Why Does Jordan Peterson Care About Free Speech?

06/09/2017 06:37 pm ET Updated Jun 26, 2017

By reading Genesis, you can understand the foundations of modern political debates on immigration and freedom of speech.

If you think this sounds plausible, then Jordan Peterson is the intellectual you’ve been waiting for, and all summer long he’s rented a theater in Toronto strictly to give public speeches about the significance of the Bible in psychological terms.

Peterson is a proponent of mythological and Jungian frameworks for solving psychological problems, and his profile has risen to fame over his opposition to Canada’s Bill C-16, which mandates the use of proper gender pronouns under the Ontario Human Rights Code. Peterson holds that any law mandating an individual’s word choices is inherently authoritarian, no matter what benefits it may purport to have. Peterson’s arguments, though controversial, are robust and grounded in what he would likely consider to be the Western tradition. Essentially, the Judeo-Christian foundations of the modern world.

To dig into these foundations, we need to go deeper, into the layers of buried archaeological time. We need to understand the mythological framework underling the conservative positions on two separate but intimately related issues: freedom of speech, and immigration. Of course, no conservative can be sufficiently pure on these issues, but it is in the mythological grounding of these topics that the structure of conservatism seems to most clearly manifest. Writing as a left-leaning person, I believe it is vitally important to note the roots of conservatism in the Judeo-Christian framework, and to seriously grapple with what figures like Jordan Peterson have to say about it. After all, that’s the only way to understand what he means.

According to Peterson’s research, conservatives tend to be low in personality trait openness. To be open to new experiences, new ideas, novelty and chaos is generally a left-leaning proposition. An opposition to openness, a reliance on tradition, would arise fundamentally from a fear of chaos and disorder. The conservative mind prizes order and is skeptical about the concept of gaining new axioms, because order is extremely rare and difficult to achieve, and should not be weakened unless absolutely necessary.

Imagine this as a physical metaphor – a walled-off garden keeps its gates closed. The structure of the garden, secured by walls, is founded on certain laws and traditions, and newcomers to the garden risk bringing new ideas that undermine its previously-established order. If you believe that the garden is corrupt, then perhaps it’s a good idea to open the gates and allow in new information. But conservatives, fearful of order collapsing, will refuse to open the gates, or will only open them a little, perhaps only for Western-minded migrants, as many on the right have come to suggest with the notion of a ‘Muslim ban’.

To conservatives, Islam presents a chaos outside of Western civilization. Imagine the walled garden, as you must, as Eden, and imagine chaos as a serpent. The presence of Islam inside the walls is viewed as a budding center of chaos, a serpent’s head, the unknown that stands outside of a Judeo-Christian framework. The presence of the Other inside the garden is a frightening prospect if you seek mainly to preserve pre-existing order. This is why conservatives speak so often about Sharia law, because they want nobody inside their garden who may possibly ‘infect’ their surroundings. To allow potentially disastrous information into the garden is to risk an overturning of its carefully-established order.

We see this impulse today on the issue of climate change, where conservatives have prided a society based on GDP growth, a society revolving around capital. Reducing GDP by any amount for potential future gain, which would be the formula of a carbon tax or the Paris Accords, is fundamentally undermining the structure of capitalistic growth in the name of environmental concerns that conservatives do not recognize as legitimate. The very notion of the Anthropocene, the era where human beings have begun to influence the environment, is an alien concept. Faith in tradition means faith in the foundations of what we know, and skepticism toward the notion that we can change those very foundations. A society built upon free commerce cannot be undermined by environmental chaos, because the environment exists for human industriousness. The idea that “God will not allow climate disaster” is strictly woven into even the secular conservative mind. There is an unbending notion that if capitalism undermines itself through endless growth which destroys its environment, then capitalism itself was founded on false pretenses, and this would undermine all of Western civilization since the industrial era first began. Thus, climate change is totally incommensurate with the conservative point of view. It is an axiom a great distance away from the preservation of capitalistic order.

This is why diversity of nation, religion and ethnicity is not particularly selected for by conservatives. If the society is too split between a multitude of ideas, it loses its cohesion. It becomes an indeterminate blob of interests, no longer Western, Judeo-Christian, or based on the foundational principles of the garden. The garden becomes a stranger to its former self, it loses its track, it leans toward chaos. If the serpent is allowed to flourish and influence the structures of the garden, the entire nation will become fallen.

