You end Shabbat, clean the house, open your computer and find out that Jordan Peterson is anti-Semitic. Had I only knew this before Shabbat, I would never have let my Hassidic brother-in-law borrow my copy of Peterson’s book “12 Rules for Life” to take to synagogue for perusal during kiddush. Had the book made its rounds, it could have turned the entire shul anti-Semitic!
This past Friday, the Forward published an article insinuating that the popular Canadian professor Jordan Peterson is flirting with anti-Semitism, if not an outright anti-Semite.
It begins with the usual claims that Peterson is popular among white supremacists and the alt-right, supporting this with some praise by the Daily Stormer and a tweet by Paul Joseph Watson. Of course, one can easily find white supremacists hating on both Peterson and Watson for being pro-Jewish because, you know, Google is a good search engine for creative journalism.
Somehow the Forward failed to mention that Peterson is a personal friend of Jewish political pundit Ben Shapiro and a guest on his show; that he did long format conversations with popular Jewish academics such as Jonathan Haidt and Gad Saad; that his book has been praised by no less than former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and that he goes touring with his close friend and proud Jew YouTube star Dave Rubin. I suppose it was easier to find some white supremacist saying something on a forum somewhere.
The Forward article points out that behind the Peterson’s fatherly public persona is his dark preoccupation with “Hitler, Marxists and the radical left on college campuses,” and that it’s there “where his teachings can provide fodder for conspiracy theorists and bigots.”
Call me European, but perhaps the only thing surprising about this is that Peterson is Canadian. Normally, it’s the melodramatic Americans who like to focus on the most extreme movements in human history, eager to find analogies to their current political opponents. The left sees white-supremacists and sexists everywhere, and the right wants to stuff everything under the banner of some undefined socialism. Each side is often trying to show how Nazism is actually closer to the other than to themselves. Their opponents can’t just be wrong; they have to be the supervillains of history.
No, it isn’t a “dark side” of Peterson to focus on things everyone focuses on. It’s rather mundane. Equally mundane is Peterson’s discussion of the radical left on campus, a common topic among conservatives.
So what makes Peterson anti-Semitic?
The article makes several somewhat confusing observations. The clearest is his take on the “Jewish question,” which asks why Jews are overrepresented in positions of authority, competence and influence. Peterson openly challenges the alt-right and naturally, they challenge him back. Hence he was repeatedly asked about the Jewish question.
Peterson’s response is that there is no conspiracy, but that Ashkenazi Jews, as a group, have an above average IQ. As IQ is the best indicator of success, a disproportionate IQ will show disproportionate success.
The Forward article states that this Jewish IQ reference is “an old anti-Semitic dog whistle.” However, Peterson talks about IQ and success far more than he ever cares to talk about us Jews. Had the author bothered to click the link Peterson provided on his blog post, he would have noticed that IQ and success is a field Peterson published in as an academic. Peterson talking about IQ is like Richard Dawkins talking about evolutionary biology. Academics fitting questions in their field of study is the least surprising thing possible. It would be far more unsettling had Peterson answered the question from the field of Byzantine military history.
Nor is it surprising when in the same blog post Peterson connects the Jewish question to his main academic achievement, namely, the Big Five personality traits. Because these, not Jews, are his “obsessions.” Where the Forward sees an orchestra of dog whistles, I see Peterson blowing his own academic horn. And why shouldn’t he? He, not a historian or chemist, was asked the question.
Another suggestion raised is that Peterson flirts with Holocaust denial:
“He also believes almost anyone would have become a Nazi if they were a German living under Hitler — that “everyone participated” in the Holocaust. ‘His audience is without a doubt a large chunk of people in the ‘alt-right,’ and that’s the kind of signaling that would appeal to them,’ said Heidi Beirich, the director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. ‘If you play fast and loose with the issue, you’re going to be seen as a possible ally in Holocaust denial.’ ”
This is so vaguely worded that to be honest, I am not sure what exactly is being claimed. But at the risk of straw manning, I’ll give it a try.
Contemplating manmade atrocities from the perspective of our shared human nature is completely unsurprising, especially when done by a psychologist. In his 1999 work Maps of Meaning, Peterson details how this interest was brought to the forefront by the Cold War. “I couldn’t understand the nuclear race: what could possibly be worth risking annihilation[?]” (p. xv)
With this problem in mind, Peterson began to study psychology. Being a Westerner living in the shadow of World War II, it’s no surprise Peterson would pay a lot of attention to the Holocaust. Given the long history of humans and their atrocities, it’s no jump to conclude that all of humanity has the potential for such evils. Agree or disagree, it has nothing to do with Holocaust denial.
The Forward article is a loose collection of haphazard insinuations thrown at the wall in the hopes that one will stick.
It is not unique. Similar articles are written about Peterson and others who don’t deserve such treatment. All political perspectives are guilty of this.
There are people who hate a particular intellectual or pundit, but love the friends and family who hold the same views. When we disagree with our professor, we say “Smart guy, nice guy, but I think he is wrong.” Yet when that same professor is a public intellectual, we become passionately angry over those very same opinions. Suddenly the things we disagree on become “obviously ridiculous” and “discredited by everyone.”
Political tribalism can do that to us. We should guard ourselves against that.
There are no divine gurus; there are just people. Jordan Peterson’s work has helped many people, myself included. In my case, his help had nothing to do with any of his controversial topics. As is the case with many public people, there is far more to them than the thing people get upset about.
As we are forgiving of our own flaws, we should be forgiving of similar flaws of those in the public eye. Just as those who speak out against our ideas and ideologies just might not “get it,” we , for our part, might not be “getting them” either. And perhaps when we all calm down, we can begin start a mutual conversation.