Jordan Peterson is a clinical psychologist at the University of Toronto. Previously, he has held positions at McGill and Harvard University. He has also been known for saying very inappropriate things. For example: "Clean your room and sort yourself out before you try to change the world." "The school system generally favors girls over boys and that’s not a good thing." "People need to have meaning and purpose in life that goes beyond immediate happiness."
Apparently, you can expect violent backlash when you hear someone with such views talking at college campuses. And that is exactly what happened during Peterson’s recent talk at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. Around 150 enraged protesters assembled outside, breaking stained glass windows and even barricading the front and back entrances of the lecture building. One protester was heard yelling, "Lock ’em in and burn it down," which was met with applause by the crowd of protestors. A 38-year old woman who took part in the protests was later arrested for carrying a garrote with her and violently attacking police officers. In case you don’t know, a garrote is a weapon used to strangle someone to death.
Another bout of rage ensued when Christina Hoff Sommers, a self-identified feminist and registered Democrat, was invited by the Federalist Society to give a talk on feminism at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon. Several student groups composed a letter opposing Sommer’s talk, in which she was called a “known fascist.” The letter continued with a rather interesting definition of free speech:
Freedom of speech is certainly an important tenet to a free, healthy society, but that freedom stops when it has a negative and violent impact on other individuals.”
Neither Peterson nor Sommers said anything remotely close to the generally accepted meaning of fascism. As a reminder, fascism is defined as a political philosophy that exalts one’s nation and/or race above the individual and aims to implement an authoritarian government headed by a dictatorial leader. As shown by the examples in the first paragraph, Peterson stresses personal development over political action. He also mentioned how his writings and talks have moved many former alt-right proponents to adopt a more centrist position.
Invoking the term of ‘fascist’ because you disagree with them is deeply misleading.
Regarding Christina Hoff Sommers, she is mostly arguing that there are probably some differences between men and women. She is also saying that the gender gap in STEM fields might not just be the result of sexism and that boys do not thrive very well in today’s school systems.
You do not have to agree with any of these assertions. However, invoking the term of "fascist" because you disagree with them is deeply misleading. It strips the word of its meaning, making us stupefied to detect and deal with actual cases of fascism.
What is the reason behind this destructive negativity? Why does it seem increasingly hard to voice opinions that fall outside the accepted mainstream? Are we thoroughly done with the concepts of civil discourse and the principle of charity?
Identity Politics Harms the Pursuit of Truth
Put simply, the reason behind this outrage towards thinkers like Peterson and Sommers is grounded in identity politics. Identity politics is the idea that people of a particular religion, ethnic origin, or social background should form exclusive political alliances rather than joining more broad-based and universal political platforms. The aim is to promote specific group-based interests and not general, overarching goals. This is not an uncharitable or controversial explanation of identity politics—I am roughly paraphrasing the widely accepted definition found in Merriam-Webster.
Transgender groups are outraged at what Peterson is saying because they perceive his rejection of mandated gender-neutral pronouns as transphobic. Feminist groups are angry because, like Hoff Sommers, Peterson argues that sexism is not a good causal explanation for the gender pay gap. This article is not about Peterson’s arguments—rather, these examples are supposed to demonstrate how, increasingly, such statements are no longer judged by a universal standard of truth. Instead, identity politics contributes to an environment in which it is all about whether specific groups feel offended.
I think the increasing prevalence of identity politics is responsible for two worrisome trends: 1) The rejection of objective reality and the pursuit of truth and 2) An increasingly hostile and divisive, rather than cosmopolitan society.
Identity Politics Rejects Objective Reality
Identity politics contributes to an environment in which it is all about whether specific groups feel offended.
During the 18th century, the Age of Enlightenment gained traction in Europe’s intellectual circles. In the opulent salons of Early Modern Revolutionary France and between the walls of lively English coffeehouses, passionate debates took place on the importance of individual liberty, progress, tolerance, and science. Guided by the phrase Sapere Aude (“Dare to know”), the Enlightenment cemented the idea that reason, instead of dogma, ought to be one’s primary source of epistemic authority.
Many of these ideas seem obvious to us now, but it was during the Age of Enlightenment that they were disseminated for the first time with such a vehemence. At that time, voicing ideas such as the importance of individual civil rights was novel and revolutionary.
Unfortunately, history shows that not everyone has been the beneficiary recipient of Enlightenment values like tolerance.
Certain ethnic and religious groups faced systematic discrimination. They fought against their exclusion from society by forming advocacy groups that protested their unequal treatment.
This is why it really did make sense for Jews to form the Anti-Defamation League in 1913. The same holds true for African-American activism against segregation laws and the formation of the Anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa. If you are actively excluded from society because you belong to a certain group, forming your own associations is often the only way to establish a stage in which your voice can be heard.
What those groups sought was not a safe space guarding them against engaging with the seemingly hostile outside world. Rather, they aimed to break off their societal exclusion—to finally be seen as equal human beings, like everyone else.
There was an emphasis on the sameness of human dignity that transcends differences like ethnic groups, gender, and sexual orientations. The goal was to spread the thought that everyone, underneath a multitude of group affiliations, shares the common spirit of humanity.
Prominent abolitionist Frederick Douglass was confronted by some of his black compatriots who were dissatisfied by his emphasis that slavery was a universal evil and not a group-bonding myth. They sought to combat the injustices of slavery and racial discrimination by affirming their racial identity.
