Who is Jordan Peterson?
Until June 25th, when I attended a live Peterson talk in Portland, Oregon alongside 2,500 screaming fans, I had never heard or read anything the professor has produced. I have not seen his YouTube lectures. I have not read either of his books.
I’d seen social media conversations, of course, and I’d read articles. A great deal of ink has been spilled on the subject of Jordan Peterson since his book crashed the Amazon’s bestsellers list party.
The New York Times sees a humorless acetic, father to Men’s Rights activists, upholder of the biological patriarchy. Katie Herzog of The Stranger sees a psych-101 self-help guru: “It’s hard to see what’s so controversial.” Rich Smith from the same publication sees a lying huckster making money by riling up the alt-right with ridiculous lies. Reason Magazine sees a would-be prophet who wins friends by intellectually attacking the Left and their SJWs. The LA Review of Books sees a snake-oil salesman exploiting white male rage. An LA Times editorial sees a man plugged into the zeitgeist who isn’t always right but nonetheless points out real flaws in the feminist worldview. The Wall Street Journal sees a conservative Christian. TabletMag sees a much-maligned centrist.
The question isn’t which of the above visions truly represents Jordan Peterson the man. To ask what lies inside a man’s soul—what motivates him—is a peculiarly modern trap. The question is: how can Peterson be so many things to so many people at the same time? How can his listeners and readers walk away with so many disparate messages?
It does not matter what Jordan Peterson, the individual, thinks and believes. It doesn’t even matter what Peterson is attempting to convey. What matters, from a political and social perspective, is what his audience takes from his lectures and works. Unlike the unknowable inner workings of a man’s mind, we can directly observe the effects Peterson has on his fans and the world.
Here are those effects as I observed them.
You can access my bootleg copy of the June 25th Jordan Peterson lecture here.
Achievement Without Effort
Jordan Peterson began his talk with a description of the a debater that occurred in Vancouver a few days previously. The psychologist enthusiastically described going toe-to-toe with philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris as a highly intellectual experience, like a PhD defense–no, like “a PhD defense duel.” Peterson repeatedly emphasized the elevated, intellectual, and above all complex nature of this philosophical discourse.
At no point did Peterson tell the audience what the debate was about.
In a 6-minute video released on July 2nd, Brett Weinstein noted that no unofficial copies of the lecture were available, and he thanked audience members for respecting requests not to record the event. Unfortunately, Weinstein stated, official video will not be available for some time. He went on to echo Peterson in his description of the debate as a transformative and groundbreaking move towards unified truth between the different political forces within the United States.
No intellectual movement asks its adherents to accept assertions without proof. Intellectual audiences do not craves mystery without answers. Intellectualism strives to explore the unknown. It does not applaud hints of things that could be known but are deliberately left mysterious.
It turns out Peterson does not offer intellectualism, but the label of intellectual.
The professor bestows this label using a speaking style which Katie Herzog of The Stranger correctly describes as “stream of consciousness.” He asks questions, provides seemingly off-the-cuff answers, then explains how these answers lead to yet more questions. This style, which takes the listener through every step of Peterson’s thought process, has a slightly hypnotic effect. It is very hard to think critically about Jordan Peterson’s ideas while he speaks. When riding along on someone else’s train of thought, it is difficult to simultaneously have your own.
It is even more difficult when the narrative is flattering. We are in attendance tonight, Peterson informed us, because we have the same hunger for knowledge as that Vancouver audience who devoured the complicated, PhD-level discourse of a week earlier. It turns out that the new technology of YouTube, podcasts, and audiobooks is making us smarter as a species. We are no longer limited to 7-minute punditry on cable news, he tells us. We can now expand our minds with three-hour podcasts. We can listen to audiobooks while we drive. Our attention spans are increasing.
The results of these transformative events become evident when we examine recent television. We are no longer content with half-hour sitcoms. We demand—and binge watch—complicated programs with intricate plots. How many people in this audience have binge-watched a show? Most of the audience claps and cheers to signify that they have. Proof, we discover, of how smart we are. Proof of increased intellectual capacity.
There are some logical problems here. The incredible assertion that binge-watching Netflix indicates intelligence is the most egregious, but not the only problem. Peterson argues for intellectual revolution based on the idea that podcasts, etc. make complicated and rigorous intellectual thought available to the public in ways that cable news could not. This assertion conveniently ignores pre-Internet realities such as shows like 60 minutes, TV documentaries, newspapers, magazines, in-person lectures, and books. Peterson is correct that we are in the middle of a communications revolution. The idea that this communications revolution offers complicated intellectual ideas to the masses for the first time is, to say the least, a stretch.
