Last week Jordan Peterson and actor Stephen Fry debated Michael Dyson and columnist Michelle Goldberg in Toronto on the topic of political correctness. It was clear from the beginning that the two sides disagreed on the definition and therefore they never fully engaged with one another on the topic of the debate. But midway through, things got testy over the issue of white privilege. Dyson, in response to a challenge about white privilege, referred to Peterson as a “mean, mad, white man.”
“Let’s assume for a moment that I’ve benefitted from my white privilege,” Peterson said midway through the debate after Dyson brought it up several times.
“That’s a good assumption,” Dyson interjected.
“Well, that’s what you would say,” Peterson replied. He continued, “Let’s get precise about this. To what degree is my present level of attainment or achievement a consequence of my white privilege? And I don’t mean sort of, I mean—Do you mean 5 percent? Do you mean 15 percent? Do you mean 25 percent? Do you mean 75 percent? And what do you propose I do about it? How about a tax. How about a tax that’s specialized for me so that I can account for my damn privilege so that I can stop hearing about it.”
Peterson is at this moment a very successful person with a bestselling book and sold out lecture appearances around the U.S. and Canada. His message is based upon years as an academic teaching at Harvard and also in Toronto. So it’s fair to ask how much of his success, as an author, academic, etc. is unearned. How much was given to him because of his race? Here’s Peterson’s challenge cued up. You can stop after he speaks and I’ll jump to Dyson’s response below:
So after asking this, Michelle Goldberg spoke for a few minutes and then the narrator raised the challenge to Dyson. “How does [Peterson], in a sense, get an equal voice in this debate…if it is implied that his participation brings with it this baggage of white privilege that doesn’t allow him to see clearly the issues that are before us?”
Dyson then launched an attack on Peterson’s success. “You’re beginning at a point that is already productive and controversial,” Dyson said. “You’re saying ‘How can he get his equality back?’ Who you talkin’ bout? Jordan Peterson? Trending number one on Twitter?”
“Mostly that’s insults,” Peterson interjected.
“Jordan Peterson, with an international bestseller,” Dyson continued adding, “I want him to tweet something out about me and my book.”
“This is what I’m saying to you: Why the rage, brah?” Dyson said. He continued, “You’re doing well but you’re a mean, mad, white man.” At this point, Dyson is clearly playing to the crowd and makes a remark about “whine and snowflaking.”
Finally, Dyson said, “When you asked the question about white privilege, the fact that you ask it in the way you did—dismissive, pseudo-scientific, non-empirical, and without justification…the truth is that white privilege doesn’t act according to quantifiable segments. It’s about the degree to which we are willing as a society to grapple with the ideals of freedom, justice, and equality upon which it’s based.”
Here’s Dyson’s response. You can stop after his response and I’ll offer my thoughts below:
Peterson has highlighted something that Dyson didn’t like very much, which probably explains the tone of his response. Dyson has brought up white privilege not just as a kind of general sociological topic but as the main thrust of his response to Peterson. He’s intimating that Peterson doesn’t see the problem because he’s a product of it. Peterson’s response is to ask Dyson to be specific, i.e. tell me what portion of my success was not the result of my effort but of my white privilege?
Dyson responds by once again pointing out that Peterson is tremendously privileged (a best-selling author, etc.) and then starts calling him names (always a sure sign of a winning argument). The closest Dyson comes to answering the question is when he says that white privilege “doesn’t act according to quantifiable segments.” That answer isn’t terribly convincing because a few minutes earlier, Dyson said, “When it’s been rigged in your favor from the very beginning, it’s hard for you to understand how much it’s been rigged. You’re born on third base, think you hit a triple.” So, up to 75% of someone’s achievement may be the result of white privilege rather than personal effort. If you believe that’s how this works, why not venture a guess with regard to Peterson?
Dyson wants to attribute people’s success to white privilege but he also doesn’t want to get specific with someone standing on the stage beside him who might be able to disagree with him. He levels the accusation of privilege in general but then dodges the question (and resorts to name-calling) in specific.
Peterson’s response is a lot more clear-headed, “I’m not making the case that I haven’t had advantages in my life and disadvantages in my life like most people—you don’t know anything about my background or where I came from—it doesn’t matter to you because fundamentally I’m a mean, white man. That’s a hell of a thing to say in a debate.”