Jordan Peterson is a Canadian psychologist who’s gained fame and notoriety recently as a fervent opponent of postmodernism and Marxism. Thanks to his well-publicised fight against Bill C-16, which added ‘gender expression and identity’ to the grounds protected by the Canadian Human Rights Act, Peterson is especially well known for his refusal to use non-binary gender pronouns.1 He’s gained an adoring following, composed of disaffected leftists, right-wing libertarians, and sundry constituents of the bitter ‘alt-right’ cauldron.2
A couple of people have mentioned him to me recently. Then someone I know ended up being unfriended on Facebook by someone who didn’t like their criticism of Peterson’s views. I thought I would see what the fuss is about.
My first stop was a Joe Rogan interview. I lasted maybe twenty minutes before I skipped through the rest of the three hours to see if it got better — to no avail. Now, I did find myself in disagreement with some of his views, but my reaction was something else. That day, an Alfred North Whitehead quote popped up in my feed, which seemed apposite: ‘All order is … aesthetic order, and the moral order is merely certain aspects of aesthetic order.’ The ins and outs of this statement aside, it rang true that my reaction to Peterson was a moral one, in a viscerally aesthetic sense. Not that there was much objectivity in my reaction; but it was true for me. There was something about the bitterness that animated him which sidelined my agreements and disagreements — he simply repulsed my intellect’s somatic roots.
I decided to try once more, and found this interview. For whatever reason, here Peterson seemed quite affable, often insightful, sometimes objectionable or wrong, but mostly lacking any repellent animus. Still not everyone’s cup of tea, but maybe a better first stop if you’re interested, and a good way of getting a sense of his wider ideas before diving into the gender pronouns fray.
In any case, I decided to keep digging. He reminds me a lot of Steven Pinker, another Canadian psychologist with an anti-left agenda, who I also came to via a strong negative reaction to a YouTube video. With Pinker, I dug past that strong reaction and — while some of my problems with him remain firm — I learned a lot in the process of intellectually wrestling with him. I appreciate productive disagreement. Interestingly, Peterson is actually at odds with Pinker and the neo-Darwinians, and much of his critique sounds like things I’ve been saying for years. So, having found some common ground with him as well as serious disagreements, I thought I’d watch and read more, and write something.
This isn’t intended as a comprehensive critique of Peterson, and it can’t pretend to be anything except maybe a notch above thinking out loud when it comes to gender politics — which I’m not that well-informed on. But hopefully it foregrounds some vital issues, and makes clear my objections and concessions.
First up, Peterson’s testimony to the Canadian senate hearing on Bill C-16:
Peterson apparently has a few good points on the wording of the legislation. There does seem to be some incoherence. And of course it’s right to oppose putting people at risk of prosecution for being rude, even accidentally (here, by not referring to them by their chosen gender pronoun). If that is indeed what is being written into law.
However, reading around the legal side of the issue makes it clear that Peterson’s grasp of the law may not be up to scratch. Professor of law Brenda Cossman, ‘not a big fan of hate speech laws’, has stated:
Jordan Peterson has made headlines the last two weeks, claiming that the Bill before the federal House of Commons is an unprecedented attack on free speech. He has claimed that the new law will criminalize the failure to use individual’s preferred pronouns. In a rally at the University of Toronto last week, he went so far as to say that the bill is the most serious infringement of freedom of speech ever in Canada. The thing is – he is wrong.
Unfortunately, due to the way in which Peterson characterised the issue in his popular videos, there are now plenty of people who think that Canada is about to start jailing people for misgendering others. There are young libertarian-leaning trans fans who have an admirable aversion to people being persecuted in their name, and many good, intelligent people who have found the dominance of the left in academia stifling. But there are also many paranoid reactionaries who think that the West is one step short of full Marxism. All seem to have been subtly but importantly misled by Peterson.
So, what issues are at stake here? What are Peterson’s valid points and blindspots? It’s tricky to be balanced in the wake of a visceral repulsion to someone, but I do think the binaries of morality as well as gender should be questioned. Sure, some people are simply transphobic. I don’t think Peterson is, and characterising him as simply that makes it harder to root out the complex ways in which he is, and the problems with some leftist theory which he addresses, however cack-handedly. Let me go through a few of the issues to sketch this complexity.
