Yes, I went to the Jordan Peterson talk in my town. No, it wasn’t the worst thing ever, but there were plenty of parts that really caused me to raise my eyebrows and not contribute to the frequent resounding applause.
I’m just going to start by saying that if one of the nicest things I can say about someone is “Well, at least they’re not a Holocaust denier,” then maaaaybe they are not that nice a person. So, buckle up while I recap the Peterson talk I attended!
First off, the audience was super white. I barely saw any people of color there. I noticed a lot of heterosexual couples, and some families too. Not a lot of queer-looking folks. Didn’t see any hijab. Only noticed some physical disabilities (a few wheelchairs and walkers). There was not a sign language interpreter, at least one that I was able to see.
I was seated in the balcony, and there were two Make America Great Again hats that I could see from where I was, if that gives you any sense of the kinds of followers Peterson attracts.
The audience was also clearly composed of existing Peterson fans. He got at least two standing ovations. People laughed at his jokes. I’ll give him this: he’s an engaging speaker. However, I found the topics to be fairly mundane, to the point of boring.
Peterson started his talk by saying he wanted to focus on the relationship between perception and reality, which is something he’s addressed over the course of his psychology career, and in his current book, the 12 principle one, which I gather he’s on book tour for right now? Anyway, he also wanted to tie in values, which he said he considers to be a way of framing what’s important to someone, because we all have limited time/attention so we need to make choices and we make choices based on values. Apparently there needs to be more “serious discourse” on this topic, to which I thought um yeah you could try reading what gender studies scholars like Judith Butler have to say about values? Oh wait he probably discounts that discipline as not being a “real” one, sigh.
One thing Peterson said that I liked is that we live in a dizzyingly complex world. Our senses only somewhat adequately parse the world around us. But how he gets from there to his reductionistic and essentializing take on people, I have no idea.
He summarized a handful of studies on “change blindness” that I’d heard of before, which is part of why I was bored during the talk (the one where a person in a gorilla suit intrudes on a counting study but most people don’t notice it, and the one where during a random encounter the examiner swaps out for another person, and most people don’t notice). But then he made some kind of weird logical leap to saying how if we as individuals are often change-blind to what’s in our perceptual field of vision, then maybe we’re also blind to the larger factors influencing our lives and how we make choices? That kinda left me behind.
Further, Peterson had a whole point about how our eyesight works, and how it’s neurologically expensive to maintain the kind of brain tissue that can make out finely focused details. So far so good. Then he made a joke about how if we needed our entire range of vision to be that finely grained, we’d need so much brain tissue to make it happen that our heads would be huge like aliens (he held his hands out a few feet from his actual head to demonstrate). And that felt… off somehow? Like, LOL people with disproportionately large heads are ugly, as though we don’t need to censor our thoughts on when other people’s body parts seem ugly or weird to us.
He continued with the sight topic to talk about how humans are used to looking for meaning not just in what we see, but what others see. If another person points at something, we don’t fixate on their finger, we look toward what they’re pointing at. Again, not wrong. But then he inexplicably tied it back to value, saying that apparently you can infer someone’s whole value structure by looking at what they’re pointing at. Or what they think is worth pointing at? This was unclear.
Then he talked about how people need to set worthwhile goals for themselves because achieving your goal leads to fleeting happiness, whereas moving towards a goal in incremental steps leads to little bumps in positive emotions that help reinforce you reaching that goal. And again, yes, there’s some science there. As I recall from reading Emily Nagoski’s work (for example, this blog post) our brains do monitor our progress towards a desired goal, and that does impact our emotional state. But to make it out as though we’re responsible for properly choosing our goals and that our entire happiness is dependent on our movement towards them? Reeks of neoliberal agentic psychobabble. Basically, it becomes all too easy to blame people for their depression or anxiety if it just looks like they’re not setting good goals, and I’m deeply troubled by that.
Like, he said that what we see, perceive, and emotionally experience is impacted by what we aim for. Which, yes, kinda? But that logic can lead to victim-blaming all too easily, and I really loathe anything that makes it easier to blame people for being abused, for being mentally ill, for being impoverished, for being victimized in any way, etc.
There was a whole thing about ethics, and how much Peterson is concerned with ethics and how to act ethically, but he also downplayed cultural and moral relativism as false, and I’ve heard that he doesn’t want to comply with the ethical experimentation standards of his discipline as set forth by his university’s Institutional Review Board soooo yeah.
Peterson spent a while talking about how our existence is basically suffering, and it’s often compounded by human malevolence. I don’t disagree with that. He brought it back around by saying that there is meaning to be had in each life, even if we’re starting at square one and deciding to not contribute to the wealth of stupid human cruelty. I sorta agree with that too. But for a dude to advocate against senseless cruelty but also refuse to use a transgender person’s correct (a.k.a. preferred) pronouns seems particularly awful.
