Peterson Gets Played


About half a decade ago, Jordan Peterson was a psychology professor at the University of Toronto and clinical psychologist with little international fame and even less infamy. A talented teacher and skilled speaker, he conveyed expertise within his domain and gave prestigious lectures like “The Necessity of Virtue,” which is how I first encountered him. Like any professor, he wasn’t perfect, but largely credible.

Yet after spending many, many hours watching new and old footage of him, I am forced to conclude that his recent messianic quest to “defend free speech”—which, in its purest form, is noble—has destroyed his previous credibility by amassing paranoid and shoddy “evidence” at a great distance from his home domain of psychology (where he has merits). Though he remains an engaging public speaker with certain worthy insights, his recent claims about the nature of oppression, ideological language, and social justice are often baseless, tendentious, and would never be corroborated by scholars in the appropriate field from across the political spectrum (history, sociology, linguistics, anthropology, law, etc.). His mistakes here are so egregious that even though I share and affirm certain values with him (pro-dialogue, pro-dissent, pro-viewpoint-diversity), and though I will take care to point out his wiser ideas, I cannot possibly trust him to advocate for these issues in a rigorous way. The incredibly sloppy and inflammatory arguments he now employs befit a YouTube celebrity or provocateur—but not a scholar. And now that he’s increasingly being played by the alt-right and right-wing media, and craves exposure more than rigour, this is precisely what he’s become. My purpose here is to separate the scholarly Peterson from the conspiratorial Peterson, a balance which has unfortunately shifted towards the paranoid since I first encountered him many years ago. Regardless of his moral and intellectual failings—or merits, depending on one’s view—we need to understand how he represents much larger political and philosophical forces. These, I argue, have played Peterson, while he has indeed played himself.

When Peterson argues far outside of the domain of psychology (where he co-authors prolifically) he wields the confidence of a tenured professor and the ignorance of a first-year student who, when faced with the daunting task of finding evidence from scholarly sources, instead argues with maddening anecdotes and nasty generalizations. For instance:

“[Interviewer:] Are you denying the existence of discrimination based on sexuality or race? [Peterson:] I don’t think women were discriminated against, I think that’s an appalling argument“.

Peterson proceeds to use an anecdote about his grandmother (she was too busy to be oppressed) to back up this claim that 99% of historians and sociologists would refute, even right-leaning ones. He moves from a true premise—brutal economics before the 20th century made life oppressive for both genders—to a ridiculous conclusion—women could not be oppressed under these conditions. A cursory look at the history of suffrage and gendered violence, a few page flips through sociological accounts of the era, would stifle this conclusion. Even vitriolic critics of feminism today often admit that historical oppression was real. As a clinical psychologist, Peterson’s excellence for the understanding the individual psyche is rivaled by an appalling ignorance of society: his preference for clinical, personal, and mythological anecdotes leaves him seemingly incapable of drawing correct inferences and generalizations about society at large. His classic move is to say X group cannot be oppressed because either (1) he knows a few individuals from that group who were “oppressing themselves” through a certain psychopathology, or (2) there’s another oppressor Y that somehow negates everything else. Peterson is not all wrong—his advice to be more virtuous in the face of adversity is wonderful for individuals. Yet given the thousands of sociological, economic, and philosophical texts that prove the viciousness of systemic inequalities, Peterson reveals an egregious ignorance of how social science works (problems have more than one cause or factor!). As someone who said he admires and worked for the old-school NDP, and claims working-class politics are important, it is particularly sad to see him efface gendered and racial issues that compound the poor’s plight.

