Canada’s most famous psychologist has mesmerized millions on YouTube, written a best-seller, and spoken to sold-out crowds on a world tour that promises not to end any time soon. Like any celebrity, he has his detractors, and some of them are trying to destroy his reputation with a single word: racist.
The R-word has been precariously dangling on the lips of Jordan B. Peterson’s enemies for years. Most critics resorted to underhanded aspersions against the university professor instead of directly making the assertion of racism, since actual proof was lacking. Ira Wells of The Walrus, a Canadian publication, wrote last November that whereas white supremacist Richard Spencer attacks “sexual and racial minorities directly, Peterson instead attacks gender studies and race studies departments.”
Instead of unpacking his arguments and seeing where (if anywhere) he goes wrong, his critics on the left say Peterson, who dares attack their views of gender and white guilt, is one step removed from a white supremacist or similar to notable fascists.
In March, Pankaj Mishra wrote an article titled “Jordan Peterson & Fascist Mysticism” for The New York Review of Books in which he claimed that “fantasists” with views similar to those of Peterson brought about both world wars and the Holocaust.
Mishra points to Peterson’s affinity for “the great myths and religious stories of the past” as a sign that he shares an intellectual kinship with Richard Wagner, who “became notorious for using myth to regenerate the volk and stoke hatred of the aliens — largely Jews — who he thought polluted the pure community rooted in blood and soil.” How Peterson’s beloved myths and interpretation of religious stories (mainly drawn from the Bible) are similar to those of the German nationalists, Mishra fails to show, but they do, he says, both resort to myths.
Mishra also takes issue with Peterson’s call for men to be “masculine,” saying (while disregarding Peterson’s definition and use of the word) that many other “hyper-masculinist thinkers . . . urged insecure men to harden their hearts against the weak (women and minorities) on the grounds that the latter were biologically and culturally inferior.” (This is a strange accusation to make against a man who has worked to triple his female clients’ salaries, affirms that men and women have equal intelligence, and turned the third floor of his home into a Kwakwaka’wakw big house with totem poles and carvings.)
However, concerted research finally yielded some hard proof of racism. In a two-year-old tweet, Peterson had posted: “@GreggHurwitz it’s good that you consumed the liquor this time instead of letting some Indian steal it . . .”
The tweet resurfaced in January and drew the ire of Senator Murray Sinclair, a Canadian politician, who tweeted, “Jordan Peterson is a racist. Are we really surprised?” The tagged Gregg Hurwitz, an American novelist, quickly gave an explanation, saying that he had had a special bottle of bourbon while traveling, and a “self-identified Indian bartender” had offered to ship it to his home so that Hurwitz could avoid checking his luggage. Later, however, Hurwitz realized that he had been “duped” out of a bottle of bourbon. The bartender told him over the phone that she would be keeping the bottle for herself. Hurwitz added, “If memory serves, she eschewed the term ‘Native American.’” Peterson had been drinking with Hurwitz that night and it became a running joke.
Most accepted this explanation, but last month, The Walrus’s Robert Jago accused Peterson of unfairly using his connections with the coastal Pacific Kwakwaka’wakw tribe, into which Peterson had been inducted as an honorary member in 2016, as a shield against claims of racism — which in fact was not what Hurwitz had done. His explanation was that (1) the woman wanted to be referred to as “Indian” and (2) she had in fact stolen a bottle of bourbon; a particular woman and not the whole race had been referenced in the tweet.
The race to accuse Peterson of racism is tied to his views on white privilege (he calls it an abhorrent idea) and white guilt (he calls it racist). On March 5, hundreds of protesters attempted to drown out a lecture Peterson was giving on compelled speech at Queen’s University in Canada, chanting “F**k white supremacy” and “Shame on racism.” During the lecture, Peterson argued, as he often does, against group-identity politics, a subject that encompasses the theory of white privilege.
Peterson not only rejects the notion of white privilege but finds in it a logic that can be used to justify violence against the supposed oppressor group.
Peggy McIntosh, a Harvard graduate and professor of women’s studies, was one of the first to publish on white privilege. She wrote in a 1988 paper that her privilege had made her an oppressor, and lamented that her “schooling gave [her] no training in seeing [herself] as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person.” Being white not only benefited her group, she argued, it oppressed other races, as evidenced by the fact, for example, that she could “talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to [her] race.” Such privilege, she argues, “simply confers dominance, gives permission to control.” She alludes to the notion of hierarchy as oppressive but then offers no solution, except to urge white people to feel guilty.
Peterson mocked this paper last year during a lecture for the University of British Columbia Free Speech Club. He said McIntosh’s list of 46 privileges enjoyed by white people could apply to different groups of people in different countries, which means that privilege doesn’t have anything to do with being white or even with race but with being wealthy or being the majority. He argued further during his Queen’s lecture that the radical Left has yet to realize that their insistence on dealing with groups, instead of individuals, will leave them in the comedic position of dividing their group identities continually (as in the case of the LGBT community, who continue to add letters to their acronym) until they finally arrive at the individual, the ultimate minority.
“It turns out we don’t fit into one group, any of us, we fit into multiple groups and it’s not obvious at all which groups should be of paramount importance,” he said, noting that people can be divided by race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic class, intelligence, personality, etc. The individual is the most important entity, he argued. When group-identity politics disappears, we “meet soul to soul, so to speak, and we meet in a situation where we hold sole responsibility for our actions.” Meeting the individual as an individual and not as a member of a certain group will allow for real multiculturalism, instead of the great danger of tribalism, he said.
Peterson not only rejects the notion of white privilege but finds in it a logic that can be used to justify violence against the supposed oppressor group. His main problem with it (and with many similar inventions) lies in his belief that the individual, and not the group, should carry guilt; anything else, he argues, is racism. “The idea that you can target an ethnic group with a collective crime, regardless of the specific innocence or guilt of the constituent elements of that group — there is absolutely nothing that’s more racist than that. It’s absolutely abhorrent,” he said.
He argues that the victim-status mentality can lead (and often has led) to genocide. He refers to the treatment of the so-called kulaks in the Soviet Union in the 1920s: “They were the most productive element of the agricultural strata in Russia. And they were virtually all killed, raped, and robbed by the collectivists who insisted that because they showed signs of wealth, they were criminals and robbers.”
Still, Peterson doesn’t let anyone off the hook. He acknowledges that those who enjoy wealth today have come by it largely as a consequence of “historical catastrophe” — a reality that should motivate you to “work to deserve” these privileges, which will in turn make the world a better place for everyone. (He does, after all, have a penchant for telling people to grow the hell up and take responsibility.) “But not necessarily [because] you are any more guilty personally — you’re guilty as hell personally! — but so is everyone else. That’s the critical thing. So is everyone else.”
During the Q&A portion of a lecture Peterson gave in Los Angeles in January, a man in the crowd asked how Peterson responds to those who say he is starting a cult. His short answer summed up his philosophy nicely: “Can you have a cult of individuals?”