In today’s Times:
If you want to know what the culture war is about, look no farther than the spectacular eruption in Britain during the past few days over Jordan Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto.
Peterson came to prominence in 2016 when he refused to adhere to a proposed new Canadian anti-discrimination law, under which it was claimed that personal pronouns would have to be replaced by preferred transgender activist terms such as ze or zir.
The issue for him was liberty. No one, he declared, had the right to dictate what language people should use.
For this stand, he was compared to Hitler, had his lectures drowned out by white noise and was forced to rely on crowdfunding after his grant application to continue his academic research was rejected. He said he feared for his life.
Last week, Peterson was in London to promote his new book, 12 Rules for Life, and was interviewed by Cathy Newman on Channel 4 News.
Newman’s questions had an agenda: that Peterson was denying certain unquestionable social decencies. So deeply rooted was this belief that she simply couldn’t process the meaning of what he was saying, nor realise she was mis-stating what he had just said, nor grasp that she was repeatedly moving the goalposts in a series of non sequiturs.
She believed, for example, that the gender pay gap was unarguably the result of male domination and the exclusion of women. Patiently, Peterson pointed out that, although some prejudice existed, research revealed many other reasons for this gap.
So he thought it didn’t matter, Newman asked, if women didn’t get to the top? Politely, Peterson pointed out he wasn’t saying that at all.
How could he believe, she went on, that his right to free speech trumped a transgendered person’s right not to be offended? “Because”, he replied, “in order to be able to think, you have to risk being offensive. You are certainly willing to risk offending me in the pursuit of truth. Why should you have the right to do that? It’s been rather uncomfortable. More power to you!” At which “gotcha!” point she was rendered speechless.
The encounter was a notable demonstration of rationality versus cognitive dissonance, of an open mind versus one that was sealed shut. It cast Channel 4’s editorial standards in an extremely poor light.
The station’s response was to turn Newman into a victim. Her editor Ben de Pear said such was the scale of the online “threats and abuse” she had received that he had “called in security experts to carry out an analysis”.
Clearly, all such abuse is wrong. Newman reportedly was the target of obscene messages and a pornographic mock-up on Instagram. That’s vile.
Much of the reaction, though, consisted merely of fierce criticism of her perceived hostility and bias, while some of her supporters targeted Peterson for violent abuse.
Unfortunately, threats and vilification on social media are now routine for anyone putting their head above the parapet. It is typical of ideologues, however, that they inflate such victimisation as a form of emotional blackmail to silence criticism.
The issue, however, is not Newman but what she represents: the culturally dominant dogma that certain ideological beliefs are indisputably true. When the evidence shows they are wrong it is therefore the evidence, not the beliefs, which must be knocked down.
For Peterson, who reportedly holds many liberal views, the concern is not over transgender issues or pay gaps or any of today’s causes. It is rather that truth and freedom are now under assault from neo-Marxism, which defines everything in terms of relativism and power and which has taken over the universities.
The threat Peterson perceives is not just to political but cognitive freedom. His own use of words is so precise because, as he believes, words are integral to our ability to think and thus our freedom to make sense of the world. That’s the way we arrive at the truth as we see it, and for him truth trumps everything else.
That’s why he said he would go on hunger strike in prison rather than submit to being told what personal pronouns he must use.
Peterson has now become a cult figure among young men. Partly, this is because he champions them against oppressive militant feminism. He entrances them by demonstrating how intelligence and reason can overturn the dominance of emotion and feelings which are holding public discourse hostage.
His appeal, though, is surely rather deeper still. He has become a kind of secular prophet who, in an era of lobotomised conformism, thinks out of the box. His restless and creative intelligence uses the story of Pinocchio or fables about dragons to deliver his core message to the young: that they’re not who they could be, what’s holding them back and how they could be so much better than they are.
In particular, he analyses the fear that drives so many and advises how to rise above it. Fear, however, is not just the weapon used by the bullies of the culture war against their victims; it haunts the bullies too.
What terrifies them so much? The evidence that their beliefs are worthless. That’s why they try to silence Peterson, as so many others. Which makes his message as ironic as it is overwhelmingly vital.
You can subscribe to The Times here.