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WHY JORDAN PETERSON IS SO NECESSARY NOWADAYS

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By Bruce Fleming

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The Montréal Review, May 2018

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Jordan Peterson, educated at McGill in Montreal and teaching in Toronto, is the new North American “it” boy—and maybe beyond. Or rather, the point is precisely that he’s not a boy but a man. He’s the stern uncle who tells boys who want to be men how to do it.  Recently his speaking tour brought him to my city, Washington D.C. And the reaction in the Washington Post, by a female writer named Christine Emba, going to his lecture to find out why young men like Peterson so much, spoke volumes. Specifically, it spoke volumes about what men like about Peterson, what women don’t get, and why he is necessary for our time.

First, of course, I need to say I love Peterson. I don’t mean as my guru. At 64 I am not in search of a guru and actually never was. In fact, after 31 years teaching at the overwhelmingly male U.S. Naval Academy, I’ve become a sort of guru myself. No, it’s because much of what I write is in complete agreement with Peterson’s basic points (see my essay elsewhere in this issue): that men aren’t women, that we don’t see ourselves the way women see us, and that the joy (and the pain) of being a man is that we are individuals pitching ourselves into the void, active agents who can make a difference in a potentially hostile world.

That means, we find odd and alien the academic and journalistic language of our time, which is focused almost entirely on the strident self-affirmation of outsider groups who resent us for blocking their way (as they see it) to the center of things, where we already are. The most fundamental disconnect is that we don’t see ourselves as part of a group at all, unless it’s a group of other individuals, and we see our very purpose as being to overcome whatever weakness we may individually have. We’re not on the outside railing against the inside; our job is to start wherever we are and become stronger. Weakness for us is individual, not a definer of our group, so we try to overcome it, rather than parade it as a badge of honor. Besides, we’re not blocking anybody! Play the game and one day you may be where we are. But no—you want to be where we are right now.

Being a man doesn’t mean we want to keep women down. Nor does being a white male mean we’re racist. Nor does being what is called, insultingly, “cisgender” (happy being born men), mean we have no sympathy for people who are out of sync with their bodies. All it means is that we don’t see ourselves as defined by our group identity.

Of course sophisticates will point out that that is our group identity—the group of individuals who don’t see themselves as part of a group. But that’s way too complex, and it just seems wrong to us. And who’s to say we’re the stupid ones here?

The public language of our day is groupthink, which means outside striver groups that usually accuse more mainstream individuals of being the cause of the unjust situation that we’re inside, they’re out. They see us as inside, jealously guarding our privilege. But to us life is a hard row to hoe—not a walk in the park, the way it seems to outsiders. For them, it’s precisely our maleness (usually straight and white) that’s preventing them from having what we have! That’s not the way we see it. Does that necessarily mean we’re the ones who are wrong?

Of course the groupthink of our day will fail to speak to us. Why? It’s not at all what outsider groups think, that we are bent on preserving our diminishing influence and propping up our domination. It’s just that we don’t see being a man as being either an outsider position, or part of a group. We men see ourselves as 1 + 1 + 1 + 1, so our identity is not primarily in our group characteristics, even if others see that we have something in common with each other. (Can you define a group of individualists as a group at all?)

Almost all academic jargon about men and women nowadays takes the point of view of women and outsiders, who see themselves as “marginalized.” Consider that word, “marginalized.” It means, having been pushed to the margins (the past participle of an active verb—somebody pushed us there!)—which is to say, into the void around the text, not the text itself. If we’re marginalized, pushed out of the text, it must be the fault of those not in the margins—which is to say, men, and yes: straight white men in particular.

We men tend to think we’re ok dudes, but for everybody else, we’re the enemy. Some men—non-white, sexually not mainstream, and so on—can identify more with the outsider groups than the insider, but there is overlap and they can decide how they want to self-identify. A (say) Black gay man can identify with any of these groups.  To us, we’re not the enemy, and we weren’t handed life on a silver platter. In fact, life seems a hard fight. We have to kill all those dragons, and that’s scary; we have to come on to women who may not be saying “please make love to me.” In fact, the dragon can kill us, and we can be wrong about reading female body language. But it’s not about protecting our privilege: being a man (yes, with all the advantages of straight, white, Western, middle-class, and educated) is hard work.

