What the Peterson Controversy Means for Our Culture, Part V

The fifth and final post in a series on Jordan Peterson.

Posted Aug 08, 2018

“So, is he for trans people or against trans people?” my son asked, hoping that the answer would be for, but worried it might be against. We were on our way to the gym and I was narrating the Jordan Peterson phenomena to him.

At 17, Jon is about to enter his senior year in high school. He is a conscientious, straight-A student, and a kid who dislikes conflict and exemplifies the “do no harm” ethic of his cohort: He would much rather hang out, talk sports, and play Fortnite than get into heated discussions about controversial topics. But given who I am, I periodically drag him in to my philosophical world, as I strongly believe he will need and want to be a serious participant in cultural dialogues as he grows. As such, I want him to have an inkling about what is happening in the larger world.

“For Peterson,” I reply, “I believe it is about free speech and the nature of ideas rather than any desire to discriminate against trans-people or anyone else. Of course, that does not mean he is right or that he has not hurt some people.”

With that justification, Peterson passed Jon’s minimum intuitive liberal social test, and thus enters into the realm of the potentially reasonable. In his response, Jon reveals what Peterson talks about when he claims that history has revealed the limits of the (social conservative/authoritarian) right: Explicit discrimination of social groups or of individuals based on group membership is now outside the sphere of acceptable justification. Individuals who are explicitly racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, and so on are (or should be) defined outside of the sphere of reasonable people of goodwill and should be distanced and seen as deviant. Of course, there are, numerically speaking, many folks out there who are explicitly racist, sexist, and homophobic. And since the emergence of Donald Trump, exemplified in his Charlottesville “both sides” comments, a “grey” has emerged out what had been a clear dividing line, and there has been a resurgence of explicit, extreme right wingers. But they remain very much on the fringe and in a minority.

I am thankful for Jordan Peterson entering the cultural consciousness because he and the reaction to him provide a very useful way to understand the cultural-identity political split that we find ourselves in. Why? Because the reason for the 100-foot wave is our cultural identity political polarization.

If you will allow the analogy, I believe we should consider Jordan Peterson a (somewhat sensitive) canary in the academic coal mine. By that I mean that there are clear indications that the progressive/postmodern academic left has taken identity political issues to irrational extremes. A number of examples of this extremism can be found in the reaction to Peterson. For example, college professor Wendy Lynne Lee called Peterson a “white nationalist incel misogynist.” Last month, a note issued by Durham Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson and the city council accused him of espousing “racist, misogynistic and transphobic views.”

Obviously, from my vantage point, these responses are completely out of bounds. In sharing them, we need to quickly note the magnitude of Peterson’s fame and the fact that they represent a small minority who have these views. But, even with that qualification, they do show that Peterson’s sensitivity to a totalitarian progressive left was at least somewhat justified.

At the same time, it is absolutely the case that Peterson has vigorous supporters in the alt right, and his message energizes people who have views that are racist, sexist, and homophobic. Thus, Peterson is not immune from the criticism that he provides “cover” and is associated with individuals on the fringe. This is, indeed, a problem. But energizing folks on the fringe is radically different than being in that fringe.

The bottom line of my analysis is that if our society were healthy, Peterson would be “boring.” I mean no offense to Peterson, and I am not referring to his primary intellectual work. Rather, I simply mean he would be a normal college professor and clinical psychologist, with Jungian Christian archetypal leanings. A bit of a throwback to the olden days, perhaps, but with appropriate modern sensibilities about the explicit sexism and racism and homophobia of those times.

The reason he is not boring is because our culture is going through an identity crisis. Our polarized ideologies result in us acting as if the world were made up of dichotomies. Is Peterson a good guy or a bad guy? Is he fighting the needed fight against leftist extremism or is he giving cover to alt right folks and thus driving us backward? If you are on the red team, believe x and the blue team, believe y. This is not a healthy identity.

A healthy identity is one that sees dialectical tensions between extremes. A healthy identity has a clear, value-based narrative regarding past, present, and future. A healthy identity, at the cultural level has clarified problematic extremes and built a strong, stable system that fosters both liberty and equality via a dialectic of competing and necessary values. My hope is that in the wake of the Jordan Peterson wave, our culture will be in a place to have much more sophisticated and mature conversations about psychology, sociology, and our individual and collective identities.

Links to the Series: