Saturday, January 20, 2018

Jordan Peterson, demagogue

Recently I was introduced to Jordan Peterson, a charismatic speaker and psychology professor at the University of Toronto. The context was a debate on trans rights and Canadian Bill C-16. What I initially encountered encouraged me to watch hours of video interviews, debate, and lectures. I quickly went from admiring, to suspicious, to deeply dismayed.

Peterson is the latest in a long line of self-help gurus. Their job is to simplify the world, in order to present facile solutions to personal problems. Peterson's technique denies the social realm, instead emphasizing personal development in a political and societal vacuum. In this post, I will critique Peterson's approach and beliefs, demonstrating how badly argued, contradictory, and harmful these are. The topics will be as wide-ranging as his own targets.

Rationalising the gender pay gap
The first video I was offered through social media was a Channel 4 News programme. In this presentation, Peterson is cool, calm, and presentable, completely overwhelming a rather rude (and not incidentally female) presenter. But being an excellent debater does not make your argument correct (as many Peterson fans assume, judging by their online comments).

In this interview, Peterson dismisses the gender pay gap by speaking of unnamed studies. There was plenty of time for him to mention some details, at least the name of an author we could then research. This is the very minimal criterion of argumentation: that it is supported and can be independently confirmed. But Peterson doesn't provide any proof, because, no matter how emphatic his utterances, the evidence is against him.

Instead, Peterson states that there are "many factors" for the pay gap, without admitting that sexist discrimination is one of them. In fact, he refuses to speak about this subject at all, but instead diverts the talk (when he can get a word in edgeways!) to other issues. A better interviewer would have called him on this, but it's television after all.

So let us turn to the evidence. Weichselbaumer and Winter-Ebmer conducted a meta-analysis, which is to say a study of previous studies, in order to compile results and filter out those studies that might have been in error, or whose methods were suspect. They examined more than 260 previous studies, spanning three decades of research, from many countries. Their conclusion identified a "discrimination (or unexplained) component of the wage gap". Not only that, but this gap had not decreased over time.

So, yes, there are various factors that effect pay, but discrimination is one of them. Ignoring it doesn't make the problem go away. But it is a common technique of someone for whom the facts are a threat, as we shall see.

Objections to trans protection
Peterson appeared to be on firmer grounds with his objections to Canadian Bill C-16, which was designed to protect trans people. (This term I will use in the accepted way, to include transgender, transsexual, and transitioned individuals.) His argument was made on the basis of free speech, that the government should not mandate which pronouns are used to refer to trans people in public discourse. His argument was edgy but his points were well-made.

I say this even though I was well used to referring to people using gender-neutral pronouns, including the plural "they" for an individual, back as far as 1985. I mean, how hard can it be? Most of the time pronouns are not even required; you simply address someone using their preferred name. But, practicality aside, it can be acknowledged that an argument on ethical grounds might well be appropriate. Such a case depends on the facts and the argument, and cannot be dismissed out of hand.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the bill doesn't even mention pronouns, nor anything else Peterson was obsessing over! Bill C-16 simply proposed to add the phrase "gender identity or expression" to the existing list of "prohibited grounds of discrimination". Here is the revised Subsection 3(1) of the Act in its entirety (for the bill indeed passed), so you can see for yourself just how offensive it is.

For all purposes of this Act, the prohibited grounds of discrimination are race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, marital status, family status, disability and conviction for an offence for which a pardon has been granted or in respect of which a record suspension has been ordered.

Peterson's claims about the bill were pure fantasy. Hence his arguments were a mirage. In such an extreme case, one wonders about motivation. Why single out this one piece of legislation for vitriolic denunciation?

The bill adds four words to an existing act, in order to protect trans people from hate speech and actions. It reflects a growing understanding in Canadian society of trans people and the lives they lead. (See Bauer and Ayden in the references.) Is there something in this Peterson doesn't like? I soon found that Peterson regards the entire issue of group rights as abhorrent. This is not surprising coming from a rich, white, cis, male, tenured, professor, protected by all the default prejudices of society. (Full disclosure: I share 2.5 of Peterson's six traits.)

Of course, Peterson's privilege doesn't mean that he is wrong. Only that he is insensitive, even cruel, and this more than somewhat contradicts his role as a helpful, caring psychologist. Many times in the debates and coverage of the bill he had opportunity to "reach out" to trans people, but abjectly fails to be even polite. For example, during "The Agenda" round-table, Mary Rogan offers the proverbial olive branch, and Peterson just stares her down. (Her article "Growing Up Trans" in The Walrus is worth reading.)

