside Donald Trump, and showed the same tendency as Trump to grow in strength as right-thinking people assailed him. Here emerged from obscurity a white male professor from Canada, quoting Nietzsche, and citing Carl Jung citing evolutionary psychology and sociobiology, eulogizing the attainments of Western civilization, and casting himself as a defender of free speech—a term that previous campaigns on Twitter have already cast into disrepute. He rises to fame defending hierarchies while engaging in a highly alarmist attempt to associate “diversity, inclusion, and equity” initiatives with the horrors of the gulag. He is avidly embraced by men’s-rights and far-right activists who seek to exploit narratives of white and male victimhood to pursue a restoration of their threatened dominance. That Peterson himself has also said things that could be pasted together by the makers of the Jordan Peterson social-media piñata may also tell us something important about him.
And yet despite all these true facts about Jordan Peterson, and all he has done to feed the narrative—and all he has not done to distance himself adequately from it—the narrative itself is specious. It evaporates on contact with serious scrutiny. The Jordan Peterson story is in fact a picaresque comedy of errors.
It really does require watching a few hours of his sprawling, digressive, improvisatory lectures to reach a judgment of who Peterson is, what his motives are, and what would be the likely consequences of his ideas being adopted in the world. In fact, Peterson supports virtually nothing that wouldn’t fit comfortably into the center-left to center-right governing consensus that obtained in the last 40 years in America. How do I know this? Because there are hundreds of hours of video posted online of Peterson talking.
Here is the Achilles’ heel of the campaign to oust Jordan Peterson from the margins of respectable society: You don’t have to outsource your judgment to journalistic authorities in the age of the internet. You can see for yourself.
Millions of people have, of course, done exactly this. Contra any framing of Peterson as a dissident or pariah, he in fact provides an articulate defense of ideas and impulses that are much more popular than those of the keepers of the orthodoxies of the “mainstream” institutions intent on de-platforming him.
And here is the strange paradox and tension of our moment. A hyperbolic rhetoric of political purism nearly surreal in its intensity has not just captured our universities, but large segments of the popular press. Glamour magazine names Linda Sarsour to its Women of the Year list. Esquire.com runs a column claiming that “powerful white men, however outfacing liberal or progressive they may appear, are the architects of structural racism and white supremacy in America.” And the New York Times laments, in the wake of a mass shooting, that the underlying cause of such extreme events is that “boys are broken,” implying that the swamp that feeds such monstrous excrescences which must be drained—is masculine identity itself.
These bizarre doctrines, incubated in the furthest reaches of the political margins (and until recently confined there), are at once expressions of political despair and the millenarian aspiration that often rises up in the wake of political defeat. The rawest forms of identity politics, grounded in the metaphysical premise that “whiteness” and “masculinity” are constructs solely predicated on a domination that we cannot hope to escape until those toxic forms of identity have been “dismantled” or “abolished,” began as provocations by radical academics. They have since become viral memes infecting the thinking and rhetoric of a certain strand of progressive activist, and through them, an ever-growing swathe of the media-making class. The resort to them is indicative of a profound failure of the political imagination.
You can hear this in the visceral contempt with which Peterson’s “young white male” audience is described by his journalistic detractors, (most of whom are white, and many of whom are male). And yet this crucial piece of hearsay, linchpin of the Peterson narrative, is not true. It hasn’t been true for a while, if it ever was. Anyone who cares to know the truth can go out and find it: I saw it myself with my own eyes at three events I attended in the winter, as did the Maclean’s reporter who found that:
They are new Canadians, people of colour, men and women. And in a way that seems out of sync with op-ed portrayals of Peterson’s supporters as committed to preserving old hierarchies and positions of privilege—they often see themselves as searchers, truth-seekers and iconoclasts.
Popularity, even among people of color, is not, of course, proof in itself of the salubriousness of anything, especially in a world where Fox News, Breitbart, and InfoWars also command the attention of tens of millions. And indeed, Peterson really was avidly embraced at first by the far-right when he emerged, denouncing concepts of unconscious bias and white privilege, and stated his intention to defy any prospective attempt through the force of law to compel him to adopt gender-neutral pronouns in his classroom at the University of Toronto. In his rather coarse-grained and Manichaean analysis of so-called Social Justice Warriors, Peterson occasionally invoked a term, “Cultural Marxism,” whose lineage was said, by others, to have also birthed a far-right conspiracy theory that, in turn, figured prominently in the manifesto of the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik. So anyone playing a game of connect the dots in order to portray Peterson as part of a recrudescence of reactionary modernism has material to work with, some of it even provided by Peterson himself.
