August 12, 2018


The Left's Contempt for Jordan Peterson Is Perfectly Rational (Eric Levitz, 8/12/18, New York)

Is it actually the case that Peterson's argument against identity politics is profound, and that the left has no coherent reason for disdaining him on the basis of it?

To answer this query, let's take a look at what Peterson's own fans have identified as "his finest moment" -- his nutshell case for rejecting identity politics and embracing the individualist, "free market" traditions of "the West."

This viral clip from one of Peterson's lectures begins with the professor arguing that every single person in his audience is "oppressed." The ensuing rant is worth quoting at length:

God only knows why. Maybe you're too short, or you're not as beautiful as you could be, or, you know, your parent, your grandparent was a serf -- likely, because almost everbody's grand-, great-grandparent was. And you're not as smart as you could be. And you have a sick relative, and you have your own physical problems -- and it's like, frankly, you're a mess. And you're oppressed in every possible way including your ancestry and your biology. And the entire sum of human history has conspired to produce victimized you, with all your individual pathological problems. It's like: YES! TRUE! OKAY!

But the problem is that, if you take the oppressed, you have to fractionate them and fractionate them, and it's like: You're a woman? Yeah, okay -- well I'm a black woman. Well, I'm a black woman who has two children. Well, I'm a black woman who has two children, and one of them isn't very healthy. And then, well, I'm a Hispanic woman, and I have a genius son who doesn't have any money, so that he can't go to university -- and, you know, I had a hell of a time getting across the border. It was really hard on me to get my citizenship. My husband is an alcoholic brute. It's like, well, yeah, that sucks too. And so, let's fix all your oppression. And we'll take every single thing into account, and then we'll fix yours too. We'll take every single thing into account.

It's like: NO, you won't because you can't. You can't. It is technically impossible. First of all, you can't even list all the ways that you're oppressed. Second, how are you going to weight them? Third, who's going to decide? And that's the bloody thing: Who's gonna decide? That's the thing. 

Well, what's the answer in the West? It's like, in free markets ... We're going to outsource it to the marketplace. You're going to take your sorry pathetic being, and you're gonna try to offer me something that maybe I want. And I'm going to take my sorry pathetic being, and I'm gonna say, "well, all things considered, as well as I can understand them, maybe I could give you this much money", which is actually a promise for that thing. And you've packed all of your damn oppression into the price. And I packed all my oppression into the willingness to pay it. And that solution sucks. It's a bad solution. But compared to every other solution - man, it's why 10 percent of us have freedom!

Here, Peterson argues that seeking political solutions to problems of identity-based oppression is futile; that attempts to do so will inevitably bestow arbitrary powers on some tyrannical authority (Who's gonna decide?); and thus, that the best society can do is to maintain free markets, where all individuals can seek to transcend their oppression by selling goods and services that other individuals wish to buy.

This narrative rests on so many flimsy premises it's hard to know where to begin. Does Peterson genuinely believe that "free markets" are the best solution "the West" has found for a woman whose "genius son" can't afford to go to college? Or for a mother with a sick child? Is he unaware of the existence of public universities, and his home country's single-payer health-care system? Or does he not understand that people had to organize collectively -- around shared identities of oppression (as with workers in trade unions or people who suffer from disabilities, in lobbying groups) -- to bring these kinds of public goods into being? And is the question of "who will get to decide" whose oppression the state should prioritize redressing really so confounding? Didn't "the West" develop republican institutions precisely so that the people's elected representatives could adjudicate such claims, and be voted out of office if they do so in way that displeases a majority of the public?

But the core problem with Peterson's argument -- the one that best justifies the left's contempt for him -- is that it proceeds from the premise that it is impossible to draw a categorical distinction between oppressions that are rooted in race, gender, or class, and ineluctable misfortunes like "being less tall than one might prefer."

That is, of course, precisely the opposite of what Mr. Peterson said in the quoted excerpt (see bold).  It's rather easy to draw categorical distinctions.  When Donald Trump rages against immigrants, Muslims, etc. he's just drawing categorical distinctions. The Left and the Right, both being rational, simply believe themselves uniquely well-suited to drawing them and then basing public policy on them.

Posted by at August 12, 2018 9:50 AM