I like Jordan Peterson. I listen to him frequently. I was first exposed to him years before he became famous through my studies in psychology and his book “Maps of Meaning”. When I first saw the video of him in Toronto defying student protesters I thought, “oh, that’s that guy” and that is why I watched. I continued to watch. His interests mirror my own and so he provided me with some interesting things to ponder. You know how I love to ponder stuff. But I found as I watched that I didn’t agree with all he said, nor did I feel he solidly made his point in an academic way.
For some issues he was on solid ground. He had his own research to back it up. But other things were speculative and philosophical. With those I could agree or disagree on those grounds. But I can understand that many people get mixed up about which things are which. The author of this piece makes a good point about that. But just as I overlook it so did they when faced with it. They saw that the students he was teaching were getting something out of it.
The author of this piece then says that after years of personally supporting Peterson at the university (they advocated personally for hiring him) they soured as he rose to prominence. They give a lot of reasons but they really aren’t academic in nature. Not for someone who actually listens to Peterson.
Buried in the linked editorial is the line “I have a trans daughter…”
Which the author quickly tries to brush away the importance of by saying, “…but that was hardly an issue compared to what I felt was a betrayal of my trust and confidence in him.” What was that terrible betrayal? “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.”
But Peterson isn’t wrong in that and he does have the evidence to back it up. As far as being jailed, Peterson explained that if he refused to pay the fine, which he most certainly would refuse, he would be jailed. The author argues that this isn’t the same thing. That he would be jailed for not paying the fine not for what he said or didn’t say about a person’s gender. On the fine points of it, that is true. However, Peterson’s point is, there would not be a fine to refuse in the first place if not for the bad gender law. Being jailed would be a direct result of that law and would not happen without that law being in place. So while the author might win on the technicality they do so only by ignoring Peterson’s larger point.
I’m not a Peterson apologist. He’s interesting and clever but not perfect.
The author of the piece makes the most valid point against his style that I’ve read, “In Jordan’s hands, a claim which is merely ridiculous became dangerous. Jordan, our “free speech warrior,” decided to launch a website that listed “postmodern neo-Marxist” professors and “corrupt” academic disciplines, warning students and their parents to avoid them. Those disciplines, postmodern or not, included women’s, ethnic and racial studies. Those “left-wing” professors were trying to “indoctrinate their students into a cult” and, worse, create “anarchical social revolutionaries.” I do think Jordan believes what he says, but it’s not clear from the language he uses whether he is being manipulative and trying to induce fear, or whether he is walking a fine line between concern and paranoia.”
To teach against the philosophies is one thing. It is quite another to assemble a list of people who believe and teach them and advocate that their livelihood be put in jeopardy as a result. He’s worried about the academic environment of universities (as well he should be) but his own action in making a list puts him square in the same category as those trying to stifle free thought. I agree with Peterson that leftism and post-modernism, and Marxism are evils and wrong but I don’t advocate a witch hunt against people who disagree with me. I simply advocate that no laws be passed to support their point of view or that remove my rights.
What Peterson is doing isn’t illegal, nor is it necessarily “wrong”. I don’t think he’s paranoid. I think he’s right. I just think that particular tactic is too similar to his enemies for my tastes.
That said, even the editorial points out, “In the end, Jordan postponed his plan to blacklist courses after many of his colleagues signed a petition objecting to it. He said it was too polarizing.” He recognized that it was damaging the environment he was seeking to protect. Yes, he thought it, but he didn’t follow through on it.
The author writes, “Jordan may have, however, welcomed being fired, which would have made him a martyr in the battle for free speech. He certainly presented himself as prepared to do that. A true warrior, of whatever.” I find it interesting that they end that with “whatever” when in the sentence prior they have listed “free speech” as the whatever he is fighting for. I take that turn of phrase to mean the author doesn’t share Peterson’s fear, or doesn’t share that free speech is all that important, or doesn’t feel that pronouns should be included in free speech. So, whatever.
The author writes, “Jordan exhibits a great range of emotional states, from anger and abusive speech to evangelical fierceness, ministerial solemnity and avuncular charm. It is misleading to come to quick conclusions about who he is, and potentially dangerous if you have seen only the good and thoughtful Jordan, and not seen the bad.”
