A Response to “Argue Like Jordan Peterson”
The article below is a response to an article regarding Jordan Peterson. The writing below does not necessarily represent my particular views on any one subject — it does, however, represent my thought process in trying to think about Jordan Peterson and what his role is in our public intellectual discourse.
I have attempted to include all necessary information from the previous article so that if you have not read it, you do not need to in order to read this one. It is linked in the paragraph below if you would like to do so, however.
There is something about Jordan Peterson. His name pops up everywhere online, and yet there appears to be a significant disconnect between what he writes and speaks in lectures and interviews, and what others write about him. This particular article, Argue Like Jordan Peterson, demonstrates this disconnect. The article calls itself a consideration of Peterson’s “atemporal art of argument.” However, like so many articles looking at Peterson in some way or another, it is clearly limited by some sort of ideological lens — which type exactly, I am not sure — and this causes significant mis-steps in the author’s argument. Let us first look, however, at some general issues with the article.
Firstly, the author has blatantly misled any readers that have clicked onto the page. The title proposes at the very least a description of Peterson’s rhetorical and argumentative style, perhaps with some commentary as to how one can apply this style to one’s own argument. Now, one could argue this is exactly what the author did. This may be true, but I think this makes the argument even more deceptive than if it did not do this at all. Embedded in this “description” is a quite clear bias against Peterson’s rhetorical style, and this creates a number of holes in the author’s description and subsequent criticism of Peterson’s “art of argument.” The “Peterslam,” as the author names Peterson’s signature move, is overly-simplified, and often the author states the reverse of what is actually the case.
The general theme of this article is that Peterson takes complex issues being discussed and “relocates, reduces, or dismisses” the issue at hand” to a single issue. In doing so, Peterson “collapses complex social phenomena … down to a single platitudinous dimension.” And the supposed intention of this demonstrates a “desire to stop talking about the topic and move on: a fancier version of ‘it is what it is,’ … or ‘that’s the way the world works.’” But this gravely misses some key components in Peterson’s perspective (or worldview.)
In this article, I will point out some issues with the author’s interpretation of Peterson’s style of argument, and attempt to demonstrate what I think is a more truthful representation of Peterson’s style.
Please keep in mind that I do not consider myself to be in the “Peterson” camp. I find his thoughts and positions interesting, though I often disagree with some of his points of view. Regardless, I am interested in the many ways he is misrepresented, and attempt to rectify that in order to have greater discussion on the topics that Peterson generally gets into without descending into ideological polarization, which is rarely helpful or meaningful.
Specific Issues with the Author’s Interpretation of Peterson’s Argument
In the article’s section “Pulling Off the Peterslam (Concrete)” we see the first issues arise. The author outlines how one might going about doing the “Peterslam.” Section 1 is accurate: “Take an important and interesting question, such as the extent to which women were discriminated against historically. What are the causes of the plight of women?” The author links to a written interview with Jordan Peterson, where this is discussed near the end.
Section 2 elaborates the question:
which societies? Which eras? Is this discrimination de facto or de jure? Are we talking discrimination built into legal, political, economic, and religious structures? Or are we talking about psychological biases? Should we also include the realm of negative or non-representations in aesthetic and cultural production? How might anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers, theologians, legal scholars, and historians regard this question in overlapping ways, from a variety of feminist, non-feminist, or proto-feminist perspectives? In what ways has this discrimination lessened, increased, or mutated in different locales and dimensions? What is the historiography of this question?
This is quite a list. And even though is isn’t directly taken from the article the author implicitly seems to be referencing, it’s a good list. Unfortunately, section 3 writes, “Just kidding! We can skip all those complexities.” This I found confusing. Now, it’s fair to say that Peterson does not answer each of these questions, and I don’t think he intends to. He’s not a legal scholar, political scholar, economist, theologian, philosopher, anthropologist, or sociologist. And he often doesn’t try to be (save for some dabbling in philosophy, where he can be a little shaky.) He’s not there to answer those questions, he’s there to raise them. He is simply saying, “If we’re going to ask a question such as the extent to which women were discriminated against historically,” we have to get specific, and we have to list the extent, we have to make as long a list as possible before we know where to dive in. If you’re trying to answer the question broadly, you’re probably not going to give a very complete answer. Peterson is simply demonstrating that we rarely get specific about this question in public discourse.
In Section 4, the author writes “Locate a single cause or factor for the plight of women: poverty made life harsh for both the average man and the average woman.” The author is stating that Peterson reduces the plight of women to poverty — that life sucks, and there’s nothing you can do about it — therefore women weren’t oppressed. While he clearly isn’t making the traditional feminist argument, I don’t think he’s reducing it to a single cause either. This is a gross misrepresentation of what Peterson is saying. If we actually look at the article (and perhaps pull out some quotes?) The argument Peterson is making is that life wasn’t great for almost everyone — for most women, there wasn’t enough social mobility to be oppressed in our modern understanding. Most women would marry men in the same social class; the men would do extremely difficult physical labour while the women stayed home and, in Peterson’s grandmother’s case, chopped wood “three times as long, and just as high” as the cabin in which she lived with her husband. To be succinct, Peterson is saying that for women to go to work simply wasn’t an option. Part of this was due to discrimination, but not all of it. If women went to work, there would be no firewood during the winter. My conclusion to this is that the culture was different — it’s fairly difficult to claim that “women were oppressed” because in public discourse we rarely discuss all of the factors (listed in that long list above.) Making the statement that “women were oppressed” is akin to early Christian missionaries saying that “this civilization is uncivilized.” There’s a complete lack of anthropological understanding. This understanding is really necessary before any statements as broad as “women were oppressed” (again, which time? which place?) can be made.
