Jordan Peterson puts facts aside to defend retrograde thinking

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People are very interested in what Dr. Jordan Peterson has to say, and it is not difficult to discern the reason why. He’s a professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Toronto, a clinical psychologist with two decades of experience, a YouTube sensation, a bestselling writer of pop psychology and “the most influential public intellectual in the Western world” according to David Brooks of The New York Times. Most people did not pay much attention to Dr. Peterson when he was only an academic, but when the professor took a stand against political correctness and campus activism, everyone started listening. Given how enamored people are with Jordan Peterson, it is disappointing that his fans do not seem to care when he says outlandish and untenable things. Recently, interviewer from Time highlighted his confusing and muddled thoughts about the movie “Frozen” with a short article. While it is petty to begin an opinion piece by disputing a public intellectual’s view of a Disney film, Dr. Peterson’s criticisms of “Frozen” reveal quite a bit about his thinking.

When Belinda Luscombe of Time asked Peterson why he called “Frozen” a “deeply propagandistic” movie, he claimed the filmmakers attempted “to craft a moral message and to build the story around that, instead of building the story and letting the moral message emerge.” If this is the sole criterion of propaganda, then it is unclear why Jordan Peterson does not consider himself a purveyor of propaganda. He extolls books like The Bible, “Demons” by Fyodor Dostoevsky and “1984” by George Orwell. In each of these works, the story is carefully constructed to suit the moral, and the moral emerges within the first few pages. A work of art is propaganda if it uses bias and deception to push a specific political viewpoint, so one can argue that any film or book with a partisan message is propagandistic.

Dr. Peterson’s criticism of the movie is rooted in gender theory, of all things. He compares “Frozen” to “Sleeping Beauty,” a film which he does not believe is propaganda. “Sleeping Beauty,” according to Peterson, “was raised out of her unconsciousness via a delivering male … the unconsciousness is symbolized in that particular story by femininity and active consciousness by masculinity.” He also likes “Moana,” which he praised because “that little girl in the movie allied herself with this very, very powerful but rather uncivilized masculine force… they got the archetypal balance really quite nicely.” Identity politics often determine whether or not Peterson will approve of a Disney film. He likes the gender dynamic in “The Lion King,” so he gives it an in-depth archetypal analysis, but he does not like the gender dynamic in “Frozen,” so it is propaganda. Much like a rabid postmodernist, Dr. Peterson lets his opinions on gender identity determine whether innocuous movies are “reprehensible.”

Is Dr. Peterson a sexist? After he calmly stumped Cathy Newman of Britain’s Channel 4 News in a literal “gotcha” moment during their debate, Rachael Revesz of The Independent wrote “no matter what she would have asked, a woman daring to question his expertise was bound to have ramifications.” Liberals should not treat Dr. Peterson as though he is a fundamentally indecent man. He is an accomplished academic, not a senseless provocateur. His arguments may be flawed, but they must not be fought with exaggerated allegations. It is easy to point out holes in the professor’s worldview without calling him alt-right or fascist, two labels which definitely do not apply. Dr. Peterson’s prejudice is in favor of simple conservative authoritarianism, and he trots out the same arguments which people on the right have been making for decades.

Is it not obvious that Dr. Peterson’s opinions about gender relations can be as inaccurate as those coming from certain people on the far-left? In an interview with Vice, he claimed that nobody was pursuing the right remedy for sexual harassment. Peterson asked his interviewer, “Can men and women work together in the workplace?” When his interviewer responded by saying he personally worked with a lot of women, Peterson said “It’s been happening for what, forty years? And things are deteriorating very rapidly in terms of the relationships between men and women.” He then went on to say women who do not want to be sexually harassed but wear high heels and makeup to work are hypocrites. One could be charitable and suppose that Peterson meant to say sexual displays in the workplace should not be banned as long as they do not involve predatory or unreciprocated behavior. However, if this were Peterson’s perspective, he should have said so, instead of immediately jumping to the regressive idea that men and women might be better off if they were not legally allowed to work with one another.

Dr. Peterson’s views on gender relations are not all ludicrous, but his bias against any sort of social progression is palpable. Traditionalists cannot deny that there are good reasons why certain traditions have been abandoned. Peterson claims the liberalization of divorce laws in the 1960s was not “a good thing” because “the children whose lives were destabilized” by divorce would not think their parents treated them fairly. It takes a very retrograde person to pine for the days when the only legal path to divorce involved proving that one’s spouse had committed wrongdoing. In such a system, it was impossible for married people to separate unless one of them beat, abandoned, cheated on or stole from the other. Before the process of dramatic liberalization in divorce law which Peterson resents, a woman being raped by her husband did not constitute grounds for separation. In most of the United States and Canada, raping one’s wife was not considered a crime.

When questioned, Peterson will claim his observations are “based on scientific research” and that he is “very, very, very careful with [his] words.” It would be lovely to take faith in such pronouncements, but some of his theories are neither scientific nor well-formulated.  Dr. Peterson has said the alliance between feminists and Muslims can be traced to “an attraction … among the female radicals for that totalitarian male dominance that they’ve chased out of the West.” Does that claim sound like it is “based on scientific research that is solid as it gets in the social sciences?” Or does that claim sound like it was made, without reference to any supporting data, by a spiteful conservative? As he prepared to explain this theory to his lecture audience, Peterson said, “It’s not like I believe this, right? I’m just telling you where the edges of my thinking have been going.” After he finished explaining why feminists love Islamists, he said, “That’s a hell of a thing to think, but I am after all psychoanalytically minded, and I do think things like that.” So he does “think things like that” because of his psychoanalytical credentials, but “it’s not like [he] believes” it really. Simultaneously denying and pushing the truth of a claim is called apophasis – it is what the US president does when he says things like, “I refuse to call Megyn Kelly a bimbo, because that would not be politically correct.” Should anyone be surprised to discover that President Trump uses the same sort of sophistry as the Western world’s greatest public intellectual?  

