ASPEN, Colorado—The “intellectual dark web” came to the sunny slopes of Aspen on Tuesday night, when New York Times opinion editor Bari Weiss interviewed Jordan Peterson, the popular and provocative University of Toronto psychologist, who has built a best-selling brand on the idea that his ideas about gender and politics are being silenced by mainstream critics. That the conversation took place, onstage, at the Aspen Ideas Festival—about as mainstream and prestigious a venue as any professor could hope to address—did little to dampen that sense of grievance.
Caitlin Flanagan, a contributing editor at the Atlantic, set the tone with a journalist-bashing introduction. Flanagan guaranteed that media outlets will publish “at least two articles” that mischaracterize the event and promised attendees she would publish the inevitable corrections on her Twitter account Wednesday morning. (None have appeared as of this writing.)
It was a fitting introduction for a conversation between Peterson and Weiss, who have interpreted opposition to their ideas about sexism and transphobia as a silencing campaign waged by politically correct thought police. In a May column for the Times, Weiss cast Peterson as the vanguard of an “intellectual dark web”—a group of generally conservative writers, academics, and commentators who believe they’ve been chased out of mainstream intellectual debate because their brave ideas challenge social-justice orthodoxy, with a particular focus on the hazards of feminism.
One might assume that sharing the stage at the Aspen festival would put that self-congratulatory grievance to rest. But at this point, it’s clear that this gripe is central to Peterson’s shtick, even when he’s on a stage, in Aspen, with one of the most visible employees of one of the most widely read newspapers in the country. At times, the conversation felt like a game of marginalized Mad Libs. Peterson said universities are “enabling activist disciplines” like women’s studies and ethnic studies, thus “allowing for the distribution of this absolutely nonsensical view that Western society is fundamentally a patriarchal tyranny, which is absurd on at least five dimensions of analysis, but is increasingly the thing you have to believe if you’re allowed to speak in public.”
Weiss is best known for her right-leaning takes on #MeToo, the Women’s March, and cultural appropriation, and proved a mostly kind interlocutor in conversation. Though she attempted to interrogate one of Peterson’s ideological inconsistencies—that he champions free speech while suing a university for defamation, because three employees compared him to Adolf Hitler—she mostly let him hold court and praised his ideas as “generally commonsensical.” By turns, Weiss accused the “mainstream press” of “mischaracterizing,” “manipulating,” “intentionally torquing,” and “defaming” Peterson and his words.
Here’s the thing about Peterson’s words: They’re big, but they don’t mean much. This is even more obvious in person than it is on the page. He repeats a few impressive-sounding clauses over and over again: “A priori cognitive categories” is one. Those explain, according to Peterson, why humans naturally interpret one another through the lenses of masculine, feminine, and child. “A priori ideological supposition” is another. That’s apparently a thing that blinds feminists to facts. He spends a great deal of time justifying his expertise. “My publication record puts me in the top 0.5 percent of psychologists,” he said at one point on Tuesday. “I have 10,000 citations … and 100 published papers.” Later, he suggested audience members watch one of his YouTube videos that “has 500,000 views, by the way.”
For anyone who’s spent time engaging with the “radical social constructionists” Peterson despises, his claims about feminists are familiar straw men. On Tuesday night, Peterson brought up his favorite study: the one that found that in Scandinavian countries—the most egalitarian in the world—occupations are even more segregated by gender than they are in less equitable nations. To Peterson, this is proof that biological differences between men and women are at the root of inequities like the gender wage gap. “I’m trying to look at the damn scientific literature and draw the conclusions that are necessitated by the data,” he said. He continued:
Whether or not I like a piece of data has very little bearing on whether or not I am likely to accept it … And you can say, “The whole thing is suspect because it’s the construction of the patriarchal tyrants who generated the Eurocentric scientific viewpoint.” It’s like, you wanna have that conversation, then go back to the activist disciplines and have it, because it’s not the sort of dialogue anyone sensible would engage in.
I write about women and feminism for a living, and I’ve never heard anyone make the counterargument Peterson mocked on Tuesday, which earned a hearty round of applause from the supportive crowd of mostly 55-and-ups. The more common feminist response would be something like this: Few scientists would say any conclusion is “necessitated” by a data set—every study is incomplete, and data can be interpreted in all sorts of ways. A single study about job choice in select countries cannot hope to prove that biology, not gender socialization, is the main factor behind the lack of women in STEM fields. Women in egalitarian societies are still socialized into normative gender roles, and men still exhibit sexist behavior in the workplace. One might also suspect that a country with few men in caregiving roles and few women in STEM jobs isn’t as egalitarian as other indicators suggest.
In a question-and-answer session, some audience members prodded at Peterson’s supposedly rigorous use of his scientific expertise. John McWhorter, a linguistics professor at Columbia University, was interested in Peterson’s idea that he can easily tell the difference between a trans person who approaches him about pronouns in a way that is “genuine and acceptable” versus “manipulative and unacceptable.”* (McWhorter also hosts the Lexicon Valley podcast for Slate.) When Weiss asked about it, Peterson invoked his profession. “First of all, I am a clinical psychologist, and I’ve talked to people for about 25,000 hours,” he said.
McWhorter was more skeptical, and cited his own experience with students. “Some of them, you can tell that it’s coming from a very deep place, and they deeply need to be called they,” he said. “Some of them, my horse sense says that they’re kind of enjoying giving me a certain shock, and there’s a certain theatrical aspect … but I can’t know.” He said he always uses the pronoun they request, and asked Peterson what special psychologist skill he uses to tell a “genuine” trans person from a “manipulative” one.
Peterson spent several minutes evading the question, even after McWhorter asked it a few more times. “What makes you think that you’re doing the kids that are grandstanding any favors by going along with their manipulations?” Peterson finally asked. “You’re allowing, what would you call it, attention-seeking and somewhat narcissistic undergraduates to gain the upper hand over you in your class.” He said a professor can make two errors in this situation: One is that “you don’t call students what they deserve to be called.” The other is that “you call students what they want to be called even though they don’t deserve it.” Peterson said the questioner was making the second error, while he prefers to make the first. To her credit, Weiss suggested that the questioner, who appeared to be an acquaintance of hers, was “erring on the side of generosity and compassion.”
Watching a hotel ballroom full of powerful people cheer and clap when a highly paid straight man calls trans college students “manipulative” is a chilling experience I hope to never repeat. But I’m glad to finally have seen Peterson speak in person, if only because his shtick is even more transparently bogus as it leaves his mouth and enters the ears of his fans. The arguments aren’t new or courageous, and despite his insistence to the contrary, they’re not based in science or the values of free speech. He is a droll message-delivery system that tells people who are uncomfortable with shifting social dynamics exactly what they want to hear.
Peterson’s attempt to put trans people’s very identities up for intellectual debate looks most bizarre next to the gospel of morality he preaches. He told Weiss that the motivating impulse behind his work is a desire to discover “how is it you must conduct yourself in the world” such that, if another Hitler were to come to power, you would be part of the resistance rather than a follower of orders. Quibbling over whether trans-identified students are truly transgender seems a strange place to start.
Update, June 28, 2018: This post has been updated to identify John McWhorter as the previously unidentified man who asked a question of Peterson during the question-and-answer session.