Making self-help sound like terrorism

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You’ve heard of Jordan Peterson. He’s a Canadian professor of psychology and a clinical psychologist. In his work in the latter role, he has helped a lot of people deal with mental health issues and sort their lives out, as clinical psychologists are wont to do. He became notorious because of the hate he received when he objected to a university trying to force people to use the gender pronouns of transgender individuals. Not that he never uses those pronouns, but he objected to being told that he had to use them, or else face consequences. He didn’t create the situation, he just responded to it because it affected him directly.

Peterson has managed to offend people in other ways, too (not that this is a great feat today), for example by arguing that genuine sex differences exist – hardly a radical theory. Cathy Newman notoriously made him more famous via an interview in which she spent nearly all of her time re-stating and misrepresenting most of his answers when discussing the gender pay gap. Peterson didn’t force her to do that. She did it herself, and so badly that she became a meme. She was a train wreck, and in retrospect few people doubt that she knows it. Otherwise the interview would have been much less remarkable and would almost certainly not have had the positive effect on Peterson’s fame that it did.

Most of Dr Peterson’s subject matter is psychology and self-help. But (generally when the issue is raised with him) yes, he has talked about things with broader political and social implications. When he does, the target of his criticisms are generally not just people on the left or the right, conservatives or liberals, but rather the space on the political spectrum he calls “the radical left,” although at times he has also spoken specifically about the dangers of fascism in particular as well as the factors that enable it.

Unsurprisingly, the radical left (as much as I dislike collectivism – take me to mean “many people who could fairly be described as radical leftists”) tend not to like Jordan Peterson. But even not liking somebody or their views should surely be compatible with some very basic principles of fairness and decency.

On Friday the 15th of March, at a number of Mosques in the city of Christchurch, here in New Zealand, an act of terrorism was carried out and 50 Muslims, men, women and children, were murdered.

As has now been widely publicised, a major chain of bookstores in New Zealand, Whitcoulls, decided to stop selling Peterson’s book, 12 Rules for life: An antidote to Chaos. They had been selling it from the time that it was published until now. There was a pretext to them doing so, and this pretext was given to anyone who wanted to buy it. Their story was that the book is “currently unavailable which is a decision that Whitcoulls has made in light of some extremely disturbing material being circulated prior, during and after the Christchurch attacks. As a business which takes our responsibilities to our communities seriously, we believe it would be wrong to support the author at this time.”

There may well be good reasons to stop selling somebody’s book, but “some extremely disturbing material”? That’s nice and vague. Well it turns out this was the alleged reason. Jordan Peterson was recently in New Zealand. At each of his speaking events, there was a meet and greet session afterwards, basically a “get your photo taken with Jordan Peterson” event for fans. And there were a lot of fans. Here’s a sample:

One of those many fans wore a T-shirt that used the word “Islamaphobe” to describe himself (beneath the title are a list of things being denounced about Islam):

This fan’s T-shirt in the photo with Peterson, it turns out, is the “extremely disturbing material being circulated.”

Somebody was using this mass murder as a way to further their ideological opposition to Peterson, which every decent person ought to find deeply objectionable.

With few exceptions (I interacted with an extraordinary ideologue today on Twitter who asserts that of course Peterson read the T-shirt and agreed with it), nobody would say that Peterson inspected what was on the T-shirts of everyone who came up for a photo and endorsed whatever it was. Should he have given people that sort of inspection? Should he have noticed and refused a photo? Maybe. But this is a paper-thin pretext. Peterson is unpopular in liberal circles without any need for the photo. The photo just gave Whitcoulls a reason. Somebody was using this mass murder as a way to further their ideological opposition to Peterson, which every decent person ought to find deeply objectionable.

Like a lot of people, I wrote to Whitcoulls. I don’t generally buy books there, but a bookstore, of all places, engaging in this sort of intellectual de-platforming on the basis of a slanderous suggestion about Peterson was really not alright. Especially in light of the fact that Whitcoulls continued to sell Mein Kampf (by literally Hitler), the communist manifesto, and – especially interestingly in light of New Zealand’s almost immediate law change after the shooting, banning semi-automatic military style weapons – this handy guide to maintaining your AR-15 rifle.

Whitcoulls should be legally free to sell or not sell whatever they like. But that does not mean any decision they make about pulling items from sale is a good one, and the decisions of private companies are by no means immune from criticism. I wrote thus:

Whitcoulls has relented, and Peterson’s book is now available for sale again.

An isolated incident? It turns out not to be. The New Zealand media, too, has come to the party of trying to link Peterson to this mass shooting, however tenuous the link may be. In painting a picture of the killer, Kirsty Johnston at the New Zealand Herald wrote of a man caught up in White Supremacist ideology. One of the ideals of that ideology, she noted, is physical strength. Then seemingly from out of nowhere comes this connection:

In seeking to achieve that ideal, it also pushes a strong self-improvement component – the type of values system right-wing celebrity pop psychologist Jordan Peterson advocates – eating well, exercising, keeping tidy. The accused gunman, for example, was noted for his cleanliness by his landlords. He was fastidious about the gym.

