Is Political Correctness Really Bringing America Down?

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Donald Trump believes America doesn’t have time for political correctness. On that assumption, however, Trump and those who think like him are very incorrect. (Photo Credit: Getty Images News/Scott Olson)

In my last post, I wrote about Jordan Peterson and how I believe, alongside others, that his rhetoric about the excesses of the left can be dangerous in the wrong hands. Naturally, my thoughts were summarily dismissed, my credibility was challenged, and I was told by numerous individuals, presumably Peterson’s supporters, that my references and I completely misunderstood Peterson and his theories, and that I needed to watch one of his lectures in its entirety or read one of his books—that is, hear it straight from the proverbial horse’s mouth—to fully comprehend what he’s talking about. In other words, it’s not Peterson’s fault he’s so misunderstood—it’s the fault of the liberal media who bashes his beliefs and me for being such a leftist dum-dum.

Leftist dum-dum as I may be, I do thank those who pointed me to the Munk Debates, a forum billed by the organization itself as “the world’s preeminent public debating forum.” The most recent debate, held back in May, involved the aforementioned Mr. Peterson; academic, author, preacher, and radio host Michael Eric Dyson; actor, comedian, presenter, and writer Stephen Fry; and author and blogger Michelle Goldberg. The theme was Political Correctness, under the tagline, “Be it resolved, what you call political correctness, I call progress.” Dyson and Goldberg represented the Pro side of the debate. Fry and Peterson comprised the Con half.

The merits of this particular debate can be questioned; Lord knows they have been, from my cursory reading of various reactions to the two-hour-long event. A common charge from reviewers was that, for a forum about political correctness, political correctness wasn’t discussed all that much, a sentiment that Fry, one of the participants, expressed during the actual proceedings.

The discourse wasn’t entirely civil, either. During a particularly heated exchange on the subject of white privilege, Jordan Peterson displayed a sense of irritation, challenging his confrères on the opposite side of the debate to quantify as to what percentage he has benefited from his white privilege, and to ask how he should recompense others for this advantage. Michael Eric Dyson countered by suggesting that white privilege is not something quantifiable, and pivoted to questioning Peterson on his tone: “Why you mad, bruh?” Or, to paraphrase Dyson in his subsequent comments, for all your success as an author and public intellectual, why are you so intent to play the part of the “mean mad white man”?

Unfortunately, comments like Dyson’s—valid or otherwise—have sort of overshadowed the larger conversation about political correctness as the night’s central point. Arguments about whether or not political correctness was adequately addressed also seem to be blown out of proportion. As Michelle Goldberg contended, part of the problem about talking about “political correctness” is how it’s defined and used. That is, political correctness is difficult to define as something discrete, and can be employed by its champions in service to respecting people’s differences or deployed as a weapon to attack liberal politics.

For Dyson, meanwhile, the outrage about political correctness is part of a reactionary attitude for whites in trying to come to grips with the need to cede power to minority groups. When nearly all white straight Christian males were in charge, per Dyson, political correctness wasn’t a thing. Thus, to speak about political correctness, one must acknowledge issues pertaining to race and gender, among other characteristics, as well as the need for larger conversations about these concepts.

Before I get to noting how attendees scored the debate, let’s first get into some background about political correctness itself. Merriam-Webster defines politically correct as “conforming to a belief that languages and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated.” From the apparent origins of its current use with the New Left in the 1960s and 1970s, the term has since been coopted in conservative circles as a pejorative to express discontentment with a perceived liberal/progressive orthodoxy in schools and especially at colleges and universities. As many liberal commentators view this alternative use of “PC,” it’s a segue to discrediting the views of “the Left,” as amorphous as that identifier may be.

In the context of the present “culture wars” between liberals and conservatives, the battle over political correctness has taken on new meaning in the era of Donald Trump, a man who, by most accounts, has eschewed traditional political norms as an unabashed political outsider, and according to fact-checkers, who have had no shortage of work during his tenure as President of the United States, is generally incorrect in what he states to be incontrovertibly true. Since then, in the eyes of many onlookers, these two sides have become only that more entrenched in defending their views from perceived attacks from the other side, and for that matter, from those within their own ranks.

