Jordan Bernt Peterson (born June 12, 1962) is a Canadian clinical psychologist, cultural critic, and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. His main areas of study are in abnormal, social, and personality psychology, with a particular interest in the psychology of religious and ideological belief, and the assessment and improvement of personality and performance.
Peterson studied at the University of Alberta and McGill University. He remained at McGill as a post-doctoral fellow from 1991 to 1993 before moving to Harvard University, where he was an assistant and an associate professor in the psychology department. In 1998, he moved back in Canada to the University of Toronto as a full professor.
His first book Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief was published in 1999, a work which examined several academic fields to describe the structure of systems of beliefs and myths, their role in the regulation of emotion, creation of meaning, and motivation for genocide. His second book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, was released in January 2018. In 2016, Peterson released a series of videos on his YouTube channel in which he criticized political correctness and the Canadian government’s Bill C-16. He subsequently received significant media coverage.
“And so since the 1970s, under the guise of postmodernism, we’ve seen the rapid expansion of identity politics throughout the universities, it’s come to dominate all of the humanities – which are dead as far as I can tell – and a huge proportion of the social sciences … We’ve been publicly funding extremely radical, postmodern leftist thinkers who are hellbent on demolishing the fundamental substructure of Western civilization. And that’s no paranoid delusion. That’s their self-admitted goal … Jacques Derrida … most trenchantly formulated the anti-Western philosophy that is being pursued so assiduously by the radical left.”
Last year, I came upon an interview with former Hawke Minister Peter Baldwin which, amongst other things, related the unusual story of Tim Hunt, a Nobel-Prize winning chemist.
At a conference in Korea, Hunt ventured regrettably outside of his expertise. He complained that having young women in the lab was a distraction. Older men like himself tended to fall in love with them. Moreover, Hunt claimed that girls could not take criticism without crying.
For a great chemist, we see, Hunt makes an awful social commentator. What is striking about the story is what happened next.
The story, as they say, went “viral” on social media. Someone tweeted the remarks, or uploaded the video online. The next thing he knew, Hunt was being stood down from his role at UCL, Nobel-Prize-notwithstanding.
I found myself reminded as I heard this of another unlikely story: the first novel of the Czech author Milan Kundera, The Joke. In this story, the main character vents his discontents with a Stalinist indoctrination camp in a mocking postcard to his girlfriend:
Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky! Ludvik.
The Party censors intercepted the postcard, and did not find it amusing. Instead, Ludvik gets expelled from university and forced into military service in the mines.
To be sure, the comparison of the two stories is not perfect. Hunt was not sent to a labor camp, and the position he lost was honorary. So, unlike Ludvik, his material wellbeing and that of his family was not directly affected—only his good name. Hunt also appears not to have been joking, as far as anyone could tell.
Nevertheless, Hunt’s story is far from singular in the age of social media.
All around the world, stories of academics, media figures or employees being stood down by their employers after having been subjected to a kind of instantaneous prosecution by social media seem to be one of the signs of the Neuzeit.
For critics on the Right, Hunt’s and comparable stories show the dark, illiberal heart of what they call “political correctness”: a censorious culture preventing people speaking their minds on anything to do with matters of race, religion or gender. Many of these same critics (and, on the other side, Bernie Sanders) have also pointed to Mr Trump’s ostentatious disregard for such “political correctness” as one explanation for his 2016 catapult to power.
So what’s going on behind the increasing frequency of cases like Hunt’s: of people losing their jobs for what they have said alone—even, as in Hunt’s case, when the words in question neither reflect his professional expertise, nor target any particular individual? Are we entering a new period of social censorship, with dark historical precedents and echoes?
And what is rumbling away beneath the deep sense of grievance that underlies conservative commentators’ strident charges of “political correctness” against their opponents?
One role philosophy can play in such divisive debates is to try to clearly show each warring side “the reasons of the adversary”, and the paradoxes and problems within their own. Such, at least, is what Albert Camus proposed in the midst of the Algerian war in 1956. Camus’ attempt “to restore a climate that could lead to healthy debate” might today be tweeted with the hashtag: #tell-him-he’s-dreaming.
But not all dreams are bad for being illusory.
All’s fair …
For people labelled by conservative commentators as “politically correct”, their position looks quite different than the polemical tag implies.
