Jordan Peterson - the person, his works, his impacts
Jordan Peterson is a professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto. A controversial figure, he has attracted a great deal of criticism and attention.
While there are many criticisms of Prof. Peterson (who I'll now refer to as "JP") - particularly on You Tube - I've found a dearth of commentaries informed by left anarchic views. It's a part of history JP seems to ignore, but something I'm informed by; further, I'm a member of the Pirate Party of Australia. There's a lot of overlap, though the Pirate Party are more strident about free speech. At times I might even almost agree where JP ends up, but not with how he gets there.
I'll be drawing from Zero Books / Douglas Lane , Cuck Philosophy, Contra Points and JP's own speeches, which you'll find on youtube. I've also had discussions with Richard Volpato. While I do sometimes deliver presentations on you tube, I'm more confident writing - hence, this piece, much as it draws somewhat on verbal presentations.
It's derived from a talk I gave at the NSW Humanists some time ago. It's far ranging, and while I won't claim to get eveything right, I suggest that Peterson does have a blind spot around anarchism, a point worth making.
- 0. Contents
- 1. Credits to JP
- 2. Injustice leading to freedom of speech
- 3. Conflict
- 4. Trolls
- 5. Hostility on the internet / freedom of speech concepts
- 6. Violence
- 7. "Gender inequality does not exist"
- 8. Injustice / Intersectionality
- 9. Political standpoint, radical leftists, over-simplify
- 10. Willingness to debate - JP the man, claims made
- 11. Present status of Communism / Marxism
- 12. Postmodernism and general leftiness
- 13. Pre-Marx
- 14. Anarchism
- 15. Other problems
- 16. JP superficial about Postmodernism
- 17. Postmodernism bigger picture
- 18. Postmodernism
- 19. Power, individuals, heirachies, concepts
- 20. History of Marx and Russia
- 21. History of the soviet union, and relative violence
- 22. USSR summary
- 23. Yes, the Soviet Union
- 24. Good things about Russia
- 25. History of Russian Civil War
- 26. Conclusion
But, first - working though some things worth crediting JP on. There's his academic work in psychology - credible and academically rigorous. At times he makes careful scientific statistical statements, which if they are wrong, deserve to be engaged with on their own terms. As well, he makes creative use of ambiguity - either abusing it or not anticipating how people might interpret what he is saying. The problem is not with his scientific claims - but rather in where he goes with those valid scientific claims in a non-scientific way.
He seems to have hit the mark with his self help books, and has drawn on some similar themes to writers like Stephen Covey with his seven habits of highly effective people. JP focuses on resilience, and seems to scoff at the recognition of injustice by supposed radical leftists. In fact, I agree with the worth of resilience, of getting on with it, in spite of the injustices you encounter. You can analyse the world around you, understand the injustices, be an activist - and also be resilient in the face of that injustice. But JP seems to suggest that this means you escape responsibility, which I don't see.
In addition, his books focus on how things would appear to a male. By itself, there's nothing wrong with this - OK, write books to help particular groups deal with their experiences and cope with the world. Still, problems remain. Mary Anne Cosgrove, past President of Australian Humanists, feels that beyond just being directed at males, the advice is a bit weird if not sexist. Note an example:
In spite of the fact that JP frequently draws from science and evolutionary theory in particular, here he puts them aside to draw worth from religious stories. To me it seems bizzare to put some universal, cosmic blame onto women, something I'm uncomfortable with, even if you'd label it as parable. In any case, it's strange how he jumps between a scientific perspective and one based on stories. He also claims:
This is drawing a long bow. I understand from Mary-Anne that we are about as closely related to Bonobos as we are to common chimps, and Bonobos have a matriarchal society. Further, in some ways we behaviourally closer to gorillas, because male gorillas take an interest in rearing of their young, but be they bonobos or regular chimpanzees, male chimpanzees take little interest in rearing their young, while we might well be closer genetically.
