Jordan Peterson seems to be an angry man. I think he might be angry at me, but I can’t tell for sure. His rants are so imprecise that I am not sure who the targets of his wrath really are. I cannot tell what, precisely, he thinks that these people have done wrong, why he thinks that what they did was wrong, or what he thinks that they should have done instead. However, he is stirring up a lot of hatred against whole groups of people, including feminists and what he describes as “the postmodernist left.” I’m afraid that I might get put into some of those groups, whether I belong there or not. For this reason, Jordan Peterson makes me feel uneasy.
Of course, Jordan Peterson does not know me personally; but if he did, I suspect that he might put me into one of the categories that he hates so much. Of course, if I were to meet him through my work, I can almost guarantee that he and I would not get along well. I am a copyeditor and a fact-checker. I am that irritating person who has to point out all the tiny mistakes in your writing and who peppers your manuscript with annoying queries, such as “what, exactly, do you mean by this?” If I had to work on the things that Peterson writes and says about politics, I would have to ask that question a lot. I would also have to point out that a lot of the things he says are not true.
The Channel 4 interview
The funny thing is that Peterson actually made a good impression on me the first time I saw him. I watched that now infamous Channel 4 television interview with Cathy Newman. If Newman had done her homework before the interview, she could have called Peterson’s bluff about a lot of the nonsense that he had actually been spouting. Instead, she repeatedly tried to make it sound as if he was espousing bizarre ideas that he had never put forth. Peterson handled himself extremely well during that attack. In that interview, he sounded like a polite Canadian college professor.
Peterson is, in fact, a college professor from Canada. It became immediately apparent (at least to me) that Peterson is far better educated than Newman is. Peterson was even able to point out some of the childish mistakes in Newman’s line of reasoning. College professors get a lot of practice in doing that.
Peterson is also a trained clinical psychologist, and it showed. He had clearly had training and experience in remaining calm, reasonable, and authoritative in an encounter with an impolite, irrational person. To top it off, Peterson even managed to use the interview to convey a message that is the central theme of my book Don’t Feed the Narcissists!: how important it is for adults to behave like adults. So my initial impression of him was favorable. That impression quickly faded after I started watching his Youtube videos.
The Youtube videos
The first few of his videos that I watched were actually good. As a licensed clinical psychologist, Peterson has been professionally trained to give people advice about how to solve their psychological and interpersonal problems. A lot of the advice that he gives reflects that training. Most of his advice boils down to the basic message that adults should behave like adults. His book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos gives some basic advice on how to be mature and responsible. The problem is that Peterson is not just giving advice on how to be an adult. He is often specifically giving advice to boys on how to become men. Meanwhile, some of the advice that he has been giving to women seems kind of silly.
Peterson’s problem with women, etc.
Peterson seems to be unsympathetic or even clueless in relation to many of the concerns of women, LGBTQ people, and people of color. This apparent cluelessness explains why so many members of the alt-right admire him. For example, in a discussion about how to stop workplace harassment, Peterson claimed that nobody knows the rules for how men and women should behave toward each other at work. Really? Maybe Peterson’s alt-right fanboys don’t know the rules, but Peterson should certainly know them. Those rules have been spelled out (in English as well as in French) in Division XV.1 of Part III of the Canada Labor Code. Many companies in Canada, as well as in the United States, issue employee handbooks and conduct training sessions so that their employees know precisely what those rules are.
Peterson then went on to suggest that the first thing that one should do to fight sexual harassment in the workplace is to forbid women from wearing lipstick and high heels to work, since he feels that women wear those things to provoke men sexually. Meanwhile, in the real world, a lot of elderly women wear lipstick and high heels to look respectable when they go to church, even though they are not trying to provoke anyone sexually.
