It should be easy for a leftist to concede that not all criticism of conservatives is of equal validity or equal persuasiveness. Personally, I think a fundamental requirement of intellectual honesty is to make sure your arguments are fair, and that you are not distorting the truth for ideological reasons. It’s also important, if you are actually trying to advance your ideas, to think about which points are the most likely to convince people rather than which ones are the most satisfying. I have strongly criticized the Democratic Party in particular for its habit of throwing every criticism it can think of at Donald Trump, instead of selecting and emphasizing the criticisms that have the most substantive merit. For example, Chuck Schumer recently condemned Trump for issuing a commemorative coin with Kim Jong Un’s face on it. I am fairly sure that (1) hardly anybody cares about this and (2) the strategy of painting Trump as “soft on North Korea” is both doomed and stupid.
I want to examine two published articles that criticize University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson. Both of them are written from a left perspective, and reach very damning conclusions about Peterson. Both writers clearly think his ideas are harmful and his popularity is depressing. And yet I think one of them is an effective, accurate, and devastating critique, while the other is a desperate, unpersuasive, and counterproductive one. (The good one is not mine, though I do also recommend mine.)
Let’s start with the bad one, which is Bernard Schiff’s article in The Star, “I was Jordan Peterson’s strongest supporter. Now I think he’s dangerous.” I’ll summarize it as quickly as I can (i.e. at considerable length), and perhaps you can see why I think it’s so weak while appearing quite strong. Schiff is a former colleague of Peterson’s from the University of Toronto, who professes himself deeply concerned with the direction Peterson’s career has taken. Having once supported Peterson’s bid for tenure, Schiff says he is now “alarmed by [Peterson’s] now-questionable relationship to truth, intellectual integrity and common decency, which I had not seen before.” Schiff wants us to know that he does not write because of animosity toward Peterson, but “from a place of sadness and from a sense of responsibility to the public good to tell what I know about who Jordan is, having seen him up close, as a colleague and friend.”
Schiff narrates the full story of his friendship with Peterson. When Peterson first arrived at the university, Schiff says, his “CV was impeccable, with terrific references,” and while Schiff’s colleagues were wary of Peterson—whom they found “eccentric”—Schiff persuaded them that Peterson “was a divergent thinker, self-educated in the humanities, intellectually flamboyant, bold, energetic and confident.” Schiff developed a close personal friendship with Peterson, who was “attentive and thoughtful, stern and kind, playful and warm.” Schiff admired Peterson’s marriage: “His wife, Tammy, appeared to be the keel, the ballast and the rudder, and Jordan ran the ship.” (Schiff apparently sees nothing objectionable about a husband who treats his wife like a boat.) On campus, Peterson “was as interesting as I had expected him to be,” but was a “maverick” who flouted the university research ethics committee. Schiff says he attributed this to Peterson’s “unbridled energy and fierce independence, which were, in many other ways, virtues.” Peterson held audiences “rapt,” his student evaluations were “for the most part, excellent” and some students called him life-changing, but Schiff says Peterson had a tendency to “present conjecture as statement of fact” and often seemed like a “preacher.”
Schiff says that over time, Peterson became more “intense,” with an “incredible energy,” a “great fervour and commitment.” He also became more political, but had an “off-putting” tendency to be “categorical.” The “highs and lows of his emotional range” were increasing, and there was a growing “fierceness” for this “man of extremes.” Finally, when Peterson became famous for publicly opposing the expansion of the Canadian Human Rights Act to cover gender and sexual expression, Schiff says he felt betrayed:
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. In his defence, Jordan told me if he refused to pay the fine he could go to jail. That is not the same as being jailed for what you say, but it did ennoble him as a would-be martyr in the defence of free speech.
Schiff says that he began to suspect Peterson’s public political pontificating was “ not just about free speech.” He suggests that Peterson had learned from “authoritarian demagogic leaders” how to make a crowd roar, and that Peterson is seeking publicity and has realized that he can profit off anger and resentment. Peterson has now become “dangerous” and “emotionally explosive.” He sees himself a “social order warrior” fighting against those who “upset the social order” and wants to be a martyr. In doing so, he “has done disservice to the professoriate.” And because Peterson “smart, compelling and convincing,” and a “powerful orator,” “we should be concerned.”
Why don’t I think Schiff’s article is a very powerful criticism of Peterson? Because, generally speaking, I don’t think calling someone a brilliant, dangerous, maverick who changes lives is a particularly good way of getting people to question them. Here is one of my tests for whether a criticism is going to be powerful: Does it reinforce the person’s self-conception or undermine it? At one point in the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton tried to call Donald Trump “dangerous Donald.” It made him sound like exactly what he wanted to convince people he was: a man who terrified the political establishment. When Milo Yiannopoulos was called dangerous, he embraced it as a brand and used it to sell books. Jordan Peterson likes to think of himself as a genius who has happened upon truths that “have been kept secret from the foundation of the world,” and who is upsetting the stuffy academics who attack his style because they cannot handle his arguments. What could better confirm this than a long lament by a stuffy academic who dwells mostly on Peterson’s style without really engaging his substantive arguments?
