Ethics in AI

Ethics in AI

DeepMind researchers propose rebuilding the AI industry on a base of anticolonialism – “The researchers detailed how to build AI systems while critically examining colonialism and colonial forms of AI already in use in a preprint paper released Thursday. The paper was coauthored by DeepMind research scientists William Isaac and Shakir Mohammed and Marie-Therese Png, an Oxford doctoral student and DeepMind Ethics and Society intern who previously provided tech advice to the United Nations Secretary General’s High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation.”

The researchers posit that power is at the heart of ethics debates and that conversations about power are incomplete if they do not include historical context and recognize the structural legacy of colonialism that continues to inform power dynamics today. They further argue that inequities like racial capitalism, class inequality, and heteronormative patriarchy have roots in colonialism and that we need to recognize these power dynamics when designing AI systems to avoid perpetuating such harms.

“Any commitment to building the responsible and beneficial AI of the future ties us to the hierarchies, philosophy, and technology inherited from the past, and a renewed responsibility to the technology of the present,” the paper reads. “This is needed in order to better align our research and technology development with established and emerging ethical principles and regulation, and to empower vulnerable peoples who, so often, bear the brunt of negative impacts of innovation and scientific progress.”

The paper incorporates a range of suggestions, such as analyzing data colonialism and decolonization of data relationships and employing the critical technical approach to AI development Philip Agre proposed in 1997.

The notion of anticolonial AI builds on a growing body of AI research that stresses the importance of including feedback from people most impacted by AI systems. An article released in Nature earlier this week argues that the AI community must ask how systems shift power and asserts that “an indifferent field serves the powerful.” VentureBeat explored how power shapes AI ethics in a special issue last fall. Power dynamics were also a main topic of discussion at the ACM FAccT conference held in early 2020 as more businesses and national governments consider how to put AI ethics principles into practice.

some of DeepMind’s machine learning fairness research…

also btw…

Softlaw: “law that is software coded before it is passed.” (A very direct and literal take on @lessig’s “code is law”)[1,2]

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Why are conspiracy theories rampant in the ‘wellness’ industry? Welcome to conspirituality

Why are conspiracy theories rampant in the ‘wellness’ industry? Welcome to conspirituality

Protesters perform yoga movements during a nationwide action under the moto Wir hinterlassen Spuren – #LeaveNoOneBehind to protest against Europe external borders and asking to prevent a “corona catastrophe” on April 5, 2020 in front of the landmark Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, amid the new coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.

  • The term conspirituality was coined in 2011 to represent a growing disillusionment that leads to belief in conspiracy theories.
  • This particular affliction affects spiritually-minded people suspicious of anything deemed institutional.
  • Conspiritual thinking is the juncture where far-left “wellness” purveyors meet right-wing conspiracy theorists.

Coronavirus got you down? No worries. A bit of oregano oil will protect you from this virus that was definitely created in a Chinese laboratory. We can attribute that information to Gabriel Cousens, a homeopathic doctor who used to run an East Village storefront selling gall bladder cleanses that required drinking a ton of olive oil. On his Facebook page, you’ll also find plenty of information about the dangers of 5G and the fact that vaccinated children often get the diseases they’re supposedly protected against while unvaccinated children remain healthy and free.

There are also ads for his Shaktipat workshops, a practice that usually requires that the guru touch the devotee in order to transfer psychic energy. But hey, a man has to make a living. It turns out Zoom has a feature that transmits sacred energy!

Social media leaves a trail of breadcrumbs that guides you down a trail of conspiracies. “The End Of The Vaccine Era Is Today!” claims one holistic vegan, who also states that the “Microsoft Couple” and “Facebook guy” are not that smart—posted on Facebook. Forget vaccines, a steady diet of enzymes, water fasting, higher consciousness, and rebounding (pretty sure that’s not basketball) is guaranteed to cure you of this “scamdemic.”

I’ve hung out on the edge of the “wellness community” for over 20 years. My undergraduate studies focused on Eastern religions. I started practicing yoga in 1998 and began teaching in 2004. Having been active on social media platforms for decades, I’ve communicated with a range of people in the so-called wellness space. While I’ve long been wary of many ideas circulated within this group, COVID-19 has inspired a pandemic of conspiracy I could not have foreseen.

In 2011, Charlotte Ward coined the term “conspirituality,” which she defines as “a rapidly growing web movement expressing an ideology fuelled by political disillusionment and the popularity of alternative worldviews.” In the article, published in Journal of Contemporary Religion, Ward names three first-generation charlatans that represent this toxic fusion of New Age ideology and right-wing conspiracies. One is former soccer player, David Icke, of whom she writes,

“He is notorious for alleging that a shadow government harbours the bloodlines of an ancient race of reptilian extraterrestrials.”

Why conspiratorial thinking is peaking in America | Sarah Rose Cavanagh | Big Think

Icke regurgitated this factoid on an episode of “London Real,” which has garnered nearly 6 million views on YouTube. He begins by claiming the world is controlled by a cult, followed by an impassioned rage against 5G towers. Nanotechnology microchips are destined to be inserted into COVID-19 vaccines. We need to recognize these truths in order to be part of a “spiritual awakening,” which not-so-ironically is a dogwhistle used by wannabe cult leaders. Full circle, I suppose.

If trying to follow these plot lines confuses you, don’t worry: that’s part of the rhetoric. Ward continues,

“Conspirituality has spread from being a scattering of single, first-generation providers to a large chain. It is now part of the spiritual supermarket: clients shop around, settling upon the outlets whose interpretations of the two core convictions best suit their own opinions and tastes.”

Which is how in recent weeks my Facebook feed has become dominated by a warning that Bill Gates wants to depopulate the world in order to microchip humans by forcibly injecting COVID-19 vaccines into everyone. This saves lives in an attempt to control the population he initially set out to destroy. 5G is in there somewhere because, I don’t know, analytics?

A lack of critical thinking has long plagued the wellness community. An example: Since herbs and tinctures can be sold as dietary supplements with minimal federal oversight, companies go to great lengths to advertise their products regardless of clinical evidence. This has resulted in a multi-billion dollar alternative medicine market. If you want to achieve success in this market, you need to be alternative to something. That something happens to be vaccines, and Big Pharma in general.

Not that Big Pharma isn’t an appropriate enemy. The for-profit medical model is not designed to serve our interests. A real conspiracy is the relationship between pharmaceutical companies and doctors fostered by lackluster federal oversight. We should be up in arms about a mental health crisis that has in large part been created for profit maximization. But that story is complex and our brains are not designed to process complexity. An easier target is vaccines, one of the most effective and important scientific advances in history.

A man in a face mask walks in front of graffiti reading ‘Stop 5G Paranoia’ which is painted on a wall in East London on April 19, 2020 in London, England.

Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

If you were to tell me a year ago that a pandemic would be cause for political polarization, I would have dismissed the notion, even in the era of Trump. My hope blinded me from the reality of the situation: confusion is the point. It keeps us off our guard.

In an essay on conspirituality in the COVID-19 age, philosopher Jules Evans writes that even the term “conspiracy theory” is confusing now. “It can be a way of simply dismissing a topic without considering it.” He continues,

“The pandemic has led to a breakdown in knowledge and certainty. We don’t know much about the virus or the best way of dealing with it, but we know it’s killing a lot of us and we’re afraid. This is happening to the entire human race at the same time, and we’re all connected on the internet.”

In 2012, I started a now-defunct blog with four fellow yoga teachers that tackled issues in yoga and politics. While yoga has always been deeply political, the modern incarnation, which began in America in the early nineteenth century and became a marketing juggernaut in the eighties, usually eschews political talk. Yet the entire physical revolution of yoga in the early twentieth century was a response to British occupation. The only era of non-political yoga is modern, affluent America.

On our site, we strove to remind people that being a yogi means engaging as a citizen. At the most basic level, citizenry in a democracy requires that you vote. Our blog achieved some success and started a few conversations, yet we recognized that companies selling leggings will always reach a much larger audience. Humans are not built to care about things that don’t directly affect them. This is especially troubling in a yoga community in which one of the most popular mantras champions the freedom of all sentient beings. How that usually translates: “I want to feel good right now,” not “I’m willing to fight for livable wages so that everyone can afford their rent.”

Then a pandemic rolls around and suddenly everyone is affected. Since much of this wellness community has been checked out of politics, the first thing these healers and rebels encounter are rehashed right-wing talking points couched in the language of spirituality. This is not how conspirituality starts—that’s usually by men with agendas they want to monetize—but it is how it spreads. Ideas are as contagious as viruses and, as it turns out, equally dangerous.

Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His next book is “Hero’s Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy.”

Generalisations, Complicity and Jeff Goldblum

Generalisations, Complicity and Jeff Goldblum

Image by Gage Skidmore

Yesterday, Jeff Goldblum sparked controversy by asking  Jackie Cox, a hijab-wearing contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race, whether there was something about Islam that was anti-woman and anti-homosexuality. Immediately, social media began to opine on the ethics of this. Was this an example of anti-Muslim bigotry that apportioned blame in the wrong places, and did the numerous defenders of Goldblum’s question indicate that such bigotry is widespread?

Or was Goldblum raising an important issue about religiously motivated misogyny and homophobia, which liberal societies must be able to address because a failure to do so is, in itself, bigotry?

Goldblum himself gives little indication that he has given great thought to this thorny issue or that he intended to make a strong ethical statement by asking his question. His words were hesitant and uncertain: “Is there something in this religion that is anti-homosexuality and anti-woman? Does that complicate the issue? I’m just raising it and thinking out loud and maybe being stupid.”

The issue is actually more complicated than a lot of commentators seem to believe because it involves principles of tolerance and kindness, freedom of belief and freedom of speech, as well as the issue of whether generalisations about demographic groups are always bigoted or whether some accusations of complicity are warranted. This feeds into broader debates about polarisation, identity politics, dominant discourses, power and privilege. People who believe criticism of abuses of women’s rights and LGBT rights in Islam can generally be dismissed as simple prejudice or a failure to acknowledge the legacies of colonialism do not view any discussion of religiously motivated human rights abuses as  legitimate. However, people who declare Islam to be anti-woman and anti-homosexuality (with much justification) will need to be wary of generalisation when it comes to Muslim people, whose own values vary considerably, especially in the West, where Muslims include feminists and LGBT activists.

Freedom of Speech and Tolerance

Freedom of speech involves much more than the laws or constitutions of various countries and governmental  protections against censorship. A much broader principle applies: individual liberty and the advancement of knowledge and moral progress are best served by normalising a generally positive attitude towards the free exchange of ideas, even uncomfortable ones. Like Lawrence Fox’s statement that Britain is not a racist country, Jeff Goldblum’s question about misogyny and homophobia in Islam is clearly covered by this understanding of free speech.

However, freedom of speech also includes the freedom not to hear. While anyone should have the freedom to express their views on women’s and LGBT rights in Islam, they have no right to force anyone else to listen to them. You can write a blog about the sexism inherent in the practice of hijab, but you may not accost a hijabi going about her business and insist she defend her choice of headwear.

Is this what Jeff Goldblum did? No. Although he was addressing an individual in a place where she could not easily just walk away, he was responding to a political issue she herself had raised. Cox had said, “[T]his outfit really represents the importance that visibility for people of religious minorities needs to have in this country.” Having expressed a political view about the role of Muslims in Western cultures, it would be thoroughly unreasonable to insist that Goldblum refrain from responding to it with a tentative counterview.

Generalisation or Complicity?

This brings us to the statement itself. Does Islam, as it is practiced, have tenets that deny the rights of women to autonomy and equality and the rights of LGBT people to exist openly? Yes, it does. There is considerable evidence of widespread belief that women should be subordinated to men and of the persecution of LGBT people, justified by a strict understanding of sharia law. Islam justifies sexism and homophobic persecution, even though Muslim feminists and LGBT activists exist and oppose this and even though sexism and homophobia are also justified by other religious and political belief systems.

It is not a generalisation to say this, but it would be a generalisation to say that all Muslims justify sexism and homophobia, even though large percentages of them do—even when living in Western countries with laws protecting the rights of women and LGBT. If 52 percent of British Muslims think that homosexuality should be illegal, there are grounds for serious concerns for the wellbeing of LGBT youth in Muslim communities, but if you assume that any Muslim you meet wants to ban homosexuality, you will be wrong nearly half of the time.

Jackie Cox, who described herself as not religious and entered a competition for drag queens, is almost certainly not a conservative Muslim who believes in strict gender roles or calls for homosexuals to be prosecuted. Therefore to include Cox in generalisations about Islam-inspired sexism and homophobia is probably unwarranted. But could she reasonably be described as complicit?

In Critical Social Justice circles, the concept of complicity refers to a belief that all members of a group are responsible for perpetuating certain ideas that enable oppression of other groups simply by merit of their existence as identifiable members of said group. This relies on the belief that ways of understanding the world and talking about it perpetuate oppressive discourses like whiteness and patriarchy. In order to dismantle these discourses, one has to acknowledge one’s own complicity in the system. In Being White, Being Good: White Complicity, White Moral Responsibility, and Social Justice PedagogyBarbara Applebaum explains the difficulties she has getting her white students that they are complicity in racism merely on the grounds of their existence:

White denials of complicity are particularly widespread in courses that teach about social justice. Not unlike the ordinary German who denied being guilty of complicity with Nazi crimes, white students often conflate complicity with guilt, the guilt that arises from direct causality to harm. Such notions of responsibility support and encourage denials of complicity. White students believe that they are justified in denying their complicity because they claim that they do not have any “bad intentions” or any “causal connection” to the harms of systemic racism. Often white students refuse to even engage with the possibility that they are complicit.