What the Right calls political correctness describes the championing of a series of positions associated with the New Left. These positions hinge on the observation that the modern ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity are imperfectly enshrined in countries like Australia, the UK or the US.
Behind the advertised equality of all to trade, real material inequalities are produced and perpetuated, leading to deep divisions of class.
Behind appeals to equality of opportunity, gender inequality hasn’t gone away. Its deep bases are revealed, amongst other places (continuing pay differentials also leap to mind) by the gendered nouns in public documents that for a long time simply excluded women from the franchise— as in “we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal …”
Beneath the same language of equality, all-too-real inequalities exist between different ethnic and religious groups within pluralist societies like Australia. Lesbian and gay men and women for a long time faced laws that actively prohibited their forms of sexuality.
The New Left argument is that the cultural, economic and social discrimination against women, LGBT and non-anglosaxon members of our communities targeted them specifically on grounds of their belonging to those groups.
As such, it makes sense that a society which would redress these wrongs needs to legislate forms of “positive discrimination”, likewise targeting these groups specifically.
We should also educate for and enshrine new norms, attentive to the linguistic and other forms of discrimination that for far too long went without saying.
Given this reasoning, people of the New Left are likely to respond with outrage to the imputation that what they are promoting is a new form of waspish, quasi-Stalinist groupthink.
Their question is more likely to be: who could reasonably oppose these reforms, except people who still harbour older forms of prejudice, or feel threatened by the new forms of inclusivity the New Left has championed?
In love and war
There can be little doubt that many people who oppose progressive social reforms like marriage equality do so out of unavowed or avowed hostility to different minority groups.
Some of this group almost certainly are sympathetic to deeply illiberal political positions on the farther Right, and opposed to many of the social and immigration reforms that Australia has undertaken since the 1960s.
But not all people who contest these issues can fairly be so categorised. Many are deeply offended by any imputation that they are unreasonable, sexist, homophobic, racist or Islamophobic for defending conservative causes. Many base their positions on religious traditions with which they deeply identify.
And so we come to the first register of the “political correctness” charge. The argument goes something like this.
The impulses underlying forms of positive discrimination towards disadvantaged groups may be generous. Their flipside is a paradoxical intolerance towards everyone who disagrees with proposed policies or reforms.
This intolerance, critics allege, is manifest in a tendency to pathologise opponents: arguing as if they were all, equally and deeply flawed or bad people: racists, sexists, fascists, etc.
Rather than arguing the case against opponents of their positions, the “politically correct” silence them, critics claim. Or, in the age of social media, they spark campaigns that publicly shame them, even when their offences are not grave.
Enter Tim Hunt and company, if not Milan Kundera.
Certainly, there is a touch of the pot calling the kettle black about these complaints. For to call your opponents en bloc “politically correct” is hardly to celebrate their supple rationality and intrepid independence of spirit.
It remains true that any political sides’ demonising its opponents is a poor substitute for defeating them in open debate, predicated on a minimum of shared respect for the rules of the democratic game.
And so, the critics of “political correctness” point to cases on American campuses where activists have not let speakers from the Right speak at all, as opposed to engaging them in debate. For these critics, these shut-outs bespeak a “campus craziness” that threatens to close the universities to conservative viewpoints altogether.
The same critics point to the idea which has currency on some American campuses of “trigger warnings” surrounding potentially upsetting content for different potential audiences. Such warnings, and the attempt to create “safe spaces” in which no one could be “triggered” by upsetting contents, do not promote the free and open exchange of ideas on divisive issues, the critics charge. Debate is not won (or lost) this way. It is shut down before it can begin.
And this, the critics continue, is to give way too much power to words—which are not sticks and stones, even in the culture wars. It is also to under-rate the capacity of people to confront and debate difficult content, instead encouraging a culture of victimisation and ultra-sensitivity to verbal and vicarious harm.
Supporters of trigger warnings reply that it is very easy for privileged white males to decide what should and should not be open to free and open debate. They’ve been doing this for centuries.
It is surely for the people whose identities are at stake in potentially disturbing material—for people of colour, for example, in a text on racial violences—to decide what is and is not disturbing to them.
Lefts and rifts, old and new
This last response points to the deeper philosophical fault-lines underlying the “political correctness” wars. The positions of the New Left can, and do, take two different kinds of justifications with very different philosophical credentials and histories.