But we never ever hear that in public. It’s whiney to say that nobody appreciates what men go through to be men, so we don’t say it. But it’s true. Enter Jordan Peterson. He says what we think. Go Jordan!

Virtually nobody speaks for men anymore. Except Peterson (and, well, Fleming, and a few others.) Nobody talks to men about the simultaneously exciting and scary situation of being an individual who has to go it alone—as we men see our situation. And this means sexually too. Men will never stop coming on to women, or at any rate the object of their desire. The only thing women can control is making sure the circumstances are plausible and appropriate—to avoid the misuse of power made clear by the recent #MeToo movement. Or do women want us to never come on to them? No? It sure seems that way nowadays. Men can be educated about appropriate circumstances to take the sexual initiative, but the current mood is to attack us for having forward sexual impulsion at all. Want to know how to make the world 100% safe for women? Castrate all the men. Problem solved. Or kill us.

That’s also where Jordan Peterson comes in. He says loudly and in public what men know about themselves, but that neither academic feminist/”gender” discourse nor the mainstream media admit. Of course we need Peterson. His popularity among men should be a wakeup call to our age that thought it had things figured out.

And he’s quite right that the attempt by a tiny minority of trans-gender people to legally change the whole structure of our language (his opposition to Canadian Bill C-16) is a power play over the majority that can only backfire by producing resentment. Nowadays the splinter groups want to control us through language, the “political correctness” of our day. Changing language doesn’t change the world, all it does is force people to say X while they think Y. (See my article for the Montreal Review about the “Dogma of our Day”—linguistic realism, the assertion that words are in fact the world. Men are actors, not talkers, so we know this isn’t true.)

At the same time, yes, it’s a bit sad that it takes an eccentric white-haired professor way too fond of going off on mythic tangents to say things that are so basic—but that don’t get said. That’s the point of Christine Emba’s recent Washington Post article about Peterson’s appearance in Washington, D.C., which was given the title “The Profound Sadness of the Jordan Peterson Phenomenon.” (Journalists rarely write their own titles.) Emba ends her “he’s strange but not that bad” piece (which she takes back by talking about his appeal to violent “incels” (involuntary celibates) and the alt-right) by saying this:

Peterson’s teachings are the sort of thing you would expect to learn from a parent, mentor or religious tradition while growing up. …

Do we not have parents anymore? Do we no longer have friends? Peterson’s pronouncements all used to be common wisdom — how did it disappear?

I can answer that: it disappeared when the strident “you took this away from me now give it back” groupthink of aggrieved minority groups took over colleges and newspapers, leaving a big gulf that was filled by ugly stuff—the ranting of Donald Trump, the marches of white supremacists, the attacks on sexually non-mainstream people. What we lack bigly is rational academics who reject the worship of weakness of our intellectual classes—a void filled by Peterson (and, I might add, the so-called Heterodox Academy, of which—full disclosure—I am a member.) So of course mainstream men who don’t hear their worldview reflected in anybody currently speaking up flock to him. And sure: he attracts a few extremists. Not his fault.

It’s true, as Emba suggests, that lucky men get this from dad, or coaches. But Peterson makes the point too that many young men come from divorced households with no dad, or a stepdad (“You’re not my real dad!”), and may never get a congenial coach, who nowadays is probably afraid to show any affection at all for fear of being accused of perversion. Men have to learn to be both strong and gentle—and nowadays we’ve made it almost impossible for them to do so. Men need to hear what Peterson is saying, that being a man is a challenge that each individual one of us accepts (or doesn’t—being male doesn’t mean you’re a man) and that it’s both scary and a pump. All we hear is that men are aggressive beasts that need to be shut down. 

Emba is surprised, as others have been, that someone as intellectually moth-eaten as Peterson—with all his references to Jungian archetypes and Biblical prototypes, he’s a throwback to the Jessie Weston/T.S. Eliot/Golden Bough school of a century ago—should be so necessary. That’s a valid point, because intellectually he’s all over the place, and eccentric. (I tried to read his earlier Maps of Meaning cover to cover and couldn’t. It’s a mishmash, a garden of forking paths.)

