On Sunday, during the annual American Farm Bureau Federation conference in Nashville, Tennessee, Monsanto’s director of millennial engagement, Vance Crowe, will host a fireside chat with University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson, addressing “The Danger of Allowing Ideologies to Grow Unopposed.” The topic makes sense, given the agrichemical company’s stake in agricultural genetic engineering and the fearmongering and errors driving the non-GMO movement. Monsanto and American farmers should explore why people embrace false narratives about food. It’s the guest choice that raises questions.
Peterson is a clinical psychologist studying social, abnormal, and personality psychology. But he is best known for the YouTube channel that has made him a “belle of the alt-right,” as described in a November 2017 profile in Canada’s Maclean’s magazine. His “lectures about profound psychological ideas” became hugely popular following his swift rise to notoriety in the fall of 2016, when he refused to comply with university policy on addressing students with preferred gender pronouns. Missing from these videos—which net him more than $50,000 a month on Patreon according to a July report from the Toronto Star—is any commentary on agriculture. Rather, Peterson’s oratory cloaks bigotry in pseudointellectual arguments, revealing a chillingly detached dismissal of civil rights.
Crowe, who has worked as Monsanto’s director of millennial engagement since 2014, described Peterson as a “compelling speaker.” Crowe explained his impetus for the talk on his LinkedIn page: “It is my sincere hope that [Peterson] can help farmers develop an understanding of how to speak truth in a complex world where speaking up can make you a target,” Crowe wrote. “I asked Dr. Peterson to address how farmers can prepare their children to go to college with the skills needed to push back effectively on bad ideologies.” He echoed that language in an email to Slate, writing that “an invitation was extended to Dr. Peterson so that he could offer insights from outside the agriculture and genetic engineering communities. His expertise is wide ranging, but he was selected for his research into why people believe what they do and how those beliefs drive actions.”
Why people believe what they believe is a wide topic that many psychology professors investigate. And while Peterson’s lectures certainly do tend to focus on the idea of “pushing back,” the contents of them raise questions about whether the bad ideologies are the ones he’s rejecting or the ones he espouses.
Consider, for instance, Peterson’s insistence that our culture is doomed because physical violence is forbidden when conversations with women move “beyond the boundaries of civil discourse.” As Peterson declared in an October 2017 video, “I know how to stand up to a man who’s unfairly trespassed against me. The reason I know that is because the parameters for my resistance are quite well-defined, which is we talk, we argue, we push, and then it becomes physical.” A man who wouldn’t fight another man under any circumstances deserves “absolutely no respect,” according to Peterson, because the “underlying threat of physicality is always there,” serving to “keep things civilized to some degree.”
That society is “increasingly dominated by a view of masculinity that’s mostly characteristic of women who have terrible personality disorders and who are unable to have healthy relationships with men,” isn’t men’s crisis to solve, Peterson suggests. “[I]t’s sane women who have to stand up against their crazy sisters and say, ‘Look, enough of that, enough man-hating, enough pathology, enough bringing disgrace on us as a gender.’ ” The fact that “sane women” have so far failed to successfully accomplish this has meant that there is no “regulating force for that—that terrible femininity” and that we are “undermining the masculine power of the culture in a way that’s, I think, fatal.”
Peterson seeks to eliminate women’s studies, ethnic studies, sociology, and other swaths of the humanities and social sciences, which he calls “postmodern neo-Marxist” “indoctrination cult classes,” from being taught in universities—an interesting philosophy for someone who “plans to provide his own perspective on how farmers can prepare their children to go to college and be open to new ideas while resisting the temptation to view the world through over-simplified ideologies,” as Crowe wrote in his email to Slate. Peterson also often rails against “political correctness” and “identity politics,” framing these issues as a “war against free speech” and positioning himself as a martyr. (“If they put me in jail, I’ll go on a hunger strike,” he told a TVOntario panel in 2016.) Particularly chilling is the professor’s amusement (and the audience’s chuckles) as he offers his take on “identity politics and the Marxist lie of white privilege,” asking, “What if you’re gay and black and female, well then, what if you’re not very bright and gay and black and female, and then what if you’re ugly and not very bright and gay and black and female?” The “game,” as he describes marginalized people’s attempts to bring light to social inequity, can be played an infinite number of ways. Peterson describes the idea that there is such a thing as marginalized groups as “comical.”
In an October 2016 letter to the professor, which was also shared with the media, members of the University of Toronto administration acknowledged Peterson’s right to “express and debate views that may be discomfiting or even offensive to others,” but admonished that his rights “are not without limitation.” Fellow University of Toronto faculty have condemned Peterson’s statements on nonbinary and transgender people. (He is still listed as a professor at the university.)
Monsanto declined to comment further when we reached out, instead referring us to Crowe’s comments. In our questions, we asked whether, given Monsanto’s boasting of its rating as one of the “Best Places to Work for LGBTQ Equality” and its “inclusive environment where employees of all genders, ethnicities, backgrounds, and orientations feel welcome and able to contribute,” hosting Peterson ran counter to its stated ethos. Crowe said the company was “proud” of that distinction and noted that Monsanto is “the most diverse and inclusive” place he’s ever worked. He added that “At Monsanto, creating an inclusive environment where employees of all genders, ethnicities, backgrounds and orientations feel welcome and able to contribute is core to creating a great place to work.”
That is why it’s even more baffling that the company would choose to bring an alt-right darling to address, of all things, how dangerous ideologies spread. Crowe noted that “While Monsanto’s position[s] on certain topics may not align with those of everyone[’s], including Dr. Peterson[’s], we have a deep culture of respect of those who hold different views and are willing to listen. It is important for all of us to have meaningful and constructive conversations with numerous parties in order to better understand different points of views.”
But Monsanto is not just listening to these views. It is inviting them into a fireside chat, the result of which will promote Peterson, his work, and, by extension, the offensive views he espouses on his YouTube channel. It’s hard to see what good that will do for encouraging more understanding toward GMOs—and that’s a shame, because more open conversation around GMOs is necessary.