The bad is certainly there for everyone to see. Peterson does get defensive and angry.
But I think point of view on this is very important. I don’t know it, and the author does, even hosted Peterson and his family in his own home for 5 months. So I will grant he’s seen something else of the bad Peterson than the rest of us have. I have seen the bad too. But if we put it in context of Peterson as a man then it makes sense. He doesn’t claim to be a perfect representation of the human race. He just claims to be trying. That much can be witnessed. When he does screw up I’ve heard him admit it.
The author does make a good point when he writes:
I believe that Jordan has not lived up to at least four of his rules.
Rule 7: Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
Rule 8: Tell the truth — or, at least, don’t lie
Rule 9: Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
Rule 10: Be precise in your speech
Other than number 8, which I believe Peterson does the other three are spot on.
Peterson often draws conclusions that sometimes aren’t fully realized by the evidence.
But that isn’t the same as not telling the truth. However, I will explain this as I feel confident I understand it.
If you watch him, really watch him, as I do. You begin to realize two things. First, he’s learning as he goes. That’s important to know about him. He’s working this all out in his own mind, often for the first time, in front of a camera or audience. The second thing to realize is that he gives verbal cues when this is the case. You will often hear him use phrases that indicate the incompleteness of his point. “Or something like that”. “Kind of”. “Basically.” and so on. He’s articulating meta-concepts. He’s not focusing on the minutiae. True enough his point could get lost or refuted once it gets down to that level.
But he’s a psychologist.
The importance of that fact cannot be overstated. There are still some in science that don’t consider psychology to be a science and the really generous academics grace it with the title “soft science”. In one way they are dead wrong. That is, psychology does use the scientific method and research is rather rigorous. But where they are right is in the fact that much of what psychology seeks to know cannot be known with certitude. We know, for example, that talk therapy works. We don’t know why exactly that is. We also know that the various methods of talk therapy work about the same. If your method can get a person talking, get them sharing, and get them reaching down inside, then you have a successful method. Maybe that is CBT, maybe CAT, a twist of Gestalt, or a side of IPT and psychodynamics tossed in. They seem to work about the same if the client/patient responds appropriately. I obviously favor a cognitive behavioral approach. But I have that side of gestalt for good measure.
Peterson works in a realm of deep speculation. Sure, things can be tested. Those results compiled and we can begin to see patterns. However, and this is true, we often don’t know what those patterns mean. A good example of this Is the conversation we recently had on the Facebook page about marijuana and addiction. A study done showed, using good science, that of those studied those who had used marijuana were 68 percent more likely to become addicted to something later in life. That can easily make it sound like using pot as a kid means you are very much more likely to become addicted as an adult. That makes it sound like clinical proof that pot is a gateway drug. However, that leaves so many factors out of the equation. Was it the pot or other circumstances (socioeconomic) that lead to the increased levels of addiction? Causation often escapes the psychologist. A man like Peterson can be personally convinced of something, and even have methods that work with his clients based on that belief but digging down we might just find that other methods would work just as well and other causes are plausible too. When you listen to Peterson, I feel one should keep that aspect of his profession in mind. It is considered “medical” by many but in truth it’s not like medicine. There is no prescription for mental health nor an x-ray to discover how it’s broken. Peterson often speaks as if he knows something when in actuality he strongly believes it. That I happen to agree with him quite often doesn’t mean I accept it as actual truth.
Conclusion: Yes, he is very dangerous
I do think that Peterson is dangerous. But not for the reasons the author of the editorial thinks. Not because he lies. Not because he’s a Svengali. Not because he has strongly held opinions that he expresses pretty well. He’s dangerous because he does the one thing the left (which he rightfully despises) cannot stand for a person to do – he causes others to think. Not only does he get them to think, he gets them to consider for one moment that some strongly held beliefs of their own, and of their many professors’, might just be wrong. Even if Peterson weren’t right he’s unlocking something that needs to be unlocked – thinking. So yes, he’s dangerous as is any man with a mind in a world that wants only blanks.