Jordan Peterson: Opportunist or Intellectual, Or Both

Jordan Peterson is an intelligent human being. Some might say intimidatingly so. But intelligence is no doubt highly correlated with wealth and, in the case of Peterson, he uses his intelligence to twist and manipulate readers to sell an ideology that a segment of society has up until now been reluctant to voice. Peterson’s article in the increasingly right wing National Post is a mouthful. Resembling the highly unnecessary and obtuse vocabulary that, like his counterpart Conrad Black, screams insecurity.

His general message in this article is that people on the extreme left allegedly purport that we must, through whatever means necessary, eliminate inequity in society. Because of this, he feels that it is his duty as a trained clinical psychologist, an education that one might argue leaves him ill-equipped to comment on the complexities of sociology, to call out the left as “going too far” in their use of “the doctrine of equity as a moral weapon”.

The fatal flaw of Peterson’s arguments is that he lures the reader into a narrative of the left that is so fringe that it doesn’t warrant discussion. Yet throughout the article he widens this population of left leaners, hinting instead they are in fact more mainstream than we think. Like his desire to sell books and get the attention he so needs, he fabricates a false narrative so that his views seem that much more appealing. For instance, if a good chunk of the left felt that the answer to inequity lies in a blunt policy instrument, Peterson’s relentless criticism of the feasibility of implementation sounds sensible. But very few intelligent thinkers on the left believe that this is in any way the answer.

To this very point, a blatant contradiction in Peterson’s arguments is that he overlooks the fact that the left, unlike him, believe that our reality is more socially constructed than the average person thinks. This means that the sexism and racism that exists today is a result of centuries of behavior and events. By default, left leaners would be the least likely to suggest that a blunt instrument of government policy is the answer. But because Peterson is oversimplifying – something that he relentlessly criticizes his opponents about – he can’t reconcile the left’s favour of government intervention with their view that society and the extreme inequity we face is a result of an engineered society.

But perhaps the most controversial of Peterson’s views is that the inequity we see in society today is simply the natural course of things and that regardless of how we might engineer our society, this inequity would persist. He suggests that the reason why so many men pursue trade jobs is because women choose not to go in those professions while men choose to do so. He suggests that boys and girls are naturally quite different and have different interests, which they carry with them throughout their lives. It is therefore not how we raise boys to be boys and girls to be girls nor the environment they grow up in that, in any way, contributes to inequity in society. If this were true, today’s white man should feel exonerated because it suggests that they hold positions of power and privilege not because of a conveniently engineered society but because it’s just the natural order of things.

There are so many things wrong with this view, it’s hard to know where to start.

Peterson is in complete denial that the white man is privileged. Surprisingly, he confounds privilege and prejudice almost to suggest that those who are privileged are “perpetrators of prejudice” and therefore must be punished. This is where Peterson makes his money. There are a lot of white men out there who are eager to hear an intelligent and institution-backed individual say something like this. These men are in denial that they are privileged and in fact feel victimized. But just because you’re privileged doesn’t mean that you are prejudice. Peterson has to make the point that if you’re privileged then you must be prejudice. Otherwise, he doesn’t get the audience he needs. I’m a man and I’m white. I’m privileged. Am I prejudice? No. But do I accept that this reality helps us understand why non-male and non-white individuals in our society feel prejudice and are in fact discriminated against? Yes.

And herein lies the most important point that a person like Peterson does not want you to understand. The journey to equity is a long one. It starts with conversation. It starts with reflection. It starts with understanding our social systems and the interconnected set of cultures, institutions, and agency that make up that system and produce intended and unintended outcomes. Peterson wants you to think that this is a conspiracy. He’s trying to tap into a segment of the population who is, for the first time in their existence, facing a major threat that perhaps they should be equal to the rest of society and is looking for help to push back. These people like Peterson because he’s telling them that they don’t need to have these hard conversations, that they don’t need to consider the fact that a good part of what got them to where they are today is privilege. My dad was a butcher, my mom a big bank branch supervisor. I didn’t go to private school. I was of average intelligence. There is nothing in my story that gave me an edge. But the fact that I’m a male and white afforded me immense opportunities that a non-male non-white equivalent simply did not get. Something I see all the time is an older white man with an incredibly impressive CV, tempered heavily by a lingering concern I have about this competencies. My initial confusion about how this person ended up in the positions he's received is quickly clarified when I think about the jackpot of privilege afforded to this white man.

I don’t think it’s fair to suggest that the left think that the complex phenomenon of inequity is attributed to prejudice alone. This is not to dismiss its role: you have to be a fool if you don’t think that a history of prejudice doesn’t in some way materially affect and explain why the people in powerful positions today are older white men. But inequity is a result of so much more than that. Peterson needs to come out of the lab and start looking at the barrage of messages around us that reinforce stereotypes about how we are meant to act in today’s society. To suggest that a woman or anyone for that matter has freedom of choice is to be completely blind to the decades of prominent work in psychology – yes your discipline Jordan – that finds irrefutable evidence that we make decisions based on cognitive short-cuts. The path of least resistance for the average person, is to conform to how society thinks their group/class/gender is meant to act. Anything outside of that leads to ridicule and ostracization. Peterson is a fool if he thinks that the average person can remain independent of society’s grip on behavioural expectations.

Finally Peterson suggests that banning books that have messages of inequity is a ridiculous answer because these books reflect the true and natural description of what different classes and races are meant to represent. I was reading my son an old and very popular children’s story from the Rupert Bear series and, to my horror, came to a page when the main characters find black skinned individuals labeled as "cannibals" in the jungle that were clearly meant to be dangerous and primitive. This is the first and only time characters of colour have been portrayed in the entire series. Should I ban this book? Perhaps. The more important lesson here is to explain to my son what message this is sending, how this might impact how people perceive people of a different colour, how wrong this book is for conveying a person of colour in this way, and what needs to be done about it. Similarly, Disney regularly describes Minnie Mouse and Daisy Duck in such a way that they are taking on the traditional duties of women including cooking, cleaning and picking flowers while Mickey, Goofy and Donald are doing the work of traditional men. Should I ban this book? Perhaps. But the more important lesson here is to make sure that my sons understand that this isn't the only thing women and men do despite the fact that this seems to be hammered home to them in almost every story we read. That’s the point. The question is not whether these books should be banned, it’s whether we understand how they’ve contributed to a broader narrative in society that explains why we have inequity today. Do you think that any child, reading story after story that stereotypes their gender, will have freedom of choice when they are older to take on a profession typically pursued by the other sex?

Come on Peterson! Get your head out of your ASS!

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