On Wednesday we were treated to the millionth instalment of the campus culture wars, when the university rescinded a visiting fellowship granted to Jordan Peterson. Peterson, a Canadian psychologist, has in recent years become a figurehead of the backlash against progressive politics, commanding a loyal base of frustrated, young, white men who see themselves as the victims of PC culture. The recent debacle has provoked all the usual responses, cries of censorship from the likes of Niall Ferguson, and a raving article from Toby Young in The Spectator, who foresees the collapse of Western democracy in the use of trigger warnings.
As usual they’ve missed the point. It’s not Peterson’s right-wing views which should disqualify him from a Cambridge fellowship, but rather firstly his refusal to treat certain students with a minimum of human decency, and secondly his profound intellectual mediocrity, with his views ranging from the intellectually dishonest to the genuinely moronic.
As to the former point, Peterson has repeatedly refused to commit to addressing trans people by their correct pronouns. The university has a pastoral duty to its students, and to society more widely, not to tolerate transphobia. Certainly, Cambridge should aim to promote free and vigorous argument, but as hateful invective against trans students adds nothing of intellectual value to any debate, it has no obligation to give a platform to Dr Peterson. We would hardly permit an academic to use racist epithets; if we treat trans rights are seriously as those of any other marginalised group, we should take a similarly dim view of Peterson’s declarations.
But the second point is more basic – I seriously doubt that Peterson’s scholarship is worth a fellowship at an institution which is as supposedly exacting as Cambridge. Peterson frequently lambasts critical theory and other disciplines associated with the Left as lacking evidential rigour. The irony is that his feeble arguments for such a position cannot be construed as anything but dishonest. His assertion that white privilege has ‘absolutely no empirical backing’ is just flat out wrong. Repeated, peer-reviewed studies show that if you have a Muslim name, you’re less likely to get a job interview than an equally qualified candidate with a European name. That if you’re black you’re more likely to be frisked by the police. That you’re more likely to be shot by the police. That you’re punished more harshly than white defendants for committing the same crimes. That the average white family in the US has assets over 10x those of the average black family. Peterson’s position is only maintained by a wilful disregard of a wealth of evidence that white people have advantages over people of colour.
Many of his contentions are downright laughable, such as that the Yale English department’s promotion of ‘cultural Marxism’ poses a threat to democracy, which if we’re being honest hilariously overestimates the influence of the average academic. His emphasis on serious methodology hasn’t stopped him from adopting an insane beef-only diet, which he credits with curing his depression. As for his argument that the hierarchy amongst lobsters shows that human society should not strive for an egalitarian structure, one can’t help the sneaking suspicion that marine crustaceans may not hold the ultimate answer to questions of political organisation. Peterson’s fondness for portentous, sweeping statements – ‘Each human being understands, a priori, perhaps not what is good, but certainly what is not’ – and his constant evasion of criticism by changing the terms of the debate, are the supposed defects of the very disciplines he purports to despise.
But perhaps what is most galling about Peterson’s pretences at being serious intellectual, is his gross hypocrisy. In his now infamous NYT interview, he labels egalitarian efforts to redistribute wealth ‘evil’ whilst advocating a redistribution of sex in the form of ‘enforced monogamy’. As a self-defined classical liberal, his every fibre should cry out against an attempt to control what people can and cannot do with their own bodies, yet he justifies what would be an egregious violation of bodily autonomy on the grounds that it is necessary to prevent angry, young men from erupting into violence. He of course conveniently ignores the political mayhem, (Trump, Brexit, etc.) unleashed by rampant material inequality.
Sex forms an extraordinary preoccupation for Peterson, hinting at an insecurity that surely drives much of his thought. He cites ‘attractiveness’ as a more relevant social marker than ethnicity or gender, and complains that women have an advantage over men in being able to have multiple orgasms. One suspects the reason why Peterson calls for redistribution of sex, but not of wealth, is that he and his white, male fanbase tend to already enjoy significant material comforts – but for all that, their self-inflicted tragedy is that no one wants to sleep with them.
Peterson plays identity politics as much as any of his ideological enemies; his views are ultimately driven not by ‘evidence’, or ‘rigour’ but by a desperate desire to keep those like him on the top of the social pile, mistaking the slightest correction of privilege for the most terrible oppression. He is intellectually vacuous and dishonest; that alone is ample reason for Cambridge to deny him a fellowship. It is no coincidence that Peterson harks back to the 1950s as the ideal of social organisation, for that was an era when white men ruled the roost – however mediocre.