Jordan Peterson is a Canadian clinical psychologist, novelist and decorated intellectual. He rose to international fame when he opposed the Bill C-16 which added gender identity and expression as prohibited grounds for discrimination. Peterson went on to denounce what the Bill, in his view, implied – he had a problem that he was now required by law to use preferred pronouns of trans people. He claimed it was ‘compelled speech’, which in his view could have serious implications on freedom of speech.
From then on came a series of YouTube videos which turned him into a highly controversial figure. In one of the videos, Jordan Peterson denies the existence of a male dominated patriarchal society. When the interviewer counters by noting how majority of wealth and capital in almost every field of work is owned by men, he says that it’s ‘a tiny substrata of hyper successful men’. He goes on to argue that bad things happen to both the sexes, so one can’t dominate the other.
What Peterson (at least in this video) doesn’t acknowledge is how men’s oppression of women is not bound by how much wealth one has, even low income families are entrenched within the patriarchy. Moreover, most crimes against women are done by men. Bad things do happen to both the sexes. But it can’t be ignored that one sex is the majority ‘doer’ of those crimes against the other sex.
In one of the videos, Jordan Peterson denies the existence of a male dominated patriarchal society. When the interviewer counters by noting how majority of wealth and capital in almost every field of work is owned by men, he says that it’s ‘a tiny substrata of hyper successful men’. He goes on to argue that bad things happen to both the sexes, so one can’t dominate the other.
His videos also reveal that he has a major contention with the ‘trope’ that everyone simply ‘accepts’ – that western civilization is a male dominated patriarchal structure. He terms this as a misreading of history. Women have actually been left out of the process of historiography, or the recording of history for a very long time. They have definitely made history, but their oppression in part has been because they have been kept from the realization of their own history. People don’t just accept this trope, they experience it. Patriarchy isn’t a myth that has been created, it is a structure that affects real people – both men and women.
Why Are We Talking About Him?
My main motivation to talk about Jordan Peterson in this article is to bring to light the influence of public intellectuals. His brand of intellectual videos has encouraged a group which is quite dangerous – men who feel wronged by the feminist movement. There are numerous videos of him online, all titled along the lines of – ‘Jordan Peterson Destroys/Dismantles Liberals/Feminists/Lefty Reporter’. A quick scroll through the comments introduces one to his main audience – mostly young white males, who denounce feminism, call it ‘dangerous’, celebrate Peterson for shutting up feminists, etc. Feminism is painted and angry and irrational, out to get them all. The vitriol is real, and Peterson’s influence is helping breed it, whether knowingly or unknowingly.
Jordan Peterson has had controversial views on issues of feminism, political correctness, abortion, gender identity, etc. There is a kind of danger, however, in one crucial aspect which I’ll discuss more later: all his arguments and debates are presented in a manner which reflect his credibility as a researcher and academician. He seems to use statistics, biology and social conditioning to justify existing power hierarchies in society – hierarchies that are inherently discriminatory, oppressive and misogynistic. To attempt to refute those in its entirety would certainly be a tough task – and many would accept these arguments as irrefutable simply because of the intellectuality they appear to carry.
Looking at the Indian context, we have people affiliated to both the right wing and the left wing whose statements and their corresponding influence are necessary to examine. For example, Arnab Goswami has been linked to the popularization of the terms ‘Urban Naxals’ and ‘anti nationals’ when speaking of people critical of the current government. Now, these phrases have become popular – almost colloquial in the right wing Indian household – descriptors for protestors and dissenters in the current political climate.
On the left, prominent historian Ramachandra Guha made an infamous comment in an opinion piece entitled ‘Liberals, sadly’ His piece was in response to civil rights activist Harsh Mander’s article which talked of the elimination of the political identity of Muslims in India. Guha wrote: “Many people, this writer among them, object to Hindus flaunting saffron robes and trishuls at rallies. While a burka may not be a weapon, in a symbolic sense it is akin to a trishul. It represents the most reactionary, antediluvian aspects of the faith. To object to its display in public is a mark not of intolerance, but of liberalism and emancipation.” His words are an example of the left’s tendency to dilute Muslim religious identity under the guise of secularism and liberalism.
More recently, Shashi Tharoor’s remarks on the ongoing anti CAA protests in the country have again exposed the ‘liberal’ gaps in our secularism. In response to the usage of an Islamic religious chant as a slogan in the protests, he tweeted: “Our fight against Hindutva extremism should give no comfort to Islamist extremism either.” What he fails to understand is that assertion of Muslim religious identity is extremely necessary – especially now when laws like the CAA are actively trying to eliminate that identity.
A huge number of liberals in the country take pride in their supposed progressiveness arising from intellectualism. Led and often inspired by these intellectual figures, it is extremely pertinent to delve into their words and comments. While Arnab Goswami’s words are dangerous might be obvious to us. But certain sentiments of the politically left leaning figures must also invite similar scrutiny, because they also have the potential to be dangerous. In the instances mentioned above, feeding into a narrative which implies that Muslim identity must be muted in order to achieve a secular India has consequences which hide the ground reality of the community in our country.
What Should Be Done?
The times we live in are extremely divided. So much so, that sometimes it is hard to see the grey. Each side is asserting itself strongly, making their presence known, counting their numbers. You can’t claim to be neutral in this political atmosphere. The state of things today practically pulls people out to declare their allegiance. Both sides of the divide are fighting. Fighting to win. Fighting for the very essence of what they believe in. There is strength in numbers, true, but infallible strength that the notion of intellectual credibility can give to a set of ideas is something else entirely.
Tharoor and Guha might be controversial figures at times, but they are attractive nonetheless – their intellectuality is attractive. Like Peterson, they provide a notion of almost unquestionable credibility.It’s not that these people themselves are dangerous – it would not be appropriate to call them so regardless of their views. It’s that the power of their words, in congruence with their political leaning and public position might turn out to be so.
Public intellectuals wield a power whose influence runs long and deep. For a group of people holding an opinion (however flawed or possibly prejudiced, if at all), the backing of a strong personality from a background in academia or any other field that gives their words legitimacy, strengthens that opinion. And the opinion holding group grows fervent. An idea, an ideology manifests itself more deeply, establishes itself in a society as a result of how many faithful followers it has. And intellectual figures who have the privilege of being in the limelight – they can inspire many, and can turn the tide in a particular direction.
When it seems that someone like Jordan Peterson is giving well accounted for facts and reason for the validity of someone’s oppression it is our duty to get into the why and how of it. Especially if it seems credible, because anything that even slightly attempts to deny the reality of oppression that exists, that seems to argue against its existence – that is not credible, because it’s simply untrue. Similarly, Tharoor and Guha might be controversial figures at times, but they are attractive nonetheless – their intellectuality is attractive. Like Peterson, they provide a notion of almost unquestionable credibility.
It’s not that these people themselves are dangerous – it would not be appropriate to call them so regardless of their views. It’s that the power of their words, in congruence with their political leaning and public position might turn out to be so.
And this is where scrutiny becomes necessary. It is not only important to question the opposing side to counter them, but also equally important to question your own side to keep them on track. Falling for the guise of credibility – seeming credibility – can blind reality.