Controversy and the Emergence of the 100-foot Wave, Part IV

Part IV in a five-part series on Jordan Peterson.

Posted Aug 08, 2018

The initial spark that began to transform Jordan Peterson the professor into Jordan Peterson the phenomenon was a controversy surrounding a Canadian bill called C-16 in the summer of 2016. The essence of the bill was that it added gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited acts of discrimination. What emerged as powerfully controversial was Peterson’s interpretation of what this meant. He argued that, under the new law, everyone would be required to refer to transgendered individuals by their preferred pronouns or face legal and/or criminal charges. This was intolerable to Peterson, and he fiercely objected on the grounds of freedom of thought and speech.

‘If I can’t say what I think, then I don’t get to think, and if I can’t think then I can’t orient myself in the world, and if I can’t do that, then I’m going to fall into a pit and take everyone else with me,’ Peterson said.

Is it really true that, since C-16 passed, folks could be jailed for not conforming to proper pronoun usage? Not exactly, and the vast majority of legal scholars do not share Peterson’s interpretation of C-16. The bar, at least as it currently stands, is hate speech, which is dramatically different (e.g., advocating for the genocidal elimination for a group). As such, Peterson’s claims should be interpreted more as an argument against a slippery slope toward totalitarianism than the law already being there.

But it should be noted that Peterson’s views were highly criticized in his academic community. He received two warning letters from the University of Toronto regarding his behavior. His website was temporarily suspended by YouTube and a graduate student who showed his video debating political issues was reprimanded for creating an “unsafe” environment (although this discipline was later retracted, and the administration apologized for how it handled this issue). In addition, Peterson has faced much intense criticism and unfair labeling, such as being cast as an “alt right,” which is not an accurate description at any level of reality other than the fact that, in his critique of what he labels the “radical left,” he has become a hero to many of that ilk

A second spark of fame came in the summer of 2017 when James Damore, the now (in)famous ex-Google employee who wrote a long memo exploring issue of gender, equity and policy, chose Peterson to be his first primary interview. I had not heard of Peterson at the time, although I have a vague recollection of seeing Peterson interview Damore. I found the Google memo flashpoint a wonderful example of our culture in crisis on these kinds of issues, researched it extensively, and found Damore’s position well within the limits of reason.

The third and culminating spark was a half an hour interview by Cathy Newman that went viral in January 2018, now being viewed over 11 million times. In it, Cathy Newman blatantly reveals one of the most frustrating aspects of unsophisticated postmodern leftist thinking, which is the conflation of knowledge with power. If you conflate knowledge with power, then one’s attention immediately drifts from any claims about knowledge to their power-based implications and treats them as if they were one-in-the-same. So, Peterson claims that there are lots of things that contribute to the gender pay gap (other than gender discrimination). Not liking the implication of that, Newman hears Peterson saying that the pay gap is justified and thus we should not do anything about gender discrimination. Peterson claims that hierarchies are found everywhere in nature and are often (but certainly not always) male dominated. So, Newman hears that Peterson wants hierarchies and believes that males should be dominant over females. And so forth.

As I wrote about in analyzing the Damore memo, given the nature of human beliefs (i.e., they function as systems of justification), there is, indeed, a close and complicated relationship between beliefs about what is and beliefs about what ought to be. The short of it is that claims about what is true result in orienting folks toward claims about what one ought to do. With that point made, it is also the case that the two kinds of justification (descriptive and prescriptive) are very different, and Cathy Newman’s naïve conflation of the two make for an entertaining educational example. Her performance gave Peterson a slow fast ball right down his wheelhouse. All he needed to do was stay calm and clear, and he managed that, and boom, wave was fully charged, and he has exploded on to the scene in 2018.

That final spark was well timed with the release of Peterson’s book, 12 Rules for Living: An Antidote to Chaos, which became an instant best seller. As such, he was situated perfectly to go on a book and lecture tour. Fans and critics have been closely following him and his influence has been growing ever since.

It is important here to understand Peterson’s personal psychology. A very intelligent individual with depressive tendencies, he has struggled his whole life with an existential anxiety that needed direction. His true passion is human meaning making and how it connects to the fundamental, metaphysical structure of the universe. He ultimately sees and intuitively longs for that to be a Christian-type structure. He is no Bible-thumping literalist, but he has found foundational meaning in the Christian narrative and has attempted in his life and work to justify that.

I honestly believe that he is striving to be a good human in the deepest sense of the word. I believe that he experiences his rise to fame as very much a double-edged sword. Consistent with the Christian archetype, Peterson’s identity is that he is attempting to redeem our culture from the grips of an emerging, blind totalitarianism that gets human nature wrong. This is his “calling” and, clearly many people are listening, and I am sure this is very gratifying to him. I also believe he does not want to hurt people, and I don’t think he is genuinely prejudiced against any social category group and worries some about damage he might be doing (although his calling clearly supersedes that). Given his structure, it would follow that he is genuinely wounded by the criticism and is anxious about what all this will mean for him and his family. He has characterized the situation as follows: "I'm surfing a 100-foot wave, and generally what happens when you do that is you drown." In short, he can see himself ultimately broken at the end of all this, asking, “Why hast thou forsaken me?”

Links to the Series:

Part I: On the Concept of Identity

Part II: Identity Politics and Political Polarization

Part III: Jordan Peterson’s Psychology and Philosophy of Life

Part V: What the Peterson Controversy Means for Our Culture

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