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How Jordan Peterson Missed A Layup On Religious Freedom


Jordan Peterson appeared the other night on the Jim Jefferies show and, well, he got suckered. On a question regarding the rights of Americans to refuse to bake cakes with explicit messages condoning gay marriage, Peterson got juked and sucker-punched. The most important public intellectual in the West allowed a classic bait and switch in which he appeared befuddled.

It is an example, and not the only one, of Peterson not being careful. He really needs to be more careful. Watch the exchange below:

So, here’s what happened here. Jefferies set up a parallel between a baker refusing to serve black people and a baker refusing to make a cake for a gay wedding. He entirely left out that Masterpiece Cakeshop, the small business of the baker in question, never once said he would refuse to sell cakes to gay people.

What he said, and what the Supreme Court agreed with (or at least didn’t disagree with), is that he cannot be compelled to use his artistry to celebrate gay marriage. Jefferies snookered Peterson into seeing this as a case where a baker is refusing to serve gay people at all, which was never the case. Peterson, usually so self-certain and on point, folded. It seems likely he just didn’t understand the case, or how it falls exactly in his wheelhouse.

Peterson is a Canadian. This actually matters here. Canada, for all its snow and inferior bacon, does not have a constitutional protection for religious freedom that mirrors that of the United States. It is perfectly understandable that Peterson would not understand the nuance of this religious liberty case. To him this scenario probably sounded like a bigoted baker just wouldn’t bake cakes for gays.

But it’s even worse than that. Peterson allowed himself to be mired in a libertarian quicksand pit of arguing that people should be free to discriminate — that discrimination is wrong, but shouldn’t be forbidden by the government. America has been through this. Of course the government can forbid discrimination in some cases, but Peterson should be forgiven for not understanding the nuance involved in this question.

What Peterson Should Have Said

American conservatives cringe watching Peterson fold under this questioning because the answer is so apparent to us. Of course you have to sell your product to anyone of any race, creed, religion, hair color, height, or anything else. What you don’t have to do is create free expression that supports their position if you disagree. To Americans this is just obvious, but we should be able to see why it isn’t to a Canadian like Peterson.

Even Peterson, who views compelled speech as the scourge that it is, was dumbfounded by this facile argument because he lives in a society without natural rights. He has no background in the U.S. Constitution. When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says jump, regarding what Canadians are allowed to say, all those hockey fans say, “How high?” But when President Trump tries that, well, we use our First Amendment rights to tell him what’s what, whether he likes it or not.

Take A Breath, Mr. Peterson

Peterson has been a blessing in myriad ways, but he really crumbed the play on this one. He seems to think that good faith and fair argument can win the day. He often seems unprepared for attacks that any American conservative parries day in and day out. Welcome to the Big Leagues, Mr. Peterson. They are going to throw at your head. They have baseball in Toronto, so you should know what that means.

Peterson went on a show where the host clearly wanted to knock him down a peg. Good on ya, take on all comers. But be prepared for it. The argument he fumbled on, that expression is not the same as offering services, should have been a layup. Of course you have to serve gay customers, but you don’t have to use your free expression to celebrate their choices. Of course you have to teach trans students, but you don’t have to use their preferred pronouns. How did he miss this?

Zeitgeist is hard to resist. Put on your three-piece suit and your headset, and go blow the minds of your acolytes. Feel the love. Change the lives. Ope thy lips and let no dogs bark. I’m all for it. But dig it, that comes with responsibility and a leader can’t foul up as basic an argument as Peterson did in this segment. This is conservatism 101, at least in America.

Peterson is at a fork in the road. He can follow the path of his fellow Jungian Joseph Campbell, and be a moderate and important storyteller who helps ground us in the ways we mirror past generations. That doesn’t seem to be his bag. He wants more. Okay. Go for it, kid. Swing for the fences. But protect the plate. With Jefferies, he struck out badly. He looked at strike three, unaware. That can’t happen.

Dave Rubin and Ben Shapiro will pat Peterson on the back and bring him into the fold. Be cautious. What is Peterson trying to teach? Who is he trying to reach? What’s the big picture here, beyond fanboys? If Peterson can be tripped up by the most obvious and easily refuted rejections of his non-compelled-speech program, the very thing that propelled his rise to fame, what good is he? The fire is directed at him. How will he react?