But the point is that JP oversimplifies the scientific world and reaches wrong conclusions. Look, lots of science and analysis is about simplifying, but it's about what's reasonable in the circumstances. These strange jumps of logic are a contrast to the worth of his peer reviewed papers. Perhaps he hits the mark more often than not when he is operating outside his specialty, and this is not representative. Regardless, it's not a good look.
Jumping around as he does feels odd. In fact, if he avoided the science, I'd maybe give him some credit for trying to make sense of stories and how we relate to them. Even here, though, his viewpoint feels confused and garbled.
Elsewhere, when Camus is analysing legends, he talks about Camus and Sisyphus. But JP wrongly attributes this analysis to Nietchsche and also he completely misunderstands the point which Camus is making - Camus says that Sisyphus might make himself happy by contemplating the majesty of the universe, while JP makes some sort of convoluted point about lifting yourself above the mundane embedded view you have living in the world.
While you should not be overwhelmed by all the little things that happen around you - JP has a point - numerous small acts of discrimination can and do add up, much as they are difficult to measure. "If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail", and JP is ignoring things that you can't readily measure, which can still be significant. There's a thing called "measurement bias", where you focus on the things you can quantify at the expense of things you cannot. The point is you can recognise the worth of resilience - while leaving all of JP's political baggage behind.
Anything, taken to an extreme, is problematic. JP talks about "radical leftists". And he claims the world of intersectionality is dominated by an extreme. This I disagree with. While some people have been extreme, JP paints them as being some weird progeny of postmodernism and Marx, something I will get to later. There may be an extreme, but not in the way he claims.
Yes, there are lefties who judge others, de-platform and similar, and there are problems with censorship in some US Universities, but it is not some Postmodernism conspiracy. You can acknowledge the problem without following him down the rabbit hole. Moral panics and uproars are bad things, as is the virtual assassination of people on the internet. We should not speak out for victimised groups or individuals unless we are quoting and drawing from their own public stated positions. Otherwise, we should let them speak for themselves.
But, let me look a bit more closely at the associated conflict. I agree that universities should be a protected space, where we should be tolerant of diverse ideas. There's a problem. All that. But, even as I listen sympathetically to the notion that universities should be such places - there's discussion and then there's abuse. In the outside world, ideas are tossed around and manipulated like the front pages of a tabloid rag. Further, there are Neo-Nazis who politically organise themselves.
There's different contexts, and we have to distinguish between different forms of censorship, even though it has been grossly simplified. Government censorship is fundamentally different to the exercise of a private ( or even commercial ) choice. The Government has a monopoly on the legal use of coercive force and violence, and we rely on Government to enforce so-called property rights. Private individuals trying to stop others from speaking do not have these government privileges to draw on. You can be against Government censorship because of how it uses Government privilege, but note that individuals trying to stop others from speaking are not using the same power base.
In between, corporate censorship is developing state-like control. They cannot coerce in the same way, but they can withhold participation. In fact, I've sent innocuous emails to people in the NSW government and had the links squelched by private corporate email monitoring programs that the Government uses. It is all getting a bit strange. Still - whether it is government or corporations, their power exceeds that of activists. When do you want to say that activists have power comparable to corporations? Let me know. In any case, activists will never have access to the coercive force and violent power of Government, because that's not what they are.
One ideal is that you should allow free speech, and try to persuade others of the merits of your views, while still being concerned about Government power. It's something I endorse, but there's many different perspectives. You can believe that the truth will ultimately prevail, but you don't have to. You could instead think that ideas with the most money or resources behind them will prevail. You certainly see it in elections. I think it's part of what drives de-platforming. People believe society is so messed up that the truth will not prevail, and can no longer be bothered with free speech. You can react to perceived injustices in different ways.
