“Yeah, comments sections are nuts.”
Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson is easily one of the world’s most well-known public intellectuals. His latest self-help book, “12 Rules for Life,” is a best-seller; his lectures draw thousands of listeners worldwide; people undeniably want to hear what he has to say.
Precisely for this reason, his peers in the so-called “Intellectual Dark Web” — a loosely connected group of thinkers from across the political spectrum who embrace disagreement and are fond of airing out their differences in public — have recently criticized his political stance.
Or rather — his lack thereof.
The Trump question: Generally, Peterson is not averse to inserting himself into highly-contentious political conversations, freely and frequently criticizing identity politics on the left, contemporary feminism, and (as the embodiment of the above-mentioned) Justin Trudeau. But when it comes to Donald Trump, the Canadian professor is a bit more muddled.
Peterson confessed that if he had been able to vote in the US election he would have likely ended up choosing Trump over Hillary Clinton — on a last-minute impulse. He also described Trump as having “above-average” IQ and a “dummy.” But whenever asked, he avoids commenting on the specific policies and public actions of the American president.
This tendency to equivocate has troubled his high-brow sparring partner — neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris.
Sam’s critique: Empowering untruth. After two live debates this June in Canada, Harris will face Peterson again in London and is prepared to press him on this point.
“[Peterson] has said very little in criticism of Trump which may signify nothing, but it strikes me as peculiar,” Harris told the Independent this week. “I know his fan base is filled with Trump supporters and he’s done far less than I have to make it uncomfortable for the Trump supporters in his fan base.”
For Harris — an exasperated Trump critic who readily and regularly pushes against his own audience — this lapse on Peterson’s part is telling.
“That’s a choice I don’t totally understand, that’s a choice I don’t support,” he said. “I think if you are at all committed to the truth, scientific or any other form of truth, to not have noticed that the current occupant of the oval office has done more to harm the public notion of truth than any person in living memory… That seems a strange omission.”
And Harris is not the only intellectual dark web member to wonder about this.
Eric’s critique: Empowering incivility. Eric Weinstein, the mathematician/economist who half-jokingly coined the phrase “intellectual dark web,” took issue with Peterson’s laxity towards the troll-ier element of his audience.
“We have to take the ground for the middle on both ends — get rid of the crazies,” Weinstein said, speaking with Peterson on a Rubin Report livestream this week.
“Stop the crazies, that’s impossible because they’re always there,” responded Peterson. “But getting their hands from around the necks of the people who are reasonable will be useful.”
Weinstein, who manages one of Peter Thiel’s investment firms, was less concerned with Trump per se, but did brood about Peterson letting the aggression and indecorousness of some of his conservative fans go unchallenged.
“I hear the word ‘libtard’ and I go, ‘oh, for Christ’s sake, really?'” Weinstein said, catechizing Peterson about his willingness to engage audiences uncritically. “And I just think — OK, this is some pre-programmed set of moves.”
“You know, in your comments section there is much more of this stuff than I’m used to in other people’s comments sections,” Weinstein said pointing to Dave Rubin, the host, as well as to Peterson.
“Yeah, comments sections are nuts,” Rubin said, grinning.
But Weinstein didn’t relent, “no, I’m saying something about your audience. Somewhere in your evolution you have to watch the fact that there is an increase of the incivility on the right.”
Weinstein, who often takes the left to task its infractions, stressed that addressing bad behavior on the right should fall on Peterson.
“You take your trash out, I’ll take out mine,” he said.
In response, Peterson argued that the trick is finding optimal strategies for conducting a debate.
“We can make the case for civility — and should,” admitted Peterson, “but you say, civility on goes so far till you defend yourself. Exactly how far does it go and how do you defend yourself?”
“You don’t defend yourself more than is absolutely necessary,” Peterson continued. “And so ‘libtard’ can probably be shelved as ineffective and counterproductive.
“It’s not ineffective and counterproductive, ” Weinstein interrupted, taking umbrage with the understatement. “It’s offensive and stupid.”
“That’s fine,” ceded Peterson. “But my point is that it’s not that easy to mount an effective defense that isn’t simultaneously an attack.”
His prescription to all listeners, to which Weinstein agreed: “Don’t push back more than you have to.”
Harris would have undoubtedly agreed to follow this resolution, but may have tried to push Peterson further on his duty to give his fans flak whenever they don’t.
On the issue of Trump, the daylight between the three will likely remain. But following the right strategy of engagement, they may at least be able to address the issue cordially over a dinner conversation…
… An especially awkward dinner conversation.