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A feminist philosopher makes the case against Jordan Peterson

Peterson sounds like a stereotypical postmodernist.

Jordan Peterson Javier Zarracina/Vox

In my entire adult life, I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like the Jordan Peterson phenomenon.

In less than two years, the Canadian psychology professor emerged from obscurity to become an international best-selling author with a massive online following. In the process, he’s morphed into a self-help guru of sorts, railing against identity politics and dispensing tough advice to (mostly) young alienated men.

Peterson has stirred up a ton of controversy, particularly on the left. But I find him oddly fascinating, even though I think he gets some important things terribly wrong. For example, he seems to think that because social hierarchies are natural, they must therefore be desirable or just. That’s an old fallacy in the philosophical world, and Peterson appears to commit it regularly.

Nevertheless, compared to most of the gasbags filling up our collective headspace, Peterson is reliably smart and interesting. I’ve tried to interview him twice now, but he’s declined both times.

So I reached out to Kate Manne, a professor of philosophy at Cornell University and the author of Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny. Manne recently reviewed Peterson’s book, 12 Rules for Life, and, unlike many Peterson critics, actively engaged with his ideas.

Over the course of our discussion, we talked about what Peterson gets wrong and why his audience is overwhelmingly white, straight, and male, and we analyze some of the, um, strangest passages from his new book.

Manne argues that Peterson’s appeal among young white men has to do with the “undeniable progress that has been made in extending opportunities to a wider range of people,” which leads to more competition in areas “they often expected and sometimes felt entitled to dominate.”

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

Peterson has this recurring interest in identifying social hierarchies, which resonates with people who think they’re in danger of losing their privileged position or are resentful about having lost it. This is something you really home in on in your review of his book.

Kate Manne

Yeah. I mean, it’s striking. There’s an interesting moment in the book where Peterson talks about resentment as a “revelatory” emotion that can mean one of two things. One, you feel it because you’re immature, in which case you just need to buck up. Two, you feel resentment because you really are being oppressed or taken advantage of somehow. Your resentment shows you that something needs to change or that you need to assert yourself in relation to other people.

But there is clearly a third possibility. People often feel resentful because they appear, based on historically entrenched social norms, to be getting a bad bargain, when what’s actually happening is that others are getting a somewhat fairer deal. When you’re accustomed to unjust privilege, equality feels like oppression, as the saying goes.

Sean Illing

What do you think is the biggest mistake — moral, philosophical, or otherwise — that Peterson makes in the book?

Kate Manne

His idea (in chapter six of his book) that what leads to mass shootings in general, and school shootings in particular, is a kind of ahistorical, existential angst, or a “crisis of being” — that’s the phrase he uses! — about the despair and misery and suffering of human beings.

Peterson thereby takes on a huge burden of explaining why white women, people of color, nonbinary folks, and so on, almost never act on our existential angst and despair in this way. Because, as you know, the vast majority of school shooters have been white men.

I also think the way Peterson cherry-picked the few more dignified-sounding sentences from the diary of one of the Columbine killers, Eric Harris, was downright dishonest. As I wrote in my review, he failed to mention the fact that the majority of Harris’s diary was a virulently racist, misogynistic, homophobic, and ableist screed.

Harris, like many other mass killers, was obsessed with the very hierarchies whose importance or validity Peterson never really challenges or offers an alternative to.

Sean Illing

Peterson has been called a “sexist” and a “misogynist.” To be honest, I’m not sure this is a fair characterization of his work, but I haven’t read his book, and I haven’t listened to all of his lectures. I’m curious what you think.

Kate Manne

As we’ve chatted about before, I draw a theoretical distinction in my own work between sexism and misogyny (though they are often tangled up in practice). Peterson’s book has numerous sections which I would characterize as sexist because they naturalize and rationalize a patriarchal social order.

Sean Illing

Can you cite specific passages as evidence of this?

Kate Manne

Sure. Here’s a passage that conveys what I’m talking about:

Boys are suffering, in the modern world. They are more disobedient — negatively — or more independent — positively — than girls, and they suffer for this, throughout their pre-university educational career. They are less agreeable (agreeableness being a personality trait associated with compassion, empathy and avoidance of conflict) and less susceptible to anxiety and depression, at least after both sexes hit puberty. Boys’ interests tilt towards things; girls’ interests tilt towards people. Strikingly, these differences, strongly influenced by biological factors, are most pronounced in the Scandinavian societies where gender-equality has been pushed hardest: this is the opposite of what would be expected by those who insist, ever more loudly, that gender is a social construct. It isn’t. This isn’t a debate. The data are in.

This is based more on sexist stereotypes than compelling scientific evidence. And even in the gender progressive environment of Scandinavia that Peterson mentions, it’s not as if all sexism and misogyny has been eradicated overnight; many patriarchal norms linger and are sometimes enforced, or whose breakdown has led to backlash.

As a result, there is currently no control group of people raised in a truly non-patriarchal culture, which is what we’d need to investigate claims that men “naturally” prefer masculine-coded activities and women “naturally” prefer feminine-coded ones.

