On Friday, The New York Times released a 3,400-word, spectacularly brutal and dishonest hit piece on Jordan Peterson. Its none-too-subtle title: "Jordan Peterson: Custodian Of The Patriarchy."
The author, Nellie Bowles, can’t hold back her obvious antipathy for her subject; instead, she lets her sneering condescension drop from every comma. She never lets Peterson spell out an argument; she satisfies her id with every snide aside. It’s an extraordinary performance by a person deliberately attempting to misunderstand her subject.
The piece is tailored to Bowles’ message: Peterson is a horrifying misogynist. Her evidence of this is that lots of young men listen to Peterson, and that Peterson believes in innate differences between men and women. She then proceeds to snip his comments, surround them with her suggestive perspective, and roll the whole ball of wax into an anti-Peterson grenade.
She begins with this ominous description:
Jordan Peterson fills huge lecture halls and tells his audiences there’s no shame in looking backward to a model of how the world should be arranged. Look back to the 1950s, he says — and back even further. He tells his audiences that they are smart. He is bringing them knowledge, yes, but it is knowledge that they already know and feel in their bones. He casts this as ancient wisdom, delivered through religious allegories and fairy tales which contain truth, he says, that modern society has forgotten. Most of his ideas stem from a gnawing anxiety around gender. “The masculine spirit is under assault,” he told me. “It’s obvious.” In Mr. Peterson’s world, order is masculine. Chaos is feminine. And if an overdose of femininity is our new poison, Mr. Peterson knows the cure. Hence his new book’s subtitle: “An Antidote to Chaos.”
In Bowles’ model, then, Peterson is calling for the masculine to overcome the feminine. He is, you see, a sexist. But this ignores that Peterson’s entire ouvre is attempting to find a balance between what he describes as the ying/yang of femininity and masculinity. When he calls for young men to be better human beings – to cultivate themselves – he’s challenging them to find that which makes the masculine worthwhile.
Bowles, however, isn’t interested in understanding Peterson’s appeal or even what he’s saying. She’s interested in mocking his appeal by distorting what he’s saying. She’s a high-falutin’ Cathy Newman. Take, for example, this gem:
Mr. Peterson, 55, a University of Toronto psychology professor turned YouTube philosopher turned mystical father figure, has emerged as an influential thought leader. The messages he delivers range from hoary self-help empowerment talk (clean your room, stand up straight) to the more retrograde and political (a society run as a patriarchy makes sense and stems mostly from men’s competence; the notion of white privilege is a farce). He is the stately looking, pedigreed voice for a group of culture warriors who are working diligently to undermine mainstream and liberal efforts to promote equality.
This is plainly untrue. He has never said that a society run as a patriarchy makes sense and stems from men’s innate competence – he has said that in a free society, free choices lead to hierarchies of competence. He is not looking to “undermine mainstream and liberal efforts to promote equality” – he’s arguing that such efforts to promote equality of outcome ignore equality of rights.
But then we get to the full Bowles sneer session. Check out these doozies:
He does not smile. He has a weathered, gaunt face and big furrowed eyebrows. He has written about dogs being closest in behavior to humans, but there is something extremely feline about him. He always wears a suit. “I am a very serious person,” he often says.
Um, what the actual f***?
For the record, Jordan smiles. And imagine the outrage if somebody called Ta-Nehisi Coates “extremely feline.” But Peterson is cunning, you see. Disingenuous. He takes himself extremely seriously.
Bowles’ smear continues:
Mr. Peterson’s home is a carefully curated house of horror. He has filled it with a sprawl of art that covers the walls from floor to ceiling. Most of it is communist propaganda from the Soviet Union (execution scenes, soldiers looking noble) — a constant reminder, he says, of atrocities and oppression. He wants to feel their imprisonment, though he lives here on a quiet residential street in Toronto and is quite free. “Marxism is resurgent,” Mr. Peterson says, looking ashen and stricken. ... He tucks his legs under him as he talks, curled in a dark leather seat. He has been padding around softly in socks. He looks down while he talks and makes fleeting, suspicious eye contact.