The problem with Jung
Peterson seems to have picked up a lot of his ideas from the Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung. Peterson often sings Jung’s praises, which I feel is a bad sign. Jung was a bad scientist, and he was a horrible human being. Jung was an obscurantist who promoted a lot of the nonsense that is now labeled “New Age.” Jung also aspired to be a cult leader and tried to turn his cult into a profitable business. Jung is accused of having raped at least one of his patients while she was hospitalized for mental illness. After Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, Jung had a cozy relationship with the Nazis, even though Jung was Swiss and thus could easily have kept his distance. There was also more than a whiff of anti-Semitism in Jung’s writings. So please forgive me for looking askance at anyone who thinks that Jung was brilliant or for being cautious around anyone who looks to Jung for moral guidance.
Peterson keeps ranting about the “feminists,” “radical left-wingers,” and “the postmodernist left” and the “postmodern Marxist movement.” When conservative commentator Ben Shapiro asked Peterson to explain what postmodernism is, Peterson said that postmodernism was most familiar as identity politics, which is the idea that “you are defined by your group.” Peterson then blathered on that “you can add an oppressor-oppressed narrative on top of that.” Yet when Peterson attacks feminists, radical left wingers, etc., he is attacking groups, not addressing the actual ideas and actions of any particular individual. So he does precisely what he complains that the postmodernists are doing.
Peterson may dismiss oppression as a “narrative” that has been “imposed.” My perspective is a bit different. To an editor and fact-checker like me, narratives are stories. I have found that many “oppressor-oppressed narratives” are true stories about bad things that somebody has done to somebody else. Many of the true stories shed light on institutional or systemic problems that should elicit some sort of political response. The progress that societies have made in solving such problems has come about largely because of pressure from people who have been described as feminist or leftist or both.
Is Peterson angry at me?
If Peterson knew me personally, he would probably include me in at least one of the groups he disparages. I think that women and girls have often been treated unfairly, often simply for being female. I think that this is a widespread and multifaceted problem that has not yet been completely solved. So I guess that makes me one of those feminists whom he despises. I also am sympathetic to the concerns of other people who have been treated badly, including gay men, people of color, members of ethnic and religious minorities, anyone who has to work for a living, sick people, hungry people, and anyone who is living in a war zone. You could call this being leftist. I have always thought of it as being a good person. How you classify me says a lot more about you than it says about me.
Rule 10 of Peterson’s 12 rules for life is “Be precise in your speech.” Yet Peterson himself is notoriously vague in his own speech. When he rants about feminists or the postmodernist left, listen carefully for him to make any precise statements. Whom precisely does he mean when he talks about the feminists or postmodernists or Marxists or collectivists who are supposedly so harmful? How, exactly, do we decide whether a particular individual is a member of one of these groups? What precise actions have any of the individuals in any of these groups taken that he thinks are harmful? How, precisely, have those actions harmed anyone in particular? Peterson is clearly not an idiot. But his political rhetoric is often like a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
What about the Jews?
It makes me nervous when Peterson makes full-throated yet vague accusations about how some ill-defined groups have been harming society. I am afraid that many of his followers could interpret these accusations as a coded reassurance that it is okay to go after the Jews. Peterson himself claims that he opposes anti-Semitism. Yet he is making a name for himself by inciting public hatred, which invariably mutates into anti-Semitism, sooner or later.
The pronoun squabble
Peterson came to public attention largely because of a brouhaha over Bill C‑16, which was a proposed amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code. The amendment was intended to provide some protections at the federal level that were already provided by law at the provincial level in Ontario. The amendment would prevent the Canadian federal government and businesses within federal jurisdiction (such as banks) from discriminating on the basis of gender identity or gender expression. So if you fired a bank teller for having a sex change, you could be fined. The amendment was also intended to add transgender people and gender-nonconforming people to the list of people to be protected by criminal laws against hate propaganda. If you have been making homophobic slurs, then those nasty remarks could be considered an aggravating circumstance if you are being sentenced for beating up a transwoman. And of course, if you advocate in public that transgender people should be rounded up and killed, you could be sent to prison for a breach of the peace offense.
