Jordan Peterson is a popular figure among people whose natural inclination is social conservatism, but who are too learned, well-read and have too wide a social circle to believe in the traditional defences of the present social order like religion, bloodlines or social Darwinism.
In short, the thinking man’s bigot.
In an attempt to actually publish blog posts, this will focus on dismantling just one particular example Jordan gave in an interview recently on Joe Rogan’s podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience. I recommend listening to the linked podcast from about 17:45 to about 24:00.
A common theme in Peterson’s lectures, interviews and debates is that he claims that present inequalities between men and women can be accounted for by active female choice, for example female choice to do lower paid jobs or to accept more housework or to get sexually abused more often. As a result, his argument then follows, protests about these inequalities are illegitimate and attempts to reduce them amount to coercive action – forcing people to do what they don’t want to, and to be who they aren’t. Equality of opportunity between the sexes already exists, Peterson claims, and any further feminist work forms an attempt at equality of outcome; implicitly understood by Peterson and those he is speaking to as one of the worst ills mankind could possibly commit.
“Choosing” Second best
The following example, given by Peterson, begins at about the 23 minute mark in the linked podcast:
There was a good study done a while ago. They were looking at junior high math prodigies. And they’re pretty equally distributed between boys and girls. But by the time university came along, the math prodigy boys, they tend to go into these STEM fields, but the girls wouldn’t. It wasn’t because they lacked ability, because they had stellar ability, it’s because they weren’t interested. The interest thing turns out to be a big one.
This example is problematic in two main ways. For one, it presupposes that choices are made as completely free individuals, without any impact from social forces leading up to, and at the time of the decision. Secondly, it assumes that those making the choice consider only their present conditions and have no regard for the personal and social impact of their choice.
Consider the choice made by Thomas Beckett in 1162 to become Archbishop of Canterbury. This was a man who had shown essentially no evidence of piousness, but desired power, wealth and influence – something the job had in spades in the 12th century. Contrast this with the role of the Archbishop today, where you’d have to be pretty into God and fully behind His Word to want to take it on.
By Peterson’s logic, the “interest” in becoming Archbishop says a particular thing about a person that is both timeless and to be revered. That is to say, there is no social impact upon the individuals decision to take the cloth, and as a society we should completely respect the current way in which people choose or chose not to be Archbishops or nurses or car mechanics and not attempt to influence their decision making at all.
My own view is that considering that a hundred years ago a woman pretty much couldn’t get any kind of degree anywhere in the world, a claim today that female preference not to go into STEM subjects is in any way timeless, or their own completely individual decision is utterly ridiculous.
Permission =/= Equality of Opportunity
One could imagine Peterson, a hundred years ago, writing pamphlets and appearing in town hall debates, claiming that women didn’t seem all that fussed about whether or not they got degrees, and that the scientific laboratories of the the Western World were churning out new insights and technologies at the fastest pace in history, so there would be absolutely no reason to put down hard working boys and force unwilling girls into professions they clearly have no desire to enter into.
In fact this was a popular rationalisation made by men and women alike. In the 1912 Commons debate on the ‘Conciliation’ Bill, to enfranchise about 1 million Women voters, Mr Harold Baker opposing the Bill noted that women were already permitted to vote in local elections and hold local elected office. He presented the following statistics:
The exact numbers of women who were serving in public capacities [is very small]… On boards of guardians there were only 1,327 women serving out of a total of 24,824; on town councils there were only 24 women out of a total of 11,140; on urban district councils there were only 6 women out of a total of 10,561, and on county councils there were only 4 women out of a total of 4,615… It shows a very undue reluctance to take advantage of the considerable opportunities which at this moment are offered to them…
And thus concluded:
The question is not the enfranchisement of any particular class, but the enfranchisement of politically inert masses who take no interest in politics and do not desire to do so.
With the benefit of over a century of hindsight, we can see how clearly false this conclusion was. How, then, does Peterson explain how female British county councillors have risen from less than 0.1% then to 33% today? A 32900% increase. His model of gendered choice, based on immutable “interest” cannot account for it. A model including such social variables as gendered upbringing, lack of role models, adversarial environment, unsociable working hours and burden of household work and childcare can.
The logical fallacy of social conservatism
About 20 minutes into the same podcast, host Joe Rogan says “I think one of the beautiful things about freedom is that people get an opportunity to express themselves in a way that’s genuinely them.”
I completely agree, and I should add that Joe Rogan is an absolutely inspiring speaker who believes strongly in personal freedom and particularly freedom from societal and cultural norms and enabling people to be themselves. Our lives today in the West are the freest lives that ever lived. But to claim that they are the pinnacle of freedom and that we have achieved unfettered free will for all in our societies is false. I am opposed to social conservatism in all its forms for the simple reason that history shows me no evidence whatsoever that we have any capacity to judge, without reasonable doubt, that today is where progress should stop.