For one, the defence of equal dignity for all persons, no matter from which ethnic, racial, class or gender they hail, is justified precisely by appeal to what is shared between them, regardless of their differences.
Martin Luther King’s famous line expressing the hope that one day, in America, his children will be judged by the content of their character, not the colour of their skin, is a powerful expression of this kind of justification of civil rights reform.
A second kind of justification for New Left positions is very different. This justification is not based in an appeal to common or putatively universal values.
It argues that the modern West’s ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity have, in their history, been used to justify such horrible intolerance and violences against Others that these ideals themselves can no longer be reasonably defended.
Indeed, it is to the extent that particular groups, different from the mainstream, have been unjustly excluded from the communities propounding these ideals that they should be celebrated, and their claims supported.
The preceding opposition, roughly, charts the difference between liberal or socialist, modernist forms of Leftist politics, and post-liberal, post-socialist forms of Leftist politics (roughly, “post-modernism”).
The modernist’s appeal to what different groups share is vulnerable to the charge of what Stanley Fish memorably called “boutique multiculturalism”. The boutique multiculturalist tolerates and defends the rights of minorities only insofar as their ways of living do not harm and discriminate against any others’.
The moment that this other culture asserts discriminatory claims or practices illiberal rites (like female circumcision, for instance), this kind of multiculturalist’s tolerance runs out, and turns into its opposite. Why any of this implies that proponents of this position are in a boutique, Fish does not argue.
The second, postmodernist form of multiculturalism, which defends difference for difference’s sake, also has its own endemic paradoxes. If we support all different or Other groups on grounds of their difference, without further conditions, we soon find ourselves committed to supporting groups who are different from us, truly—but who express their difference by deep hostility to the kinds of toleration we are extending to them.
At this point, we either recoil back into a modernist position, inconsistently; or consistently bite the bullet and end up by supporting deeply illiberal, difference-hostile cultures.
Needless to say, the conservative commentariat have made hay over the last several decades by pointing up examples of this latter paradox, and its potentially disturbing corollaries. They have pushed it at times into extremely contentious claims about the New Left’s supposed support for forms of Islamic fundamentalism, and the like.
This is also where sweeping neoconservative claims about the New Left enshrining an “adversary culture” opposed to the entire “Western civilization” have made their way into magazines and opinion pages around the globe.
Let me finish by squaring the circle, and by highlighting that all opponents of “political correctness” do not identify as on the Right, although almost everyone on the socially conservative Right today probably identities themselves as being opposed to “political correctness”.
In fact, leading Leftist philosophers Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek have both presented scathing criticisms of the postmodern valorisation of difference and Otherness as a dead end for the Left.
What differentiates Žižek’s criticisms of “political correctness” from those on the Right (I am going to be generous to him here) is that he thinks that, in several senses, political correctness doesn’t go far enough.
Political correctness, Žižek charges, puts the cart before the horse, when it promotes codes of speaking and a series of polite, symbolic gestures respecting the Other which are not matched by real social changes.
Before we attend so closely to what people say, Žižek contends, we should first redress the real living conditions of disadvantaged people. Only then will what critics call “politically correct” ways of speaking no longer seem artificial and constrictive (as he thinks they do seem), and become the natural reflection of an expanded social contract.
Liberal American critic Mark Lilla, in a recent piece, has differently called for a “post-identity liberalism”. To win majorities in democracies, Lilla argues, the Left has to appeal to shared values. To build a platform around celebrating differences ends by dividing without conquering. This is what Hilary Clinton’s Democrats learned the hard way last year.
If the Democrats are to win back power, after four or eight years of Donald Trump, the “politically correct” attention to differences sans phrase will need to give way to a new language of shared struggles and ideals.
Stanley Fish might see such an opposition to postmodernist identity politics as a reversion to “boutique” liberalism. For Lilla, it is a matter of mathematics and hard-minded realpolitik.
Reading the Garden was first published in 2008, but somehow I missed it and only discovered it when Emma Ashmere, author of The Floating Garden revealed in Meet an Aussie Author that she had been a researcher for the book. I tracked it down at my local library that day and reserved it. I have been fascinated by the history of gardening in Australia ever since I read Holly Kerr-Forsyth’s Remembered Gardens.
Alas, Reading the Garden turned out to be a disappointment, nothing to do with Emma’s research but rather everything to do with the use that’s been made of it.