To quickly give an impression of where I’m coming from, I have many issues with leftism. I definitely reacted against what I saw as the Freudo-Marxist indoctrination element in my degree course. When I became interested in political activism after graduating, my other main passions were altered states, occultism and environmentalism — so the left, largely hostile to such things at the time (the early ’90s), was largely my enemy.3 My sympathies with the left, while never amounting to ‘conversion’, have grown as I’ve matured and educated myself, and seen neoliberalism unfold. My youthful resentment of the blinkered nature of Marxist academia left its mark, but it’s been tempered. So I’ve a lot of sympathy with some of Peterson’s general critique, and I know a lot of even left-leaning graduates have. But I’m deeply wary of his caustic bitterness, his sometimes cavalier attitude to the truth he professes to value so highly, and his blithe courting of the currents of ugly reaction that course through the world today.
Peterson thinks that non-binary pronouns are tools wielded by nefarious neo-Marxists, and refuses to use the tools of his avowed enemies. To me the issue is more complex than that, and in any case I’m happy to use people’s preferred pronouns out of basic courtesy, if nothing else. Peterson, however, rejects the ‘respect’ argument because he sees pronoun use as an utterly casual affair (thinking, I presume, of when people call him ‘him’, rather than thinking of the idea of most people in the world calling him ‘her’, against his wishes).4
I actually think respect is a better basis for the gender pronoun argument than any detailed view of the nature of gender — certainly in terms of the pragmatics of social traction. I don’t see why disagreements about the nature of gender should get in the way of respecting someone’s basic sense of themselves. And certainly we should have debates about the extent to which such things can or should be encouraged or enforced — but again, Peterson seems to have damagingly exaggerated the reach of C-16 on this, seriously muddying the important debate on freedom of speech.
To be crystal clear, legal opinion suggests that the bar set by C-16 for pronoun misuse falling foul of human rights legislation is high, and definitely doesn’t endanger people who — without enacting significant harassment — refuse to use non-binary pronouns. The wider issue of hate speech legislation is of course important, and contested. But Peterson is specifically attacking what he sees as the ideology behind trans and non-binary gender — and his characterisation of Canadian legislation here is inaccurate and self-serving.
Referring to the social constructionist ideology he sees behind the legislation (more on which later), which he sees as implying that gender is a purely subjective figment, he says: ‘Why should I respect your gender if you changed it on a whim?’ Frankly, this on a level with a tabloid reader seeing all people on benefits as fraudulent scroungers. Even allowing that these people exist (in the case of benefit scroungers, for sure; purely whim-driven trans people, less sure, given the immense social problems it can lead to), the point is that we’re talking about such a minority that the most civilised default position to take, given the plight of the majority, is to give the benefit of doubt. It’s hard to appreciate the mindset of someone who looks at the suicide and murder rates among trans people, the obvious and sometimes crippling social burdens they face, and concludes that they chose their identity due to transient fashions. A bit of the latter’s going to happen among young people, because they’re young people. (It’ll happen among some lucky old people, too). A ‘phase’ is never ‘just a phase’ — it’s a part of self-discovery and maturation. But more often than not, this is less a phase, and more something persistent and deep that’s been forbidden from articulation, causing profound pain. And part of that lack of articulation is our rigidly binary conception of gender, and its ongoing enforcement in language. On balance, Peterson’s insinuation that trans identities are just whims is hard not to categorise as transphobic.
Effect of protections in law
Peterson claims that a reason for his opposition to C-16 — apart from Marxist conspiracy — is that it wouldn’t have the intended effect of protecting trans people anyway. This goes along with his refusal of the label ‘transphobic’ — he sometimes says he supports trans people, and he’s actually fighting for them, unlike the self-appointed trans activists he sees as ‘not representative’ of the trans community. However, it’s unclear to me how he thinks trans people would be better off without minimal legal recourse against discrimination and persecution. (This is the core of the bill: making sure people aren’t denied employment or housing, for example, because of their gender expression or identity. The pronouns stuff is supplementary, besides being misrepresented by Peterson.)