Yet it soon enough became clear to anyone paying attention that Peterson’s initial embrace by the alt-right was a case of mistaken identity. Eventually, the spokesmen of that poisonous and amorphous internet tendency decided in concert that Peterson had been sent by the left to disrupt their “movement” and siphon off its energies by redirecting it toward an individualistic creed that would prove fatal to their own racist ethnonationalism. Peterson then rapidly crossed over to an audience that is now many multiples the size of the cohort of problematic young males who first embraced, then rejected him, even as the progressive left tried to hold on to the alt-right’s original, mistaken read.
The novel cultural role that Peterson now inhabits—as the author of one of the bestselling books in five Anglophone countries—draws its sustenance from an entirely different aspect of his message, one that I tried to evoke in a recent profile I wrote of Peterson for Esquire. That message was cleverly packaged as “self-help.” But the deeper message, which lingered on the inescapability of suffering, tragedy, limitation, and loss, enjoined those consigned to such a fate, as we all are, to meet it through taking on the heaviest burden of responsibility they could bear. In other words, a message that was antithetical to the “get rich quick,” or “visualize your way to success” ethos endemic to the genre.
Peterson’s message isn’t novel. But neither is it merely banal. Yes, much of it consists of a program of remedial socialization and stern fatherly advice for those who lack such figures in their lives. But it also created a virtual substitute able to operate at scale for an institution missing from the lives of most young Americans: the weekly sermon, in which familiar moral precepts are affirmed, and each individual is called to measure himself against shared moral values. It is conservative in the deep rather than the superficially political sense of that word—embedded in practices and institutions that have survived the test of time and demonstrated their practical utility. Indeed, it is an ethos that once could have collaborated easily enough with social democratic and redistributive politics.
But a new kind of progressive politics has emerged in recent years, one that the philosopher John Gray, writing in the TLS, recently described as a kind of “hyperliberalism.” The universities, Gray wrote, have been transformed “into institutions devoted to the eradication of thought crime.” As I’ve argued in earlier columns, this overt assault on foundational principles of free speech and conscience is linked to a substantive progressive political project to transform the country through administrative fiat.
Yes, Peterson was a ferocious opponent of a politics in a new key that purported to speak on behalf of the interests of women and racial and sexual minorities. But that did not make him an ally of the alt-right. Nor did it make him an enemy of racial or sexual minorities. He was just as much an opponent of the alt-right as he was of the identitarian left. It did not even make his ascent, as one journalist at Vox called him, “emblematic of the way white male anxiety is producing new and powerful political movements across the West today,” or as another professor writing in Vox put it, a voice for a cohort of white men resentful to find “their culture invaded by women and minorities.” These somewhat more carefully hedged modes of calling Peterson a racist succumb to a dangerous fallacy—that of equating criticism of any ideological innovation that purports to speak on behalf of minorities as itself racist. The originators of the concept of unconscious bias have themselves conceded that their tests are not predictive of biased action in the world and that no evidence exists to support programs purporting to oust this form of original sin from people’s souls—and yet corporations continue to mandate participation in such programs. It is these sorts of dubious practices that Peterson criticizes—not the pursuit of equality itself.
To give a sense of the texture of Peterson’s actual thinking on race, for instance, you could listen to his reply to a student at Lafayette College, who asked him for his view of structural racism.
“It’s a multivariate problem,” Peterson begins:
No society is without its biases and prejudices, and some of them get built into the systems themselves. And so, when you look at unequal outcomes, and you’re trying to discover why those unequal outcomes exist, if you have any sense, you do a multivariate analysis, and you put in prejudice and discrimination as one of the factors. One of the factors. One of many, many factors.
The problem with the radical leftists is they take the fact that our structures are tyrannical to some degree and arbitrary—which of course they are, because they’re imperfect—and then they obliterate the rest of the complexity with that claim. So, there’s lots of reasons for inequality. Systemic bias is one of them. It’s an open question to what degree systemic bias plays in the inequality problem. But it’s something we could hypothetically address with some degree of detachment and intelligence. No system is perfect. And certainly not ours.
