“The irony of this exchange is it has only reinforced my opinion that Peterson’s political rhetoric often has a stultifying impact on sincere intellectual debates.“
must admit to reading Kambiz Tavana’s recent critique of my and Conrad Hamilton’s work on Jordan Peterson with some bewilderment. Tavana takes issue with both our direct criticisms of Jordan Peterson (presented in our forthcoming book Myth and Mayhem, available here) and our recent reviews of Jim Proser’s book Savage Messiah: How Doctor Jordan Peterson Is Saving Western Civilization. Tavana’s essay begins with a rather long discussion of Jean Paul Sartre’s play In the Mesh. In Tavana’s reading, the play concerns the dangers of seeking radically to change society, as cycles of revolutionaries consume one another. I take no issue with this beyond pointing out that Sartre, himself, was a life-long revolutionary, who criticized Communists for being ineffective but not for their wanting to change society dramatically.
The real meat of Tavana’s essay begins about halfway through, though it is, unfortunately, very sleight on specific details. He contends that Hamilton and I:
“repeatedly in [our] writings assert that the Left, as [we] see it, is all that is great and high. For [us], the problems of our society can be explained by tyranny that comes from the Right. [We] incessantly critique Jordan Peterson—or anyone else for that matter—who even slightly brings up ideas that contradict [our] views of what makes for a just society.”
Tavana then goes on to describe our reviews of Savage Messiah (mine is here) as exceedingly unfair, though no argument or evidence is given as to why they are unfair. Tavana simply invokes an interview with Proser describing the impact Peterson has had on his life, which may be moving but has nothing to do with our criticisms of the book. Tavana then proceeds to accuse Hamilton and me of supporting “equality of outcome,” while failing to appreciate the misery and suffering such aspirations have historically brought about. He then calls on us to take a closer look at The Black Book of Communism and concludes with a discussion of the crimes committed by various communist states.
Peterson is an intelligent and creative scholar, whose work deserves to be engaged with. However, like any other figure, he should not be immunized from criticism when he makes errors
While I appreciate Tavana’s efforts to engage with our work, I am disappointed his critique did not address any of our substantive criticisms of Peterson—or even of Proser. The essay also has a very strange interpretation of my own substantive convictions. I will address these charges one at a time.
The Problems With Equality of Outcome
In his essay, Tavana claims that I support “equality of outcome” and am indifferent to the history of brutal consequences, which have resulted from such efforts. The term “equality of outcome” is, of course, drawn from Peterson’s own criticisms of the Left. It is also highly problematic. First, I have never called for equality of outcome. My own work, both academic and popular, has argued for achieving an equality of expressive capabilities, subject to specific limitations and qualifications. This argument builds upon the longstanding work of left-liberals such as John Rawls, Amartya Sen, and Martha Nussbaum and leans upon deep moral principles in the liberal tradition itself. Secondly—and this relates to my own criticisms of Peterson—I do not know of any major left-wing figure who actually argues for equality of outcome along every metric of life. In his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx himself rejected calls for mere equality, arguing that different individuals have distinct needs and capacities. The Marxist orientation was for the elimination of class power, not for achieving strict equality. Marx writes:
“But one man is superior to another physically, or mentally, and supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time; and labor, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor. It recognizes no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognizes unequal individual endowment, and thus productive capacity, as a natural privilege. It is, therefore, a right of inequality, in its content, like every right. Right, by its very nature, can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable only by an equal standard insofar as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only – for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing more is seen in them, everything else being ignored. Further, one worker is married, another is not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labor, and hence an equal in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right, instead of being equal, would have to be unequal.”
Similar nuances can be found in a myriad of egalitarian positions. Rawls argues that socio-economic inequalities should exist, but he insists they work to the benefit of the least well-off. Foucault contends that power will always exist, but he called for it to be productive. Feminists such as Drucilla Cornell argue that equality is a less important moral principle than freedom. And so on. This does not mean that these positions are correct, of course. It merely shows that the boogeyman of radicals calling for “equality of outcome” along every metric does not exist. A sustained argument against any of these positions would have to take their nuances, qualifications, and exceptions into account, rather than sweeping them aside.
I have routinely criticized the Left for its limitations. Ironically, Peterson himself expressed admiration for my critiques in this regard.
Critiquing the Political Right
Tavana also claims that I repeatedly assert that the Left alone is responsible for all that is “great and high” and that the political right responsible for all that is evil. Neither of these assertions is true. I have routinely criticized the Left for its limitations. Ironically, Peterson himself expressed admiration for my critiques in this regard. I have also expressed where I think the Left can—indeed, must—learn from conservatives, and I have indicated my high regard for certain conservative thinkers. Moreover, I have often opined that Peterson himself is an intelligent man with much of interest to say. Here, I will quote the introduction to Myth and Mayhem, where I take issue with critics who refuse to acknowledge this fact.
“The first thing to note about Jordan Peterson is he is a very smart man. The second thing to note is that many leftists refuse to acknowledge that. The ‘Stupid Man’s Smart Person’ was how a November 2017 article in the Canadian magazine Macleans put it. And a lot of the other commentators aren’t much kinder…our intention in this book is to criticize Peterson the intellectual and Professor at the University of Toronto, not to cast stones (however warranted).”