Similarly, in “Rape, Women’s Autonomy and Male Complicity,” Sarah Sorial and Jacqui Poltera explain why all men should be considered complicit in rape:

One way to avoid inadvertently placing the onus on women to avoid rape and address rape culture is to provide an account of the ways in which men are complicit in rape culture and, thus, in systematically threatening women’s autonomy. We assume here that there is a correlation between the degree to which an individual or group is complicit in a social problem and the degree to which they should take responsibility for addressing it.

Complicity, then, can refer to the kind of good old-fashioned group blame based on immutable characteristics that we might have hoped had been banished by consensus in the decades following the civil rights movements. However, complicity can also be argued to exist much more justifiably.

Genuine Complicity

While the majority of us will almost certainly reject the idea that whole demographics should be blamed for the actions of a few of their members when these demographics are categorised by immutable characteristics, few of us doubt that people can be held to be complicit in problems arising from certain systems of thought or ideologies that they themselves have either chosen to adhere to or not chosen to reject. Compare these two sentences:

White people want to maintain the status quo and are wary of progressive aims.


Conservatives want to maintain the status quo and are wary of progressive aims.

The first statement is easily refuted by the plentiful examples of white progressives.

But, while some conservatives may prefer that the second sentence were phrased differently, anyone who genuinely doesn’t want to maintain the cultural status quo and is enthusiastically on board with progressive aims is simply not a conservative.

It is reasonable for us to consider conservatives to be complicit in issues related to conservatism and responsible for addressing them unless they tell us that they oppose those issue and don’t believe that they should form part of conservatism. Similarly, it is reasonable for people to consider me complicit in a number of problems on the left including the kind of prejudice described above—until I tell them that I do not support Critical Social Justice  but oppose it in favour of a consistent left-liberal secular humanism. They are welcome to consider me complicit in the values associated with left-liberal secular humanism because I chose those values and stand by them. This is not the case with my race or sex, which are empty of moral significance. To address the problem of racist and sexist views, therefore, the demographics we need to regard as complicit are white supremacists and misogynists, not white people and men.

But is Islam like race or like politics? It seems clear that religions are not immutable characteristics but belief systems, which people can adhere to or leave. However, it isn’t quite that simple because anti-Muslim bigotry, like antisemitism, does not require the target of prejudice to hold any specific beliefs. A liberal atheist named Muhammad is not safe from anti-Muslim bigotry. Nevertheless, somebody who calls herself a Muslim can be held to be complicit in the belief system known as Islam, which includes sexist and homophobic tenets, unless she states that she rejects and opposes those tenets and does not believe that they should be part of Islam. This does not mean that she should be required to do so every five minutes to any random inquirer or that we can’t have some sympathy with religious leaders who are exasperated at being expected to confirm that, yes, blowing people up is still bad, after every terrorist attack. It does mean, however, that if you take part in a drag queen contest in a costume that makes a political statement about the visibility of American Muslims and explicitly verbalise that statement, you might get asked about the misogyny and homophobia.

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Helen Pluckrose is an exile from the humanities with research interests in late medieval/early modern religious writing by and about women.  She is editor-in-chief of Areo. Helen took part in the “grievance studies” probe and her upcoming book with James Lindsay, Cynical Theories, looks at the evolution of postmodern thought in scholarship and activism.

Write to Helen at: https://letter.wiki/HELENPLUCKROSE/conversations

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  1. Islam is not a race, it’s just an idea. It gets no special treatment. Harassing individual Muslims – or even Muhammads who aren’t Muslims – is, as Rowan Atkinson opined “manifestly wrong.” But Islam gets no quarter. The woke work desperately to try to affiliate people with ideas, as much as the religious do. Because it’s a tactic to silence dissent. Islam is illiberal. As Yasmin Muhammad, an ex-Muslim said (and I’m paraphrasing): “there are Muslims who are good people, but they’re not good Muslims.” Muslims who want to live peacefully in a secular society and not impose Sharia onto everybody else are in direct opposition to the overt political agenda Islam has, which is to make everybody slaves of Allah. The “religion of peace” intends to implement that peace by subjugating the entire world under Sharia law, where everybody lives a half-life under primitive notions about sexuality, society and how the world works. The motto of the Decepticon leader Megatron is “peace through tyranny.” That’s islam. And we’re justified criticising it when it prescribes beating wives (they will lie and say it doesn’t), executing apostates and gays, and when Iran can’t figure out how to implement laws which prevent “honor killings” because such laws would contravene Islamic doctrine. Google “Romina Ashrafi”. That it’s dearly held means nothing. Lots of terrible ideas are dearly held by lots of people. We don’t balk at criticising anti-vax or Flat Earth. The only reasons Islam gets an undeserved free pass are a) the poison of Intersectionality, and b) fear of the bully. That’s not a good strategy. And as Armin pointed out in his Tweet, it’s bigoted to hold Islam to a lower standard, admitting that it can’t achieve it.

  2. Islam is right about gays.

  3. “it is reasonable for people to consider me complicit in a number of problems on the left including the kind of prejudice described above—until…”

    What a Conservative opinion. Prejudice as an integral operating principle of civilized life. Edmund Burke must be nodding his Ghostly head. Of course, this is what almost everybody does – form a stereotype of a typical “whatever – Progressive, Conservative, Liberal, Muslim, Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Pimp, Drug Dealer, Politician, etc, etc etc.”, and assume that when one meets with “one of them” that person will conform to the stereotype such that “it is reasonable for people to consider [that one] complicit in a number of problems [thought by me to be commonplace among them] including [whatever issue is under discussion for which they have a reputation]—until [that one proves itself an exception to the Rule].

  4. I do always wonder if those who look to excuse all examples of appalling behaviour by Islamic societies (or indeed any non western society) as merely a result of colonialism ever follow the logic.

    It reminds me of Elliot in Middlemarch Pointing that when Lydgate choose to excuse and rationalise away his wife’s self centred behaviour he’s treating her as if of ‘another and feebler species’.

    These people are basically dehumanising Muslims by refusing to see them as full moral agents capable of embracing awful ideas and instigating awful laws, and morally accountable when they do. It’s as much a part of treating people with full human dignity as treating them well.

    1. But don’t you see? Intersectional theory provides a clear and concrete system for ranking and prioritising all harmful thoughts and words. This simple formula (gently extracted from the pristine anuses of college sophomores) is clear to all and beyond dispute, and can never be accused of double standard or hypocrisy, because the people espousing it are too young to have yet realized their own hypocrisies. And as we all know, the wisdom of ignorant youth must guide us to a perfect and equitable society free from hatred and bigotry.