Because the edifice is so flattering, though, it is easy to overlook these flaws. According to this construction, Peterson’s audience is not only enlightened, but enlightened through no conscious effort of their own. Technology, not effort, provides transformation. The things we consume offer enlightenment. With this, Peterson offers achievement without effort: perhaps the oldest human dream.
For the Love of Joe Rogan
The most clear example of this type of audience manipulation occurred when Peterson brought up Joe Rogan’s 3-hour podcast (13:20). To this point, the audience had unfailingly cheered for every name they liked or recognized. Most, if not all, of the audience–myself included–knows and likes Joe Rogan. Naturally, predictably, the audience cheered for Joe Rogan as well.
“Isn’t it interesting that you’re applauding that,” Peterson mused. After a brief aside on the lack of commercials on Joe Rogan and YouTube, he explained: “You’re so happy–for some reason–about the extension of the format to three hours, which is really a big chunk of time. You’re so happy with the extension of the forum that just a mention of that makes you applaud.”
This is a far less obvious explanation for our applause than “the audience likes Joe Rogan,” and a far more flattering one. Perhaps, an audience member might think, I did not know why I was applauding. Perhaps the reason I like Joe Rogan so much is because his podcasts are very long. Peterson already established that enjoying long podcasts is a marker of intelligence. Once again, the audience member emerges with a higher opinion of themself that came directly from Jordan Peterson. Once again, Peterson is the direct and indispensable source of self-worth.
Self-esteem through consumption and without effort is the opposite of self-help. It is permission to stagnate. Jordan Peterson’s advice may help his audience achieve more, and it may make them happier, but it does not make them independent thinkers and their happiness is not self-sustaining. The promise of Peterson is the promise of the pusher: my product will always make you feel good. The more you use it, the more you’ll need it—and the less you’ll be able to question it.
What is that product? What ideology does Peterson offer along with this intellectual label?
Blunt Force Statistics
The remaining hour and a half of Peterson’s lecture dealt with Rule 1 from 12 Rules of Life. The rule, for those unfamiliar, is “Stand up straight with your shoulders back.” Thankfully, Peterson did not hold forth for 90 minutes on posture. Instead, he delivered a long, stream-of-consciousness musing on the nature of thought and discourse.
Politics, Peterson informed us, has to do with personality. Every person has a set personality that consists of five basic traits. Psychologists have decisively determined this. These traits were “extracted out from large-scale surveys using blunt force statistics: no theory” (35:15). The psychologist is willing to allow that there might be more than five aspects of personality, yet there are certainly, definitely five.
Peterson bases this declaration of fact on“large-scale surveys,” which means public opinion, which means social science, which means uncertainty. My hackles go up immediately whenever someone claims to “prove” anything within the social sciences. Yours should too. As a wise professor once told me about social science, “If you have to put ‘science’ in front of the discipline’s name, it’s not really a science.”
As a political science major, I have worked with sliding-scale surveys that are almost certainly similar to the ones that Jordan Peterson references here. These studies seek to assign numbers to things that cannot be defined by numbers. If, for example, you ask me to rate myself on a scale from 1-10, where 1 is “always follows rules” and 10 is “never follows rules,” I can give you a number. You can also assign yourself a number on this scale. Because we come up with these numbers through unknowable, highly-individualized, semi-subconscious processes, we cannot compare these numbers in any kind of meaningful way. We might both rate ourselves 6, yet mean very different things by that 6. Two people who rate themselves a 6 might react very differently in a situation where they were asked to follow a rule that seemed wrong or unfair.
Some academics in the social sciences dedicate their lives to surveys like this: carefully constructing questions intended to more precisely quantify traits like openness, rule-following, creativity, and so on. The fundamental problem of different and unknowable internal worlds persists. One can never establish indisputable fact with such studies. At best, one might come up with a model which represents the world to a greater or lesser extent. This sort of model is the equivalent of a line drawing of a park: a 2D simplification of a complex 3D reality. Such a drawing illustrates real aspects of the park, but leaves out important information and captures only one perspective.
Like the line drawing, these models have value. They are not—and are not intended to be—the entire truth. One might responsibly describe a five-trait model of personality as a functional approximation of personality differences. To call such a model unquestionable scientific fact is, to use the most charitable word possible, irresponsible. To claim that such a model involves “no theory” is, to use the most charitable word possible, batshit.
Nevertheless, Jordan Peterson builds the rest of his argument on this shaky foundation.
