The Unbearable Whiteness of Being Jordan Peterson
For someone whose primary shtick is rehashing millennia-old stoic philosophy, Jordan Peterson hasn’t been very stoic of late.
A Canadian psychologist whose work has been lauded by the New York Times, the Guardian, Harvard University, and a bunch of alt-right man babies, had a bit of a temper tantrum on Twitter, threatening violence against a critic of his book.
Peterson got upset because not everyone loves him. While his work has been praised, it’s also been derided by those mean old journalists who don’t understand his genius and quote him out of context and say he said something he didn’t really say (according to Jordan and his many vocal defenders).
Just because Cathy Newman did a (mostly) crap job interviewing Peterson by trying to put words in his mouth doesn’t mean he’s innocent of wrongdoing. Just because he’s come under some unfair attacks in the media doesn’t mean there isn’t some reality as to why so many major publications are printing articles about what is wrong with the hero du jour for the disaffected white male.
Cue the outliers crying, “I’m not white / male and I LUV Jordan!” That’s nice for you. You’re not representative of his fan base.
I have not watched all 500 or so hours of Peterson’s YouTube videos. I have not read all of his written works. And you know what? You don’t have to examine every little thing a person does in order to generate an informed opinion. I’ve read enough of his work and watched enough of his videos and interviews and read many articles that both praise and malign, as well as read the arguments of his fan base about why they believe he’s so awesome. I’ve gathered enough information to realize there isn’t much I admire about Jordan Peterson.
I’ll endeavor not to rehash what’s already been said. If you want a comprehensive examination of how problematic Peterson is, this piece for Current Affairs by a PhD student in sociology and social policy is the best I’ve come across. My intentions here are to focus on Peterson’s white male victim mentality and explain why his whinging led to his explosion of fame in such a short period of time.
FYI, this is a two-part article. I’m not saying Peterson’s works is without merit. I’ll be taking a look at what’s good about Jordan in my next piece. But as far as the bad goes, and how it’s contributed to Peterson’s rise to prominence, I’ll begin with a quote from Robert Heinlein:
“You can sway a thousand men by appealing to their prejudices quicker than you can convince one man by logic.”
What was the first thing that made people take note of Peterson? It was his appealing to people’s prejudices via his opposition to bill C-16 in 2016, which sought to add discrimination of gender identity as something that was covered by Canadian human rights law. As an example, if someone was fired or lost health benefits based on gender identity, they could sue the same way someone could sue based on being discriminated for race or religion. Gender identity was also added to the hate speech codes, and this is where Peterson misplaced his excrement.
This piece, by Aaron Huertas, does an excellent dissection of why Peterson’s criticisms of the bill were unfounded. The author writes:
Peterson claimed that adding gender identity to the protected classes could possibly, maybe, someday lead to him, theoretically, just maybe, being fined for refusing to use a student’s preferred gender pronouns. He even testified before Parliament on this, despite the fact that he has no expertise in civil rights or human rights law. Further, he said that if he were fined, he would refuse to pay it, and, if faced with jail time as a result of paying those fines, go on a hunger strike. To which I say, cool fantasy, dude. Or if I’m being charitable: that’s a heck of a slippery slope.
You want to talk slippery slopes? In the conservative paper the National Post Peterson wrote of new gender pronouns: “These words are at the vanguard of a post-modern, radical leftist ideology that I detest, and which is, in my professional opinion, frighteningly similar to the Marxist doctrines that killed at least 100 million people in the 20th century.” I have interviewed trans people for articles and for my next book, and no one has ever brought up “zhe” or “zher.” I can’t imagine being asked to use them, but if I was, whatever. Language evolves, and people adapt. No one is going to send me to the gulag if I refuse to use them. But “killed 100 million people” is so very frightening, so we must protest these evil, made up words!
Juliet. Foxtrot. Charlie.
Legal experts have weighed in and found Peterson’s histrionics ridiculous. No one is compelling him to speak in a certain way, and the threat of him ever been thrown in prison for disregarding preferred pronouns is non-existent.