Indeed, some people likely felt a sense of betrayal when they found out Stephen Fry, a liberal-leaning homosexual Jew, was to accompany Jordan Peterson on stage arguing against political correctness as progress. For Fry, who acknowledged that he and Peterson may have their differences of opinion—which may be putting it mildly—his argument against political correctness is that it doesn’t work, as exemplified by the rise of Trump and of the growing influence of white nationalism around the globe. As Fry believes, it only succeeds in promoting a backlash from destructive elements on the right and far-right, as well as alienating people by making them unsure about how to act, nervous about how to speak, and unafraid to be creative or experimental for fear of rebuke.

As for Trump, he has addressed the subject of political correctness directly, perhaps most notably in the first Republican debate of the 2016 election season in Cleveland. As Trump put it:

I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. I’ve been challenged by so many people and I don’t, frankly, have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time, either.

So, to put the question point-blank, does the United States simply not have time for political correctness? And does it do more harm than good, or does it simply not work?

Certainly, there are those who would opine that political correctness is a deleterious force, that it does not make for constructive dialogs. One such opponent of PC culture, Michael Rectenwald, professor of Global Liberal Studies at NYU, believes the fundamental flaw of political correctness is it necessitates political correction.

As Rectenwald recently argued, the necessity to correct incorrect behavior involves a imposition of what is deemed to be right, and hearkens back to earlier invocations of the term as used in Soviet Russia and Maoist China. As he also insists, these allusions are not made merely for shock value, but because of the totalitarian impulses that likewise lie behind enforcing political correctness. Rectenwald writes:

I mention the Soviet and Sino-Communist sources of political correctness not to invoke a Red Scare but rather to note that the contemporary “social justice” movement is marked by the same impulses. Former Soviet and Maoist Chinese citizens recall a system under which verbal spontaneity and skepticism could be fatal. During our soft cultural revolution, those accused of ideological deviation — such as Google’s former employee, James Damore — while neither tortured or killed, are sent to the metaphorical gulags of public censure and unemployment.

On the specific case of James Damore, while it’s certainly the case that his memo was misrepresented by the media as being overtly “anti-diversity” (Damore actually offers suggestions for how Google’s handling of diversity issues might be improved), and while Google perhaps overreacted by firing him, to say that Damore was terminated merely for “ideological deviation” belies the offense that numerous women within the company took in relation to the circulation of this internal memo, and fails to consider that Google and its CEO Sundar Pichai found portions of the memo to be in violation of the company’s Code of Conduct and professed that these offending segments “cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.”

Upon the memo’s contents going viral, numerous critics objected to the validity of the science contained within and regarded it as bigotry dressed up as empirically-derived evidence. In short, Pichai and others did not have a problem with Damore questioning specific policies at Google, but in doing so in a way perceived to be discriminatory. Indeed, prior to Damore withdrawing his complaint before the National Labor Relations Board, an NLRB lawyer found the company was within its rights to fire him based on his use of discriminatory language.

As for the invocation of murderous communist regimes, this is quite a comparison to make, and seems just as well suited to come from one of Jordan Peterson’s tirades against “postmodern neo-Marxism.” How does “public censure and unemployment” even come close to being “tortured or killed”? Sure, efforts should be made by Google and other employers to not disproportionately harm one’s image or livelihood in the event of a firing like James Damore’s. Such are unfortunate consequences. They’re not, however, the kind of things that, you know, get outlawed in the Geneva Convention. Rectenwald’s characterization here smacks of hyperbole.

Rectenwald’s other evidence for the growing totalitarianism of North American colleges and universities seems rooted in his personal experience. As he alleges, NYU strongly rebuked him for his “mere questioning of social justice ideology,” essentially forcing him to take a paid medical leave, and faculty members subjecting him to all sorts of racist and sexist slurs. That Rectenwald tweeted anti-Left sentiments any number of times using the handle @antipcnyuprof is not up for debate; the man admitted as much in an interview with the school newspaper. That he was the target of defamatory statements may be true, and I’m not about to question the validity of his claim here.

That he was pushed into taking leave, though, appears highly questionable. According to E-mail correspondence between Rectenwald and Fred Schwarzbach, dean of liberal studies at the university, Rectenwald specifically requested a leave of absence, and Schwarzbach indicated his dismay at how Rectenwald characterized his treatment by NYU to the media. At best, Rectenwald appears to be mistaken in his depiction of how events unfolded, and at worst, is purposely twisting them to serve the designs of his narrative.