You’ll notice here what is both present and missing from Peterson’s reply. He doesn’t say, for instance, that inequality is something that the white race should seek to compound for its own benefit in order to stanch the rise of minorities in a zero-sum game of interracial competition that whites should or must win. He says racial inequality is a problem that emerges in part from the tyrannical and arbitrary structure of our society. He doesn’t say that systemic racism is a propagandistic left-wing invention intended to preserve into perpetuity the leverage of those seeking to rent-seek off of racial grievance. That would not be overtly racist, but it would be indicative of a dogmatic resistance to claims of structural disadvantage that amounted to willful blindness. He instead says systemic racism is built into the structures of our institutions, and it is a problem that we should try to diagnose and solve—ideally with “some degree of detachment and intelligence.”
Peterson is not, of course, a scholar of racial inequality. He doesn’t have much to add to the discussion beyond a set of very general, very reasonable-seeming provisos about the proper way to approach a real, complex problem in the social sciences. What he is pushing back against in a characteristically qualified way is an ideological dogma that would impose a crudely monocausal explanation of a multivariate problem through a false division of the world into oppressors and the oppressed. Peterson invites a discussion of the institutional aspects of racial disadvantage, but one that proceeds without the virtually metaphysical hyperbole in which much race talk has descended in recent years.
There’s a word for this kind of call to solve complex problems afflicting the marginalized while avoiding the conceptual pitfalls that come with letting rigid ideology derange your thinking. The word is moderation. In a contentious exchange concerning the gender wage gap, he spelled out what psychometric research into personality differences between men and women yielded. It finds that there are modest differences on average between men and women that translate into extreme differences at the tail ends of the distribution. So while the average individual man will be more aggressive than the average individual woman 60 percent of the time, the people so aggressive they have to be incarcerated are virtually all male.
This is a finding that is noncontroversial among personality theorists, which is of course a field that is subject to critique and that many regard with skepticism. But to the extent that we accept the legitimacy of this body of research, it follows that the gender wage gap may have something to do with such innate differences in personality—as one factor among many contributing to a complex problem. Peterson is careful to specify that sexism is one factor—one among many—that contributed to the gap. To ascribe such divergences solely to a reified concept of “patriarchy” is to refuse inquiry and thinking on principle. No serious economist or psychometrician accepts such uni-causal explanations as dispositive of the question. But the media has been captured by those who portray Peterson’s references to the multivariate factors that contribute to the wage gap as evidence that he is a misogynist “custodian of the patriarchy.”
Peterson is virtually always more nuanced than the straw target his detractors have built out of his ideas. He uses the fact that the moods of both lobsters and humans are regulated by serotonin, a neurotransmitter that waxes and wanes in accordance with both creatures’ place in a dominance hierarchy to illustrate the point that the “problem of hierarchy is much deeper” than capitalism or any other set of human institutions. The claim is not that the continuity between our mental architecture and that of much older organisms does or should determine the way we organize society, but rather that it necessarily exerts a degree of influence on it, and constrains the set of viable ways of organizing our society. This modest claim should be self-evident to all but the most insistent denialist. Peterson acknowledges that inequality is a problem in that it causes society to destabilize when it moves past a certain threshold, and acknowledges the necessity of left-wing redistributive political movements—but is wary of left-wing doctrines that call for mandated equality, for the simple and very good reason that the grand experiments in mandated equality of the 20th century tended to be catastrophic. This does not mean that Peterson is a libertarian radical but a moderate conservative. He accepts nearly every facet of the status quo of 2014: he is on video explaining his acceptance of legal abortion, gay marriage, progressive taxation, the welfare state, and the Canadian socialistic healthcare system.
Anyone who listens to Peterson’s actual words without the intent of discovering in them the horrors they already believe that they will find there—i.e., without letting confirmation bias guide them by the nose—will discover that, in fact, his thinking on most discrete problems nearly always bends toward moderation.
I could provide a half dozen additional examples off the top of my head where Peterson’s careful approaches to various problems have been twisted beyond recognition by various journalistic interlocutors. But I prefer to leave it as a blanket generalization that invites his detractors to listen at length to the man in search of evidence to prove me wrong. Here, for example, is a long interview Peterson did with the left-wing comedian Russell Brand. And here’s a three-hour discussion he did with students at Lafayette College, who subjected him to tough scrutiny on every possible subject.
