Jordan Peterson talks sense, but he’s wrong about two very important things

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Posted May 29 2018 by Dave Darby of
Public intellectual Jordan Peterson

I like Jordan Peterson. He’s provocative, he’s interesting and he’s a formidable opponent in debates and interviews. He doesn’t interrupt, he thinks carefully about people’s points, he doesn’t run away from difficult arguments (or difficult people) and he’s helped a lot of people to rescue their damaged lives.

I think he’s right about identity politics, but I think he’s wrong about hierarchy – at least if we want democracy; and I think he’s dangerously wrong about ecology. He’s not an ecologist, and therefore his rejection of what ecologists are saying can only be based on ideology or vested interest. I don’t believe it’s because of vested interest – that’s too crass – which leaves ideology. But what ideology?

Who is he and what does he get right?

Come on, you must know Jordan Peterson by now. He’s a psychologist, but one with a huge following – mainly on the right, although I know people on the left who are enamoured by him too. He’s most famous, I guess, for his views on postmodernism and identity politics (anti-), and freedom of speech (pro-) – mainly in universities, which might seem a bit niche, until you think that that’s where all our future decision-makers are, right now.

This gives a flavour of where he’s coming from:

At one point, the interviewer mentions gay marriage. Now the interviewer (possibly) and I (definitely) are not against gay marriage – that’s not the point. The point is whether people should be allowed to speak against it. The trend in universities is to shut down debate if viewpoints are outside predetermined ‘politically correct’ boundaries – and those boundaries are being pushed further and further all the time.

We can’t win debates if we’re not allowed to have them, and preventing them will only entrench reactionary views.

Also mentioned in the interview was Voltaire’s quote: ‘I disagree strongly with what you say, but I’ll fight to the death for your right to say it.’ That is really important, but it’s gone out of fashion. In fact ‘free speech’ is becoming a dirty word – equated with racism, homophobia etc.

Universities are places to investigate ideas. It’s important to discuss what you think about those ideas, but it (surely) isn’t important how those ideas make you feel. Your physical safety should be guaranteed, but everything else should be fine in a university. More than fine – the more controversial and the more discomfort the better. That’s how we’re going to expand our understanding.

Peterson believes that egalitarianism and conflict avoidance should not be allowed to trump free speech, and I agree with him. If we lose the ability to articulate opinions, debate is finished – and, although you may be happy if someone you disagree with is silenced, how will you feel when you’re silenced too? It’s a very slippery slope towards book-burning and worse. We should welcome debate, even if we find the people opposing our position reprehensible (Peterson’s favourite word).

However, at the end of the video, the interviewer says that we should be wary of official state ideologies. He mentions communism, fascism, and also ……. climate change. This of course is not an ideology, it’s science, which Peterson apparently supports. Here is the beginning of my problem with JP – more below.

Implications for the left

The left seems to have lost its way when it comes to challenging the excesses of capitalism, and any discussions around system change seem to have been swamped by discussion around identity politics and political correctness. The left has taken its eye off the ball when it comes to the destruction of ecology and democracy due to perpetual growth and wealth concentration respectively.

Possibly the most important principle we can adhere to is that of not assuming evil of people who disagree with us. We should be able to have conversations about race, sexuality, gender etc., and really listen to opposing arguments without trying to label others as bad or stupid. This is perhaps the biggest failing of the left today. Here is an article featuring George Lakoff, who explains the roots of left / right thinking in terms of upringing, rather than intelligence or ethics.

The vitriol spewed against anyone who dares to veer from the official PC line is excessive, and appears absurd or horrific to anyone outside academia. I guess you must have seen this video of Yale students verbally abusing a professor.

It’s where political correctness leads if unchecked – privileged Yale students claiming to be oppressed, screaming abuse and ending academics’ careers if they dare to merely defend someone else’s suggestion that students should maybe not get too upset about halloween costumes.

It incensed most people who saw it, and this kind of behaviour has been, I believe, a contributing factor in Trump’s victory.

However, for JP to say, as he did, that the left hate competence is also absurd. Maybe he hasn’t noticed how China fulfils its five-year plans; or that the Soviets were the first into space. I dislike the idea of living under those regimes as much as he does, but it’s not about competence.

What he gets wrong 1: ecology

Where I strongly disagree with him is about the environment, about nature. He is inconsistent, and his intellectual rigour is abandoned when it comes to ecology.

I haven’t heard him discuss the possibility of near-term human extinction – something I think is quite likely. In this video, he comes closest, but here he also makes it clear that he doesn’t understand the subject.

It’s not about what ‘Malthusians’ say will happen if we don’t control human population growth, it’s about what actually is happening now, due to the size of the human economy (sure, let the population grow to 11 billion – as long as we don’t all expect to have cars or to fly; it’s the economy that’s the problem. The world could support perhaps 20 billion consuming as much as Ugandans, but fewer than two billion consuming as much as Americans).

And ecologists are telling us very clearly what’s happening now. Never mind the large mammals that Peterson thinks we’re going to lose – we’re already losing tens of thousands of species per year – mainly creeply crawlies. These are extremely important when it comes to soil creation and pollination, and they constitute the bottom of the food chain on which all other life depends.

To continue losing species at this rate is suicidal, and it’s irresponsible and juvenile for Peterson to assume that human ingenuity and technology are going to solve this problem. The Romans were ingenious, the Mayans were ingenious, and where are they now? But this time the problem is global, and it’s criminal for an academic not to take it seriously.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. The triple peer-reviewed Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America considers that we’re currently headed for ‘biological annihilation’.