Immediately after these attempts to establish personality metrics as unarguable scientific truth, Peterson delivered a remarkable series of assertions. I’m going to post the entire quote, then go through it section by section:
“…And then once we’ve got [personality] sorted out we can look at other issues like, well, were there personality differences between men and women? And there are. And then we can decide whether those were biological or cultural, and they’re both, but there’s certainly a heavy biological influence. And we can also start looking at political belief. There’s been a burgeoning field, probably about 10 years in development now, showing that you vote your temperament. That was quite interesting, because what you think is that you look at the facts, and then you have a rational discussion with yourself, and you come to your reasoned conclusions, and that’s why you’re a Republican or a Democrat, let’s say. But it doesn’t really look like that, because being a Republican is actually heritable, so its under biological influence, which is quite interesting. Same with being a Democrat” (36:11).
Maybe this made you feel some feelings—good or bad. Put those feelings aside, if you can, and read it again. There’s a magic trick in here. Can you see it?
“…And then once we’ve got [personality] sorted out we can look at other issues like: well, were there personality differences between men and women? And there are. And then we can decide whether those were biological or cultural, and they’re both, but there’s certainly a heavy biological influence. “
For the love of God, forget whatever you believe about gender and biological imperative. Put that shit all the way to the side. The important thing here is that Peterson provides absolutely no proof of heavy biological difference between men and women—not even a “studies have shown.” He slips it in, almost as an aside, before immediately moving along to his main point:
“And we can also start looking at political belief.”
People who don’t believe in biological gender already have their quote. Chances are, if they’re in the audience, they’re tweeting that shit right now, missing everything that comes next. People who do believe in biological gender, on the other hand, scarcely noticed. Peterson confirmed something they already think they know—gender is biological—and the audience is prepared to focus entirely on this next part. The next part, which leads into the meat of the lecture, is what they’ll remember. When reporters talk about Peterson’s emphasis on biological gender in his Portland lecture, they will be genuinely confused.
“There’s been a burgeoning field, probably about 10 years in development now, showing that you vote your temperament. That was quite interesting, because what you think is that you look at the facts, and then you have a rational discussion with yourself, and you come to your reasoned conclusions, and that’s why you’re a Republican or a Democrat, let’s say. But it doesn’t really look like that…”
I happen to work for a professor who specializes in voting behavior, which means I am familiar with the research Peterson references here. The research does indeed show a connection between measures of temperament and voting preference. The research does not–and cannot–demonstrate that temperament causes voting behavior. That’s just one possible explanation. It’s also possible that political beliefs tend to change temperament. Or, there may be other unmeasured factors that cause both temperament and voting patterns. As with a lot of statistical research, all we can do is show correlation. We cannot show causation.
In other words, you very well might make political decisions based on inspection of facts, or based on biases picked up in childhood, or based on deeply-held and unquestioned beliefs about the world. The reality Peterson articulates is only one possible explanation.
“But it doesn’t really look like that, because being a Republican is actually heritable, so its under biological influence, which is quite interesting. Same with being a Democrat.”
Let’s pretend for a moment that every unproven argument Peterson has made thus far turns out to be 100% true. Let’s say that psychologists have personality totally dialed in. Let’s say that personality traits for sure cause political affiliation. Let’s assume all that.
None of that even remotely proves that political affiliation is heritable. Peterson’s stream-of-conscious style, the rapid delivery, makes it seem like an inevitable conclusion. It is not.
But that’s not the real trick. No, the magic was that bit about gender from earlier.
Any given Peterson admirer is probably at least sympathetic to the idea that gender is biological. Recall that Peterson became famous for refusing to comply with a Canadian law mandating the use of chosen gender pronouns. The professor resisted this law in the name of free speech. In the course of this resistance, Peterson insisted that he would not use “made-up” pronouns and describing the use of such pronouns as ideological control. Peterson’s belief in biological gender is a well-known part of his ideology.
By inserting a claim about biological gender difference–something that the audience “knows” to be scientifically true–Peterson primes the pump for biological claims later. The audience accepts the assertion about gender difference without much thought. Because Peterson slips that assertion in between a cited fact and a cited study, they implicitly associate the claim with both the fact and the study. The audience automatically associates temperament with biology. When Peterson gets to his real argument—politics are biological—it feels like something arrived at through pure logic supported by scientific studies.
The conclusion is in no way supported by anything Peterson has said thus far, even if everything he has said is accurate, which it is not.
Perhaps you think I’m reading too much into this. After all, this entire portion of the lecture took less than 30 seconds. Who has time to think through all that? The answer is that no one does. I got here after two weeks of listening to my recording, transcribing, writing, re-writing. In the moment, no one has time to question it. That’s why it works so well. The audience finds themselves swept forward by Peterson’s associative style, accepting his conclusions. It all feels right. There’s no time to look under the hood.