So, Peterson's legal arguments are flawed, to say the least. His manner facing trans people is strident, his tact nonexistent. Though he has never previously, in a long life and career, objected to any legislation, he chose this moment to start, by inventing a strange conspiracy between "far left radical activists" and the government. He protests a bill whose only purpose is to protect trans people from discrimination. What else can we call this but transphobia?

Ideology bad, lobsters good
So what is Peterson's ideology? He refuses to say, since he wishes to criticize not only other ideologies, but the very idea of ideology itself. To him, it's a dirty word. By avoiding "ideology" he can depoliticize his actions and pretend to represent the "common sense" middle ground of society.

But this strategy is naive in the extreme. An act that attempt to declare oneself the "common sense" norm is political, by definition. How can a university professor not understand this? Perhaps because he ignores most of the critical thinking of the last century (more on this below).

The self-help strategies Peterson promotes are pretty much the same as every other guru has proposed, going right back to the Ancient Greek philosophers. Respect yourself, model the person you want to be, etc. This is Aristotle 101. Peterson commits to this proven formula with his second book, 12 Rules For Life. A recent promotional talk, hosted by the How to: Academy (sic) in London, steps through his points. Whenever he deviates from Aristotle, his poor logic and sexism become obvious.

Peterson believes that hierarchies are natural and inevitable. If they favour men, that's just the way it is. Women must get used to it, or become more like men to compete. (He is explicit about this in the Channel 4 interview and elsewhere.) He justifies this view by reference to the lobster. A lobster uses serotonin to mediate its posture, and a good posture is important for self-worth and status. Peterson notes that humans also use serotonin as a neurotransmitter. There are hierarchies in lobster society, which is much older than our society. Hence such organisations are natural and not to be argued against.

This is a textbook example of the naturalistic fallacy. (The term is actually used to refer to two different errors of logic. This is one.) Peterson deploys this false equivalence repeatedly, without noticing that it's a giant encrusted red-clawed error. It should be clear that the existence of behaviour in the natural world is no argument for its morality in human society. Slavery was once justified this way, as was racism and the subjugation of women. Animals engage in sexual predation, eat their young, and enact other behaviours that human society might not want to admit.

Besides which, serotonin is not restricted to humans and lobsters -- far from it. It's found in all bilaterally-symmetrical animals, as well as plants and fungi. Yet Peterson does not use, say, the fern as a basis for moral human activity. Why not? Both lobster and fern can be eaten with melted butter. One can only jest, considering how absolutely ridiculous Peterson's reasoning is. But his audience eats it up. (Sorry!)

Perhaps it's useful to point out that psychologists are not trained in medicine. This contrasts with psychiatrists, who must first attain a medical degree before subsequent training. So it's not surprising that a psychologist might make a basic error of biology: it's not necessarily their area of expertise.

Doctrine of the heroic male
Peterson's psychology is based firmly on Freud and Jung. His framework centers around the ancient archetypes of Father/King/God, Mother/Nurturer/Devourer, and the all-powerful Hero. This triumvirate fits nicely with the narratives of the Abrahamic religions, including Peterson's chosen Christian faith. He often uses Biblical stories to support his arguments, preaching values such as the need for parents to be of both biological sexes. But rather than claim that gay marriage (for example) is immoral, as some Christians might, he instead argues from "empirical facts", stating that children would be better off in a conventional household. And this is proven by research, etc. In this way, Peterson is careful not to risk his popularity by flying in the face of Canadian morals, which largely embrace diversity. Utilitarian arguments are safer.

Not coincidentally, the ideal Hero he valorises is male. Every writer he mentions in every talk I have screened is... male. He hasn't read any feminists, and openly despises those who have, but feels entitled to dismiss all their work. He makes repeated statements against women's achievement, basing his arguments firmly on biological determinism. In one YouTube interview he explicitly states that feminists who tell women they can have a career are lying. Women can only have a job, doing something they dislike. He backs this pronouncement with the "fact" that only 2% of women have a career.

When Peterson mentions family it is often not a supportive environment, but a place of conflict. The nurturing Mother quickly becomes the Devourer, stifling development. Likewise, Peterson can't speak of the female sex without immediately turning to negative connotations. (Femininity he cannot address at all.) For this we can blame the sexist doctrines of Freud, who was wrong about just about everything.

Furthermore, friends are to be shunned if they don't completely support your own personal ambitions. In the Q&A at the end of one talk, he advises an audibly upset woman to leave her friends, even though he knows nothing about her situation beyond her brief question. His flip advice could cause untold damage to that audience member. He should be censured and not applauded for this professionally irresponsible act.