Michael Rectenwald’s treatises on the pitfalls of totalitarian political correctness are, of course, not the only source for this type of content, so far be it from me to suggest that his questionable logical connections mean that his side of the debate has necessarily lost. Before we dispense with his case, however, it is worth noting the way in which he has been given a platform for his discontent. Breitbart and FOX News, perhaps predictably, latched onto the story as a case of SJW activism gone wrong, and Rectenwald has also gotten exposure on Tucker Carlson’s show, as well as in The Washington Post and in YouTube videos alongside—you guessed it!—Jordan Peterson.

His exposure is perhaps not on the level of Mr. James Damore, whose termination from Google earned him an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, as well as interviews with, among others, Ben Shapiro, Business Insider, CNBC, CNN, and—right again!—Jordan Peterson, but you get the idea. As with Peterson making waves for vowing not to comply with legislation on the use of gender-neutral pronouns, there seems to be more than just an issue of free speech at hand here.

At least for the moment, let’s pause and swing over to the other side of the debate fence. Mark Hannah, a staffer on the John Kerry and Barack Obama presidential campaigns, wrote a piece for TIME Magazine that characterizes political correctness not as the opponent of “unvarnished truth-telling,” but as the counterpart to carelessness toward other people’s attitudes and beliefs.

In thinking along these lines, Hannah invokes the presidential campaign of one Donald Trump (the column was published prior to the 2016 election), and highlights how the use of precise language by Obama vs. Trump’s free-wheeling approach gets conflated with views on political correctness. In particular, Hannah contrasts Obama’s refusal to refer to “radical Islam” with Trump’s rhetoric about Muslims and political correctness gone amok, recognizing Obama’s deliberateness as strategic rather than fawningly considerate. Hannah writes:

Conservatives might tell us Obama is “politically correct” and Trump “tells it like it is.” But when it comes to the debate over the phrase “radical Islam,” Obama is playing chess and Trump is playing dodge ball. If politics is about strategy, political correctness is arming oneself with a sound strategy while political incorrectness is strategic recklessness.

As Hannah details, Obama himself dismissed concerns about political correctness in avoiding the term “radical Islam,” saying that his careful use of language is about defeating extremism and hampering recruitment efforts. Reckless characterizations, on the other hand, invite alienation of our allies in the war on terror and motivation of adversarial groups like ISIS.

While criticizing Trump and his ilk, Hannah also stresses that perceptions about the right from the left on the subject of political correctness might be similarly confused. From his anecdotal experience as a lecturer, Hannah finds that while anti-PC stances may be a reaction for some in not being able to espouse their personal prejudices, for others, it’s a mistrust of deliberate speech as the tool of high-falutin’ politicians:

Many on the left think conservatives demonize political correctness because they resent having to suppress their own prejudices. That might be true for some. But as someone who teaches a college class on political rhetoric, I’ve come to appreciate that anti-PC attitudes are part of a longer tradition of suspicion toward carefully calibrated language. Throughout history, our species has tended to distrust people who have a knack for political oratory. Part of this stems from the fact that most people are not good public speakers at the same time most people have an affinity for people who are like them. This is something psychologists call “homophily,” and is the reason so many of us tend to want to vote for somebody we’d “like to have a beer with” rather than someone smarter than us.

Looking at the 2016 election post-mortem, while race definitely played a part in people’s votes (how else to explain, for example, the wide disparity between white evangelicals, a majority of whom voted for Trump, and evangelicals of color, a majority of whom sided with Hillary Clinton?), this suspicion of more polished orators like Obama was almost certainly a factor as well, favoring the “Make America Great Again” candidate. It’s a tendency, Hannah tells, with origins as far back as ancient Greece, rooted in distaste for the use of ornate language as a means of courting votes for public office or avoiding jail time. Given his scandal-plagued tenure as president, this sounds more and more like Trump as we go along.

