There’s a trick I picked up over the years that really helps me put new thinkers I discover in context. Usually, I read some of their stuff, and then go out to find criticism of their work. Recently, I’ve been reading everything I can on Jordan Peterson.
It’s pretty easy to get swept up in a person’s ideas the first time you encounter them, so seeking out what others think its shortcomings are can be useful for making sure your own thoughts are balanced and grounded in fact.
Most of the time, this works pretty well.
However, I’ve found that this isn’t the case with Jordan Peterson.
It’s not that there aren’t tons of people who want to take on Peterson.
It’s just that every piece I run across has an author who seems intent on disqualifying themselves.
I’m not saying that they can’t have an opinion on the subject, but for one reason or another, the reader has cause to discount, or at least give reduced value to, their criticisms.
One of the problems that a lot of the reviewers has is that they tend to get dismissive of Peterson’s ideas, often without actually disproving them or providing a substantial counterargument.
Take, for instance, this quote which appears to be scoffing at Peterson:
“Far better that these activists take some time to set their own lives in order before criticizing the world, after which they would apparently recognize the wisdom of Peterson, and those like him, who venerate our auspicious traditions and mores.”1
It’s hard to take these people seriously when they show that they’re not taking the source material seriously.
Other times they misrepresent Peterson or his arguments.
“Peterson’s rules for life are intended to tell people what they ought to do, not just what people actually do . . . Peterson’s answer looks to religion, in particular Christianity . . . Peterson seems to assume that the only alternatives to religious morality are totalitarian atrocities or despondent nihilism.”2
This is a weird interpretation, given that Peterson is agnostic, but furthermore, it misses the point. I would describe Peterson as a “literary philosopher.” When he reads religious texts he’s not looking for spiritual enlightenment, but rather reading them to see if they say anything about the human condition. They’re not an alternative to totalitarianism, they’re a launching point for figuring out how to live a good life.
At times, it’s not even Peterson’s ideas that are up for criticism, rather the perceived composition of his audience.
“After Peterson’s Biblical lectures, devotees like to meet at a bar called Hemingway’s, an appropriately named venue given his emphasis on the value of masculinity. (Peterson argues for the societal importance of the “masculine spirit” and contends that feminists unjustly stigmatize qualities like competitiveness.) My unscientific sampling of the crowd found that the men over 30 saw Peterson as standing up against a tide of anti-male bias.”3
“Yet one of Peterson’s virtues is that he appeals to men who have fallen out of society — those “not in education, employment, or training” — who might otherwise wind up in fringe movements . . . Some of the 25-year-old college dropouts motivated by Peterson to get their lives together might have otherwise spent their time watching Sargon of Akkad videos or reading The Occidental Observer or buying Mike Cernovich’s brand of nootropics, so to the extent that Peterson’s rise has drained support for cranks, there’s a strong case that in consequentialist terms it has been a good thing.”4
Consequentialist terms? Really?
That’s like saying it’s a bad thing but not being brave enough to actually come out and say it.
Instead, let’s talk about the fact that so many of his critics are fixed on his audience composition.
First, it has nothing to do with the quality of his arguments.
Second, there’s a chicken-and-egg problem.
Peterson gained a lot of his fame via YouTube. Which happens to be a platform largely used by men. “While it attracts an even split of women and men, YouTube is still fairly male-dominated. Men spend 44 percent more time on the site per month, and of 51 categories of YouTube content measured by OpenSlate, men make up the majority of viewers in 90 percent of them.”5
Is it really weird that his audience is largely male if he made his name in a place frequented more by males than females?
Third, this seems kind of sexist. The implication appears to be that people men like can’t be smart.
Other times, the authors seem to be staunch defenders of Marxism.
“’Peterson’s understanding of Marxism and postmodernism is very vulgar,’ Harrison Fluss, an editor at the Marxist journal Historical Materialism, tells me. ‘He connects the two in [an] overarching conspiracy theory.’”6
I’m not sure this criticism is warranted. Peterson’s criticisms of Marxism seem to focus on the way that the foundational principles of that ideology conflict with human nature. It seems that his critics are focused on catching Peterson in a “gotcha” moment based on some aspect of obscure Marxist theory, even when those points aren’t central to his argument. They’re both missing the point entirely and trying to portray his argument as something it’s not.
Finally, there are the critics that have severe conflicts of interests.
Take Bernard Schiff, for example.7
Schiff was part of the committee that hired Peterson at the University of Toronto . . . in 1998. He retired in 2001, 17 years ago. By his own admission, contact with Peterson since that time have been “infrequent.”
So, he probably has useful insight . . . on the Jordan Peterson of 20 years ago. Worth listening to, but also taking with something of a grain of salt.
But, that’s not all that disqualifies Schiff.
He has a crush on Marxism.
“Calling Marxism, a respectable political and philosophical tradition, ‘murderous’ conflates it with the perversion of those ideas in Stalinist Russia and elsewhere where they were. That is like calling Christianity a murderous ideology because of the blood that was shed in its name during the Inquisition, the Crusades and the great wars of Europe. That is ridiculous.”
To be clear, I did the bolding.
Is it a respectable political and philosophical tradition? That seems like a point that deserves some evidence.
Also, I think he has a fair comparison to Christianity here, even if I disagree with the conclusion he seems to be drawing. And then he just drops it instead of exploring it more deeply. In doing so, he fails to prove his point.
Finally, he has a huge conflict of interest.
“Jordan’s first high-profile public battle, and for many people their introduction to the man, followed his declaration that he would not comply with Bill C-16, an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act extending its protections to include gender identity and expression. He would refuse to refer to students using gender-neutral pronouns. He then upped the stakes by claiming that, for this transgression, he could be sent to jail.
I have a trans daughter, but that was hardly an issue compared to what I felt was a betrayal of my trust and confidence in him. It was an abuse of the trust that comes with his professorial position, which I had fought for, to have misrepresented gender science by dismissing the evidence that the relationship of gender to biology is not absolute and to have made the claim that he could be jailed when, at worst, he could be fined.”
First, Peterson had already responded to the criticism about fining vs. jailing, pointing out that if he refused to pay the fine he would be jailed.
Second, this is a huge conflict of interest. You can see Schiff’s emotion bleeding through the page. He resorts to personal attacks, and he refuses to tackle “gender science” as anything other than a settled matter.
I’ve presented a lot of evidence that, for whatever reason, Peterson’s critics refuse to engage him in a straight fight.
Which is really unfortunate, as it leaves us with two potential conclusions, both of which are unsettling in their own way.
Either Jordan Peterson is right and no one can prove him wrong.
Or, Jordan Peterson is wrong and no one can prove him wrong.
Yeah, that’s not good.
- Source: “A Critique of Jordan Peterson” Matt McManus.
- Source: “Jordan Peterson’s Flimsy Philosophy of Life” Paul Thagard.
- Source: “What’s So Dangerous About Jordan Peterson?” Tom Bartlett.
- Source: “The Jordan Peterson Demographic Isn’t Going Away” Theodore Kupfer.
- Source: “The demographics of YouTube, in 5 charts” Eric Blattberg.
- Source: “Jordan Peterson, the obscure Canadian psychologist turned right-wing celebrity, explained” Zach Beauchamp.
- The following quotes are taken from this article: “I was Jordan Peterson’s strongest supporter. Now I think he’s dangerous” Bernard Schiff.