Perhaps you don’t believe Peterson pulled this complicated trick together, off the cuff, like some kind of intellectual comic-book villain. Once again: it does not matter what Peterson intended with any of this. What matters is the effect this kind of science-ish logic has on Peterson’s audience.
In this example, the effect is to insert an idea of biological difference between Democrats and Republicans. Audience members will leave with this idea, subconsciously or consciously. Peterson has provided an intellectual justification for biological determinism.
This has some effects.
Portland audience members may think I’m being rather unfair. Here I am doing a close reading of 30 seconds while ignoring the far longer argument that followed it.
After his claim of biological temperamental differences between conservatives and liberals, Peterson argued that these differences are great things. We need all kinds of people for a functional society. Liberals are good at innovation. Conservatives are good at bringing those innovations into fruition. Liberals are good at the creative destruction necessary to prevent stagnation. Conservatives are good at preserving order and preventing society from flying entirely off the rails.
Furthermore, Peterson argues, confirmation bias makes us blind to truth and unable to think alone. We only remember things that enforce our biases. We discard the rest. We can only reach something approaching truth by discussing things with a variety of people holding a variety of biases. This, he says, is why I am such a proponent of free speech. The crowd applauds.
I like this argument. It appeals to me. I’m a lifelong free speech advocate who passionately believes in the importance of dialogue. Exposure to different perspectives has radically changed my viewpoints on nearly every issue over the years. Our society desperately needs more unity, more common ground, more discussion.
(There are also ideas with which no common ground is possible. I’ll get to that in a second)
The problem with the above message is that it is only one of two possible messages supported by Peterson’s words. One message is intriguing, even admirable. The other is not. It does not matter whether Peterson intended both messages. They are present regardless.
The first message is pretty obvious, and it’s the one I’d like to walk away with. We have differences of opinions on how society ought to work. We have differences of opinion on morality. Who cares why? Peterson is obviously correct about the differences, and that’s the important thing. No one group has the whole answer. We’re prisoners of our own biases, unable to see the world from every possible perspective. We’re like that line drawing of the park from earlier—a 2D representation of 3D truth. In order to reach sound conclusions, we need to talk to people with different perspectives, different biases. Only through dialogue can we come to some kind of understanding of the truth. We can improve our ideas and come up with better solutions. Cooperation is key. We need to stop treating everything we disagree with as an implacable enemy and start treating each other as human beings with different opinions.
Fucking awesome. I like every part of that message. It’s a message I espouse pretty regularly. It’s the message that I think—hope—my Petersonian friends like about Peterson. A mirror reflecting deep desire for discourse.
Here’s a second possible message:
There are important biological differences between groups of human beings. Men and women are fundamentally, biologically different on a psychological level. People with different political ideologies are also biologically different—they cannot change, it’s just the way they were born. Some people are able to think and debate rationally. They have different opinions, but they can at least talk to each other. They can debate interesting questions without getting their panties in a bunch or trying to silence debate. But not everyone can do that. Some people are biologically unfit to do so.
The category of “unsuited to debate” is marvelously flexible. The most common excluded group is “The Left,” a word that simultaneously means violent Stalinists and anyone who votes Democrat. It can also mean people who get all emotional about ideas. Women who get all screechy about “women belong in the kitchen,” for instance. People of color who aren’t keen to debate whether they are biologically less intelligent than white people. Trans people who get wound up about losing their ability to use the bathroom anywhere outside of their houses. People who have a lot more to lose from these debates than an argument.
As Peterson explained it around the hour mark of his lecture,
“We have to talk about [keeping societal structures alive] properly. We have to talk about it like civilized, intelligent, committed citizens, who take the responsibility that goes along with individual sovereignty as if it’s the most important thing that it is. Because it is! [Applause]” (58:20)
If you believe in the first message, this is an exhortation for debate and discussion. It is a denunciation of elements on the left who actively attempt to silence any kind of dissent. Those elements are real. I encounter them at my university and we dislike each other very much.
If you venture down the path of that second message, however, this paragraph is filled to the brim with dog whistles. What group has routinely been described as uncivilized, unintelligent, and too lazy to take responsibility for its own well-being? Some of you are already furious at me for implying here that Jordan Peterson is racist, and you have just proved my point: you know good and goddamn well I’m talking about black stereotypes. I didn’t have to say “black” even once for you to know that. For the purposes of the second-message crowd, Peterson didn’t need to either. This is true whether Peterson intended these dog whistles or not.
