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 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.

Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • The coronavirus pandemic may have a silver lining: It shows how insanely resourceful kids really are.
  • Let Grow, a non-profit promoting independence as a critical part of childhood, ran an "Independence Challenge" essay contest for kids. Here are a few of the amazing essays that came in.
  • Download Let Grow's free Independence Kit with ideas for kids.
Keep reading Show less

Engineers 3D print soft, rubbery brain implants

Technique may enable speedy, on-demand design of softer, safer neural devices.

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Surprising Science

The brain is one of our most vulnerable organs, as soft as the softest tofu. Brain implants, on the other hand, are typically made from metal and other rigid materials that over time can cause inflammation and the buildup of scar tissue.

Keep reading Show less

The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
Surprising Science
  • A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

Four philosophers who realized they were completely wrong about things

Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?

Sartre and Wittgenstein realize they were mistaken. (Getty Images)
Culture & Religion

Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways. 

Keep reading Show less

Withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants can last over a year, new study finds

We must rethink the "chemical imbalance" theory of mental health.

Photo Illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • A new review found that withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants and antipsychotics can last for over a year.
  • Side effects from SSRIs, SNRIs, and antipsychotics last longer than benzodiazepines like Valium or Prozac.
  • The global antidepressant market is expected to reach $28.6 billion this year.
Keep reading Show less