“Should anemic epistemologies be allowed public purchase?”
On the 10th of April, students packed into one of Pulp’s cinemas, ready for what was marketed as “The Roast of Jordan Peterson” with the same subtitle I am quoting as this piece’s subtitle. This event was hosted by the Stellenbosch University Socratic Society, featuring two Philosophy masters students as speakers. What transpired that evening was both grimly hilarious and shocking.
The content of the presentations
My criticism should naturally start by assessing how well the stated goal of the evening was achieved. Well, it was not. If it were supposed to be a “roast”, I could think of much better ways of doing just that. The speakers were, in my view, unprepared, or at least wrongly prepared. I would not imagine any “roast” starting with an admittance that you “agree with 90% of what he is saying” (even if followed by stating that the 10% changes how the rest is viewed). Peterson’s rhetoric includes extremely harmful positions on everything from economics to trans rights, but the first speaker chose to ignore that and actually endorse Peterson’s positions by saying they agree with 90% of what he is saying. This was done in favour of analysing Peterson’s epistemology — something that I still doubt he actually has — in very abstract ways.
The first speaker also said that Peterson’s clinical work is quite solid and that his scientific research is not a problem either. I would, however, have expected from a “roast” at least a throwaway mention of the fact that Peterson cites research studies that disagree with him, that he misrepresented the Canadian C-16 bill that got him famous in the first place, that most of what he is saying has been thoroughly academically debunked, that he talks nonsense about things that he doesn’t know anything about (specifically postmodernism, Marxism, etc.), that he makes a large amount of money doing the previously mentioned things, or how he claims he is being silenced while being invited to high-profile interviews or debates.
The second presentation on “Political Correctness vs. Freedom of Expression” seemed somewhat hastily thrown together, as it also included no (or minimum) academic citations, and felt as if it merely played around in the air with definitions.
While the speaker started by stating the fact that “Political Correctness” and “Free Speech” is a false dichotomy, instead of breaking down the dichotomy, she stated that it is “more of a spectrum”. This implies that either “extreme” should be condemned and a “rational compromise” should be found in the middle.
“Political Correctness” is a term manufactured and proliferated by exactly those people who claim to advance “Free Speech” to refer to what decent human beings would call common human decency. By accepting this dichotomy (or even spectrum), one plays directly into the hands of those you claim to oppose.
Unfortunately, the second speaker also continued to deny the fact that speech can be violent, admitting only that speech can “incite” (presumably physical) violence. This ignores most contemporary postcolonial definitions of violence and worse, ignores the experiences of marginalised individuals who had to sit and listen to their existence being invalidated. (This and more from a person who made a point of mentioning their whole entire thesis about the value of open debate.)
According to Karl Popper — whom I was prevented from bringing up during the discussion — Free Speech absolutism is internally contradictory. This is known as the Paradox of Tolerance and can be explained by the following example: the concept of the Liberal Free Market of Ideas was utilised by Nazi propagandists (such as Goebbels, who wrote as much in their plans) to usurp exactly that society that provided them with this “right”. (I.e., in a society where all speech is permissible, the society will necessarily slide towards authoritarianism.)
Furthermore, no-one mentioned that Peterson (and incidentally Sam Harris, who was quoted in the first presentation) functions as a pipeline to the alt-right and white nationalism. What also went unaddressed was the fact that his audience consists mostly of alienated white men who are finding out for the first time that this world is not as welcoming to them as they have been taught all their life. These white men are not wrong, but their anger is misplaced and has to be put in the context of those demographics who have been fighting the alienating system for centuries longer than them.
Peterson provides these alienated young men a very comfortable solution (“go back to the conservative values” but with a “new” rationalisation) which keeps them from facing the difficult truth that this world is not organised in a way that benefits the majority of humanity. These alienated white men, despite all their privilege, are also now facing this system, and Peterson is pushing them in the wrong way — towards fascism.
(Peterson very much arose from the postmodern condition that he so vehemently criticises the postmodern theorists for pointing out. He also, even more hypocritically, believes in extremely convoluted conceptions of “truth” and “religion”, etc. — something he accuses the “postmodernists” of. And don’t get me started about the so-called “postmodern neomarxists” …)
To treat Peterson as a legitimate academic, is falling into exactly the trap that those with more explicitly problematic views than him have set.
The (hopefully unintentional) effects of the event
Moving on to the next and, to my mind, more important part of my critique, I have to address the material effect of the event and thereby expose its underlying hypocrisy.
Firstly, the space that was created was a “safe space” for the defense and perpetuation of “anemic philosophies”. The opportunity was created for people to defend exactly those hurtful ideologies the Socratic Society claimed to criticise. Creating a space where the very ideas you claim to criticise are to be debated, legitimises those ideas. This might have been a problem if we were trying to ascertain some higher truth, but remember, this event was a “roast”: our conclusions were already made — we wanted to discuss them, have a bit of a laugh, and perhaps convince a few new people.
After the talks, the floor was opened for questions. However, instead of having the “experts” answer these questions, it was expected of fellow attendees to do so. This resulted in quite a fiery conversation that someone with the privilege of being emotionally distant could perhaps have enjoyed. Unfortunately, many members of the audience did not have that privilege, which brings me to the following point: pretending to have a “civil discussion” with people spouting transphobia next to a trans person is something to be ashamed of. Not only was transphobic rhetoric legitimised as “just another opinion”, it was actively expected of a trans person to validate their existence and validate their human dignity.
When engaging with someone declaiming the rhetoric of a demagogue like Peterson, it must immediately be assumed that this person is not acting in good faith, because, even if the individual is actually sincere, the ideology they have been indoctrinated into is not. (… as was argued in the speakers’ talks.)
It must be mentioned here that “sparking conversation” is not a legitimate reason to provide a platform for something to be discussed. (Smearing excrement on the wall would also “spark conversation”). Because, even if you are convinced about your position, the audience might not be, and acting like they are only makes them critical of your arrogance. And this platform of the Socratic Society actually allowed Peterson’s ideology to spread, as evidenced by one guy who had never heard of Peterson, but immediately took his side in accusing the speakers of using the same insincere debating techniques they were accusing Peterson of.
Following on Popper’s Paradox of Tolerance mentioned earlier, we can conclude that we do not owe it to everyone to provide them with a platform to spout their views (especially if those views have been debunked previously). I thus find it absolutely absurd that, after reaching this conclusion, we let individuals perpetuate exactly those problematic views while, most troublingly, seeing this willingness to engage in “civilised debate” as a virtue. (And defending yourself against a fascist’s accusation of “not following in the tradition of Socrates” by reiterating the claim to be open to “rational debate”.)
This hypocrisy betrays the fact that this event was not a sincere attempt to defend progressive values, but instead intended to be a spectacle where a few individuals with enough privilege to not be emotionally affected could laugh at either people making awkward attempts to defend Peterson or people squirming from the discomfort of what bigots were saying.
A friend and I, upon walking out, felt the need to apologise (or at least show our sympathy) to the trans person who was forced to have a “civil discussion” with someone who denied the validity of their identity.
By literally handing crypto-fascists and transphobes a microphone, you have let the “anemic epistemology” you were attempting (claiming) to criticise gain “purchase” on the public. And for that you should be ashamed.
This is a call to all societies and institutions at Stellenbosch University to be more mindful of the way they present events, to be self-aware of the audience they are cultivating, and to be decisive about the ideology they will inevitably spread.