In summary, then, Peterson world-view is simple. Men should model the Hero, triumphing over adversity, rising to the top of the corporate ladder, their posture as erect as lobsters. Women must work at stuff they hate, taking short breaks to have babies... whom they will eventually stifle and corrupt.

What can be said about this doctrine, except that it's sexism of the stupidest sort.

Not only that, it's internally inconsistent. Peterson references Neitzsche, but his understanding is limited. For example, he seems unaware that Neitzsche famously declared Christianity a slave morality, in contrast with the heroic Greek model of mastery and nobility. These are not just different ideologies, but diametrically opposed. Yet Peterson promotes both the Heroic archetype and Christian doctrine, ignoring contradictions.

He can only do this by eliding any part of the Christian Bible that preach humility and community. Of course Christians (not only them) are adept at ignoring those parts of their doctrine that are impossible to reconcile with the facts at hand. Or that simply bother them. How else to believe in a floating beardy guy who kills millions of children a year with dread diseases? You might think this a digression, but Peterson's ability to hold contradictory, illogical ideas in mind has been rehearsed through his religion. He hates postmodernism but quotes Neitzsche, one of the fathers of postmodernism. You can't make this stuff up!

The myth of success under capital
Peterson's dominant narrative of self-affirmation and self-improvement ignores the social sphere almost entirely, reducing society to a simple pool of statistics. Peterson refuses to consider social structures positively, as a supporting framework or critical asset. Instead, Peterson preaches the hyper-individualistic doctrine that accords with commodity capitalism. He is selling what people wish to buy, a simple narrative that tells them that they are the centre of the universe. Their job is to make themselves better, to "self-author".

This approach was popularised by Oprah Winfrey, a "self-made" woman with a current net worth of 3 billion dollars. She fits the rags-to-riches fairy-tale template. The reason for her success, we are told, lies in her many positive attributes: intelligence, wit, empathy, caring, and (most of all) hard work and willingness to submit to adversity. Of course this narrative conveniently ignores the fact that others who share her characteristics do not become the lucky winners of the capitalist lottery. Peterson directly addresses the critique I am using here as a "myth", without explaining where all the other lucky winners of capitalism might be hiding.

Since her speech at the Golden Globe awards, Winfrey has been touted as a candidate for President of the USA, despite the fact she has no political experience. Of course, actual competence and ability have become meaningless in public life. All that matters is that you make people feel good and match their world view. For most, Winfrey's vast fortune is indicator of her success, qualifications enough for the job. Donald Trump agrees; he spoke well of her as a possible running mate. Those who promote her as a kinder solution forget that she was in favour of the US invasion of Iraq, a geopolitical disaster that eventually killed a million innocents. Don't imagine that we can distinguish here between Obama and Reagan, Winfrey and Trump, all of whom buy into warmongering hysteria and the military economy that is the only thing keeping that country from being incorporated into China.

Peterson and Winfrey both sell themselves as empathetic and supportive, but promote a punitive doctrine. Because there's a flip-side to self-authorship: any problems you encounter are ultimately yours exclusively. Remember, there is no social context. So it's your fault if you can't make the car payments... don't blame the insurance company who tripled premiums. It's your fault if you betray "female" characteristics (like "agreeableness") that prevent achievement in the business world. It's nothing to do with who's setting the agenda -- ignore that man behind the curtain! It's your fault for being laid off when your company moved factories to China in search of cheaper labour. Get off your ass and get a new job! Accept that lower wage. Forsake all your worker rights. But believe in yourself! Think positive thoughts!

The playground of male privilege
These pundits claim to represent a silent majority. In Peterson's case, this cohort consists of white males. In a revealing slip, he states that he views YouTube as a male "playground". No wonder that he chose this venue, of all possibilities, to market his ideas. His 600,000 followers are responsible for his rise to fame, and his Patreon subscribers ensure his fortune (to the tune of $600,000 a year). This money is in addition to his other crowd-sourcing, book sales, salary, speaking fees, etc. It's just as well that Peterson doesn't explicitly declare himself a popular champion, for no-one could believe it. This would be as ludicrous as billionaire Donald Trump claiming he was a man of the people. (Oh, wait.)

One has only to read the YouTube comments to see a congruence between the supporters of Peterson and Trump. You will find a group of like-minded people with a persecution complex, believing that they are losing power to those less fortunate. They view every admonition to treat others with respect as an infringement on their liberties. Never mind that they are not the ones suffering the suicide rates, depression, assault, and verbal abuse that trans people endure, with alarming frequency. (Apparently the Christians among Peterson fans somehow avoided reading Christ's teachings regarding selflessness and generosity.)

