Jordan Peterson’s “Identity” Fallacies

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Happy Pride Month, everybody! And what better way to celebrate Pride than with a screed by Jordan Peterson in the National Post?

Ugh. Sorry. Bad joke. But still, he has resurfaced and written a column so chock-a-block with Petersonian fallacies that I really couldn’t do anything else than write a post about it.

What ostensibly inspired Peterson to write this was a piece of reporting by Barbara Kay about a case involving a six-year-old girl whose teacher apparently taught a series of classes on gender fluidity and gender identity, and caused the girl distress when she asserted that there was no such thing as gender, no such thing as boys or girls.

Honestly, I don’t know what to make of that story, except that it feels a little hinky, and I habitually take anything Barbara Kay says or writes with a grain of salt. Leaving aside for a moment the question of its substance, it’s safe to say Jordan Peterson knew precisely what to make of the story. What his column basically says is this is what I’ve been telling you, people!, i.e. that postmodern neo-Marxist gender theory is dangerous and will lead to psychological distress in society at large.

He ends up writing what we might call a reverse-Wente. Where Margaret Wente’s modus operandi is to cherry-pick a story that reflects badly on leftists and extrapolate out from some isolated incident to bemoan the general idiocy and moral bankruptcy of liberalism, what Peterson does in his column is save the story of the distressed little girl to the end, after he reiterates his arguments against the inclusion of “gender identity” and “gender expression” in legislation pertaining to discrimination laws and hate speech.

You all of course remember that time! September, 2016—Brexit had happened, but Trump wasn’t yet president, and a U of T psychology professor was vaulted from relative obscurity to alt-right superstardom by railing against Bill C-16 and refusing, loudly and often, to refer to his students by their preferred pronouns.

How innocent we were back then.

But about his reverse-Wente: Peterson spends the first two-thirds of his column reiterating what by now is essentially boilerplate for him, and comes to the Kay piece as a vindication for his earlier extrapolation.

What’s interesting to me is not the Kay piece, but Peterson’s boilerplate. I have, for a variety of reasons (self-loathing and masochism not least among them), read an awful lot of Peterson’s work—12 Rules For Life and (gods help me) large swaths of Maps of Meaning—and watched about as much of his YouTube lectures as I can stomach. So when I read his column, it was not at all unlike reading a Sparks Notes summary of his, well, everything.

I’m not going to link to his column, but I do reproduce most of its text below. I go through bit by bit, parsing what he says and offering my own perspective. It’s my Pride gift to everyone: I read and respond so you don’t have to.

Peterson opens by reminding us of Bill C-16 and his initial response to it, and then asserts that the most basic problem with the contemporary conception of identity, ostensibly articulated in C-16, is “that ‘identity’ is something solely determined by the individual in question (whatever that identity might be).” This is a dangerous notion, he says darkly, one that not even sociologists agree with, as they know that “identity is a social role, which means that it is by necessity socially negotiated.”

OK, so before we get into it, it’s important to emphasize the distinction he’s making, because everything that follows is more or less predicated on it. First, actual identity is a socially negotiated thing, whereas the delusional conception of identity as apparently promulgated by C-16 and “the tenth-rate academic dogmas driving the entire charade” emerges entirely as the sole product of an individual’s whim.

Here’s the thing, and I say this as a paid-up member of the postmodern neo-Marxist club: Huh? Did I miss that section of reading on my comprehensive exams? Because I’m pretty sure that all the theorists and philosophers of note who comprise the pantheon of Peterson’s hated postmodernists are all pretty much in agreement that individual identity is a product of negotiation, of power relationships, of performance, or, to use the term coined by Louis Althusser (who, now that I think about it, might actually have been a postmodern neo-Marxist), “interpellation”—i.e. the process through which the individual is “hailed” by various ideological state apparatuses (e.g. school, family, church, etc.) and forms an identity through these interactions.

The other thing to keep in mind going forward is how slippery Peterson’s prose is. Basically, this column is a repetition of his anti-transgender sentiments. He doesn’t of course say as much, but that’s what forms the substance of his complaint: people who have the selfish temerity to identify as a gender they weren’t born with, or to reject a gender distinction at all.