Even in his own portrayal, Schiff is a sap with poor judgment, a man who convinced his rightly-skeptical colleagues to embrace a man who turned out to have poor ethics, delusions of grandeur, and a willingness to misrepresent reality. To me, however, Schiff looks even worse than that. He is still naïve about Peterson. He still apparently thinks Maps of Meaning is a serious contribution to academic psychology rather than the ravings of a glib and voluble crank. He still doesn’t understand that Peterson was never a real “thinker,” and has to assume Peterson has “changed” or “gotten worse” because the truth would reflect so badly on Schiff and the entire University of Toronto psychology department. He continues to heap totally-unjustified praise on Peterson, building Peterson up as a “rogue intellectual” even while insisting that the opposite is the case. He even coins the phrase “social order warrior,” which Peterson would probably proudly embrace.
Some of the supposed criticisms aren’t even criticisms. Schiff thinks being “extreme” is in and of itself bad, which it isn’t. And I detect a hint of the odd liberal tendency to find “indecency” worse than “injustice”; Schiff says that even though he has a trans daughter, that “was hardly an issue” compared to Peterson’s personal betrayal of Schiff. But it should be the other way around: The fact that Peterson may have misled his friends is nothing compared to the harm that his views may do to the social acceptance of transgender people. Schiff seems to care a lot about norms: yes, Peterson misrepresented science, but in doings so he “abused the trust” of the “professorial position,” and it seems to be the violation of trust rather than the actual problems with Peterson’s arguments that most concerns Schiff. Oh, God, and Schiff seems to even defend the idea of sending Peterson to jail if he refused to pay a fine for failing to use a pronoun correctly.
My guess is that if you didn’t already dislike Peterson, you’re unlikely to do so after reading Schiff’s article. I also doubt many of his followers will be particularly unsettled by most of what Schiff has to say. Indeed, responses on Peterson’s Twitter feed suggest that most of his followers think Schiff simply sounds petty, jealous, and bombastic. Schiff does make a number of criticisms that aren’t just ad hominem, saying that Peterson has a “now-questionable relationship to truth, intellectual integrity and common decency,” that his “output is voluminous and filled with oversimplifications which obscure or misrepresent complex matters in the service of a message which is difficult to pin down” But those are serious claims requiring serious support, and Schiff dwells mostly on the personal side of things.
Here is an interesting online exchange between someone who likes Peterson and someone who loathes him:
LIKER: Some scientists have responded to this thread with criticisms of @jordanbpeterson. Here are a selection:he’s awful/ an asshole/ for morons/an ignorant idiot, beneath contempt/ repellant/ old fashioned/ a total huckster/ bizarre/ Profound stuff…
LOATHER: Why do you expect anything deeper than what Peterson provides? You want my critique of Heidegger, I will give you pages.You want my critique of a clown, it’ll be laughter. You’re not entitled to anyone inventing intellectual depth on his part just because you wish he had it.
Now, I think that line about the clown is funny. But I’m also not sure it’s wise. You can laugh at the right all you like, but in this country they’re in power. The Democrats tried the “Isn’t he awful and terrible and dangerous and for morons?” response against Donald Trump. It didn’t work, because those who accepted Trump’s self-characterization as an anti-establishment crusader just became defensive at being called morons. If a figure’s ideas are popular, they cannot be written off with mockery. Instead, we need to patiently and empathetically show people who might be taken in by the figure why they’re “ignorant” and “hucksterish.”
To see an example of the type of criticism I mean, we can look at Eric Levitz’s article about Peterson in New York magazine, “Jordan Peterson Does Not Support ‘Equality of Opportunity.’” Levitz’s conclusions are just as critical as Schiff’s, but they are much harder for Peterson and his supporters to write off. For one thing, they are not personal: They are a direct attack on Peterson’s “ideas,” and they show with precise and forceful logic why Peterson’s political ideology is an ignorant mess.
