Marmite’s marketing patter is not an ideal principle to live one’s life by. Doing so has let us down twice. In 1996, Marmite began its “Love it or Hate it” campaign: It informed us that we postmodern and hip consumers either LOVE or HATE the congealing-blood consistency and effluvium of its product. (You may be able to guess at my feelings about the goop.) I recently explained this history to an American friend before her first taste of the stuff, after which she shrugged and reported, “It’s fine.”
Like harbingers of today’s partisan activists who use the term “centrist” to mean “only pretending not to play for the other side”, Marmite’s marketing team sold us a binary, admitting of no middle ground. Having reduced the possible categories to a false dichotomy, we then believed we could assign ourselves to the LOVE camp or the HATE crew and find some form of identity. You didn’t only LOVE or HATE Marmite – you were the kind of person who loved or hated it.
Enter Jordan Peterson, a psychologist who needs no introduction – though it is precisely how he is described that tells you much about the person doing the introducing. Journalists invariably present him as either a controversial figure or a champion of intellectual freedom. He is criticised for his stance on gender pronouns or he is lauded for his empathic approach to the disillusioned. Peterson is either a conservative promoting regressive views or a traditional liberal who values autonomy.
And these are the most tempered versions of the dichotomy: Peterson is also often characterised as a gateway to the far-right and tolerant of sexism, racism, and all the other -isms, or as a modern messiah here to deliver us from the evil of postmodernist social decay. Nazi or the Second Coming, love or hate, you choose.
Many of us are bored with this lie. This goes much further than Jordan Peterson, of course; there are those engaged in this reductive social warfare who haven’t heard of the professor (though they are becoming fewer). Peterson is, however, an apposite focal point for examining the current obsession with the Marmite politics of For and Against.
“Ideologies are substitutes for true knowledge, and ideologues are always dangerous when they come to power, because a simple-minded I-know-it-all approach is no match for the complexity of existence.”
~ Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life
It is well known that what brought Peterson from the shadows of academic obscurity and into the spotlight of media scrutiny was his stance on Canada’s Bill C-16. He contended that the new legislation would classify failure to use a person’s preferred pronouns as hate speech, and would therefore be “compelled speech” by the state. Seemingly overnight, Peterson went from the professorially scruffy lecturer you’d never heard of to the sharp-tongued, sharply dressed poster boy for everything you love or hate.
At that time, Peterson was at pains to avoid making statements about what he positively believed – he wasn’t interested in arguments about the acceptance of trans-women as women or gay rights or any other peripheral issues. What he did do was reject the dominant position of the left and disagree with a specific manifestation of its values in this legislation. That was enough to place him firmly on the “other side” because he failed to affirm “this side”.
If you are not Liberal, you are Conservative; if not left, then right; not for us then necessarily against us. This was the unsound thinking that led others to constantly identify Peterson as a conservative, despite his rejection of the label. In no rush to help such simple-minded dogmatism that reduces all human activity and opinions to this or that, Peterson has said that some of his opinions and characteristics tilt him to the left, others to the right.
In an email to a journalist who labelled him “alt-right”, Peterson wrote, “I’ve been fighting an intellectual war against radicals on the right and left for three decades.” He specified that in his book Maps of Meaning he outlines the psychopathology of National Socialists, and concluded that the fact that he also aimed for “Gulag-type leftists” did not make him in any sense a member of the far right.
Pretending for a moment that Peterson identified as a die-hard conservative, this would not be the reason that any particular idea he held or position he took was incorrect or unethical. There would be reasons divorced from his worldview that made those things wrong. Likewise, his allegiance to a right-wing ideology would not preclude his ability to take correct and ethical stances.
The explanation for this refusal to pull Peterson out of unfairly labelled boxes has nothing to do with what he has positively stated or espoused, but about what he has not actively endorsed. He refuses to take an ideological side, which means the ideological sides get to pick for him. And if he will not champion “our” cause, he must be fighting for “the enemy”.
At the European Parliament in July this year, pro-Brexit MEPs turned their backs to the musicians performing the anthem of the European Union. I learned about this through what I suppose has become the normal manner for many of us to get much of our news: Twitter. And I read this headline (or saw thumbnails of the video) in tweets accompanied by the outrage of those posting the news. The most common comment was some variant of “This is what the Nazis did”.