All set? Let’s dive in.

Your identity is not the clothes you wear, or the fashionable sexual preference or behaviour you adopt and flaunt, or the causes driving your activism, or your moral outrage at ideas that differ from yours: properly understood, it’s a set of complex compromises between the individual and society as to how the former and the latter might mutually support one another in a sustainable, long-term manner.

OK, first of all: can it be more obvious that Peterson is writing this screed during Pride Month? Referring to “fashionable sexual preference” and “behaviour you adopt and flaunt” is really just a more elevated way of castigating the very deliberate and glorious excesses of Pride—another way of phrasing the old complaint “do you have to shove your sexuality in our faces?” Also, let’s parse this for its most telling words: “fashionable” and “adopt,” both of which suggest that queer identity has more to do with individual whim than anything emerging from personal struggle and pain.

That being said, I wonder if Peterson is aware of just how postmodern this formulation is? (Spoiler alert: probably not). The thing is, I have to imagine that he thinks the first part of what he’s saying here is entirely representative of postmodern thought. But really, nobody—at least, nobody with any intellectual credibility—is arguing that identity resides absolutely within a solipsistic conception of self. What he then goes on about—identity as a negotiation between self and society—is actually a central component of what gets blandished as “identity politics,” the central premise of which (insofar as it has a central premise) is not that identity is wholly subjective, but that it is not determined by any absolute or extrinsic principles.

By contrast, Peterson’s own unreconstructed Jungian psychomythic conception of identity, as outlined in Maps of Meaning and 12 Rules For Life, specifically suggests a sense of immutable identity, mostly rooted in gender. Although we (like the noble lobster) might interact with our culture and society and forge identity by way of pitting whom we want to be against whom we are by way of whatever unpleasant or uncomfortable realities we might face, all we’re really doing in these agonistic sagas is playing out the timeless conflict between order and chaos. Peterson’s antagonism to questions of transgender identity specifically and feminism more generally becomes more comprehensible once one grasps this basic premise, which Peterson argues through an odd grafting of myth-criticism and biology.

He then goes on to say:

It’s nothing to alter lightly, as such compromise is very difficult to attain, constituting as it does the essence of civilization itself, which took eons to establish, and understanding, as we should, that the alternative to the adoption of socially-acceptable roles is conflict — plain, simple and continual, as well as simultaneously psychological and social.

We start getting into typical Petersonian verbiage here, so let’s start with the first assertion: “It’s nothing to alter lightly.” The “it” of this statement is one’s identity, which in the broader context of his column refers most specifically to one’s gender identity. And if I may say: I agree with Peterson completely on this point. I will hazard a guess that everyone who has struggled with this issue would also agree. There’s an awful lot in this column with which to take issue, but one of the most galling things is the casual suggestion running through it—which runs though most of his arguments on transgender identity—that people who come to identify as a gender other than their birth assignation, or who identify as gender non-binary, do so “lightly.” That it is akin to a “fashionable sexual preference” which one “adopts” for trivial or selfish reasons.

This is always where Peterson and his ilk lose me. (To be certain, they lose me much earlier, but it’s on this point that I can no longer see the taillights of the car and all I’m left with is blessed silence and the stars). I think there are reasonable arguments to be made about speech codes and the excesses of political correctness, but what we’re on about here is basic empathy and compassion. “It’s nothing to alter lightly”? No fucking shit. Show me, please show me, the person who comes out as transgender who hasn’t gone through the emotional and psychological wringer to arrive at the point where they declare to the world who they actually are. That person in your classroom asking you to refer to them by their preferred pronoun didn’t arrive at that request on a whim.

