Jordan Peterson and Postmodernism
by Ethan Glover, Wed, Jan 03, 2018 - (Edited) Wed, Jan 10, 2018
Since Dr. Jordan B. Peterson has risen to popularity thanks to the left's distaste of him, he has been talking about the dangers of post-modernism. But, as he himself has said, he's struggled to put the problem into words. It's difficult to define post-modernism at all, let alone talk about what its philosophy inevitably leads to.
Thaddeus Russell has said he disagrees with Jordan Peterson and has defended post-modernism. But Russell seems confused about what Peterson has to say. Which is understandable. Because it's not easy to understand on the first go around.
In my effort to understand the current state of the extreme left and how they've blown a few good ideas out of proportion, I think I've finally started to make the right connections. That understanding started with the Lindsay Shepherd affair.
Estimated Reading Time: 10.5 minutes
- Wilfrid Laurier University TA, Lindsay Shepard, was reprimanded for sexual assault after showing a debate clip with Jordan Peterson because of Petersons perceived connection to transphobia.
- People with conservative ideas are stifled and unable to speak within the university system due to policies on 'free speech' and 'inclusion.'
- The idea that certain ideas might 'trigger' people or 'microaggress' them is not proven science. In fact, practices within clinical psychology suggest the opposite. Exposing people in appropriate doses to things that make them anxious or uncomfortable makes them less mentally fragile.
- The idea that some speech is dangerous comes from Critical Theory, a theory stemming from Marxism.
- Critical Theory labels everyone as oppressor or oppressed. Everything is about empowering the oppressed and silencing the oppressor.
- Jacques Derrida's Deconstruction looks at studies with the perspective that some ideas are privileged over another. For example, rational thought over passion. Or masculinity over feminity. Deconstruction looks at studies from the less privileged viewpoints.
- Postmodernism says that the only reason for the construction of hierarchy among ideas is power.
- Postmodernists aim to use power against people and ideas with power to flip the hierarchy.
- Postmodernism leads to things like autoethnographies in which things like opinions, journals, and self-reflections are placed on the same plane as science.
- Postmodernists will say things like, if white people came up with all the common theories used in math, then math is a part of the white hierarchy.
- The goal of the left is to burn to whole thing down. To inflame the extreme right, who they believe to be oppressors, and get the rest of society against the right. The left wants to replace the right as the oppressors.
- The left wants to silence the right under a banner of 'free speech' as they tried to do with Lindsay Shepherd.
The Shepherd Affair
23-year-old TA Lindsay Shepherd at the Wilfrid Laurier University decided to show a news clip from TV Ontario, a public broadcast channel, in class that just so happened to show Jordan Peterson in a debate.
Shortly after, Shepherd says she got an email from the University telling her that she would have to speak with a "Diversity and Equity Official" about that clip. It was alleged that a complaint had been received about it. Shepherd understood the university system and its current state to know that she should record the conversation.
Shepherd had allegedly violated Laurier's sexual assault policy, along with a host of other policies, by proxy of showing Peterson's views. This, according to the university created a transphobic environment and legitimized transphobia which makes her transphobic.
Shepherd says she felt profoundly disappointed with the left and feels like she's being kicked out of the left side of the spectrum.
For showing a clip of a debate.
This is the kind of thing that I've been trying to figure out. Why have so many people on the left become so aggressive against the very thought of anything that disagrees with them existing? They must know how dangerous that is. This is the kind of thing that Peterson has been blaming on post-modernism. To my confusion, and to the confusion of people like Thaddeus Russell. How can he make such a direct connection? It's not like these people are calling themselves post-modernists or quoting Derrida and Foucault.
Jordan Peterson recently sat down with Dr. William McNally and Dr. David M. Haskell to talk about this whole situation. McNally is an Associate Professor of finance at Laurier. And Haskell an Associate Professor in Communications and Sociology of Religion at Laurier.
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Haskell noted that Laurier likes to talk about diversity but they mean something very different. The university doesn't want intellectually diverse people and regularly goes out of its way to exclude people on the right from any discussion. He says that Lindsay Shepherd types of events are regular. Haskell often talks to students in private about how they feel like they can't speak up about their beliefs. When his colleagues ask students if anyone in a class feels 'stifled,' every hand goes up.