I also suspect that for many of Peterson’s readers, the sexism on display above is one tool among many to make forceful, domineering moves that are typical of misogyny. And I define misogyny as hostility certain women face because they are women in a man’s world, rather than the hatred men harbor in their hearts toward all or even most women.

Misogyny, to me, is more about policing and controlling women’s behavior. Belittling her intellect or acumen in competitive domains is certainly one way of doing that — especially when backed by the sense that it’s in her womanly nature to be oriented to people rather than abstractions. But that’s a false contrast: You can be both.

Jordan Peterson in Toronto in 2016.
Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Sean Illing

I know that Peterson received some criticism recently for endorsing, or appearing to endorse, “enforced monogamy.” To be fair, this is a very particular anthropological term that doesn’t imply that the government is literally forcing people into monogamous relationships, but instead refers to social policies that incentivize monogamy.

What does he actually say about this in the book?

Kate Manne

He said that subsequently, in a New York Times piece, I believe, in response to the point that school shooters are often sexually, romantically, and socially frustrated young men. This suggestion is classic, straight-up misogyny, according to my definition of it.

Peterson has since waffled about what he meant, but I’m mostly interested in how the proposal would naturally be understood by ordinary readers, which leaves little room for charitable interpretation or plausible deniability in this case.

Peterson is very close-mouthed about the prevalence of domestic violence, marital rape, and intimate partner homicide in the context of the idea of enforced monogamy. So if you’re trying to prevent male violence, enforcing heterosexual monogamy seems a remarkably poor way to go about it — as well as obviously infringing on women’s entitlement to orient themselves toward whatever and whomever they wish (other women, multiple partners, and their own projects and ambitions). Monogamous relationships are just one potentially valid option among many, all of which have risks and rewards, costs and benefits.

Sean Illing

I’ll say this about Peterson: He is far more interesting than most of the gasbags currently occupying our collective headspace. But I also see him morphing into a celebrity performer as his influence grows. He’s developing a customer base, and that means he risks becoming more of a salesman than an intellectual.

Kate Manne

As far as being more interesting than the average anti-feminist crusader goes, that seems right — but the bar is none too high at the moment. As to the populist quality of his persona, I think that’s already evident in his book. I’ve never read a book preface quite like it. He uses smiling emojis. He talks about how much his agent liked his book proposal. He talked about the percentage of Quora users who viewed and upvoted his answer to the question that inspired the book, and elatedly reports one comment that he had “won at Quora.” [Author’s note: The question was, “What are the most valuable things everyone should know?”]

I mean … okay, but who cares? If he wants to be truly excellent, he should aim to make the best contribution he can, not measure himself by the size of his celebrity. The idea of winning or dominating others as an end in itself is one I tend to find objectionable.

Sean Illing

What do you find most interesting or challenging in Peterson’s ideas? Or what has perplexed you the most about how his ideas have been received?

Kate Manne

Honestly? I think the fact he’s not been called to account for saying some really eyebrow-raising, authoritarian-sounding, and even cruel things in his book.

Sean Illing

Give me an example.

Kate Manne

One part of the book that I found disturbing was when Peterson responded in his capacity as a psychologist to a particular client. According to Peterson, the client announced, “I think I’ve been raped.” He wrote that he immediately thought that alcohol was involved.

How else to understand “I think”? But that wasn’t the end of the story. She added an extra detail: “Five times.” The first sentence was awful enough, but the second produced something unfathomable. Five times? What could that possibly mean? My client told me that she would go to a bar and have a few drinks. Someone would start to talk with her. She would end up at his place or her place with him. The evening would proceed, inevitably, to its sexual climax. The next day she would wake up, uncertain about what happened — uncertain about her motives, uncertain about his motives, and uncertain about the world.

Miss S, we’ll call her, was vague to the point of non-existence. She was a ghost of a person. She dressed, however, like a professional. She knew how to present herself, for first appearances … Miss S knew nothing about herself. She knew nothing about other individuals. She knew nothing about the world. She was a movie played out of focus. And she was desperately waiting for a story about herself to make it all make sense.

I’d raise an alternative explanation: Maybe she was raped — five times, as she stated — and then was effectively undermined or even gaslit by her therapist. To be clear, I’m not saying that that is what happened. I can’t possibly know, on the basis of what Peterson writes here. But I’d certainly like to know more, and I’m surprised Peterson has not yet been asked about these and similar passages, in which he comes across as highly contemptuous of female clients.

Later, he goes on to say this about the woman:

Who are you? What did you do? What happened? What was the objective truth? There was no way of knowing the objective truth. And there never would be. There was no objective observer, and there never would be. There was no complete and accurate story. Such a thing did not and could not exist. There were, and are, only partial accounts and fragmentary viewpoints.

Funnily and sadly enough, Peterson sounds like a stereotypical postmodernist here — one of his chief intellectual foes. And it doesn’t seem accidental that his skepticism about objective facts arises when it’s conveniently anti-feminist.

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