Perhaps it’s becoming clear why conservatives tend to resist immigration, and that this stance is the purest expression of their worldview. Jordan Peterson says that the analogy of the snake and the garden is at the root of our immigration debate during his conversation with Joe Rogan. Inviting in chaos, inviting in the Other, presents problems for the traditional structure of the state. If you believe that the state’s structure is corrupt, then you may be in favor of totally open borders – let’s open ourselves to the world, change our demographics, learn, grow and change. But if you are conservative, if you value order, and you aren’t particularly open, you will be compelled to defend the city and its structures, to argue that corruption will correct itself, because you think order is very fragile, and the odds of great change leading to a better world strike you as intensely unlikely. For all its flaws, you think your nation’s structure is the best one out there, and you will defend its structure against others before you will turn inward and critique it for its own benefit. Perhaps this is a conservative’s largest blind spot. If conservatives were able to synthesize defense of their values with honest critique of the corruption that besets both liberal and conservative Western governments, they could bridge ideological gaps. But since most conservatives level their arguments against leftists, against the proponents of disorder, and do not critique the nature of their own structures, they seem blind to the flaws of their garden. Worse, they conceptualize the West as a garden, when in reality it is also fallen, and subject to environmental self-destruction, excessive political control by the wealthy, and an international ring of military bases and weapons contracts unforeseen in all of human history, which has largely been responsible for propping up dictatorships and funding Islamist terror in countries from Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran and Central America. The conservative who conceives of Western military might as a moral good, and all casualties as acceptable, necessarily justifies a moral evil. They may claim it necessary, but their safety and comfort is rancid when their tax dollars go to Saudi princes who bomb peasants in Yemen.

This perceived blindness to one’s own faults leads the left to reject conservatism, often to reject Western values as an oppressive concept, and to seek change instead of buckling-down upon what already exists. Leftists, in this way, are far more optimistic – they see a potential society far greater than what exists now. Conservatives, instead, see only the risk of losing what they have. They imagine the gulag where the left imagines a reduction in inequality and an increase in cooperation.

Conservatives unconsciously place the free market in the position of both God and natural selection, as the selector of the Good and Competent in a marketplace of failure and wickedness. Those who cannot climb ever-narrowing economic hierarchies are thus made into Cains, and the Abels of the world think that demanding the poor to enrich themselves can prevent Western interest rate-banking from granting ever diminishing returns for those at the bottom of the hierarchy.

The shift of right-wing populism in America toward Trump, largely on promises of protectionism and the restoration of the walled garden, is proof that the old Buckley style of conservatism has failed, and the notion of the free market itself, with the advent of mass automation and its mass unemployment, brings in wishful tendrils of Universal Basic Income and an economy that is not based directly on employment. In short, conservatives rely too much on previously-established order, and in defending all aspects of ‘what is’ to defend their values, they end up overlooking critical issues, which alienates and infuriates the left, and creates the castigating word ‘reactionary’.

On the other hand, decrying the entirety of Western civilization as an irredeemable evil will lead to chaos, madness, and a total loss of structure. Derrida’s critique of the West as ‘phallogocentric’, privileging male meaning and inherently repressing the feminine, is seen by conservatives to be a fatal critique if true. But what, other than the mythological foundations of the West, do we have to base ourselves upon? This is the core of Peterson’s beef with the left - in decrying the Western canon as evil and oppressive, the left has thrown the entire concept of the divine individual and the divine logos out with the bathwater. The reason why postmodernists, or Marxists, shut down speakers on college campuses is because they believe that speech has no intrinsic value. Speech is either oppressive, or revolutionary. Thus, speakers like Peterson are considered oppressive, and all his insights in the nature of human being are dismissed as patriarchal and cruel.

And certainly, the Western canon can be described as patriarchal and cruel. It is a long story of dominance hierarchies, punishment, discipline, rigor and strict rules. All these things alienate the left. And yet, hidden in these cruel lessons are essential truths. The idea, for example, that the divine word is capable of making order out of chaos, is the very foundation of the Western tradition of free speech.

This leads us into the treacherous waters of free speech and political correctness.