Or, maybe people who blame other people for their problems aren’t talking about ideas properly. You know, people who talk about modern effects of historic racism and the effects of discrimination on opportunity. People who think we didn’t all start out with the same opportunities in this life, and that we should try to address this inequality of opportunity. Isn’t that a form of shirking individual responsibility? Are these ideas worth of debate? I certainly think so. I don’t pretend to know whether Peterson the man thinks so. I know that his words above can easily be used to justify excluding those ideas from the realm of debate. Taken literally, they explicitly justify that exclusion. They support the first interpretation only if we take them to mean responsible debate and not citizens conforming to an ethos of individual responsibility.
The key difference between these two very different interpretations is biological difference. Whether one walks away from Peterson with the first interpretation—discussion, debate, rational discourse—or the second, darker interpretation hinges on whether one believes that genetic, hardwired differences between groups outweighs differences between individuals.
The first message does not require group biological difference to work. In fact, one must ignore the message of biological difference entirely to walk away with a passion for tolerance and discussion. After all, debate doesn’t work if our differences are purely biological. If they are, we’ll never be convinced to see things from a different point of view. We’ll never converge on truth. We physically, genetically, cannot. One must ignore the obvious implications of biological difference to walk away with a benevolent message.
Assuming Peterson intends the first message—the love and inclusion message—the psychologist chooses to slip biological determinism in where it isn’t needed for that message. That decisions has consequences, intended or not.
This double message delivery is not an isolated incident. Here’s another example.
Marriage and the Kitchen
During the Q&A session at the end of his Portland lecture, Jordan Peterson received the following question: “I’ve moved farther right over recent years, but my wife is still an ardent left-wing feminist” [Some members of the crowd moan softly. Laughter]. “How do I keep my views while avoiding relationship trouble?” (1:53:40)
Peterson advises the questioner to concentrate on day-to-day harmony rather than political disagreement. Concentrate on making mealtimes more pleasant. On dividing the chores. This is good, practical advice. Unfortunately, as Peterson points out, it can be difficult:
“It means you have to consciously sorted out the hierarchy of responsibilities between the sexes in the household. And good luck taking that on yourself. Because there used to be gendered rules to deal with that. Now there aren’t. So what do people do? They fight stupidly, that’s what they do. And the alternative to that is to actually negotiate every damn detail. Who buys what? Who does the groceries? Who prepares the meals? When did they prepare the meals? What’s that worth in terms of trade-offs for other tasks? How do you thank someone for operating properly in the kitchen? Who loads the dishwasher? Who does the dishes? When do they do the dishes? How fast do the dishes have to be cleared off the table after you eat? Which dishes are we going to use? What are we going to eat? What’s the role the kids are going to play? Do we sit down together? Do we have regular mealtimes? It’s like—each of those is a bloody war. And it’s a political war. And if you get that right, you’ll solve the political problems because it’s way easier to solve the political problems than it is to get all those things straight, that’s for sure. So start with getting those things straight and see what happens” (1:57:48).
First of all, if my husband and I fought anything even approaching a bloody war over even one or two of these questions, I would get a divorce yesterday. I say this not because you care about the state of my marriage, but because what Peterson describes here is an unlivable and impossible nightmare to which any alternative would be preferable.
The psychologist provides an alternative that sounds preferable to having 14-15 (count ‘em) gigantic fights about the preparation and consumption of meals. In the before times, gendered rules took care of the debate. No fighting.
If I accused Peterson of endorsing 1950s-style gender roles, one could accurately retort that Peterson never said that and in fact explicitly states that such gendered rules are in the past. What he actually advocates, you might say, is for communication between spouses and concentration on making the life they share as pleasant as possible.
And that’s true. Nowhere does Peterson explicitly advocate gender roles. All he does is vividly explain how modern family life with a feminist is a hellish war—a political hellish war, in fact—and point out that if we had gender roles things wouldn’t be that way.
Does Jordan Peterson the person believe that the societal, across-the-board answer to every single one of those questions ought to be be “the woman does it” or “the woman figures it out,” as it was in the 1950s? I don’t know and I don’t care.
Does Peterson advocate that concept? It depends on what you want to believe.
Here’s another example of dangerous double messaging from beyond the Portland lecture. It involves Peterson’s “Enforced Monogamy” quote from a few months ago. If you’ve read one article on Peterson since May, it was probably about this quote.
First, a bit of context. Last April, Alek Minassian drove a van into a crowd of Toronto pedestrians. He killed 10 people and wounded 14 others, mostly women. The killer posted praise for Elliot Rodger on social media shortly before the attack. Rodger murdered six people and injured 14 others in 2014. He left behind a manifesto explaining his motivation: a desire to punish women for their lack of sexual interest in him.