He says the bill has made trans people, some of whom wish to keep a low profile, ‘painfully’ visible. But isn’t it his opposition to the bill rather than the bill itself that’s done most to thrust trans people further into the public eye than necessary?
He also talks about the nasty far-right elements in society being unnecessarily provoked by such leftist legislation. It’s hard to be polite on this point, when Peterson has been so slow and weak in disavowing the multitude of nasty people that the shoddy aspects of his reasoning have emboldened. And why should leftism be held to account for the reactions it provokes in conservatives and fascists, but traditional culture not be held to account for the reactions it has provoked in the form of radical leftism? Peterson sees C-16 as being on a slippery slope to totalitarianism, but it seems more pressing — to put it mildly — to recognise the slippery slope that appeasement of actual fascist elements in society constitutes.5
Peterson insists that his real issue is with the codification of Marxist ideology into law, and part of this insistence is his conviction that C-16 would compel him to use any pronoun that anyone came up with.
This issue seems murky. Peterson is fond of pointing to Facebook’s ’71 gender options’, but these are gender identities rather than pronouns. Either way, I’m sure I’m not alone in experiencing some cis bafflement at this. But so what? As a minimum, the neutral singular ‘they’ seems like an eminently reasonable addition to English (except, of course, it’s not an addition, but a long-standing, grammatically correct usage). And C-16 — with an apparent exception of inconsistency which I hope was tidied up — allows people to simply use someone’s name instead of their pronoun. (And again, it’s wrong to believe that the simple acting of using the wrong pronoun has been criminalised — it needs to be proven in court to have occurred in a quite extreme context of hate-mongering, or definite discrimination in the context of employment or housing, for example.)
In short, Peterson’s righteous ‘I’m not gonna use your damn pronouns’ (addressing the law, and implicitly the Marxists he sees behind the theory of the law) is largely a red herring.
Blank slate ideology
This bone of contention is more interesting. Peterson claims that C-16 is based on the postmodern ‘Marxist’ idea that everything is socially constructed. Humans are born ‘blank slates’ which then accrue socially-fabricated identities. Peterson opposes this with a combination of Darwinian biologism (he’s fixated on evolved dominance hierarchies) and Jungian archetypes (which, following one of Jung’s tendencies, he roots in our deep socio-biological history).
First I should say that, even though my stance has softened since my rebellion against the Freudo-Marxist canon at university, much Marxist and postmodern theory still bores me senseless. So I’m not deeply versed in it. But Peterson’s disavowal of Marxist theory as a whole, based on its association with the mass deaths of Mao’s purges and the Soviet Gulag, is absurd.
He (rightly) sees Nietzsche as an important and valuable thinker. But while the Nazi appropriation of Nietzsche is different in many ways from the Stalinist and Maoist use of Marxist theory, to my knowledge there’s as much in Nietzsche that is either dubious in itself, or can easily be pressed to serve dubious ends, as there is in Marx. Why can we take inspiration where we find it in Nietzsche, but not in Marx?
Nietzsche is also, of course, a core influence behind the neo-Marxist postmodernism that Peterson so despises. And Peterson thinks postmodernism leads to death camps — so why is Nietzsche still allowed? His thinking here is muddled and/or hypocritical.
That said, one of the key aspects of Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate that struck me (when I read it to ‘know my enemy’ better, and ended up learning some things) was his defence of evolutionary psychology against social constructionism. While post-WWII leftist theorists have seen assessments of human psychology based on genetics as being irredeemably tainted by association with Nazi eugenics, they often failed to apply the same logic to the association between their own ‘blank slate’ vision of humanity and the social engineering of Marxist regimes.6
There are differences between the theories, politics and actions of Nazis and Communists that go beyond the happenstances of the twentieth century. But I wonder at how circumstances have resulted in the failure to balance their legacies in the West. We fought against the Nazis over a few years, and their atrocities were, relatively speaking, a concentrated revelation of horror. Our conflict with the Soviet Union was long and cold, and information about their horrors took longer to piece together (a process extended by leftist denial, which is alive and well today in other forms).