As Hannah writes in closing, though, the use of political correctness is in line with American tradition, back to the country’s very formative days. Political correctness was not viewed as a way to “stifle insensitive speech,” but a manner of speaking for those “trying to out-compete that speech in a free and open exchange.” For Trump and others to complain about PC culture, therefore, is to blame the free marketplace of ideas a professed Republican like he should ideally embrace, or, to borrow a sports analogy, to “petulantly” argue with the umpire. In professional baseball, that’s the kind of thing that can get you thrown out of the game. Trump, alas, is very much still in the game, but there’s every reason to think he stands to do something that will get him removed from office. In theory, even his Republican supporters have their limits.


Going back to the Munk Debate on Political Correctness, it’s worth noting that while 87% of people in attendance expressed an openness to changing their opinion on the matter at hand, prior to the debate, a 64% majority agreed with the Con side, a majority that grew to 70% following its inclusion. Without detailed demographic information or follow-up questions, it’s hard to know precisely what the audience believed and why they voted like they did.

It’s possible they believed, as they are entitled to, that political correctness really is a force that retards societal progress. I surmise that, lost in these statistics, is an affinity for the Jordan Peterson and Stephen Fry that only grew in the wake of Michael Eric Dyson’s “mean mad white man” comment. After all, Peterson and Fry have quite the followings, and admittedly, Dyson and Michelle Goldberg were previously unknown to me. Fry’s self-deprecating humor, too, was one of the highlights of the debate, and provided a nice balance against Peterson’s nearly-relentless seriousness.

Then again, perhaps the uptick can simply be attributed to the sentiment that Peterson and Fry won the debate. After reading a sample of online comments related to viewing the debate remotely, a number of users appear to have indicated Dyson’s comments about Peterson were the point that decided that the Pro side lost the debate, because that’s when it got personal and Dyson’s views lost all weight. It’s difficult to know to what these random commenters genuinely subscribe, or what biases—conscious or unconscious—might inform their assessments of the validity of the onstage arguments.

Wrong or right, the timbre of Dyson’s diatribe was a direct response to Peterson’s tone in asking for a percentage of how much his white privilege has helped him, one of dismissiveness and vitriol. In this respect, you could say Dyson took the bait offered by a clearly-vexed Peterson. Or, you could claim Dyson’s just a “racist,” as numerous commenters did. Never mind the idea that racism implies power and invokes the institutions behind it. In today’s modern political parlance, for many, racism and prejudice are one and the same. Such may be a false (if not dangerous) equivalency.

I’m also not sure how well the percentages of those surveyed at the debate reflect the opinions of Americans or Canadians at large. Certainly, to have someone more liberally inclined such as Stephen Fry arguing against the widespread use of political correctness may be telling that objection to this convention can come from people on either side of the political aisle and in between. Someone on the left, for instance, may balk at the extension of the acronym LGBT to include categories like queer, intersex, asexual, and pansexual because it feels, to them, more like alphabet soup than a community. Political correctness must be adaptive to changing social norms, and requires that participants be capable of adapting with it. For even the most PC-minded among us, it can be a challenge.

This notwithstanding, and irrespective of the Munk Debate audience tallies, political correctness is something worth striving for. Even if its opposition doesn’t reflect an underlying annoyance at having to use preferred terms or, worse, a genuine loathing for someone or their constituent group, political correctness still facilitates an open exchange of ideas and indicates a willingness to deal with the other person on amicable, equitable terms. Moreover, to recapitulate Mark Hannah’s points about the values of our forefathers, political correctness is very much in the American way. As suspect as Barack Obama’s precise language made him seem to some, Donald Trump’s political incorrectness only reflects his lack of preparation and his cruelty. That’s not politically useful—it’s a liability and morally objectionable.

On top of all this, to address Fry’s concerns, political correctness does work. As tempting as it may be to side with social anarchy, political correctness provides guidance on how to act in situations involving mixed-group interactions, and on the plane of creativity, PC language does not stifle innovation, but allows it to grow by imposing constraints, whereas “blue-sky thinking” can give rise to deleterious phenomena like bigotry, groupthink, and misattributions of truth merely to those that speak loudest or most often (for more information, attend this excellent piece by Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman and the appended Cornell study within the text). In short, political correctness works in any number of life situations, and in the era of #MeToo, rejecting it for fear of reprimand from some objector real or imagined is a rather hollow justification.