Both killers are associated with the incel movement.* The incel, or involuntarily celibate, community consists of men who believe that sexual and relationship success depends entirely on genetics—specifically, whether or not you were born attractive. They largely dismiss the concept of self-help. They believe that women will never find them attractive and that they will never find love. Incels tend to be violently misogynistic, and often blame disgusting Stacy femoid roasties—or, as we often call them in English, “women”—for their inability to attain needed intimacy. These soulless and evil creatures gravitate towards “Chads,” defined as attractive men who can have sex with women whenever they want, no matter how dreadful they are as people.
On May 18th, the New York Times published an article on Jordan Peterson which included the following quote:
“‘He was angry at God because women were rejecting him,’ Mr. Peterson says of the Toronto killer. ‘The cure for that is enforced monogamy. That’s actually why monogamy emerges.’”
Predictably, everyone lost their shit.
What, exactly, did Jordan Peterson mean by “enforced monogamy”? At a different lecture than the one I attended in Portland, someone asked this exact question.
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“Well, we can start with what I don’t mean. I don’t mean taking innocent women at gunpoint and handing them over to useless men. [Laughter]. Which is essentially the accusation. You know, it was really interesting to watch that unfold. What I meant was that monogamy as something that’s socially valued appears to be, essentially, a human universal. That doesn’t mean that human beings are universally monogamous, because obviously we’re not…but there’s this strong proclivity across known societies to tilt towards monogamy.
One interpretation of the above—the most obvious one—is that the New York Times grossly misrepresented Peterson. He starts out with a strong rejection of the “Handmaid’s tale” interpretation of the phrase “enforced monogamy.” Peterson doesn’t want the government to enforce monogamy. He just thinks monogamy should be a social norm. That sounds like a reasonable position that I disagree with but would be willing to discuss over a beer or two.
There’s another interpretation, of course.
The first sentence isn’t quite the strong rejection it appears. Incels explicitly do not view women as “innocent.” Nor do they necessarily view themselves as “useless,” save in the area of attractiveness. These qualifying adjectives are unnecessary for a strong rejection, yet Peterson chose to use them.
Either Peterson did not do sufficient research on the incel community—the community he believes himself enough of an expert to comment on—or he did. Which is it?
Appeal to Anthropology
Let’s move on to the definition of ‘enforced monogamy.” Peterson claims that this is an academic term with a precise definition:
“It’s an anthropological term. It’s been known for 100 years by anthropologists, most of whom are left-leaning, by the way, because that’s how it goes” (1:55).
Is that true?
I’m not an anthropologist, but I do have access to anthropology databases through my university. I could not find a single article with that phrase in any anthropology-specific database. A search of ProQuest—a multi-disciplinary database—for the term “enforced monogamy” yields 65 articles in a database of millions. Of those, 0 are from anthropology journals.
Nearly all of those articles are from biology journals. It seems “enforced monogamy” is not a common anthropological term, but rather an uncommon biological one.
Worse, the biological meaning of “enforced monogamy” is different from the meaning Peterson claims. I’m even less of a biologist than I am an anthropologist, but based on the first ten articles, “enforced monogamy” refers to experiments in which animals are given access only to an assigned sexual partner. Biologists compare results under conditions enforced monogamy with results under “sexual selection,” or a condition in which animals get to choose their own mates.
Jordan Peterson doesn’t have much luck finding non-biological articles with the term “enforced monogamy” either. In an article defending himself against the New York Times accusation, he references two articles in his defense. The first is an article published in Justice Quarterly—a criminology journal. Peterson links to the Taylor and Francis Online version, which is not available for free. This is an interesting choice, since the article is available in its entirety on the National Institute of Health website. Although the article supports Peterson’s ideas about the importance of monogamy, the term “enforced monogamy” does not appear even once.
The second cited article appeared in Sociological Theory in 2000. This journal is, as one might guess, a sociological journal and not an anthropological one. Once again, Peterson links to a pay-only version of this article. Unfortunately, this one isn’t available for free, but I was able to access the whole article through my university account. The phrase “enforced monogamy” does not appear in this article either.
Both of these articles support Peterson’s views on monogamy—which we’ll explore more in a minute—but this is very different than establishing the 100-year existence of a term neither of us have apparently found in any anthropology article anywhere.
I’ve tried very hard to refrain from judgement on Jordan Peterson the person throughout this article. In this instance, however, the evidence seems beyond clear. Peterson lied about the history the term “enforced monogamy.” He lied about its academic meaning.
I don’t like liars.
Since Peterson didn’t get the term from anthropology (since it doesn’t exist there) or from biology (since it means something else), it seems likely that he coined the phrase himself while being interviewed by the New York Times about an incel murder.
This seems even more likely when we look at his stated reasons for his endorsement of enforced monogamy.