In any case, we’re still trying to unpick the resulting tangle in our thinking and attitudes. Clearly, evolutionary genetics has much to teach, and sometimes the facts revealed by this science can be uncomfortable, meshed as they are with reactionary and fascist ideologies. It seems dangerous, however, to shirk the difficult job of picking these facts and values apart and, as some on the far academic left seem to, sideline the facts. On the other hand, when leftist constructionism is combatively countered with evolutionary psychology, there’s a great risk of being naive about the reactionary social values meshed into the scientific facts. This fosters a polarised conceptual space where there’s little room for improving our understanding of the subtle interactions of nature and nurture.
Pinker’s work is peppered with oversights, some offensive, but generally he’s thoughtful and careful, and worth taking seriously enough to process before any defensive reflexes kick in. He’s honest enough, in his work on violence, to risk ire from his evopsych fanboys and admit that the ‘radical scientists’ are right in that violence is as much as social and political problem as it is a biological and psychological one.7
Peterson seems less careful, tarring whole fields of research and thought with his fevered reaction to the worst examples. I image him as an over-reaction to an over-reaction. Both are understandable, to a degree; neither should be embraced uncritically.
The slippery slope
I haven’t fully thought through the differences between the Nazi and Communist legacies. I suspect I’d never get round to writing this if I did. Certainly right-wing prejudices (and the Islamist terrorism with which they form an intensifying dyad) seem like a more immediate threat in contemporary Britain than socialist policies. In any case, I don’t want to draw too-easy equivalencies. I do want to:
- Draw attention to the way in which left-leaning people are so ready to draw lines from conservative or right-wing ideas and policies to the threat of fascism.
- Put this next to people like Peterson who are so ready to draw lines from socialist or Marxist ideas and policies to the threat of communist excesses.
Again, these aren’t equivalent, but they need to be juxtaposed to think things through. For me, erring on the side of the bias in (1) seems like a no-brainer given the West’s prevailing cultural tides. I find it hard to imagine a true reckoning, of the suffering being caused by socialism in the contemporary West versus the suffering caused by right-wing ideology, in which the former outweighs the latter. True, we’re in a complex enough situation that a true reckoning is probably a pipe dream, and in commonplace debates, either side of the divide can construct a reckoning which seems to favour their perspective. But Peterson’s contention that leftism is the greater threat seems to rely on a wild exaggeration of the present problems and a dubious estimation of the imminence of the left’s twentieth-century horrors being replayed. Downplaying these horrors only makes the debate worse, but then so does a furious fixation on them.
On the issue of transgender politics, when we set the constant assaults on trans people, and their sky-high suicide rate, against the irritation experienced by people whose habitual thinking is upset by their claims to respect, the insinuation that C-16 is on the slippery bit of the slope towards death camps, even on the slope at all, is risible.
As I’ve said, I do have problems with the dominance of radical leftist theory in academia. (Apart from anything else, it being crammed down my throat put me off it for years, and it took me a while to find the value in it.) But something gets missed in the attacks of people like Pinker and Peterson on this bubble of leftism: their attacks are importantly conditioned by their own situation, largely cloistered in the same small territory as the bubble. Recall that for the most part, we’re not even talking about academia as a whole, just humanities departments and student unions.
Still, I can kind of sympathise with these guys, and their forerunners like Camille Paglia. It must be tough being a conservative or centrist liberal in such a setting. You can imagine how embattled and embittered you’d get. How sometimes your views would get distorted, your animus inflated, by the pressures of such a weight of opposing opinion and belief all around you, all the time. This sort of dynamic affects most minorities when they’re under-represented and fighting for redress.
Whoah! Did I just equate the plight of these privileged academics with that of the marginalised in wider society? Of course not. But it seems important to notice the dynamic. Most importantly, we should understand how these conservative academic voices, conditioned by their embattled positions in a tiny corner of a tiny corner of society, can harmonise in dangerous ways with paranoid reactionary voices in wider society. The right-wing media is adept at taking incidents of ‘political correctness’ at universities — sometimes genuinely silly ones, sometimes not so much — and, inflating them out of their context, using them to nurture and prey upon neurotic fears about society as a whole. Sometimes people like Paglia, Pinker and Peterson have views worth paying attention to. But, from my view outside the academy, they seem a little blind: to the relatively small scale of their theatre of conflict, and to the way in which their sometimes valid battles feed the wrong forces in the wider cultural conflicts.