The excuse for limiting speech in the classroom always comes down to not triggering people. To not hurting those that might have trauma or anxiety about certain subjects. Peterson, a practicing clinician, says that these claims are never made by anyone with clinical expertise. The way to help people with mental health issues is not to protect them or to shelter them from 'triggering' events. A clinician does the opposite. When dealing with someone with excess anxiety they get the patient to expose themselves in increasing doses to what makes them anxious. The goal is to first understand what is causing the anxiety and then to expose the patient to things they're inclined to avoid.
This is well known and agreed upon science. It's doubtful that when people say something might 'trigger' someone, that's not the real reason why they want something out of the conversation. After all, it is only conservative viewpoints that these people seem to think could possibly trigger someone.
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The Postmodernist Connection
Haskell then brings up an idea that digs us a little deeper and gets us a little closer to understanding Peterson's point of view. The left has supported the idea that free speech is dangerous in universities. That idea comes directly from critical theory.
I've come across critical theory on this site once before. When a George Mason student by the name of Megan Arnold wrote an article at Students For Liberty talking about how she is no longer libertarian. She made the switch after reading about critical theory. But that was it. She didn't have any reason to doubt libertarian ideas (and there are good reasons), but critical theory somehow brought her to a nihilistic and depressing perception of the world around her.
Critical theory is at its core a Marxist idea. Haskell breaks down in a simplified form as framing all people as either oppressed or oppressor. There are no in between or neutral players. And everything must be done in order to silence the oppressor and elevate the oppressed. And of course, conversation and compromise between the groups is out of the question.
If you read basic definitions of critical theory, Haskell's explanation may feel a bit off. That's because critical theory is supposed to be the idea of questioning everything and framing ideas from an opposing point of view... sort of. ...It's a bit confusing no matter how you look at it.
The point that Haskell jumps to about the oppressed vs the oppressor is about where critical theory ultimately leads. Not what it is introduced as. Peterson compares it to what happened with French deconstructionism. Specifically the ideas of Jacques Derrida.
Derrida's deconstruction, a postmodernist theory, was the idea of looking at fields of study from the perspective of one thing being privileged over another. For instance, in science, we value rational thought over passion. But if we look at things from the perspective of passion being more important than rational thought, we may come to different and important conclusions.
The video below by School of Life is a very good explanation of Derrida's deconstructionism.
This is why Thaddeus Russell admires Derrida. Because he finds this idea to be valuable. And why he criticizes the way Peterson uses the word "post-modernism" to describe SJW's. But like Haskell on critical theory, Peterson is not talking about the intention of the philosophy. Rather, he's talking about the results.
Peterson says that, for postmodernists, the only motivation for the construction of hierarchy is power. This isn't what Derrida originally said (see the video above) but that's where the theory ultimately concludes. For why else would a hierarchy between logic and passion or masculinity and feminity exist?
From that claim, postmodernists use the hierarchical system as a justification of power. If you're a the top of any hierarchy, because you're a boss, a member of a dominant skin color, or hold a majority opinion, you hold power in that position. And in most cases, you only do so because it gives you power. Therefore, according to postmodernists, it is justified to use power against you.
Postmodernism started with the idea that anything can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways. (Similar to my ideas on anarchy.) But because Derrida and other postmodernist thought leaders started as Marxists, their existing biases steered it into interpreting everything through a Marxist lens.
Today, postmodernism has adopted the idea that the very act of two different groups coming together to talk things through is a hierarchal idea. That, in itself, is part of the modernist hierarchy that they are trying to fight.
Again, this is difficult to understand, I realize how odd this sounds. Especially when talking about a social movement of college students who don't seem to know up from down. Peterson dug deeper into his explanation on the Joe Rogan Experience. (I'll get into breaking his views down more as we get further into this article.)
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The Shepherd Affair, Part 2
It's best to maintain context here and not get too wrapped up in ideas. I was able to get a good grasp on Peterson's views on postmodernism because of his discussion on Lindsay Shepherd. So let's return to that story so that we have a real-world example to tie his ideas to.
In response to the audio that Shepherd recorded, Deborah MacLatchy, President of Laurier, commissioned an independent fact-finder report on the situation. In it, she writes (emphasis added):
There were numerous errors in judgment made in the handling of the meeting with Ms. Lindsay Shepherd, the TA of the tutorial in question. In fact, the meeting never should have happened at all. No formal complaint, nor informal concern relative to a Laurier policy, was registered about the screening of the video. This was confirmed in the fact-finding report.