Meanwhile, Peterson has no problem denigrating trans activists for being false representatives of the trans community. He uses two arguments. The first is that he himself has received support from trans people. That's the famous "some of my best friends are black" argument. But let's take it seriously for a moment.

The most famous of his trans supporters is Theryn Meyer, who has over 44,000 subscribers on YouTube. As host for Peterson's talk "The Devouring Mother" at the University of British Columbia, she sat right next to him as he asserted the necessity of conventional gender roles and child-bearing. To be clear, Meyer is a man who has transitioned to a woman. Wouldn't her cognitive dissonance be unbearable? But just wait, because a few minutes later she admits that she does all the housework in her relationship... and that this has made her a better person. She thanks Peterson for this insight! The mind boggles at such reactionary conservatism. No surprise that on her Facebook page she self-describes as "Shieldmaiden of the Patriarchy". With friends like these...?

Peterson's second claim against trans activists is that since they were not elected (how does he know?) they cannot claim to represent a body of people. This conveniently ignores the very real problems with democracy that are in our face with every daily news broadcast. Suddenly it's a panacea? The comment also reveals ignorance of other forms of consensus-making that might well have been used in those communities. Peterson prefers if representatives were decided by a mass popularity contest, since that is how his own fame has been secured.

(To be clear, my critique of democracy here is in the context of the first-past-the post systems of Canada and the USA. This system is broken in all ways.)

But wait. Peterson too was not elected, so one wonders how he can claim to speak for others? He has two answers. First, he claims to be only speaking for himself. But this is an inadequate response for a public figure. I can be speaking for myself in private or within a local context, but I can hardly claim this privilege with half a million followers and television broadcasts. With such exposure comes responsibility. (A topic he is happy enough to talk about when not applying its burdens to himself.) The distinction between private and public space is lost on Peterson, as it is for libertarians in general.

In the Channel 4 interview, Peterson answered the question in a different way. He can speak to the points raised since he is a trained clinical psychologist, an expert. Does it not then follow that trans activists with training in the field of gender studies are also valid spokespeople? The issue of representation is not nearly so black-and-white as he asserts. Those in the "radical left" he critiques so ignorantly know this full well. In my experience, they spend much of their time debating such topics.

(Open debate and internal conflict are characteristic of the left. By contrast, being sure of yourself and wanting maximum efficiency is a trait of the right. The most efficient government, free of debate, is a dictatorship.)

On the evils of Marx and postmodernism
These contradictions betray Peterson's egocentric logic and self-serving nature. His bitter denunciations of "far-left cabals" (yes, he uses that phrase), "political correctness", evil Marxists, and postmodernism demonstrate a level of sloganeering akin to propaganda. Such empty phrases indicate either massive ignorance (if the speaker believes them) or deception (if they don't). In a quote famous enough to be on his Wikipedia page, Peterson states:

"I have come to believe that Marxism is a murderous ideology. I believe its practitioners in modern universities should be ashamed of themselves for continuing to promote such vicious, untenable and anti-human ideas, and for indoctrinating their students with these beliefs."

Now, it's very simple to understand what Marxism is. It's an economic critique of capitalism and the class system. Its historical importance alone makes it required reading for anyone who wants even a passing understanding of society since industrialization. Yet it has been turned into a bogey-man by those who fear ideas that contradict or complicate their ideology.

Let's start with the obvious: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels didn't kill anybody by developing the concept of historical materialism. Authoritarian followers of Marxist doctrines might well have "killed at least 100 million people in the 20th century", as Peterson claims, if you include Stalin and associates. But followers of every imaginable doctrine (including Buddhism, which sometimes gets a free pass) have slaughtered innocent folk down through the ages. Followers of Christianity are one of the worst culprits, yet I don't see Peterson disavowing his religion because of historical events.

Peterson doesn't stop by taking a strong stance against Marxism. He uses his ignorance and personal distaste to declare that this economic critique should not be taught. So much for the freedom of speech he otherwise pretends to support! This is astounding hypocrisy, but... no surprise. Peterson is a right-wing (to use his own over-simplistic binary opposition) ideologue pretending to speak for common sense. He uses heated and reckless language with little care for those he might hurt. In the National Post he railed against "our culture’s politically correct insanity". Apparently, if you disagree with Peterson's politics, you are insane. While others might be permitted free use of this term, perhaps a psychologist should not deploy it so destructively?

