Social commentary

Crossing Jordan: Peterson & polarisation

Jordan Peterson provokes intensely strong reactions. Maybe you have just experienced one in seeing the title and image of this blog post.

Peterson’s talks and lectures online are incredibly popular, especially with young men. His book 12 Rules for Life and his famous interview on Channel 4 News with Cathy Newman (since watched 34 million times on Youtube) propelled him to global fame.

Totalitarian impulses

Peterson is a clinical psychologist who has provided some of the most powerful arguments against political correctness and identity politics. One of his big targets is ‘cultural Marxism’. This is the idea that whilst the hard-left lost the economic argument, its totalitarian impulses have infected media, academia, social policy and the arts.

Peterson has packaged intellectual, and often dense, arguments in forms that people can engage with and be inspired by.

Provoked and challenged

I found 12 Rules for Life hard work but fascinating. On almost every page, I had to pause to consider what he was saying and what my response was. In particular, he used the ancient lessons from the Bible in ways I have never seen before. It provoked and challenged me and opened up space for new thinking. In short, it did what good books should do.

But as well as simply disagreeing with him, Peterson has become a figure of deep suspicion for many. Some dismiss the depth of his thinking ‘the stupid-person’s smart-person‘. Others are incensed by his views on gender, masculinity, white privilege and his critique of perspectives which have become social justice orthodoxy.

Bogey-man

But many are also suspicious of Peterson because of who he is popular with. He is often criticised more for the profile of those who support him as he is by the content of what he says. In a tribal age of identity politics, Peterson has become a bogey-man for many on the left.

Yesterday, on a Christian facebook group, I read this response to someone sharing a Peterson’s video:

“Good advice from Jordan Peterson is still advice from Jordan Peterson. Thanks, but no thanks.”

Polarising

It is polarisation and tribalism which most concerns me. I fear for a world where we have lost the willingness and ability to engage with different views and debate in functional ways.

My experiences of political correctness as a student in the early 1990s had a big effect on me. I attended conferences which purported to be ‘open, safe places’ but which were actually the most constricted and fearful environments I have experienced. There was a nascent totalitarianism which demanded control and could be incredibly contemptuous of debate and disagreement.

This was the initial reason I began to appreciate George Orwell. He was someone on the left who was willing to critique the left. His writing is enduringly relevant because he rejected narrow tribalism and was brave, intellectually honest and willing to swim against powerful tides. This is what we need today.

Handling difference

The answer to polarisation and tribalism is disagreeing well.

In every community, workplace, school, college, church and family, we need to be able to handle debate and difference. If we don’t disagree well, we dismiss, disregard, and can end up destroying those with different views.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn spent years in prison and exile in Communist Russia because of his politically unacceptable views. He wrote:

“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart.

‘A wing and a prayer’

This week Jordan Peterson released a video titled ‘A wing and a prayer’ speaking to this very subject.

Whether you like him, loathe him or don’t know him, I would urge you to spend 5 mins watching this video. Try to listen without prejudice and examine it for truth:

14 thoughts on “Crossing Jordan: Peterson & polarisation”

  1. Thanks Jon,

    I found that very helpful. As I join General Synod this coming week, I will carry your comments with me as a challenge and an invitation.

    John

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  2. I confess, as a resident of Toronto (where Peterson is a professor and has upset many, many people I care about, and where the things he says have empowered or emboldened many to say and do things that hurt certain segments of the local community), I have become skeptical of Peterson and questioned how much of a platform he really ought to be given, since he appears to do or cause/incite repeated harms…
    I have listened to young Trans Christians as they express their pain, and literally held the QUAKING body of a younger Trans friend as they sobbed in response to a Peterson-related soundbite, or news of something he said/did and how others responded with transphobic comments and made public statements of support for his more toxic anti-trans stances…..

    So I was surprised by this post, BUT it came from you… and since you are the highly trusted friend of a highly trusted and beloved friend, I dared to watch.