Dr. Haskell rightfully made the point that this whole controversy seems to have begun on a lie. The lie that someone complained about the video Shepherd showed, and that it violated the university sexual assault policy.
The left uses a lot of hyperbolic language around these situations. University campuses are declared 'unsafe' because of 'oppressive' ideas. But there's never any clear definition of this usage of these words like 'unsafe.'
Haskell says that at some point we have to recognize that the left is the boy who cried wolf and that they are talking about from more serious issues.
SJW's are yelling, "Fire!" in a crowded theater.
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The 'Gendered Violence'
Dr. Andrew M. Robinson, an Associate Professor in the Human Rights and Human Diversity Department at Laurier looked at the policy which Shepherd allegedly violated. He says that the Gendered and Sexual Violence Policy (GSVP) is unworkable and makes thought a crime. It defines gendered violence as:
An act or actions that reinforce gender inequalities resulting in physical, sexual, emotional, economic or mental harm. This violence includes sexism, gender discrimination, gender harassment, biphobia, transphobia, homophobia and heterosexism, intimate partner violence, and forms of Sexual Violence. This violence can take place on any communication platform (e.g., graffiti, online environments, and through the use of phones).
Peterson notes that unless you have a very specific political bent, the words "action" and "gender inequalities" mean nothing here. Haskell reiterates that in cognitive behavioral therapy, you can do mental good by exposing people to objectionable ideas in appropriate doses in order to help them become mentally fragile. Policies like these do nothing but shelter fragile minds from a learning environment.
Scott Lilienfeld, Professor of Psychology at Emory College did a study on microaggressions that found there's no evidence that such things lead to any harm.
Haskell suggests that when there is an accusation of something like 'mental harm' or 'unsafe places' that if you ask for the evidence which proves harm, there is none. This is what universities are supposed to do. A scientific analysis to find proof. Not follow one specific Marxist ideology to the grave.
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The Postmodernist Connection, Part 2
When Haskell brings up a quote from a textbook, "Race Class and Gender," it brings the conversation back to Peterson's views on postmodernism:
...objectivity as found through rational thought is a western and masculine concept that we will challenge throughout this text...
Peterson says this is what the SJW's have been saying since the 1970's. The idea that all forms of hierarchy are for power. "Objectivity as found through rational thought" is an idea at the top of a hierarchy with things like subjectivity underneath it. That claim, that objectivity is above subjectivity is one made for power. This is what postmodernism became under thinkers like Jacques Derrida, according to Jordan Peterson.
He says it leads to things like autoethnography, in which journals and self-reflection are treated as qualitative research. Opinions become science because you can not assume that something like the scientific method holds superiority.
The world is a battleground of hierarchies, there is nothing outside of that. Ideas are vying for power. People are vying to be the oppressor rather than the oppressed. When you see a professor claim that "mathematics is whiteness" you're seeing this in action. The prevailing theories of math are battling for power in a hierarchical system... according to postmodernists.
It was white people who came up with the facts of math that we know about today, so they hold the power within that hierarchy.
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Playing the Game
Haskell brings up the point that rules among SJW's such as you can't be racist towards a dominant group, and that racial slights against white people are not racial slights. These rules give ammunition to the right. The real white supremacists and real racists who are looking for those exact kind of comments to justify their own behavior.
Peterson says that the extreme right is playing the same game as the extreme left. For the left, if the goal is to burn the whole system down, it's beneficial to inflame the people most likely to do it, the alt-right. Inflaming the right is the goal of the radical left. It makes the alt-right the enemy of the public and allows the left to invert their imagined hierarchy.
The radical left thinks that white supremacy and patriarchy reigns supreme in western society. The goal is to expose them and to flip the hierarchy of power to put themselves on top. Everyone is either 'oppressed' or 'oppressor.' If they can get enough people to join the oppressed, the oppressed becomes the oppressor.
When Universities and postmodernists talk about 'free speech' it has come to mean free speech for those who don't have power within the postmodernist worldview. And those who do hold power should be completely silenced. Hence the move to silence Shepherd for showing a TVO debate clip.