      It’s all so clear if you cock your head and squint really hard!

  5. Thoughtful piece, as usual. Further: to me, wearing a hijab in the West is like putting up a lawn jockey in your yard. You may have some cultural attachment to it and reject negative associations, but the fact is both symbolize oppression for large groups of other people who are unable to reject those associations. (Which of course is not to say that women wearing hijabs ought to be harassed or treated poorly in any way, as Helen notes.)

  6. Really enjoyed this article Helen. You articulated my own views very well. Elizabeth

  7. I do not agree that Islam’s misogyny and homophobia are due to any “colonialism” as they can be found in Islamic law long before any influences from the West. If questions can be raised about intolerant attitudes expressed in Judaism and Christianity, they can be about Islam also. Goldberg’s query was legitimate; he was speaking about Islam, not Muslims in general. I also disagree with Applebaum’s contention that all whites are complicit in racism just because they are white. I consider her attitude to be racist. All whites are not guilty of racism any more than all Muslims are terrorists.

  8. An interesting article but with a few too many generalisations and even some mind-reading.

    “Conservatives want to maintain the status quo and are wary of progressive aims.”

    Depends what one means by “the status quo”. Conservatives vary as much as any other group. Many Conservatives strongly oppose the status quo in universities and in left-wing cities and countries, for example.

    “It is reasonable for us to consider conservatives to be complicit in issues related to conservatism and responsible for addressing them unless they tell us that they oppose those issue and don’t believe that they should form part of conservatism.”

    No. Silence does NOT necessarily denote assent.

    Each of us is responsible for his or her own actions and ommissions and the foreseeable consequences thereto, nothing more and nothing less. Collective and inherited guilt and responsibility is perhaps the most evil ideology humanity has ever seen, and has killed over a hundred million people in the Twentieth Century alone, simply because of their membership of a class or race.

Coronavirus and Social Interaction

Coronavirus and Social Interaction

Lenin once said, “There are decades in which nothing happens; and there are weeks in which decades happen.” Never has this quotation been more pertinent than now, during the Covid-19 pandemic. In just a matter of weeks, as a result of the rapid spread of the virus across the world , the global economy has been restructured, health services in even the most developed nations have been crippled and overwhelmed, billions of people are living under lockdown and social and cultural life has been put on standby. Human interaction has been upended beyond imagination.

Under this new regime of social distancing, handshakes are haram. Social kissing is regarded as “dangerous.” Hugging? Forget about it! Hook-ups? Are you out of your mind? Even sunbathing by yourself in the park is viewed as a dangerous, anti-social activity by the authorities. The order is to stay home, quarantine and chill, maybe FaceTime to catch up or play some Red Dead Redemption 2 on the Playstation 4. But if we must leave our homes, either to go shopping to scavenge for fuseli, or for our state-permitted exercise, we must stay a minimum distance of six feet apart. One of the ironies of this crisis has been the development of an act of mass social solidarity that is paradoxically based on staying away from each other. We deliberately swerve wildly to avoid each other in public, even to the point of crossing the street, not out of disgust, but as an act of care.

Like 9/11, the Iraq war and the 2008 financial crisis, this pandemic is one of the epochal moments that will define the twenty-first century and hammers another nail into the coffin of end-of-history liberal triumphalism. Its mark will be left on economic and social life for a generation, and its meaning only fully grasped long afterwards.

The virus is expediting already on-going trends, such as working from home, online deliveries, e-learning and digital education. The NHS is holding GP appointments online. Zoom is the favoured app for work meetings and conferences. Universities are switching to online lectures. Courts are holding trials and hearings over Skype. Even funerals are being held remotely.

Technological developments have increasingly enabled us to do things without human contact: apps allow you to order food and drink in a bar or restaurant, without having to interact with a waiter; Uber Eats permits you to order fast food without leaving your home; online deliveries mean that you can shop without having to go out; airport kiosk allows you to check in without the need for human contact, developments in home cinema allow us to watch films on big, flat-screen televisions instead of in crowded cinemas.

Crises have a tendency to produce long-lasting social change. 9/11 and the botched attempts of the shoe bomber led to the ramping up of airport security to an unprecedented level, which everyone now accepts as normal and barely questions anymore. Coronavirus will probably do the same: igniting an acceleration of the automation and digital revolutions and altering how we interact with one another.

Social distancing (or physical distancing, to be more precise) is now in vogue, altering almost in an instant interpersonal interaction between people (at least for the time being). Dating, going to the cinema, going out to a pub for drinks with friends; even just the act of being social—it’s all beginning to feel like a distant memory. The new political correctness is no longer about editing racist or misogynist lyrics out of old songs, but involves artists like Carole KingNeil DiamondBritney Spears and Dua Lipa updating their classics to encourage social distancing. Aside from the embarrassingly condescending nature of these gestures, this reveals that social distancing is increasingly becoming valorized by our culture.

Forms of greeting and social interaction that have been ingrained for centuries are beginning to be problematized. The French tradition of la bise has fallen by the wayside. Handshakes, too, may well become extinct. Even nations like Spain and Italy, known for their sociality, have been cowed and made to learn the value of personal space. Their tactile expressiveness has given way to self-preserving coldness. Alternative greetings, such as elbow bumps, foot tapping, the traditional namaste, ojigi and even the Vulcan sign have been touted as more appropriate for the Coronavirus era.

In an instant, this virus has imbued even the most mundane and fleeting of human interactions with a sense of risk and danger that didn’t even cross our minds before. Will that exchange with the cashier, that handshake with my colleague from work, that hug with my friend, that brush against a stranger on public transport, that claustrophobic ride in the lift be the fateful moment Covid-19 makes its entry into my body? We’re told not to even touch our own faces. Human touch has become fatal. “To touch is to give life,” Michelangelo once remarked. But, in the age of Coronavirus, to touch might just lead to death.

Society had already become more touch deprived and touch averse. People are touching each other less than ever before, because of increased atomisation and the disintegration of traditional families and communal and social bonds, exacerbating loneliness and isolation, damaging people’s mental health and creating a void in those hungry for connection. In the UK, half a million older people go at least five days a week without seeing or touching a soul. Fear of, or the accusation of, inappropriate touching and abuse has meant that doctors avoid comforting patients with hugs, lest they provoke legal action, that teachers definitely avoid hugging students and that workplace colleagues are increasingly thinking twice before opening their arms for an embrace.

