Six weeks into the cascade of sexual abuse and harassment allegations levelled against men in Hollywood, media, art, comics, politics, business and technology, and many, many reasons and rationales have been offered for their behaviour. Harvey Weinstein suggested he’s a sex addict. Louis C.K. says he misunderstood the etiquette of masturbating in front of professional acquaintances. And a defender of Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore compared him to Joseph seeking an underage Mary for companionship.
University of Toronto professor Jordan B. Peterson, who’s become a conservative hero for his attacks on what he calls the “tyranny” of political correctness, has a theory of his own. Last week, he tweeted to over 253,000 followers: “With all the accusations of sex assault emerging (eg Louis CK) we are going to soon remember why sex was traditionally enshrined in marriage.” That earned him over 5,000 retweets and 17,000 likes, and later he added, “It's possible that sex is so dangerous that it has to be encapsulated within a socially-sanctioned construct.”
Wait, let’s get this straight: The decline of traditional marriage is what led Roy Moore to paw at teenagers, and drove Louis C.K. to pull his penis out in the company of female comics? Like many of Peterson’s notions, it’s presented as pseudo-profound but soon wilts under scrutiny. So let’s scrutinize: First, it’s not sex itself that’s the problem, but sex without consent. Second, marital rape exists. And finally, let’s not forget: many of the powerful, famous men who currently stand accused of sexual assault happen to be married.
While a brief consideration of reality proves Peterson’s theory about sex assault is just plain wrong, it lines up with beliefs he’s frequently shared with his half a million YouTube subscribers that biology and evolution dictate gender roles and behaviour. His own evolution from serious scholar of psychology and religion to the favourite philosopher of contrarians and conservatives can be traced to a 2016 viral YouTube video in which Peterson voiced his objections to genderless pronouns like “they” and “them.” He feels laws and policies meant to recognize and accommodate transgender people undermined the concept of binary gender and are a sign of left-wing extremism.
His traditional views on gender, his disdain for political correctness, his staunch defence of free speech and his denouncement of “radical left-wingers and social justice warriors” are popular and lucrative. He earns tens of thousands of dollars each month from supporters on Patreon. The rightwing website Rebel Media has raised more than $170,000 for his research after he was denied federal funding.
Echoes of his antipathy towards feminists, women, transgender people and others who don’t fall into line are evident among the young, often resentful men who populate online forums, like The Red Pill, which hold that men have lost their identity because of feminism. Peterson’s fanboys consider him “a genius,” “a true prophet,” and a melter of progressive snowflakes. Like his supporters, he’s preoccupied with the diminishing status of (white) men and the loosening up of gender roles. And he has a grandiose, apocalyptic warning about where all this is headed: “You can consider this a prophecy from me,” he said in an interview last year on CBC’s As It Happens. "Inside the collective is a beast and the beast uses its fists. If you wake up the beast then violence emerges. I'm afraid that this continual pushing by radical left wingers is going to wake up the beast.”
And consider his recent conversation with fellow provocateur Camille Paglia. Expressing his frustrations with women who disagreed with him, Peterson said that men can’t control “crazy women” because men aren’t allowed to physically fight women. “I know how to stand up to a man who’s unfairly trespassed against me,” he said. “The parameters for my resistance are quite well-defined, which is: we talk, we argue, we push, and then it becomes physical. If we move beyond the boundaries of civil discourse, we know what the next step is.”
It’s like Peterson has been cribbing talking points from Fight Club’s Tyler Durden. He adds that men unwilling to throw a punch are contemptible. “If you’re talking to a man who wouldn’t fight with you under any circumstances whatsoever, then you’re talking to someone for whom you have absolutely no respect.”
Peterson has said elsewhere that socialization has a role to play in addressing aggression among boys and men. But talking to Paglia, he laments that his own socialization prevents him from taking a swing at a lady. Referring to a woman who accused him of being a Nazi, he said, “I’m defenceless against that kind of female insanity because the techniques that I would use against a man who was employing those tactics are forbidden to me.” It’s hard to decide which is creepier: Is it the suggestion, in Peterson’s rueful tone, that he’s kind of bummed out about the fact that he can’t hit women? Or is it the implication, if you were to follow his argument to its conclusion, that because women can’t be hit, they shouldn’t be allowed to participate in civil discourse with men at all?
It’s a familiar, convenient way to frame male violence and domination: as something innate and even laudable. It’s a fancy way of saying “boys will boys” or “your honour, I just couldn’t help myself.” If men are naturally predatory and violent, then they really can’t be held accountable for their actions – their DNA made them do it. Women, then, are put in the role of civilizing gatekeepers — see Peterson’s views above on marriage and sexual assault. It’s up to them to keep their husbands satisfied and in check. But women shouldn’t become too comfortable with this power, or start to get ideas in their head. If they reject the worldview of men like Peterson, then they are, in his words, “crazy harpies.”
Just a few weeks after he posted his conversation with Paglia, however, there was a surprise retreat from his latest attention-grabbing escapade. Over the weekend, Peterson announced he was shelving his plans to create a website warning university students away from “corrupt” courses in programs like ethnic studies, sociology, anthropology, English literature and women’s studies. After a group of University of Toronto faculty released a statement saying that Peterson’s proposed site “created a climate of fear and intimidation,” he capitulated, tweeting the project was on hiatus: “I talked it over with others and decided it might add excessively to current polarization.”
Given his penchant for polarization, this surrender must have stung. Maybe even he couldn’t sustain the hypocrisy of claiming to be a martyr for free speech while trying to shutter disciplines he didn’t agree with.
Or maybe it’s a sign of changing times. The recent and profound shift in our culture over the past six weeks as evermore incidents of abuse and discrimination have been revealed has led to what journalist Megan Garber calls the mobilization and weaponization of women’s rage. As a result, abusers’ careers and reputations are toppling, sexist institutions are facing a reckoning, and “crazy women” are refusing to be controlled or silenced. So, consider this a prophesy from me and my fellow insane females: Peterson has been worried about the wrong beast. Harpies, unite!
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