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What's In a Label? Jordan Peterson vs Post Modernism

FireAwayMarmotJan 10, 2018, 8:15:59 AM

 Many of you are likely already aware of Jordan Peterson - the U of T Psychology Professor who rose to fame for his stance against the mandated use of Gender Pronouns, promoted by advocacy groups and enshrined in the University's Code of Conduct, as well as, arguably, Canada's Bill C-16 law which passed last year.

While Professor Peterson's primary field of expertise is in Psychology - his Self Authoring course is available online and highly recommended - he has also spent many decades studying the advent of totalitarian regimes in the world, particularly in the twentieth century. It is with this in mind that the Professor has been taking a very strong stand against what he refers to as a mixture of NeoMarxism and Post Modernism having infiltrated virtually every field of study in academia, and by extension, the larger culture as a whole.

A new project of Peterson's would have taken the form of a website, with the purpose of providing a way for identifying Marxist/Post Modernist elements within Institutional Academic courses. Of particular concern would be courses that are designed for intentions seemingly outside Marxism or Post Modernist fields of study - S.T.E.M. fields being a primary example.

This has, of course, produced a fair degree of controversy and opposition. One of the arguments that I've heard most often is one of hypocrisy - namely that by "labelling" courses and professors as Marxist or Post Modernist, Peterson is engaging in "precisely the same" activities as those he claims to be opposing.

No question it is a common psychological phenomena to want to invent a boogeyman upon which to blame all of society's ills. However, even with that in mind, I think there may be a certain level of false equivalency going on with that particular criticism against this undertaking.

In the fall of 2017 Peterson opted to put the project on hiatus, over the concern that it would cause greater polarization than is already taking place. Nonetheless I think that the concept has aspects worth considering and should not be dismissed out of hand. And so with the interest of keeping the idea for this project at the forefront of people's minds I want to speak to it's merits, and one particular flaw which presents a possible adjustment that could be made.

The basic conceit for my defense of Doctor Peterson's project can be summarized with one simple question:

Are all labels the same?

And while the answer to that question should be rather glaringly obvious to anyone reading this, I'd like to set the question momentarily aside. My reason for doing this is to first cite a few examples that may more closely align with the notion of equivalency, on the part of those fighting against left wing indoctrination in our culture. After this I will examine Doctor Peterson's concept more closely - both it's merits and it's faults, while at the same time hopefully answering this question of labels. Then I will propose some ideas of my own that hopefully will help to align the concept of this website more closely to the beneficial objective that is being sought.

On the subject of equivalency, the first example is the online petition championed by the popular YouTube creator Carl "Sargon of Akkad" Benjamin. The petition was created with the intent of suspending all "Social Justice" courses in Universities, presumably to put these courses up for some kind of a review process to determine whether they were detrimental to the general pursuit of knowledge.

In this particular case, I think a reasonable argument could be made that Mr. Benjamin was endorsing a form of censorship. It was perhaps not contextually the same type of censorship as he is fighting - there are certain constraints that can be justified within the coursework of a publicly funded institution. But there is a similar mindset at play, shown in the tactic to limit the dissemination of ideas that are deemed to be of lesser worth. Another indicator would be one of Benjamin's defences - that it's not a permanent ban but rather a "temporary pause". This type of equivocation does correspond with similar left wing justifications, such as the example of how "no platforming" a conservative speaker does not entail an outright ban on that individual attending the event.

As much I may sympathize with Carl's recognition of the problem, the reason I give for this particular equivalency is to recognize the type of attitude or mindset revealed by such tactics - namely the urge to "shut them down". Bearing this in mind I can also appreciate that Carl may have been employing a larger strategy of extreme action in order to draw attention to a problem - this was in early 2016 and only now is the general public being awakened to this issue. No question Carl Benjamin deserves a great deal of credit for steering the Overton Window away from the extreme it has been residing at these many decades.

However, actions do have consequences and if one is truly dedicated to notions of reason and logic then the consequence of this action is to concede to the other side a fair argument for censorship having been attempted here.

The second example I will cite is that of Candace "RedPillBlack" Owens. Now this example is a rather complex one, often referred to by observers as the "RedPillBlack Saga". Nice.

Candace Owens tried to initiate an anti bullying website to be named "Social Autopsy". The purpose of the site was to unmask the real identities of abusive trolls online. This was in response to a bullying incident that she had undergone as a teenager, to which the media response was to portray her with such a high degree of victimhood that she felt more disenfranchised by the media than by her initial bullies.

Along with the media manipulation she had taken umbrage to, what seems to have "Red Pilled" Candace was her experience in dealing with one Zoe Quinn, the game developer at the centre of the Gamergate controversy. From Owen's account, Zoe Quinn tried to dissuade her from proceeding forward with the idea, and when Owens refused, Quinn allegedly organized an internet mob against Owens. Apparently the phrase "doxxing is wrong" was not expressed during any of this exchange, at least according to Owens' version of the story.