But to move on to the rest of the quoted passage: this is all so very characteristic of Peterson’s prose. Which is to say, it is convoluted and vague, and rooted in a mythic-historical sensibility that makes sweeping pronouncements on the nature of humanity and civilization, and which tends to crumble under scrutiny. If you’re not familiar with Peterson’s pseudo-scholarly schtick (which, make no mistake, totally informs his public persona schtick), he’s basically, as I say above, an unreconstructed Jungian—a myth-critic in the mold of Joseph Campbell and Mircea Eliade. What he says here in his confused, run-on sentence, is typical of his worldview. To break it down:

  • the “essence of civilization itself” resides in the stability of male and female identity
  • this stability? dude, it took EONS, hence has the authority of ANCIENT HISTORY
  • also, this “stability” comprises “socially acceptable roles,” i.e. men and women knowing their place
  • the “alternative” to these “socially acceptable roles” is conflict; which is to say, when men and women forget their roles (but, really, it’s mostly women), society devolves into chaos

(Let’s be clear on something: this is my reading of Peterson’s words based on my reading of his many, many other words, but there’s a method to the madness of his prose. His vagueness and indeed obscurantist writing invariably contains a rhetorical trap door. “You completely misunderstood me!” is his most common riposte when anyone tries to pin him down on anything he says or writes. “‘It’s nothing to alter lightly’ has nothing to do with trans identity,” I can easily hear him complaining, “I was merely referring to the broader currents of postmodernist neo-Marxist thought in society!” Imprecision is this man’s greatest friend).

To the degree that identity is not biological (and much, but not all of it is), then it’s a drama enacted in the world of other people. An identity provides rules for social interactions that everyone understands; it provides generic but vitally necessary direction and purpose in life. If you’re a child, and you’re playing a pretend game with your friends, you negotiate your identity, so the game can be properly played. You do the same in the real world, whether you are a child, an adolescent, or an adult. To refuse to engage in the social aspect of identity negotiation — to insist that what you say you are is what everyone must accept — is simply to confuse yourself and everyone else (as no one at all understands the rules of your game, not least because they have not yet been formulated).

Oh, my … so if identity is a “drama enacted in the world of other people,” does that then make it—oh, what’s the word—PERFORMATIVE? Is Peterson about to invoke Judith Butler?

Just kidding. Of course not—the point isn’t the drama, but the rules of the game. See how he switches the analogy up in the middle there? In order to play a game, we must agree upon the rules, yes; you can’t play a proper game of chess when your opponent decides to randomly change the moves the pieces can make, but that’s not what Peterson’s example evokes. Rather, the kind of “pretend game” he mentions is improvisational, and if the game is ruined because one player can’t stick to the provisional rules, it is also ruined when you have a bossy player who sucks the joy out of the game by refusing to allow any degree of improvisation and flexibility.

That’s where the aspect of negotiation comes in, a term whose meaning seems to have passed Peterson by. The suggestion being made in this analogy is that someone identifying as transgender or non-binary is being perverse in refusing to play by the rules, and instead play only by their own private rules, which Peterson then dismisses as being nonexistent anyway. What seems lost on him is the fact that someone saying “this is who I am” is precisely engaging with “the social aspect of identity negotiation.” It is, in fact, an act inviting a re-negotiation of the “rules.” The problem with what Peterson argues here isn’t the idea that social negotiation of identity is a matter of give and take, it’s that ultimately Peterson refuses to give. He’s the kid taking his ball and going home because he’s upset the gang decided to let a girl play.

Peterson then goes on to list four increasingly dire consequences of individuals asserting identities at odds with normative “rules.” We’ll break those down one at a time, but first we need to address his prefacing assertion: “The continually expanded plethora of ‘identities’,” he writes, “recently constructed and provided with legal status thus consist of empty terms.” Again, imprecision is a hallmark of Peterson’s writing: one is left wondering what “the continually expanded plethora of identities” is, because he never specifies. One assumes he’s referring to the spectrum of LGBTQ+, but he doesn’t say. If, as seems borne out by the substance of the column, his preoccupation is with transgender and gender-fluid identities, then it’s hardly a “plethora”—it’s male, female, and non-binary. I suppose that, theoretically, these three create a spectrum with an infinitude of points between its poles, each representing a possible unique identity, but then we get into a variation on Xeno’s Paradox. Just as the hare will always catch the tortoise, so we know, commonsensically, that people are people.

Also, pay attention to the weasely “thus” thrown in there: based on what he has said so far, this “plethora” of identities “thus consist of empty terms.” I have to imagine he feels he has proven his point and earned his “thus,” but I beg to differ.

At any rate, he then enumerates the problems including this putative proliferation of identities in C-16 will cause.

(1) [They] do not provide those who claim them with any real social role or direction.