But Peterson is necessary because NOBODY ELSE IS SAYING WHAT HE’S SAYING, AT LEAST NOT THIS LOUDLY AND PUBLICLY. If anyone tries, he (as it usually is) is jumped upon and made to adopt a submissive posture and apologize.

Take the recent apologies of Ryan Bounds, a nominee for the U.S. Court of Appeals 9th Circuit, in his hearing before a U.S. Senate committee. The committee threw in his teeth articles he had written decades ago as a student at Stanford, including the spot-on perception that

These sweet victories of Sensitivity reveal one thing: if we fancy ourselves oppressed (regardless of how oppressed, ignored, or downtrodden we objectively are) we will see the world, however unrealistically, as overflowing with instances that support our perception.

That isn’t the POV of the people claiming oppression; it’s a view from the inside of the effects of those claims. They don’t work! In fact they produce the opposite of the desired effect. Why isn’t this information worth having? It makes no judgment about the validity of the claims, merely points out that the methodology is counter-productive. And that people in the West who think they are pushed out should try going to Rwanda, where I taught for two years before their civil war. Bounds is right. They are every one of them children of privilege at Stanford. And he had to apologize!

Bounds also opined that colleges should adopt a legal-level burden of proof in cases of alleged sexual harassment and assault, and not merely the 51% probability rule that was applied. He also wrote this:

During my years in our Multicultural Garden of Eden, I have often marveled at the odd strategies that some of the more strident racial factions of the student body employ in their attempts to ‘heighten consciousness,’ ‘build tolerance,’ ‘promote diversity’ and otherwise convince us to partake of that fruit which promises to open our eyes to a PC version of the knowledge of good and evil. I am mystified because these tactics seem always to contribute more to restricting consciousness, aggravating intolerance and pigeonholing cultural identities than many a Nazi bookburning.

The senators made him apologize for this. They weren’t saying he was wrong, and how would they know? He was writing about Stanford in the 90s, but of course he could be writing about most of the better known North American colleges and universities today. He’s of course completely right. And even if he wasn’t, it’s a defensible view. Who’s trying to shut down free speech here? Not Bounds. And he was this coherent as an undergraduate! You go, guy!

Peterson is necessary because Bounds had to grovel for speaking from a POV other than that of an aggrieved outsider—as a 21-year-old! The title of the story in the Washington Post about the hearing is that Bounds “apologizes for articles mocking multiculturalism.” He wasn’t mocking multiculturalism, only strident groupthink that is alien to most men’s more individualistic world view, and noting that pointing fingers of blame doesn’t endear those pointing the fingers to those the fingers are pointed at. It’s ineffective as a tactic. He’s so right.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t identify anything general that holds us back: race, gender, or sexual orientation, for starters. So of course people who are disadvantaged by qualities that don’t disadvantage the mainstream—say, race, gender, sexual orientation—should speak up. Thus they will bond together to seek safety, and possibly strength, in numbers, in groupthink.

But the logical incoherence of our world is that those people working to become individuals—that is, become those who have the world-view of the straight white Western males (and their associated groups—perhaps you see yourself as mainstream even if you are neither straight nor white)—attack the very status to which they all aspire. When (say) trans-sexuals are accepted as individuals, that group movement will wither away, just as gay men are now increasingly accepted as individuals, and so arguably have less need of a group identity as primarily gay. Outside groups, say groups other than men, should certainly work to be accepted as individuals. at which point their group identity will also wither away. But don’t attack the people you want to become.

That’s what we see nowadays. Men (especially straight and white) aren’t the bad guys. They just have what all others want. So stop attacking us, and admit that you want to be us. We might be more willing to help you achieve that goal. And when you have achieved it, your demand that we see you as a group will wither away. And I promise: the need for Jordan Peterson will wither away as well.

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Bruce Fleming is the author of over a dozen books and many articles, listed at www.brucefleming.net His degrees are from Haverford College, the University of Chicago, and Vanderbilt University. He taught for two years at the University of Freiburg, Germany, and for two years at the National University of Rwanda. Since 1987 he has been an English professor at the US Naval Academy, Annapolis. His new book is Saving Madame Bovary: Being Happy With What We Have.

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