The pseudo-intellectualism of Jordan Peterson
Why the university should not have offered him a fellowship in the first place
Due to the controversial nature of this topic, The Tab would like to note that this is an opinion piece and does not reflect views beyond those of the writer.
Discussions around Peterson often morph into theoretical arguments around free speech, and his actual views, qualifications and arguments have been allowed to ride on the coattails of this wider discussion and avoid scrutiny. Many people arguing that his visiting fellowship should not have been rescinded cite diversity of opinion in universities, rather than addressing Peterson specifically.
Jordan Peterson is a Professor of Psychology from the University of Toronto – though most will have come across him on YouTube, or discussed in online forums under a variety of nicknames, from "lobster daddy" to "Jordan Beat Meaterson". His 2016 rise stemmed from his argument, disproved by legal scholars, that the bill C-16 would compel him to use students chosen pronouns. What the bill actually did was add gender identity to forms of discrimination covered under Canadian human rights law, along with race, religion and disability. From the start, we know Peterson is happy to peddle falsehoods, and refuse to engage with arguments refuting him.
The university is right to rescind his fellowship. Cambridge has an obligation to check the academic and research credentials of potential fellows to ensure they uphold its world-class reputation. Peterson planned to produce work affiliated with the university, intending to give a series of public lectures on Exodus. However, he is a clinical psychologist, and has absolutely no qualifications in theology; being a professor in one discipline does not make one an authority on a completely unrelated one. Peterson lacks even a basic undergraduate education in Hebrew and Christian scriptures, and in his own defence of his credibility, cites his YouTube videos and the fact that he wrote a popular self-help book based upon what he calls “Judeo-Christian thinking”, rather than any scholarship.
Faculty guidance for visiting fellows says applicants will be judged strictly on academic merit, and will participate “by attending a senior research seminar and sharing in discussion with colleagues”. These places are limited; the idea that Peterson deserves this more than an actual theologian is laughable. Furthermore, Peterson misunderstands the purpose of the Faculty, writing that “it is no bloody wonder that [Christianity] is declining (and with it, the values of the West, as it fragments) with [Faculty] … at the helm”. But the purpose of the Faculty is not to combat “the continued decline of church attendance”. Whether someone who is so clearly unable to separate his own ideological mission from his duties as an academic is suitable for a position of authority is dubious, to say the least.
Instead, Peterson presents a considerable risk to students. His visit would doubtless have caused protests, and Peterson has a history of doxing student protestors. After broadcasting the Facebook profiles of two Ryerson University students on his Twitter, one student received messages “bordering on death threats”. Others who have enraged Peterson’s fanbase have suffered the same; after Peterson’s Channel 4 interview with Cathy Newman, she received so much “online abuse and threats”, the channel was “forced to hire security specialists.”
Given that Peterson has discussed "fighting back" against those he disagrees with by “[scaring] them back into the corners”, public shaming is clearly an approved method. And a particularly dangerous one for those who oppose Peterson on account of his combined Twitter/YouTube following of over three million. People who argue that students should be eager to challenge Peterson in person overlook the fact that he has often not responded to this in good faith, and that the consequences of his anger are, at minimum, extreme online harassment.
Peterson has a record of endangering free speech; threatening to sue academic Kate Manne for defamation after she reviewed his book and called it misogynist in an interview, in what Manne called a “classic attempt to chill free speech”. The fact that legal advisors said the charge was “baseless”, and the threat was never carried out, demonstrates that Peterson was attempting to stifle criticism of his work, hoping that the threat of legal action would force Manne into retracting her words.
More chilling was his plan to "place under surveillance certain kinds of academic content", as the University of Toronto Faculty Association put it, by creating a website to “scour university curriculums” for “postmodern neo-Marxist course content." Peterson defines these said “postmodern neo-Marxist cult classes” as women’s studies, and all ethnic and racial studies. I'm no expert, but aiming to erase entire fields of studies seems somewhat opposed to the principle of free speech.
Peterson’s views on women show he is inappropriate to have around students. This is a man who thinks women who don’t want to be sexually harassed at work are hypocritical if they engage in “sexual display by wearing makeup". This is a man who claims there is an “antipathy between the genders” because “their interests are not identical at the biological level”, offering the #MeToo scandal as his example. This is the man who has been accused three times of sexual impropriety, including one case that “tangled” him up for a whole year. I couldn’t possibly speculate why such a man would be hostile to the post-Weinstein moment, when historic cases of sexual impropriety against powerful men are coming to light.
We must also think about what legitimising Peterson with a fellowship would do, to look past polysyllabic jargon and focus on his core messages. A lot are ultimately the same as beliefs held by the alt-right. You’ll never hear Peterson say the 14 words, but he says that declining birth rates “in the West” might “do us [who is us, I wonder] all in”. He would never demand a white ethnostate, but says the decline of Christianity is causing the destruction of Western values (and what non-Christian group is being blamed right now for said destruction?) People like Peterson know not to openly express bigoted views, so they are careful to dress arguments up in the language of academia.
The conspiracies that Peterson frequently alludes to have fatal consequences. The ‘Great Replacement theory' alluded to above, which claims the white Christian population is being replaced, was referenced in the manifesto of the Christchurch shooter; Neo-Nazi’s chanted “they will not replace us” as they marched through Charlottesville; the man who murdered 11 at the Pittsburgh synagogue promoted the white genocide conspiracy theory online. We are not immune in the UK; Jo Cox was murdered by a white supremacist.
Now Peterson is not a Neo-Nazi, but he is beloved by the alt-right with reason. His words provide a respectable introduction to alt-right ideas, his fantastical pseudo-scientific theories provide the scaffolding that props up toxic ideologies. He is Alex Jones for people who consider themselves intellectual. Peterson frequently references individuals who refer to themselves as the “intellectual dark web”, who are often described as gateways to the alt-right such as Joe Rogan. They use Peterson as a legitimiser, capitalising on his cultural currency to elevate their own visibility and platform. This is what a fellowship at Cambridge would give Peterson, an elevation of his cultural and academic status.
Cambridge were absolutely right to rescind the offer of a fellowship; Peterson is utterly unqualified, presents a threat to staff and students, and any offer carries the real risk of adding prestige to a man who guides people to the door of the alt-right.