Peterson, as we all know, outrages many people. But in a sense, the pronoun debate at U of T and the accusations and defenses of his alleged bigotry have diverted attention from the sheer shoddiness of his recent arguments which no cautious conservative thinker would make. I will leave commenting on issues of gender to more qualified people (a phrase I wish Peterson would use) and instead critique his rhetorical strategies. He stages himself a nonpartisan or centrist advocate of free speech—which do exist—but then promptly exposes himself as partisan via his implicit assumptions and screeds against the vast SJW/leftist/feminist/marxist conspiracy he alleges is putting us on the path to totalitarianism (for instance, he equates 20% of social scientists with Nazis—since their [“cultural”] marxism is “no better” than Nazism). Even if we trust him that he’s not bigoted, and agree with him that being politically tribal and intellectually homogeneous represent dangers (I do!), he has immolated whatever credibility and goodwill he’s amassed through such paranoid slippery slopes.

Though Peterson is well studied in the history of totalitarianism, he shares a key intellectual vice of totalitarian thinking: making sweeping statements about one’s ideological enemies, envisioning a grand conspiracy among a group of people who are quite diverse and might have their own internal disagreements and sympathies with him. The only intellectually honest way for him to proceed is to attack his opponents separately based on specific grievances. Instead, he lumps them all together, and he’d probably lump someone like me—who agrees with him on certain issues—in with the rest of the SJW/leftist/feminist/marxist “cabal”—because I believe that systemic oppression happens along multiple avenues (Peterson’s McCarthyism expands beyond McCarthy’s original purview). By refusing to understand his critics and their distinct and diverse views, he invites us to dismiss his thinking, just as his list of “great books” reveals his implicit dismissal of hundreds of vibrant intellectuals who aren’t predominantly dead Russian males or thinkers of archetypes or totalitarianism (where’s Hannah Arendt though?). There are scores of figures who resonate with his thinking on free speech and dissent—of the female, non-white, non-European, or leftist variety—but he’s largely failed to engage them (except the token Camille Paglia). On a philosophical level, his thinking is prone to relentless essentialism, the use and abuse of mythic archetypes, false equivalences between “just as bad” groups, and opposes “postmodernism”—a great boogeyman since one can spin it to mean anything: “I’m not saying made up words generated by postmodern neo-marxists because I despise everything they stand for and so I’m not using those damn words and that’s that“. Though I would agree with him in the harm of treating everything as pure social construct in need of a neologism, Peterson appears remarkably stunted in his ability to negotiate between or synthesize the biological and social levels, or the realm of essences versus representations.

Peterson’s understanding of intellectual history (my research area) is atrocious. Through a series of genetic fallacies and slippery slopes, identity politics and “political correctness” goes back to postmodernism, which goes back to Marx, and then all the way forward to the horrors of Stalinism. This is how, in Peterson’s hysterical strawman of the 20th century, the LGBT movement gets tenuously but deliberately associated with past or future genocide. Mentioning an oppressed group tends to trigger Peterson’s argumentum ad Hitlerum or Stalinum; playing his wild associative games, we may as well blame the holocaust on the teachers who rejected a young Austrian man from art school. It’s no big deal for a psychologist to be ignorant of modern intellectual history—except when a malicious distortion of this history became the lynchpin of his argument. This is how Peterson convicts marginalized groups of being the “real” oppressor, which of course makes him the “real” victim. He deems “postmodern” French intellectuals to be, in effect, evil schemers of identity politics who don’t believe in truth. Had he learned his history better, he’d realize that it was one of his heros, Nietzsche, who wrote a famous essay—I don’t happen to like it very much—that became an influential wellspring of “postmodern” thought. Sometimes Peterson gets played, but this time he clearly played himself. Using Peterson’s standards of historical argument, I could “prove” that Nietzsche “lead to” the Nazis, who sometimes read his work, and thus implicate Peterson in a Nazi conspiracy. Though I vehemently reject the Nietzsche-Nazi influence, such fallacies occur when we approach intellectual history with Peterson’s laughable level of rigour.

