Tag Archives: social justice warriors

Jordan Peterson Provokes the Angry SJWs

I didn’t really want Jordan Peterson to provide me with 12 Rules for Life. It was enough that Professor Peterson defied the transgender advocates at the University of Toronto who wanted him to adopt nonsense pronouns to address his students. It was heartening to see Professor Peterson stand his ground against that obnoxious guardian of PC verities, Britain’s Channel 4 political correspondent Cathy Newman. But I had no special interest in watching his YouTube lectures and podcasts or plunging into Professor Peterson’s 400-page how-to book (12 Rules) for those suffering the anomie of modern life.

Then along comes Pankaj Mishra in the New York Review of Books to explain the link between “Jordan Peterson & Fascist Mysticism,” and I see no real choice but to pay some attention to the slightly eccentric Canadian defender of English pronouns. Is he the emerging leader of a crypto-fascist cult? Someone leading youth down the path of dangerous lies and illusions? Or is he, as I had supposed, a well-spoken contrarian who has decided to take a personal stand against some of the self-destructive silliness of our age?

I won’t keep you in suspense. Peterson is pretty much who he appears to be to those who have not become unhinged by their hinge-destroying wokeness. That is, Peterson strives to be a gentleman, but one who has honed some sharp opinions about feminism, social justice warriors, and attempts to put progressive ideology in the center of domestic life. These things mark Peterson as an enemy to Pankaj Mishra, an Indian essayist and novelist, who has something of a side-specialty in penning diatribes against Western scholars who do not come up to his standards.

In 2011, Mishra attacked the British historian and Harvard professor Niall Ferguson for his book Civilization: The West and the Rest, accusing Ferguson of racism. Ferguson responded in strong words, quoted in The Guardian, describing Mishra’s critique as “a crude attempt at character assassination” that “mendaciously misrepresents my work but also strongly implies that I am a racist.” He called Mishra’s article “libelous and dishonest.”

Mishra likewise went after the distinguished British journalist Douglas Murray in a New York Times review of Murray’s book, The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam. He characterizes Murray’s book as “a handy digest of far-right clichés,” “fundamentally incoherent,” and marked by “retro claims of ethnic-religious community, and fears of contamination”—all without any attention to what Murray truly says. Mishra goes out of his way to continue his attack on Murray in his essay on Peterson, linking the two as members of the “far right sect” that idolizes Solzhenitsyn and deplores “the attraction of the young to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.” The “sect” appears to consist of everyone who has doubts about the left’s current conception of “egalitarianism.”

Mishra no doubt pleased his readership at the London Review of Books and The New York Times with his attempted take-downs of Ferguson and Murray, and I expect no less from the readers of the New York Review of Books in the case of Peterson. The left is perpetually hungry for figures it can demonize. It can gorge on its hatred of Trump but still feel an appetite to devour some other prey. Mishra’s article is an attempt to supply a recipe. Peterson is staked out mainly because he has become so popular, or, as Mishra puts it, Peterson’s “intellectual populism has risen with stunning velocity; and it is boosted, like the political populisms of our time, by predominantly male and frenzied followers.”

So, part of the problem with Peterson is that he attracts those frenzied deplorables. What does Peterson really have to offer in 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos?

No, Not Mysticism

Peterson is a clinical psychologist who has wide-ranging interests in mythology, literature, religion, and philosophy. When Mishra jabs at him for “mysticism,” he goes wide of the mark. Peterson is a rationalist attempting to find a core of meaning in the world’s diverse myths and religions. When Mishra doubles up with the charge of “fascist mysticism,” he is apparently extrapolating from Peterson’s adoption of Martin Heidegger’s use of the term Being (“with a capital B”). Heidegger was one of the 20th century’s most important philosophers, but he infamously threw in his lot with the Nazis, and he is not everyone’s bottle of schnapps. Not mine at any rate. Still, Being “with a capital B” is a long-established philosophical term, and Peterson provides a layman’s definition at the outset. “Being” is “the totality of human experience,” in contrast to objective reality. It is “what each of us experiences, subjectively, personally and individually, as well as what we each experience jointly with others.”

