An interesting critique of Jordan Peterson (but is it correct?)

Here’s something we haven’t done before. I’m going to post a rather interesting critique of Jordan Peterson by a trans person named Natalie Wynn. This is not another SJW shouting incoherently about Peterson being a racist. This is actually a thoughtful, sustained argument about his central message by someone who is obviously well educated. That said, some of it does take place in a bathtub.

The clip actually contains a surprising amount of respect for Peterson’s strengths as a communicator and an even more surprising amount of distaste for the some of the politics being practiced on the left. You might find the style a bit off-putting but I actually found it pretty well made and even funny at times in a Mr. Plinkett/Red Letter Media sort of way. Even if you don’t like the style, the clip is pretty thoughtful. But (spoiler alert) I think the central criticism is ultimately a near miss.

Wynn spends a lot of this 28-minute clip introducing Peterson and acknowledges early on that one of the reasons he’s become so popular is that interviewers seem intent on mischaracterizing him. “A lot of leftists who have responded to Peterson haven’t really engaged with his ideas very much,” Wynn says. After showing a bit of the infamous Cathy Newman interview, she continues (yes, I’m using Wynn’s preferred pronoun), “I think to people watching this it comes off as if leftists are afraid of his ideas.” So the point of this clip is to deal seriously with the ideas, something I would say was severely lacking from that awful NY Times profile of Peterson.

The central criticism Wynn levels is that Peterson’s arch nemesis is something he labels “postmodern neo-Marxism.” What does Peterson mean by that phrase and is it even coherent? The meaning of Marxism (or neo-Marxism) is pretty self-evident. Wynn defines it as a “grand narrative about humanity” that frames the human condition in economic terms. But what is the meaning of “postmodern” in general and in this phrase in particular?

Wynn spends about 10 minutes walking through the history of ideas since the enlightenment and argues that postmodernism, while very difficult to define, ultimately seems to boil down to the view that there are no grand narratives because we can’t claim there are any privileged universal truths on which to make grand claims. Wynn sees this idea as essentially at odds with the grand narrative of Marxism. Therefore the idea of “postmodern neo-Marxism” sounds internally incoherent.

Wynn also notes that Marxists and SJW supporters of identity politics actually disagree with each other frequently on principle even though Peterson seems to be lumping them together as all the same sort of thing. I have the cued up about 10 minutes in where most of the actual content begins. When you’ve had enough, skip below for my response.

Are postmodernists and Marxists really opposites? Is the phrase “postmodern neo-Marxists” really incoherent? If you frame things was Wynn has done, then arguably yes. The problem is that Jordan Peterson frames things differently and in his telling, these ideas are not so different. This is something that Peterson has talked about a number of times including in the clip below.

Peterson agrees that Marxism was a modernist economic critique of capitalism, but notes that it was one specifically based on class/group identities, i.e. the proletariat and the bourgeosie, the exploited and the exploiters. The grand narrative of Marxism was that, over time, capitalism would fail and be replaced by a more equitable economic system. Equity was the ultimate goal.

As Peterson sees it, the 20th-century efforts to instantiate Marxism in various places (the USSR, China) were such devastating failures that by the latter half of the century intellectuals were looking for a new home. Enter the French postmodernists whose innovation was to argue that the struggle for power isn’t merely over wealth but also involves the patriarchy, racism, etc. It’s the oppressed vs. the oppressor in all its guises. Peterson sees postmodernism as a kind of re-branding of the central Marxist concern over social equity.

Is Peterson right about that transition? I’ll leave that to others to decide, but it does seem to me that he has a view of things that makes sense of the precise contradiction Wynn is pointing out. Here’s Peterson’s description of how Marxists re-branded as postmodernists.