Though Peterson possesses vastly more substance and intelligence than Milo or Alex Jones types, he envisions himself narcissistically and fatalistically, as they do, as the persecuted hub of a great freewheeling conspiracy. Peterson largely praised Milo as a mythological trickster figure (an interesting idea to be sure) but failed to condemn his intellectual vacuousness, his bigotry, and his love for “edgy” or taboo statements which lead to his recent downfall. Now that Peterson is a YouTube and Patreon star, his affirmation comes in the form of YouTube views and Patreon dollars—a perversion of traditional scholarly life, which is about being careful and correct despite meagre audiences. If he wants to be taken seriously an intellectual instead of a provocateur, he needs to bring his discussions back into a venue where they can be patiently evaluated. Since his psychology work meets peer review standards [https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Jordan_Peterson2/publications ], he is certainly capable of scholarly thought in general, so he faces a moral decision here.

How should we defend and advocate for free speech in North America, given the famous paradoxes of “tolerating intolerance” that Karl Popper once defined? Though this is not an easy question, Peterson sadly represents a wrong answer. Consider as a point of comparison the ACLU, who over the years has defended extremely unpopular people of every political orientation. Previously, they’ve defended right wing extremists’ right to speak, whereas today they defend Muslims against Trump’s massive erosions of civil liberties. Even if the sometimes-villainous people the ACLU defends seem despicable, one has to admit it is a rather principled organization (see its campus policy. Peterson, on the other hand, is getting played by the alt-right with no nonpartisan defense mechanisms against it. Though he claims to be against both left and right wing extremes, and has not explicitly endorsed the alt-right, we find him firmly embedded in alt-right and far right recommended viewing and social media networks, interviewing and interacting with outlets who are far more bigoted than he is. It’s a terrible deal for him: he gets a little exposure in exchange for a lot of reputational damage, while giving extremists the “centrist” legitimacy they crave. As a self-professed expert on authoritarianism, he should probably comment on how Trump is vilifying the free press, a classic authoritarian move. But he’s silent: Trump, as he said in December, is merely a “moderate”. Yet when it comes to islamophobia, Peterson critiques the term’s etymology and right to exist (it’s “ideological”) instead of condemning the resentment of brown people who merely look like they’re from a Muslim country (Sikhs and secular brown people still get murdered due to mere resemblance). What would Peterson prefer we call this phenomenon?

More fundamentally, why does Peterson get to claim that certain terms are ideological, like islamophobia and special pronouns—and that certain terms are not ideological—like SJW or PC? Pejoratives like these are indeed profoundly ideological. For instance, “PC” typically became a right-wing term used to slur left-wing identity politics. Yet there are dozens of ideologically powerful slurs and euphemisms used by the right or far-right (eg. “enhanced interrogation techniques” = torture or “race realist” = pseudoscientific racist). Until he critiques right-wing political correctness along with the left, and admits that language is infused with all sorts of political tilts, I cannot trust him to advocate for true freedom of language and speech. Even on the level of just lexicon, the history of the English language represents a messy political battleground between institutional-philosophical Greek imports, clinical-sounding Latinate roots, aristocrat-leaning Anglo-Norman words, and Anglo-Saxon peasant terms, not to mention the linguistic spoils of later imperial conquest or the thousands literary and political coinages. Though there are dozens of recent academic terms (or corporate buzzwords) we might prefer not to use, the idea that language became ideological thanks to “SJWs” is a laughable one.

I find Peterson’s vilification of the figure of the SJW particularly hysterical because he relies on so many biblical images and stories from Jesus, who in many ways is the ultimate advocate of social justice in the Western imagination. And if one doesn’t like this equation, we should probably admit that “SJW” is an often meaningless term, or if it has meaning, it’s of a purely pejorative kind (why wouldn’t MLK be a SJW?). Certainly, there are some excellent reasons to object to extreme speech codes (left or right wing) imposed upon us. But rejecting the idea of “social justice” as such is tantamount to rejecting religious or secular notions of what it means to live in a just society (shouldn’t true justice entail, a fortiori, social justice?). Peterson sets up a false dichotomy between the pursuit of truth—pure, scientific, and uncomfortable—and the causes of social justice and its “warriors”. There are plenty of hyper-rational, scientific people in STEM disciplines who are sympathetic to the allegedly nefarious causes of social justice—like feminism—that Peterson vilifies. But the real problem, according to Peterson, are the non-STEM disciplines:

I think huge swaths of the university are irrevocably corrupted: sociology, gone; anthropology, gone; history, big chunks of it are gone, the classics, literature, social work, political science in many places, and that doesn’t cover women’s studies, ethnic studies. They probably started lost, and it’s gotten far worse. I believe now, with the exception of the science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) branch, that universities do more harm than good.

This dismissive anti-intellectualism is particularly rich coming from Peterson, whose magnum opus Maps of Meaning is not exactly an exemplar of STEM rigor, and draws upon some of the same “corrupting” thinkers (Nietzsche and Freud) who played a key role in destabilizing some of those disciplines. Peterson’s lists of “Great Books” (which includes his own book, of course) features a few titles worthy of that name, but the overall selection reveals a stunted and paranoid view of the human condition. Though I entirely agree with him that we must study life in the concentration camps and at the extremes of inhumanity, we must also understand the everyday experiences of people not like ourselves, which for Peterson should certainly include women, trans and non-white people, and academics in different disciplines. The extraordinary claim that a major portion of the social sciences and humanities are “irrevocably corrupted” requires extraordinary proof that Peterson must offer. At a bare minimum, he would have to take dozens of survey courses at different universities and read hundreds, perhaps thousands, of representative texts. His arrogance that he’s knowledgeable enough to make such an assessment, clearly a prejudiced one, is of pathological proportions (but he’s the psychologist, so it’s up to him to figure out the diagnosis).

The saddest thing about Peterson is that his desire for validation has lead an admired pedagogue to rub shoulders with increasingly idiotic, hateful people. For instance, Peterson recently tweeted: “91% of those who view my videos are male. Why? Why so few women?” Then an account called The Wests Declines tweeted to him as a response a “women’s majors are correlated with low IQ” graph, insinuating that women are too stupid to appreciate his videos (The West Declines uses hashtags like #womenwillbethedeathofthewest and #suffrageequalssuffering). Peterson retweeted the graph without any disclaimer, fact-checking, or commentary. What kind of professor or “scholar” retweets such a graph within this context, and from such a blatantly hateful account no less? Without any comment on its veracity or its source? This is a Milo move, not a professorial one. Peterson’s attraction towards fringe media suggests he cannot cope with norms of rigorous intellectual debate on the causes of his recent fame.

If we consider ourselves students or scholars, then ultimately we must heed and affirm part of Peterson’s recent message, which is that dissent and debate are crucial pathways to the truth, and that truth can be disturbing, uncomfortable, and even terrifying; kneejerk reactions are bad news (I’d invite his critics to watch his videos without prejudice). Yet out of this same spirit, we must also condemn the willful ignorance, reactionary invectives, and conspiratorial delusions Peterson flaunts when he leaves his area of expertise. Speaking freely is only one of the many values essential to academia; respect and intellectual integrity will be difficult for him to regain. It is disheartening to see him admired and played by right-wing opportunists who are only interested in freedom of speech to the extent that they can advance authoritarian ideas that ultimately result in the suppression of dissent and the end of diversity. If he’s eventually able to heed his own advice—taking to heart opposing viewpoints to improve our grasp on reality—he will inevitably reverse some of his more outrageous and harmful positions. But this will require the judicious and generous use of the same principle where I most agree with Peterson: the necessity of virtue.

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20 thoughts on “Peterson Gets Played

  1. You are delusional. The professor is defending free speech, everyone trying to stop him, is not.

  2. Who wrote this? It is excellent and I want to read more of this person, but I don’t see an author. Is it anonymous?

  3. Would you like to address his arguments or just be right by default?

    I like your last paragraph, though it’s disconcerting to see his message as purely right-wing-bandwagon.