He made an Everest-sized mountain out of a molehill under the guise of “Free speech!”, and people flocked to him for it. Why? Because there is a group of white men out there who aren’t going to take it anymore.
I saw a video of him shouting that. He was in a crowd of admirers and detractors both and yelled “We’re not going to take it anymore!” about how his free speech was allegedly being shut down.
And in this video from fall 2016 it shows Peterson referring to his detractors as “the opponents of free speech.” This reveals how, like Milo Yiannopoulis, Peterson doesn’t have a clue what free speech actually means. I explained how it’s about preventing the government from passing laws infringing on your rights of speech in this piece about Milo. Peterson was speaking in Canada, where it’s referred to as “freedom of expression.” And the laws are quite similar to those south of the border.
Peterson sees criticism of what he has to say as an attack on his free speech. The hypocrisy is that he’s endeavoring to deny his opponent’s their freedom of speech by shutting down criticism of his speech. Simply put, Jordan, MY free speech entitles me to say that your use of speech is stupid.
I mentioned a Twitter meltdown.
Recently, there was an unfavorable review of his 12 Rules for Life book in the New York Review of Books. Peterson was displeased in his tweets. He referred to the author of the review, Pankaj Mishra, as an “arrogant, racist son of a bitch,” and a “sanctimonious prick.” What’s more, he wrote, “If you were in my room at the moment, I’d slap you happily.”
He threatened violence against a critic for what that critic wrote. This is your free speech champion. The hypocrisy is stunning. Speaking of hypocrisy, so much for Rule #9 in his book: “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.” Rather than comprehend what Mishra wrote, he just wants to smack him.
And remember that time, not long ago, when Peterson planned to launch his own version of “Rate My Professor”? His stated goal was to reduce or even eliminate enrolment in university classes he referred to as “indoctrination cults.” Namely, classes that focused on gender, racial studies, as well as English literature and education. He wants to shut down the sharing of ideas he disagrees with. Even more hypocrisy.
Part of me understands the frustration. There are myriad examples of people being offended far too easily and protesting every little thing. Recently, I saw on Facebook someone post about this song from the 90s they loved, and how they now hate it because they learned it was sung by a white man and started to cry “cultural appropriation.” I’ve interviewed the two-time national chair of the Native American Church about cultural appropriation, and some white guy who sounds not white in his singing isn’t it. And those gangster lyrics? Perhaps if you’d looked the singer up you would have learned he grew up in a public housing project and served time for attempted murder. Legit gangster enough for you? Also, holding a door for a woman is not sexist. Quit being ridiculous. You are not helping.
The far left is not helping because many see them as representative of liberal ideology. A recent article in GQ titled “The Free Speech Grifters” about how free speech is allegedly under attack wrote of aggressive leftist protests against rightwing speakers: “The number of students who resort to these tactics is fairly small … But the number of publications and prominent journalists willing to cover them is quite high.”
Alas, “Vast majority of liberal students don’t protest conservative speaker” doesn’t make for a good headline.
Yeah, the far left is annoying, and occasionally dangerous. But the far right is just plain dangerous. Speaking of far right, what’s interesting is there is a real attack on freedom of speech by the Trump administration and its supporters, but Peterson doesn’t seem to have much to say about that. I do recommend reading the GQ grifters article linked previously. A snippet:
At Trump’s inauguration last year, an anti-capitalist and anti-fascist march called J20 resulted in mass arrests, including of journalists, medics, and legal observers. Originally, 239 people were charged with felony inciting to riot, facing up to 60 years in prison. Houses were raided. The ACLU got involved. And not a peep in an entire year from any of the so-called free-speech warriors. Ditto this past week, when a Wisconsin school administrator was fired for allowing black students to hold a discussion about white privilege in a district that is 90 percent Caucasian.
