What’s left of what’s right: are we allowed to talk about Jordan Peterson?

It has been a particularly anomalous year for Dr. Jordan Peterson in the world of politics. In September of 2016 he uploaded a couple of videos to YouTube regarding Bill C-16, which he had some concerns about. A storm of both outrage and overwhelming support for his work ensued. His YouTube channel has accrued over half a million subscribers. Thousands have written to him about the positive influence that his work has had on them. He has continued to present new material to his growing audience including a series of talks on the psychological significance of the biblical stories. Peterson has been amazed by how receptive viewers have been to hearing about “this strange old book,” as he calls it in the first of his talks on Genesis.

Dr. Peterson is a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, and is also a clinical psychologist. His job at the university was threatened as accusations that he was promoting hate speech accumulated. Peterson argued that Bill C-16 was poorly articulated, and dangerously imposing on free speech. The bill was supposedly designed to protect people from discrimination, but Peterson was disturbed by how ambiguously this discrimination was defined.

Some colleagues agreed that the bill was dangerous, but were not willing to risk their jobs or safety by speaking up. Peterson asserted that it infringed on free speech because it implied that refusal to conform to compelled manners of speaking would be a crime. This is not about limiting what can be said, but is forcing people to say certain things. Some students were angry that he was against the enforced use of preferred pronouns. There were also other professors who agreed with the students who rallied against Dr. Peterson, accusing him of bigotry, and calling him a neo-nazi. From what I understand, he saw it as absurd that Bill C-16 technically meant that someone could demand to be called “xe” or “xer,” or any number of additional words, and then if a person refuses to use the words, it would be illegal discrimination.

For several decades, Peterson has been working on refining ideas that have heartily prepared him for this time in the intellectual spotlight. He is the clearest voice that I have observed in the midst of these cacophonous arguments. When his colleagues stayed silent, he knew it was time to take the risk of speaking what he believes to be the truth.

It’s been almost five years since Peterson started uploading videos of his lectures at U of T and some of his lectures from 1996, when he taught his Maps of Meaning course at Harvard. His conviction, along with that of thousands of people, is that these recordings are clear evidence that he has not been saying things in his classes that justify labelling him a bigot. He worked on his book Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief for 13 years before it was published in 1999. The book is essentially an in-depth description of how meaning is created. It draws from the ideas of Nietzsche to consider how civilization revolves around evolved hierarchies of value, and systems of motivation and morality.

Peterson’s work is also heavily inspired by psychologist Carl Jung, who hypothesized the “collective unconscious.” So, what’s the idea? In essence: Meaning emerges through the playing out of archetypal patterns; narratives that tend to arise repeatedly through long spans of time in the social landscape, shaping the human psyche. This is an approach to the nature of truth that is essentially Darwinian. It does not presuppose that the world is an objective world of facts, which view the empirical scientific approach supports. Peterson writes in the second chapter of Maps of Meaning that “The universe is composed of ‘order’ and ‘chaos’ — at least from the metaphorical perspective. Oddly enough, however, it is to this ‘metaphorical’ universe that our nervous system appears to have adapted.” It is biologically-evolved mythical “truth” that presents itself to the consciousness, rather than an objective truth.

Here, the problem of compelled speech comes in: Psychology varies from person to person, partially because of biological dispositions. Peterson’s research has shown that temperament, biologically determined to some degree, deeply influences whether someone is more inclined toward liberalism or conservatism. Some are more open to novel ideas — unexplored territory that is metaphorically chaotic. Others are more interested in making use of ideas that they are accustomed to — the familiar order of culture. Without the dialogue between nature and culture — chaos and order — the archetypal “hero’s journey” which produces meaning dissolves.

Individuals in a civilization must be free to express themselves truthfully, presenting anomalous information to each other, to give and receive feedback. Without feedback-producing dialogue, opinions which arise out of biological dispositions are not challenged. A university is the last place where someone should be forced to say something they do not believe. It is a place to shape each other up, and learn to find compromise or agreement through discussion instead of force.

Peterson has people on both ends of the political spectrum shivering in their boots. U of T has apparently concluded that firing him is not the solution to the negative reactions to his support of free speech, but universities have still been demonstrating their fear of the topic. The Lindsay Shepherd affair at Wilfrid Laurier is a prime example where a student was punished for presenting multiple points of view, including those of Dr. Peterson. So, by writing this, I venture to question: Are we allowed to talk about Jordan Peterson?

Photo: Adam Jacobs