Sunday, May 13, 2018

On Peterson, Political Correctness, and Postmodernism

Peterson was on Bill Maher last month. They're both people that have some clever ideas, but also promote a few questionable notions in a way that's slick enough to just get a pass from some intelligent people instead of necessarily getting the scrutiny deserved. Here's an innocuous and pleasant exchange between mutual fans:


In the video Maher defined political correctness as, "the elevation of sensitivity over truth," and lamented the "emotional hemophiliacs" who will bleed at the littlest thing, but instead of avoiding sharp objects, they make the world cover everything in bubble wrap. Peterson went one step further: "It's more like the elevation of moral posturing of sensitivity over truth." He explained a bit about resilience: "Security doesn't come from making the world safe, because that's not possible. You make people resilient by exposing people to things that make them uncomfortable . . . over-coddling leads to stupid and narcissistic people."

I completely agree with this part of Peterson's position. For resilience to develop, we need a bit of adversity (see studies here). We need to live lives open to debate and questioning in order to learn anything about the world and about ourselves. Absolutely. And, like J.S. Mill said ages ago, the importance of free speech is to offer the opportunity to clearly denounce disagreeable ideas rationally rather than allow them to fester:
"The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error."
I want comedians to speak freely at universities at the risk of offending a few - or even many. Comedians tell truths that sometimes need to be acknowledged in order to be adequately addressed. We need to be tough enough to hear and counter the disrespectful things people are bound to say from time to time. And we should not be afraid to speak in case someone in the room is offended by a view we hold. That's different, I should point out, from being courteous of our audience. I don't swear in class because it's uncomfortable for some students, and they have a right to get an education without hearing that language. But I expect to hear some bad words in a comedy club. And I do show some nasty images of genocide in my classroom, sometimes warning the more sensitive to look at their desks for the duration (but sometimes forgetting and then hearing about it later from disgruntled parents). We can't change history if we can't acknowledge it, so sometimes it's important to actually look at things we find frightening.

BUT, it's not useful to anyone to invite or support speeches by neo-Nazis or white nationalists or whatever they call themselves. I'm not saying they should be silenced. There are many forums that people with harmful views can speak freely. Where I draw the line is that they shouldn't be invited to speak in a format that isn't clearly designed to challenge and obliterate their arguments. It is to nobody's benefit to propagate hateful untruths about groups of people, like, for example, delineating the problems with having visible minorities in the legislature.

Freedom to speak isn't the same as freedom to speak without consequence, nor does it imply freedom to have your views promoted under the guise of education.


The other concern I have with Peterson, though, is in his explanation of why we're all so fragile now:
"I think that you can blame it on the universities. They pursued a radical leftist policy with an overlay of postmodernism."


Peterson seems to have gotten his understanding of postmodernism from Stephen Hicks, who has been criticized for his readings of philosophy not being "appreciably nuanced," and, instead, being read "uncharitably," a term used in philosophy typically to indicate that a criticism was developed from a misreading of the text. Another reviewer suggested the premises of some of Hicks' arguments are, "not only disputable but altogether mistaken." Hicks is a follower of Objectivism, Rand's philosophy that is widely debunked by too many to mention. Peterson runs into problems because he's taking short-cuts in his understanding of some ideas that are pivotal to his thesis by simplifying an already poorly simplified understanding of a concept, but what he's doing is all the more dangerous because, as a professor, he has a following of students uncritically absorbing his every word even when he speaks outside of his own discipline.