It is no bad thing that society has become more aware of child abuse by those in authority, as well as all the other forms of unwanted sexual contact, which is unacceptable in any context. Touch can indeed be oppressive, as well as comforting—precisely because it hits us where we are most vulnerable and intimate. Hence the hand on the knee can, depending on the context, feel seductive or threatening. Yet hyper-vigilance about boundaries doesn’t create clarity in human interpersonal relations, but only more confusion and hesitation. It leads to a pathological view of human interaction, in which platonic touch is degraded and every human touch is viewed as sexual and therefore potentially violating and oppressive.

Touch is one of the five senses. It is one of the ways in which human beings make contact and form social bonds with each other. It is how lovers build intimacy. It is how families bond. It is how friends express camaraderie. It is how the sick and distressed are comforted. We like to touch and be touched. Without touch, life will become more of a cold and lifeless desert. And those who seek it will be more likely to have to get in contact with a professional cuddler in the touch industry, to satisfy their skin hunger — for a price.

The danger with the Covid-19 pandemic is its uncertainty. We don’t know whether lockdowns will last for weeks or months. Until a vaccine is developed, which, according to the most optimistic estimations, will take around eighteen months, social distancing will never fully go away, as we will always be prone to a relapse. Indeed, if recent reports are true, then we may have to endure intermittent social distancing until at least 2022.

The current state of affairs should not be normal. It should be regarded as an unpleasant yet necessary temporary sacrifice for the sake of our common health. The optimist in me feels that, after all this is over, we will get back to normal and get over this period of adversity. After all, human beings are social creatures, who crave connection. That need can never be abolished, no matter how hard it is suppressed. Yet my pessimistic side is fearful that we might become too adjusted to this new normal and that the after-effects of the virus will disfigure social life indefinitely.

When the pandemic has finally dissipated and social life has somewhat resumed, we should restore the value of face-to-face human interaction and human touch in an effort to restore our social bonds. It would be tragic if one of Covid-19’s after-effects were that society became even more atomised and socially cocooned than it already is. That might feel like a safer world, but it would also be a more inhuman one.

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Ralph Leonard is a British-Nigerian writer who writes on international politics, religion, culture and humanism.

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  1. «Lenin once said, “There are decades in which nothing happens; and there are weeks in which decades happen.”» – Lenin?

    Wow, you know the works of this cannibal! But have you read his orders to take hostages and shoot them mercilessly? It would be better if you quoted Hitler.

  2. I’ve always been a touch-averse person. By default I respect personal space, and expect the same. When touched unexpectedly I used to jump ten feet in the air, a habit I was forced to break when my cat started jumping from the sink to my shoulder every time I went to take a piss (it’s no fun cleaning errant piss sprays off everything while your shoulder is still bleeding). Now I only jump ten feet in the air on the inside.

    This is not how I was raised. My mom always thought I was weird for being like this. But apparently I’ve been like this since I was a baby.

    However when I’ve been in relationships I’ve always desired them to be a release valve for a repressed desire to touch and be touched. Yet I only ever seem to become involved with similarly touch-averse women (who unlike me, seem additionally to not require a release valve for their touch-aversion).

    Yet even as casual touch has become demonized in recent years, I still understand that I’m the weird one. I tolerate back-patting as one immersed in a foreign country might tolerate a local custom that they might find unseemly in their home country. Just because I’m an alien does not mean I think all others should be as alienated as me.

    I hope as a consequence of this crisis that people will see what they had now that it’s gone, and when it’s over decide they want it back. I promise I will try to contain my startledness if they do.

  3. I began first noticing the all-pervasive omnipresence of the pop-psychology self-sufficiency cult in the early 1970’s, and after first trying to dismiss it as a probably short-lived passing pop-culture fad eventually realized it was unfortunately probably fated to stay with us a long, long time. It struck me as almost the exact opposite of the pop-culture *Zeitgeist* of the 1960’s which I thought could be epitomized by songs like the Beatles’ “All you need is love” and Barbra Streisand’s “People who need people, are the luckiest people in the world.” When I told one “personal growth” devotee in 1975 or 1976 of my liking for Barbra Streisand’s “People” song, he primly retorted that “people who need people” are really the *unluckiest* people because they have so little self-esteem and such poor inner resources! As I wrote last night, he almost sounded as if he were telling me to feel ashamed of myself for not aspiring to be a self-contained self-sufficient hermit content to stay by myself in my room all day raptly contemplating the beauty of my own inner self-esteem!

  4. Oops: “Like…the 2008 financial crisis, this pandemic is one of the epochal moments that will define the twentieth century…” It’s 2020, meaning, it’s the twenty-first century, right?

    1. Oh, good grief! Thank you, Benjamin.

  5. I’ve also long suspected that the popularity since the 1970’s of this pop self-help psychology with its celebration of self-sufficiency and derogation of so-called “neediness” may well have something to do with the growing ascendancy ever since that self-same decade of economic neoliberalism, with its classic *reductio ad absurdum* in Margaret Thatcher’s famous or infamous remark that “There is no such thing as society.” One might say that the “needy” soul admitting loneliness and yearning for friendship or love is pop psychology’s counterpart to the “moochers” and “welfare bums” demonized by the ardent apostles of neoliberalism. As I myself sometimes used to remark back in the 1970’s with regard to that decades best-selling “inspirational” saga of a self-actualizing seabird, “Jonathan Livingston Seagull flies with Ayn Rand and Ronald Reagan”–to whom I could have also added Margaret Thatcher.

  6. One cultural trend of the last few decades which I also sometimes feel may have contributed to the increasing “de-valorization” (to coin a postmodernese–“critical yheory” neologism though I generally have little love for that lingo) of personal contact has been the post-1970 pop self-help psychology cult of self-sufficiency, “liking yourself,” and “being your own best friend,” with its constant insistence that we should not depend on other people for our happiness, and its disparagement of “neediness” as a despicable weakness. Reading some “psychobabbling” self-help books in the last few decades, or listening to people spout that stuff at me on occasions over the tears when I’ve expressed feelings of loneliness or wishing for more friends or a better social circle, I’ve occasionally almost gotten the feeling that they believe we should feel ashamed of needing or wanting friends or companions, that they would prefer for all of us to sit by ourselves in our own tooms all day bliisfully contemplating the rosy-golden beauty of our own self-sufficient self-esteem!