    And I ended up being surprised by Peterson’s prayer.
    Taken on its own, it is good, and thought-provoking.
    (And it is perhaps the first evidence I have seen of any kind of humility on Peterson’s part.)
    I don’t know enough of his canon of thought to know whether this is indicative of its usual content, or whether it represents a departure from it; a ‘new leaf’ so to speak.
    So I’ll be selectively passing it along to others (friends who are likely more familiar with, or affected by, his more controversial ideas than I) for consideration or reflection.
    Thanks Jon.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Amy – any friend of Cozza is a friend of mine!

      thanks for reading, watching and for your thoughtful and helpful comment. I have not blogged about Peterson before, but I was struck by the humility and self-critique included in this message and this is why I think it has value.

      I think your point highlights a key issue that I have reflected on with Peterson – how much he can be held responsible for bigoted actions or statements by others who may refer to him or share his content? For example, after the C4 interview, Cathy Newman got an avalanche of hateful and threatening social media messages including death threats. But there is no way I can see that Peterson could be said to have caused or incited anything to do with this kind of response.

      As I understood it, Peterson protested at the idea that the government can mandate others about what words they should use. This is obviously most obviously connected to the use of preferred pro-nouns and therefore affects trans-gender people. But I always saw this as an issue relating to government control rather than an ‘anti-trans’ perspective per se. But I am conscious that I don’t know a lot about this whole episode.

      I think the C4 interview is really key in this regard – how much we are allowed to risk offending others by speaking what we believe to be true? Of course, I am sympathetic to those quaking or traumatised by hateful statements – but I am also concerned about a growing expansion of what is called ‘hate speech’ to include reasonable beliefs or evidenced concerns. It can, as we have seen time and again, become hateful and threatening very quickly. Of course we want civility and a decency in all discourse, but as Peterson says in the interview, the potential of offending people is fundamental to free speech and therefore a whole host of other values we hold dear.

      In many ways I celebrate ‘the rise of social justice’ but I see real weaknesses in the brittleness of the left and their intolerance of any counter-challenge. The reason that I referred to my university days is because I experienced this vividly in the 90s and saw how weak it was and how unprepared it made people to engage with the real world beyond the bubble of campus.

      Thanks for your graciousness to see the good in that prayer and lets hope that Peterson’s public journey can be one which aids reconciliation and mutual understanding.

      thanks Amy for your comment and all the best,
      Jon

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The name Jordan Peterson was little more than a background murmur in my world, and I’d neither read nor listened to him directly. I watched this out of curiosity. First response: Boy, does this man take himself seriously! Behind the pomposity and hubris though was a decent message, and one I agree with. I’d have liked it to be even more poignant (less general) but given what you and others say about his previous content this seems to be a shift for the better.

    Video aside, I enjoyed your post, especially this: “The answer to polarisation and tribalism is disagreeing well.” That’s a simple but fascinating phrase, “disagreeing well”. Most of us do it so very badly. I also nodded in empathic agreement with this…

    “I attended conferences which purported to be ‘open, safe places’ but which were actually the most constricted and fearful environments I have experienced. There was a nascent totalitarianism which demanded control and could be incredibly contemptuous of debate and disagreement.”

    In our quest for “safe space” we have created exactly the opposite for all those who think differently, or dare to challenge, or even ask questions of the new mainstream liberal agenda. Such spaces are perhaps safe to those few who have once been marginalised, bullied, even terrorised, but they are a grave danger to freedom of thought and to the future of humanity.

    Another thought-provoking post, Jon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. thanks Tobias – yes, you are right that it can come across pompous and self-important. I guess he was going for a ‘this is serious and deep’ vibe. Thanks for your reflections and encouragements.

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  4. Jon

    Thoughtful as always. But I don’t think you’re quite picking up the whole picture. Peterson’s books are just a small fraction of his total output. Most of his work is on blogs, YouTube, podcast interviews, live appearances, etc. It was this that made him famous well before he wrote anything in book form anybody wanted to read. So when you look at 12 Rules in isolation it is easy to ask what all the fuss was about. When you delve into the murky world of his blog and podcast contributions, however, you soon find out!

