On the Smearing of Jordan Peterson: On Dialogue and Listening

“Tyranny is the deliberate removal of nuance.”

― Albert Maysles

Two weeks ago, we learned that BBC historian, Dan Snow, lied to his daughters when he told them that the Spitfires were piloted by women flying combat missions during WWII in order to encourage them to “follow their dreams.”  We were also told that Jordan Peterson is apparently a flaming “misogynist,” according to two writers who have chopped up quite a bit of Peterson’s words, conveniently situating his ideas into a landscape where they take pot shots at a caricature that they alone have fabricated.  While Snow was the subject of light media speculation, Peterson has been held to the fire in recent months from the social justice warrior left to the feminists of all flavors, with most coming at him with rather incoherent critiques.  Two men, two different approaches to sexual inequality, and this story unfolds through how their actions are differently interpreted.  But I will return to this later.

Am I a fan of Peterson?  This is a question I was asked on Facebook recently to which I responded that I am more interested in having an honest discussion over some of the ideas he presents and I am not at all interested in fashioning even more straw man arguments that both The New York Times and Salon have seen fit to print.  Need we hate or love Peterson to engage in good faith discussions?  These and other articles fail to acknowledge the breadth of social critique that Peterson is undertaking, much less understand what Peterson is actually saying. Inasmuch as people claim to be “worried” and “uncomfortable” with what Peterson ostensibly proposes, I have come across more people who haven’t actually spent any time reading or listening to Peterson and instead have relied on third-party journalistic reviews to make up their minds for them. I have also witnessed the rhetorical bludgeoning of anyone who regards any of Peterson’s commentary as useful.  Like Carol Horton, who expresses her fears of speaking about Peterson in her recent Quillette piece, there are many on the left who think that Peterson should not be dismissed:

I don’t buy it. I’ve read and listened to enough Peterson to make up my own mind and that’s not how I see him at all. Rather than being forthright about this, though, I’ve tended to cower silently in my alienated corner, fearful that revealing my rejection of the stock anti-Peterson narrative will cause my progressive friends to denounce me and the social media mobs to swarm.

Predictably, the response to Peterson from many feminist circles has also largely been unimpressive as the arguments range from women mischaracterizing Peterson as a “right-winger,” a “douche,” a “stupid man’s smart person,” to an array of ad hominem, again stemming from third-hand readings of various media hit pieces.  I find it interesting that this culture war is targeting Peterson, many are honing in on one man who is in no way the “mystical father figure” that Nellie Bowles crafts in her article, where Brett Weinstein and Heather Heying, among others, are espousing similar views. Why the feminist hatred of Peterson?

First, Peterson has gained much attention within popular culture and academia because there is a resonating sigh of relief that someone is standing up and speaking back to the culturally punitive measures which have been used to shut down debate from the halls of academia to the meetings of feminists.  Admittedly, Peterson was in a position where he could address the social justice warriors as a tenured professor who had the job and economic security to take a stand against compelled speech related to Canada’s Bill C16.   Oppose this to Rebecca Tuvel, an untenured professor, who this time last year had no such option amid the Hypatia controversy.

Then there is Peterson’s analytical method which subverts the neat divides of “left” and “right” that many have wrongfully assumed to be coherently and firmly separated.  These political positions are anything but logical as the left has held a problematic and fragmentary relationship with identity politics in recent years.  For instance among the left, historical materialist analyses are welcome theoretical approaches, except in analyses of gender.  It would also not be an exaggeration to state that the soft right has recently been offering more structural and thoughtful analyses of identity politics.  The reason for this shift of political valences and how we speak about ourselves, social inequality, and injustice has everything to do with the meteoric rise of Jordan Peterson and the challenges he poses for both the left and the right.

Because his ability to critique both the left and the right, Peterson has captured the attention of those from both sides of the aisle who are tired of the relentless call-outs and reductive rhetorical approaches to what many of us deem to be far more complex issues than that of subjugated/oppressor (although this too plays a role).  This era’s need to build political arguments upon the presumed guilt of the other based on a series of personal identifications is being directly challenged by Peterson.  It is this sort of rehashing of historical wrongs to which the left genuflects and from which the right steps away.  We have been doing this dance for some time and it has pretty much gotten us nowhere.   The left has replaced the right’s traditionalist liturgy with a political confession where every sentence begins with the culpability of whiteness, maleness, colonial abuses, as well as the savagery of rape, capitalism, and the Patriarchy.  While these are realities, Peterson offers a new perspective on how we might view injustices and how we might take our collective history and retell our stories reframing these paradigms in a far more comprehensive way.   This analysis has irked many on the left—especially the feminists.

Over the past months, it has been difficult to find many feminists who would seriously engage in a discussion about what precisely bothered them about Peterson without the commentary falling into “douchebag” territory.  And I have to confess, that their lack of resolve or ability to explain what troubled them about Peterson had me more concerned that I was trapped in this virtual bubble where the only acceptable response from me to show feminist creds would be, “Yeah, a total douche.”

One woman claimed that Peterson’s “gender politics are exactly as sketchy as they seem.” But my response: how sketchy do they seem?  For if those who rely on the New York Times to administer their daily dose of ideology, then their perception of Peterson will necessarily be a straw man built on a skewed framework with zero attempt to understand his analysis. When Bowles claims that Peterson advocates that society must “redistribute sex,” her misinterpretation of “enforced monogamy,” a social science term which refers to an analytical model, makes out Peterson as advocating a Handmaiden’s Tale-styled policing of women’s bodies.  Other women accuse Peterson of being a misogynist because he is not a feminist and offers no “feminist analysis.” Yet, by this rationale we are stuck in a theoretical vortex of conflating analysis with intent through the self-proclaimed identity of the speaker. And this superimposition of analysis upon the perceived identity of the speaker smacks of the very critique Peterson makes about identity politics.

When feminists hear Peterson discuss “masculinity,” a term they regularly place together with “toxic,” they allow no other possible reading of masculinity. For them masculinity is always a negative and they resist Peterson’s reading of the masculine as vulnerable and penetrable.

My primary dispute with feminists who dismiss Peterson, however, is that these same women decry “male violence” while deploring the lack of men stepping forward to speak up and challenge this reality. Now we have a figure who is doing just this as Peterson tells men to get their shit together: to grow up, to stop consuming pornography, and to take responsibility for their actions.  Still, these very feminists are upset that there is a male stepping up to the plate to do just this.  It strikes me that as the progressive left of feminism demand change, they need to stop gaslighting themselves into believing that Peterson is the problem and they, with their “but the Patriarchy” mantra, actually offer anything better.

Where the left and the right are in agreement is that there is a crisis of meaning in how the self is constructed. Their disagreement lies how to construct this meaning.  What many feminists are missing about Jordan Peterson—and the larger indictment made of feminism—is that the analysis of power cannot be reducible to identity as victimhood.  As feminists attempt to fashion a straw man of Peterson, they are invariably demonstrating the very pitfalls of feminism that Peterson addresses.

If we only had two choices of how inequality is framed by men today—that of Dan Snow lying to his daughters about World War II female pilots so they can “dream” or of Jordan Peterson who challenges the feminist boogeyman of “the Patriarchy” while elaborating the nuances of social and political structures in an attempt to move beyond the simplistic short-circuits of identity politics, I know which one I would prefer.

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com