Myth and Mayhem: A Leftist Critique of Jordan Peterson

Myth and Mayhem: A Leftist Critique of Jordan Peterson

If a laboring man has no land, no chance of making use of the right, so natural for every man, to obtain from the land his own means of support and those of his family, this is not so because the nation wants it to be so, but because certain men, the owners of land, are granted the right to admit, or not to admit, the laboring people to it. And this unnatural order of things is maintained by means of the army. If the immense wealth, accumulated by the laboring people, is not considered as belonging to all men, but to an exclusive number of men; if the power to collect taxes from labor and to use the money for anything they may see fit is entrusted to a few men; if a few men are permitted to select the method of the religious and civil instruction and education of the children; if strikes of the laborers are opposed and strikes of the capitalists are encouraged; if a few men are granted the right to compose laws, which all must obey, and to dispose of men’s property and life—all this does not take place because the nation wants it so, but because the governments and the ruling classes want it so, and by means of bodily violence establish it so.—Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is Within You

Jordan Peterson is many things to many people. For some, as the New York Times has pointed out, he is “the world’s most influential public intellectual.” For others, Jordan Peterson is a self-help guru and even a spiritual guide, offering essential traditional wisdom on how to navigate an increasingly precarious and uncertain world. On the other hand, to many, Peterson is a critic of some ambiguous philosophical movement known as post-modern neo-Marxism (analyzed by me here), which apparently influences the ideological outlook of everyone from radical feminists to trans activists and student agitators. Depending on your political outlook, this either makes him a stalwart defender of free speech and liberalism or a dangerous reactionary, who serves as a gateway to the far right, as Heterodox Academy’s recent study suggests. Finally, for his most scathing critics, Peterson is little more than a bloviating hack, hawking empty pseudo-profundities.

But, before his rise to fame, Jordan Peterson was an academic with some interesting things to say. Whatever one thinks of his positions, they have clearly generated debate. Our book, Myth and Mayhem: A Leftist Critique of Jordan Peterson, published by Zero Books, analyzes Peterson’s philosophical and political positions. Written by Conrad Hamilton, Ben Burgis, Marion Trejo and me, it includes a lengthy introduction by Slavoj Zizek. We address Peterson as an intellectual, whose arguments against the left and in favour of “ordered liberty” politics need to be engaged with and rebutted. We also attempt to explain Peterson’s popularity as a symptom of cultural malaise. The left needs to take him seriously, otherwise we risk ceding a lot of moral ground to someone whose understanding of political issues often leaves a lot to be desired.

The arguments of the book fall into two broad categories. First, we show where Peterson misinterprets or misrepresents left-wing ideas and demands. Second, we analyze Peterson’s positions on capitalism, classical liberalism and other topics.

Peterson on the Political Left

Peterson is well known for his criticisms of the contemporary left. His targets have included Marx and Marxist-inspired thinkers, such as Max Horkheimer; postmodern philosophers and historians, such as Derrida and Foucault; and feminist and trans theorists, pushing a radically egalitarian sexual agenda. Of course, there is nothing wrong with criticizing such figures; postmodern theory is often highly limited and the work of major thinkers like Foucault contains surprisingly reactionary undercurrents. The problem is that Peterson’s critiques are extremely general at best, and misleading at worst. For example, Chapter 10 of 12 Rules for Life contains one of his most sustained written critiques of so called postmodern neo-Marxism. In ten short pages—less space than he dedicates to the myth of Marduk in Maps of Meaning—Peterson lumps together criticisms of Marx, the Frankfurt School, Sartre, Derrida, feminist theory, queer theory, anti-racist analysis and other topics. He rarely cites any references or refers to specific works, relying instead on vague generalities and affective hyperbole. Derrida, the post-structuralist thinker, is chided for conceiving of the social world as oriented by structures of power; the Frankfurt school critics of liberal capitalist humanism and Stalinism are misrepresented as “Marxist humanists”; gender constructivists, identity politics activists and “post-modern Marxists” are accused on the one hand of never discussing the complexities involved in hierarchy formation and the relationship between individual and group identity formation and, on the other, of fixating on these issues like the “North Star.”

To give another example, cited by Zizek in the introduction to our book:

Another oft-repeated Peterson-motif is the idea that, according to the “postmodern neo-Marxists,” the capitalist West is characterized by “tyrannical patriarchy” (with Peterson here triumphantly mocking this claim, enumerating cases of how hierarchy existed not only in non-Western societies—but also in nature!). Again, I sincerely don’t know which “neo-Marxists” claim that patriarchy is the result of the capitalist West. Marx says the exact contrary: in one of the most famous passages from The Communist Manifesto, he writes that it is precisely capitalism itself which tends to undermine all traditional patriarchal hierarchies. Furthermore, in “Authority and Family,” an early classic of the Frankfurt School (the origin of “cultural Marxism”), Max Horkheimer is far from just condemning the modern patriarchal family—he describes how the paternal role model can provide to a youngster a stable support to resist social pressure. As his colleague Adorno pointed out, totalitarian leaders like Hitler are not paternal figures.

There have been several attempts to defend Peterson’s interpretation of postmodern neo Marxism. One of the best recent efforts is an article in this magazine, by Jonathan Church—though even its title is telling: “Jordan Peterson Is Not Entirely Wrong About ‘Postmodern Neo-Marxism.’” Church argues that Peterson overstates his case and “does not appreciate many of the subtleties of postmodern philosophy.” Nonetheless, Church claims that Marx’s influence can be seen in postmodern culture’s ongoing obsession with social marginalization, which has resulted in a left-wing effort to seize the means of cultural production in order to engage in social justice activism, inspired by critical theory going back to Marx. Church also points to the influence Marx still holds in the academy, in social science and humanities courses.

But Church takes postmodern theory more seriously than Peterson himself. Marx has had an impact on all subsequent generations of left-wing theorists and activists. His academic influence is so ubiquitous that most progressives must have engaged with Marxist ideas—at least accidentally. And no sociology, economics or philosophy department lacks at least a few courses on Marxism.

But this does not mean, as Peterson suggests, that postmodern theorists are just gussying up post-Soviet Marxism with some new terminology. The philosophical and political differences between Marxism and postmodernism are not mere subtleties. Marxism is fundamentally a late Enlightenment philosophy and approach to political economy, which argues that the world can be understood as it truly is and changed on the basis of that understanding. It is also predicated on a Hegelian theory of freedom, which holds that, in a more emancipated society, we will eventually be able to develop sides of our natures that are constrained by capitalism. Postmodern theory disputed that the world could be understood as it truly is, and was highly sceptical of dramatic efforts to change it. That’s why Jean Francois Lyotard advocates local, specific political activism in The Postmodern Condition: he rejects the transformative project of Marxism, along with its grand metanarrative about history and society. Theorists like Foucault were also very reticent to endorse specific accounts of what emancipated individuals would look like, wary of justifying new types of disciplinary power relations. Derrida, a favourite target of Peterson’s, was actually far more inspired by Heidegger (an influence he shares with Peterson), Husserl and French structuralism than Marxism. He did not even thoroughly engage with politics or with Marx until the 1990s, towards the end of a long philosophical career. Derrida’s primary interests were in language, the history of philosophy and writing. As a result of these philosophical differences from Marx, postmodern-inspired activists have largely eschewed demands for material changes to the economic system. Instead, they call for greater political and cultural inclusion—to the chagrin of Marxists like David Harvey and Terry Eagleton, who remain committed to the socialist project. (I have made similar arguments elsewhere.) These differences are not subtle. Peterson should take more care to distinguish different streams of progressive critical theorizing.