Paul Thagard, a philosophy professor, has taken Peterson to task for his scant understanding of Heidegger and Kierkegaard, suggesting that he name drops with questionable context rather than clearly articulating their ideas:
"Peterson seems to assume that the only alternatives to religious morality are totalitarian atrocities or despondent nihilism. But secular ethics has flourished since the eighteenth century, with competing approaches such as David Hume’s appreciation of sympathy, Immanuel Kant’s emphasis on rights and duties, and Jeremy Bentham’s recommendation to promote the greatest good for the greatest number of people. . . . Peterson’s allusive style makes critiquing him like trying to nail jelly to a cloud, but I have tried to indicate alternatives to his assumptions about morality, individualism, reality, and the meaning of life. If you go for Christian mythology, narrow-minded individualism, obscure metaphysics, and existentialist angst, then Jordan Peterson is the philosopher for you. But if you prefer evidence and reason, look elsewhere."
Kenneth Houston also wrote an excellent piece on Peterson's misinterpretation, specifically, of postmodernism:
"It is argued that postmodernism is anti-science, anti-fact, anti-reality, culturally relativist, value relativist, etc. There are two problems with these accusations. First, the charges are based on superficial and studiously unfair interpretations of postmodern scholarship and select quotes from particular writers most directly associated with this intellectual trend of the late 1960s. Peterson himself asserts that postmodernists contend that there are “an infinite number of interpretations” and none of these can be canonical. He’s just wrong. That is not a core contention of postmodern thought. The thinkers loosely categorized as “postmodern” undertook critical attacks on dominant interpretations of social reality and the perceived inevitability and naturalness of the hierarchies that emerge from these. 
Second, these criticisms are applied across the board, without any nuance or discriminating caveats with respect to particular thinkers and little attempt to delineate where these thinkers disagree with one another, which they frequently did. 'Postmodernism' as a concept is a bit like 'The Enlightenment.' It’s a term applied retrospectively (and simplistically) to an unconsciously evolving trend, as opposed to a conscious project. It’s not like Foucault et al sat around a French café and plotted the destruction of Western Civilization through philosophical contortions. Most of the thinkers lumped together into this category would probably not be comfortable with the term. This is to say nothing of the significant differences between them."
Houston explains further that rational, scientific thinking doesn't always lead to a better world as we can see with nuclear arms, eugenics, etc. And education in STEM fields doesn't necessarily make people less violent or prejudicial. Postmodernism isn't the cause of identity politics, and it's also not generally Marxist in orientation. Houston continues,
"Let’s drop the pretense that postmodernism is a reason for our current topsy turvy political landscape. Postmodern philosophy is not the reason for the inexplicable migration of seemingly normal members of society to join a death cult in the Middle East with a penchant for brutal violence. Let’s park the bewildering upsets of Trump, Farage, Brexit and the Italian Five Star movement. And beyond the west there is Duterte. Or Modi. Beyond the mere convenient appropriation of tropes and fragments of postmodernist writing by arguably the most privileged demographic on the planet, western college educated twenty-somethings, there is no clear evidence of a causal link between postmodern thought and the current configuration of socio-political polarities or the anti-intellectualism at their roots. 
Peterson has made the assertion that the writings of obscure European social theorists bear primary responsibility for authoritarian identity politics and cultural or value relativism. He’s wrong. Identity politics is not the logical outcome of postmodern thinking, because postmodern thinking precludes the very certainty exhibited by the cultural chauvinists of identity politics (whether of the radical left or the nativist right). Remember, the recent emergence of European and American nativist politics exemplifies a form of identity politics too. A good postmodern thinker would have a field day deconstructing the certainties and preconceptions of UKIP, Marine le Pen, Orban or Trump’s America First followers. . . . 
If we stand any chance of undermining the cultural chauvinism of “groupism” our best hope lies not in marginalizing postmodern thinking, but in promoting it properly as a critical strategy. . . . Postmodernism is to remind us that using common sense as a guide when, in many cases, what was once agreed upon as a good, is now seen as horrific (slavery, incarcerating homosexuals, etc.). . . . Postmodernism, as a mindset, as an attitude, as a strategy, is about holding our common-sense notions up to the light and checking for cracks, prising those fissures open and upsetting our certainties and our perceived inevitabilities. . . . Postmodernism is the oil to the water of common sense. It is difficult and infuriating precisely because it is counter-intuitive, unnatural and radical. . . . 
Shuja Haider provides further lineage to attempt to understand how Peterson so muddled postmodernism and most of the thinkers he names, and Haider also demonstrates a clearer understanding of the theories of Derrida and Foucault. "Peterson's fantasy of neo-Marxist wolves in postmodern sheep's clothing has little bearing on actual debates in 20th-century political theory."