With each of these comments, I longed to reach through the screen and grab the tweeter by the shoulders and ask, “So what?” Not rhetorically or dismissively, but sincerely. It really matters why this behaviour from the MEPs matters. William Drummond once quipped, “Those who will not reason, are bigots, those who cannot, are fools, and those who dare not, are slaves” – if the reason you think something is unethical is simply because the Nazis did it, you are being a bigot, a fool, or a slave. Consistency would necessarily lead you from one photograph of Hitler cuddling a puppy to branding all dog-lovers fascists.
Quite aside from the irrationality of it all, the laziness is evident. According to those who screech loudly enough to make it into the media, everyone who voted Leave is a racist, everyone who voted Remain is an elitist, anyone who takes pride in their country or history or culture is a chauvinist, and anyone who acknowledges the crimes against and debt owed to minorities is a traitor. And all of the above are either Nazis or snowflakes. When did political discourse get so boring?
Others seemed to criticise the back-turning stance of pro-Brexit MEPs simply because of who did it. The Lib-Dem supporters who decried the “disrespectful” and “immature” nonsense of the pro-Brexit group said nothing when their party, at the same gathering, arrived wearing garish yellow shirts emblazoned with the phrase Bollocks to Brexit. Some of the same people who advocate for “walk-out” protests against right-wing speakers were apparently disgusted by the “pathetic” and “disruptive” tactic of quietly turning one’s back on something one disagrees with.
This is the outcome of simplistic sloganising in party politics that sees all good existing on one side and pure evil on the other. In an inversion of Nixon’s sophistry about all presidential behaviour being permissible, the idea now seems to be that if the enemy does it, it must be bad. This is also the flip side of the tarnished coin that features the lie that if you fail, if you are incorrect on some point, you must be the enemy.
This worldview is self-perpetuating: Peterson says something “wrong”, so he is a “bad guy”. Because Peterson is a “bad guy”, he can now only do “wrong”. The only way out of this dilemma (playing by its rules) is to submit to the demands of the accuser and align one’s views with the moral majority of the group. Snowflakes can atone by falling into line with conservative values and, preferably, ridiculing other “lib-tard commie cucks”. Nazi apologists will find salvation through falling into line with progressive values and, preferably, doxing an alt-right hack who once doxed a liberal activist. Yes, I am being satirical (though only just) but such thinking deserves ridicule.
“It is the nature of humankind to idealize, to indulge in excessive praise as well as unjust condemnation.”
~ Peter Ackroyd, Venice: Pure City
I first learned of Jordan Peterson from the now infamous clip of him in debate with some aggravated students demanding a response to the reported presence of Nazis and white supremacists at one of his events. I wrote him off as another media moment to be quickly forgotten. After the Cathy Newman interview in which she embodied everything wrong with mainstream journalism (more on that below) and he said some interesting and some frustratingly limited things, I thought I ought to find out more. Of course, I read the papers and watched the news. The judgment on Peterson wasn’t good, and it was worse from those whose values I thought I shared.
Eventually, several people close to me showed deeper interest in Peterson, and fearing they may be crossing the threshold to the far right, I did my homework. I watched his videos, listened to his own podcast, and actually read the book he had just released. What I discovered was a complex assemblage of original thinking on metaphysical conceptions of chaos and order, profound criticisms of left- and right-wing extremism, and fuzzy or sometimes worryingly incorrect thinking on issues such as gender (though my disagreements with him here are not those of his dominant critics).
This was, for my relationship with mainstream media, like the adolescent moment most of us have when we realise our parents are not infallible geniuses. Not that I was unaware of bias and filter bubbles, but the extent to which even “reputable” newspapers could so skew the data was now undeniable. Slavoj Žižek has said that what most shocks us is not discovering things we hadn’t known but confirming those things we already knew and yet acted as if we didn’t. “It is a little bit like knowing that one’s sexual partner is playing around,” Žižek writes. “One can accept the abstract knowledge of it, but pain arises when one learns the steamy details, when one gets pictures of what they were doing.”
Research by the More In Common project has illuminated what they call a Perception Gap – a misalignment between what the right and left in America think the other side believes against what they actually believe. On average, Republicans and Democrats believe 55 per cent of their ideological opponents hold extreme views; in reality, only 30 per cent hold those views. Although Democrats think only half of Republicans believe racism still exists in America, 79 per cent of Republicans accept that statement. Meanwhile, Republicans assume only half of their Democrat compatriots are proud to be American. The true figure is 82 per cent. On this side of the Atlantic, we would be naïve to think that this is an American problem. To believe that Brits are any better at seeing the other side’s point of view would likely be another Perception Gap.