I feel as if I haven’t captured Peterson’s points fully, but if we even take what’s written above, I find it difficult to state that the historical discrimination of women has been reduced to a single cause. In fact, I think the reduction of the historical discrimination of women to a single cause (the patriarchy) is precisely what Peterson is rejecting and attempting to rectify. He’s arguing for multiple factors — “There’s discrimination for sure, but it counts for maybe ten percent of the variance in [wages between men and women.]” Whether this number is accurate or not, he’s clearly not arguing that it’s 100%. He’s admitting that there has been historical discrimination against women, but he’s taking a multi-factoral perspective.
Interestingly, the author recognizes this: “Peterson cannot accept the genuine oppression of women by men, only a difference in roles amidst economic hardship.” Peterson does accept the genuine oppression of women, but he rejects the idea that it is a malicious attempt on behalf of men to oppress women. He does not accept the reduction to a single cause (men) but argues for multiple factors. Is this not exactly what the author would like?
The author proceeds to write, “The idea that there could be multiple interacting causes or factors for a certain social problem — hardly a radical idea, indeed the basis of much social science — he cannot tolerate.” But, to quote Peterson in the infamous interview with Cathy Newman when discussing the gender pay gap, “there’s multiple reasons for that. One of them is gender, but it’s not the only reason. If you’re a social scientist worth your salt, you never do a univariate analysis.” So at the very least, the author and Peterson disagree on what needs a multivariate analysis, and at most, the author and Peterson agree completely in actuality, but the author simply doesn’t want to agree, and takes quotes out of their context to create a seemingly valid argument which is in fact another misrepresentation.
The author writes, “the slight of hand that turns the historic plight of women into a purely economic matter has an obvious weakness: the fallacy of the single cause.” However, this is the exact opposite of what Peterson is doing: he is arguing against a single cause and in favour of multiple causes. To bring down Peterson’s views with this argument is to simultaneously bring down your own — at the very least, both sides have single-cause and multiple-causes, but simply apply them differently. At the very least, the author clearly believes in the “genuine oppression of women by men,” (the single cause) but cannot allow someone to offer an alternative single cause (economic hardship.) This seems to be a fairly weak argument against Peterson.
Culture as Oppressor
The author also takes issue with Peterson’s “high level of abstraction.” He claims that Peterson “relocates the cause of oppression to culture itself in the abstract” and proceeds to quote Peterson (though I am unsure from where) “Of course, culture is an oppressive structure. It’s always been that way. It’s a fundamental, universal existential reality. The tyrannical kind is a symbolic truth; an archetypal constant.” And the author interprets this incorrectly, I think. Peterson is reacting to the claim that Western culture is especially bad because of the historic oppression of women. While this is no good thing, we cannot ignore that the culture is not especially bad. When he states that culture is an oppressive structure, it’s quite difficult to believe otherwise.
What he means is that there is no culture in which oppression has not occurred in some way — there’s plenty of evidence of that — but this truth does not vanquish the specific grievances. The author is correct in that Peterson relocates the oppressor: it is not men, intentionally and maliciously oppressing women through the history of Western culture. He argues for certain psychological reasons that men generally (enough emphasis cannot be added to “generally.” Peterson consistently admits the exceptions,) behave different than women in certain situations. One of his classic points (noted in the Cathy Newman interview linked to earlier in this article) is that men are generally less agreeable than women, and therefore are more likely to ask for raises and succeed as bosses of groups of people, because they’re generally not as good at being nice to others. This is not to say that men are mean and women are nice, but generally men are less agreeable, and this is one of the factors that leads to the differences in wages between men and women.
Where We Might Agree: In Defense of Postmodernity
The author and I may agree on a few points however. Peterson’s villainization and over-simplification of postmodernism and its philosophers is where I find him to be weakest. Generally, I believe Peterson is too vague about postmodernism. What he really hates is hypermodernity, not postmodernity.
Peterson often rants against postmodernity, claiming it is the reason for so many of the issues we face today and that have been discussed at length above. However, I think he is truly wrong here. Hypermodernity is the true culprit. When Peterson speaks of the ideological, radical left-wing feminist, he speaks of someone who is hypermodern. This person amplifies the broad strokes of modernity while picking up from true postmodernity a concern for the marginalized voice. There is no other perspective worth entertaining, for this person. There is no point in debating or discussing, because it is morally wrong to believe anything (even simply a more nuanced version of the same belief) that does not line up exactly with what this person believes. I think Peterson is right when he claims that “Social Justice Warriors” (though I despise the negative connotations of this phrase — I think we should herald the people who dedicate their lives to such things, Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa for example) weaponize compassion. This happens, and Peterson is right to dislike it, but it is not very postmodern. I think the author and I could have a more in-depth conversation about Peterson and postmodernism, specifically his ideas about Derrida which I find vastly under-supported.
I hope that the writing above sheds light on the author’s own work, and that in responding to that article and in the subsequent conversation, we will sojourn closer to the Truth.