What To Do About Jordan Peterson?

When it comes to controversial political figures like Jordan Peterson – or Christina Hoff Sommers, or Dave Rubin, etc. – commenting is a risky game.

Academic institutions, the media, and the mainstream in general cannot seem to decide where these folks fit in. And giving the “wrong” answer can open you up to heaps of critical abuse.

If you dismiss these ideologues too quickly, you’re likely to be called out by the right for intellectual dishonesty. If you don’t dismiss them quickly enough, you’re liable to be accused by the left of giving a platform to dangerous people.

This is one debate where there just isn’t much safe ground to occupy. Which is odd, since unlike the usual toxic issues (like guns or abortion), this is actually a very narrow academic question: Should someone like Jordan Peterson be taken seriously as a published, peer-reviewed author?

You wouldn’t think it would be so heated. But then again, here we are.

I’m not a fan of Jordan Peterson, but my problem with ostracizing people like him is that it creates a vacuum on the center-right. That vacuum then inevitably gets filled by those still willing to occupy the space; the debate goes on, but now outside and external to the institutional framework that previously influenced and filtered it.

Many people will respond here with a reaction of “good riddance,” but there is a downside to that. If you completely abandon the territory, you can no longer push back against the barbarians at the gates.

You see that play out in how Peterson has been able to use his popularity to outflank his own university and faculty, who are doing their best to undermine him.

Once freed from the purview of academia and thrust into the realm of public opinion, we shouldn’t be surprised when even minimally nuanced ideas leak out, go viral, and then get immediately butchered and distorted for political ends.

Conner Freidersdorf has composed a strong thread on this topic, summed up here:

I don’t think Peterson or Weiss is being marginalized—I think attempts to police them out of “respectable discourse” are a threat to the relevance of the institutions that formerly functioned as gatekeepers.

The full thread is worth a read, but I’m still stuck on the “why” behind all this confusion. Why is our society having so much trouble situating these figures in our ideological ecosystem? What position on the map do they really occupy? Are they harmlessly provocative center-right apologists? Or are they full-blown Nazi sympathizers that need to be ruthlessly ejected from polite society?

Answering this question is messy. Odds are that, like me, you have not delved into the individual works of each of these figures. I assume that, also like me, you rely on a network of experts and pundits and even friends to evaluate, consider, and process their ideas in a meaningful way.

But when we survey these networks, what do we find? It’s all over the place! For some, Jordan Peterson has jumped right into the “fever swamp of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and alt-right hate.” For others, he is just “the stupid man’s smart person.” You will even find some who think that his rise on the right is tied directly to the failure of the left to “keep its own house in order.”

Contrary to the whole purpose of an information network, this experience can be disorienting and uninformative.

I see this as a system failure, attributed to a deeper problem: this part of the network is just too thin and brittle to do its job thoroughly. There is no clear signal coming through all the noise, and ultimately we can’t expect every individual news consumer to hunt down and find that ultimate kernel of truth, the diamond in the rough. That’s the system’s job, not the individual’s.

Personally, when it comes to Jordan Peterson, I’m not impressed. I’m extremely skeptical of academics that find sudden popularity late in their careers, especially when they gain that popularity simply by offending a group that some other group wants to see offended. In general, academics should be left to academia.

Plus, I simply don’t have the time to invest in “deep dives” on every newly-minted icon that gets catapulted into the limelight. These figures pop up all the time, and while we definitely need journalists who report and comment on that kind of thing, I’m happy to not be working that beat.

Honestly I’m just not that interested in personalities. I’m more focused on the potential for action, and that’s my main problem with a Jordan Peterson type. There is no potential for action here. I could spend all day engaging on the legitimacy or illegitimacy of lobsters as a parallel for human psychology and never get anywhere close to a single policy change or proposal.

Instead, I would have probably wasted a lot of time and burned a lot of bridges, likely in multiple directions. And the only point I’d end up making confidently would be to assert one thing over and over: “Maybe don’t ostracize people so much.”

Some people legitimately deserve to be ostracized, I just don’t think Jordan Peterson is one of them.

And that brings me to the crux of the issue. For all the talk, all the acrimony, all the good faith spent and lost, what are we doing about it?

The answer is almost always, inevitably, unfailingly – nothing.

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