The most startling finding to come out of this research is that this inability to understand the out-group cannot be dismissed as basic ignorance. According to the study’s authors, “People who said they read the news ‘most of the time’ were nearly three times more distorted in their perceptions than those who said they read the news ‘only now and then’.” Education did not help either: The Perception Gaps of both sides of the political divide did not improve with higher levels of learning. Moreover, the Perception Gap of Democrats got worse with “every additional degree they earn”. (This seems to lend some credence to the conservative view that liberals are winning the so-called culture war on campuses.)
A predilection for group-think afflicts all humans – after all, our species grew up over millennia under the parenting of the tribal mind – and is exacerbated by profound ideological allegiance. To make it worse, media reliant on the coal of outrage to fuel the steam-train of brief-analysis journalism misinforms more than it educates. The superficiality engendered by three-minute news segments and ephemeral “hot takes” does not encourage complex wrestling with issues that may not have immediate answers – or sometimes any answer at all. I am reminded of the Mitchell and Webb sketch in which a fiery television talk-show host demands that his panel of scientists and theologians resolve centuries of religious debate in less than a single sentence.
Worse, to compete with the more intellectually satisfying long-form explorations of deep issues from podcasts, YouTube, and blogs, mass media has given itself over to demagogues who can milk three minutes for three days of controversy. Seeing how well this appeal to the devils of our nature has worked, mainstream news outlets now seek the firestorm in every interaction. They push interviewees to say something they can feign indignation at. Once gifted their soundbite, the story becomes the “unexpected” offence-giving statement, and then it becomes about the fallout to that statement. Rinse and repeat a week later.
“I don’t think that you have any insight whatsoever into your capacity for good until you have some well-developed insight into your capacity for evil.”
~ Jordan Peterson
None of what I have written here is intended as a defence or a dismissal of those positions Peterson takes that I think are flawed. It is possible that I even see some of his views as dangerous. The point that matters, however, is that I am distinguishing between those views and the person holding them. I am calling for nuance, for assessments of words and actions rather than a person’s entire identity, for making judgments that focus on the features rather than the sum total of a person’s character.
In Peterson I see a man who is flawed, engaging, prone to hyperbole, often interesting though occasionally pat, and sincerely concerned with the wellbeing of others – even when I disagree with his estimation of what wellbeing looks like and how it is best reached. I don’t think he is the saviour, but I also don’t think he is the apocalypse. He is both good and evil – he is human. A view like this, somewhere between the extremes of opinion we find in mainstream culture, might be the most revolutionary view to hold at this moment. Radical moderation, or something like that.
I don’t advocate this nuance in every case. There would be no use, in the face of Hitler’s antisemitism and power to act on it, in pointing out his vegetarianism as a philosophical gesture of seeing the good in everyone. Some situations demand urgent redress of significant evil. And while I wouldn’t go to Christopher Hitchens’ level of acerbic derision in condemning Mother Teresa, there is validity in emphasising her wicked beliefs and actions due to the absurd degree of credulous veneration surrounding her. This is why I am more inclined to discuss my criticisms of Peterson’s work in a crowd of his more cultish admirers.
We are all made up of good and evil. To paraphrase the title of an album by the band Brand New, the Devil and God are raging in all of us. If this were not so, then being good would not be a matter of principled and diligent effort but merely the inevitable behaviour of a machine that could not do otherwise. I’m not convinced that, in this scenario of having no choice between the metaphorical Devil and God, there would even be such a thing as “good”.
It would serve us well to divorce the position from the person more often, to tackle the ball and not the player. If we fail to distinguish the good works of our opponents from the very concept of opposition, we will lose allies, fail to learn from justified criticisms, and squander valid arguments that work for our goals.
I’ll leave you with Jordan Peterson’s own words on the matter, his take on learning by listening. I hope you will take them at face value, regardless of your position on the man:
“So, listen, to yourself and to those with whom you are speaking. Your wisdom then consists not of the knowledge you already have, but the continual search for knowledge, which is the highest form of wisdom.”
Find the More In Common project and its findings on the Perception Gap here.
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• Tragedy vs Evil, Jordan B Peterson (YouTube)
• 2017/08/13: What happened today (not Charlottesville)... Jordan B Peterson (YouTube)
• Academical Questions, William Drummond (1805) [Often misattributed to Lord Byron]
• Venice: Pure City, Peter Ackroyd (2009)
• “How WikiLeaks opened our eyes to the illusion of freedom”, in The Guardian (2014)
• Maps of Meaning, Jordan Peterson (1999)