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Preventing Polarization: A Civil Critique of Jordan Peterson

Sunday, September 7, 2019
Seattle, California

Preventing Polarization:

A Civil Critique of Jordan Peterson

In 2018, the New York Times proclaimed Jordan Peterson, a Canadian psychologist and philosopher, the most influential public intellectual in the Western world.

Influential, yes.

But, also, incredibly controversial.

Unlike many of his extremist lovers and haters, I have listened to more than 50 of his podcasts—totaling more than 100 hours of lectures, presentations, and debates.

In other words, I have heard him, extensively.

I have not developed opinions based on one or two talks, quotations taken out of context, or what others have written about him. I have learned a great deal about post-modernist philosophy, academic psychology, Carl Jung, Christianity, the bible, critiques of the left wing, the idea of the transcendent, and more from Jordan. I admire his courage in speaking his mind.

You too can learn bits of wisdom from him if you listen to or watch him.

However, when considering the ideas of any thinker past or present, it is crucial listen or read critically. Like I said, I’ve learned a great deal from Jordan. Yet I disagree with him in some fundamental ways. That doesn’t mean I have to discard him as an intellectual; it only means one should listen to a learned person as a thoughtful, consenting adult.

Jordan Peterson strikingly exemplifies the increasing, frightening polarization in global culture.

On the one hand, Jordan is greeted with ecstatic idealization by many followers. Some display a guru-like devotion to him.

On the other hand, and in contrast, Jordan elicits intense rage in others. He has received death threats, his presentations have been disrupted by mass protests, and he has been blocked from speaking at a few major universities—despite having lectured at Cambridge and Harvard.

In an effort to calm the disturbing polarity around Jordan, and to demonstrate the power of civil dialogue over extreme divisiveness, I devote this post to critiquing some of his controversial ideas, point by point:

  1. Paradoxically, although Jordan rallies against identity politics, he displays it himself. His blatant dismissiveness of Marxism, the far left, post-modernism, and other ideologies betray a hypocrisy: you should not criticize polarization if you practice it yourself.
  2. Jordan repeatedly references global warming, including noting how some ecologists compare homo sapiens to a cancer to the planet earth. Surprising for a man so empirically-oriented, his position on how human greed has caused irrevocable damage to our planet is dead wrong. It reveals either bias or ignorance.
  3. Jordan’s position on romantic relationships has elicited much of the ire against him. He believes romantic partners should not live together before marriage.
  4. In his helpful and fascinating reflections on the universality of order versus chaos, he errs by suggesting men represent order and women chaos.
  5. Closely following this last point, Jordan preaches speaking with care. He wisely advises us all to choose our words with thought and deliberation. Here, again, hypocrisy exists. Intermixed with the wisdom of the idea of these two opposing forces, akin to yin and yang, Jordan throws in this sexist generalization.
  6. Although he carefully avoids admitting to personal religious or political affiliations, Jordan clearly leans more to the right than the left. He advocates for the kind of hyper-capitalism seen in modern China. He repeatedly refers to how UN goals for reducing international poverty are being met earlier than anticipated. Fair enough. That’s great news. But he fails to acknowledge how capitalism requires government control, i.e. antitrust laws and other regulations, to prevent catastrophes like climate change or the (current) worst income inequality since the end of WWII.
  7. Risking an entry into guru-hood, Jordan acknowledged a young man at one of his lectures who, during a question and answer period, publicly proposed to his partner. Why? Here, Jordan enabled his own ascent onto a dangerous pedestal. For a guy so interested in tyranny, he came close to stepping across the line himself.
  8. Finally, and remember this is just a partial list, Jordan’s reading list has a fairly limited range. He likes the Russian writers, particularly Solzhenitsyn and Dostoyevsky, refers to critics of post-modernism, and has a special attraction to the Bible. This is all well and good. However, they reflect his own political and philosophical biases. They are not nearly as wide-ranging as he suggests. His references are all excellent. I’d recommend them all, but caution readers and listeners against considering them anything like a balanced survey of the major works of literature, philosophy, or political science.

Again, my intention here was to offer a perhaps passionate critique of a highly polarized figure, Jordan Peterson, while neither lionizing nor vilifying him. A few truly evil figures have existed in the the history of ideas, like Hitler, for example, or Pol Pot. But many brilliant minds have a shadow side, like all of us. It’s a true shame that many people in our culture cannot view the world in its real shades of gray, and instead alternatively idealize or devalue.

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