Equally problematic are Peterson’s arguments against alleged leftist demands for equality of outcome or the elimination of hierarchies. Virtually no leftist—even Marx—has ever thought it was possible, let alone desirable, to achieve equality along every or even most metrics (Marx only called for the elimination of class inequality).  Even anarchists opposed to almost all forms of coercion accept the need for fluid hierarchical organization, to manage social problems. In political philosophy and science, questions about hierarchy usually turn on what kinds are acceptable or functional, not whether they should exist at all.

Peterson on Liberalism and Capitalism

We also take issue with Peterson’s more substantive claims about the virtues of tradition, meritocracy and capitalism, arguments I have categorised as a defense of “ordered liberty.” A full criticism of ordered liberty is beyond the scope of our book, but we point out the contradictions and limitations inherent in Peterson’s defense of the status quo. For example, Peterson supports a meritocratic hierarchy of competence, while failing to acknowledge the many ways in which individuals can be disadvantaged or advantaged by twenty-first century capitalism. Peterson often invokes a naturalistic argument, depicting liberal capitalist hierarchies as effective and relatively free ways of organizing a society that will inevitably include inequalities of rank and power. As he puts it in 12 Rules for Life:

All that matters from the Darwinian perspective is permanence—and the dominance hierarchy, however social and cultural it might appear, has been around for some half a billion years. It’s permanent. It’s real. The dominance hierarchy is not capitalism. It’s not communism either for that matter. It’s not the military industrial complex. It’s not the patriarchy—that disposable, arbitrary, malleable cultural artefact. It’s not even a human creation; not in the most profound sense. It is instead a near-eternal aspect of the environment, and much of what is blamed on these more ephemeral manifestations is a consequence of its unchanging existence.

It is hard to tell whom he is addressing here, since almost all leftists concede that some form of hierarchy is necessary. The question is what kind. These issues apply to questions of distributive justice and the economy. John Rawls, the most influential liberal theorist of the twentieth century, has pointed out that most of our thinking about meritocracy and competence is misguided. Some believe that certain individuals are economically advantaged because they belong to the right social group or family. Others, like Charles Murray, believe that natural talents like intelligence are far more important than social factors in explaining why some get ahead and others fall behind. For Rawls, these disputes are largely beside the point. Whether one is disadvantaged by being born into a poor family or because of a lack of marketable natural talents, people get ahead for morally arbitrary reasons that have nothing to do with who they are and the choices they make. Neither the individual born into a poor family who cannot send her to college, nor the one who cannot cope with college because she was born with significant cognitive disabilities, is responsible for the disadvantages she faces. Rawls and his successors, such Dworkin, Nussbaum and Sen, point out that this is no small problem for consistent liberals, since a fundamental feature of liberal thinking is that all individuals must be treated fairly, as beings of equal moral worth. Even some defenders of capitalism have accepted elements of this position: as when F. A. Hayek urged all friends of the market to drop meritocratic arguments in favour of capitalism. Any argument for contemporary capitalism is going to have to accept that, in a capitalist society, merit and competence alone may not get you to the top. And, even if they did, that might result in an unfair and illiberal society.

Peterson’s defense of traditionalism is substantially at odds with his often hagiographic understanding of capitalism as a historical force. In Maps of Meaning and papers like “Religion, Sovereignty, Natural Rights and the Constituent Elements of Experience,” Peterson expresses anxiety that the traditional and religious value systems that held Western societies together are increasingly breaking apart, with the result that people are retreating into either cynical indifference or proto-totalitarian dogmatism. This may well be true. I share some of Peterson’s worries about modernity. But Peterson dismisses the possibility that capitalism—an economic and social system characterized by what Schumpeter calls the constant “creative destruction” of values—may have played a significant role in upending traditional mores and ways of life.  This is hardly a new argument. Marx and Engels anticipate Schumpeter when they point out that, under capitalist conditions, “everything that is solid melts into the air”: previously sacred institutions and authority figures are upended by capitalist and related processes, such as  commodification and urbanization. For example, the ongoing movement away from homogenous and orderly local rural communities—often characterized by a shared religious faith—has been largely driven by economic imperatives towards urbanization. This has resulted in greater pluralisation—but also more anomie and uncertainty. Instead of addressing these issues, Peterson blames the breakdown of traditionalism on easy targets, such as the influence of postmodern neo-Marxism. But are a bunch of opaque French philosophers more responsible for the predicaments of postmodernity than a centuries-old economic system of worldwide reach and influence?


Our hope is that Myth and Mayhem will be interesting to both Peterson’s critics and his followers. Many of the latter have already expressed anger that the book even exists. But we feel it is necessary both to correct Peterson’s mistakes and oversights, and to provide a substantive left-wing response to his arguments. They have proven influential, and an engaged left needs to reply. We have also created a website for those interested in contributing short essays about the book, or other topics related to Peterson. We’re happy to accept both critical analyzes and essays defending his positions, if they are well reasoned and presented in a spirit of dialogue, in the mutual pursuit of truth.

If you enjoy our articles, be a part of our growth and help us produce more writing for you:

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Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey. Author of The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism.

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  1. Interesting piece. But I fail to understand why is it preferable to criticize someone’s ideas from a specific standpoint (i.e. a critique from the left). Would this critique be different if launched from the right? Or, from the center? — Do JBP arguments hold better if looked from a particular viewpoint? Criticism of ideas should be as much stripped from “perspective” as possible, so as to detect errors and mistakes in arguments. If a critique is (proactively) attached to a set of presuppositions, the critique itself is prone to be biased.

  2. Maybe this is outside the point of this article…

    But Jordan Peterson… A man who doesn’t understand Nazism, who thought you had to “put all of the jews and gypsies to work, instead of killing them, because that is unproductive for the war effort. First you win the war, then you kill everyone.” (taken from the youtube video “How Hitler was Even More Evil Than You Think – Prof. Jordan Peterson” from one of his lectures)

    About that, buddy…

    It really isn’t a surprise to me that he doesn’t even understand any or all forms of the left. I don’t even understand why he is lecturing on history if he can’t even get a good psychological view on Hitler.

    His misunderstanding of Nazism also shows he has never actually read ANY post modern theorists he is trying to burn down. He cites Young and he he makes the big no-no for projecting his own assumptions and rationales into the argument when he is talking about something in the past.

    He is just a massive joke to be honest

  3. Dear Matt,

    I know many people have taken up this line of counterargument, but that’s no proof of its strength—it is a weak argument that you and others have carried to the point of self-refutation. Let me explain.