It’s all in the language. Right wing. Sure, that fits with white supremacy. Never mind if Peterson is actually right wing (whatever that actually means) or not. Diet, exercise and tidiness is enough of a link, apparently. If you really want a tidy freak, there’s always Marie Kondo. But no, Jordan Peterson is the one to mention. Because right wing. This is New Zealand journalism now.

If anyone had done this to me, I would be seeking damages. Johnston probably eats bread. You know who else ate bread (unlike his people)? Stalin.

People talk about readers and listeners being obsessed with Jordan Peterson. Some fellow Christians raise concerns about the way other Christians are listening to him, as they take issue with Jungian psychology. But do you really want to know why he’s as famous as he is?

  • Because of speech enforcers at universities
  • Because of outlandish misrepresentation by interviewers
  • Because of his book being yanked from websites on absurd pretexts of links to anti-Muslim violence
  • Because of news articles that try desperately to link him with mass shootings because of his views on good health and tidiness
  • etc

For the sake of my career, I wish public ideologues would treat me as badly!

Glenn Peoples

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20 thoughts on “Making self-help sound like terrorism

  1. It was a disgusting attack on Peterson. And I thought as – read it “I really hope he sues them”. But I sure he has better uses for his time.

    Left or Right… if you use this tragedy to attack completely innocent and uninvolved people… because you disagree with their politics… you are a vile ghoul.

    Will she apologise? Doubtful,

  2. I thought the content of the T-shirt was interesting:

    // I’m a Proud ISLAMAPHOBE

    I Hate, Pedophilia, Rape, Wife-Beating
    Slavery, Homophobia, Misogyny,
    Violence Against Women & Children,
    Killing Apostates, Funding Terror Groups
    Sharia Courts, Terror Attacks
    Dressing Women in Tents, Taqiyya
    Anti-Semitism, Praying For Violence
    Forced Female Genital – Mutilation,
    Praying For The Destruction of Israel,
    Racism, Segregating Women
    I love [eating?] Bacon and the FREEDOM
    to [criticize? hate? condemn?] Islam but not the individual. //

    Apart from its ill-considered nature, and the obvious issues of conflating some objectionable things done in the name of Islam with “Islam” itself (whatever that means here), the shirt ostensibly tries to say, however ineptly, that the wearer is allowed to make a distinction between individual Muslims on the one hand, and something more abstract called “Islam” that the shirt-wearer enjoys the freedom to critique. If criticizing those particular things when done in the name of Islam (for example, by ISIS) makes one “Islamaphobic,” the sentiment goes, then that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

    And for the most part, those things are a list of things that the ideological left also routinely criticizes. So there is much intended irony, and an implied rejection–not an endorsement–of the common definition of “islamaphobe” as one who is racist and bigoted against Muslims in general.

    So for those like Whitcoulls to have made so much of this shirt, one would have to ignore the face-value intent of the shirt to make that distinction, and instead read between the lines to deduce that the shirt-wearer really did think that any individual Muslim, by virtue of Islam being their religion, must be faulted for such practices done in the name of Islam.

    The reason that this leap is easy to make, is that those who have a demonstrable Islamophobia tend to make just such a logical leap, out of fear and suspicion (fallacies of hasty generalization, guilt by association, etc.). But it is fear and suspicion, working in the opposite direction, which causes us to read the words of this shirt more uncharitably, against the grain of what they are trying to say, however ill-advised and subject to other kinds of criticism it may justifiably be more generally.

    I do not agree with the shirt in some of its premises and conclusions. It’s also in poor taste. But if the “tolerant” left cannot handle such an expression of personal opinion without the knee-jerk reaction of taking a bystander’s books off their shelves, poor taste and flawed reasoning just gained new allies…

    1. “These are a list of things the ideological left routinely criticises”. Well sort of but not so much when done by Muslims, as I can testify from working with the survivors of the Rotherham rape gangs. Not that the left don’t condemn them but only as a precursor to saying “it’s nothing to do with Islam” and “what about Jimmy Savile?” and suggesting that those concerned by the gangs must have dishonourable motives.

    2. I consider myself to be a political moderate, which means that liberals see me as conservative and conservatives see me as a liberal. I denounce the “litmus test” philosophy used by both extremes of the political spectrum. Free speech should be respected by all sides…except when it is hate speech. But that is the problem, what is the definition of hate speech? Is “I am an Islamaphobe” hate speech? Maybe, maybe not. The question is: Does the wearer of this shirt despise Islamic teaching or does he despise Islamic (Muslim) people? The first is not hate speach, the second is.

      Christians should ask themselves this question: How would you react to someone wearing a shirt that says “I am a Christianityphobe”? If he is a white college kid with long hair riding a skate-board, it might not bother you. But what if the person wearing the shirt has a beard and looks middle-eastern?