Now, clearly such people do not buy into freedom of speech as a universal ideal. That's their choice. But the point is, criticising them for "denying free speech" may not bother them. But, even here, there's a definite inconsistency with free speech advocates. I've heard Brendan O'Neil talk about how we should allow the airing of offensive views. But, on close examination, he seems to focus on views he is sympathetic to that others find offensive. He has personally targeted Greta the climate activist. If he were being consistent, you'd think he would just say "she is wrong, but free to speak out. Let me explain how she is wrong". But his actual tone speaks of hypocricy. I'd be impressed if O'Neil was talking about the need to keep something in the public square that he found offensive but others agreed with. Whatever else has been going on, until now the right has been able to beat the drum effectively - and now - a radical person, a Martin-Luther-King type figure, can speak effectively and cut through. And it is frustrating for those who were previously able to exert some control over the narrative.
And - incidentally - Christopher Hitchens - one of my intellectual heroes - was inviting people to interrupt him if they had, er ... radical interpretations of the Jewish Holocaust, but at another time wanted people ejected who promoted conspiracy theories around the 911 attacks. Look, I support the mainstream narratives around the Jewish Holocaust and the 911 attacks, much as I might contemplate some "intelligence stuff-ups" around 911, incomptence rather than malign conspiracy. But, I try to be consistent in how I relate to those who would differ from me. It reminds me of the maxim - you're only in favour of free speech if you're willing to endorse the free speech of people you disagree with. Many right-wing commentators are showing their colours. They want to the right to say what they want even if it offends others, but can't really be bothered promoting the speech of others they disagree with - they don't want to give those people the same rights.
For me, the Pirate Party's endorsement of free speech has more consistency than axe-grinders on either the left or right. We're stronger about it than traditional left anarchy, though it is also strongly anti-government censorship. It may be the only point where we would disagree.
Now, while I'd want to criticise people saying offensive stuff, I'd not call for them to shut up. But according to JP, is is mostly the lefties who try to shut down people. But you also see it on the right. While some people are too trigger happy to try to shut down others, it is worth looking at the context. We have a long history of apologists trying to block positive changes. Long ago, it may have been slave owners complaining about how freeing slaves would hit their finances ( to be sure though, historically US Republicans were anti-slavery, and in Australia the workers and elements of the ruling class joined forces against convict transportation). Based on past developments, some people see ideas as the thing to battle over, and see others wanting to try to win an argument by whatever means possible rather than through a fair contest. We see this in the ratcheting increase in organised public relations and lobbying of government, not to mention the perceived elite along the way.
Partly there is the overall polarisation of politics. But, there are two other important trends. The first is that the left has grown frustrated with what they see as the hold on power and resulting injustices by people on the right. They see advocates from that side as merely representing those who have established themselves in power. Then, there's the idea that "hate speech is not free speech". So, it can happen - and it's nothing like the picture JP paints.
Things are still more complex. I say provocative things while otherwise identifying as left. I'm willing to critique religion, including Islam. I am not only aligned with left Anarchy and the Pirate Party, but also with the atheist, humanist and secular movements. This includes people like me who are both left and criticise Islam. But I so frequently hear those criticisms - the left is not speaking out against Islam. And if there is something I find offensive, it is right wing commentators saying "why is the left silent about Islam"? Well, maybe some of it is. Maybe a lot of it. But all of it? That's code for the left they can be bothered looking for and criticising because it suits their agenda. I have never been shut down by the left or unduly criticised. I find that frequent generalisation offensive. I've only noticed the right making offensive sweeping generalisations about the left - it has been commentators on the right that annoy me, with their simplistic generalisations. You need to get out more. Now, maybe one day some of the left will try to shut me down. I'll worry about it then. But, until then, I look at the special pleading of the right, and think to myself : they doth protest too much.
We also need to separate out different domains. On the one hand, there is the domain of university, with official outlets for students to put forth their grievances. There are also relatively structured platforms for people to voice their potentially offensive things. Particularly in the context of "thrashing out ideas", that can make sense. However, it is worth recognising that all this takes place in the shadow of the internet. In one ideal, the internet is a place to discover, to exchange ideas and all that. In reality, however, it has mutated into something strangely partisan at best, centering on discussion with like minded people. At worst, it is a battleground dominated by trolls.