He hates post-modernism too, and inaccurately conflates this with Marxism, even though there could hardly be two more different ideologies. Marxists tend towards a materialist epistemology that foregrounds labour and its exploitation, a positive reconfiguration of which will lead (they hope) to a classless society. Postmodernists are skeptical of such meta-narratives and foreground linguistics and other networks of meaning. While Marxism has many branches and permutations, it is a great deal more consistent than postmodernism, which is not only misnamed (it's not a belief system) but too diverse a set of practices to be encompassed by one word.

This gloss is itself an oversimplification, but already more informative than anything Peterson presents on these topics, despite the fact they apparently mean so much to him. In fact, Peterson responds to these terms with only slogans and vitriol. He cannot allow his ideology even a momentary exposure to the techniques of Marxist analysis and deconstruction, lest it collapse around his ears.

For the same reason, Peterson is against environmentalism. The continuing progress of capitalism is predicated on the exploitation of the Earth's finite resources. Peterson must refuse to countenance any alternative to the destructive process that has brought us to the brink of global collapse.

Same old neoliberal doctrine
First and foremost, Peterson promotes a hyper-individualistic approach to life's problems. Your goal is to acquire cultural and social capital that can be translated into economic and psychological gain. You do this by hard work within a laissez-faire economy. This will reap wealth and happiness (here falsely considered congruent). Of course this mythology is promulgated by the elites, since by dispensing with social systems and ensuring everyone is always at each other's throat, embroiled in competition, they ensure their permanent place on top of the heap.

Much of what Peterson says conforms to this neoliberal narrative. You cannot let anyone curtail your personal ambition, your heroic quest. Such "interest groups" (read "not-my-interest groups") wish to redistribute wealth, including symbolic wealth, which is to say, values. Peterson's farcical claim that the Ontario Human Rights Commission is "one of the most dangerous institutions in Canada" suddenly makes perfect sense within this framework.

But it's worse than this, as I have demonstrated. Peterson's success is predicated on his creation of a safe space for scared, white, cisgender males, a depoliticized cocoon of normative values. To do so, he promotes a sexist and transphobic agenda. Like all demagogues, he's dangerous.

Peterson loves to tell you how to be a better person, so let me give it a shot.

Be a better person by engaging with people like Peterson critically. View their self-interested declarations with suspicion. Check their facts. Observe their omissions. Don't repeat their mistakes. Determine who their victims are and listen to those people twice as hard.

Oh, and clean your room.


Each one of these resources is free to view online or download, so you can confirm all the facts stated herein. Never trust an author unwilling to share references.

Aschoff, Nicole. 2015. "Oprah Winfrey: one of the world's best neoliberal capitalist thinkers". The Guardian, 9 May 2015. link

Baron Media. 2017. "Dr. Jordan Peterson: The Devouring Mother". YouTube video, 22 April 2017. link

Bauer, Greta R. and Ayden I. Scheim. 2015. Transgender people in Ontario, Canada: Statistics from the Trans PULSE project to inform human rights policy. link

Channel 4 News. 2018. "Jordan Peterson debate on the gender pay gap, campus protests and postmodernism". YouTube video, 16 January 2018. link

How to: Academy. 2018. "Jordan B. Peterson on 12 Rules for Life". YouTube video, 16 January 2018. link

McKeen, Alex. 2017. "Controversial U of T professor making nearly $50,000 a month through crowdfunding". The Star, 4 July 2017. link

Meyer, Theryn. 2018. YouTube profile. link
Minister of Justice. 2016. House of Commons of Canada Bill C-16: An act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code. link

Nietzsche, Friedrich. 2007. On the Genealogy of Morality, Keith Ansell-Pearson, ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. link

Offord, Alexander. 2016. "The intellectual fraudulence of Jordan Peterson (apropos of Daniel Karasik)". Alexander Offord (blog), 14 November 2016. link

Ontario Human Rights Commission. 2014. Policy on preventing discrimination because of gender identity and gender expression. link

Peterson, Jordan. 2016. "The right to be politically incorrect". The National Post, 8 November 2016. link

Peterson, Jordan. 2017. "2017/05/17: Senate hearing on Bill C16". YouTube video, 18 May 2017. link

Peterson, Jordan. 2018. YouTube profile. link

Rogan, Mary. 2016. "Growing up trans". The Walrus, 12 September 2016. link

The Agenda with Steve Paikin. 2016. "Genders, rights and freedom of speech". YouTube video, 26 October 2016. link

Weichselbaumer, Doris and Rudolf Winter-Ebmer. 2005. "A meta-analysis of the international gender wage gap". Journal Of Economic Surveys 19.3. link.