That’s as technical as Peterson ever gets, and it is neither mystical nor fascist. The rest of the book consists of happily phrased bits of advice (the “12 rules”) that are really occasions for discursive essays that weave together humor, science, and common sense. The literary tradition that Peterson belongs to is that of 18th century English essayists such as Addison and Steele in The Spectator and Samuel Johnson in The Rambler. Those writers could be framed as “intellectual populists” too since their goal was to uplift the growing middle class through palatable moral instruction. Different times call for different tones, but it would not be far from the mark to say that Jordan Peterson is the Joseph Addison of the 21st century.

No Slouching, Shoulders Back

Rule 1: “Stand up straight with your shoulders back.” I’ve heard this often enough from my gym trainer to wonder whether he should get a cut of Peterson’s royalties. But, no. Along with most people, I heard it through childhood. It is age-old wisdom. I know of no culture where children are taught, “Slouch when you stand, and hunch your shoulders.” So, Peterson starts on firm ground. His first rule isn’t just for desk-bound Americans or slouchy teenagers. It has common humanity written into it, or, if you will, Being.

But it is less the rule than the essay written around the rule that counts. In this case, Peterson begins by comparing the territoriality of lobsters and house wrens, thus establishing that the animals that are wired to defend themselves range from the ocean bottom to the air. We then learn a bit about the dire consequences to a lobster that loses its fight for its territory. (Its brain shrinks.) This leads to some comments on neurochemistry and an observation on the “unequal distribution” of “creative production. Most scientific papers are published by a handful of scientists. Only a relative few musicians produce most of the recorded music, etc. Once dominance is established, the winner usually prevails without a fight. All the victorious lobster needs do is “wiggle his antennae in a threatening manner.”

This takes us but a few pages into the world of Rule 1, but the reader by this point can foresee the destination. Standing up straight with your shoulders back is the way human beings signal confidence and mastery of the situation. We are men, not lobsters, but we are all part of a biological order that follows the same basic rules. “Walk tall and gaze forthrightly ahead,” says Peterson, and good things will happen. People will assume “you are competent and able.” You will be “less anxious.” “Your conversations will flow better.” And “you may choose to embrace Being, and work for its furtherance and improvement.” And after that, “you may be able to accept the terrible burden of the World [with a capital W] and find joy.”

The whole essay flows smoothly with Peterson’s lightly-worn erudition until it hits the curb at the very end with that joyful embrace of Being. Some readers no doubt will find it gives a little spring to their intellectual step—a sense that we have transcended the order of Crustacea and are now in the sad but ennobling predicament of humanity. I don’t mind so much Peterson’s efforts to elevate the prospect, but his stepping stool of Heidegger’s jargon is intrusive.

But does it make Peterson a fascist mystic? No, it makes him, like most scholars, someone who indulges some of his whims.

Hierarchies Found in Nature

In his explanation of why Peterson is so bad, Mishra touches on Peterson’s universalism. Peterson, he says, “insists that gender and class hierarchies are ordained by nature and validated by science.” This is a serious distortion of Peterson’s point. Peterson, it can be fairly said, argues that the principle of hierarchy can be found in nature and that humans are not at all exempt from that principle. But that is a very long way from saying that Peterson validates “gender and class hierarchies” in general. He does nothing of the kind.

Mishra speculates that “reactionary white men will surely be thrilled by Peterson’s loathing for ‘social justice warriors.’” And he proposes that “those embattled against political correctness on university campuses will heartily endorse Peterson’s claims” that whole academic disciplines are hostile to men. Well, now that you mention it Pankaj, the latter statement seems securely grounded in the facts. But isn’t it a bit odd to attack a book and an author by speculating on the sorts of readers the book may attract? For what it is worth, I suspect the core audience for 12 Rules for Life includes plenty of young women as well as young men, launched into adult life from colleges and universities that have given them no serious moral preparation at all—only a basketful of social justice slogans and anti-Western attitudes.