I don’t believe that Peterson and his followers would contest the historical progress of the past. None of them want to disenfranchise women or send children to work in dangerous factories at 12. But, they paradoxically conclude, society today has overcome all of those problems, hasn’t created any new ones, and as a result is perfect and should be defended in it’s exact present state for ever. Referring back to my example above, I would assume he’d claim that 33% is the biological limit on female participation in British county councils. But as I have shown, there is no evidence whatsoever to support that.
In contrast, history is overflowing with evidence that today is just a stepping stone on a long path of social progress. From the first female astronaut to the first elected female head of state, once of concern to many and now commonplace, to the 1970 Equal Pay Act or the 1999 Employment Relations Act granting working mothers 18 weeks’ paid maternity leave, already eclipsed by the 1995 Swedish law giving parents up to 480 days paid parental leave.
900 years ago, England had an 18 year civil war because a woman – Matilda – inherited the throne, but in summer 2016 the final two candidates for Conservative Party leadership – and at that time by extension the next Prime Minister – were women. Since 1961 the extra housework that women do compared to men each day has narrowed from nearly 3.5 hours to 74 minutes.
3.5 hours was clearly too much. Why should women stop at 74 minutes?
We have literature too
Just before giving his example, Peterson claims that:
Unfortunately many of the people who are talking about things like gender differences don’t know what they’re talking about. They don’t know the literature. They don’t know there is a literature. They don’t understand biology. The social constructionist types, the women’s studies types, the Neo-Marxists. They don’t give a damn about biology. It’s like they inhabit some disembodied universe.
As someone who is nominally all of those things, I can reply that I refute Peterson’s “literature”, because it is designed to produce the answers that he wants, in order to serve his agenda of defining people’s lives and life chances and opportunities and possibilities.
Take, for example, the very influential 2013 study from the University of Princeton Sex differences in the structural connectome of the human brain. In it, the authors ‘discover’ that male and female brains are wired differently and and suited to different tasks (you can guess what the tasks are). However, the variation of the structures within the studied male and female brains is greater than the difference between the two composite ‘median’ brain structures they generated, showing only that they had imposed the notion of two distinct genders upon the data. A notion the data could not actually support. Furthermore, the authors found that older subjects displayed a greater degree of gender difference in brain connectome structure, evidence that the effects of culture and society on the developing body absolutely cannot be ignored.
A little later in the podcast, Peterson tries to use evidence from experiments on monkeys to “prove” that boys and girls are biologically gendered in their toy preferences. He doesn’t list the exact study he’s referring to but two of the most prominent are comprehensively rebuked by Cordelia Fine in her 2011 book Delusions on Gender. That he is using monkey studies to attempt to say something about humans should alert any critical reader to the dubious nature of Peterson’s “literature”.
Rather than hubristically assuming we know people better than they know themselves, we could actually ask them how they perceive the world, why they have made certain decisions and whether they’re happy with the results. Rather than measuring IQ’s, test scores and attendance rates, we could ask the high school students of Peterson’s study why they’ve chosen those college subjects, what they would have chosen in “an ideal world”, whether or not their decision felt free and if not, why not.
I would love to know why Peterson’s literature doesn’t include such studies as Sapna Cheryan et al. (2016) Why Are Some STEM Fields More Gender Balanced Than Others? Which finds that a masculine culture makes women feel like they don’t belong, that the gender gap in STEM interest is smaller at high schools that offer more STEM courses and teach them more rigorously, and that young female adults are more likely to perceive STEM as ‘beyond them’ and lack the confidence to pursue it to degree level. These findings are backed up by the head of Physics at King’s College London, Microsoft’s 2017 study of 11,500 women in science, and the Wellcome Trust’s extremely comprehensive 2013 study Risks and Rewards: How PhD Students Choose Their Careers, among others.
We have our own literature. It’s open to just the same claims that I’ve levelled at Peterson’s (I’d argue that any social science endeavour is), but the key difference is that our worldview, rather that being about having power over people – the power to approve and chastise, the power to discipline and advise – ours is based on hope and imagination. In this case the hope is that the problems women have with an excessively adversarial working environment, or career paths that come to a dead end with childbirth can be overcome. Our imagination is to posit futures in which the typically male way of doing things isn’t preeminent in every important sphere of activity, or in which society is much more accepting of, and adaptable to, the individual who doesn’t conform to the norms of their gender.
Returning to Peterson’s example and the two problems I had with it, I conclude that the “interest” of junior high math prodigies is influenced both by their upbringing, the attitudes of their peers and their educational environment and their perception of the personal and social costs of pursuing STEM at university level and beyond. These social factors are mutable and indeed change all the time. To not change them, if demanded by girls and women, is to intentionally act to maintain them in the present conditions, which, as I have shown above, is unjustifiable.