Kev said...

Hi Robin. I read your article and enjoyed it.

I don't share your wariness of Peterson probably because I just find the topics interesting rather than his views correct or otherwise.

Some simple ideas just to give some engagement; I haven't thought as deeply as you have.

- I would imagine Peterson would wriggle away from your points about moral implication by denying having any opinion about moral or immoral constructions of society. He's very biologically focused and focused on the how's and not the why's.

- I know that he harps on about the male hero because he sees its prevalence combined with the more male imperative to distinguish self as reason not to dig for the heroine. He's more interested in observation of story than the kind of society it creates, idealism or analysis. Whether ignoring the fringes is sexist I suppose depends on ones own opinion about whether not taking an interest constitutes sexism.

- On C-16 he was very concerned about the precedent that would be set by a self-defining group being given a special place in the law and the implications for compelled speech. The compelled speech part was an interpretation influenced by an accompanying document that went with the changes to the law. The document gave guidelines regarding interpretation. It's since been removed from the record. That's where he took the notion that it was a plot from the post-modernist extremes.

robin said...

To address just some of what you wrote.

On C-16, Peterson went on record at the tribunal on the bill itself. Ancillary documents are completely irrelevant as he or any lawyer knows. They are not in the bill and not binding. So this is just misdirection. And paranoia.

What can the problem be with a self-defined group? Only that it is out of his control. maybe he wants to be the one, as a person of privilege, to make all the definitions? Thankfully, it doesn't work that way.

Trans people are definitely a community of interest. Despite the many differences between individuals (as exist in any group) they self-identify as being part of this social grouping. (I am not saying *all* trans people wish to be grouped, but that is not necessary for this logic.)

OK, so given that there is a social grouping of trans people we can also say a few other things, taht are documented facts in the world. People in this social group are subject to discrimination. Their identity is not a choice.

If Peterson doesn't believe *any* group should be protected by the law, he would object to the entirety of this law, and not just the amendment that protects gender expression. But that is *not* his position.

The only conclusion I can draw is that he objects to the trans community being protected. Or doesn't believe they are victimised. I'd recommend he reads the studies, but he has proven woefully unable to read and understand simple facts. He is a very bad practitioner of his chosen trade. But a really good preacher.

robin said...

"He is a very bad practitioner of his chosen trade."

Sorry, that is too extreme. Wish comments could be edited!

Kev said...

Well at least opinions can be edited!

Just to engage with the last bit about his attitudes towards trans-gender people, although I'm you've had enough of it at the same time so soz.

I don't think Peterson has any objection to the trans community or the journey of a trans person. Really I don't think he has any skin in the game.

He has an interesting take on the trans community: that the post-modern identification of gender as socially constructed is a costly mistake for trans people because it allows for the far right to claim that it can be societally deconstructed again. He compares it to homosexuality which is biological and you can't be taught out of it.

robin said...

Those are interesting debates to have, no doubt. But (at least in the clips I saw) Peterson's attitude and approach, not to mention what he actually says, are not congruent with someone open to debate. If he was, he wouldn't say the whole thing is a "far radical left" conspiracy... which is simply stupid. For one thing, there is no far left radical politics in Canada (and I *was* in politics there, for a time). The closest you would come is the Greens, but they are moderate compared to what the left has to offer elsewhere. The Trudeau government is more center-right than anything.

Where Peterson does argue points in politics, economics, rights, and philosophy he uses logical fallacies, omission of facts, cherry-picking of data, and continuous assertion as his techniques. My article documents a few cases in some detail. I am therefore not willing to grant him the benefit of the doubt that I might grant someone else.

robin said...

My own view is that everything in society is at least partially (and sometimes grossly) socially constructed. There's plenty of evidence in the wide variety of forms that gender expresses in different cultures, including Western European culture through the ages. A simple example is that boys were once dressed in pink, which was associated with being bold and assertive. At some point the signifier "pink" flipped meanings with respect to sex.

But this is not to say that gender, sexual orientation, etc. is *all* about societal influence and that there are no intrinsic biological or psychological (two different things) determinants. Considering biology, it cannot be denied (though some will try!) that there are biological sexes, from the chromosomes all the way down to sexual organs. If this was not the case, reconstructive surgery and hormone replacement therapy for gender transitioning would not exist. They would be completely superfluous if biology had nothing to do with gender.