However, Houston believes, like Peterson, that SJWs are bent on destroying the west:
"the more ludicrous fringe of the Social Justice Warrior set continue to make fools of themselves on university campuses and debate halls (if debates are even permitted to occur by the self-appointed gatekeepers of “correct” thinking. . . . What Peterson is right to criticize is a strand of leftism that Steven Pinker referred to as the “left pole.” This is a brand of radical leftism that will happily celebrate the demise of what they see as the patriarchal, irredeemably xenophobic and imperialist Occident from which no good ever came. They will frequently contrast that caricature with another; that of the pristine, authentic and sacred orient."
The term Social Justice Warrior used to be a compliment denoting activists working hard to further the wellbeing of minority groups. It was first used pejoratively with popularity during Gamergate, when a few vocal men used it to dismiss the issues raised by women who play or make online games. The women involved, mainly Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian, didn't want to stop men from playing games; they just wanted to point out the sexism inherent to some of the games, play their own games, and bring more women into a largely male arena, but that was enough to be issued death threats.

Peterson (and many others now) uses the term with contempt to refer to anybody who raises concerns with potential discrimination against marginalized groups. I'm in total agreement, like Houston, that some people have taken it to extremes. I agree with Maher and Peterson that "some people look for discrimination everywhere." But with the use of the term SJW as an insult, it make it all too easy to insult any intense activism around social justice, the arena where activism is most needed. Because this particular term is used in this particular way, and is now symbolically loaded, people can slip it in to debase rational argument about very real and vital problems with impaired justice in our society. It knocks the feet out from under important issues that should be heard.

John Gray also acknowledges Peterson's concerns but uses my preferred terminology:
"Hyper-liberal 'snowflakes', who demand safe spaces where they cannot be troubled by disturbing facts and ideas, are what their elders have made them. Possessed by faith in an imaginary humanity, both seek to weaken or destroy the national and religious traditions that have supported freedom and toleration in the past. Insignificant in itself and often comically absurd, the current spate of campus frenzies may come to be remembered for the part it played in the undoing of what is still described as the liberal West."
I know what they mean, and I agree that "snowflakes" are a problem being faced in classrooms everywhere. It's not new at all, but it's definitely more prevalent. I've given alternative units of study for students that weren't allowed to read Dracula or to know about Greek mythology when I first started teaching almost thirty years ago. I thought then, as I do now, that it's a shame that parents are allowed to prevent their children from getting a complete education. Nothing should stop discussions in a classroom from venturing into difficult topics, like genocide. From this standpoint, I'm opposed to the idea of SJWs, yet I also embrace the term.

We have to be very careful where we draw the line between people refusing to acknowledge the harsh realities of the world, and complaints about profound injustices. People are jerks, but we're better able to develop resilience if we accept that fact and address each case, than if we attempt to prevent all evils in the world by silencing any potentially offensive or uncomfortable ideas. Furthermore, when there is an issue to be discussed, we need to know, in our civil society, that people with very little power or authority can still have a voice. It merely further maintains the dominant power structure when any mention of oppression is cut off at the pass with a condescending tone and use of dismissive language. Houston acknowledges this concern as well,
"Peterson likes certainty and hierarchy. And that’s fine when you’re in a privileged place in society. However, for others change cannot come soon enough. Claims of universality and timeless human essences should be viewed with suspicion because they entrench the status quo. . . . To go down the Jordan Peterson route of ill-informed confirmation bias with regard to the caricatured bogeyman of “postmodernism” is to perpetuate the distraction that continues to serve the interests of what C Wright Mills called the 'power elite.'"