This is my garden in Autumn, looking out from our French windows. L to R: the edge of a small garden shed, and behind that (where you can’t see it) there’s one of our three water tanks. There are citrus trees, lemon & lime, obscuring the BBQ; a grape vine on the pergola…
‘Universities, once the bastions of freedom of thought, the place above all others where one could express contentious views have become beacons of political correctness. Students now need to be warned if there is something in a lecture which they might find difficult. Guest lecturers cancel speeches because students disapproving of their views threaten disruptive demonstrations. If we think the Catholic Church giving Galileo a rough time was medieval what do we think of students, rather than the university, deciding what they are prepared to hear.’ – Amanda Vanstone
Who can say what to whom in Australia? In this six-part series, we look at the complex idea of freedom of speech, who gets to exercise it and whether it is being curtailed in public debate.
The term “free speech” is not ideal. The “free” part skews in favour of those who oppose regulation and the “speech” part puts the focus on the spoken word, even though the discussion embraces wider communication including art, writing, films, plays, flag burning and advertising.
It might, therefore, be better to drop the term “free speech” to highlight that the debate is really about whether or not we should regulate the communication of ideas, thoughts and beliefs.
This analysis, however, is not the place to rewrite the terms of reference. So I will use the term free speech with the caveat that “free” does not mean a lack of regulation, and “speech” covers a variety of activities.
Justifying free speech
It is not enough to say “three cheers for speech!”, because if we don’t know why speech is important we don’t know if it is worth protecting.
John Stuart Mill thought that freedom of thought and discussion (he doesn’t use the term “free speech”) is valuable because it brings us closer to the truth, which in turn promotes utility. Alexander Meiklejohn suggests speech is important because it allows for democratic self-government. And Thomas Scanlon and C. Edwin Baker argue that free expression is justified because it promotes autonomy.
These are the three heavyweight contenders in the debate about why speech is important.
The important thing to notice about all of them is that the justification offered in favour of speech also allows for some limitations. If expression is justified because it promotes truth, we have no grounds for defending it when truth is undermined. Speech that damages democratic processes will find itself unprotected by the self-government thesis. And if the autonomy argument is compelling we will not want to protect speech that undermines this goal.
The heated debate about “political correctness” (a term I dislike), or PC, demonstrates this nicely. The usual claim is that PC stifles free speech. This accusation is difficult to quantify. PC might, for example, limit the speech of white men but enhance that of minorities; I would need more data before reaching a conclusion.
But the complaint itself tells us something about the complex nature of speech. Why complain at all? The usual answer is that communication is being muted by PC. This seems to be an argument that we should oppose PC in the name of free speech itself. To make this claim we need to show why speech is important (enter justification here). Once we offer a justification we again have an argument for why speech can be limited.
Perhaps combining the three justifications discussed above will allow for lots of unregulated speech. This doesn’t seem to work because the three accounts often clash. Justifying speech because it promotes truth, for example, seems to allow silencing many a politician (oh joy!) and hence interfering with political speech.
These difficulties suggest that any persuasive argument about speech (as opposed to saying “three cheers”) has to embrace the fact that speech can, and indeed should, be limited. An even more confronting conclusion is that giving reasons for why speech is important makes us reveal underlying values that seem to be even more fundamental than speech itself.
Which speech deserves special protection?
Having (hopefully) established that speech is not unconditionally good, the next task is to determine what the appropriate limits should be.
This will depend in large part on why speech is justified in the first place. The autonomy account will offer different protections than the truth/utility account which in turn will differ from the self-government justification.
Mill, for example, tells us that truth is best promoted by allowing a great deal of communication. But he is willing to shut down speech if it leads to unacceptable harm. This argument faces difficulties, one being harmful speech might lead us towards truth.
His justification for speech seems to clash with his reason for limiting speech. Mill was a pretty smart guy, but even he struggled to provide a coherent and consistent position on free speech.
The thing to keep in mind is that the justifications we use to defend speech will always prioritise some forms of communication over others, and this will be our guide to picking out speech most in need of protection. This again suggests that speech is not valuable in and of itself.
Should some speech acts be punished?
What should we do with speech that is not protected by our favoured justification? The answer depends on balancing the speech act in question against other values.