David Brooks extolled Peterson’s book in The New York Times but, like Mishra, takes the book as mainly directed to young men for whom it counsels, “discipline, courage and self-sacrifice.” Oddly, it is only young women reading it on the subway. Perhaps they are looking for those disciplined, courageous, and self-sacrificing young men, who are now so conspicuous by their rarity.

Peterson is stepping into that space with a non-sectarian message that respects the multicultural sensibilities of the young. He is for sure grounded in Western thought and literature but is ready at any moment to draw on non-Western cultures and traditions. This isn’t always to elevate those cultures. When he writes about Western homicide rates, he compares them to the !Kung bushmen, dubbed by anthropologists “the harmless people,” whose annual homicide rate is eight times that of the United States. Of course, the Kalahari !Kung are pretty peaceful compared to other primitive peoples.

At Least Don’t Lie

It seems a bit unfair to Peterson to divulge all twelve of his rules, though they are freely available on the Internet. Moreover, the rules themselves are not the heart of the book. What he builds around the rules is what counts. But for the flavor of the thing, here are a few of Peterson’s aperçus:

Rule 2. “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.”

Rule 5. “Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.”

Rule 8. “Tell the truth—or, at least, don’t lie.”

Rule 9. “Assume the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.”

They just don’t make fascist mystics the way they used to.

Either that or the vitriol of reviewers for progressive journals is reaching new concentrations. Essays such as Pankaj Mishra’s “Jordan Peterson & Fascist Mysticism” seem designed to give permission to liberals to sneer at writers whom they have never read. An Indian intellectual says that so-and-so is a racist, an ethno-nationalist, a fascist, a mystic. You are therefore on good ground to ignore so-and-so, and if his name comes up in conversation, you know exactly which epithet to apply.

Peterson, as far as I can see, deserves his popular success. He is a morally serious, highly literate writer who has important things to say. He says them rather well in an entertaining manner that doesn’t compromise either his clarity or his essential points. 12 Rules for Life isn’t faultless. Peterson sometimes wanders too far afield, and his forty-some mentions of Being is about 39 too many. But for readers trying to find their way through the “chaos” of contemporary North American cultural decline, these “rules” are a good place to begin. If you don’t like all of them, that’s fine. Peterson will at least make you think about why you don’t like them, and perhaps you will find your way to a better distillation of wisdom. But you probably won’t find a better Virgil to take you safely step by step through today’s Inferno.

Yes, the Weird Campus Culture Pollutes the Whole Nation Now

Several correspondents send me links to “must read” articles every few days. High up on the list since February 9, has been Andrew Sullivan’s New York Magazine article, “We All Live on Campus Now.” Like most “must reads,” Sullivan’s article is a blazing reassertion of what most people already know. Its claim, as Pope defined “true wit” in his Essay on Criticism, is to present “What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d.”

What Sullivan expresses so well is the diminution of the concept of the individual next to the Colossus of Identity Group. He gets there by puncturing the fantasy that the victim culture on campus begins to disappear as you make your way down main street and over to the business district.

We did already know this, didn’t we? When Google fired James Damore in 2017 for writing a memo in which he commented on psychological differences between men and women, we had a clue. When Mozilla fired its CEO Brendan Eich in 2014 for having once donated $1,000 to Proposition 8, we had an inkling. When Harvard ousted president Larry Summers way back in 2006 for making carefully hedged observations about the distribution across the sexes of Himalayan-level mathematical aptitude, we had a whisper.

Plainly we have all known for a very long time that the quips and cranks, and wanton wiles of political correctness had become the jollity of everyday life in America. Yesterday I interviewed a candidate for a position as an editor of my journal, and when I mentioned that we stick with “he” as the third-person generic pronoun, a look of barely veiled horror shrank across her face. By the time we got to my opposition to racial preferences, this poor mortal was ready to flee for her life.