And yes, the article mentions Peterson as one such grifter. They quote him, saying he’s figured out “how to monetize social justice warriors.” Another important point made in the article seems to define Peterson: “Given the myopic focus on liberals, it would seem that Free Speech Grifters are not actually interested in the free exchange of ideas, per se; they are interested in liberal caricature for clicks, social-media followings, and monetization.” Peterson doesn’t appear to care about real free speech violations, but sure makes a lot of bank off misrepresenting liberal ideas under the guise of battling for free speech.
Peterson’s Unbearable Whiteness
While writing my latest book I searched for powerful quotes from great thinkers to spice it up. I have a copy of The Great Quotations. Guess how many are by NOT white men.
Not too damn many.
And it’s not because people who aren’t white men don’t have anything important to say. Rather, it’s because white men’s voices get heard, respected, and recorded at a far greater rate than other voices. But “Mah freeze peach is bein’ violated!” Sure. Sure it is. Western civilization is one of white men’s voices being heard at the expense of all others.
And yet, Peterson is adamant white privilege = not a thing.
Watch this video where he “debunks” it.
Despite again engaging in slippery slopes about how those who believe in white privilege are “Marxist” and therefore “murderous and genocidal,” he makes some valid points regarding how there are many forms of privilege: intelligence, temperament, geography, attractiveness, wealth, athleticism, family structure, education …
But what he fails to acknowledge is how race and gender can significantly affect some of those things.
When you’re white, you are more likely to be able to have a higher income. In turn, this means you can live in a nicer neighborhood (geography). Regarding attractiveness, you can afford nicer clothes, expensive cosmetics and haircuts, a better diet, gym memberships, and personal trainers. There is also more time to take care of your health, and a higher standard of health care. It can also mean a more stable family structure by being less likely to live in poverty. There is better access to high quality education. And I expect not being far more likely to be harassed or shot by police would be beneficial to one’s temperament. There is also the issue of greater access to mental health services, and the peace of mind that comes with living in lower crime areas and having greater financial stability.
Peterson claims he was “inducted into the coastal Pacific Kwakwaka’wakw tribe.” (Except he wasn’t.) You would think anyone who has spent time on an indigenous reservation would realize there is advantage to being white in North America.
Peterson said there is no data to support white privilege, but that’s easily falsified. There is plenty.
- 33% of white students are in a “low poverty” school, while only 10% of black students are.
- Only 6% of white students are in a “high poverty” school, while 40% of black students are.
- Unemployment is 4.3% for whites and 8.1% for blacks. “At every level of education, whites were twice as likely to have jobs as blacks.”
- The wage gap between black and white men is 23.5%, and 12.6% for black women vs. white women.
- Regarding indigenous in Canada, 60% of children on reservations live in poverty, which is why there is an epidemic of youth suicide.
Another thing worth examining is a practice called “redlining,” where things such as banking, insurance, health care, and other services are systematically denied to people living in non-white neighborhoods.
Also, despite roughly equal usage rates, blacks are almost four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites. There is also massive disparity in violence used by police based on race. Black people are 13% of the U.S. population, yet make up 31% of those killed by police. What’s more, they comprise 39% of people killed by police while not attacking.
Just recently police shot a black man in his own backyard, 20 times, claiming they thought his phone was a gun. And in the same week, we have the Trump White House refusing to call the Austin bomber, a devout, white Christian who attacked people of color, a terrorist.
These two tweets from the New York Times tell more of the story of white privilege:
See the difference about how the paper of record reports the news? One is a white murderer being treated gently, the other a murdered black boy being maligned.
In Peterson’s video on white privilege he questions if certain things are “white privilege or majority privilege?” He states, “you live in your culture, you’re privileged as a member of that culture … that’s what the culture is for … Why would you bother building the damn thing if it didn’t accrue benefits to you?”
Uh, Jordan. I’m pretty sure those Africans stolen from their home continent and forced to become slaves didn’t come to the Americas voluntarily. Regarding “building the damn thing,” slaves played a critical role in the economy, and yet the accrued benefits go much more to the descendants of the slave owners than the slaves. And what about the people who lived here before whites arrived?
