Jordan Peterson talks some sense, but he’s wrong about two very important things
Jordan Peterson is provocative, interesting and 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.
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1spacemao May 29th, 2018
Great read – just one point – The left hasnt lost it’s way at all. You are talking about liberals here – people who incritically accept capitalism and treat private property rights as sacred, who believe that by correcting language we will correct power relations.
Actual people on the left, anarchists and marxists in particular – whom can be identified as being on the left because they are against private property and capitalism, don’t waste time with ‘call out’ culture. These people are engaged with organising on the ground. I don’t think you can say that the left has lost it’s way when the UK has a resurgence of socialism through Jeremy Corbyn and the states has a resurgence of communistic organising against trump – the civil rights and women’s rights campaign have re-awoken from their slumber as the liberal notion of inevitable progress has been destroyed by the election of a reactionary government.
Elsewhere in the world the left is extremely exciting – Rojava and the Naxalites for example, and the mass protests in china, the election of communists in Iraq and the middle east – the size of the protests in the west are their largest since the 1930s, and the exploited in the rest of the world are increasingly in revolt.
I think a confusion, and possibly fatal error, is made by considering liberals to be ‘on the left.’ They are not, they never have been, from the day the SDP shot Rosa Luxemberg we have known that liberals violently oppose actual left wing organising against the established economic system, from which all our ecological woes and gender inequalites extend – yes, gender is a class issue. https://maosoleum.wordpress.com/2015/03/08/what-is-proletarian-feminism/comment-page-1/ Liberals are deeply embedded in the notion of indivdiual freedom, but it is inevitable that individual freedom must have a boundary where it harms others, and when the individual freedom of the rich must be curtailed to grant freedom to the rest of us, liberals inevitably defend their class interests like everyone else.
Has liberalism lost it’s way? Well, it’s actually more viotrilic than ever, it has as strong an argument now as it had in the turn of the century when wealth inequality was as extreme as it is today. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-42745853 it has not lost it’s way as much as it has lost state power. And with it, Liberals worldwide are baffled why the exploited masses below them are voting in reactionary governments who say what they want to hear, and why the deified bourgeoisie above them are funding reactionary parties in order to increase profits in—what is now—the longest crisis of capitalism in history. They have been cut loose, just as the liberal left was cut loose in europe in the 1930s.
All this shows us is the limitations of liberalism, that liberalism, as much as it pertains to indivdiual freedom (and we have made gains through it – no doubt) actually only pertains to the freedom of wealth, not the freedom of the individual. Liberalism, as an indivdiualistic philosophy, is incapable of organising outside of fleeting affinities of self interest, and crumbles when profits are harmed. This is why the exploited always turn to marxism, a non-individualistic philophy in which power comes from collective organisation. This is shown true in their experience and in reality. Post modernism, also an individualistic philosophy in which classes and gender are said not to exist – is dead, for the same reason, and largely ignored by those in the frontiers of capitalism who are working the hardest to fight for their freedom. Liberalism and post modernism are western luxuries, their emancipatory qualities are a dellusion.
2Dave Darby May 30th, 2018
Hi – I was talking more about what is seen as left by the general public, rather than an academic definition of left, but yes, I agree that it’s liberalism. I’m pretty sure those abusive Yale students would describe themselves as left though. But yes, I guess soon they’ll be in positions of influence, and still describe themselves as left, but supportive of a status quo that rewards them materially.
‘who believe that by correcting language we will correct power relations’ – exactly.
You know that I’m against centralisation of power. History shows that it’s always seized by exactly the people who should never have it. And that’s leaving aside the difficulties of taking power from capitalists in the traditional Marxist (or rather, Leninist) way. Marxism and anarchism aren’t even in the Overton Window nowadays – when, as you say, liberals, or even Tories, like Blair or Clinton, are called ‘left’.