Dr. Peterson’s ideas about culture and history are often rooted in canards that conservatives invented in the late 20th century. One of those canards is, “Feminists really want to be sexually dominated by a man.” Another is that the Bible is the foundation of Western civilization, a document whose “careful, respectful study can reveal things to us about what we believe and how we do and should act that can be discovered in almost no other manner.” The history of the Bible’s influence on the West is far more objectionable than Dr. Peterson would ever admit. It was, after all, 1st Corinthians 7 which provided the justification for the legality of marital rape, though Dr. Peterson was probably not referring to this passage when he claimed the Bible could reveal things about how we “should act.” The Bible’s influence throughout history, and its influence today, is not entirely positive. As an example, the Vatican formally recognized Hitler’s legitimacy as leader of the Third Reich, worked with Mussolini for over a decade and helped coordinate Francisco Franco’s takeover of Spain, all to ensure that Catholicism remained strong in Europe. If Dr. Peterson were to acknowledge that the Bible has evil in it and has been used for evil throughout history, it would make his theological arguments a bit more cogent.

In his mind, regarding the stories of the Bible as “simple superstitions” makes one into a “simple-minded” atheist for ignoring the “emergent wisdom” of scripture. How can one argue scientifically with such an unfalsifiable hypothesis? How could anyone prove that the wisdom in the Bible is not “emergent?” No matter how many times atheists point out the book’s endorsements of cruelty, Christians will still believe in the Bible’s “careful, respectful study” of the human condition. Dr. Peterson referred to Jesus of Nazareth as the “archetypal perfect man” in his self-help book. Apparently, Jungian psychoanalysts can only contribute to exegesis by confirming beliefs which Christians have held for millennia, beliefs like “Jesus is the perfect man.” Is there no more nuance to his character than that? Is the man who told his followers, “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me,” archetypally perfect? Dr. Peterson’s analysis of religion reveals more about his personal belief structure than it reveals about the emergent wisdom of scripture.

To advance his theory about the moral supremacism of the Bible, Dr. Peterson will even distort historical truths. He called the Catholic Church “one of Western culture’s primary bulwarks against ideological extremism” and claimed “Marxism and Nazism moved in to fill the void” when Europeans “lost faith in God.” The Catholic Church enabled fascism at almost every opportunity, and 94 percent of Germans in the 1939 census claimed to be Protestant or Catholic. The influence of Catholic jingoism was pervasive in Nazi and Francoist rhetoric, yet Peterson never thinks twice when making hasty generalizations about history.

Whenever anyone criticizes Dr. Peterson for his wacky and unscientific opinions about societal issues, his fans accuse that person of misrepresentation, witch-hunting or character assassination. It is not character assassination to call Dr. Peterson a hypocrite for saying artists should not be allowed to make up new stories “for political reasons” even though he has “A Farewell to Arms,” “Brave New World” and “Animal Farm” on his list of recommended books. Gareth Hutchens of The Guardian said people who called Dr. Peterson “right-wing” have “forgotten how to think.” If journalists are not allowed to call Peterson conservative or rightwing, then people will have to find other, less accurate words to describe dogmatists who oppose sex outside of marriage, porn, social justice, gay marriage, abortion, secularism and even the theory of climate change.

Dr. Peterson’s moral judgments are pretty traditional for the Christian right. He thinks pornography is evil, gay marriage undermines traditional marriage, women might be better off not working with men and Disney princess movies are reprehensible propaganda. Fans of his say that Dr. Peterson’s quips about social issues are only part of a much more complicated worldview which is explored fully in his lectures. But Peterson is not just a professor anymore. He is also an author of popular psychology and a political figure who has appeared on “Fox and Friends” and the shows of Joe Rogan, Steven Crowder, Dave Rubin, Stefan Molyneux and Michael Knowles. If he did not think “Frozen” was condemnable propaganda, he never would have made such a claim, and would not have included the claim in his bestselling book. When Peterson expresses his feelings on a political or social issue, he does it as a public intellectual. He intends to convey how he thinks society should operate. It is time for people to stop calling him a member of the alt-right, and to instead point out how his ideas do not hold up to basic scrutiny. Someone who lies about the history of Nazism for political gain should look inward before exhorting anyone else to “tell the truth.”

Whether in a lecture or an interview, Dr. Peterson is voluble. Nevertheless, his rhetoric closely resembles the rhetoric of just about every other person on the Christian right. Every time Dr. Peterson makes a logical error or demonstrates his bias, whether in regards to Nazism, atheism, divorce, gay marriage, porn or “Frozen,” he does it to defend backwards notions of tradition and faith. While he may be more eloquent than most of the others, Peterson is still a dogmatic ideologue with a disagreeable vision of the way society should be. Who would trust Dr. Peterson to be the authority on which children’s films are propaganda, or who was at fault for the rise of Nazism or whether marriage was superior before the existence of no-fault divorce? Jordan Peterson thinks he has the answer for quite a few questions about social issues, and he is more than willing to give these answers out. Only the gullible will fail to see that he, like everyone else, is pushing an ideology.


Alex Klein is a staff columnist for the Daily Campus and can be reached via email at alex.klein@uconn.edu.

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