What scale are we talking about? One US source says that humanities degrees have dropped sharply since the ’60s. The number of Americans holding humanities degrees has increased — from 1% to 2.5%. Peterson’s response is that this tiny enclave is ‘the foundation of our culture’. This seems like a simplistic take on a very complex situation. His point is perhaps more an old-fashioned ideal than a realist assessment of the present.
In any case, I’m in agreement with him that the humanities should be important, however important or not they are, so I’m not going to argue that we should just ignore them. And I agree with him that it’s not a good thing for them to be dominated by a particular political ideology.
My best current take on this is to use psychedelics, and the ’60s upheavals in general, as a lens through which to gain insight into the rise and entrenchment of leftist postmodernism in the humanities. Social constructionism, and the vision of the world as a series of shifting ‘texts’ conditioned by conventions and political power struggles, seems analogous in some ways to states of psychedelic revelation in which all habitual structures liquify, and the forces that constitute the world seem to be rooted more in thought than in the usually solid realm of material reality. Such revelations are incredibly important, containing great potential for both delusion and liberation. But if you don’t ‘come down’ properly, the revelation can be wasted. You can get stuck there in a way that impedes effective social functioning, or perhaps react with terror, and flee into the rigidities of madness or convention (or both, as R.D. Laing might have pointed out). Now, in some sense we might see that the world of critical theory has failed to ‘come down’ from its revelations (though I suspect that there are many voices in the mix, below the radar of conservative ridicule and outrage, which have integrated very well with ‘harder’ counter-narratives emerging from the study of evolution and genetics). At the same time, snarling opposition such as Peterson’s is probably counter-productive in terms of integrating these revelations, like a well-meaning but narrow-minded parent berating you on the perils of drug use when you’re trying to piece things together after an acid trip.
There’s a great number of factors to account for: the undoubted liberatory power of some leftist analysis, the undoubted dead-ends and delusions that over-intellectual and/or ideologically blinkered analysis can lead to, the importance of the humanities in our culture, the insignificance of the humanities in our culture, the role of academia as an initiation into wider society, the role of academia as a counter-balance to wider society… At best, Peterson’s attacks are missing many factors out, leaving him in danger of being as skewed as the targets he sets up before him.
Trans vs. non-binary
There’s an interview Peterson did with a self-proclaimed ‘reasonable’ trans person, libertarian Theryn Meyer.
However, for the most part we’re not talking about a trans person being ‘reasonable’ in their disagreement with Peterson — Meyer is an admiring, almost fawning supporter. This makes sense in light of Peterson’s objection to the supposedly unwieldy proliferation of gender pronouns. Perhaps the assault on binary gender is more threatening for both of them than the idea of transgender itself. So a cis guy and a trans woman can unite to scoff at silly postmodern non-binaries.
We should note that Peterson is very comfortable with non-binary approaches to categories he sees as forming the roots of civilisation — when it suits him. In another interview he says:
People often ask me if I believe in God. I don’t like that question. First of all, it’s an attempt to box me in, in a sense. The reason it’s an attempt to box me in is because the question is asked so I can be firmly placed on one side of a binary argument. The reason I don’t like to answer it is, (a) I don’t like to be boxed in, and (b) because I don’t know what the person means by ‘believe’ or ‘God’. And they think they know. And the probability that they construe ‘belief’ and construe ‘God’ the same way I do is virtually zero.
I’m not pretending this is a conclusive critique, to throw this back in Peterson’s face. But precisely because Peterson makes such an insightful, valid point about belief in God, forcing it into juxtaposition with his stubbornness on gender is a critique that — as far as it goes — pretty much speaks for itself.
The issues around trans identities and non-binary identities — where they overlap and where they don’t — are too complex to get into in this post. The root dynamic of the clash here, though, seems to be between the fact that legislation like C-16 is specifically meant to protect a minority who often suffer at the hands of rigid categories that work for the majority, whereas Peterson’s general fight is with the radicalism in postmodernism which seeks to completely dismantle those categories. Peterson sees the latter at work in the former, which I think is a paranoid overstatement.