Can we not simply accept that some people's gender identities are at odds with their biology? The evidence is overwhelming. I don't find it difficult to respect that. This is not *merely* a matter of psychology, but it is *also* an expression of psychology, which is to say a person's subjectivity. It's simplistic, even stupid, to regard gender as *either* societally-conditioned or biological or psychological. Not everything falls into oppositional logic... and if there is a good example of that, gender expression is one!

Peterson's argument, if I understand correctly, is that protecting trans people from oppression is a bad thing because this admits that their identity is entirely socially-determined. And that this can be used against them. He asserts this by... using this point against them. Er, what? Doesn't this make him the very person that the trans community needs protection from?

Surely if Peterson was on the "side" of trans people, he would be working with them, in their community, to work out these definitions. But he isn't.

But back to the basis of his argument. A further problem is that Peterson's position is inconsistent with the law as it already exists. To take one example, "race" is not entirely (or even mostly) biological; it is culturally-constructed. Yet persecution on the basis of race is protected by this bill. Why isn't Peterson objecting to that? Well, because social construction is not really his point. He might pretend it is, as a rhetorical gambit when confronting people less adept at debating than he is. But it's dissembling.

Given the weakness of his argument, it is difficult to do any but assume Peterson has ulterior motivations.

Kev said...

Well laid out.

I think Peterson believes that the trans-protection as law is a disingenuous movement of a neo-Marxist extreme post-modernism. He's often said he would have no trouble referring to trans people however they want but that making laws around compelling that, which he believes is happening, is authoritarianism in infancy.

I think you're dead right to say he's a better preacher than academic. Moreover, I think he's genuine when he says he still believes that truth is the most important thing. He's out there trying to live his own and encouraging people to do the same. I admire that.

The other thing I admire is that he genuinely wants men to get their shit together, be honest, be counted and not feel squeezed out from society in the way that suicide rates indicate is happening. He has correctly identified this problem in a discourse climate where standing up for yourself as a man sets of feminism alarms. I admire his authenticity and courage in that respect.

Someone sent me this. He starts crying!

robin said...

"I think he believes that the trans-protection as law is a disingenuous movement of a neo-Marxist extreme post-modernism."

I am sure he does. But I have already deconstructed this argument in the blog article -- starting with his complete misunderstandings of both Marxism and post-modernism. They are only his enemy because his thinking is based on simplistic conservatism on the one hand, and Freudian fantasy on the other. Both of which doctrines are profoundly sexist. And both of which are transparent to those critics he might label "post-modern". A term which means, apparently, anyone thinking critically in the last century.

No doubt Peterson actually helps people as a clinical psychologist. I am glad he wants men to get their shit together. But does this require spreading misinformation about a) gender studies, b) pay gaps, c) left-wing politics, d) post-modernism, e) the law, etc. etc.? And that's only the videos I have seen.

In any case, his alignment with white, cisgender, men as some sort of oppressed majority ("squeezed out from society") would be laughable... except that it is so dangerous. It is also a common claim among supporters of Trump, in the so-called "alt-right", and other fascist communities. They fear that the poor and disadvantaged will somehow rise up and take away all their rights. So we had better not introduce legislation designed to protect women, trans people, etc. from being beaten up in back alleys, denied jobs, or abused.

I'd be happier if Peterson stayed in his practice, where he can, at most, damage one person at a time. As plenty of other psychologists and followers of Freud do.

I think I really should move on to more positive and productive pursuits. Though I am always happy to engage with someone asking good questions and sharing information.

robin said...

OK I need to respond again. You mentioned suicide.

White cis males are not at greater suicide risk than other groups. That's another myth promulgated to protect advantages. 35% of the trans population in Ontario consider suicide in any given year. And the actual rates of suicide among them, native peoples, and other disadvantaged groups are way higher than in the general population. For example, the age-specific suicide rate among Aboriginals in Canada are triple the national average.

The number one correlated cause of suicide is economic situation. People get depressed if they are not validated in work, if they cannot pay the bills, if they cannot feed their family. That's why suicide rates were higher in the Great Depression than any other time on record.

The current neoliberal exploitation of labour, with broken unions, zero hour contracts, decreased rights, etc. is to blame. More money has flown into the hands of the rich, leaving the vast majority of people hungrier and more indebted. Meanwhile environmental conditions worsen and people fear their children may not even have a future. In this climate, it's the smart people who get depressed. (And it is.)

It is precisely reactionary conservatives like Peterson who exacerbate the situation that he then has to fix in his clinical practice. (I am not claiming that he is aware of this connection or does so deliberately to ensure a steady revenue stream.)

