View from
The Left

In Defense of My Work Critical of Jordan Peterson

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.

Introduction

I 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.”

Conclusion

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 mattmcmanus300@gmail.com or added on twitter vie @mattpolprof

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Pedro
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Pedro

The lack of depth and honesty here is disgusting. Classifying Peterson as right or conservative is so obviously wrong. And implying that you know what he thinks about COVID management only because of the way you group people is just insincere.. And no, no one is trying to immunize JP. I’m trying to point out that this piece is the product of jealousy disguised as reason. JP’s argument is very simple and very powerful. In my interpretation, it is that the way we do things may be wrong, but that doesn’t imply that any alternative is correct. Given that we can make mistakes, and very bad ones, we should always seek for constructive changes, never revolutionary changes. Furthermore, revolutions happen wether you want it or not. It is a very noble goal the one he has set for his work, that is, helping us to find meaning in our lives in an increasingly changing environment. Perhaps JP is answering questions that you don’t care about. Perhaps,, you are just trying… Read more »

Bob Melchitt
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Bob Melchitt

You’re literally doing exactly what he has criticized Tavana of – an unsubstantiated, emotionally based critique that does not address his arguments or their supporting evidence. I’m not saying that it doesn’t exist. I’m saying you didn’t bring it to the table in your comment.

Pedro
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Pedro

I literally summarized my view on Matt’s piece and JP’s work in a couple of lines. Nothing else is required. This is not a trial. Furthermore, I’m not trying to sell any books nor defending my prestige as a professor. Thus, the burden of proof is hardly on my side.

Fred
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Fred

The problem with McManus is he doesn’t know what substantive or useful means. He has little to no grip on what actually is and why useful matters.
If he did, he would know why these assertions are beyond ridiculous:
“I do not know of any major left-wing figure who actually argues for equality of outcome along every metric of life.”
“Peterson contends that hierarchy is natural and ineradicable, … In reality, though, I know of no leftist thinker who ever argued otherwise;”
Peterson never said “every” metric of life and what a leftest argues is not necessarily the same as their intended or unintended goals.

Just count the number of I’s and my’s and you’ll know what this article is about–it’s not about substantive or useful. No matter anything else, McManus wants to be heard. How he fills that hole is misplaced.

Bob Melchitt
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Bob Melchitt

Then perhaps you should prove why those assertations are beyond ridiculous and prove it with evidence.

Fred
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Fred

I already listed two ways they are ridiculous. There are many more if you think about it. Not that it’s needed or appropriate but what would you accept as “evidence.”

Chris Jones
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Chris Jones

Peterson’s argument on hierarchies isn’t that people are arguing for no hierarchies. It’s that people are arguing to tear down the SPECIFIC hierarchies that have undergirded civilization for all time, and will continue to, whether the next Marxist utopia (USSR/Cambodia/CCP pt 2) arrises or not.

Pedro
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Pedro

Exactly. He is actually saying: Be careful. When the left criticizes hierarchies, that’s actually a Troy horse for a new -and most probably extremely vertical- hierarchy.

Kyle
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Kyle

What a time to write this disgusting piece.

Benjamin L Perez
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Benjamin L Perez

I actually find much of Matt McManus’s critique of Peterson convincing. As much as I respect Peterson—far more than I respect most of my fellow progressives, actually (although most progressives aren’t “SJWs,” their silence and/or cowardice concerning what’s happening at and to the university is disappointing, if not disgusting – that said)—Carl Sagan’s “baloney detection kit” keeps me from taking Peterson’s amalgamation of pragmatism, existentialism, and—and most especially—Jungianism seriously. All that said, Matt McManus’s description of Heterodox Academy as “right-leaning” struck me as an example of Steven Pinker’s “Left Pole” analogy, indeed fallacy. Since Heterodox Academy isn’t as left-wing as McManus that means it’s right-wing? That’s rich, McManus.

Kyle
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Kyle

What a time to write this disgusting and dishonest piece.

Quattro Quattro
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Quattro Quattro

The stark contrast between the response of Mr. McManus and that of Mr. Conrad Hamilton is a perfect illustration of a pundit with a particular political leaning trying to engage in productive discourse with people who hold different views from his own, and the fool of the same political leaning who undermines him. While Mr. McManus has offered a thoughtful and informed defense of his critical work in regards to Mr. Peterson, Mr. Conrad Hamilton has demonstrated that he is clearly out of his depth, attempting to hide his lack of comprehension regarding his own political leanings behind shameless pontification and emotionally charged tone that does little to further his argument and much to prove his incompetence. Frankly this is a common dichotomy seen in both left-wing and right-wing circles, but this pair of articles are a particularly apparent example of this. If you disagree, I would kindly ask that you would, you know, scroll through the comments of both articles and note which author has felt the greater need… Read more »

Eyal Shoham
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Eyal Shoham

It’s void of McManus to state that he “doesn’t know any major left-wing figures” in his leading argument in regards to equality of outcome. Does he know all of them? it also implies that his own knowledge of the left is of any importance, or merits any legitimacy to an argument in an objective debate.

It’s also disrespectful of the left-wing figures who have debated equality of outcome with Peterson over the years. Is McManus implying that they were not ‘major’? or is it that he lacks knowledge of their existence?

Interestingly, the same argument of ‘not knowing anyone’ is made by Zizek, McManus brings up here. Zizek makes the exact same statement in their debate, although he seems to ignore the immediate suspect: himself.

Chris Jones
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Chris Jones

Can anyone actually decipher that Marx quote?

Chris Jones
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Chris Jones

Donald Trump wants to keep America how it is. Campus activists want to gut the first amendment.

Chris Jones
Guest
Chris Jones

A single postmodern neo-marxist thinker: Foucault

Robert
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Robert

I think the criticism of Tavana’s piece is completely fair. I don’t see Jordan Peterson saying there are leftists calling for equality of outcome “along every metric of life” as you say, but rather particular metrics, for example in this BBC interview: https://youtu.be/Ddzf9Mm4hdY?t=465.