    Do you speak another language?

  4. This is a sad, sad commentary. While you tried to be as objective as possible, you’re quite obviously not, and your issues with Jordan Peterson’s views on “trans”, “women” and “people of color” (ie. typical Marxist bullshit, wonder why you are stereotyped so often?) are easily spotted. Then you go on to attack the account of someone sharing a graph. Who cares if that person has shared (in your opinion) ANYTHING in the past? If the facts are legit, you have no ground to stand on.

    As usual, another cowardly dipshit argument from a 20 year old “expert” whose feels get in the way of the reals. Don’t waste your time reading this. 0/5 would not share.

  5. Bro what the fuck is this dogshit article i just finished reading? Please fix your writing style, its at the level of a first year journalism student

  6. This article is verbose and grandiose in its vocabulary but entirely lacking in substance. It is nothing more than extended appeal to authority and argumentum ad populam.

  7. Hey, this article is mostly an introduction to why his points are wrong while you paint this horrid picture of a man working outside his field bla bla bla shut the fuckin front door

  8. Weak article, even though I think that SOME of the criticisms might have some validity. The author simply fails to develop them. For instance, the author implicitly compares the Marxism-Communism link with the Nietzsche-Nazism, in order (I assume) to discredit the notion that ideas have consequences. He simply dismisses the N-N connection without argument. Yet even if THAT were true, it tells us nothing about the connection between Marxism and actually existing communism. Congrats on the weak article.

  9. his author is guilty of ALL the same fallacies he accused peterson of. I actually don’t think he’s learned much about Peterson at all if he thinks Peterson is merely shifting the victimhood-oppressor complex. Everybody is oppressed. Get over it. When people say “institutional white patriarchy” they are either talking about something that does not exist or they are talking about western culture itself.

    At this point, it is far beyond evident to me that marxists and nazis are just as terrible as each other. The historical record indicates they were worse by an order of magnitude. So I don’t know why we tolerate marxists on campus when we don’t tolerate nazis on campus.

    And it’s not a conspiracy. These radical social “justice” types staff the kangaroo courts known as the “Ontario Social Justice Tribunals.”

    Here is a “do whatever the fuck I want clause” under “Powers of the Tribunals”

    “1.6 The Tribunal will determine how a matter will be dealt with and may use procedures other than traditional adjudicative or adversarial procedures.”

    And another one:

    “1.7 In order to provide for the fair, just and expeditious resolution of any matter before it the Tribunal may:

    lengthen or shorten any time limit in these Rules;
    add or remove a party;
    allow any filing to be amended;
    consolidate or hear Applications together;
    direct that Applications be heard separately;
    direct that notice of a proceeding be given to any person or organization, including the Commission;
    determine and direct the order in which issues in a proceeding, including issues considered by a party or the parties to be preliminary, will be considered and determined;
    define and narrow the issues in order to decide an Application;
    make or cause to be made an examination of records or other inquiries, as it considers necessary;
    determine and direct the order in which evidence will be presented;
    on the request of a party, direct another party to adduce evidence or produce a witness when that person is reasonably within that party’s control;
    permit a party to give a narrative before questioning commences;
    question a witness;
    limit the evidence or submissions on any issue;
    advise when additional evidence or witnesses may assist the Tribunal;
    require a party or other person to produce any document, information or thing and to provide such assistance as is reasonably necessary, including using any data storage, processing or retrieval device or system, to produce the information in any form;
    on the request of a party, require another party or other person to provide a report, statement, or oral or affidavit evidence;
    direct that the deponent of an affidavit be cross-examined before the Tribunal or an official examiner;
    make such further orders as are necessary to give effect to an order or direction under these Rules;
    attach terms or conditions to any order or direction;
    consider public interest remedies, at the request of a party or on its own initiative, after providing the parties an opportunity to make submissions;
    notify parties of policies approved by the Commission under s. 30 of the Code, and receive submissions on the policies; and
    v.1) removed and replaced. Please see SJTO Common Rules;
    take any other action that the Tribunal determines is appropriate.”