From my observation, Owen's tale seems to be a rather wobbly tightrope walk between opposing planes of cognitive dissonance. The left wing reaction showed a strain of intolerance as well as hysterical protectionism on their part, including the willingness to undergo further extremes of doxxing against her - publishing info on her family, etc. as well as the apparent collusion with mainstream outlets and their subsequent character assassination attempts on Miss Owens.

And so, the right initially embraced Candace Owens as an ally to their cause, someone who had been unfairly abused and maligned by the left and whose story revealed the nature of how the left treats minorities who go "off the plantation". On the other hand, once the nature of Candace's initial undertaking became "revealed" - it was never a secret - many of these same commentators feigned shock at the fact that Owen's first foray onto the scene was an attempt to create what was now seen as a doxxing site. This is strange since Social Autopsy was a very major element in Miss Owens story. These are people who often make it their full time job to be observing threats to Free Speech, and yet they never seemed to have performed their due diligence on Owens.

In any event, a website designed to identify anonymous trolls online does amount to a form of doxxing, in that it would - if effectively implemented - take away anonymity anywhere the internet. The merits and downsides of anonymity on the web is a subject for another debate entirely, and is presented here only to demonstrate certain equivalencies revealed by otherwise opposing sides, namely a lack of sincerity coupled with political opportunism.

Which brings me back to Doctor Peterson's nascent website. So, let's contrast his idea with that of the two examples that I cited, for the point of showing that while those examples did contain elements of equivalency to the far left, Doctor Peterson's does not.

First off, it's not censorship. The site is not intended to try to shut down Marxist / Post Modernist courses, merely to identify them - unless one believes that the mere act of classification is sufficient to shut down the courses in question. If that is in fact the belief, what does that say about the viability of such elements occupying academic "positionality" (credit Nathan Rambukkana) in the first place?

Secondly, it is not doxxing. The information being presented would already be publicly available information about courses and instructors, easily accessible on any University website. Why the examination of publicly available (not to mention funded) information should be considered Draconian seem perplexing, until one factors in another condition of Doctor Peterson's concept.

That condition would be: having an A.I. designed to run the database for the site. This brings on easy accusations of "Skynet" style totalitarianism being applied here, and given the climate of technological control and surveillance these days, applying such a principle in the application indicates a major misstep on Doctor Peterson's part.

And I think the primary element of this particular misstep concerns the issue of control. In fact, this is one very fundamental issue when dealing with Post Modernism: that of it's adherents and their insatiable need to gain absolute control over all aspects and all areas of human consciousness. However they are also quite clever in their ability to appeal initially to people's sense of freedom, and so can easily score points of influence against the A.I. aspect of Peterson's concept and use it to characterize all other aspects of the idea as equally "Draconian". This is actually quite closer to the bone when compared to Social Justice accusations of racism or misogyny etc. What is at play in all of these accusations (in terms of their public appeal) is the idea that their opponent wants to control others, through these various "isms". (softening up the public for the indoctrination of all relationships being based on the Oppressor/Oppressed dynamic)

So the way to deal with this form of accusation is to take it on at it's fundamental level and show it for the projection that it is, at the level of controlling other people. There have been a lot of good arguments made in recent years that have done just that, not the least of which are Doctor Peterson's himself. And I think with such a website concept there is a golden opportunity to present these arguments in a way that makes them even more apparent to the general public.

But first I will return to my initial question - are all labels the same?

One of the most pernicious aspects of Post Modernism is the way that it uses labels - essentially making up new phrases, seemingly to describe modes of thought that cannot be sufficiently described by our current language, at least as far as English is concerned. This presents an initial appeal to the mind that thirsts for knowledge; it is the allure of the new, of unseen frontiers of consciousness waiting to be explored. However in the context of the material's intent - Deconstruction - one begins to suspect that the purpose of this is not really to tear down the system, but to tear down the student's capacity for rational thought itself. This would go much further than just challenging the student's preconceived notions and beliefs - the intent being to eliminate them altogether, creating a cognitive vacuum into which the Instructor can pour whatever ideas he or she wishes. Then the student's mind becomes a part of the system in an altogether different way than it was before, or would have been under previous educational practices.

As an aside, the process I describe corresponds with the ostensibly reasonable request to use the gender pronoun "they or "them" in the singular sense, since there is an historical precedent for singular usage of those pronouns. However the context of those usages are often when the speaker either doesn't know or is uncertain as to the gender of the person about whom they are speaking. Exceptions to this would be when such identity is considered irrelevant to the value of the statement being being expressed. To take the conditions of such usage - nescience, uncertainty or irrelevance - and apply them to someone's personal identity enshrined in social and legal protections, is to essentially draw from that which is lacking, from where there is a surfeit of knowledge or awareness, and try to give it credibility. It is, dialectically speaking, a house built on sand, or perhaps water would be a better analogy in respect to the overall fluidity engendered there.