Remember, what he’s talking about is the inclusion of gender identity and gender expression in the legal questions of discrimination and hate crimes. The legislation wasn’t about giving transgender and gender non-binary people social roles or direction, it was about protecting them from the actions of others.

(2) [They] confuse all who must deal with the narcissism of the claimant, as the only rule that can exist in the absence of painstakingly, voluntarily and mutually negotiated social role is “it’s morally wrong to say or do anything that hurts my feelings.”

“The narcissism of the claimant.” Here it is again: the premise underlying Peterson’s entire argument in this piece is that trans identity isn’t real. Therefore, anyone identifying as anything other than that signified by their genitalia at birth must be an unserious and selfish person choosing an alternate identity for reasons passing imagination, with no consideration for the confusion it causes in the innocent bystanders upon whom they inflict their petulant demands for recognition. Because they’re the real victims.

I’ve read enough of the science on this subject to accept that there are real genetic and biological underpinnings to being transgender, but really all I need to do to accept and respect somebody’s gender expression is answer a commonsensical question: considering the social stigma, the hatred, and the real danger of violence facing the transgender community, why would anyone choose to so identify for reasons other than for a deeply felt need to be true to oneself? Peterson frames his opposition of using people’s preferred pronouns as a question of free speech, but in reality it articulates a profound lack of empathy. Know that when you are faced with someone asking that you use a pronoun that seems wrong to you, that person has endured a probably traumatic struggle to arrive at the point where they can voice the request.

Also, not for nothing, but nobody who has this as his author bio should be casually accusing others of narcissism:

JP-bio

(3) [They] risk generating psychological chaos among the vast majority of individuals exposed to the doctrines that insist that identity is essentially fluid and self-generating (and here I’m primarily concerned about children and adolescents whose standard or normative identity has now merely become one personal choice among a near-infinite array of ideologically and legally defined modes of being).

Psychological chaos? Seriously? Seriously. This makes about as much sense as the old chestnut that exposing children to depictions of gay people will somehow turn them gay. Acknowledging and respecting alternative identities and challenging traditional repressive figurations of sex and gender isn’t about to destabilize “the vast majority of individuals”—except perhaps those who incorrectly see their protected status as straight white men threatened. (Considering how many of those dudes probably bought 12 Rules For Life, Peterson might not want to complain too much).

Also, let’s keep some perspective on the size of the issue. Transgender, gender-non conforming and non-binary people comprise a tiny fraction of the population, and they suffer disproportionately from violence, sexual assault, and suicide. As a white cishet man, my own quality of life and my own sense of self does not suffer from the presence or visibility of trans people. It behooves those of us with such privilege first to acknowledge it, and secondly to listen and learn. I have, to the best of my knowledge, known six people identifying as transgender. Six people—in my life. So let’s be real here: they’re hardly storming the Bastille, which you would never know from the edge of hysteria in Peterson’s warnings.

(4) [They] pose a further and unacceptably dangerous threat to the stability of the nuclear family, which consists, at minimum, of a dyad, male and female, coming together primarily for the purposes of raising children in what appears to be the minimal viable social unit (given the vast and incontrovertible body of evidence that fatherlessness, in particular, is associated with heightened risk for criminality, substance abuse, and poorly regulated sexual behaviour among children, adolescents and the adults that they eventually become).

All right. You know what, folks? I’m done. This is some Focus on the Family shit he’s now getting into. All I’ll say about this particular head-smacker is that at least it pulls the curtain briefly aside: as I observe above, Peterson frames his anti-trans and anti-feminist rhetoric as being about freedom of speech, railing against the PC left and SJWs for their ostensible attempts to impose Sovietesque speech codes on everyone. But at the heart of it all is the stern 1950s dad persona he has cultivated, and much of his popularity proceeds from nostalgia for a time when white, straight men’s centrality wasn’t questioned or characterized as “privilege.”

***

I’ll end with a message of love. To all of my queer friends: I am in awe of you. You are the embodiment of strength. I hope your month of Pride is fabulous and remains undimmed by such assholes as Peterson or the hate-mongers who disrupted the festivities in Hamilton. I am with you, and I will go with you.

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