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The Left's Main Goal Shouldn't Be Converting Jordan Peterson Fans
Deradicalization is good. But it can't be the main focus of left movements.
When someone on the right realizes that the right sucks, that's a good thing. As I discussed here, the right is better at hate than at solidarity, and as a result it tends to alienate many of its proponents if given half a chance. The left, which values diversity and respect, is better at sustaining large, heterogenous coalitions than the right is. That's a major source of strength, and something that's worth cultivating.
At the same time, there are real pitfalls to focusing left politics primarily around trying to persuade or deradicalize people who have already chosen hate. Nathan J. Robinson illustrates some of these pitfalls in his recent profile of Benjamin, a young former fan of Jordan Peterson.
Jordan Peterson vs. His Fans
Robinson's profile is interesting and thoughtful in many respects. Benjamin's insights aren't earth-shattering or surprising to anyone familiar with Peterson's writing, but I think they're still useful. He points out that Peterson's appeal is in part that he straddles the world of far-right disinformation and centristy nonpartisan self-help. What that means is that Peterson offers proscriptive, rules-based, intolerant rules for living, rather than encouraging people to feel good about themselves. Benjamin says that he found this tough love (or, perhaps we might call it "easy hate") approach to self-help inspiring and convincing.
There’s certain kinds of self help where it feels like they’re just telling you what you want to hear…You shouldn’t feel bad about yourself, this kind of positive thinking. And Peterson was straightforwardly against that. [His take was more like] just, if you’re not doing well, you should feel bad about yourself and you should want to improve yourself and if you don’t, then something’s wrong with you.
Peterson appeals to people who want to dislike and distinguish themselves from the weak. He encourages them to embrace normative masculinity as a way to judge themselves superior to others—including women and trans people. It's misogyny as inspiration, as Peterson reminds men that they're supposed to be manly, unlike all those other, lesser people.
Robinson is very aware that Peterson is misogynist and transphobic, and he characterizes Benjamin's "feel bad about yourself" approach to bootstrap improvement as "pretty horrible." Nonetheless, he's careful to distinguish between Peterson himself and the people who Peterson inspires or sways. "I find Peterson repellent," Robinson says
but I don’t find it helpful to call his listeners fascists or even transphobes. Many are young men like Benjamin who are simply in a tough place in their lives and susceptible to the messages of charismatic figures who promise to explain the world, identify your enemies, and help you fix your life.
But are those categories exclusive? Surely, you can be a young man at a difficult point in your life, and also be a fascist or a transphobe. Benjamin acknowledges that he liked Peterson's attacks on the left as well as his tough love messages—which is no surprise, since, again, tough love is just a reframing of the right's normative bigotry and easy hate. Robinson doesn't ask Benjamin specifically what he thinks about trans people, or if his views have changed. Perhaps he avoids the subject because he suspects that the answers would not redound to Benjamin's credit.
Himpathy for Peterson's Fans
Robinson seems to be arguing that it's a tactical error to call Peterson's followers fascists and transphobes. Peterson is a vile figure, but his fans are potentially convertible. Speaking of them as fascists or bigots may alienate them, and may lead us to dismiss them as unsalvageable. If our goal is to weed as many bigots as possible from hate, then we should be more forgiving and more open.
Robinson immediately demosntrates the problem with this approach, though, when he suggests that there is some sort of category difference between transphobes and young men with problems who are following a charismatic leader. If someone says something transphobic, are we supposed to ask them first of all if they are lonely, if they are struggling with personal problems, if they need assistance and guidance? Robinson says that we should have "empathy and patience" for people like Benjamin. That sounds kind. But who is being asked to have empathy and patience, and under what circumstances? Are marginalized people supposed to turn the other cheek when insulted or harassed on the off chance that someone like Benjamin might at some point stop being quite so horrible?
This isn't just about Benjamin individually. Robinson's argument inadvertently centers the same people who are almost always centered in cultural discussions—men (and especially white men, though we don't know whether Benjamin is white.)
Philosopher Kate Manne has referred to this as "himpathy"—our cultural tendency to empathize with men and make them the protagonists of every interaction. Himpathy, she says, "is the disproportionate or inappropriate sympathy extended to a male perpetrator over his similarly or less privileged female targets or victims." When men harass women, people often instantly ask what the woman did wrong, or insist on talking about what trauma prompted the man to act in this manner. People want to talk about how punishment would harm the man's future prospects, rather than talking about the way the woman was harmed. "Misogyny takes down women," Manne says, "and himpathy protects the agents of that takedown operation, partly by painting them as 'good guys.'"
This is exactly what Robinson is doing in his piece. We don't know whether Benjamin insulted or trolled women in the name of Petersonism (Robinson doesn't ask him). But we do know that Benjamin embraced a right-wing misogynist in part (as he himself acknowledges) because he found the misogyny cool and smart and appealing. Robinson encourages us to empathize with Benjamin and men who follow Peterson, but there's no discussion of how those followers harm women, or trans people. What effect did Benjamin's beliefs have on the women in his life? How did he conduct himself online while under Peterson's influence? Does he support trans people now? Robinson is so focused on empathizing with Benjamin, he doesn't stop to ask whether there are other people who might require empathy too—or whether they might require it more.
Robinson makes it clear in the piece that he is strongly opposed to Peterson's misogyny and transphobia. I'm not accusing him of being wobbly on those issues. I'm just pointing out that it's hard to keep victims of bigotry clearly in view when you are primarily focused on converting bigots.
Converting bigots is, again, a good thing. Weakening right coalition is valuable. But I don't think it should be the central goal of left community or organizing. Often, resources, time, and energy are better spent on providing resources and solidarity to those targeted for violence, or on educating and strengthening the left commitments of those already on your side. Given that many right-wing positions—on abortion, on hating trans people—are quite unpopular, there's also value in pushing people who are trying to straddle the fence to pick a side.
When you look at moments of major progressive change in the past—the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement—they weren't primarily focused on transforming the hearts of bigots. They were instead about rallying support among antiracists, and isolating bigots. Making bigotry socially unacceptable is in general more likely to convert people than being careful not to tell bigots that they're bigots. When the social cost of bigotry is high, people tend to act in a less bigoted way—and then motivated reasoning pushes them to justify their less bigoted actions with less bigoted beliefs.
At the least, when we talk about trying to convert people on the right, I think it's important to keep in mind the harm the right does not just to its adherents but to its targets. Those targets are too often gaslit and chastised when they speak up about the misogyny, or transphobia, or racism, or antisemitism that they face. If Benjamin is ready to stand with them, that's great. But we shouldn't be so obsessed with embracing future Benjamins that we forget that our primary commitment has to be to the comrades we have now, not to the enemies we hope will be comrades some day.
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