By Russ McSwain
March 21, 2018
Jordan Peterson, the Canadian clinical psychologist, is having an enormous impact on our culture. His refusal to use legally mandated language has reverberated around the world.
He is obviously rattling leftists as they continue to make hysterical claims about him. The most recent and long-winded example comes from Nathan J. Robinson, the editor of Current Affairs. He published an almost twelve-thousand-word essay in that journal. It's hard to believe, but even with all those words he lands not a single blow on Peterson. He does manage to make a complete fool of himself.
His essay begins by listing an impressive group of people, including the head of Harvard's Psychology Department, who praise Peterson's work. He then sets out to try to prove them all wrong. He also lists a large number of writers who have treated Peterson unfairly. He then supersedes them all. There is no way to cover all the silliness in this piece, but I can explain a few of the problems in it. If you think I'm making this stuff up, by all means, read the whole messy, wordy essay.
Robinson has a long windup. There are many long paragraphs with snide remarks and hand-crafted editing designed to make Peterson look vague. The man is anything but vague. Finally, we arrive at the first factual disagreement with Peterson. In the famous interview with Cathy Newman, Jordan said that you now have more female than male doctors, and the trend in that direction is accelerating.
Robinson tells us there are not more female than male physicians either in the U.S. or Canada. (In context, you can hear the rim shot.) It's worth dwelling on this supposed killer line. Peterson was in England being interviewed by Newman. His English interviewer is pelting him with questions about the lack of female executives in England. Jordan explained that women are often drawn to alternative professions. For example, you, in England, have more female doctors than male. That's what he said, and he is correct. Don't take my word or his. Invest thirty minutes to watch a truly intelligent and, under the circumstances, gracious person at work in that half-hour interview.
While it's worth noting that trends in the medical profession in North America are moving in the English direction, the current ratios are not germane to the conversation Jordan and Ms. Newman had about England. It is fair to ask: was Robinson trying to slip one by, like a Clintonian lawyer, or is he just sloppy in his thinking? I think it's a combination of both in roughly equal measure. He, like many of his peers on the left, is half-cocked. That phrase will come in handy later.
The original basis for Peterson's worldwide notoriety is his objection to being compelled to use legally mandated language. This is a huge step beyond the current Canadian laws, which prohibit and criminalize certain speech. Robinson denies that the law does any such thing and that it's crazy to think speech would be criminalized. The link he provides looks moderate enough. It's the text of the law that simply adds gender pronouns to existing hate speech law. Robinson is careful not to link to the existing law, but we easily grasp its content by noting that the amendment is to the Criminal Code. I'm not a lawyer, so instead of the legal text, here is Wikipedia on that criminal code. Peterson is right.
Again, I don't think Robinson is lying. There is a funny space that some people on the left occupy that blinds them to facts. They are just very odd people.
To paint Peterson as a space cadet, Robinson presents a "random" transcript of 17 minutes of a YouTube lecture. He then dares the reader to read all the way through because it's so spacey. I lost the dare. In print, the lecture is full of anecdotes and asides that make it hard to follow. But if you have 17 minutes and have not watched Peterson, this YouTube lecture is a good one to start with. As a lecture, it is enlightening, in places very funny, and finally at the end a little sad. Two thoughts: Robinson may have shot himself in the foot, as some of his cohorts might actually watch this video. They will see Robinson in the same negative light as I do.
If you believe the claim that this video, which clearly does not translate to print, was selected "at random," please come to Florida, because I have some prime land for you. In today's world, you'll make a fortune growing oranges.
One of the reasons why unfettered speech is vitally important is that it's our only alternative to violence. Peterson makes a couple of recurring points here. One is that he, like most men, knows how to stand up to other men who have unfairly trespassed. We all know that in a serious – say again, serious – dispute, things can get physical. Peterson says in a variety places that no one respects a man who makes it clear that under no circumstances will he stand up for himself. His second point is that physical force is clearly prohibited between men and women. It is forbidden, and for good reason. But that prohibition can put men in an untenable position. It is important to recognize that problem.
Robinson reads this prohibition as Peterson regretting that he can't hit a woman. That's pretty amazing. Here is the video in question.
Decide for yourself. But our man doesn't stop there. He stoops to the lowest of all internet tactics: he quotes from the comments section. I never know who is serious or even who is, in a case like this, a troll saying things I've never heard right-of-center people say. I think Robinson understands the problem. Not for lack of trying, I can't find a place to leave comments on the Current Affairs website.
A recurring theme in Peterson's work is the need to fix yourself before you reform the world. The world is made up of complex systems. It requires a competence to change a complex system for the better. It is much easier to destroy a complex system than it is to improve it. One step on the road to competence is to fix yourself. Peterson says to develop some competence. Clean your room before you try to reform the whole world. While he means that literally, he also means it metaphorically.
This sends Robinson into a frenzy of lists of things that people like him aim to fix, and these things are of greater importance than a tidy room. He completely ignores competence. I do not have space here to debate all the issues, but it is clear that many of the reforms designed to help the disadvantaged have done more harm than good. Rather than get too far afield, I'll say just this: black unemployment is at an all-time low and continuing to improve. Liberals, progressives, socialists, or whatever had nothing to do with that. Programs they want to implement will actually undo this progress.
A final point: There is a paradox. Like me and many other folks on the right, Peterson is a fan of the socialist George Orwell. Virtually everyone knows 1984 and Animal Farm. Few people are familiar with The Road to Wigan Pier. It is a fabulous book that is divided in half. The first half is a heartbreaking picture of the brutality of working-class life in early 20th-century England. It catalogs what the left wants to call the contradictions of capitalism. But it's not that at all. It paints a clear picture of the deprivations caused by the social and personal disruptions of moving from near subsistence farming to an industrial economy. It's terrible, but so is what came before it.
Peterson spends many lectures movingly describing these deprivations. He is also, like many of us, interested in the second half of the book. In it, Orwell describes his total disgust with socialists. They are not interested in alleviating suffering. They are smug, resentful, bratty snobs who want to strike out at people. That pushed Peterson away from socialism, as it did me and many other people.
Robinson says we should work on our reading comprehension, because here is Orwell's conclusion: "To recoil from Socialism because so many socialists are inferior people is as absurd as refusing to travel by train because you dislike the ticket-collector's face."
I read that line as a teenager. My opinion has not changed: Orwell was wrong. Socialism puts the government in charge of all economic resources. When people realize they and all their relatives are mere economic resources, then the depraved nature of individual socialists takes on paramount importance. They are the inferior people who under socialism run everything – run it badly and run it cruelly. We see that in every instance, in every part of the world, where socialism's been implemented. When Orwell wrote Wigan Pier, socialists were neither nice nor competent. In Robinson, we can all see that they've gone downhill. Had Orwell lived to see the drivel published by Current Affairs, it's quite likely he'd rethink that quotation.
It is possible that Mr. Robinson's room is neat and tidy. His magazine and his writing are not. His work is creepy in its dishonesty. He should clean up his act. That would start with an apology for the garbage he's spread in this essay. When that's done, maybe we'll listen to his ideas for reforming the world. Well, maybe.