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Jordan Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and outspoken critic of “compelled speech,” is a darling of crusaders against political correctness (or what others might call inclusive language). Peterson rejects expectations that he use gender-neutral pronouns, thinks white privilege is a farce, and believes that postmodernism is as big a threat to higher education as anything else. Attempts to shut him down, including severe heckling last year during a talk at McMaster University in Canada, only elevate his status among his supporters.
Such a free speech firebrand would presumably welcome, or at least expect and tolerate, his critics’ opinions. Right?
Maybe not. Peterson recently threatened a professor at Cornell University with a lawsuit after she discussed him in academic but unflattering terms in an interview. And it’s not the first time he has floated a cease-and-desist letter to a feminist academic, leading some to question whether Peterson can take the same kinds of perceived “harsh truths” he dishes out.
“Peterson's threat to sue me for defamation for expressing my opinions about his book was, I believe, a classic attempt to chill speech,” said Kate Manne, assistant professor of philosophy at Cornell, who, along with her department chair and Vox Media, received a libel notice from Peterson’s lawyer in June. The notice demanded an apology and the removal of the “defamatory” content, such as, “[Peterson says] some really eyebrow-raising, authoritarian-sounding, and even cruel things.”
Manne said last week that she also believes, “after consulting with various legal experts, that it was an egregiously frivolous lawsuit and a waste of everyone's time.” Beyond that, she added via email, the threat “constituted gross hypocrisy on Peterson's part: here he is, a supposed champion of free speech, trying to silence or pre-empt further criticisms with [a strategic lawsuit against public participation, or SLAPP] suit. Like many of his ilk, he seems to be a proponent of consequence-free speech for him, to the exclusion of other, dissenting, and often less powerful, voices.”
It’s not only feminist philosophers who see a conflict between Peterson’s stated values and his legal threats to critics.
Adam Steinbaugh, a program officer with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education -- which has previously defended Peterson's right to speak on unfriendly campuses -- said that the “best response to criticism in the court of public opinion is to refute it with more speech, not a nastygram from a lawyer.”
Peterson declined comment on the matter through a spokesperson. Cornell also declined immediate comment.
Peterson Beyond Free Speech
Beyond issues of speech and identity politics, Peterson has become a guru for many primarily young, white men who would struggle to define postmodernism but who devour his online lectures on self-improvement: make a damn schedule and stick to it, organize your room, look around for something that bothers you and see if you can fix it, and stop saying things that make you weak -- speak from the “core of your being.”
The advice is sound. Keeping to schedules and being organized makes us feel good and more productive. So does saying what you mean and meaning what you say. But Peterson has ventured into murkier waters, including when it comes to gender. He’s argued that the documented wage gap between men and women is based on bunk statistics, for example; one exchange with a British female reporter on that issue resulted in the network calling in security experts to assess the threats against her. He's also said that society shouldn't be asking why more women aren't in high-pressure leadership positions, but why men want them. Women like to be "agreeable" and therefore don't like these positions, he's said.
Perhaps most significantly, Peterson was quoted in a New York Times piece that touched on the self-proclaimed “incel,” or “involuntarily celibate” suspect in April’s deadly van attack in Toronto, saying this: “He was angry at God because women were rejecting him. The cure for that is enforced monogamy. That’s actually why monogamy emerges.”
Peterson faced intense backlash for his comments. He’s defended himself in various venues, including his blog, where he said he was not arguing for the “arbitrary dealing out of damsels to incels” but rather the logic of societies that expect monogamy.
“Men get frustrated when they are not competitive in the sexual marketplace (note: the fact that they DO get frustrated does not mean that they SHOULD get frustrated,” Peterson wrote. “Pointing out the existence of something is not the same as justifying its existence). Frustrated men tend to become dangerous, particularly if they are young. The dangerousness of frustrated young men (even if that frustration stems from their own incompetence) has to be regulated socially.”
That explanation has in turned been criticized by academics on various grounds, as one might expect. The cost of public life is public scrutiny. But Manne’s criticisms in her June interview with Vox, which she said were based on “giving his text a close reading -- of the kind he is constantly insisting on, incidentally, claiming to have been woefully misunderstood,” were apparently too much.
Manne on Peterson
Here’s some of what Manne said about Peterson’s million-copies-sold 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, with what Peterson wanted retracted in bold:
On Peterson’s discussion of mass shootings as symptomatic of a perpetrator’s “crisis of being”:
“I also think the way Peterson cherry-picked the few more dignified-sounding sentences from the diary of one of the Columbine killers, Eric Harris, was downright dishonest. As I wrote in my review, he failed to mention the fact that the majority of Harris’s diary was a virulently racist, misogynistic, homophobic, and ableist screed. Harris, like many other mass killers, was obsessed with the very hierarchies whose importance or validity Peterson never really challenges or offers an alternative to.”
On whether Peterson is a misogynist:
“I draw a theoretical distinction in my own work between sexism and misogyny (though they are often tangled up in practice). Peterson’s book has numerous sections which I would characterize as sexist because they naturalize and rationalize a patriarchal social order.”