There’s something curious at work in this paranoia, since to the extent that conservatives react aggressively to the questioning of ‘natural’ categories such as gender and sexual orientation, they surely reveal the extent to which those categories are indeed socially constructed. Of course they’re not entirely socially constructed. But the heated defensive emotions often attached to their policing clearly shows that conservatives viscerally understand the deep significance of this constructed aspect, even as they intellectually deny it.
Regarding the Meyer interview, one part stood out to me in particular. Peterson poses a hypothetical question to Meyer: what if ‘your mere existence [as a trans person] is a threat to categorical order’, to the extent that the right thing to do would be to ‘deny your own inner impulses and conform’? I’m not going to neglect the fact that Peterson clearly puts this forward as a hypothetical. At the same time, I’m not going to neglect the fact that, in the nuanced world of human communication, and in the context of a society where many people passionately believe Peterson’s hypothetical, enforcing their belief with violence, putting up this rhetorical shield cannot be a simple or innocent move. The fact that Peterson’s flow falters soon after, resulting in a limp ‘It’s a very tricky thing to think through’, underlines this. The shield can’t even protect him from himself.
Two things to highlight here. Firstly, I’m all for ‘reasonable’. But Meyer has nothing at all to say in response to this toxic sentiment, which effectively says she shouldn’t exist as she feels herself to be. She allows the shield of speculation wrapped around it to completely occlude the issue being put forward, which is worse than ignoring the shield. I can sympathise with the impulse behind a lot of libertarian refusal to shut down uncomfortable debate, even if I think some of it’s misguided. But here we see that impulse overshooting, becoming a careless inability to confront something.
Secondly, this is clearly something to be confronted, hypothetical or not, not least because it goes against the principles of individualism which Peterson and Meyer claim to hold so sacred. I imagine this is why Peterson’s speech withers, as he hears himself suggest that an individual should repress their most profound sense of themselves in order to conform to social norms. He pushes his conservative reaction to collectivist social engineering full circle, and falters at their disturbing confluence.
This is just a snippet in one interview; but it’s telling.
Is this the hill you want to die on?
In this interview Peterson says friends have asked him why he’s devoted so much time and energy to this issue, deciding to fight C-16. Why die on this hill? His basic answer is that you’ve got to pick a hill to die on, and he picked this one.
But of course, the meaning of the phrase is precisely that the battle the hill in question represents — however worthy your war — is not worth dying for. The costs outweigh the benefits.
This turn of phrase, along with the problems I’ve outlined with Peterson’s position on trans issues, got me wondering. If the deeper issue of the postmodern ‘threat to civilisation’ is the worthy war Peterson claims to be fighting, and he’s not transphobic (trans people apparently just happen to live on the hill he’s chosen to die on)… then really, why this hill? To gain perspective on his choice, can we find other hills involved in the fight against the perils of postmodernism, which might be more worth dying on?
By far and away the best critique of social constructionism I’ve read is psychologist David Kidner’s brilliant book Nature & Psyche: Radical Environmentalism and the Politics of Subjectivity. It’s a wonderful example of deep and careful academic thinking which never loses itself to showy jargon. His basic thesis is that modern psychology and the type of constructionism rife in the humanities constitute a betrayal of our true place in the natural world, and both are in an important sense allied with the project of modern industrialism. Postmodernism’s problematisation of ‘the natural’ out of existence is of a piece with the ongoing ecological havoc we’re wreaking. Importantly, Kidner doesn’t regress into a traditionalist simplification and glorification of ‘natural order’ (which Peterson seems a little prone to). His point is that order does exist in the natural world, but in such a diverse proliferation that there are roots there for a great variety of cultural fruits. In this light, the more extreme postmodern flights into texts decoupled from ‘nature’ seem to be a mistake: they’re flights from the traditionalist simplifications of nature, forgetting our grounding in the complexity of nature itself in the process. (Though again, I suspect there probably is good work within these leftist currents, ignored by Peterson, that recognises this and grapples intelligently with it.)
In any case, is the catastrophic mutation of the climate, the mortification of the oceans, the Sixth Great Extinction, not a better hill to die on than the grave threat of being forced to call people by their chosen pronouns? (Especially when no one’s actually being forced to do that.) It makes you wonder if the disproportionate seething rage against gender issues is fuelled not only by personal discomfort, but by a displaced anxiety about the real catastrophes facing civilisation. An easy target is preferred to a difficult and challenging one (a.k.a. ‘kicking down’).
