The trickster: dissecting Jordan Peterson

Why the Canadian darling of the alt-right is the most overrated public intellectual of our day

The meteoric rise of Jordan Peterson to the status of public intellectual stardom has been one of the most interesting, if not regrettable, cases of how the internet has created idols out of people who would have best languished in obscurity. Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, was a hitherto relatively unknown figure outside of Canada until a number of his videos caught the public attention in 2016. The videos were made in protest of a proposed amendment to Canada’s Human Rights Act (a bill known as C-16), which included “gender identity and expression” to the list of characteristics which would be subject to human rights protection. The bill also included a specific mention to “refusing to refer to a person by their self-identified name and proper personal pronoun” as grounds for discrimination. The bill was clearly seen as a victory particularly for the transgender community. But Peterson, along with many conservatives, decried it as an abuse of free speech. According to Peterson, the law opened the door for anyone to be jailed if they used the wrong pronoun to refer to a transgender or non-binary person, even if they were unaware of it. Amid the poisonous atmosphere of identity politics that dominates the West (both on the left and right), Peterson’s objections went viral and a celebrity was born.

Since then, Peterson has become one of the most identifiable members of the so-called “intellectual dark web”, a group of pundits and academics who share two main characteristics. The first is their massive online followings; many of them are regulars on the podcast circuit or are otherwise ubiquitous on YouTube. The second is that regardless of their backgrounds and ideologies, most of them share an opposition to radical progressivism, “social justice warriors” (SJWs), and the campus activism that has become commonplace in recent years, mainly in the US. Not all of them are declared conservatives. Most openly dislike Donald Trump or at least express serious reservations about him. Many of them describe themselves as “classic liberals”, an increasingly used cop-out that seems to be a euphemism for hardline libertarianism but which implies a belief in social liberty. Aside from that, the intellectual dark web comes from all walks of life, be it neo-conservative journalists (Douglas Murray), Bernie Sanders-supporting evolutionary biologists (Bret Weinstein), and more traditional conservative pundits (Ben Shapiro). Even unconventional feminists like Christina Hoff Summers and Camille Paglia occasionally join their otherwise almost entirely male-dominated ranks. And the doors are also open to non-intellectuals, like disgraced Google programer James Damore of the infamous gender memo fame.

Not surprisingly, many of the most prominent members of the intellectual dark web have huge alt-right followings; in Peterson’s case, borderline rabid as evidenced by the commentary in any one of his YouTube videos. But given their academic credentials and their lack of overtly racist pronouncements, many of them (including Peterson) have been labelled the “alt-lite”. They may not be Tikki Torch-wielding white nationalists from Charlottesville but you’ll find many ideas that at best can be described as “hate enabling”, such as spouting contested ideas on IQ differences among race and gender, stringently denying concepts like white privilege, and condemning left-wing activism like Black Live Matters and the #MeToo movement while being remarkably complacent about the activities of the radical right. These views are not unique to the alt-lite or the intellectual dark web but have been spreading even among more respected intellectuals such as the New Atheists and New Optimists (notably Steven Pinker), many of which share an overlapping fandom and can be seen in many of the same online outlets  such as the Rubin Report (arguably the headquarters of the intellectual dark web and the alt-lite), as well as the widely followed Joe Rogan and Sam Harris’ podcasts. Snippets of their media appearances are everywhere on YouTube, usually given provocative click-bait titles like “Jordan Peterson DESTROYS progressive interviewer on gender pay gap” and which in reality are far from the knockout blows their titles claim to be once you actually watch them. Continue reading

How to filter bad beliefs

A six step guide to weeding out truth from nonsense

A few posts back I made the case that beliefs don’t matter as much as the process in which you acquire them. This is not a problematic conclusion to anyone with any semblance of common sense, the logic being that even if your beliefs prove to be wrong, you will have been wrong for all the right reasons and also that in the long run, you are likely to have more beliefs proved right than in the case you adopt them arbitrarily. But just how do we go about choosing our beliefs? Is there a set of principles that we can use to weed out the good beliefs from the bad ones?

I believe there is. Read on to find out:

Step 1: Can your belief pass the Truth Demon test?

One of my favorite pieces of philosophical wisdom in recent months has been this article by Keith Frankish which describes the Truth Demon, a very simple thought experiment that everyone can use to test just how strongly you are committed to a belief. In summary and in slight variation to the original, imagine there is a Truth Demon that will torture you for eternity if the certain belief in question is wrong. Take god, for example. If you had to bet your soul’s eternal torment on whether god exists, I suspect that not only atheists but a large share of believers would bet against his existence. Why? Because there’s no real negative payoff in believing in god in real life. Pascal’s Wager even argues that this is a logical, rational choice. However, imagine if we modified the decision matrix to assume an infinite loss if you believed in him wrongly. Suddenly you need to be really, really convinced. The Truth Demon fits in neatly to what mathematician Nassim Taleb calls the “silent risk” of not taking payoff into account. Continue reading

How to know that you know nothing

Our lives are dominated by beliefs and faith, not truth and facts

The Thinker

In this age of fake news, conspiracy theories, and denial of science, we rarely step back and analyze the process by which we construct our beliefs. The smarter ones among us know that as a minimal starting point, we must be capable of understanding the difference between opinions and facts, even if a lot of what we would like to think of as “facts” aren’t exactly so. In fact, practically the entire body of knowledge of the social sciences and humanities are closer to opinions than they are of facts since they are not consistently replicable; for many of the humanities disciplines they are not even meant to be so. How do we know that anything we know is true? The basic premise of truth is that of a proposition needs to correspond to a fact. As Aristotle stated over two thousand years earlier, “to say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true”. However, how do we know that these facts are true? Could we exist in a truth-less universe?

This is not the plot of a future episode of Black Mirror. We’re living in it already.

The only thing you know

There is only one truth in this universe that we can believe in without equivocation: that we exist, even if in what form we exist remains unknown. We all conceive of ourselves as human beings, an evolved carbon-based life form with a sense of consciousness but it is not an exaggeration to think that we might be bits of software code inhabiting some alien Matrix-like simulation. Yet the fact that we are able to understand our own existence is true. The only truth. And even assuming we have no free will at all, that every single aspect of our life has been scripted either by a divine being or that same alien simulation, we are still able to know we exist even if we are not in control of our own existence. Note that this not quite the same as Descartes’ famous statement of cogito ergo sum (“I think therefore I am”). You can actually not think and still be aware of your own existence much the same way as microscopic organisms without a central nervous system actively avoid getting killed, that is, losing their existence. Continue reading