Why Enforce Monogamy?
Back to the YouTube video:
“But monogamous social structures are one of the ways that you keep children raised properly, so that they have a relatively stable environment. And that you keep male aggression, especially the aggression of young men, under social control. It’s not a mystery. The fact that I got in trouble for that, it’s kind of a miracle. [Laughter]. It’s kind of like, don’t you notice that we enforce monogamy in almost every way? And that the same thing happens all over the world in all sorts of diverse societies? And then when we deviate from that there’s a price to be paid? So that’s why I’m a New York Times pariah because I think that monogamy, all things considered, is a good idea. [Laughter, applause].” (2:00)
With great effort and some squinting, one could interpret this video as an endorsement of monogamy as an important, healthy human institution that should be encouraged. There’s nothing particularly loathsome about that perspective, even though I disagree with it.
The second interpretation—the dark one—is far stronger here. Men become unavoidably violent when they are sexually frustrated. There’s a strong implication that this is a genetic fact of human life and not a cultural problem. Only female attention can stop this hard-wired male violence. We must find some way to ensure that men attain women, even if that means limiting individual choice. A great way to do that is to enforce monogamy—create a society where Staceys can’t just fuck a few Chads, but have to settle down with someone—anyone—before they get all roastie.
Peterson doubles down on this second interpretation in his written response to the controversy:
“Men get frustrated when they are not competitive in the sexual marketplace (note: the fact that they DO get frustrated does not mean that they SHOULD get frustrated. Pointing out the existence of something is not the same as justifying its existence). Frustrated men tend to become dangerous, particularly if they are young. The dangerousness of frustrated young men (even if that frustration stems from their own incompetence) has to be regulated socially. The manifold social conventions tilting most societies toward monogamy constitute such regulation.”
At its core, this is advocacy for a society in which all men—even the incompetent ones, even the dangerous ones, even the abusive and entitled ones—receive a woman as a necessity of life. Female autonomy must be sacrificed to keep the peace.
This is a dangerous ideology. It subordinates the happiness of one group to the happiness of another. It limits individual choice. Not quite the Handmaid’s Tale, but a necessary prerequisite.
So which is it? Is Peterson endorsing monogamy as the proper way for human beings to live, or as a necessary control on biological male violence?
Like everyone else, the incels see what they want to believe.
The Hazards of Biology
Like the most benevolent version of Peterson, I believe in dialogue. I think we can learn a lot from each other. I like debate and I like to work toward common ground.
There are also ideas with which no common ground can or should exist. We must still discuss these ideas, but that discussion is not a friendly debate.
There can be no common ground with explosive and dangerous ideologies that destroy lives, societies, and souls. For example, as pointed out above, incels walk among us. So do white supremacists and “race realists.” The most obvious example of the latter are the groups who proudly claim these labels, like Don Black’s Stormfront and Andrew Anglin’s Daily Stormer.
Ideas of racial primacy and sexual oppression exist beyond these groups. They are no longer as fringe as I would like. They are spreading.
The idea that racial concepts can solve every political question must be exposed to a bright light so that it can be debunked, fought, and destroyed. It is a trash ideology. It is false and toxic. We must address these ideas with ideas of our own. We cannot punch them away. One does not tolerate these ideas, but one explains why.
One of the ingredients of racism is biological determinism.
Human beings are complicated creatures. Most people believe that individual human beings result from some mixture of genetics, environment, and life choices. Biological determinists discard the second two. For the pure biological determinist, only genetics matter. In this article, I characterize arguments as biologically deterministic if they argue for innate psychological or personal traits that exist from birth and cannot be overcome through environment or choice.
Racism is biological determinism writ large. The entire story of a racial group lies in that group’s shared genes. According to racial ideology, a black child raised by white people who treated the child exactly as they would treat a white child would behave differently from a white child raised in the same circumstances. The black child is defined by his blackness. For the racist, environment does not matter. Individual genetic variation does not matter. Choices inevitably flow from group genetics. The racial other is the unavoidable and implacable enemy. Replace “race” with “sex” and you have sexism, which is why most dedicated racists are also dedicated sexists.
Biological determinism is not racism, but racism can’t function without biological determinism.
Questions about how much of our personalities are determined by biology are important and worth exploring. Because of our ideological history as humans, however—because of the horrors of the 20th century—we must be thoughtful and clear when asking questions about genetics, lest we empower those who use genetics to justify atrocity.
I am always on my guard when biological determinism comes up. I am especially on my guard when someone like Peterson, who is neither a biologist nor a neuropsychologist, promotes it. And I am way beyond “on my guard” once someone begins applying biological determinism to large groups.