If the speech is not causing harm we might want to leave it alone. Others might think that harmless but grossly offensive speech should be punished. If speech reveals wartime secrets to the enemy we might want to put the person in prison.
Engaging in hate speech in Europe can quite possibly lead to the same outcome. Libel will incur civil rather than criminal charges. And Mill suggests that in many instances the appropriate punishment for speech is “social disapprobation” rather than legal penalty.
The reason why the argument over free speech has not been put to bed long ago is that people bring different sets of values to the discussion. The debate does not takes place in a vacuum and arguments have to be assessed against social norms, values and institutions. Speech is a social phenomenon because it requires speakers and listeners to engage with one another. The “problem” of free speech does not exist for the person stranded on a deserted island.
Even people with the same values can disagree on the facts of the matter. They might accept Mill’s argument that speech can be limited if it causes harm but disagree over whether hate speech, for example, is captured by the harm principle.
The topic quickly becomes devilishly difficult. The one thing I can say with confidence is that it is unlikely a one-size-fits-all principle will help us navigate the treacherous waters of free speech.
It’s distressing that this rampant borrowing of foods, clothing, hairstyles, and behaviors from their proper cultures isn’t merely done, but done without acknowledging the oppression that historically weighed on the offended groups. The fact that General Tso’s chicken, for instance, is not a real Chinese dish should not distract us from the fact that it’s regularly enjoyed by Westerners wholly ignorant of the atrocities committed by the Japanese on the Chinese during World War II.
But one oppressed group has been the victim of rampant cultural appropriation without…
John Cleese has made a career out of offending people, for that’s the thrust of much of his comedy, especially with Monty Python. In this short Big Think video, he sounds off on the hyper-offensiveness plaguing today’s society (he singles out college students), showing that it’s a warped extension of a laudable concern for the dispossessed. (By the way, I don’t agree that all humor is critical, and I’ve put a joke at the bottom* that is completely inoffensive.)
The money quote: “If people can’t control their own emotions then they have to start trying to control other people’s behavior.” We’ve seen this going around the internet quite a bit in the last year, when it’s been deemed okay to mock some viewpoints while others are totally off limits, branding those transgressing those boundaries as ideologically polluted.
*Here’s a joke that doesn’t offend anyone (except perhaps invertebrates):
In some ways the False equivalence fallacy is the direct opposite of a False dilemma.
False equivalence is an informal fallacy that describes a situation where there is an apparent similarity between two things, but in fact they are not equivalent. The two things may share some common characteristics, but they have important differences that are overlooked for the purposes of the argument.
The pattern of the fallacy often looks like this: if A has characteristics c and d, and B has characteristics d and e, then since they both have characteristic d, A and B are equivalent. In practice, often only a passing similarity is required between A and B for this fallacy to be committed.
The following statements are examples of false equivalence:
‘They’re both soft, cuddly pets. There’s no difference between a cat and a dog.’
‘We all bleed red. We’re all no different from each other.’
‘Hitler, Stalin and Mao were evil atheists; therefore all atheists are evil.’
A more complex example is where somebody claims that more Australians are killed by sharks or road accidents than by terrorism, therefore we should not do anything to stop terrorism. This example ignores the fact that terrorist acts are prevented by doing something, such as surveillance and intelligence. We also choose to take the risks of swimming in the ocean and driving in cars, but we cannot avoid the risk of terrorism no matter what we do.
False equivalence is occasionally claimed in politics, where one political party will accuse their opponents of having performed equally wrong actions, usually as a red herring in an attempt to deflect criticism of their own behaviour. Two wrongs don’t make a right.
On the other hand, politicians might accuse journalists of False equivalence in their reporting of political controversies if the stories are perceived to assign equal blame to opposing parties. However, False equivalence should not be confused with False balance – the media phenomenon of presenting two sides of an argument equally in disregard of the merit or evidence on a subject (a form of argument to moderation).
Moral equivalence is a special case of False equivalence where it is falsely claimed, often for ideological motives, that both sides are equally to blame for a war or other international conflict. The historical evidence shows that this is rarely the case.
Another special case of False equivalence is Political correctness, which may be defined as language, ideas, policies, or behavior that seeks to minimise social offence in relation to occupational, gender, racial, cultural, sexual orientation, certain other religions, beliefs or ideologies, disability, and age-related contexts, to an excessive extent thus inhibiting free speech.