In Genesis, it is God’s word that made order out of cosmic chaos, and the role of the word ever since has been intimately linked to that initial expression of the divine logos. The logos, which is the chaos of the world articulated as ordered and structured reality through speech, is the very root of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Speech is the weapon we use to make coherence out of the unknown, a mimicking of the great creation of the world by God. Through speech, we articulate our own individual worlds, and our place within them.

To place any limit upon speech, therefore, is to claim that the power of the individual logos should be subordinated by the whims and feelings of the collective society. Society trumps the individual when it comes to speech, and thus society tyrannizes the individual’s expression of their own place in the world. Worse for the conservative mind, society is growing more and more diverse. Speech is now contingent upon the feelings of demographics of a garden that they never asked for, and have advocated against, by demanding stricter immigration. This is not a hatred for foreigners, but rather a demand that foreign ideas constitute a marginal place in society. Society is inherently hierarchical and tyrannical. Conservatives simply prefer that hierarchies reward individual speech, and not group identity.

I think this framework is accurate in describing conservative convictions. Look at the contemporary issue of gender pronouns. Diversity of gender expression, when it becomes state-mandated, has awakened the slumbering spirit of conservatism in the West. Jordan Peterson opposed Canada’s bill C-16 on the grounds that mandating speech in the name of human rights was morally illegitimate. Forcing him to recognize an identity that has strayed from the structure of the West using the West’s own laws would be a tyranny of the highest order. Thus, he refuses. In his view, it would be the serpent of postmodernism usurping the divine right of God’s logos. Postmodernism is an invader that has grown within the West over its discontents, a seething hydra with a thousand heads.

But is it possible that Genesis alone tells us so much about conservatism? That these analogies, the act of God’s speech creating order out of chaos, and the preference for the order of a walled Eden against serpents from outside the national identity, could these distant stories really provide insight into contemporary political thinking? Well, of course. The structure of the West is Judeo-Christian for a reason. It bases its structure in Judeo-Christian history, and its most valued artifact – The Bible. This notion alone, that Biblical metaphor continues to shape political ideas in the 21st century, is insanely powerful.

In the end, the distinction between the left and the right may culminate into one fundamental question: Is Judeo-Christian order destroying and strangling us, or is it worth preserving and perfecting? If you sympathize with Marxism, then you believe absolutely that the structure of the garden is founded upon corruption (capital) and thus the garden is better off overthrown. To the conservative, the herald of Judeo-Christian values, this makes Marxism serpent and nemesis number one.

To the conservative, the solution is simple – defend the garden that is Western civilization, because it has taken us as far as the 21st century, and its foundations have proven strong by the merit of our prosperity. To the left, the answer is to change the structure of the garden, because it is rejecting new information, failing to provide prosperity for the marginalized, incapable of reacting to climate change, and is offensive for viewing outside information as serpentine instead of an opportunity for evolution.

Perhaps the archetype of the hero provides an answer here. As Jordan Peterson describes it, the hero has one foot in the world of order and one foot in the world of chaos. He upholds the best of his society and its tradition, and ventures into the unknown to bring back new knowledge and restlessly improve it. The hero is in perpetual dialogue with the unknown, for the sake of the perfection of the known.

We must be willing to step into the unknown for the sake of a better world, as the left has historically done, to secure rights for women, minorities, minimum wage laws, the five-day work week and the counterbalance to a totally crude patriarchal dirt-and-toil society. But we must also be willing to reach into the Western tradition for wisdom, foundation, and discipline, lest we lose our grounding and conceive of ourselves as a blank slate. We can redefine our identities with total freedom, but these re-definitions cannot be forced upon others. There must be a better way of creating one’s own values than appealing directly to tyrannical law.

Biblical analogies will always be useful. Take, for example, the story of Cain, who is a symbol of discontentment with society because he thinks it has failed him, and Abel, who is successful but blind to the honesty of a furious individual who has been denied his due.

It is worth considering what comes of a world with fewer and fewer opportunities for employment, environment degradation, and unchecked inequality. The Cains of the world need real answers. And if those answers never include thinking about better worlds, only fear of potential Bolshevist disasters, the two polarities of Cain and Abel will never become a heroic force. They will only engage in war.

Alexander Blum is the author of 21st Century Slave. You can find his other writings on www.alexanderblum.net.

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