    3. Gary asks:

      “Christians should ask themselves this question: How would you react to someone wearing a shirt that says “I am a Christianityphobe”? If he is a white college kid with long hair riding a skate-board, it might not bother you. But what if the person wearing the shirt has a beard and looks middle-eastern?”

      I think most Christians in places like New Zealand would shrug it off. It is so common to have such “trendy” anti-Christian sentiment that it has become dull.

      Think about those Darwin fish on the back of cars which have been around for years obviously mocking a sacred Christian symbol. I wonder what would happen if people started putting stickers on their cars mocking the name for God used by some other religion…

      Every time I watch a show on Netflix there will be some plot line, or throw away comment about Christianity, that were it said about some other religion, would cause riots around the world.

      So how would Christians react? We have several decades of data to draw on: basically they don’t. Not with calls for hate speech legislation. And not with violence or protest.

    4. // Is “I am an Islamaphobe” hate speech? Maybe, maybe not. The question is: Does the wearer of this shirt despise Islamic teaching or does he despise Islamic (Muslim) people? The first is not hate speach, the second is. //

      The shirt quite clearly intends the larger slogan to be ironic, because the unpacking of it is aimed at the freedom to criticize ideas, not people. Caring whether it lives up to this ideal in every nuance would then be a case of political correctness gone mad, because its overall intention is quite clearly stated.

      // Christians should ask themselves this question: How would you react to someone wearing a shirt that says “I am a Christianityphobe”? If he is a white college kid with long hair riding a skate-board, it might not bother you. But what if the person wearing the shirt has a beard and looks middle-eastern? //

      It makes zero different to me what ethnicity they would be, or the extent of their facial hair, or their mode of transport. Since I am a mature person with classically liberal values, I honestly do not care if I meet with anyone who might be strongly critical of my beliefs, and might hate or fear me because of that. I am not under-exposed to such things, and am not seeking to make the world around me a safe space free from bigotry and prejudice.

  3. Apparently now Cambridge University has cited their reason for Peterson’s disinvitation:

    // Early last week, the Faculty became aware of a photograph of Professor Peterson posing with his arm around a man wearing a T-shirt that clearly bore the slogan “I’m a proud Islamophobe”. The casual endorsement by association of this message was thought to be antithetical to the work of a Faculty that prides itself in the advancement of inter-faith understanding. //

    So the unforgivable sin committed by Professor Peterson is this: he clearly can be seen to be putting his arm around the horrible human being, thus casually endorsing the man’s horrible beliefs (supposedly). Never mind that the man had previously paid a handsome sum for this photograph, via a VIP package at one of Peterson’s lectures.

  4. I think you’re mistaken in the implication that fascism is right-wing. It’s on the left, but branded to be on the right.

    btw – you might finally be ready for Alex Jones, the MOST de-platformed person on the internet.

    1. Are you referring to something in the article that implies fascism is right wing?

      And I’m not willing to see Alex Jones as comparable to Professor Peterson.

  5. “When he does, the target of his criticisms are generally not just people on the left or the right, conservatives or liberals, but rather the space on the political spectrum he calls “the radical left,” although at times he has also spoken specifically about the dangers of fascism in particular as well as the factors that enable it.”

    “ … although …”

    Alex Jones was also deplatformed by the “radical left”. He was removed from the big platforms within the space of 24 hrs. That doesn’t happen for murderers or rapists – but somehow he’s more dangerous than that element of society? Please!

    The truth is Jones is one of the biggest advocates for the sanctity of life in the unborn. He’s spent half a million dollars of his own money investigating powerful pedophilia operations. He’s wild, but his heart is good – a million times better than me, that’s for sure.

    When you see the Bushes, Clintons and Obamas locked up, you might come around :-). (If they’re not, then Trump fails as President).

    As an aside – I’ve heard quite a few testimonies from men who got through their depression because of Alex Jones.

    So maybe not so dissimilar?

    1. Right, “fascism in particular” is not the radical left. But to say that something is not the same thing as the radical left is not meant to imply that it’s right wing (and I don’t think that’s the conclusion one should draw from the distinction).

      And yes, Alex Jones and Jordan Peterson are very dissimilar. The fact that both are de-platformed in various ways doesn’t make them similar. Literally screaming at the camera – often, making remarks about using violence against people hie doesn’t agree with, getting angry and riled up on screen about chemicals making frogs gay, peddling conspiracy theories, running at people in the street – Jones is simply nuts. Whether that justifies deplatforming him is another matter, but it’s an insult to Peterson to think of them in the same way.

  6. Your points are in the main are probably wrong, but you don’t want to engage in a rebuttal and that’s your prerogative.

    The larger concern is that censorship of conservatives and Christians is a growing concern and we need to be wary of it.

  7. Kevin MacDonald, also a PhD in psychology, also with a book that has been de-platformed, but not by a a Whitcoulls. MacDonald’s Culture of Critique has been de-platformed by Amazon. Peterson sits in a relatively envious position. And what were those dangers of fascism?

    1. I did an internet search and found that Mr. MacDonald’s books allege that there is a liberal Jewish conspiracy to replace Christian culture.

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