See, this isn’t a story about Peterson at all. It’s a story about Bowles – a story about a truthbringing feminist who must do solid time (two whole days!) with a sneaky, self-important con-man. A sexist con-man, lest you forget:
The left, he believes, refuses to admit that men might be in charge because they are better at it. “The people who hold that our culture is an oppressive patriarchy, they don’t want to admit that the current hierarchy might be predicated on competence,” he said.
This is not what Peterson is saying. It’s a deliberate misconstruction, once again, of what he is saying. Peterson is saying that in a free society, there will be hierarchies; to misinterpret those hierarchies as oppressive patriarchies rather than as reflective of merit is to misguidedly ignore science.
But then we get to Bowles’ creepiest smear: the implication that Peterson actually believes in witches. Now, to understand what Peterson is saying here, you actually have to care about accurately portraying what he’s saying. Peterson is a deep believer in Jungian archetypes; he believes that ancient stories bear important truths. He is also a pragmatist in terms of his beliefs about truth: he doesn’t believe in absolute truth, but that what works is true. Therefore, Peterson doesn’t believe in dragons, because he’s not an idiot – but he thinks that human society’s common speculation about dragons says something important about us.
Now, read how Bowles jeeringly reports this perspective:
Mr. Peterson illustrates his arguments with copious references to ancient myths — bringing up stories of witches, biblical allegories and ancient traditions. I ask why these old stories should guide us today.
“It makes sense that a witch lives in a swamp. Yeah,” he says. “Why?”
It’s a hard one.
“Right. That’s right. You don’t know. It’s because those things hang together at a very deep level. Right. Yeah. And it makes sense that an old king lives in a desiccated tower.”
But witches don’t exist, and they don’t live in swamps, I say.
“Yeah, they do. They do exist. They just don’t exist the way you think they exist. They certainly exist. You may say well dragons don’t exist. It’s, like, yes they do — the category predator and the category dragon are the same category. It absolutely exists. It’s a superordinate category. It exists absolutely more than anything else. In fact, it really exists. What exists is not obvious. You say, ‘Well, there’s no such thing as witches.’ Yeah, I know what you mean, but that isn’t what you think when you go see a movie about them. You can’t help but fall into these categories. There’s no escape from them.”
Bowles likely believes that Peterson believes in witches, or is at least obscuring his belief in witches. That’s because she’s a dolt.
Then her coverage gets even worse, if possible. She describes Peterson’s take on incels – involuntary celibates, or as we’d put it in impolite society, guys who want to get laid but can’t. Here’s how she reports it:
The term is short for “involuntary celibates,” though the group has evolved into a male supremacist movement made up of people — some celibate, some not — who believe that women should be treated as sexual objects with few rights. Some believe in forced “sexual redistribution,” in which a governing body would intervene in women’s lives to force them into sexual relationships. Violent attacks are what happens when men do not have partners, Mr. Peterson says, and society needs to work to make sure those men are married.
“He was angry at God because women were rejecting him,” Mr. Peterson says of the Toronto killer. “The cure for that is enforced monogamy. That’s actually why monogamy emerges.”
Mr. Peterson does not pause when he says this. Enforced monogamy is, to him, simply a rational solution. Otherwise women will all only go for the most high-status men, he explains, and that couldn’t make either gender happy in the end.
“Half the men fail,” he says, meaning that they don’t procreate. “And no one cares about the men who fail.”
I laugh, because it is absurd.
“You’re laughing about them,” he says, giving me a disappointed look. “That’s because you’re female.”
But aside from interventions that would redistribute sex, Mr. Peterson is staunchly against what he calls “equality of outcomes,” or efforts to equalize society. He usually calls them pathological or evil.
He agrees that this is inconsistent. But preventing hordes of single men from violence, he believes, is necessary for the stability of society. Enforced monogamy helps neutralize that.
In situations where there is too much mate choice, “a small percentage of the guys have hyper-access to women, and so they don’t form relationships with women,” he said. “And the women hate that.”