Unfortunately (for him) Peterson also has some detractors in his own discipline. Peterson's ideas about Jung are questioned at length by a few notable Jungians. Andrew Samuels has some concerns with Peterson's understanding of archetypes:
"So you've got a funny mixture of archetypal theory used in a very specific biological way to justify an approach to gender that is, in the jargon, hard-wired. . . . What we have in Peterson is a kind of literal reading of Jung that anything to do with masculine means men and anything to do with feminine means women. Now who does this set of arguments from Peterson benefit? . . . Who gets something out of a view that in essence men and women are the way they are in society because they couldn't possibly be any other way? . . . Men. Especially men who feel they are being dispossessed, pushed to the margins, disregarded, tricked by the forces of feminism and political correctness so that they have lost their place in culture." 
Samuels clarifies that men are beginning to feel threatened in society. After centuries of being at the top of the food chain, policies are in place preventing white males from choosing like over difference in all aspects of power, as they have been able to do for centuries, and many of them are now feeling the brunt of equity. And Peterson's followers are not resigned to their comeuppance:
"People who refer back to myth as foundational . . . are tending to the deeply traditional. They are cultural conservatives. This means in the most extreme form, fascist movements use mythological tropes and symbols to promote their views of the world. Once again, young, frustrated, disposed, economically marginalized males like this a lot."
Richard Poplak comes to the same conclusion in his scathing take-down of Peterson's book as "self-help for assholes." He calls it,
a book that seeks to make accessible to a general audience a mélange of mysticism, philosophy, psychology and dietary recommendations, assembled into a package so intellectually low-cal that it would be hilarious were it not basically a to-do list for a generation of tiki torch-wielding neo-Klansmen. . . . And it’s dangerous. The obsession with archetypal masculinity, and ancient (inherently conservative) social structures, is perhaps the most unwelcome feature of the new right: it quickly takes on the contours of a death cult. . . . He and his acolytes tend to characterise empathy, both in the social and political realms, as a form of moral relativism. . . perhaps the most risible aspect of Peterson’s outlook is that social relations can’t be governed by kindness, nor can they be tweaked for fairness."
It's hard to go through such a dramatic shift towards equity when your group used to reign supreme and unquestioned. As the adage goes, when you're accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.

Mark Vernon explains, at length, why Jung would not approve of Peterson:
Peterson, who talks a lot about Jung, understands the fearful tragedy of the death of God over which Nietzsche quaked. But he is hesitant when it comes to his own convictions, preferring Darwinian explanations so far as I can tell, and they usually boil down to, “it’s our biology, innit”.
Lobster, much? A UCLA academic pointed out the reductive tendencies in Peterson's essentialism and completely debunks his appeal to crustaceans, and Thagard also takes on this one:
"A major part of Peterson’s defense of the individual is an argument that inequality and dominance hierarchies are rooted in biological differences, from lobsters up to human men and women. But humans have much bigger brains than lobsters, with 86 billion neurons rather than 100 thousand. In recent centuries, people have been able to recognize that human rights apply across all people, not just to one’s own self, family, race, sex, or nation." 
But Vernon hits at a different issues while reminding us of Jung's words: “So much is at stake and so much depends on the psychological constitution of modern man. Is he capable of resisting the temptation to use his power for the purpose of staging a world conflagration? Is he conscious of the path he is treading?” Can Peterson resist the temptation?


