The fatal flaw lurking in American leftist politics
What is liberal America's big, and possibly fatal, mistake? Failing to recognize its own extremists.
Jordan B. Peterson, raised and toughened in the frigid wastelands of Northern Alberta, has flown a hammer-head roll in a carbon-fiber stunt-plane, explored an Arizona meteorite crater with astronauts, and built a Kwagu'l ceremonial bighouse on the upper floor of his Toronto home after being invited into and named by that Canadian First Nation. He's taught mythology to lawyers, doctors and business people, consulted for the UN Secretary General, helped his clinical clients manage depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, and schizophrenia, served as an adviser to senior partners of major Canadian law firms, and lectured extensively in North America and Europe. With his students and colleagues at Harvard and the University of Toronto, Dr. Peterson has published over a hundred scientific papers, transforming the modern understanding of personality, while his book Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief revolutionized the psychology of religion. His latest book is 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.
Jordan Peterson: I would like to talk briefly about depolarization on the Left and the Right, because I think there’s a technical problem that needs to be addressed. So here’s what I’ve been thinking about.
It’s been obvious to me for some time that, for some reason, the fundamental claim of post-modernism is something like an infinite number of interpretations and no canonical overarching narrative. Okay, but the problem with that is: okay, now what?
No narrative, no value structure that is canonically overarching, so what the hell are you going to do with yourself? How are you going to orient yourself in the world? Well, the post-modernists have no answer to that. So what happens is they default—without any real attempt to grapple with the cognitive dissonance—they default to this kind of loose, egalitarian Marxism. And if they were concerned with coherence that would be a problem, but since they’re not concerned with coherence it doesn’t seem to be a problem.
But the force that’s driving the activism is mostly the Marxism rather than the post-modernism. It’s more like an intellectual gloss to hide the fact that a discredited economic theory is being used to fuel an educational movement and to produce activists. But there’s no coherence to it.
It’s not like I’m making this up, you know. Derrida himself regarded—and Foucault as well—they were barely repentant Marxists. They were part of the student revolutions in France in the 1960s, and what happened to them, essentially—and what happened to Jean-Paul Sartre for that matter—was that by the end of the 1960s you couldn’t be conscious and thinking and pro-Marxist. There’s so much evidence that had come pouring in from the former Soviet Union, from the Soviet Union at that point, and from Maoist China, of the absolutely devastating consequences of the doctrine that it was impossible to be apologetic for it by that point in time.
So the French intellectuals in particular just pulled off a sleight of hand and transformed Marxism into post-modern identity politics. And we’ve seen the consequence of that. It’s not good. It’s a devolution into a kind of tribalism that will tear us apart on the Left and on the Right.
In my house, I have a very large collection of socialist, realist paintings from the former Soviet Union—propaganda pieces, but also kind of harsh impressionist pieces of working-class people and so forth—and I collected them for a variety of reasons. Now you could debate about the propriety of that given the murderousness of those regimes. And fair enough, I have my reasons. But I don’t have paintings from the Nazi era in my house, and I wouldn’t. And that’s been a puzzlement to me because I regard the communists, the totalitarian communist regimes, as just as murderous as the Nazi regimes.
But there’s an evil associated with the Nazi regime that seems more palpable in some sense. So I’ve been thinking about that for a long time. And then I’ve been thinking about a corollary to that, which is part of the problem with our current political debate.
On the Right, I think we’ve identified markers for people who have gone too far in their ideological presuppositions. And it looks to me like the marker we’ve identified is racial superiority. I think we’ve known that probably since the end of World War II, but we saw a pretty good example of it in the 1960s with William Buckley, because Buckley, when he put out his conservative magazine, the David Duke types kind of attached themselves to it, and he said, “No, here’s the boundary. You guys are on the wrong side of the boundary. I’m not with you.” And Ben Shapiro recently did this, for example, as well in the aftermath of the Charlottesville incident.
So what’s interesting is that on the conservative side of the spectrum we’ve figured out how to box-in the radicals and say, “No, you’re outside the domain of acceptable opinion.”
Now here’s the issue: We know that things can go too far on the Right and we know that things can go too far on the Left. But we don’t know what the markers are for going too far on the Left. And I would say that it’s ethically incumbent on those who are liberal or Left-leaning to identify the markers of pathological extremism on the Left and to distinguish themselves from the people who hold those pathological viewpoints. And I don’t see that that’s being done. And I think that’s a colossal ethical failure, and it may doom the liberal-Left project.
