Ellie McFarland | United States
Dr. Jordan B. Peterson rose to prominence after a video of him defending free speech against the Canadian human rights bill C-16 surfaced online. This bill, among other things, would make it a crime to misgender a trans person. Dr. Peterson’s assertions in the original video were clear and admirable, but further, it was a direct deviation from the current common discourse. He was rocketed into public intellectual stardom after the episode at The University of Toronto; booking speaking event after guest lecture after television appearance. He was, and still very much is, the freshest philosopher in the free marketplace of ideas.
However, with closer examination, it seems his transparency and edge are inconsistent in his current work. Specifically, in the now infamous Cathy Newman interview, Dr. Peterson jumped from hard-hitting clear claims about the nature of political correctness to vague and meaningless facts about lobster dominance hierarchies.
The Bridge Between Lobsters and Humans
Dr. Peterson’s constant metaphors involving lobsters are actually very important to the way he manipulates language. For instance, he might say something about how dominance hierarchies are inherent in human beings and then go on a tirade about shellfish serotonin levels. While both statements are correct, but they don’t inform each other in any relevant way. This is called a non sequitur and means “it does not follow” in Latin. When someone uses a non sequitur, the premises do not logically inform the conclusion, even though all parts of the argument may be correct. Even though it is true that humans naturally fall into hierarchies, and lobsters do have very similar endocrine systems to humans, those facts do nothing to prop each other up, or to prop up his point, which usually amounts the differences between men and women being biological rather than social.
All of these declarations are technically correct according to everything we know about both human and lobster biology. However, neither of them does anything to prove whether or not there are actual differences between men and women beyond the social sphere. There is astounding evidence that he does frequently bring up to prove men and women, our masculine and feminine strengths and weaknesses, are biological. But he very rarely brings them up alongside that specific issue. Instead, he uses them in conversations surrounding crime and antisocial behavior. When these facts, however rarely, are brought up in the context of the conversation they actually belong in, they are cheapened and sandwiched between lobster-talk and dominance hierarchies.
This is actually a spin-off of a well-known debate technique called Gish Galloping, where a debater will try and overwhelm their opponents with as many arguments as possible in the shortest time possible. Dr. Peterson tweaks this idea. Instead of overwhelming his opponent with a lot of arguments all at once, he opens into an explanation of something that has very little to do with his real point in hopes that his opponent won’t bother to address it. The truth is, lobsters have nothing to do masculinity or femininity. But that sort of niche diatribe does impress people even though, critically, it carries no real value.
Redefining the Words We Know
The second way Dr. Peterson manipulates language is through the changing of definitions. The most atrocious example of this definition hopscotch is when he speaks on the topic of religion. He has said consistently that he believes all people are religious because religion is “what you act out.” This is just an unhelpful shifting of meaning. According to this definition, prayer, martyrdom, and communion are all religious acts in the same way driving, making a salad, watching TV, or participating in Punk Rock are religious acts. After all, “you can’t be a disbeliever in your actions”. This is an intentionally blunt definition that detracts from conversational productivity. Sam Harris explained this best when he said,
“People have traditionally believed in ghosts, it’s an archetype you might say– the ghost: survival of death is certainly an archetype. And we know what most people most of the time mean when they say they believe in ghosts. And I say I don’t believe in ghosts, and you say ‘No no, you do believe in ghosts. Ghosts are your relationship to the unseen. That’s a ghost.’ So you have a new definition of ghost that you’re putting in the place provided, to which I have to say of course I have a relationship to the unseen. So yeah I guess I do believe in ghosts. You win that argument. But that simply isn’t what most people mean by a ghost.”
Peterson Manipulates Words for Conclusions
Redefining words is not always such a slimy debate strategy. In many instances, it can be very helpful in coming to a conclusion about rather nebulous words such as “good”, “evil”, or even “god” in order to further some sort of discourse and continue the conversation. Dr. Peterson’s redefinition of religion, though, is all-encompassing by design. This basically boils down to an equivocation fallacy. Dr. Peterson’s definition of religion is clearly not the same as the average religious person’s definition. Therefore, it’s meaningless within any conversation about its impact.
This is not to say that Dr. Jordan B. Peterson is not intelligent, that he doesn’t have anything important to say, or that his philosophies outlined in 12 Rules for Life are immoral or fundamentally wrong. This is to say that not all of his proclamations are valid and we shouldn’t ignore his metaphorical talk-arounds of legitimate criticism. It is fine, even good, to admire Jordan Peterson. It is intellectually dishonest, however, to pretend he is flawless or doesn’t use manipulative language. In doing so, he makes himself seem more intelligent and convinces good-hearted people of positions with little merit.
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