    From the outset of his public profile, he gained a following by opposing Bill C-16 in Canada, which protected the trans people from discrimination by falsely claiming it would criminalise the use of the wrong gender pronoun. Despite legal experts saying this is untrue, he launched a crusade against it and won fans with those who simply don’t accept the rights of trans people, even though he could justifiably argue that this wasn’t his personal position. And this is a pattern. In other areas, he uses long-winded narratives to lead his audience to think he has said something clear, but with the ability to back-track when pressed. This led to the famous Cathy Newman interview, when he was able to reverse out of every question by simply saying that Newman hadn’t understood his views. This was a clever trick, as his audience absolutely thought those were his views – he’s just good enough at waffling through an argument that he could back away from it when pressed.

    I have some sympathy with the view that wisdom is helpful wherever it comes from, but on the other hand we all know that even the devil can quote scripture, so we must be careful who we listen to. My view is that Peterson’s output as a whole is utterly toxic to our current culture and should be avoided at all costs.

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    1. Hi Mouse – an honour to have you comment on my blog!

      There is no way a short blog post can convey ‘the whole picture’ and I am careful to only affirm the limited areas of his work that I have engaged with. I have not spent a long time watching or listening to JP’s massive online output.

      With regard to the Bill C-16 case, your phrase ‘despite legal experts saying this was untrue’ sounds naïve to me – ‘legal experts’ say what the people who hire them want them to say. The issue around this legislation was a public debate that he chose to engage in and he made a lot of points which resonated with many who care about freedom of speech. For this to be simply cast as ‘anti-trans’ is a symptom of the problems our society has.

      I disagree with your analysis of the Cathy Newman interview. She has said it was not her finest hour as a journalist and I think he was considered and made some key points. He has said since that he did not see this as a victory because it was not a proper, honest discussion because of the way it was framed. I saw her as the one coming with journalistic approach which sought to trap and expose him and it basically did not work.

      Everything happens in a context and I do not want to come over as a JP fanboy as I have not engaged with much of his work. But I have (and continue to) experience a world of judgemental political correctness and ‘cancel culture’ which brings with it some worrying trends which we need to speak up about. I think if we care about social justice we have to be prepared to go outside the binary ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ of so much tribalism which is rife in church and politics and recognise legitimate points in those who we may otherwise disagree with.

      And lastly, I don’t see JP as using scripture in the way the devil did when he tempted Christ!

      But thanks for reading and commenting.

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      1. Thanks for responding Jon. I won’t do a point-by-point, but will revert on a few things. Overall, I don’t disagree with your general sentiment that the trend towards an ultra-judgemental culture is unhealthy, and I hope my comments didn’t read like I was arguing for this. Nor was I suggesting that JP should be compared with the Devil! I just meant that since “even the Devil…” we must be careful.

        On the C-16 issue, I’d encourage a bit of reading around it, as the issue is illustrative of my wider criticism of JP. One fact check (done at the time, before he became such a well known figure) summed it up like this, “I don’t know if he’s misunderstanding it, but he’s mischaracterizing it,” Cossman [Law Professor, University of Toronto] says. Cossman says it seems Peterson is trying to argue that the misuse of pronouns could constitute hate speech. “I don’t think there’s any legal expert that would say that [this] would meet the threshold for hate speech in Canada,”

        https://torontoist.com/2016/12/are-jordan-petersons-claims-about-bill-c-16-correct/

        I don’t think it is the sort of thing that could be interpreted differently by different experts – it was just a straightforward misrepresentation of the bill. Of course, we all agree with freedom of speech, but in this case it was never about freedom of speech.

        You’re certainly right that Cathy Newman sought to trap JP and he easily dodged the attacks. And probably that this wasn’t the best way to approach the topics. My point was not that she was right to try to attack him, but his reactions in that interview were the same as every time someone tries to pin him down on his views. The ground shifts under his feet, black becomes white, night becomes day and he never made the argument that everyone in the room heard him make because *insert clever sounding words*.

        When looking for the bogey men and women of cancel culture, however, I would just caution against targeting the aggressive liberals. It is a trait that crosses all political dimensions seamlessly. The perpetrators are whoever is in a position to assert their viewpoint. In other words, the issue is abuse of power.

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      2. Thanks Mouse for your thoughtful comments and fair push-back. I will read up on those links.

        PS: have you given up your pseudonymity yet like Cranmer has?!

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