Dr. Jordan Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, has been gaining celebrity. He first emerged in refusing to accept his university’s dictate to use transgendered students’ preferred pronouns and a broader fight against Canadian legislation to demand such usage. Since then, in a series of wildly popular YouTube videos ranging from studies of the Bible to anti-postmodernist lectures, his star has risen. This year, his book “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos,” came out and is selling well.
Towards the end of a recent lecture, Peterson tackled the issue of white privilege. The 10-minute segment went viral, praised by many as refutation of the idea that white privilege even exists. Frankly, it was not his best work. It’s a bit sloppy on the concept itself, and utterly failed to take into account the broad context of racial issues that led to the idea in the first place.
It’s useful to look at what Peterson gets wrong here, and what he gets right. He is venturing into very dangerous territory with a cavalier attitude, and this could undermine the important counter-cultural ideas he is using to challenge, not just the academy, but our culture at large.
What Jordan Peterson Gets Wrong
Peterson’s main argument against white privilege is that race is but one of many possibly infinite differentials in human beings that may accrue benefits. He cites attractiveness and intelligence as two examples that could give individuals unearned advantages. But in the American context (Peterson is Canadian) these are somewhat strange comparisons. This is because ugly, dumb people were not subjected to centuries of slavery and a further century of debilitating Jim Crow laws.
History doesn’t begin in 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, or in 2009 when Barack Obama became president. While smarts and looks are unfair gifts of natural selection, the advantages of being white in America are a manmade phenomenon based on centuries of bigotry and irrational bias. To compare these things is facile and badly misses the point.
Peterson makes things worse with a bizarre analogy between American and Chinese culture. He claims that white privilege is really “majority privilege.” Tackling the classic examples of white people being more represented in media and education, less suspected of potential theft in stores, and having freer options in housing, among others, he says:
Is that white privilege, or is that, like majority privilege? Is the same true if you go to China, you’re Chinese, is the same true if you’re Chinese? Is it majority privilege, and if its majority privilege, isn’t that just part of living within your culture? So let’s say you live in your culture, you’re privileged in that culture, well obviously. That’s what the culture is for. That’s what it’s for. Why would you bother building the d-mn thing if it didn’t accrue benefits to you? Well, you might say one of the consequences is that it accrues fewer benefits to those who aren’t in the culture. Yeah, but you can’t immediately associate that with race.
In the United States of America we can absolutely, without question, associate that with race. This is because black people have been here since well before the American founding. There is no American culture that doesn’t involve black people. They were not interlopers in some society built by whites. They literally built the White House. They picked the cotton and tobacco, they were the unpaid economic engine that made America great, and they were infamously mistreated for centuries. It is a cringe-worthy moment, and one can’t help but feel that Peterson hasn’t thought it the whole way through.
What He Gets Right
Although he doesn’t quite manage to say it, what Peterson is rightfully rejecting is not the idea that white people in America have privilege. In fact, above he confirms it. He is arguing that, as a pedagogical tool, this fact is extremely limited and potentially dangerous. He is rejecting the idea that white people today have a reason to feel guilty about their skin color, and the idea that accepting such guilt will lead to some kind of good end.
Furthermore, he rightfully criticizes the lack of serious scholarship surrounding privilege theory. It is a concept almost always backed up anecdotally and rarely subjected to serious empirical investigation. When it is, the evidence of bias is often sketchy at best. But once we admit, as Peterson does, that white people do accrue unearned advantages, either by science or storytelling we have a responsibility to examine this and try to make sure that people are not subject to denigrating treatment based on their skin color.
We Need Peterson to Be Careful
Peterson is an enormously important, even vital voice in an academic, governmental, and media environment that often seeks to crush dissenting voices. In his book, “The War Against Free Speech,” he says the following about his refusal to be compelled to use certain pronouns: “Many of the doctrines that underlie the legislation that I’ve been objecting to share structural similarities with the Marxist ideas that drove Soviet Communism. The thing I object to the most was the insistence that people use these made up words like ‘xe’ and ‘xer’ that are the construction of authoritarians. There isn’t a hope in h-ll that I’m going to use their language, because I know where that leads.”
This is a message that needs to be heard. And it is important to understand that Peterson is not trying to convince postmodern progressives to change their ways, a task Sisyphus would look at and say, “Boy, I’m glad I don’t have to do that.” His targeted audience is different. Part of it is people who simply shrug at things like compelled speech and wonder why it’s their business. He does a great job of explaining why it is their business and why it is a threat.
Another important target of Peterson’s program is disaffected young men. These are men who feel beaten down by the world and women’s success, the attacks on masculinity. Who feel they are being told their very instincts are toxic. These men are prime targets for the alt-right, the men’s rights movement, and a whole host of antisocial behaviors, because what’s the difference anyway? He tells these young men that they can be men, but that means more than expressing their anger, it means taking responsibility, being productive. Getting in the game.
In trying to reach these young men, Peterson has appeared with some questionable figures. Eyebrows were raised when he was interviewed by the controversial, alleged alt-rightist Stefan Molyneux, for example. If you want to help sinners, you have to go where the sin is, but there is a danger here. Peterson is poised to hit the mainstream, something that would accrue a lot of benefits for those who believe in a freer society. These kinds of appearances and awkward attacks on privilege theory put such mainstream acceptance in jeopardy.
Welcome to the big leagues, Dr. Peterson. The balls are going to come at you fast and hard. You have to judiciously pick and choose which you swing at.
Correction. While Amazon lists Jordan B. Peterson as the author of “The War Against Free Speech,” an interview with him, Dr. Peterson’s Facebook page says, “FRAUD: This book is neither written nor authorized in any way by me.” But he does not dispute the accuracy of the quotes therein.