Why? Because all right-thinking people know the new rules. The diversity of victimization is the only diversity that now matters in America. A few days back a reporter called me for comment on whether the new Hollywood blockbuster, The Black Panther, could rightly be faulted for not giving adequate attention to the doubling and tripling of victim statuses called “intersectionality.” Apparently, the filmmakers had cut some Lesbian love scenes that black activist and scriptwriter Ta-Nehisi Coates had added to the fantasy pic. Intersectionality is where all the injustices, phobias, and –isms come together in the great banquet of identity group suffering, something like the palace of the devils, Pandemonium, in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

The attentive reader cannot have failed to notice my various allusions to dead white male poets and living white male overachievers. They are here as my support group. My own cultural identity, which I’ve long understood to be that of an American who has an interest in history, literature, and ideas, has been yanked away by the edict of our Cultural Czars. In its stead, I find I find that I am to understand myself by the coordinates of race, sex, and privilege. (I refuse the word “gender.” It concedes the falsehood that sexual differences are entirely “socially constructed.”)

I don’t care for this new reductionism, and I find it hard to believe that many other people care for it either, except those who derive their livelihoods by striding the webs of identity group affiliation. To be sure, resentment and anger provide a certain source of gratification.

Sullivan observes how “the imperatives of an identity-based ‘social justice’ movement” are dragging America away from “liberal democracy.”  Sullivan should know, as he played his own part in attaching some of the chains to the tow truck. He may regret the zeal with which the next generation of activists continue the work of dismantling the foundations of family and civilized order. As for the “individual,” it is surprising how such a Gibraltar of a concept could crumble into postmodern dust in the space of a generation.

The readiness of students to discard academic freedom for “safe spaces” is a readiness to shrug off their individuality in favor of the supposed comforts of group identity. That this has been carried into popular culture and politics is undeniable. That we can watch it invade the precincts of business and commerce is astonishing. It is as though all the defensive forces have thrown down their weapons and fled.

“The whole concept of an individual who exists apart from group identity is slipping from the discourse,” writes Sullivan, and he is on the money. When he turns to President Trump as the arch-avatar of these sorry developments, however, I am not so sure. Trump, of course, is frequently chastised as having called forth the legions of white identity reactionaries, and his style is often crude, but it is also hard to think of him as anything but an unreformed individual. His bluster is the rodomontade of a self-made man. He mocks the conventions of identity politics, which can be mistaken as indulging those conventions.

But I wouldn’t insist on the point. Sullivan does excellent work surveying the cratered terrain where radical feminists, cultural Marxists, and social justice warriors of all sorts have lobbed their mortar shells and nearly obliterated all traces of civilized culture. Learning how to treat people as individuals again will take a long recuperation. As a misogynist writer once put it, this is our own Farewell to Arms.

Photo: The 5 Factions of DIVERGENT Thought Leaders – Leading Thought (Flickr)

How Schools Create Social Justice Warriors

When people watch videos and TV footage of college students screaming at professors and blocking doors to lecture halls, they wonder where the rancor and intolerance come from. A story recently in The New York Times identifies one origin.

It’s called “Children’s Primers Court the Littlest Radicals,” and it covers a new trend in children’s books. Not volumes for 9- and 12-year-olds–we’re looking at 2-, 3-, and 4-year-old audiences.

The topics, plots, and characters in these books are all hardline leftist and heavy on identity politics. “Toddler-tomes,” the reporter calls them,  “are meant to resonate most ringingly with progressive millennials and their tiniest charges.” Some of the lessons in “A Is for Anarchist,” a popular alphabet book, exemplify the indoctrination.

‘F’ is for feminist, For fairness in our pay.

‘J’ is for Justice! Justicia for all.

L-G-B-T-Q! Love who [sic] you choose.

Don’t laugh. “A Is for Activist” has sold 125,000 print units since its release in 2013. And whenever a book takes off like that, it inspires dozens of imitations.

We have “My Night in the Planetarium,” which spends pages “speaking out against oppression.” And the self-explanatory “A Rule Is to Break: A Child’s Guide to Anarchy (Wee Rebels)”; “V Is for Vegan”; and “Emma and the While,” which emphasizes “empathy and wildlife preservation.”

The trend is long overdue, say people interviewed in the story. “For every book about social justice, I’d like to see 50 published,” says the head of We Need Diversity books. A blogger who writes about “political and child-rearing issues” praises books that “respect people with disabilities, people that don’t necessarily look like [her own kids], people of all gender identities.”