With that said, most of my criticisms have, undoubtedly, been directed at conservative figures, including Peterson. This is for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that we are living in a time period in which many of the world’s leading states are dominated by reactionaries and post-modern conservatives. This includes Donald Trump in the United States, Narendra Modi in India, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Vladimir Putin in Russia. The list goes on. Peterson and others may insist that the biggest threat we currently face is from radical campus activists with irritating chants. Given these aforementioned political figures’ longstanding flirtation with authoritarian rhetoric and practices—not to mention consistent dishonesty over how to respond to the deadly Coronavirus outbreak—I remain skeptical. While some conservative commentators may think that the threat of social justice activism is serious enough to warrant extensive video compilations on the subject, I am far more concerned about the millions of people impacted by draconian policies towards refugees, environmental indifference, limits in access to healthcare, and growing inequities in power and wealth.
This is not to say that one cannot or should not criticize the Left for its excesses. As was mentioned, I, too, have contributed to this genre. However, my decision to center the bulk of my criticisms on the political right is grounded in concerns about the negative impact post-modern conservatism will likely have. I back up this concern with lengthy arguments justifying my position. Tavana addresses none of this.
Criticizing Peterson and Proser
My last rebuttal is related to the more general point articulated above. Tavana chastises Hamilton and me for the “viciousness” of our criticisms of Peterson and Proser’s work. He goes on to highlight the beneficial impact Peterson has had on many people’s lives, invoking Proser’s recent comments about the Canadian psychologist helping him through a personal crisis. To begin with, I have never denied the value of Peterson’s work as a psychologist offering self-help advice. Indeed, I have often stressed its worth, as in this piece in Merion West this past December:
“In particular we empathize deeply with Senatore’s story about his friend Fred, whose wife is suffering from frontal lobe dementia—and how Peterson’s lectures about how to handle adversity proved edifying. Life isn’t truly easy for anyone, and we don’t begrudge anyone for seeking help when needed. If anything, the capacity to do so is a sign of considerable strength and depth of feeling.”
Nor would I ever criticize Peterson for his recent medical difficulties, whatever their cause. If he is ill, I wish him, his family well, and I hope he enjoys a full recovery soon.
My criticisms of both Peterson and Proser have two prongs. The first has been directed at their very thin understanding of the political left, as already gestured to in the arguments above. The second is against their traditionalist support for what I have called “ordered liberty.” Tavana chooses to engage with none of these arguments, instead simply invoking the resonance of Peterson’s ideas. My contention has been that they may resonate, but that does not mean that Peterson’s specifically political arguments are compelling. Proser’s are even more problematic.
There are many dimensions to this, so I will simply mention a few here. When Peterson criticizes so-called “postmodern neo-Marxism,” it becomes very obvious that he does not really know very much about either postmodern theory or Marxism. This was dramatically illustrated during Peterson’s debate with Slavoj Žižek, when the former admitted to having not read Marx for decades. He was also unable to give an example of a single “postmodern neo-Marxist” thinker. These kinds of problems persist when Peterson argues for his own substantive political convictions. In 12 Rules for Life, Peterson contends that hierarchy is natural and ineradicable, and he chides a variety of progressive groups for thinking otherwise. In reality, though, I know of no leftist thinker who ever argued otherwise; even anarchists respect the need for democratically-oriented and fluid hierarchies to maintain social organization. The key political question is what kinds of hierarchies are just—not whether they should exist at all. So it is not at all clear who Peterson is arguing against, let alone what he is arguing for.
Proser’s own book is riddled with even more glaring problems. For instance, he makes factual mistakes when claiming Justin Trudeau was once the leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada, and he even gets the name of the party wrong at one point (calling it “the National Democratic Party”). Beyond these errors of fact, Proser is often a very one-sided commentator, relying on insults and parody when discussing the political left. Despite these serious problems, I still found time to praise elements of Proser’s book, contra Tavana’s accusation that my review was “exceedingly unfair.” The entire first section of my review was dedicated to discussing Savage Messiah’s virtues:
“Before I jump into that, I will further discuss some of the book’s redeeming qualities. To begin with, Proser writes in an accessible and involved way. Savage Messiah would have been far more intellectually interesting if he actually interrogated some of the issues brought up in the course of its 300 pages. But the boon of not doing so is the prose skips along with scarcely a blip or dangerous temptation to think critically. This accessibility is crucial to getting through some of the earlier sections of the book, which are genuinely moving.”
The irony of this exchange is that it has only reinforced my opinion that Peterson’s political rhetoric often has a stultifying impact on sincere intellectual debates. Appropriately enough, Joel Finkelstein, writing at the right-leaning Heterodox Academy, concluded the same . Peterson is an intelligent and creative scholar, whose work deserves to be engaged with. However, like any other figure, he should not be immunized from criticism when he makes errors. And, unfortunately, Peterson’s political errors are quite expansive.
Matt McManus is Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey, and the author of Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law and The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism. His new projects include co-authoring a critical monograph on Jordan Peterson and a book on liberal rights for Palgrave MacMillan. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or added on twitter vie @mattpolprof