David Livingstone Smith and John Kaag take a stab at this one, and they caution, as Samuels previously implied, that Peterson may lead us into authoritarianism:
"The psychologist’s mass appeal hinges on his ability to speak to what one might call the spiritual crisis of masculinity in the West: the deep sense of uselessness and emasculation that an increasing number of men claim to feel due to globalization, technological change, and civil rights gains by feminists and various ethnic minorities. . . . At the core of Peterson’s social program is the idea that the onslaught of femininity must be resisted. Men need to get tough and dominant. And, in Peterson’s mind, women want this, too. . . . But though he decries the ideology of victimhood, Peterson is apt to literally weep when talking about the plight of young men in contemporary Western culture. He describes them as objects of a vast postmodernist conspiracy, cast adrift in a world in which they are denigrated as embodiments of an evil, oppressive, patriarchal order by pathological, man-hating harpies. 
Peterson’s tears reveal the sleight of hand involved in the self-help framework of his work. By insisting his listeners are in need of guidance, Peterson sets himself up to make claims on what social theorists call “charismatic authority.” Max Weber, who introduced the concept around 1920, defined it as a “certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is considered extraordinary and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers.” Charismatic leaders like Peterson promote themselves as visionary heroes, lone voices crying out in the wilderness. Unencumbered by self-doubt or self-criticism and impatient with intellectual caution, their rhetoric is grand, sweeping, and apocalyptic. This is the style in which Peterson both addresses and feeds the insecurities of men who see their traditional identities slipping away and are resentful of the prospect of being displaced by members of marginalized and subordinated groups. . . . 
He condemns the (feminine, postmodern) culture of “victimhood” while encouraging young men to see themselves as victims. And he shows contempt for the so-called academic echo chamber while reveling in the ways his devoted fans on Twitter and other online forums echo his own rhetoric. But charismatic leadership has never been about logical consistency or even rational coherence. Charismatic leaders serve a function in times of rapid social change, when long-standing social identities are threatened. They advertise a glorious future in which the group they minister to will take its rightful place and their enemies will be vanquished. In return for these promises, charismatic leaders elicit worshipful, even delusional, devotion in their followers. . . . 
There is, of course, an intimate connection between charismatic leadership and political authoritarianism. . . . After hearing Adolf Hitler speak, Money-Kyrle concluded that charismatic authoritarian leaders first elicit depression and despair in their audience, then paranoid terror of a deadly enemy, before finally offering salvation though a redemptive order that abjures reasoned discourse. Money-Kyrle thought that our anxieties make us vulnerable to this sort of rhetoric."
They close with Nietzsche's words: “'Forget not this night and this ass-festival, ye higher men!' It is a reminder that a hero’s journey can too easily inspire blind hero worship."


This just scratches the surface of the fallacies Peterson makes. He suggests, for instance, that all healthy women want men like the type he's crafting, which is a petitio principii argument that might lead the uninitiated thinker to believe that any woman who doesn't like this version of masculinity then mustn't be healthy. He uses weak scholarship, highly criticized by professionals in the field, blindly followed oversimplified ideas, and makes many academics nutty when he perpetuates misunderstood ideas. And he makes some young men excited for the dawn of the new new age where they can reign supreme once again without all this social justice interfering in their freedoms. Change is hard, and we will fight especially hard to prevent loss of territory so valiantly occupied despite how salaciously it was initially acquired.

This is all a good lesson in reading and listening carefully and critically even when, or especially when, we want the ideas to be true and accurate. People want a leader to follow rather than to think for themselves. The masses want to be told what to do, and some of the things he's telling them is spot on, but some really isn't.

Parts of his message are very useful to provoke people towards right action: take responsibility for yourself, and let others suffer the consequences of their mistakes to enable them to develop, but those are largely self-evident, and it is a problem that we seem to have forgotten some useful caveats in life.

Peterson's only slightly off the mark on why there are so many more snowflakes in society, and he would do well to stop calling the shift in culture a problem with postmodernism or Marxism. Because of a wide variety of changes in our culture, our focus is the individual at the expense of the community, and we're hitting the wall on that idea. It is time to grow up, for sure, but let's do it with a bit more care.

ETA: And then there's this New York Times article wherein he argues that we need a distribution of wives to prevent the incel movement, and this LA Review of Books analysis of his gender essentialism that shows that women in mythology did not represent all this chaotic.

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