Douglass rejected this approach and instead urged them to focus on what really matters: Individual liberty for everyone, regardless of race. In his final speech, “The Blessings of Liberty and Education," he said:
It was not the race or the color of the negro that won for him the battle of liberty. That great battle was won, not because the victim of slavery was a negro, mulatto, or an Afro-American, but because the victim of slavery was a man and a brother to all other men, a child of God, and could claim with all mankind a common Father, and therefore should be recognized as an accountable being, a subject of government, and entitled to justice, liberty and equality before the law, and everywhere else.
Good Intentions Are Not Enough
Today’s identity politics has taken on a different focus. Instead of working towards overcoming differences and embracing a common humanity, it seeks to foster group-based self-absorption.
Calls for safe spaces for people of color or white-people-free days on college do not aim to foster an environment that rids itself of racial discrimination. Secluding your own group is hardly a call to engage with the majority that may have excluded you in the past.
Proponents of safe spaces argue for the need of a place in which their group can talk about their hopes and dreams without feeling undermined by others or having their views trivialized. This is an understandable desire for ethnic or social groups facing past and contemporary discrimination. For example, people identifying as LGBT have certainly faced social repercussions for talking about their sexuality. It is worth noting that, at least in most of the Western world, there is a decline in homophobic attitudes.
Everyone, underneath a multitude of group affiliations, shares the common spirit of humanity.
While the goal is something one can empathize with, the method is flawed. In many cases, people did not just seek to hide from uncomfortable opinions, but rather aimed to transform the whole space they inhabit into their own “safe space.” Think of college groups asking to disinvite speakers because they disagree with them.
It is the same old method of segregation bolstered with good intentions. But good intentions are not enough if the act itself, and the fundamental methodology behind it is flawed. The notion that certain groups should only comfortably express their needs in secluded safe spaces is akin to saying that the idea of segregation is right, as long as the intention behind it is commendable.
Segregation was established due to the belief that certain races are inferior and, thus, should not take part in civil discourse. We know now that any talk on "equal but different" was based on phrases made to look racial discrimination acceptable.
While it may be true that even today, certain groups cannot express their views in wider society comfortably, the conclusion that we should, therefore, establish exclusive rooms for them is deeply misleading. This is akin to a submission to divisionary forces of oppression and discrimination.
It is a message of surrender to say, “As a group, we accept that our views are still difficult to express in wider society. Instead of pushing against this by embracing a culture of radical discourse, let us back off into seclusion and become like it was intended by our oppressors—unseen and unheard of, except by our own kind.”
The Right and Left Rely on Identity Politics
Identity politics of this kind is not just found within groups that have been marginalized and discriminated against in society. On the contrary, the notion of the primacy of one’s own group over others is the backbone of contemporary right-wing groups. Adherents of Pegida, Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD) and Front National generate popular support by summoning images of heroic white Europeans ready to save their cultural heritage from the imminent destruction caused by immigrants. Extreme political groups on both sites evidently deploy the same methodology—and once again, the mere fact that some of those on the left side harbor good intentions does not turn the methodology itself into something admirable.
We should ask ourselves if we want to create a balkanized environment that defines itself not by a feeling of mutual cohesiveness and a common bond, but rather through exclusive racial and social identities—a method used by both white supremacists/far-right wingers and leftist activists calling for segregated safe spaces.
Don't Fall Prey to Radical Relativism
Lastly, we should not fall prey to the belief that one’s perception of the world is subjectively defined by one’s ethnic or social group allegiances. It is not.
It is true that our experiences are shaped by the way we are categorized by others, which is why the same experience can cause varying emotions among people belonging to different groups. But that does not lead to the conclusion that truth and reason should be discarded in favor of a multiplicity of truths, or “non-truths,” rather. Imagine that two different groups hold opinions on matter X that are fundamentally contradictory towards each other. We cannot hold that both of their statements are simultaneously true unless we reject the law of non-contradiction as it was formulated by Aristotle. Thus, it makes more sense to call them non-truths.
The fact that people’s group identities engulf and influence their perceptions, views, and emotive reactions is an objective fact. It is not an invitation to dismiss any notion of truth.
Embracing a culture of radical discussion and the pursuit of truth does not mean everyone has to either actively engage or listen to conversations he or she would feel uncomfortable with.
Secluding your own group is hardly a call to engage with the majority that may have excluded you in the past.
If you feel the need to disengage, go ahead and do so. People disengage with content they don’t resonate with all the time by changing the topic during a conversation, not taking part in certain discussions on Facebook or even by the books, movies, and music they do, and don’t, consume. We carry our likes and dislikes as ingrained filters within us and, for the sake of mental sanity, that’s a good thing.
It becomes problematic once people start imposing their safe spaces onto others. When people start shouting down speakers they disagree with. When they threaten them and become physically violent, they are no longer merely using their own filters to avoid feeling uncomfortable.
They are going beyond that by imposing their filters onto others. Ultimately, this creates a culture based on divisionary antagonism and a perpetual feeling of otherness for those excluded from the designated tribe.
People advocating for identity politics may have good intentions, but that is not enough to make their actions commendable. In the end, they are using the same methodology deployed by the Alt-right and other racial identitarians.