Jordan Peterson’s Right: Today’s Identity Politics is a Dead-End
He’s not the abrasive public intellectual we deserve, but he’s the abrasive public intellectual we need right now…
Jordan Peterson is a litmus test of public opinion. To some, the Canadian psychologist is the personification of the regressive undertows that still threaten our society; his academic eloquence and charisma lending dangerous glamour to toxic ideas like misogyny, virulent masculinity, and white supremacy. For others, he is a plain-speaking crusader for free speech. In his lectures and interviews, he punctures the navel-gazing of the hard Left; taking down sacred cows like political correctness, workplace equality and safe-spacing.
Peterson is not the Anti-Christ
My own response to the Peterson phenomenon lies between these breathless extremes. To my mind, his public persona is pretty unpleasant, epitomising the arrogance of a certain sort of academic. However, I also think that the hysteria with which many on the Left have greeted his pronouncements is overblown. I strongly believe that one does not have to like someone to believe that their arguments have value or that those arguments deserve a fair hearing. Peterson is not the Anti-Christ. His appearance on the public stage owes more to a desire to cash-in on public attention, supplementing a meagre academic income, than a genuine intent to dynamite the foundations of liberal, pluralistic society.
However the Peterson rocket returns to earth – whether in an earth-shaking bang or, more likely, with a whimper – I believe it’s worth exploring the substance of his arguments. If only because he is a rare public figure: one prepared to challenge orthodoxies which have done real damage to our society, such as our contemporary cult of identity politics. It is Peterson’s contention – and mine – that identity politics, the insistence on categorising people according to ever narrower gradations of difference, are endemic and they have proved corrosive.
Watch his mouth
There are three principle failings of identity politics. The first is that your persona must match your politics. Peterson took part in a debate recently with Steven Fry on political correctness. Unexpectedly, Fry sided with Peterson. I say ‘unexpectedly’ because on the face of things it would be hard to find two more opposed public figures: Fry avuncular, witty, openly gay; Peterson hunched, withering, fiercely heterosexual. Fry addressed this discrepancy in his superb opening address:
Many will believe that I am betraying myself by standing on this side of the debate and by standing next to Professor Peterson. Which is the very reason I am standing next to him in the first place.
This resonates. The language of bias is an inextricable element of political discourse. But the problem with identity politics is that it makes a vocabulary of loyalty and betrayal the very substanceof its worldview. It is inherently divisive – it uses a combative us-and-them mentality at its most fundamental level. This leads to an impossible quandary: I cannot speak for myself without also speaking for a group. Importantly, remember that this idea – that I am betraying or supporting a particular group through my actions and speech – is imposed from the outside. It is assumed that Fry is being treasonous to ‘left-wing, squashy liberal politics’ (his definition) by standing with Peterson – despite the fact that human beings are entitled to and can hold many, and sometimes conflicting, viewpoints. The wonderful plurality of human opinion though does not matter to identity politics – itsays that I may think privately as an individual, but publicly I must act as a member of tribe.
…human beings are entitled to and can hold many, and sometimes conflicting, viewpoints
The second, connected failing is that identity politics assumes that discourse is always embodied. A critical moment in the debate came when Michael Dyson, a black Baptist preacher arguing for the utility of political correctness, blurted at Peterson: “You’re just a mean old white man.” It was a slip that revealed the limits of the idea of embodied discourse. In Dyson’s eyes, Peterson will always be damned by his being a ‘mean old white man’ and his arguments discredited by his position of apparent privilege. Of course, the idea that language is somehow limited by bodily form was the basis for much of the most appalling abuses in recent human history, including, as Dyson rightly argues, the ongoing and deeply painful legacy of black slavery in America. It seems strange, then, that an ideology which aspires to undo legacies of prejudice – which, at its noblest, is what identity politics is – should fall back on similar tactics when defending its ideas.
…all the safe-spacing, no-platforming – amounts to a grand nothingness, a colossal waste of anger and energy
Lastly, these problems in combination – a sense of personal betrayal and an unwillingness to consider language as anything other than embodied – conspire to create the most damaging legacy of identity politics: a society busily, nosily tearing itself apart. Seeing the world as ‘a battleground between various competing groups’ (Peterson’s definition of identity politics), leads almost inevitably to conflict and discord. It is Peterson’s contention, though, that this sound and fury – all the safe-spacing, no-platforming – amounts to a grand nothingness, a colossal waste of anger and energy. The tolerant, inclusive, mostly functional, mostly fair, Western society we currently enjoy is under threat all over the world. A report by the Economist Intelligence Unit found that, since the global financial crisis in 2007-08, 89 countries have regressed in their democratic health and only 27 have improved. Studies now show that less than a third of young Americans think it is ‘essential’ to live in a democracy. Against such a backdrop, it becomes necessary to ask not whether we can afford the cultural wars that identity politics conjure, but whether it is moral to permit them to continue.
Identity politics is a dangerous and dissipating distraction
Ideals like human rights and a rules-based world order are not stable, enduring institutions but vulnerable, fragile aspirations that must be continually fought-for and shored-up. The proper place of the political Left is in the preservation and defence of these ideals, either by maintaining a basic duty of care from the government for its citizens or by defending against the cold realities of the free market. Identity politics is a dangerous and dissipating distraction from these responsibilities. A dereliction of duty by the Left.