The Lefties have their point. They’re driven fundamentally by a horror of inequality and the catastrophes that inequality produces—and fair enough, because inequality is a massive social force and it does produce, it can produce, catastrophic consequences. So to be concerned about that politically is reasonable. But we do know that that concern can go too far. So I’ve suggested that there’s a triumvirate of concepts that have the same potentially catastrophic outcomes when implemented as the racial superiority doctrines. Diversity, inclusivity, and equity as a triumvirate—even though you could have an intelligent conversation about two of those anyways. But I would say that of the three, equity is the most unacceptable. The doctrine of equality of outcome. And it seems to me that that’s where people who are thoughtful on the Left should draw the line, and say, “No. Equality of opportunity? Not only fair enough, but laudable. But equality of outcome…?” it’s like, “No, you’ve crossed the line. We’re not going there with you.”
Now maybe that’s wrong. Maybe it’s not equity. That’s my candidate for it. But it is definitely the case that you can go too far on the Left and it’s definitely the case that we don’t know where to draw the line. And that’s a big problem.
An example of equality of outcome are attempts being made now to implement the legislative necessity to eliminate the gender pay gap. That’s a good example. I mean you think, “Well no, that’s not—like there’s nothing pathological about that.” It’s like, “Oh yes there is!”
You have to set up a bureaucratic inquisition to ensure that that’s the case. It’s like—it’s not good. And that’s actually a relatively—like, of all the things that you could push for with regards to equality of outcome, that’s rather simple and definable. It’s not even murky. Once it starts to get murky it’s just complex beyond any rectification. You cannot win if you play identity politics. There’s a bunch of reasons like—here’s one: “Let’s push for equality of outcome.” All right, who measures it? That’s a big problem. It’s not a little problem. It’s not like, “We’ll figure that out later.” Oh no, no, no. The measurement problem is paramount. So you don’t solve that, you don’t solve the problem at all. Who measures it? “A bureaucracy.” Okay, which bureaucracy? “Well, a large one that has its fingers everywhere.” Okay, that’s problem number one. And it’s staffed by exactly the sort of people that you don’t want to staff it, by the way.
Next problem. Which identities? That’s the intersectional problem. The radical Leftists have already hit the problem of intersectionality. It’s like, “Well, we’ve got race and gender, let’s say.” Well, okay, what about the intersection between race and gender? That’s a multiplicative intersection, right? So you might start with three racial categories and two gender categories. But you end up with six intersectional categories. And then you’re just getting started. How many genders? Hypothetically there’s an infinite number. What about racial groupings? Are you going to include ethnicity? Do you want to add class to that? Do you want to add socioeconomic class? How about attractiveness?
And every time you add another category to the singular entities, you increase the multiplicative entities in a multiplicative fashion. What are you going to do? Are you going to equate across all those categories? Really? And across what dimensions? What are the dimensions of equality that you want to establish? It’s just socioeconomic? Is it just salary? What about all the other ways that people are unequal? Are you just going to stop with economic inequality? Are you? It’s a complete bloody catastrophe. It’s an absolute mess.
And intersectionality, the discovery of intersectionality on the Left, is actually the radical Left’s discovery of the fundamental flaw in their identity politics ideology. Groups can be multiplied without limit. That’s not a problem; that’s a fatal flaw. And they’ve already discovered it, they just haven’t figured it out.
The reason that the West privileges the individual is because we figured out 2,000 years ago, 3,000 years ago, that you can fractionate group identity appropriately right down to the level of the individual.
What is political extremism? Professor of psychology Jordan Peterson points out that America knows what right-wing radicalism looks like: The doctrine of racial superiority is where conservatives have drawn the line. "What’s interesting is that on the conservative side of the spectrum we’ve figured out how to box-in the radicals and say, 'No, you’re outside the domain of acceptable opinion,'" says Peterson. But where's that line for the Left? There is no universal marker of what extreme liberalism looks like, which is devastating to the ideology itself but also to political discourse as a whole. Fortunately, Peterson is happy to suggest such a marker: "The doctrine of equality of outcome. It seems to me that that’s where people who are thoughtful on the Left should draw the line, and say no. Equality of opportunity? [That's] not only fair enough, but laudable. But equality of outcome…? It’s like: 'No, you’ve crossed the line. We’re not going there with you.'" Peterson argues that it's the ethical responsibility of left-leaning people to identify liberal extremism and distinguish themselves from it the same way conservatives distance themselves from the doctrine of racial superiority. Failing to recognize such extremism may be liberalism's fatal flaw. Jordan Peterson is the author of 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.
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