And if you split things along gender lines, examine what I wrote in this piece about how much more women are victims of violence and sexual assault than men are. It strikes me as quite the privilege to not have to worry too much about being brutally assaulted or raped (especially by your significant other). But in his video Peterson seems to joke that the female ability to have multiple orgasms evens this out.
Why is Peterson so hung up on white privilege? My guess is he can’t bear the thought he might have had an advantage to achieve his station. He purports an individualistic, you can do it philosophy. And while I’m a big fan of striving for the betterment of one’s self, I won’t do it at the expense of denying the reality of how the playing field is far from level along both racial and gender lines. If you’re a white male, the data is clear you have an advantage in life. But acknowledging that is harmful to Peterson’s seemingly massive ego.
It might also have something to do with that “monetization” mentioned earlier. I am reminded of the infamous words of President Lyndon Johnson: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket.”
Beyond that, when your race/gender comes with great privilege, others gaining some of those privileges can seem like oppression. Imagine you are a child playing with three toys, and another child from a less privileged group has only one toy. Someone comes by and gives that child a second toy. Don’t cry out: “No fair! You can’t give them another toy unless you give me one too!”
Being white doesn’t automatically mean you live a privileged life. But you’re less likely to be marginalized, overall. A friend of mine wrote, “White privilege won’t buy you a car, but it will help prevent you from being pulled over while driving that car.”
Acknowledging white privilege isn’t about punishment and neither is it about feeling guilty. It’s also not about ensuring you start getting pulled over a lot more frequently or arrested / shot more often to even things out. It’s about ensuring others are provided the same basic rights you take for granted. There is an expression, “A rising tide raises all boats.” It’s largely in reference to economic policy but can apply socially as well. If we seek to create more fairness in society by removing barriers to successful living for all, we will all be better off.
Life is not a zero-sum game. For you to win doesn’t mean others must lose.
The Inevitable Backlash
If history is any indication, the diehard Peterson fans will have nothing positive to say about what I’ve written here. I expect not to have swayed Peterson himself, either. He has a lot of money riding on appealing to desperate, fragile white men about how their speech is being suffocated and something about postmodernism and we’re all gonna die cuz Marxism.
While I agree Peterson has some good ideas that I will look at that in my next piece, I’ve been critical in this article. I expect Peterson would consider what I’ve written here unfair trespass. I wonder if Jordan is going to threaten to slap me like he did with Mishra.
In an interview with Camille Paglia, Peterson said, “I know how to stand up to a man who’s unfairly trespassed against me,” alluding to what he considers the importance of an “underlying threat of physicality.” He also said, “If you’re talking to a man who wouldn’t fight with you under any circumstances whatsoever, then you’re talking to someone to whom you have absolutely no respect.”
Jordan Peterson: If it is your wish, I will fight you.
If I have offended you to the point where you are ready to unleash the “absolute monster” you tell people to cultivate in this interview with Joe Rogan, I’m game. I know you said of the monster, “learn to control it,” but you also lauded engaging in competition, win or lose. How about making it a competition?
I propose a charity boxing match.
I should explain: I’m six years younger than you, which I expect gives me a slight advantage. However, I have no martial arts training whatsoever. I’m fit, but don’t know much about fighting at all. On my dominant arm I have a bad shoulder and on the other arm my elbow has tendon issues. The noise it makes during pushups are disgusting.
You seem to be amenable to and even encouraging of violence, so here is your opportunity to release your monster in a controlled manner. If you agree, I’ll be donating the funds I raise to a respected charity for LGBT youth. You can raise money for marginalized white men, or the defrosting of peaches, or whatever.
What say you?
James S. Fell, MBA, writes for the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Women’s Health, Men’s Health, AskMen, the Guardian, TIME Magazine and many other fine publications. His first book was published by Random House Canada in 2014. He is currently working on his next book, which is about life-changing moments.