Is the true end goal to eliminate identity altogether?

And so Post Modernism's usage of labels has some significant potential downside, to put it mildly. Does it then follow that "labelling" courses as Post Modern, or Neo Marxist, constitutes an equivalency?

Well, I guess that depends on whether we are to believe that Post Modernism itself renders all labels meaningless - basically acquiescing one of the movement's main claims, as it were. And this reveals some of the destructive genius of this movement… It is, essentially, a movement of dissuasion.

It's like the old saying; "If you wrestle with a pig, you both get dirty, and the pig likes it". In this case, the dissuasion forms the idea that if you wrestle with Post Modernism, everything loses meaning, and the Post Modernists like it that way. And I think that this dissuasion manifests in the reaction to draw equivalency in regards to labels, without considering why Peterson wants to identify Post Modern courses where he sees them. Because to do so would mean taking a deeper examination of the intellectual validity of this field of thought, and most importantly, it's application outside of the core literature of its primary thinkers. Given the evasive and labyrinthian nature of the subject, to do so would be a rather difficult task, and might also seem like a colossal waste of time - some awfully deep mud in which to be wrestling around.

The facsimile of intellectual rigour.

However to choose to remain ignorant of this movement is to allow it's continuous incursion into all areas of academia and, by extension, the culture as a whole. Post Modernism was created to challenge the Classical mode of knowledge; does it not make sense that Classicism should have a fair chance to challenge back? In fact, this is the very backbone of the Enlightenment values that created these institutions in the first place - the ability for different views to push against each other to determine primacy in the marketplace of ideas. Post Modernists has been all too willing to take advantage of this concept to get their foot in the door, but it seems now that they are unwilling to continue on that very principle, but rather to hollow it out, now that it has served it's purpose. And this would be consistent with the view that the movement is designed to destroy people's capacity to truly think at all; a bait and switch offering high sounding arguments that inevitably lead to the conclusion that all thought is essentially futile beyond the exercise of control over others.

But perhaps I'm wrong about this, and there is in fact deeper meaning to be had from certain readings of Post Modern texts. For example, is Post Modernism a useful tool for examining the relationship between the unconscious and conscious mind, and how - or whether - this correlates with notions of the Subjective and Objective? Being a Psychologist, Doctor Peterson might have some insights to share on such a question. Of course, some might consider Jung (whom Peterson often quotes) to have been a Post Modernist, but this is a shaky proposition. It would probably be reasonable to assume that Jung was no Deconstructionist, at the very least.

Another element that I think is at issue here is Post Modernism's treatment of the Commons - being at its core the space in human thought where ideas are shared. It is both an unsafe space and a space that needs to be protected from those who demand safe spaces. The dangerous beauty of knowledge within the Commons is what gave birth to Post Modernism. After using the Commons to enable both it's creation and it's spread into virtually every aspect of Western Culture, does Post Modernism seek to now destroy the Commons?

Nobody has the right to burn down the dance floor after they've finished their John Travolta act. You can burn it up if you want, but don't burn it down. And if the advocates of Post Modernism do not seek to destroy the Commons, then they have no reason whatsoever to seek protection for their movement from the Commons. In fact they should embrace any actions that are designed to pull their ideas out into the light of day.

So to answer my question: No, not all labels are the same, and most certainly not at this stage of identifying Post Modernist theories and practices in academia. And it is necessary to identify this movement and it's various elements, precisely because of the very real challenges that it presents to the ongoing continuation of Western Civilization.

This brings me to some of my own ideas, on ways to amend Dr Peterson's concept. My proposal is this: rather than creating an A.I. facilitated database, it would be far more fruitful to make it a regimented but open style forum - a moderated debating space for those who, against or in favour - wish to simply focus on the subject of Neo Marxist and Post Modernist elements within academia: whether they are present, in which courses they are present, to what degree, and to what justification or lack thereof.

Now you may be thinking that these sorts of debates are already raging all over the internet anyways and this would be just another one. However the websites where these debates are occurring have been subject to a great deal of manipulation through algorithms and various forms of social and corporate control. The subject has been fractured in a way that keeps it out of the scope of general comprehension. By creating a debate oriented website based exclusively on examining and debating the subject, you have a chance to focus the argument specifically on that issue and that issue only.