Political correctness isn’t standing in the way of progress, or making the world less safe, or killing comedy, or coddling our youth. It’s a useful method of communication and representation which connotes our ability to honor those different from us and understand where they’re coming from, and to grease the wheels of strategic advancement rather than to invite counterproductive, reckless behavior. To those of us like Donald Trump who insist we don’t have the time for political correctness, one may easily counter that it’s perhaps exactly the time for it, and something we need now more than ever.

To view this post as it appears on Citizen Truth, click here. Citizen Truth is an independent and alternative media organization dedicated to finding the truth, ending the left-right paradigm, and widening the scope of viewpoints represented in media and our daily conversations. For more on CT, please visit citizentruth.org.

The Pseudo-Scientific (and Dangerous) World of Jordan Peterson

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By all accounts, Jordan Peterson is brilliant and a gifted orator, and his self-help guidelines may positively impact people’s lives. On the other hand, the man is arrogant, combative, and his rhetoric about “the left” may be patently dangerous. (Photo Credit: Adam Jacobs/Flickr/Creative Commons)

Without having seen one of his YouTube videos or hearing him speak, I have to rely on second-hand accounts about intellectual and psychologist Jordan Peterson and his ideologies. From what I have read and witnessed about him, Peterson is a charismatic orator, a gifted debater, and intellectually brilliant. He’s also apparently arrogant, confrontational, and dismissive of opinions that are not his own. To even acknowledge his burgeoning popularity is to give credence to his platform and potentially invite a backlash from his adoring followers (though, given my limited readership, this probably all but negates the risk).

So, what is the appeal of writing a blog entry about Jordan Peterson, other than that I needed someone or something about which to write and I didn’t feel like writing about the Trump administration for the umpteenth time?

I suppose my interest was piqued in Peterson only in the last few weeks or so when I began to encounter an onslaught of negative press about the man, his latest book, 12 Rules for Life, and his musings about “enforced monogamy,” the latter of which supposedly is a not a dystopian, government-controlled “insistence” on the virtues of monogamy, but rather a socially and culturally promoted set of ideals which likewise supposedly is reflected in anthropological, biological, and psychological research and theory.

“Enforced monogamy” also informs Peterson’s belief as to a solution to the likes of the attack allegedly perpetrated by Alek Minassian in Toronto last month, evidently a participant in so-called “incel” culture comprised of “involuntary celibate” men who show resentment toward a society that denies them the ability to have sex, actively or otherwise. As Peterson sees it, enforced monogamy is the cure for that anger, and specifically in Minassian’s case, he was angry at God. This despite any stated political or religious affiliations as indicated by authorities at the place and time of the incident. But, hey—maybe this is just another indication of Peterson’s brilliance that he was able to divine this information!

Some of you may read these musings of Jordan Peterson’s on monogamy and the Toronto van attack and think, “Well, this guy is full of shit—I’ve heard all that I need to hear.” Such is well within your right to believe. You may commence with skimming this article and head toward the conclusion. Still, for those of you like me who choose to dig deeper, beyond the headlines that may exist if only to bait you into clicking and to engender outrage (or are just plain masochistic), it’s worth it to study Peterson’s worldview with the help of those who have reviewed his public statements at length or those who know him personally.

One such reviewer is known by the nom de tweet Natalie Wynn, a transgender ex-academic with a background in philosophy who comments on the cultural and philosophical issues of the day from her YouTube channel ContraPoints. In her latest video, Wynn, while jokingly alluding to Peterson’s past invocations of hierarchies in lobsters in talking about human societal order and putting Peterson’s face on a dummy’s body and soaking with it in a bathtub—this is part of her offbeat charm—acknowledges that after listening to his podcasts, reading his books, and watching his videos on YouTube, she gets why people like him.

For Natalie, Peterson has real talent as a public speaker and life coach, with his major distinguishing quality being that Peterson infuses traditional self-help verbiage with biblical insights, Jungian psychoanalysis, philosophy, and psychology. In this respect, nothing that he presents is really new—especially if you’re familiar with the trappings of AA, Ms. Wynn quips—but as far as she is concerned, from a self-improvement standpoint, more power to the Canadian psychology professor.