If he’s so fond of science, of rational thought and intellectual rigour, why doesn’t he believe ecologists?

What he gets wrong 2: hierarchy

Now JP really doesn’t have a problem with hierarchies. His first justification is that we’ve always had them – it’s part of the human condition. Does he feel the same way about war, or slavery? Or did he think it was wrong to get rid of smallpox? We’d always had it, after all.

I’d like to make a distinction between democratic and forced hierarchies. In the former, you need to appeal to the people that you will be above in the hierarchy, and ask them to elect you to that position, with the ability to remove you if you don’t satisfy them. Although there are problems with this kind of system, they are dwarfed by the problems caused by a hierarchy that is forced on people by others who have a lot more money than them.

There are various problems with hierarchies based on the ability to make money. JP says that we need a system that rewards hard-working, clever people, because that will reward the rest of us too. But his main, and perhaps his only definition of ‘reward’ is money.

Firstly, what if the hierarchies are so extreme as to prevent democracy? Wealth is so concentrated in the corporate sector that it easily spills into our political system to corrupt it – political donations, jobs for politicians, the lobby industry. Corruption, pure and simple, normalised by the corporate media (including the corporate BBC).

Secondly, what kind of leadership will we get from a money hierarchy? Peterson thinks we should rely on wealthy philanthropists like Bill Gates. But Gates won’t challenge the system that provided him with so much wealth.

The wealthy will get to decide what the important problems are, and what gets funded. Just because someone is rich, it doesn’t mean they’re wise. Wealth is not the best indicator of wisdom – it may indicate a minimum level of cunning intelligence, but it is no indicator at all of compassion or integrity, and often it is an indicator of their absence.

The things that Microsoft has done to deter competition – even free and open source competition – plus the ubiquitous corporate harvesting of data, indicate that Gates doesn’t have the qualities we require in our leaders.

Yes, of course there will always be hierarchies in terms of ability or beauty, and we can appreciate those – in fact it would be impossible to ignore them – but we can still have political (and economic) systems in which no-one gets to tell anyone else what to do arbitrarily.

Paradoxically, JP sees inequality as a problem. It makes society unstable, produces a high murder rate etc. But what does he expect in societies based on money hierarchies? Yes, the best-looking people are going to get more sex, and the most athletic are going to win more medals, but what qualities do you think are required for some people to claim more of the world’s resources than tens of millions of their fellow humans? Intelligence? Sure. Compassion? Integrity? Maybe not.

Why he gets it wrong

He says that he’s neither left nor right, and that his arguments don’t come from ideology, but they seem suspiciously geared towards supporting the status quo; and the status quo is capitalist and corporate – so whatever his stated position, his stance on hierarchy and ecology can only ultimately benefit the corporate sector.

He supports science when it suits him, unless he doesn’t consider ecology a science, which is stupid – and he’s not stupid. So the only other explanation that I can see is that he ignores ecologists for ideological reasons.

He’s not an ecologist – so of course he shouldn’t be consulted on ecology (and yet his huge fanbase does just that). We should listen to ecologists about ecology, in the same way that we should listen to psychologists about psychology, and dentists about dentistry.

He believes that most people accept carbon-based, anthropogenic climate change because of an anti-capitalist stance, rather than an understanding of science and peer-review. He says that there is evidence that global warming isn’t real, but fails to mention that the only people saying that are saying it for ideological reasons.

Isn’t the logical position, really, that the people who are denying the science are the ones choosing their beliefs because of ideology rather than peer-reviewed research?

He said that we’ll sort out ecological problems as long as more and more people start to act responsibly. But that’s not the direction we’re moving in, and within a constantly-growing economy, individual actions will only make a superficial difference.

He seems happy to risk damage to his reputation by pronouncing on topics that he doesn’t know much about. But then again, when your reputation is built via a huge YouTube fanbase, it’s much less of a risk. Those fans found him and stuck with him not because of a love of truth – but because of ideology. That ideology is based on a hatred of identity politics, but because of his views on hierarchy and ecology, it will be enough to sway his loyal fans, and will shore up support for the status quo, and therefore for the corporate sector.

The fanatacism of a lot of his followers suggests that very few of them will, like me, support his position on identity politics or postmodernism but reject his position on hierarchy and ecology. And that, for me, means that overall, his effect will be negative.

JP is not a fan of centralised, state control – and neither am I. But that doesn’t mean that we need to support the status quo, and it certainly doesn’t mean that we have to ignore the science when it comes to environmental damage.

Socialist governments don’t have a good record on ecology or hierarchy either, but there is more than one way to change the status quo. Building the non-corporate / solidarity economy, with a mutual credit exhange system is the answer, not state socialism.

Implications for all of us

JP is slandering ecologists, for no good reason. If he’s as logical as he likes to think he is, he would recognise the enormity of the coming ecological collapse.

It’s a huge mistake to allow ideology to trump rationality – and that’s exactly what he seems to be doing. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, because he’s so entertaining, and I agree with him about so much. But to support rationality and science, and to oppose inequality, apart from when it threatens the status quo, smacks of pro-corporate ideology.

‘We don’t know how to make societies more equal’, says JP. Yes we do – we make their component parts more equal. Societies built on sutainable, democratic institutions and businesses can’t help but be sustainable and democratic.

He says that attempting to achieve equality might mean moving wealth from the competent to the incompetent – but that doesn’t hold true for the non-corporate economy. Very competent people indeed are building co-operative, mutualist, community-owned/supported businesses, often in very difficult circumstances. Competence and a desire to gain huge personal wealth are very, very different things.