Dr. Jordan Peterson, who has enjoyed a surge into fame over the past year, has become a bit like the Yanny and Laurel audio meme. People listen to what he has to say but disagree wildly about what they are hearing.
Some hear a man with important ideas that can help people live a more fulfilling life, others hear a dangerous misogynist who wants to set back the cause of liberated women, trans people, and the rest of the cast(e) of oppression. In a feature for The New York Times Magazine this weekend, Nellie Bowles clearly came down on the latter side.
The first paragraph makes this obvious: “Look back to the 1950’s he says.” It’s not clear from the article if this is a quote from Peterson. In any event, this interpretation has an essential mistake. When Peterson talks about changes in gender, sexuality, family, and work, he is exposing central contradictions, both evolutionary and social, that he believes are making people unhappy.
He is not suggesting that all women should aspire to be a 1950s Donna Reed housewife, but that on many levels some women do want something closer to that lifestyle. Part of the evidence for this is that since the sexual revolution the question of whether women can “have it all” has been so often on our tongues and pages. Peterson suggests the answer, in many cases, is no.
He isn’t telling women not to strive for whatever they want, or to be forced into anything. But that’s the progressive narrative against him, one that the Times reinforced. A perfect example of this is Bowles’ mischaracterization of Peterson’s argument that societies are better off with “enforced monogamy.”
The Times Got It Wrong
The Times article makes it appear that Peterson means somehow women will be forced into sex they don’t want to have, calling his ideas about “enforced monogamy” absurd. The reaction to that line has been swift and damning. But that’s not what he is talking about at all. He is talking about societal norms that value monogamy and work to enforce it. He addressed this on Twitter this weekend.
Furthermore, anyone motivated by the NY Times to assume that what I meant by "enforced monogamy" was anything other than social convention favoring stable pair bonding can think whatever they want, as they no doubt will anyway… https://t.co/jBSJl9RFDH
— Dr Jordan B Peterson (@jordanbpeterson) May 20, 2018
He also addressed it on his blog: “My critics’ abject ignorance of the relevant literature does not equate to evidence of my totalitarian or misogynist leanings.” The important thing here is that Peterson assumed his interviewer was up on anthropological terms of art. That’s never a good bet for journalists. We are mostly known for not paying for lunch.
Peterson blames Bowles for not being familiar with the relevant literature, but “enforced monogamy,” is not a well-known term of art, and it does sound menacing. Bowles probably should have asked for clarification before presenting it as absurd, but Peterson also has to know and anticipate that these kinds of attacks are going to be leveled at him by people who may be ill-informed in anthropology, but nonetheless well-intentioned.
Some of the confusion over just what Peterson means to propose is that most of his content is delivered verbally, either in lectures or interviews. Indeed, as in this case, once presented with someone’s confusion Peterson will often go to his blog to effectively explain the position.
In writing and especially editing one thing an author does is actively anticipate misunderstanding and try to get ahead of it. This is much harder to do when talking off the cuff, especially if you are talking to people who agree with you. It allows you brush past ideas you and the audience take for granted that others might not. This unfortunately is a central theme of Peterson’s style. It leaves him open to fair attacks.
What Is Our Medium?
Bowles derides Peterson as a YouTube philosopher. Okay, cutting and demeaning, but so what? What important philosopher who scribbles with a quill is he being compared to? What scary things does he say? That marriage and monogamy are good for society? If you think that is nonsense, okay, #TindrTill90, or whatever. Have sex with whomever you want, be whatever gender you want, be no gender, be all genders, be the fulcrum of humanity the moment it changes. I get that appeal.
But we are not that. At least, we don’t have to be. The central message Peterson sends is to reject postmodernism and the Marxism it embraces. I’m on board with that, with one small reservation. Postmodernism itself was a denial that science could tell us all. Philosophers like Fredric Jameson urged us to take ancient narratives more seriously. This is a central plank of Peterson’s program, and one that we don’t hear enough about in popular accounts of his oeuvre.
In fact, much of Peterson’s insistence that we listen to, and understand, our ancient myths, legends, and stories is not because they tell us how we should be, but because they tell us how we have been. These old narratives give us insight into what our ancestors thought about being human, where humanity had been, where humanity wanted to go. This is an essential tool for understanding western thought and ideas — assuming we still wish to be human.