And yes, 80% of deaths by suicide are men. But *more* women than men attempt suicide. They are simply less adept at succeeding. Grim stuff, I know. But to think women are not under equal or greater pressure than men is simply incorrect.

Suicide is an enormous problem. Tearing down the capitalist system of exploitation is the only solution. In the ruins, build a caring community of equals. This may be a pipe dream, but I would prefer people like Peterson used their energies to this positive end, rather than selling the myth of heroic individualism. That path leads only to depression and, for some, an early death.

Dave said...

Hi, you say "Peterson states that there are "many factors" for the pay gap, without admitting that sexist discrimination is one of them. In fact, he refuses to speak about this subject at all". At around the 8 minute mark he says "about 18 factors, one of which is gender, and there is prejudice, there's no doubt about that". So, like Cathy Newman, you are accusing him of something which is clearly untrue.

robin said...

Thanks for the correction. I am not going to watch the video again, so I will simply assume you are correct and that I made a mistake. He does once, briefly, for a couple of seconds out of a full interview, admit there is a gender gap. And then, nonetheless, refuses to talk about it, even though that's the subject he's being questioned on.

Repeatedly he denies hierarchies are bad, naturalises them, denies sexism, etc. That's the bulk of what he says in the 6-8 hours I watched. I realise there is much I didn't watch. I am sure occasionally he makes placating comments.

Do you think this substantively changes any claim I have made?

Dave said...

I can't respect you when you attribute things to him that he didnt say. Yes it hugely changes your claim! I cant see him saying hierarchies are bad, where does he say that? He doesnt deny sexism either in C4 clip. If you can direct me to a clip that shows this bigotry I'm willing to be persuaded.

robin said...

Dave, I am not getting paid for this blog. Peterson gets close to a million bucks a year. I wish I had the time to watch hundreds of hours of video and transcribe them all, then double-check to be sure I have not made an error. That would be preferable. But instead, I rely on people like you to a call me out, and I am truly grateful for that.

I might make small slips; Peterson might make small slips. I am not criticising his tiny errors. I am critiquing continuous errors of logic, consistency, and omission. If you cannot understand this difference, so be it. You think that one slip invalidates an entire argument supported by otther facts? Well, then you are coming down on the side of Goliath over David. As so many other will, who prefer to support fame and fortune.

The problem is likely that you need to read what I say more carefully. For example, I wrote "Repeatedly he denies hierarchies are bad". You replied "I cant see him saying hierarchies are bad". To be crystal clear, that's the opposite of what I wrote.

Certainly, it was over-simplistic of me to phrase it that way, but it was a quick comment. It's not that Peterson denies hierarchies are bad... he naturalises them. That's not the same thing. But I already covered this point, in detail, in the blog post. So I didn't think I had to do so all over again. Just scroll up and read the section about lobsters.

Peterson denies sexism repeatedly, generally by omission. He says that men and women should be treated fairly (a meaningless statement in itself). But then he valorises male qualities (as he sees them) over female. (Read the first link below.) Of course he is careful about where and how he makes his sexist comments. But he makes them nonetheless.

If you wish to critique my logic or facts, please go ahead. Don't ask me to provide even more examples or even more proof. That is an endless project, in which you defer engaging with what I have already written.

What I will do is provide are some links to other critiques, just in case you think I am the only one who has noticed Peterson is a fraud and a dangerous demagogue. I found these just now, by doing a simple web seach.

Damull said...

Dave it seems to me, if you follow this guy at all, you should have no problem being persuaded of his bigotry. I think the problem lies more in your willingness to do so.
An accurate and hard hitting read Robin. Excellent stuff.

robin said...

Shuja Haider takes down Peterson's complete and utter ignorance about postmodernism here:

robin said...

The tide is turning against this bigot. Though this article is far too kind.

Unknown said...

Thank you for writing this.

robin said...

The New York Review of Books is scathing:

@miniMum said...

I really appreciate hearing your viewpoint, and saving me from having to watch the hours of video myself.

@miniMum said...

As a woman, it's not too surprising that I'm triggered by 'Order is male and chaos is female' and how this has always been true since the beginning.

Compare the most fundamental male/vs female purpose of reproduction of the species. Males produce millions of sperm in the short term and deliver them wherever. Females have eggs created while the female was in her own mother's womb, released singly and from the opposite side of the body from the previous egg (usually)! So orderly, it's commonly called a 'period'. The ovaries produce a scent that attracts sperm in the right direction, the egg has a complex process that allows one sperm in but not hundreds, and the result is a fully formed human being.

Order vs chaos indeed, but it's not the birth or female process that's chaotic.

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