This is plainly dishonest reportage. First off, Peterson is using well-established anthropological language here: “enforced monogamy” does not mean government-enforced monogamy. “Enforced monogamy” means socially-promoted, culturally-inculcated monogamy, as opposed to genetic monogamy – evolutionarily-dictated monogamy, which does exist in some species (but does not exist in humans). This distinction has been present in anthropological and scientific literature for decades.
So, here’s what Peterson is not arguing: that women should be forced to marry men to cure the insecurity of incels. But that's what Bowles says he's saying, and then calls it "absurd." Because she's a very objective reporter, don't you see.
Here’s what Peterson is arguing: socially-enforced monogamy results in more pairings, and fewer situations in which multiple women choose one man, leaving other men without partners. This is statistically unassailable. Removing socially-enforced monogamy results in a hierarchy in which women choose the most desirable men, since many women can now have sex with one man. Peterson argues that this leads to a counterintuitive result as well: desirable men are less likely to settle down with one woman, making women less satisfied with their relationships with men as well.
Now, I don't find this argument particularly convincing. I’m a big believer in monogamy, and I believe that both women and men are better off in a monogamous society. But while society would benefit from promotion of monogamy, the solution for incels is to become better potential partners, not to whine about breakdown in the monogamous standard (few incels are complaining that they can’t find women to marry; they’re mostly claiming they can’t find women to have sex with).
Whatever the relative merits of Peterson’s argument, however, Bowles fails utterly in presenting it. She’s far more interested in deliberately misconstruing it, and then urinating on it from a great height.
She shows this with nearly every paragraph. There’s this one:
Mr. Peterson’s office has objects scattered and strewn throughout: There is a hat from a gulag, some steampunk masks he thought were cool, stacks of papers and cords, and a Kermit puppet his sister sent him because his fans joke that his voice, high and hoarse, sounds like the Muppet. Mr. Peterson stresses the importance of cleanliness, but honestly his office is a mess.
And there’s this one:
For the Skype call, he wears a sharp blazer and button-down, but he sits shoeless and cross-legged. He knows where the frame cuts off.
Well yes, he knows where the frame cuts off. So does everyone who has ever used a camera. Presumably, if he’d worn shoes, Bowles would have criticized him for being too uptight.
Then there’s this one:
Mr. Peterson has a verbal tic where he makes a sound like m-hmm, a guttural forceful noise to signify agreement barked in two distinct beats; his mouth stays closed…When Mr. Peterson talks about good women — the sort a man would want to marry — he often uses these words: conscientious and agreeable.
Men would prefer to marry conscientious and agreeable women. But repeating this obvious fact makes Peterson – you guessed it – a sexist.
And there’s this:
When Mr. Peterson comes down the line shaking hands, the crowd cheers in a way that is not normal for a book tour. He is wearing a new three-piece suit, shiny and brown with wide lapels with a decorative silver flourish. It is evocative of imagery from a hundred years ago. That’s the point. His speech too is from another era — stilted, with old-timey phrases, a hypnotic rhythm. It’s a vocal tactic he came to only recently. Videos from a few years ago have him speaking and dressing in a more modern way.
I ask him about the retro clothes and phrases. He calls it his prairie populism.
“That’s what happens when you rescue your father from the belly of the whale,” he says. “You rediscover your tradition.”
You see, he’s a charlatan, because he changed his fashion style to match his personality better! He’s Elmer Gantry:
He looks down as he walks. He paces. He pleads — he often sounds frustrated, like you’ve just said something absurd and he’s trying to correct you without raising his voice. He speaks for over an hour without any notes. He runs his hands over his face when it’s all too much. He cries often.
And his followers are lemmings:
Agreeing, Mr. Arar gave off the same guttural m-hmm that Mr. Peterson does.
Then Bowles quotes Naureen Shameem, who works at the Association for Women’s Rights Development – the philosophical stand-in for Bowles. And Shameem proceeds to – you guessed it! – label Peterson a sexist.
“It’s an old story, really,” she said. “In a lot of nationalistic projects, women’s bodies and sexualities become important sites of focus and control.”
The piece is a disaster area. But it’s likely to become the point-to-it-see-I-told-you-so profile for people on the Left seeking to dismiss Peterson out of hand. Which, of course, was the point, no matter how much dishonesty it took to achieve it.