Further, part of his optimism relied on stats that I still need to double check: that less of the world lives in abject poverty, that fewer people are starving, that fewer women die in childbirth, etc. (and in the U.S., the maternal mortality rate is rising, sigh).
He had a whole segment about learning to be a team player, illustrated with examples of his son’s hockey team (where a star player might throw a fit about not winning, but a real team player will pass the puck more often rather than trying to outshine all their teammates). And yeah, I think humans generally do well when we send a “plays nicely with others” message to those inhabiting our social world. I’m just kinda cranky that the example chosen is a sportsball one that is more likely to resonate with male listeners. Like, why not make the universalizing-life-advice thing that we can all relate to a more feminine pursuit? Like collaboratively making a quilt or planning a dinner party. I’m mostly just sick of masculine-coded experiences being held up as the universal that women are expected to relate to, when the reverse is not true, and feminine-coded experiences are depicted as quite specific things that most men have no reason to learn to relate to. Another reason I’m a feminist, and believe we still need feminism in the world.
Things got weird in the audience question section.
Someone asked how Peterson stays humble. He went on a ramble about how he’s studied torture and all kinds of things, and how he was thinking about Auschwitz one time and what it must have been like to carry out those orders. He said he could see himself doing it, and actually enjoying it. And he reminds himself of this when he needs to stay grounded.
Which basically broke my brain. Because, plus side, he’s not a Holocaust denier. But, minus side, sympathy for Nazi perpetrators of genocide. And sending the message that being a Nazi sympathizer is not a bad thing – ew.
Another question came from someone who’s suicidal, basically asking “why shouldn’t I go ahead and do it?” I thought Peterson gave a very empathetic and well-reasoned response, saying that it takes an enormous toll on those around you, and it’s a permanent solution to a problem that might not be permanent (he listed a number of treatment and medication modalities to try), and it removes you and your unique contribution from the world, and some psychobabble about how your life is not actually your own to take because something something divine in all of us.
And that was nice, but I really wonder if Peterson would’ve given the same measured and kind response if it were a trans person asking the same question. We know that “40% of [trans survey] respondents have attempted suicide in their lifetime—nearly nine times the attempted suicide rate in the U.S. population (4.6%)” (link to PDF of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey). So, since trans people are that much more likely to attempt suicide than cisgender people, I would hope Peterson would extend the same – if not more – care to them that he would to the cisgender default population.
However, given Peterson’s transphobic comments (as detailed here in The Chronicle), I’m not optimistic about that.
Another question was about whether his views his following as cult-like. He said no, and gave the expected reasons (he doesn’t encourage people to become isolated from their families; he encourages them to find their unique strengths and goals, not meld into a mind-merge). However, having experienced the onslaught of Peterson fanboy trolls, allow me to say that I’m not convinced. It may not be a religious cult, but I see a lot of faulty logic and groupthink happening among his followers that I’ve interacted with, along with nasty strains of bigotry.
Yet another question was from an aspiring artist, whom Peterson told to drop out of art school because it’s too “politically correct” whatever that means… oh wait, I know what that means, it means that people call bigots on their bullshit and expect to be taken seriously. So apparently art schools are not kindly inclined towards people who are racist, misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, or xenophobic. I say, spend more time in art school!
Honestly, the audience response every time “political correctness” came up was chilling. It’s so clearly a dogwhistle for “they won’t let us be openly bigoted anymore, grrr/sad face” that as a straight-passing queer person I felt viscerally uncomfortable realizing how many people surrounding me probably wish me ill.
THE BEST QUESTION was about why the majority of his followers are white. He said there’s no evidence for it, so it’s a faulty question, so he’s throwing it out. I almost lost my shit, sitting there in an auditorium full of white people.
There was a bunch of stuff I had trouble following about the archetype of the crucifix and other stuff Peterson has been working on in his Biblical lecture series. Zero interest there, but I may bring in a friend who’s a pastor to write a guest blog post for me on it.
Honestly, I was expecting to be more affronted as a feminist folklorist than I was, but he probably kept the universalizing crap and the misogyinist and transphobic crap to a minimum for this talk (and others like it). He did say some obnoxiously vague things about “stories” and “Big Story” (like, when he was relating an exercise that he likes to torture his students with, where he just asks “why” to everything they say, as though he is a three-year-old child, and when they get from “I want to get a good grade in this class” to “I want a college degree” to “I want a family and a career someday” then somehow that taps into “Big Story” as though that is a nicer way to say “social norms and enculturation” but also sound mystical and wise while doing so? I don’t know, I was confused).
To everyone who supported me in this endeavor, whether financially or emotionally, thank you.
I just watched someone send an affirming message to Nazi-sympathizers, while somehow also simultaneously managing to be kinda boring and not all that provocative, so now that I’ve typed this up I’m going to drink some wine, attempt to unwind, and hit “publish” in the morning. Because, what the fuck. Why do people like this guy?!