On the Jordan Peterson Thing: Some Observations

A couple days ago, I attended Jordan Peterson’s talk at Western University. For those who don’t yet know who Dr. Peterson is, this will give you enough of the relevant background.

I attended this talk for three principal reasons: (1) I wanted to see what would happen. Peterson has attracted, in a very short time, large contingents of both passionate detractors and passionate supporters. The talk he gave at McMaster University just the day before was rather spectacularly disrupted by protests. I was curious as to whether anything similar would go down at Western. (2) I wanted to try to glean some info that might helpfully clarify some of the disputes between Peterson and his critics (because, as is often the case with respect to these sorts of emotionally charged sociopolitical issues, there’s a helluva lot of talking past one another on both sides). (3) I wanted to see if there were meaningful differences between the views he’s actually putting out there and what his supporters (and detractors) are taking away.

What follows are some quick, largely unstructured observations. I’m going from memory here, and I expect I’ll have a bit more to say when the video of the talk is released and I can revisit it.

Context:

(1). The talk proceeded peacefully and without disruption. No chants; no fire alarms. I don’t think any protesters showed up at all. The only demonstrators I saw outside the venue were two people holding pro-free speech signs. I entered the venue a bit before the talk and left immediately afterward. It’s possible that people assembled and dispersed outside within this interval, but I doubt it. It would be a remarkably ineffective way to protest.

(2). I saw 5-6 red MAGA hats in the audience (in Canada, mind) and one white Make [Something] Great Again hat (I was too far away to make out what the [Something] was).

(3). By Peterson’s own estimate, the audience was about 90% male.

(4). I only saw one sign inside the venue. It was a repurposed pizza box featuring the Evelyn Beatrice Hall quote (often wrongly attributed to Voltaire) “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” along with an image of Pepe the Frog. The sign owner held this up prior to the talk and also during the Q&A period while he was asking Peterson a question. To my surprise, based on the content of the sign, the owner identified himself as a trans man. A subsequent interview with this man (I’m not going to link it, since it mentions him by name) revealed that he had traveled from out of town to confront Peterson, but found himself agreeing with the talk much more than he expected to. If memory serves, his question to Peterson was along the lines of: “If non-binary pronouns were already in widely established use, would the controversy that launched Peterson into public consciousness have even existed?” Peterson had sort of answered this question before, insofar as he’s stated that he’d be willing to use a small set of non-binary pronouns around which some considerable consensus has coalesced, and he gave a consistent reply here.

(5). Peterson began with a brief “conversation” between himself and a Kermit the Frog hand puppet. I initially wondered if this was some weird Pepe shoutout by a guy who doesn’t yet really understand the whole Pepe thing, but it seems more likely it was primarily a nod to an inside joke among some of his supporters that he kinda sounds like Kermit. Then again, he apparently does know a thing or two about Pepe (and has a lot of Jungian just-so stories about frogs in general), so multiple signals may have been intended here.

(6). Peterson sat at a table for the entirety of the talk (I think he got up during the Q&A period). Despite his relaxed body language, he got pretty animated, even rant-y, at several points. I suspect a lot of the frustration from the previous day was still lingering.

(7). There were several eruptions of applause throughout the talk, including when, at the outset, he informed “Kermit” that he was going to “talk about the differences between men and women.” Given my increasing (and generally horrified) interest in the role signaling behavior plays in political polarization, I found this pretty disturbing.

Content:

(8). This talk was an odd but entertaining mix of the usual political stuff, clinical psychological dimensions of gender difference, Jungian psychoanalysis (at one point, we were treated to Peterson’s interpretation of Pinocchio), and self-help/improvement.

(9). He began with a discussion of the now (in)famous Bill C-16. Somewhat to my surprise, he didn’t spend much time at all talking about what he thinks the consequences of the bill would be (perhaps he’s taken to heart some of the allegations that he’s misrepresenting what the bill would actually require of teachers like him). Instead, he focused his criticism on the process by which the legislation was drafted and on what he takes to be the assumptions regarding sex and gender that underlie it.

