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Nov 27 2018

The dangerous underside of Jordan Peterson’s crusade against the humanities

Peterson may be correct that, in some cases, universities have failed to strike the right balance between protecting minority rights and preserving liberal, democratic values, including freedom of speech. The Laurier incident is one of those cases. The problem is that Peterson folds this argument into a politically reactionary and often downright paranoid world view that appears designed to curry favour with the alt-right.

“Islamophobia,” he has also tweeted, is “a word created by fascists and used by cowards to manipulate morons.” The real cause of the recent wave of sexual assault allegations, he believes, is due to sex no longer being “enshrined in marriage.” In a conversation with Camille Paglia, he lamented that men can’t exert control over “crazy women” by physically beating them. He echoes Donald Trump on fake news, telling followers they can’t trust the media, and makes a point of admiring Trump’s intelligence and accomplishments.

It seems indisputable: Peterson is now the most famous professor in Canada.

What he is not, however, is the author of any lasting work of scholarship, the originator of any important idea, or a public intellectual of any scientific credibility or moral seriousness. Peterson’s sole discovery is that “postmodernism” can be usefully exploited alongside the more familiar, established populist scare tactics. His message, as the intellectual guru of the alt-right, is that humanity’s natural hierarchies are under attack, that the future of Western civilization hangs in the balance of this “war of ideas.”

As a strategy to excite hysteria over the collapse of Western values, Peterson’s tack is effective: it provides a veneer of academic rationale for the widespread anti-intellectual suspicion that a class of decadent, ivory-tower elites who are intoxicated by European ideology are leading the way to cultural suicide. As a description of what the “postmodern” thinkers actually wrote, it is very flawed.

While only a tiny minority of humanities professors teach Derrida, a majority of the courses are dedicated to critical thinking… What makes critical thinking “critical” is the tendency to read against the grain of accepted wisdom and to question the inherited power hierarchies that structure human relations. Peterson’s immense popularity on the far right lies precisely in his intellectual validation of those traditional power hierarchies as natural and necessary—a message perfectly attuned to those who feel dispossessed and threatened by movements for sexual and racial equality. Most of Peterson’s videos offer variations on the theme that human behavior is the product of an ancient “male dominance hierarchy” that separates winners from losers—and that any attempt to question or subvert this hierarchy will result in unhappiness for the individual or chaos for society.

To fully grasp the depth of Peterson’s belief in power hierarchies, take his commitment to IQ testing: “If you don’t buy IQ research,” he has told his students, “then you might as well throw away all of psychology.” Peterson rejects the theory of multiple intelligences (emotional intelligence, musical intelligence, and so on) and insists that all of human intelligence is biologically determined, essentially unalterable, and expressed in a single number that can be ranked. Your IQ, he says, will govern where you end up in life. [article goes on to explain how this is flawed].

Peterson knows what he stands for. He is fighting for the souls of our students, and his message, while deeply alienating to some, is immensely seductive to many others. We have an intellectual obligation to meet this threat directly and expose him for exactly what he is: a YouTube star who offers a wafer-thin intellectual validation for the political retrenchment of traditional hierarchies. Peterson is calling for war within the humanities. We should happily oblige.

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