The issue with Peterson’s life coaching, however, as Wynn views it, is that it is a “Trojan horse for a reactionary political agenda,” one that opposes progressive politics as something “totalitarian and evil.” Peterson refers to progressive politics by the term postmodern neo-Marxism, and Wynn, using her educational background, painstakingly dissects this use of the terminology. Going through a cursory-yet-lengthy history of modernism, she eventually gets to a point that Marxism is a fundamentally modernist worldview that theorizes the human condition in economic terms, while postmodernism is a kind of skepticism that denies humans’ capacity for knowing universal truths about the world around them.

Accordingly, these concepts would seem to be at odds, and Peterson’s use of the term would only seem to enhance the confusion. As Natalie Wynn outlines, Jordan Peterson’s animus is levied upon a rather nebulous group that includes administrators at colleges and universities, civil rights activists, corporate human resources departments, feminists, liberal politicians, Marxists, postmodernists, and so-called “social justice warriors (SJWs).” It’s a problematically loose association of leftists which ignores the tensions that tend to exist between so many of the subgroups under this umbrella and on which Peterson tries to pin the downfall of Western civilization amid his fearmongering.

Likewise problematic is Peterson’s concept of “the West.” As Wynn breaks it down, Peterson’s “West” is emblematic of concepts like capitalism, individualism, and “Judeo-Christian values,” while “postmodern neo-Marxism” is aligned with anti-Western sentiment, collectivism, relativism, and totalitarianism. Marxism and postmodernism, as Wynn elucidates, are Western philosophies, so this immediately calls Peterson’s framework into question, as does his insistence on SJW ideology as a non-Western function.

Moreover, Wynn argues, if Peterson were really concerned about celebrating individuality, he would be more open to, for instance, the use of gender-neutral pronouns to suit the needs of individual students (Peterson made headlines when he vowed he would refuse to comply with any provincial laws on the use of “alternative” pronouns). In addition, if he were more insistent on preserving “the West” as a geographical and philosophical construct, he would, you know, rail against Buddhism, or own that the Marquis de Sade, for one, was into some stuff that doesn’t really fit with “Judeo-Christian values,” and he was from the West. By these standards, Peterson’s categories seem woefully arbitrary and haphazard.

Thus, despite her mild admiration for Peterson’s attention to the tendency of some people on the left to shout down even slightly different opinions, as well as an appreciation for the need to provide folks with a positive, proactive ideology rather than a liberal focus on everything one shouldn’t be doing and a preoccupation with how society oppresses people without a path to corrective action, Natalie Wynn sees a real danger in Jordan Peterson’s anti-leftist rhetoric.

She’s not alone, either. Bernard Schiff, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Toronto and someone who knows Peterson well as one of his historically staunchest defenders against other faculty at the university, recently penned a special opinion piece for the Toronto Star regarding his change of heart, so to speak, on Peterson and his methods. In Schiff’s opening to his expansive essay, he sets the tone for the piece by explaining what he admires about his colleague, and why he has more recently pivoted on someone he has considered a friend:

I thought long and hard before writing about Jordan, and I do not do this lightly. He has one of the most agile and creative minds I’ve ever known. He is a powerful orator. He is smart, passionate, engaging and compelling and can be thoughtful and kind.

I was once his strongest supporter.

That all changed with his rise to celebrity. I am alarmed by his now-questionable relationship to truth, intellectual integrity and common decency, which I had not seen before. His output is voluminous and filled with oversimplifications which obscure or misrepresent complex matters in the service of a message which is difficult to pin down. He can be very persuasive, and toys with facts and with people’s emotions. I believe he is a man with a mission. It is less clear what that mission is.

So, why did Schiff have to defend Peterson as a fellow professor among the faculty at the University of Toronto? Shocker!—though his celebrity may be bringing out the very worst in him, Peterson was always kind of a son of a bitch. Schiff concedes that Peterson possessed a rather immaculate record prior to his arrival at the University of Toronto, and despite misgivings from others about his “eccentricity,” he advocated for Peterson because he thought he could bring a fresh energy and new ideas to the department.