The word “Nazi” gets thrown around too much, enough that for many people it’s lost all meaning. All Trump supporters are not Nazis. The 2,500 people who sought answers inside Keller Auditorium on June 25th were not Nazis by virtue of being inside that auditorium. You are not a Nazi because you like Jordan Peterson and hate this article.
Nonetheless, real Nazis walk among us. The debate over racial ideology is happening in America right now whether we like it or not.
What does this have to do with Jordan Peterson, who, as so many of his fans have pointed out to me, has a long and robust record of explicitly denouncing Nazi Germany?
Jordan Peterson the man may hate Naziism and fascism with all his heart. Jordan Peterson the message provides shelter and support for totalitarian elements, intentionally or not.
People can use Jordan Peterson to defend some really awful ideas, but clearly there are also some good ones. For those who interpret Peterson’s work as a call for dialogue and demilitarized political borders, who find him thought-provoking and interesting, is there something wrong with enjoying Peterson and his work? Supporting him? Recommending him to friends and family?
Every time you support Peterson, you provide air cover for the people who use Peterson to make arguments that rest on biological determinism. This is true whether you mean to or not.
Here’s how it works. Peterson is a best-selling author who sells out auditoriums. Through this mass appeal, Peterson has become a mainstream intellectual figure—someone who cannot be ignored, someone important within modern political discourse. Your support gives him that mainstream credibility. The more well-meaning and sane people support Peterson, the more all of Peterson’s ideas appear rational and mainstream. The more that sensible people support and defend him against what seem to them like baseless accusations, the better his reputation becomes.
When someone uses Jordan Peterson’s words to support racial or biological ideologies, they aren’t just invoking Peterson’s ideas, but also his reputation and credibility. Your support moves Peterson closer to the mainstream, which in turn moves biological determinism and its supporters closer to the mainstream. This is true whether you mean to do it or not.
Worse yet, Peterson’s consistently double message associates these concepts with each other. Every time Peterson inserts biological determinism into arguments for free speech, the concept of free speech becomes associated with biological determinism. Eventually, one won’t even need to say “biological determinism.” One can just say “free speech” instead. This works in the same way, and for the same reasons, that one can say “urban youth” instead of what we all know that phrase actually means.
Jordan Peterson is hurting my cause. If you, like me, are a free speech advocate who abhors racism and sexism, he is hurting your cause too.
Jordan Peterson is dangerous, not because he consistently espouses terrible ideas, but because he doesn’t. Andrew Anglin of the Daily Stormer posts nothing but Nazi shit all day, which means anyone who likes Anglin is a Nazi too. Simple. Jordan Peterson isn’t like that, which makes him far more of a threat. He advocates good ideas alongside terrible ones. He twists the facts as a matter of course. He muddies the water and makes debate more difficult, not less.
Who is Jordan Peterson?
Jordan Peterson is a pseudo-intellectual who offers his audience a sense of self-worth and intellectual status that comes from Peterson’s reimagining of their motives, abilities, and efforts, not from within. He has a bad habit of simplifying and misrepresenting academic studies to fit narratives. He inserts biological determinism and other troubling concepts in order to create double messages for his audience. These hints of determinism never become full-fledged and robust discussions, making rebuttal hard and meaning difficult to pin down.
Peterson’s double messaging and avoidance of extended discussion of biological determinism create plausible deniability and a shield from criticism. Sensible and well-meaning people defend Peterson based on his benevolent message of dialogue and tolerance. At the same time, truly racist and sexist elements of society gain credibility and support for their malicious causes by citing an academic defended by sensible and well-meaning people.
The double messaging also couples concepts like free speech and reasoned dialogue with concepts like biological determinism and societal roles based on gender and race. When you, or I, talk about free speech, people start to hear “biological determinism.” This isn’t because those people are stupid, but because Jordan Peterson is muddying the waters between these two very different concepts.
Jordan Peterson is a house of mirrors, showing everyone inside it exactly what they want to see. Regardless of the intent behind its creation, here it stands.
*Trying to find a source that succinctly and adequately explains the incel movement is basically impossible. It’s an amorphous Internet phenomenon, and it’s pretty fucking gross. Just about every news organization on the planet tried to define incels after the Toronto attack, so if you’re unfamiliar with the movement, I recommend going to your favorite news organization and doing a quick search. If you’d prefer a curated version of actual incel posts, I recommend r/inceltears. If you’re feeling especially brave and want to go directly to the source: r/braincels and/or incels.me both qualify (though r/braincels has been overrun with normie shitposting lately). The FAQs are highly sanitized compared to the actual upvoted posts on these websites. Set aside time for a long, hot shower afterwards. Back to article.