Unfortunately, I see a slide towards authoritarian capitalism – Trump, Putin, Turkey, China – I can only see that getting worse.
btw you know that the PKK (and hence Rojava) and the Zapatistas switched from Marxism to anarchism? A good move, imho. I see anarchism as either transcending the left-right framework (as both left and right tend towards the totalitarian), or where left and right meet if they go far enough – why reject state power, but go to work every day to be told what to do by a boss? (and if you don’t have the ability to get rewarded for other people’s work, you don’t get to be rich in the first place.)
3Dani Austin July 3rd, 2018
I heard him once say that there is something wrong with women who don’t want children. Not people who don’t want children, women who don’t want children.
4Dave Darby July 3rd, 2018
Yes, the more he talks, the more absurd things he manages to slip in. That’s one of them. Unfortunately, the quality of the arguments against his positions haven’t been good (cf the famous Cathy Newman debate). Still agree with him on free speech though.
5Panche October 13th, 2018
Hey, i think you are missing something on him talking about hierarchies. I have probably listened to more than 100 hours of JP’s lectures an haven’t really come across one where he claims money to be critical for hierarchies. If you have a specific link on it, i am curious to listen to it.
What i understand is that in essence hierarchies are based on competence. However, as any structure, with time it can become rigid and corrupt. This might cause for incompetent people to be ahead in the hierarchy. He claims that he is not a fan of this. This leads to dispossession of people and tyranny. That’s why he says that constant change and revival of the structure is needed.
This is where the left comes in place to support and make sure that all dispossessed find their place. So you are right in saying that hierarchies can be forceful, and i think that is not in contrast to what JP is arguing. He merely states that hierarchies are inevitable, but it’s up to us to determine how fair will those be for all. And to negotiate all hierarchies we need free speech.
6Dave Darby October 16th, 2018
Panche – I’m not saying that JP claims that money is critical for hierarchies. I’m claiming that. Politicians don’t listen to the corporate sector because of competence, but because of wealth – that overflows into the political system in the form of political donations and jobs for politicians, as well as a lobby industry that employs 15 highly-paid lobbyists for each national politician in wealthy countries.
There is of course competence involved in becoming super-wealthy, but it’s a cunning, ruthless competence, and that wealth can be inherited by offspring with no competence at all.
Temporary hierarchies topped with intelligent, compassionate, honest people would be a good thing – but capitalism blocks that kind of hierarchy.
As I said, I agree with his position on free speech, but for an academic, his lack of understanding of the research on, and implications of climate change and biodiversity loss is unimpressive.
7Dave Darby November 16th, 2018
Since writing this article, I’ve started to trust JP’s thinking even less. He says that postmodernism was an outgrowth of Marxism – an alternative approach to bring in socialist ideas, because Marxism had failed – which I found problematic. Marxists have no time for postmodernists. They’re materialist and science-based. Then I came across this video – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EHtvTGaPzF4, which delves into the sources of Stephen Hicks, one of Peterson’s heroes. It explains where he gets his ideas from. From my own reading of philosophy, I can see that he’s spectacularly wrong. He starts with right-wing ideology, then makes up a story to support it. Peterson is a psychologist, who, when he talks about political philosophy, is not just wrong, he’s second-hand wrong. Since the article, he’s also said more about global warming. He doesn’t understand the implications of climate change (and why should he – he’s a psychologist), but he also doesn’t understand that it even exists.
He says he’s not right-wing, but he is. It’s his starting point, and he bends facts to suit it. He’s a climate change denier, and that alone should damage his credibility.
I still agree with some of the things he says about free speech, and that the law shouldn’t be used to prevent people from saying anything that is not advocating violence, but for many on both the left and right, that’s sefl-evident. Let him say what he likes about transgender people, for example, although most of it is just spiteful. Transgender people can often find life difficult enough. Why make it more difficult? I keep hearing that he ‘has a point’. Well he does have some points, when it comes to psychology and the obvious, but they’re overshadowed by a lot of nonsense around political philosophy and climate science. I think we should call time on him.
I guess that Hicks and Peterson bank on gaining more followers to their ideology than they lose when they mangle political philosophy – they assume that their readers will post supportive youtube videos rather than check sources. That approach is rational, if your aim is recruitment to an ideology, rather than accuracy, or maybe honesty.