As it turned out, though, according to Schiff, Peterson wasn’t just a little “eccentric.” He sparred with the university’s research ethics committee, suggesting they lacked the authority and expertise to weigh in on his work (despite, you know, it being their government-mandated job to serve this function). He also, alongside numerous enthusiastic reviews from people who had taken his courses and a rapt audience of those who attended, repeatedly acknowledged the dangers of presenting conjecture as fact, and promptly went ahead and did it anyway in his lectures.

For Schiff, this was fine, albeit vaguely concerning; no one was getting hurt, and Peterson’s sermons were largely confined to the classroom. The turn came, however, when Peterson not only misrepresented the relationship between biology and gender in his opposition to Bill C-16, the aforementioned gender-neutral pronoun policy, but misrepresented his own risk at not supporting the law:

Jordan’s first high-profile public battle, and for many people their introduction to the man, followed his declaration that he would not comply with Bill C-16, an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act extending its protections to include gender identity and expression. He would refuse to refer to students using gender neutral pronouns. He then upped the stakes by claiming that, for this transgression, he could be sent to jail.

I have a trans daughter, but that was hardly an issue compared to what I felt was a betrayal of my trust and confidence in him. It was an abuse of the trust that comes with his professorial position, which I had fought for, to have misrepresented gender science by dismissing the evidence that the relationship of gender to biology is not absolute and to have made the claim that he could be jailed when, at worst, he could be fined.

In his defence, Jordan told me if he refused to pay the fine he could go to jail. That is not the same as being jailed for what you say, but it did ennoble him as a would-be martyr in the defence of free speech. He was a true free speech “warrior” who was willing to sacrifice and run roughshod over his students to make a point. He could have spared his students and chosen to sidestep the issue and refer to them by their names. And if this was truly a matter of free speech he could have challenged the Human Rights Act, off-campus and much earlier, by openly using language offensive to any of the already-protected groups on that list.

Perhaps this was not just about free speech.

Subsequent actions by Peterson to oppose legislative attempts by the province of Ontario to defend additional trans rights grew all the more worrisome. Peterson railed against the proposed Bill 28 under the premise that it “subjugates the natural family to the transgender agenda.” First of all, and apropos of nothing, the man missed an obvious opportunity to coin a portmanteau in transgenda. Secondly, what the heck is the “transgender agenda,” anyway? And how does it relate to a bill that sought to change the language about families away from “fathers and mothers” to “parents”? Bernard Schiff, for one, is confused, and I find myself similarly perplexed. You might, too.

This sense of wonderment quickly gives way to genuine fear, meanwhile, when considering Jordan Peterson’s conflation of Marxism, the left, and murderous regimes like those of Joseph Stalin that pervert their professed ideology to serve the purposes of the individual at the helm. Here is where Bernard Schiff’s concerns begin to echo those of Natalie Wynn’s. Wynn explicitly states her belief that Peterson is not a fascist. Whether or not Schiff believes Peterson has fascist tendencies is less clear, though he does make allusions to other people’s characterizations of Peterson and fascists in general, so that might tell you all you need to know. Regardless of exact labels, Schiff sees parallels between Peterson’s anti-Marxist, pro-status-quo language and Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist, anti-immigrant fervor. Obviously, this is not a flattering association.

Ultimately, Schiff puts forth that while he may be overstating the potential threat posed by his colleague, to remain silent presents its own risk—one he is not willing to take. Schiff, in suggesting that Peterson does not play by some of his own 12 rules—notably the ones involving assuming the other party knows something you don’t, pursuing what is important and not just what is expedient, telling the truth, and using precise language—expresses regret. Part of that regret lies in his inability to see Peterson’s rise as a self-styled cultural “warrior” coming despite the apparent warning signs. The other half of his regret, if you will, is his role in bringing Peterson to the University of Toronto in the first place. As Schiff plainly writes, “I have been asked by some if I regret my role in bringing Jordan to the University of Toronto. I did not for many years, but I do now.”


Part of what makes Jordan Peterson so frustrating to talk about is his seemingly intentional inscrutability, a quality his devotees laud as a virtue in that the “liberal media” can’t neatly fit him into a box. Indeed, Bernard Schiff goes to great lengths trying to plot out Peterson’s inconsistences. He defiantly asserts his own right to free speech, but then actively tries to steer students away from professors whom he associates with “postmodern neo-Marxism.” He claims to be a champion of scientific research and inquiry but rejects attempts by university administration to scrutinize his methods and cherry-picks data to prove his point. He, like so many conservatives, decries those on the left he sees as willing victims, but plays the martyr when challenged all the same. He’s calm and collected one moment, and angrily confrontational and defensive in the face of criticism the next. It’s a pretty maddening study in contracts.