Levitz discusses one of Peterson’s core talking points, the idea that leftists are totalitarians because they desire “equality of outcome,” whereas Peterson himself believes in something far more defensible called “equality of opportunity” along with a “natural hierarchy of competence.” Peterson implies says that “diversity, inclusivity, and equity as a triumvirate” mark out the “too-excessive left,” with “equity” being the “abhorrent” idea of “equality of outcome.” Now, I’m sure a lot of people pass over these words rather quickly; after all, so many people talk about “equality of opportunity” that it would seem a bizarre point to single out among Peterson’s voluminous spewings. But Levitz wants to draw our attention to the implications of what Peterson is saying. First, Levitz disposes with the idea that social justice leftists believe in some kind of totalitarian Harrison Bergeron-like absolute equality. (“I do not know any feminists who blame the patriarchy for the fact that no woman has ever played middle linebacker in the NFL.”) In fact, leftists argue for things like paid medical and family leave, equality in educational funding, universal health care, and prison reform, and critics like Peterson who claim to support “equal opportunity” are mostly silent on the actual left-wing programs that would expand such opportunity. But Levitz points out just how little Peterson seems to care about the actual existing opportunity disparities, automatically ascribing differential social outcomes to “hierarchies of competence” without ever taking seriously the evidence about race and gender based injustices:
[Progressives feel] it safe to say that the economic chasm between black and white households might have something to do with the fact that, for most of American history, chattel slavery, Jim Crow laws, and discriminatory housing policies barred the vast majority of African-Americans from the opportunity to accrue wealth. And liberals are also fairly confident that “hierarchies of competence” do not fully explain the disparate market incomes of the one percent and middle class, in a nation where beloved public school teachers live on the edge of poverty, and Donald Trump lives in the White House.
The United States is “a nation where women are still routinely subjected to domestic violence in their homes, sexual harassment in their workplaces, and gender bias at their schools” and “our entire economic system relies on women performing incalculable hours of reproductive work without receiving any formal compensation at all.” It’s only if we assume away a mountain of social scientific evidence of the importance of race and gender (and assume away a black-white wealth gap that has been present since slavery) that we can see anything “meritocratic” about the existing order. The notion of “competence” itself is also unhelpful, since the question is “competent at what?” As Levitz points out:
The fact that the market delivers enormous rewards to people who design collateralized debt obligations — and piddling ones to those who care for the elderly — is a reflection of government policy, not metaphysical truth. Jordan Peterson owes his newfound fortune to the construct of “intellectual property rights,” and the willingness of nation-states to enforce such rights through coercion. A single mother raising four children — whose labor will one day help subsidize Peterson’s Old Age Security pension — receives no compensation for her efforts, because policy makers have chosen not to make a similar “intervention” in the market on her behalf.
In fact, “equality of opportunity” is a questionable concept to begin with. There can never be any such thing, because one generation’s “outcome” is the next generation’s “opportunity.” Those who end up with more will have more wealth to pass on to their children (unless you levy a 100 percent inheritance tax and ban private schools, which presumably Peterson supports, since he believes in equality of opportunity). But it’s worse than that: There are countless ways in which parents differ in what they give to children. The real problem is the idea of meritocracy itself, which is always going to be a myth, given the strong influences of both nature and nurture in determining the trajectory of any given human life, and which is always going to disfavor those who happen not to be endowed with the particular traits the meritocracy rewards (such as being good at swindling people). A better approach than “equality of opportunity” involves guaranteeing everyone a good standard of living, and ensuring that both the state and economy operate according to democratic principles without concentrated power. We can have long debates about how to do this in practice, but since “opportunity” will always favor those who have won the lottery of parents (whether financially or genetically) it’s impossible to avoid also adjusting outcome if you do believe in trying to equalize opportunities to the extent possible. (Not that Peterson does seem to believe in that, given how little time he spends advocating ways to close existing opportunity gaps, and how much time he spends justifying the resulting outcomes.)
Levitz points out that critics of social justice like Peterson and Shapiro pretend to be interested in ideas, yet ignore actual existing left-wing principles and policies in order to beat up on the most extreme caricature of the teenage campus activist. As Levitz says,“instead of engaging in an honest debate about whether equality of opportunity exists in the United States, they chose to misconstrue their point-of-contention with “SJWs” — and proceed to delegitimize concerns over structural inequality by equating them with a totalitarian ideology.” This is the crucial point. I do not care very much whether Jordan Peterson’s University of Toronto colleagues felt betrayed and disappointed by him, or whether they think he is bizarre and unpleasant. (He is.) I don’t think many members of the general public care what they think, either.
We can criticize people like Jordan Peterson and Donald Trump, for being rude, dangerous, depraved, apocalyptic, untrustworthy. But they will correctly point out that these are the exact things someone would say who could not actually offer a better and more accurate vision of the world. We could say “He’s brilliant, but he’s lost his way.” But a lot of people will just hear “He’s brilliant.” (For God’s sake, never say “He’s brilliant, but…” about someone who is obviously not at all brilliant but would very much like to have his enemies say that he is.) Instead of making it personal, then, I recommend directing one’s attention to the core of their noxious ideology, helping people understand why it is so shallow, stupid, and immoral rather than simply calling it those things. And we can’t lure people away from these ideas until we have better ones of our own, and can articulate them with greater intellectual precision, greater moral force, and greater persuasive power.
My new essay collection, Interesting Times, is now available!
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