Some aggro people on the net may be needlessly personal, and may have lost it. Some of them will be trying to silence people inappropriately, because they have not thought things through and are arseholes. People might claim to be "just asking questions" when they have an agenda, and at worst people are trying to jam the communications channel and be disruptive, without any desire to communicate at all. Because of numerous trolls, some activists are reluctant to answer people who may be asking genuine questions. It is understandable. They have backed off from activism spaces being a place to answer questions and educate people, and just want to get on with the knitting. If you really genuinely want to ask questions, you need to establish trust first. If you just wade in, you'll be mistaken for a troll. It is sad, but you can blame it on all the other trolls that have trod otherwise similar looking paths before you. The point is that silo-ing could be a response and the result of a feedback loop, rather than because of what JP claims.
JP focuses on so called radical leftists being dominated by identity politics, but I don't think that washes. People who are into identity politics hold different views to classical Marxists. At times though he talks about identity right wingers. But his stronger focus seems to be on demons from the left, which shows his biases, perhaps for him they are not as evil as the generic left he rails against. Some people defend JP saying he recognises the worth of moderate left positions, and is only criticising the extremes. However, it sure doesn't seem that way if you look around a bit. First, he seems to jump around conveniently, wanting to have it both ways - he rants and raves, and them claims he is only talking about extreme leftists - but only when he is pulled up. He gets it totally wrong when it comes to the history of intellectual thought, and particularly left intellectual thought in France. He ignores the diversity, focusing only on those elements which reinforce his story - and even then, he makes a hash of it. When it comes to the Russian Revolution, he completely ignores the left-anarchic elements at play in the history, which provide an important perspective which challenges the sweeping claims he makes. His outline of both left ideas and the historical development of postmodernist ideas are also a complete hash. If he at times says something like "the genuine left has a part to play", this becomes a complete nonsense in the light of how he has distorted the historical development of "genuine" left ideas to shoehorn things into his narrative. And look, for the sake of argument there could be some wierd shit going on in US academia at present, but even I find this claim dubious. Still, even if it were the case, it would be no excuse to make such a hash of the historical development of ideas - and history itself - in Europe and France in particular. It seems ridiculous to me he could have any credibility in talking about left ideas in the here-and-now. It is a matter of the "density of problems". I've heard people try apologetics, saying Jordan says useful things. And look, nothing is perfect, at times I try to be forgiving. However, with JP, the density of distortions and hashed interpretations is so overwhelming I can give no credit to narrative on left ideas. Note, I have given him some credit with his ideas around self-help, resilience and academic psychological theory. But my sympathy does stop at a very definite and clear point.
At times JP says some people are an extreme minority, but then he also talks about them being the ones in power. I suppose it is not impossible they are both, but then he implies it is something of a larger movement, so it is all a bit strange. He jumps between generic lefties, and the "radical leftists". Then he divides the left into "the good" and "the bad" . It is hard to imagine right wing trolls being informed by postmodernism, I think they're just as much into aggressive jamming as the left is reputed to be. Though JP focuses on the left being informed by Postmodernism and also indentity policies, you can wonder how the right has either managed to grab hold of just identity politics or perhaps embrace Postmodernism. It gets pretty strange.
For sure - the left are more able to de-platform speakers at venues than the right is. Yep. However, the right is more able to troll on the internet. Both sides are abusing the situation - each in their own way. In some fundamental way, activism has become more aggressive and paranoid, less willing to explain itself, but I don't think it's because of so-called identity politics, rather it is it's own development.
If you claim leftists don't want open debate - what about the right wing trolls? JP is quite selective in his indignation. If SJWs want to shut down right wing thought, right wing trolls want to shut down feminists. They often become sexually abusive, themselves in that action illustrating just how sexist aggression exists. But, strangely, lefties will on occasion use sexual metaphors to undermine those they are critical of.
The level of abuse you see is quite intense. If we imagine - for the sake of argument - that there are legitimate critiques of feminism - it is clear that the aggression shown by many internet advocates is an own goal. If you criticise, your approach may damage your credibility. If you're only trying to jam the channel, well I guess that may not mean anything to you, but it may have its own consequences.
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