(10). I’m trying, with difficulty, to imagine a situation in which I, as a teacher, would ever need to address a student using any pronouns other than the already-gender-neutral “you/your/yours.”

(11). Peterson repeatedly refers to transgender individuals as “transsexuals” (it was clear from context that he’s not referring exclusively to people who’ve transitioned).  I found this weird because at one point in this talk he grants that a case can be made (albeit “in a weak way,” he says) that sex and gender aren’t the same thing. He also doesn’t seem to have a problem using the standard gender pronouns (“he/she,” etc.) in accordance with a trans person’s request; his beef seems to be specifically with non-binary pronouns (“zhe,” “ve,” “xe,” etc.). His insistence on using “transsexual” struck me as primarily a provocation and an attempt at signaling both “bravery” and group (dis)affiliation (“Look at me conspicuously refusing to use the word ya’ll insist on using to describe yourselves!”). If this is right, then the motivation is probably both less sinister than his critics might suppose and less principled (indeed, less brave) than his supporters might suppose.

(12). His moral worldview seems to be basically consequentialist; he says at one point that, even if there were no positive meaning in the world, there would still be the “negative meaning” of suffering. This was heartening to me. While I don’t know many on the far Left who expressly identify as consequentialists (most of their discourse happens at the level of applied ethics rather than moral foundations), it’s clear that the amelioration of harm is a major organizing and orienting principle for them. Now, if the conflict between Peterson and his critics can be recast as not so much a clash between incompatible moral worldviews but as a difference over the question of how best to minimize human suffering, then this would do a lot, I think, to reduce the heat/light ratio and foster much more productive exchange. But…

(13). Peterson claims that (1) transgender people are very rare; (2) the transgender people who insist on being referred to with nonbinary pronouns are rare even within this rare group. The suggestion seems to be that this minority of a minority shouldn’t be allowed to dictate the speech of everyone else. Bearing this and the previous paragraph in mind, it almost seems as if the central conflict here might be between a sort of average utilitarianism (Peterson’s view—maybe) and some species of negative threshold utilitarianism (the view of trans activists)—or at least between the intuitions conducive to these positions.

(14). Peterson vociferously criticizes the claim that sex, gender identification, gender presentation, and sexual orientation are independent of each other. His argument was, basically, “that’s absurd because these things strongly covary.” I don’t think I know any Leftists who would disagree that there are strong correlations between these properties (though many may disagree with Peterson over the extent to which these correlations have biological vs sociocultural explanations). When they say that these properties are independent, I generally take them to mean not that they don’t covary at all, but that they don’t necessarily covary, that individuals exist who cut various zigzags across these categories (which Peterson has granted), and that it’s incumbent upon us to ensure our hearts and societies are accommodating of these individuals.

Consider now these distinct notions of (in)dependence in light of the different versions of consequentialism discussed in the previous observation. Peterson is very preoccupied with tyranny—that is, with a small minority dictating how the majority behave. The Left, on the other hand, are worried about the less obvious tyranny of the majority, about the slide, conscious or subconscious, from the statistical correlation between sex and gender to a normative (and policed) gender essentialism. In the abstract, of course, these are both legitimate concerns. How do we decide, in any particular case, which one ought to be accorded greater moral priority? What are the relevant variables?

(15). Peterson posits the masculinizing effects of prenatal (and pubertal) testosterone as a mechanism for psychological gender differences. He does not note that this literature also indicates that prenatal masculinization of the genitals and brain happen during different developmental periods. Changes in the genome (e.g., de novo mutations), in the mother’s blood chemistry, or in the intrauterine environment can result in these features masculinizing to different degrees. These processes have been explicitly connected in this literature to gender dysphoria and transgender identification. The omission of any mention of these findings makes the relationship between sex and gender appear far more determinative than it actually is.