It all sounds warm and welcoming. Progressivism trades quite skillfully in dreamy positivity. but anyone who has ever had to debate or contend with a progressive knows that a dark side lies just beneath the inclusivity talk. This story displays it well.

It isn’t sufficient for the blogger to envision a wonderful world of diversity. She must preface her loving concerns with a livid premise:

When racist, misogynistic and hateful rhetoric has become mainstream, offering affirming and respectful messages to my children seems more urgent than ever.

“A Is for Activist,” too, denigrates anything outside its progressive vision. It characterizes people who oppose the development of alternative energy sources as this: “Silly Selfish Scoundrels Sucking on Dinosaur Sludge.” Heads of corporations are “Vultures.”

This is the flip side of progressive benignity. It demonizes the opposition. And when it reaches kids at the age of three, they accept it as real and true. Toddlers don’t have the mental equipment to place such characters and ideas into a dramatic context. They don’t have what is called aesthetic distance.

This isn’t reading. It’s catechism, indoctrination, proselytizing. We see here the beginnings of an intolerance that results in the Middlebury-Murray episode. The only thing more irritating than the books themselves is the solemn confidence of the advocates. They believe they are improving an unjust society. The implantation of progressive propaganda into little minds is a noble moral mission in their eyes. Children are like

The implantation of progressive propaganda into little minds is a noble moral mission in their eyes. Children are like clay and must be molded right. If progressives don’t do it, children will assimilate the values and biases of a racist, sexist, homophobic, nationalistic world. It is out of this early learning that the disputation, resentful, arrogant social justice warrior-undergraduate emerges.

The Strange World of Social Justice Warriors

Culture wars over “social justice” have been wreaking havoc in many communities, including universities and science fiction fandom.

The ordeal of Northwestern University film professor Laura Kipnis, hauled before a campus gender equity tribunal for publishing a critique of academia’s current obsession with sexual misconduct, has brought the backlash against “political correctness” to reliably left-of-center venues such as Vox. But this is only the latest incident in the culture wars over “social justice” that have been wreaking havoc in a wide range of communities—including, but not limited to, universities, the literary world, science fiction fandom and the atheist/skeptic movement.

The progressive crusaders driving these wars have been dubbed “social justice warriors,” or “SJWs,” by their Internet foes. Some activists on the left proudly embrace the label, crowing that it says a lot about the other side that it uses “social justice” as a derisive epithet. But in fact, this version of “social justice” is not about social justice at all. It is a cultish, essentially totalitarian ideology deeply inimical—as liberals such as Jonathan Chait warn in New York Magazine—to the traditional values of the liberal left, and not just because of the movement’s hostility to freedom of “harmful” speech.

At the core of social justice dogma is fixation on identity and “privilege.” Some of this discourse touches on real and clear inequities: for instance, the widespread tendency of police and others to treat African-Americans, especially young and male, as potential lawbreakers. Yet even here, the rhetoric of privilege generates far more heat than light. University of California-Merced sociologist Tanya Bolash-Goza, who accepts the social justice left’s view of pervasive structural racism in America, points out that the term “white privilege” turns what should be the norm for all—not being harassed by cops or eyed suspiciously by shop owners—into a special advantage unfairly enjoyed by whites. (Indeed, in its dictionary meaning, “privilege” refers to rights or benefits possessed by the select, not by the majority.) This language speaks not to black betterment but to white guilt. It also erases the fact that the “privilege” extends to many non-white groups, such as Asians.

Privilege rhetoric offers an absurdly simplistic view of complex social dynamics. A widely cited essay by pro-“social justice” sci-fi writer John Scalzi seeks to explain privilege to geeks by arguing that being a straight white male is akin to playing a videogame on “the lowest difficulty setting.” Does the white son of a poor single mother have it easier than the daughter of a wealthy black couple? As a minor afterthought, Scalzi mentions that “players” in other groups may be better off if they start with more “points” in areas such as wealth. But generally, the “social justice” left strenuously avoids the issue of socioeconomic background, which, despite upward mobility, is surely the most tangible and entrenched form of actual privilege in modern American society. Rather, the focus is on racial, sexual, and cultural identities.