An eye for an eye
How might we begin to unpick the hold identity politics has over our society? First, we must understand how it operates and manifests. And amongst worst of these manifestations is the supplanting of the idea of equality of opportunity with equality of outcome. The one-word difference is critical. The first is entirely laudable idea: as much as possible, life should be a level playing-field and everyone, regardless of external identifying factors – age, gender, ethnicity – should be able to succeed according to their talents. Equality of outcome, though, argues that trying to level the playing field is not enough. Instead, because historically some groups have had it harder than others, the entire rules of the game should be re-written with them in mind. This re-writing can be overt, such as when employers (like Rife, the hosts of this article) put a coda in their job descriptions advertising that they especially encourage minority candidates to apply. Or it can be more subtle: implicit positive discrimination when electing to company boards or government positions.
…the fact that Bristol University declared its positive discrimination policy will ensure that it is likelier that those students’ sense of inadequacy and curtailed aspiration will increase
Take the recent example of Bristol University, which announced that it would consider waiving its grade requirements for students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. In theory, this is admirable: Bristol Uni students are, demographically, too rich, too white and too posh to accurately reflect the makeup of the UK as a whole. However – and this is a critical ‘however’ – such a policy will fail. Sure a few poorer students will get in, but the fact that Bristol University declared its positive discrimination policy will ensure that it is likelier that those students’ sense of inadequacy and curtailed aspiration will increase. The great levelling effect of university, the ‘reset button’ where you can remake yourself away from the dogged circumstances of your childhood, will be poisoned by the knowledge that some got in, not on equal merit, but because of the senior executives’ fashionable, attention-courting decisions.
Whose history is it anyway?
These difficulties though strike at a deeper problem: how to decide who to give a hand-up to and who to leave to sink or swim? There is arrogance implicit in the claims of identity politics to determine historic prejudice or privilege. Peterson’s contention is that a ‘neo-Marxist’ reading of history, which sees the past solely through the lens of ‘one group’s dominance over the other’, has entirely seized academia. He further contests that this worldview has filtered out of the ivory tower and into wider life: we now see allhuman relations through a lens of power plays, dominance, hierarchy and control. I agree with him only up until a point on the extent of this filtering. But I am in complete agreement that such a framework is a limited, and limiting, way of viewing history and hence the society we’ve ended up with today. The difficulty is, as any historian will tell you, the past is exponentially detailed: the further you zoom in, the more tangled the web of cause and effect becomes. To suppose that we exist in a definitive viewpoint to look back on the misunderstandings of our ancestors and then to attempt to right those misunderstandings now is breathtakingly stupid.
To suppose that we exist in a definitive viewpoint to look back on the misunderstandings of our ancestors and then to attempt to right those misunderstandings now is breathtakingly stupid
To take an example close to home: have a quick skim through the other articles on Rife. An alarming number are characterised by a vision of history and society that is unquestionably clouded by identity politics. From an article claiming that children’s literature has been ’white-washed’ to one on how to break ‘white silence’, there is a tacit assumption that the vocabulary and perspective of identity politics is onlyway to view the world and to engage with its manifold complexity. This is concerning because, at root, the historical drive behind identity politics is crude and blunt-edged. Surely other factors must be at play which mean that children’s literature has historically under-represented black and ethnic minority characters other than an overt or sublimated racism?
The past is porous and plural; identity politics imposes a vision that is brittle and singular
This is not to suggest that attempts should not be made to correct the balance. Children’s literature should better reflect the diversity of childhood experience, and white people should reflect on how they can better engage in debates around diversity and racism. But scattering around terms like ‘white-washing’ is incendiary and unhelpful. Using the mechanisms of today’s society to forcibly atone for the sins of our fathers is not only liable to widen the cracks between us, but also it relies on a reading of history that is stripped of nuance and scorched of subtlety. The past is porous and plural; identity politics imposes a vision that is brittle and singular.
So, where now?
That Peterson has achieved such extraordinary exposure in such a short period of time indicates one of two things. Either his arguments strike a chord with a great many people. Or they are so undermining of the implicit orthodoxies of our society, including the creed of identity politics, that a hysterical response is inevitable. Perhaps, though, it is a combination of those factors. In that debate Pastor Dyson related a story, attributed to David Foster Wallace, which very much chimes with our current moment: two fish are swimming along, and they meet an older fish who greets them, “Hey boys, how’s the water?” The fish keep swimming, until one turns to the other and goes: “Hang on, what’s water?”
Our hyper-connected world, where discord and debate can all too readily spill from Twitter to the law court, needs less incentive to fissure apart not more
It’s a parable of our times. Our hyper-connected world, where discord and debate can all too readily spill from Twitter to the law court, needs less incentive to fissure apart not more. And seen in this light, it seems to me that the greatest argument against identity politics is that encourages our worst impulses: our tribalism, our clinging to niggly detail, our desire to reduce the world into broad-brushstroke binaries. It is perhaps too late to reverse the damage done by the muddled view of history which identity politics promotes. But it is not too late to realise that it is water in which we swim; an identity inflected ideology has become baked into our public discourse as much as our popular culture. If it takes a character like Peterson to prompt that realisation, then so be it. Because he’s right: today’s identity politics is a dead-end. Time to turn around, swim the other way.