(16). As best as I could glean from the rather disastrous first conversation between Peterson and Sam Harris, Peterson’s theory of truth is a sort of moralized, Jung-ized, Darwin-ized Jamesian pragmatism. The CliffNotes® version is, roughly: Truth is moral utility. It’s not clear to me what role this notion of truth is playing in other aspects of his worldview, like the ones discussed here (one might ask, a bit cheekily, whether his claim that it’s immoral to deny the truth of, e.g., gender differences, is intended to be more than merely tautological).

(17). Peterson claims that, over time, the desire for equal opportunity has been perverted into a desire for “equity” (equal outcome). I think something a bit more complicated is afoot here. I think what’s going on among the Left is not so much an express desire for sameness of outcome as a profound worry that barriers to equal opportunity are so pervasive, institutionalized, and, to most people, invisible that equality of outcome is the only trustworthy evidence for equality of opportunity. Of course, equality of outcome can also be evidence of merely a different set of barriers to equality of opportunity, so it’s not a good heuristic by itself. The big point, though, is that, while there is still substantive disagreement here between Peterson and his critics, this may be another instance in which that disagreement is not as deep as the common framing (equality of opportunity vs. equality of outcome) suggests. That is a good thing.

(18). Peterson appeals to what’s sometimes called the Nordic Gender Equality Paradox as evidence that gender differences in vocation become more rather than less pronounced as equality of opportunity increases (suggesting a biological basis for gender differences in the relevant preferences). Interestingly, later in the talk, he makes a claim that men are being “driven out” of the humanities and social sciences. Now, he didn’t offer any evidence of a causal mechanism by which this is occurring. If all he’s going on here are data showing an increasing percentage of women in these fields, then he ought to be aware of the inconsistency in promoting a social/institutional explanation of this trend but a biological explanation for the reverse trend in Scandinavian STEM departments.

Also, possibly relevant: Intimate partner violence against women and the Nordic paradox (different paradox, but it may have some relation to the one Peterson discusses).

(19). Peterson strikes me as much more of a classical liberal than anything in the vicinity of the Alt-Right swamp (I can’t quite say the same for many of his most vehement supporters, alas). He has some critical things to say about Right-wing nationalism and seems to take the principal duty of the state to be the cultivation of free, self-possessed, moral individuals. On this count, he has my sympathies (at least at this granularity), and I hope the message got through to the bulk of his audience. I also hope they take to heart his warning that we all harbor the capacity for monstrosity (and that, cuz this apparently needs to be said, this is no thing to celebrate or make capitulatory peace with).

(20). Many of Peterson’s views strike me as broadly consistent with the sort of advice a clinical psychologist would give a patient. The onus is on you not to change the world in which you’re suffering but to adapt to it, to learn its rules and beat it at its own games. Elsewhere, Peterson has described the archetypal hero as the person flexible enough to master any dominance hierarchy.

The young men who comprise the majority of Peterson’s supporters are desperate for a valorizing narrative with which to view and structure their lives. Peterson provides this for them. Insofar as this narrative is individualistic, it is a preferable alternative to the Blood & Soil identitarianism of the Alt-Right, but insofar as it is merely egoistic, it feeds a lot of the same destructive cognitive machinery.

I’d like to see Peterson try to connect his self-improvement/self-enhancement material more clearly and robustly to the need for reducing suffering (surely, anyone deserving the title “hero” can’t only be hero-ing for himself). I’d like to see him draw clearer and more forceful contrasts between himself and the Alt-Right, among whom, whether he likes it or not, he is rapidly rising to kek sainthood. While he may recognize the existence of transgender individuals, many of his supporters, as evidenced by the comments on his YouTube videos, really do espouse a hostile and harmful normative gender essentialism (among plenty of other toxic views).

When Peterson addresses his base in the manner and capacity of a psychologist, he incurs a certain level of responsibility for how they behave in accordance with their understanding of his advice. I don’t know whether Peterson reads the comments on his videos, but he really ought to. He has the ear of a large and growing number of bitter young men, and he needs to be mindful of what’s growing in the soil he eagerly tends.

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