While social justice discourse embraces “intersectionality”—the understanding that different forms of social advantage and disadvantage interact with each other—this virtually never works in favor of the “privileged.” Thus, intersectionality may mean recognizing that disabled battered women suffer from both sexism and “ableism.”

Recognizing that disabled men may be at greater risk for spousal abuse because disability reverses the usual male advantage in strength? Not so much. To acknowledge advantages enjoyed by the “oppressed”—for instance,gender bias favoring female defendants in criminal cases or mothers in custody suits—is pure heresy. The only moral dilemma is which oppressed identity trumps which: race or gender, sexuality or religion.

This hierarchy of identity politics can lead to some bizarre inversions of progressive values. Thus, because Muslims are classified as “marginalized” and “non-privileged” in the West’s power structures, critics of misogyny and homophobia in fundamentalist Islam risk being chastised for “Islamophobic” prejudice. Charlie Hebdo, the staunchly left-wing French magazine murderously attacked in January in retaliation for its Mohammed cartoons, was denounced bya number of leftist critics who felt that the magazine’s satirical barbs at Islam (along with other organized religions) amounted to “punching down” at the powerless. The men with guns who shot twelve Charlie staffers were presumably punching up.

On the other hand, since Jews in Western society today are seen as more privileged than not, social justice discourse sheepishly sidesteps anti-Semitism—surely one of the most pernicious forms of bigotry in Western history. Salon, more or less the Pravda of today’s social justice left, recently ran a piece arguing that the coming reboot of the X-Men franchise should reinvent its character Magneto, a Jewish Auschwitz survivor, as black in order to “get real about race.”

The practical effects of such “social justice” ideology be seen in the communities where it flourishes (mainly on college campuses and online). It is a reverse caste system in which a person’s status and worth depends entirely on their perceived oppression and disadvantage. The nuances of rank can be as rigid as in the most oppressively hierarchical traditional society. A white woman upset by an insulting comment from a white man qualifies for sympathy and support; a white woman distraught at being ripped to shreds by a “woman of color” for an apparent racial faux pas can be ridiculed for “white girl tears.” However, if she turns out to be a rape victim, the mockery probably crosses a line.

On the other hand, a straight white male trashed by an online mob for some vague offenses deemed misogynist and racist can invite more vitriol by revealing that he is a sexual abuse survivor suffering from post-traumatic stress.

A recent controversy in the science fiction world illustrates this toxic atmosphere. A few months ago, many sci-fi writers and fans were shaken by the revelation that Benjanun Sriduangkaew, a young Thai female author, not only doubled as a militant “social justice” blogger but had a third identity as a notorious LiveJournal troll known for egregious harassment, including death and rape threats—often toward nonwhite, female, or transgender victims. Yet Sriduangkaew found supporters who saw the scandal as, in the words of a Daily Dot article, “an example of white privilege attempting to silence writers of color.” The article itself approached the question of whether she deserved forgiveness in nakedly political terms: “Sriduangkaew [is] an excellent, well-liked writer whose multicultural voice is an important addition to the sparse population of non-white writers in the world of speculative publishing. On the other hand, her troll voice has often worked to loudly silence other members of marginalized identities.” Some tried to defend Sriduangkaew by pointing out that most of her targets were white males.

In this climate, it is not surprising that a while male poet would write an agonized letter to a literary blog wondering if he should stop writing: he feels guilty about writing from a white male perspective but also worries that if he writes in the voice of women or minorities, he would be “colonizing” their stories.

Working to correct inequities is a noble goal—which explains the appeal of the “social justice” movement to many fair-minded people. But the movement in its current form is not about that. It elevates an extreme and polarizing version of identity politics in which individuals are little more than the sum of their labels. It encourages wallowing in anger and guilt. It promotes intolerance and the politicization of everything. It must be stopped—not only for the sake of freedom, but for the sake of a kinder, fairer society.

This article was published originally in the New York Observer.