Having spent just over three months digesting a lot of Jordan Peterson (probably a hundred hours of video, plus a start on the excellent self-authoring suite), I finally understand what I was groping towards when I said Jordan Peterson is wrong. The interesting thing is that his critics are committing exactly the same error, and everybody is missing out on good things as a result.
It is untrue and unjust to accuse Jordan Peterson of conspiring with the alt-right to persecute trans-persons. And it is untrue and unjust of Jordan Peterson to accuse ‘neo-Marxists’ of conspiring to commit genocide. Both sides are guilty of believing that negative outcomes are the product of the other party’s intent. When Peterson distinguishes between ‘tragedy’ and ‘evil’, he fails to recognize that the existence of evil is a tragedy.
In many lectures, Peterson says that he believes “If you want to know what someone really wants, then look at the consequences of their actions. That thing that always happens? That’s the thing they really want.”
This is the basis for his argument that ‘neo-Marxists are conspiring towards genocide’. This is the argument: implementation of Communism has led consistently to genocide, therefore people who want Communism want genocide. Communists who claim not to want genocide are lying, probably to themselves.
One of my best friends in the world is a Communist; my advocacy for Dr Peterson has prevented our conversations from being boring (to put it mildly). I don’t associate with people who want genocide. To assert that my friend wants genocide isn’t just wrong, and it isn’t just insulting, it’s also corrosive to civil society and free speech.
Let me put that a little differently: To assert that Jordan Peterson hates transpeople isn’t just wrong, and it isn’t just insulting, it’s also corrosive to civil society and free speech. It’s the same coin, and if you give it to the ferryman at the gates of your subconscious, he will take you to the same place in both cases. That place is Hades.
Let’s start with a simple example of a perfect being: an infant. Infants are born too weak to crawl, let alone walk. When they discover that they want to move around, they struggle desperately to crawl, and they fail, and it hurts their muscles, and it hurts their emotions, and they cry. And they keep trying, and eventually they raise themselves onto their hands and knees.
Then they want to walk, and they’re not good at it. This doesn’t just require strength, it requires coordination of the entire body, the balance centres of the inner ear and the muscles of the feet working together in an overwhelmingly complex coordination. And it doesn’t work the first time, nor the second, nor the hundredth. And they fall down. Often, they are comforted by their parents.
Imagine a psychologist looking at the baby who is learning to walk. “This baby is conspiring to be comforted by its parents,” the psychologist might say. “Look at the pattern of behaviour: it represents to the world that it is trying to walk, and it looks really cute in the process. But it falls down every time, and it cries. This is the real point, to attract the attention of the parents and be comforted.”
An imaginary psychologist might say that. A real one wouldn’t. A real psychologist knows that the baby is learning from the failed attempts, and strengthening its body, and that it will almost certainly learn to walk; almost certainly stop falling over, almost certainly cry less often as it learns alternative ways to handle adversity. A real psychologist knows that it would be monstrously unjust to use a conspiracy theory to explain a normal developmental process.
And yet, when adults attempt a developmental process, we tend not to extend them the same sense of fair play. As children, we are routinely expected to achieve the impossible: to walk, to hold a spoon properly, to speak more clearly, to refrain from punching that kid who stole our favorite toy. And we do those things, even though they seemed impossible when they were first demanded of us.
Is it any wonder that young people make impossible demands? Their existence has consisted of impossible demands at every step of the way. And they’ve achieved impossible things. Grown ups know that impossible things remain impossible, but some people never grow up properly. Those people childishly insist that it’s possible to use steam to pull a train instead of using a horse: that one day we will be able to write letters and have them delivered to the other side of the world in seconds, that a sound can be captured in solid matter, and brought back into the air by a machine.
How arrogant would you have to be to think that Communism might work some day? No more arrogant than any other inventor who advanced the state of the art. How arrogant would you have to be to think that someone might be able to tolerate being referred to as ‘he’? No more arrogant than any other psychologist who has seen people overcome persistent and debilitating fears.
But what about the harm? What about the Communist genocides that really did happen? What about the transfolk who have been murdered or driven to suicide? A baby grazing its skin is one thing, but dead people is quite another.
But did Communism really cause the genocides in Russia? Or was it a centuries-old tradition of tyrannical rulership that remained in place even though an effort was made to change the economy? Do pronouns kill transgender people? Or is it more likely that you can never stop people from saying mean things, that the key to suicide prevention is to help people cope with the world as it is? Do we need separate categories of hate crimes? Or is the fact that ‘murders of queer people get investigated’ enough of a change from the world I grew up in?
To quote Dr Peterson: “The answer is, you don’t know!” What you have to do, if you’re going to resolve these questions, is to get the people on both sides to talk to each other, so that we have a more complete picture of what’s happening. That’s when it becomes possible for society as a whole to make good decisions.
But the conversation doesn’t happen. Not because of fear, but because of disgust. If someone is secretly plotting your murder, then there is no talking to that person, and there is absolutely no listening to that person. If everything they say is motivated by malevolence, then listening makes you vulnerable to their influence.
There are people in the world who want to do evil things. There are many more people in the world who end up doing evil things. And there are evil people in the world who, desperate to do a good thing, commit acts of terrible evil in the hope that the ends will justify the means.
There are times when intent does not matter. If you’re trying to steal from me, it doesn’t matter to me whether you’re trying to feed a starving family or a drug habit, it matters to me that you’re stealing. I will try to keep my stuff, because I want to keep it.
If you want to denounce the evils of Communism, or the evils of hate speech, you don’t need to justify your actions by turning your opponent into a monster. I’ve raised children, and I’ve watched a toddler handle a knife, confident that they know what they’re doing. I know that you can love someone with all your heart, admire their perfection, and know that they are wrong.
I know that both Jordan Peterson and his critics, and the people he criticizes, want the world to be a good and safe place. I love you all to the best of my ability (even though ‘loving people’ turns out to be a developmental journey in itself). When I think about the miracle that you are, my heart is full of wonder, and my eyes fill with tears. And you’re wrong.
Put the knife down. Stop assuming that the reasons you would have to do something are the reasons that other people must have for doing what they do. Stop assuming that the outcomes other people generate are the outcomes that they want. You don’t have to like them. You don’t have to agree with them. You don’t have to lower your defenses.
People make mistakes. Sometimes, they repeat the same mistake, over and over. Sometimes, they intend to do bad things, and use ‘it was a mistake’ as an excuse. Other times, they want something really badly, and would not make the mistake if they knew a better way of getting what they want. The only way you’ll ever know the difference is if you offer them a better way: then they’re in a position to actually choose.
You don’t have to know the difference. If their mistake is hurting you, then it’s OK to demand that they stop hurting you. What’s not OK is to pretend that you know what they want. When you claim to know what they want, but you haven’t shown them how to get what they claim to want, you are wrong.