    And another one…

    “3.13 Where a party has been notified of a hearing and fails to attend, the Tribunal may:

    proceed in the party’s absence;
    determine that the party is not entitled to further notice of the proceedings;
    determine that the party is not entitled to present evidence or make submissions to the Tribunal;
    decide the Application based solely on the materials before it;
    take any other action it considers appropriate.”

    Under the Ontario Human Rights code, under harassment rules employers are responsible for the speech of their employees whether or not they intended to offend anyone, whether or not anyone actually complained about it. That’s a nice tool to have if you also happen to be the type of radical who hates corporations. It’s conceivable that every employer everywhere as at least one employee that could lead to them getting big fines under this Orwellian legislation.

    This is just dishonest because every time someone disagrees with his stance on the scientific literature he has invited them to a public debate, and I can only assume they have all declined because there’s no scheduled debate on the scientific literature.

    “When Peterson argues far outside of the domain of psychology (where he co-authors prolifically) he wields the confidence of a tenured professor and the ignorance of a first-year student who, when faced with the daunting task of finding evidence from scholarly sources, instead argues with maddening anecdotes and nasty generalizations.”

    And this was my favorite:
    “He moves from a true premise—brutal economics before the 20th century made life oppressive for both genders—to a ridiculous conclusion—women could not be oppressed under these conditions.”
    No, the point is everyone is oppressed, and you don’t get special attention just because you belong to this or that group. Because the groups can be fractionated ‘ad nauseum.’ There are more groups of people than there are individual people. So who is oppressed? It’s not groups, it’s individuals! We already recognized that in the west which is why our institutions are build around the individual (and, to a lesser extent, the individual family).

  10. He uses an anecdote because this was a conversation, an interview – not a peer reviewed publication. And you have substantially misrepresented his position

  11. Who authored this heaping pile of irrational trash? It speaks volumes that no author dares put their name next to this time-sink of an article.

  12. 1. Would you please provide examples of Jesus’s ideas that could be labeled ‘social justice’? I would gladly argue over specific instances.
    2. If you wish to know how justice and ‘social justice’ are mutually exclusive, please consider an example, where a person reaps the fruit of their work – if they worked a lot, they have a lot. If they haven’t, they don’t. It is simplistic, true, but let’s consider it a general idea that a just person should agree with. From the social ‘justice’ perspective, this idea is unjust.
    3. What is fundamentally bad in following the ideas of a few people you find most appealing, if they all happen to be male, Russian or dead? Should you include someone else in your research just because they’re an alive black woman? That’s exactly the way of thinking I and many like me despise.
    4. If you think that JBP villifies a certain group of people, please find one debate that he had had in which his views on social justice met with calm and reasonable opposition and not anger, shouting and name-calling.

    I look forward to your response.

  13. I see the JBP fan boys are out in full force.

    He’s not a scholar, and comparisons to milo are richly deserved. I initially liked his ideas but he plays to an alt right anti intellectual audience that doesn’t merely hate SJWs but social justice and cultural minorities as a whole. It’s significantly more difficult to criticize far left beliefs while he’s showboating on YouTube.

  14. Great article. Sorry that you are being brigaded by the Peterson fans from 4chan and The_Donald

    • Please forgive me, but I’ve never been to those places and I do not think you have much ground to claim what you claim. Also, people from 4chan are still people, they have a right to an opinion.

  15. A lot of salty cherry-picking from Peterson apologists — it’s okay to be wrong on some things! Everyone is! Check out /r/samharris for some really interesting comments that ACTUALLY ADDRESS THE SUBSTANCE OF THE ARTICLE, unlike most of what’s here so far. Great piece, on the whole! I would love to read more!

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