In one interview Peterson dismisses environmentalism as ‘just another ideology’, marking him as someone occasionally unable to see past ideological accretions to a profound issue, into the issue’s core, as well as being someone whose embattled reaction to ideology can be more over-simplified and dangerous than the ideology itself. Environmentalism does have some religious distortions in its roots, which need weeding out. And since its fears are so deep, it has accumulated some hysteria. But let’s bear in mind that these fears are, to a significant extent, grounded in the detailed, voluminous findings of science. Whereas Peterson’s fears about political correctness seem to be grounded in his youthful reading of Solzhenitsyn and Nietzsche while being wracked by depression and apocalyptic nightmares.
Finally, we should acknowledge that while it’s no doubt hard work to wrestle publicly with such heated issues, this isn’t a hill that Peterson’s dying on. He’s thriving on it. He’s had one lecture cancelled, but apparently he’s now bringing in over $180,000 a year from donations to his Patreon page, in addition to the $160,000 or so he earns from his long-standing tenure at the University of Toronto. He’s a YouTube darling, his respectable career now bolstered by fame that is largely the result of his chosen battle.
Perspective is important.
In trying to get an easy-to-grasp handle on all this, it’s interesting that Peterson himself supplied me with the crucial tools. As with his opposition to binary ideas of belief in God, it’s testimony to the fact that he’s worth listening to for insight, even if you have to wade through some bile, and make some connections which he doesn’t manage.
Truth is a major topic for Peterson, and in a general discussion of truth and lies, he said this:
White lies are a sub-optimal solution to a complex problem. They’re true at some levels of analysis but they’re false at others. … I can use the truth to hurt you. But then what I’m doing is like a white lie, it’s like a black truth, let’s call it that. … It’s true on three levels of analysis — usually sub-levels — and not true on a really profound level. So I can say, ‘I’m just telling you this for your own good,’ but I picked a context, or a state of vulnerability that I know you’re in, in which delivery of that message has an undermining effect. And I know that. ‘Well it was true…’ Well, no. All things considered, it wasn’t true. Some things considered, it was true. And a white lie is the inverse of that. On some levels it’s true. [But] it would be wrong of me to hurt your feelings over such a trivial issue.
Peterson isn’t intending harm, or intending to undermine people. But — as he’ll be the first to point out in other contexts, e.g. communism — good intent is never enough. One has to pay attention to systemic unintended harms. There’s some truth in what Peterson is saying (alongside the distortions and occasional falsehoods). But even this truth is sometimes — especially in the transgender debate — blackened by a certain blindness.
Again, we can bring this together with something else Peterson has said, not about himself, but with apparent relevance to my perspective on him, and his overlap with the ‘alt-right’. His take on the Egyptian god Osiris is that he’s the father archetype, standing for ‘security and stability and the past’. He’s the good element of this archetype, but ‘he makes himself susceptible to the negative element [his evil brother Seth] by being wilfully blind.’ I think the blindness at work in Peterson’s skewed perspective in this debate is more complex than simple wilfulness. But merging the image of a very conservative, order-obsessed figure who suffers from a form of myopia that makes him susceptible to negativity, with the idea of speaking ‘black truths’, gets us close, I think, to imaging Peterson’s shortcomings.
The basic traditionalist position — which Peterson seems to lean on, if not explicitly support — is that ‘deviance’ such as transgenderism or homosexuality is a threat to social stability, and ultimately to sustainability in the undermining of the reproductive family unit. In essence, the idea is that it’s unnatural.
However, this idea is wrong.
Many premodern societies have found ways to accommodate non-binary and trans identities, living with far less technological insulation from threats to survival. Also, it’s now well known that homosexuality is a part of many animal species’ repertoire of behaviours. Significantly, homophobia is only known in one species: humans.8 What’s more, science is becoming aware of more and more exotic sex and gender variations in the animal kingdom — slowly catching up with indigenous knowledge systems, which often appreciated and embraced these variations.9
Now, we need to be careful of justifying anything — heterosexuality, homosexuality, rigid gender binaries, trans identities — through simple appeals to what is ‘natural’ (i.e. found in our species’ past or in other species). There’s great value in observations from anthropology and ethology, but they need to be contextualised rather than used to fuel emotional appeals. Remember that our environment — in the evolutionary sense of ‘the conditions we’re adapted/adapting to’ rather than the simple sense of ‘the natural world around us’ — is now radically different from anything any species or culture has faced before. And it’s only going to get more different. The past will always be valuable, but it’s fast becoming hard to simplistically rely on as a guide to the world we’re living in. What is ‘natural’ in the past isn’t necessarily adaptive in the present or future.