On what Peterson actually said about “enforced monogamy":
"He said that subsequently, in a New York Times piece, I believe, in response to the point that school shooters are often sexually, romantically, and socially frustrated young men. This suggestion is classic, straight-up misogyny, according to my definition of it."
On Peterson questioning whether one of his patients had been raped five times, after she said alcohol was involved :
"Maybe she was raped -- five times, as she stated -- and then was effectively undermined or even gaslit by her therapist. To be clear, I’m not saying that that is what happened. I can’t possibly know, on the basis of what Peterson writes here. But I’d certainly like to know more, and I’m surprised Peterson has not yet been asked about these and similar passages, in which he comes across as highly contemptuous of female clients."
"Funnily and sadly enough, Peterson sounds like a stereotypical postmodernist here -- one of his chief intellectual foes. And it doesn’t seem accidental that his skepticism about objective facts arises when it’s conveniently anti-feminist."
Not the First Threat
Manne is not the first person Peterson’s threatened with a lawsuit. In May, Wendy Lynne Lee, a professor of philosophy at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, tweeted that Peterson is an “incel misogynist” and “committed white nationalist,” in reference to an announcement that he would be a featured speaker at the Turning Point USA’s Young Women’s Leadership Summit. (Turning Point is the organization behind Professor Watchlist but denies support for white nationalists.)
Within days Peterson had his lawyer send the same kind of libel notice and demand for retraction and apology to Lee he'd soon send to Manne. But not before he seemed to signal to Lee in an article on the right-wing website Daily Caller that he would be doing so.
“It is not obvious at all where she has acquired the evidence for my existence as a ‘white nationalist source,’ since no such evidence whatsoever exists anywhere,” he told the publication. “I would counsel those who wish to bring forward such groundless accusations to be duly cautious. Such shots in the dark have a nasty habit of backfiring.”
Peterson, who is married with children, is presumably no incel, and he’s never declared affiliation with white nationalism. But incels and white nationalists have espoused some of his views, interpreting Peterson’s rejection of social justice and gender-equality initiatives as an endorsement of historical racial and gender hierarchies (Peterson's critics also tend to interpret his comments that way).
In response to the libel notice, Lee deleted her tweet and posted an apology that noted the legal threat. She said this week that she believed she became a target for Peterson, in part, due to a previous on-campus battle over Turning Point’s official recognition (she wanted it revoked, and lost) and the American flag she turned upside down in her office window following President Trump’s election. Another side to this story, she said, is how administrations deal with threats to their faculty members over free speech.
Manne said it might be a coincidence that she and Lee, both outspoken feminists, were threatened within the same week, but that she doubted it.
“Men fixated on maintaining their status in dominance hierarchies -- a worldview I argued Peterson evinces in his book, to its detriment,” she said, “tend to be particularly resistant to disagreement from the likes of me,” meaning a younger woman and therefore his “social subordinate.” So an attempt to silence that subordinate was “archetypical misogynistic behavior,” she said, underscoring that she never actually called Peterson himself a “misogynist.”
And is Peterson a misogynist? Manne said she’s been silent on that point, as not to distract from what she sees as the bigger issues at play.
Lee said the “connective tissue” between her case and others like it “is spelled misogyny.”
Steinbaugh, of FIRE, said that “baseless threats to sue for libel are designed to, and will have, a chilling effect.” He noted that former White House spokesperson Anthony Scaramucci, instance, had once threatened to sue Tufts University's newspaper for publishing an op-ed arguing that he had, among other things, "sold his soul."
The threats to both U.S.-based professors cited Canadian law. Steinbaugh said that any judgment in Canada is likely not enforceable here anyway by virtue of the SPEECH Act, which bars enforcement of foreign libel judgments if the court did not apply standards consistent with the First Amendment.
Referencing Manne’s case in particular, Steinbaugh said that the fact Peterson is a public figure means he would have to demonstrate that Manne “made false statements of fact, and that she did so with actual malice -- that is, that she knew her statements to be false or did not care whether they were true or false.”
Manne’s statements also are “classic opinion,” he said: whether Peterson's words demonstrate "sexism" or "misogyny," or whether they're "authoritarian-sounding" are “not facts that can be disproved one way or another.”
Peterson also has filed a lawsuit against Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada, which held a disciplinary meeting for a teaching assistant who showed her class a clip of Peterson discussing Canadian legislation against discrimination on the basis of gender identity. The TA secretly recording the meeting, in which several professors questioned Peterson’s academic credentials and compared playing his comments in class to playing a speech by Hitler.
Laurier recently asked a Canadian court to dismiss the suit, according to The Globe and Mail, saying in a written defense that there is “inescapable irony in the fact that Peterson, who has come to prominence through vehement advocacy of free speech principles, is bringing a claim for the stated purpose of causing academics and administrators to be more circumspect in their words.”
Peterson, who alleges defamation, told the newspaper, “There’s been a large number of attacks on me for being associated with the alt-right” and “a fair bit of that stemmed from what happened at Wilfrid Laurier.”
He said in a YouTube video announcing his case that he hoped it, combined with another lawsuit brought by the TA against the university, “will be enough to convince careless university professors and administrators blinded by their own ideology to be much more circumspect in their actions and their words.”