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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- A new study says solar and lunar tide impacts led to the evolution of bony fish and tetrapods.
- The scientists show that tides created tidal pools, stranding fish and forcing them to get out of the water.
- The researchers ran computer simulations to get their results.
Neil deGrasse Tyson Explains the Tides<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9913a65f847775722d7c23d40d78938b"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/dBwNadry-TU?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
A study finds 1.8 billion trees and shrubs in the Sahara desert.
- AI analysis of satellite images sees trees and shrubs where human eyes can't.
- At the western edge of the Sahara is more significant vegetation than previously suspected.
- Machine learning trained to recognize trees completed the detailed study in hours.
Why this matters<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU2MDQ1OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzOTkyODg5NX0.O3S2DRTyAxh-JZqxGKj9KkC6ndZAloEh4hKhpcyeFDQ/img.jpg?width=980" id="3770d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="3c27b79d4c0600fb6ebb82e650cabec0" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Area in which trees were located
Credit: University of Copenhagen<p>As important as trees are in fighting climate change, scientists need to know what trees there are, and where, and the study's finding represents a significant addition to the global tree inventory.</p><p>The vegetation Brandt and his colleagues have identified is in the Western Sahara, a region of about 1.3 million square kilometers that includes the desert, <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sahel" target="_blank">the Sahel</a>, and the <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/agricultural-and-biological-sciences/subhumid-zones" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">sub-humid zones</a> of West Africa.</p><p>These trees and shrubs have been left out of previous tabulations of carbon-processing worldwide forests. Says Brandt, "Trees outside of forested areas are usually not included in climate models, and we know very little about their carbon stocks. They are basically a white spot on maps and an unknown component in the global carbon cycle."</p><p>In addition to being valuable climate-change information, the research can help facilitate strategic development of the region in which the vegetation grows due to a greater understanding of local ecosystems.</p>
Trained for trees<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU2MDQ3MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNTk5NTI3NH0.fR-n1I2DHBIRPLvXv4g0PVM8ciZwSLWorBUUw2wc-Vk/img.jpg?width=980" id="e02c0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="79955b13661dca8b6e19007935129af1" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Credit: Martin Brandt/University of Copenhagen<p>There's been an assumption that there's hardly enough vegetation outside of forested areas to be worth counting in areas such as this one. As a result the study represents the first time a significant number of trees — likely in the hundreds of millions when shrubs are subtracted from the overall figure — have been catalogued in the drylands region.</p><p>Members of the university's Department of Computer Science trained a machine-learning module to recognize trees by feeding it thousands of pictures of them. This training left the AI be capable of spotting trees in the tiny details of satellite images supplied by NASA. The task took the AI just hours — it would take a human years to perform an equivalent analysis.</p><p>"This technology has enormous potential when it comes to documenting changes on a global scale and ultimately, in contributing towards global climate goals," says co-author Christian Igel. "It is a motivation for us to develop this type of beneficial artificial intelligence."</p><p>"Indeed," says Brandt says, "I think it marks the beginning of a new scientific era."</p>
Looking ahead and beyond<p>The researchers hope to further refine their AI to provide a more detailed accounting of the trees it identifies in satellite photos.</p><p>The study's senior author, Rasmus Fensholt, says, "we are also interested in using satellites to determine tree species, as tree types are significant in relation to their value to local populations who use wood resources as part of their livelihoods. Trees and their fruit are consumed by both livestock and humans, and when preserved in the fields, trees have a positive effect on crop yields because they improve the balance of water and nutrients."</p><p>Ahead is an expansion of the team's tree hunt to a larger area of Africa, with the long-term goal being the creation of a more comprehensive and accurate global database of trees that grow beyond the boundaries of forests.</p>
Most people believe themselves to be less at risk from COVID-19 than others similar to them, according to a recent UCL survey conducted in the U.S.