To bring these thoughts to bear on Peterson’s traditionalist take on transgenderism, let me make a few suggestions:
- Queer sexualities and transgenderism vary in many ways between species and cultures, but are definitely naturally-occurring phenomena. This is the news from the science departments, not the politicised humanities departments. (Although it seems a certain amount of politicised critique, unpicking the unthinking prejudices entangled with scientific fieldwork, was necessary before science woke up to biological realities.10 )
- Homophobia is so far unknown in the non-human animal world, and transphobia seems rare in pre-agricultural and tribal cultures. A more rigid, intolerant attitude seems to be characteristic of civilisations. Why? We’re told that civilisation was a great advance, shielding us from the chaotic uncertainties of nature ‘red in tooth and claw’. And civilised religions, and traditionalist narratives, tell that we must resist and repress sexual deviance because it’s unnatural, and endangers our future — when more ‘primitive’ cultures often take deviance in their stride. None of this adds up. Maybe there’s a displaced sense of the underlying fragility of civilisation (due to agricultural issues, and economic inequalities), and a paranoia about the nature we’ve shielded ourselves from, which leads to this equation of deviance with chaos, and a scapegoating of this deviance to avoid addressing deeper structural problems (again, kicking down).
- By most accounts, modernity brought with it a dyadic dynamic of sexual liberation and greater intolerance (just as modern science came bound up in a fight with religious fundamentalism). Traditionalist narratives are, to a significant extent, products of modernity, fantasies about the past to offset and escape from the new uncertainties of the present and future.
- Transgenderism occurs naturally but infrequently. Civilisations, as they advanced, repressed such deviance more and more. But the rapid expansion of human populations in the twentieth century (leading to a large absolute number of trans people, even if the relative number remained small), together with the rise of globally networked media, has brought this and other ‘uncivilised’, repressed phenomena back into view.
- What we are living through is a tumultuous ongoing adaptation to the new environment that our technologies and industrial-digital economies have unfolded. Theoretically we are more removed from the necessities of biological survival than ever, so, as luxury has created space in civilisation for the tolerance that comes naturally to animals and pre-civilised humans, repressed minorities such as trans people have felt emboldened to demand respect — or at least, a lack of persecutory violence. At the same time, many people, rather than seriously face the underlying issues of ecological degradation, social instability due to rising economic inequality, automation and the rise of ‘surplus’ populations, have pounced on this emboldening in a reflexive retreat into ‘civilised’ scapegoating.
- Genetic engineering and other technologies will eventually only expand the range of sexual and gender variation, so we may as well deal with it, and focus on more pressing causes for concern.
- Archetypes, in the Jungian sense, are deeply important, but they aren’t eternal. They are patterns in which long-standing social and cultural forms anchor themselves, and they gradually shift as society and culture shifts. We’re probably in the long process of transitioning to social forms very, very different from those which have characterised agricultural civilisation. The archetypes that have governed this recent phase probably can’t be jettisoned willy-nilly. At the same time, clinging to them is a brittle, ultimately weak and destructive defence against the difficult and necessary changes we face.
‘Civilised’ panic about sex and gender variations is in no way grounded in the realities of biological surviving and thriving. So despite the excesses of postmodernism, its contention that the most important axis of analysis is social has to be heeded. In all likelihood, accommodating these variations in a civilised manner will have to form a part of any positive future.
There are serious and present threats to stability and social cohesion, but they owe far more to shifts in economics and ecology than to shifts in sexuality and gender. Postmodernism needs critiquing, since, as David Kidner showed, it’s implicated in our ecological crisis. But it needs better, less blind critics than Peterson. And freedom and civilisation need better, more far-sighted champions.