Equally frustrating is trying to engage Peterson in a conversation on his terms. Natalie Wynn provides examples of Peterson’s rhetorical style, which essentially puts earnest interviewers like Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News in a no-win situation. As Wynn frames it, Peterson verbalizes something generally accepted to be true, while at the same time implying something more controversial and possibly unrelated. For instance, he’ll say that “there are biological differences between men and women,” but in the context of the underrepresentation of women in government. Your apparent choice is either to fall into the trap of arguing against the factual information Peterson presents, or to try infer a meaning by which he can argue that you’re misrepresenting his point of view. Whatever that may be.

Wynn highlights how Peterson used this kind of argument with respect to his famous/infamous “lobster” comment, when he led with a discussion of the notion that human social hierarchies are a construct created by Western patriarchy, and followed that with a note about how lobsters exist in hierarchies and how this structure has existed before Western patriarchy. The problem with this line of discourse, instructs Wynn, is that no one is arguing hierarchies are a product of “Western patriarchy,” and that lobster hierarchies are a non sequitur to the discussion of human social hierarchies. That is, no one is trying to start a lobster revolution. Peterson’s argument, as intellectual as it sounds, is gobbledygook, more or less.

Another oft-cited moment in the Newman-Peterson interview was when Newman asked Peterson why his right to freedom of speech should trump a trans person’s right not to be offended, and Peterson countered by asserting that “in order to be able to think, you have to risk being offensive,” and answering her question with another question: “You’re certainly willing to risk offending me in the pursuit of truth. Why should you have the right to do that?” Peterson’s extended response left Newman all but speechless, to which he interjected, “Ha! Gotcha!” Newman, flabbergasted, conceded defeat on this point. This moment is Exhibit A in Peterson’s supporters’ evidence that their icon “won” the interview over Ms. Newman, or “destroyed” her, or “obliterated” her, or did something else to nullify her very existence. Because there has to be a winner or loser in these types of discussions. Right.

Looking back at Peterson’s statements, it’s easier to find the flaws in his reasoning. To equate his personal offense at being challenged to a trans individual’s right to self-identification is a false comparison. This is to say that Peterson’s taking umbrage to a reporter’s queries results in nothing more than his personal irritation, while attacks on personhood for the trans community, a minority group, can lead to continued abuse and physical assaults. It’s not the same thing, something Cathy Newman might’ve been able to express given the time to parse out Peterson’s logic. You or I might’ve found ourselves similarly flummoxed in the same situation against such a skilled orator.

On top of this, Cathy Newman’s reward for attempting to take Jordan Peterson to task for expressed viewpoints and for inadvertently helping to elevate his stature? Numerous vicious personal threats. Peterson did intercede amid the harassment to ask his followers to back off, but his is the kind of sermonizing about the need to defend “Western” culture with obvious appeal to straight white Christian males that lends itself to preemptive strikes against members of the LGBTQ community, people of color, women, and everyone in between. When cultural debates are characterized in the context of a “war,” those who take up the fight with earnest believe all is fair, but this is not automatically the case.

Natalie Wynn ends her segment by abnegating personal responsibility in the debate about Jordan Peterson’s merits, professing she only likes to make YouTube videos for their production value. Bernard Schiff ruefully acknowledges his personal failure in identifying Peterson’s dangerous patterns of behavior and likens his (Peterson’s) desire to preach from the pulpit to the designs of late evangelist Billy Graham. Perhaps there is no single conclusion to be reached about Peterson that would prove satisfactory.

A common thread between the analyses of Wynn and Schiff, though—and one to which I might subscribe in my own thinking—is the idea that maybe those outside his vanguard need to take his meteoric rise more seriously. The “experts” who downplayed the threats of a “Brexit” or a Donald Trump presidency were summarily proven wrong. The hubbub about Jordan Peterson could be much ado about nothing. As with Schiff’s decision not to stay mum, however, do you believe it’s worth the risk of ignoring him?

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