- A study surveying 1,145 people in the U.S. found that the majority of people believed that they were less likely to catch the virus than the average person, regardless of the person's age or gender.
- The most effective way to counter the damaging effects of cognitive bias in the context of COVID-19 may be by calling on empathy in individuals.
- The dangerous effects of optimism bias may be compounded by confirmation bias, salience bias, and internet echo chambers.
Optimism bias<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU5OTg2OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMTAzNDM0Mn0.vRtlUDOpCnC_ZOdjxZUpRL5J9fnBeITmXXIPOMXOzhg/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C2291%2C0%2C1908&height=700" id="abbcf" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ff0569ffedf799d7a1237068dc1ee72f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="smiley paint on gray ground in front of people" />Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash<p>Most people have a tendency to overestimate the chances of experiencing a positive (like getting a promotion), and underestimate the likelihood of experiencing a negative event (like getting robbed or sick). Typically a benign — even beneficial — human quirk, the "optimism bias" could be contributing to the spread of coronavirus according to behavioral psychologists.</p><p>Experts argue that it has caused people to discount their individual chances of contracting COVID-19, despite being aware of its risk to the rest of the population. A study that was conducted over three phases this year surveying 1,145 people in the U.S. found that the majority of people believed that they were less likely to catch the virus than the average person is, regardless of the person's age or gender. </p><p>"This is very typical of what optimism bias is," Tali Sharot, a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London and lead author of the study, <a href="https://www.cnbc.com/2020/10/22/why-optimism-bias-could-be-unhelpful-in-a-pandemic-say-psychologists.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">told CNBC Make It</a>. "You usually believe that your likelihood of experiencing negative events is lower than people like you, and the likelihood of you experiencing positive events is higher than other people like you."</p><p>According to Sharot, optimism bias is a product of our tendency to vividly imagine positive future events and attribute more probability to them happening. </p><p>In certain circumstances, such as in our jobs and relationships, this can be beneficial by encouraging us to behave in ways that may contribute to positive outcomes, thus becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. But we're in a pandemic, and it's having a concerning impact on our ability to assess risk and react appropriately. As time goes on and COVID-19 cases <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/10/26/health/us-coronavirus-monday/index.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">continue to rise and spread</a> the threat of the virus is becoming a background hum to everyday life making this bias worse. </p><p>"I think now the risk is greater because we have gotten used to this threat. And when you get used to a threat you underestimate it even more," said Sharot.</p><p>The United States is now reporting the greatest number of cases it's seen to date, with a seven-day average of daily new cases reaching 68,767 on Sunday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. </p>
Other menacing biases<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU5OTg3Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MzA1OTMwOX0.f68UAZY--fN5yJ_26v7OjhQG5Ieda_HQx_iDF5NKHJI/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C30%2C0%2C31&height=700" id="79c78" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8b155c7f4503e53d756c1451be9874c8" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Credit: Michael Siluk/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images<p>Optimism bias may be compounded by <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7144592/" target="_blank">confirmation bias</a>, or the tendency to interpret new information as confirmation of one's existing beliefs or theories while disregarding information that contradicts one's preferred narrative of reality. Salience bias is also at play, leading people to underplay or discount the threat of something they cannot see such as a microscopic virus or sick people in the hospital.</p><p>Additionally, internet echo chambers exacerbate these cognitive biases. When others share our viewpoints, our biases are typically inflated, and it's never been easier to curate our social circles with networks of people who do exactly that. This feeds into the tribalism and polarization that has added to the challenges of getting a majority of the U.S. population to comply with virus safety measures. Think, for example, how the act of <a href="https://bigthink.com/coronavirus/face-masks-transmission" target="_blank">wearing a mask has become politicized</a> in the U.S. as a perceived badge as to which group one belongs to, masks often being associated with liberal-leaning people and no masks (<a href="https://bigthink.com/coronavirus/christian-nationalism" target="_blank">anti-maskers</a>) being associated with the far-right. </p>