Peterson claimed that the amendment was actually an unprecedented attack on the right of free speech. He claimed that the law would criminalize the failure to use a person’s preferred gender of pronouns. Peterson insisted that he would refuse to obey this law. If he were fined as a result, he would not pay the fine. If he were jailed, he would go on a hunger strike. (How brave he sounds! Quick, somebody give him a medal!) But if you read the law, in English or in French, it says nothing about pronouns.
Thanks to the passage of Bill C‑16, it is now it illegal throughout Canada (not just in Ontario!) to advocate genocide or to incite public hatred based on gender or gender expression—or color, race, religion, national or ethnic origin, age, sex, sexual orientation or mental or physical disability. However, you will not go to a federal prison in Canada for referring to a transwoman as “he” instead of “she” or “ze.” On the other hand, if you have been making public statements advocating genocide or inciting hatred against any group on that list, you could theoretically be sent to prison in Canada.
Notice that it is not illegal in Canada to incite public hatred of feminists, postmodernists, Marxists, leftists, or collectivists. Those groups are not protected under the Canadian civil rights law or the criminal law. So Peterson can say all of the false and defamatory and inflammatory things he likes about those groups, as long as he is attacking them as groups. Of course, if he writes or says something false and defamatory about an individual, he could be sued for libel or slander.
I and you, tu et vous
Of course, the gender of pronouns will pose far less of a problem than people might expect. In English and in French, the first- and second-person personal pronouns are not marked for gender. So when you are talking to somebody in English or French, the second-person pronouns that you will use when addressing that person are already gender-neutral. The only political awkwardness involved in picking second-person pronouns is in figuring out whether to say tu or vous, and that comes up only if you are speaking French. Of course, if you are speaking French, you will have to mark some nouns, adjectives, and past participles for gender, even if you are talking about inanimate objects. Interestingly, Inuktitut (the language of the Inuit) does not mark any personal pronouns for gender. So it would be literally impossible to choose the wrong gender of personal pronoun if you were speaking Inuktitut.
Truth or hogwash?
Peterson’s rhetoric about Bill C‑16 posing a serious threat to free speech in Canada is hogwash. I have to assume that Peterson knows that his rhetoric is hogwash. I have often been told that I tend to overestimate other people’s intelligence. However, I find it hard to believe that Peterson could be that much less intelligent than I am. To me, it seems far more likely that he just likes to say inflammatory things to gain attention. If so, it’s working. The problem is that he does not deserve the attention that he has been getting, because so much of what he’s saying is hogwash. The journalists who were covering the controversy that he stirred up over Bill C‑16 should also have realized that Peterson’s patter was hogwash. Thus, they should have ignored him, instead of making him famous.
Righteous indignation or schtick?
Peterson is probably intelligent enough to realize that he is repeatedly breaking his own rule number 10. As a psychologist who used to teach at Harvard, he is certainly clever enough to know that normal people do not find precise and accurate speech riveting. For example, if he were to tell the truth about some proposed piece of human rights legislation or give an honest and insightful critique of the work of some postmodernist writer, people’s eyes would glaze over. Thus, he would continue to labor in relative obscurity: teaching university classes and seeing private patients on the side. To become famous and then rich and powerful, he had to spout nonsense.
To make it in show-biz, or to establish yourself as a public figure, you need a schtick. Peterson has a clever one. A college professor who is a crusader for right-wing causes is a “man bites dog” story. It’s newsworthy because it goes against people’s expectations. Some people think that it’s ironic that a college professor from Canada has become such a media sensation and a darling on the right. Of course, Peterson has done so by doing some things that are neither scholarly nor gentlemanly: saying some things that are clearly untrue and a lot of things that are totally meaningless and inciting hatred against people who stand up for the underdog. He certainly knows better than to do those things.
Peterson’s inflammatory hogwash about Bill C‑16 generated a huge amount of drama, and journalists spin drama into click-bait. Peterson’s rhetoric made a few high-brow people think that he’s a jerk. However, his schtick has made him a household name and created a huge platform for selling his wares. It was a clever business decision. He may be ranting in public, but I’m sure that he is smiling all the way to the bank.
Photo by Gage Skidmore