Another reason is that it presents the opportunity to craft a commons that you could facilitate as a true marketplace of ideas - something that academia is ostensibly meant to be: an arena in which ideas could fight it out for primacy as determined by the crowd, under conditions that are specifically designed towards the purpose of legitimately determining such primacy. This is another fundamental issue at stake when dealing with Post Modernism: legitimacy. And this is also why you must make a specific point of inviting those who would defend Post Modernism, to participate in the debate within this site.

Now, you may find that Post Modernist or Social Justice types will react to such an arena, by choosing to reject any conditions set by the authors of the site to be automatically illegitimate. This is fine; let them. What is paramount is to determine these conditions correctly and promote them publicly. If the conditions set are shown to be reasonable and focused towards the goals stated, then at this point the public will hopefully still be able to see this, and so that will produce a win in terms of swaying public opinion on this issue.

Most of all, you will be asserting the power of determining the place of battle for your opponent, and placing him in a position where either choice he makes will weaken his claims. If the terms of the forum are set properly, then participation will reveal the fallacy of Post Modernist thought (or perhaps certain elements within it) and it's corrosive effect on academia and society at large. If Post Modernists choose not to participate under terms that have a broad appeal to public consciousness and ideas of free and open debate, then they are revealed as close minded opportunists who need not be supported by the public, particularly in the form of funding.

As a means of getting such terms started I will suggest a few basic rules in this regard.


Earlier I stated that anonymity on the internet is a subject of debate for another time, and by that I meant the internet in it's entirety. When it comes to a privately run website I think such a rule is perfectly allowable and in this case it is necessary. One thing that the whole situation with Candace Owens revealed was the ability for bad actors to use shill accounts to throw enormous amounts of shade over the entire situation, in the form of innuendos, falsehoods, and of abuse both directed at others or self directed under disguise.

This rule would also, for lack of a better term, separate the men from the boys. Do you actually CARE about what is going on here, or do you want to use this controversy as a means of advancing your own personal agenda? This space would be a space for those who are ready to assert their position and back it up with a consistent and coherent argument, or fall on their sword by admitting that they are wrong. Which leads me to my second rule:


In the explanation for my first rule I mentioned abuse. I think the problem with dealing with abuse is that it has become a subjective issue due to a variety of manipulations too numerous to go through here. And for a forum as this, I think the best solution to that problem is simply: Is it an argument? Does it stand as an argument at all? If not, throw it out. Different levels of enforcement can be applied here to such violations, all the way up to expulsion from the site.

It should be noted that this would not be necessarily for statements that are bad arguments. Fallacies should be allowed so that they can be revealed and understood as such, not to mention that some logical fallacies are subject to a manner of degree. It is those statements that are simply not arguments at all that can be claimed under this term, because in the context of Post Modernism, such non arguments in fact reflect a form of psychological abuse. Call that subjective if you will, but I say that deliberate transference of cognitive dissonance is psychological abuse on a massive scale and one of the things that needs to be fought against here.

Now there may be the need for other major rules (certain obvious ones like age restrictions and basic terms of service rules should apply without mention in this essay), but for now I am only providing some ideas in the hopes of moving things along. It's quite possible that such an undertaking might necessitate the drawing up of some sort of a Charter, for example. One other potential element would be the creation of sub sections within the site, to deal with different aspects of the subject matter. As an example, Professor Peterson tends to focus on the trio of Heidegger, Foucault and Derrida as being the main offenders against the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom in academia. And so perhaps that could occupy it's own section, with other thinkers attributed to the movement categorized and scrutinized elsewhere on the site. Not to mention all of the various categorizations that emerge; different schools, professors, subjects… This is not an undertaking for those who are afraid to get into the details.

Just as I am about to post this essay another idea comes to mind: an appeals section that documents the non arguments that gets a user sanctioned or removed from the site. That way if they go bitching about censorship on other social media you can have an immediate response of "here's what you wrote that got you kicked off" along with a link. The appeals section would be to offset the inevitable spurious claims of censorship, along with the opportunity to extend the site's influence into other social media platforms, in a way that would sharply contrast those very platform's own policies in this regard.

Should such a site be launched, the one thing that I think would be the most revealing, is how those whose ongoing work this is intended to scrutinize will react to it's inception. Many of the proponents of Post Modern theory are not shy about using the language of destruction and war. So what sort of warriors are these, then? Are they ready and willing to meet on a field of battle that has been specifically designed for that very purpose?

And for those that are, who knows, maybe a website of this nature will end up being a boon for your movement. If that turns out to be the case, so be it. Any ideas that are of value should thrive - assuming that they are ideas that recognize value in the first place. And if not? Then they will not thrive at all, at least not under the light of the day's sun. A place such as I am proposing would ideally be like a diamond focus of the sun's heat, burning away all falsehood and leaving only the truth standing, revealed in all of it's permanence.

Written by Greg McCann, owner of this profile @FireAwayMarmot. Images and cartoons also by Greg McCann.