Moderation can, of course, be the wrong approach to any given problem and, like every other political temperament, it is susceptible to criticism. But one criticism it is not susceptible to is being a form of crypto-fascism, or covert anti-Semitism, or an attempt to “justify class and gender hierarchies,” when it plainly is none of those things. His goal appears to be to advance the cause of progress while taking care to preserve what is functional in our systems, whose capacity to sustain nation states of hundreds of millions of people in conditions of relative peace and prosperity he would like all of us to acknowledge. His own personal conservatism might lead him to strike the balance between equality and freedom at a different place than would an egalitarian liberal or leftist: But it’s the idea that there is a balance that needs to be struck that has come under assault.
There is something uneasily poised at the border of grandiosity and grandeur, heroism and quixotism, about Peterson that makes him appealing to undergraduates at the same time as it makes him a target-rich environment for haughty intellectuals and snarky journalists. There are literally tens of thousands of graduate students and ex-graduate students who know more about the intricacies of postmodern thought than Jordan Peterson does. Peterson’s tweeted and blogged responses to the Times piece are indicative of a person with virtually no sense of how he will be regarded by those who do not share his private system of reference. Why don’t you recognize that I’m not speaking of actual men and women but the symbolic Masculine and Feminine in Jungian archetypal thinking? Why don’t you know that “Enforced Monogamy” is an anthropological term? You won’t understand anything about Jordan Peterson until you realize that his confusion on these questions is entirely sincere.
So what does Peterson actually believe? He has consistently defended the moral position that the “individual is sovereign over the group,” a unique feature of Anglo-American political theory and practice that holds that citizens hold their rights against the state rather than through it, which is inscribed into our founding documents, and helps to account for the remarkable capacity of societies built around its doctrines to accommodate high levels of diversity while remaining democratic. The underlying sovereignty of individuals forces state power to operate against a hard constraint that limits coercion, and gives individuals the means by which to push back.
This position is not a “centrist” position between the poles of alt-right and the identity politics of the left, but a distinct position orthogonal to both. It rejects group identity as the foundation of politics in favor of strengthening the individual as a bulwark against what Peterson calls “ideological possession”—the temptation to subordinate the various ends of life into a contest for group dominance. Peterson sees the emergence of identity politics on both the right and left as a single phenomenon, with each pole feeding the growth of the other, as individuals lost amidst the chaos of contemporary life turn to ideologies providing simple solutions to complex questions, a corresponding set of friends—and a corresponding set of enemies. How anyone who has spent a single afternoon on Twitter can doubt that these polarizing group psychological dynamics exist—and explain the growth of political extremism at a time of relative prosperity—is frankly perplexing to me.
We are living through a time of pervasive rhetorical overkill and genuine fear. In times of extremism, moderation itself can come to seem the greater enemy to those ideologically possessed, in part because it is the true danger: The public will tend to move toward it by default, and thus the instinctive recourse by those who sense the fragility of their extreme doctrines resort to coercive means to prevail in arguments they would not otherwise win.
We are also living through a precarious time in journalism. The click-bait strategy, while clearly destined to fail as online ad revenues continue to go to Facebook and Google, remains the default mode embedded into the habits of a generation of digital journalists who have been conditioned to work without the resources to report at length. Instead, they repackage received wisdom as fact, to drive narratives that generate engagement through online contention, and profit off the cycles of polarization they feed. The rewards for stirring up outrage on the basis of deliberately malfeasant or merely incompetent misreading are too great for even many otherwise intelligent commenters to resist. It has polluted the discourse and deranged the minds of a great many otherwise-intelligent people.
Jordan Peterson may have already allowed himself to become too immured in the fractiousness of our time to be the figure whose intervention breaks the fever. He is a messenger whose immoderate personal conduct has worked at cross purposes to the essential moderation of his message. While his own personal following is likely to grow unabated, continuing to enrich him, the progressive consensus has immunized itself against his message—one that is fundamentally correct on certain crucial aspects of the conundrum we face—with an assist from Peterson’s own immodest tongue. Left activists in Portland propose deplatforming him from the venue where he is scheduled to speak, an ominous portent of a cascade of escalation that could well culminate in violence. We should nonetheless not let the histrionics in which he is surrounded—those created by himself and others—obscure the fact that it is Peterson who is the moderate and the keepers of the ostensibly “mainstream” opinion that condemns him that have latched on to extreme doctrines. There are a great many things that the progressive consensus should stop gaslighting itself into believing. That Jordan Peterson is a dangerous far-right radical—and that they are the guardians of all that is good and just—is far from the least of them.
Read Wesley Yang’s Meme Wars columns biweekly in Tablet.