    The first and most obvious problem is that you don’t defend either pomos or neos against Peterson’s criticisms; you criticize Paterson’s characterization of them. You (and Church) should’ve have asked yourselves the question that any savvy rhetorician would’ve asked: What’s the best result of this line of counterargument? In other words, what’s the most you can demonstrate to the reader?

    The answer is not “Peterson is wrong about pomo-neos” but that “Peterson’s characterization of them lacks subtlety.” Not much of a win, there, when a thumbnail sketch has no pretense of being exhaustive in the first place. The worst result, a good rhetorician would tell you, is that you come across as pedantic. I mean you come across as being unable to criticize him on substance, so you criticize him on style—or, in this case, on his lack of footnotes.

    The second reason can be summed up with the risible remark by Zizek that you quote:

    Max Horkheimer is far from just condemning the modern patriarchal family—he describes how the paternal role model can provide to a youngster a stable support to resist social pressure.

    You really didn’t think through the implication, did you? (It goes without saying for me that Zizek didn’t think it through—or maybe he was jerking your chain.)

    Consider your case. Footnote counting is not enough. If your argument is going to be that Peterson’s sketch of pomo-neos is misleading because it’s unrepresentative, then you must give a representative counter-sketch. So what do you offer? A remark made 60-odd years ago by a pomo founder praising the patriarchal family. Are you seriously implying that a single one of the people in universities today that Peterson calls “postmodern neo-Marxists” believes this?! Can you find anyone even vaguely associated with the progressive left who believes in the virtues of the patriarchal family? Didn’t think so.

    This is why I said that your line of argument ends in self-refutation. In your zeal to discredit Peterson’s caricature of the contemporary progressive left, you adduced a sentiment even more unrepresentative of the pomo-neos than Peterson’s own.

    Finally, I’ll say that you find yourself here because you failed to appreciate (or ignored, following previous critics) Peterson’s conservative standpoint. For him, pomos and neos have more in common with each other and are fundamentally different from him in being radicals—i.e., people who reject our society and its mores and seek to replace them with something new. The fact that one group’s dreams are contained in the Communist Manifesto and the other’s in the emancipation of individuality and the transcendence of the human condition is neither here nor there because, to the conservative (and to most liberals), sky castles are sky castles.

    Of course, if you recognize how the standpoint contextualizes the sketch, then you’re left dealing with the substance of his criticism. I sense a strong desire to do anything but that.

    1. “The answer is not “Peterson is wrong about pomo-neos” but that “Peterson’s characterization of them lacks subtlety.” Not much of a win, there,”

      Good point X. Peterson’s characterization seems bang-on to be, but if Matt disagrees with it, perhaps an alternate explanation should be offered in it’s place.

    2. Sadly I do not find this rebuttal particularly convincing. Essentially the comment boils down to the differences between Marxists and other species of progressives-in this case so called post-modern neo-Marxists- is “neither here nor there” since “sky castles are sky castles.” But that is just as crude as if I were to say there is no substantial difference between conservatives and libertarians in their defense of capitalism, or between reactionaries who wish a dramatic return to earlier forms of political organization and ordered liberty liberals content with maintaining or rejuvenating certain forms of traditionalism. These differences matter, both in terms of their justification and goals they are oriented to. If conservatives and liberals tend to brush them aside, they are little better than their left wing opponents who see fascism behind every ever so moderate effort. Your characterization of Max Horkheimer, a Frankfurt school theorist inspired by Marx and Freud who defended reason against its corruption, as a pomo theorist is telling. Fortunately many liberals are not this crude, as I discuss later in the article.

      This brings me to my second point which is that your comment failed to address the substantive second section where I addressed precisely why Peterson’s alternative to radicalism-in this case what I call ordered liberty and so called meritocratic hierarchies of competence-is deeply flawed in ways most liberal theorists from Rawls onwards have accepted for some time. Any moderately interesting defense of what are now very precarious positions would have to engage by the now centuries of critiques leveled against even by sympathetic commentators like Hayek. Otherwise he is just hawking rhetorical high mindedness without the substantial nuance one would expect from an academic who takes himself as seriously as Peterson does.

      Lastly, I find your comment that I must present a representative counter-sketch bizarre for several reasons. The most obvious being I do not like post-modern theorizing, and have stated why on several occasions.


      My goal is not to offer a defense of post-modern theory, but to contend that if you’re going to criticize it, do a far better job than Peterson does. It shouldn’t be hard since the bar is quite low.

    3. “My goal is not to offer a defense of post-modern theory, but to contend that if you’re going to criticize it, do a far better job than Peterson does.”

      But why should we accept that Peterson does a poor job when you offer no better job with which to compare it? Peterson’s analysis seems rock solid to me, and until you show me why it fails I’m likely to hold that view. You inform us that you don’t like it, and that you don’t like X’s comment, but you do not offer improvements. The Marxist of yesterday preached that the victimized workers of the world were to unite to throw off their capitalist oppressors. The SJW of today preaches that whitey’s Victims will unite to throw off whitey’s oppression and Privilege, no? Is it not really that simple? If not, why not?

    4. What to replace post-modern theory is a different question (my answer would be Rawlsian style liberal socialism). Since it is Peterson who has criticized post-modern theory the onus is on him to show why his points resonate beyond appealing to those inclined to dislike the tradition to begin with.

      The irony is X Citoyen implicitly demonstrated why Peterson’s arguments shouldn’t be taken seriously. The gold standard of a steel-manned critique since at least J.S Mill is “would the person I am criticizing impartially acknowledge that my characterization of their views is largely accurate?” If the answer is “yes” then you probably understand their views sufficiently to criticize them effectively.

      So we should not be asking whether characterizations of post-modern theory and the left resonate “to the conservative (and to most liberals)” since of course they would. We live in the age of “SJW Fail Compilation #99” where there is a bottomless appetite for even low quality criticisms of social justice activism and its alleged or real theoretical foundations. Instead the question is “would a post-modern theorist or other progressive impartially acknowledge that Peterson’s characterization of their views is largely accurate?” On that point the answer is an emphatic no: even to people like me inclined to be skeptical of post-modern theory’s usefulness.

    5. “would a post-modern theorist or other progressive impartially acknowledge that Peterson’s characterization of their views is largely accurate?” On that point the answer is an emphatic no:

      Well, that could be because his characterization of them cuts thru the cosmetic surface and really exposes that’s going on. If I point out that the capitalist right is lying when they say they care about the common worker, one hardly expects them to admit it and fess-up that what they really care about is Wall St. CEO bonuses.

    6. Matt,

      You’re unsold, okay, but you could’ve sussed out the point on perspective and sky castles. I see a lot of differences between foxes and coyotes. But do rabbits? I suspect they see only “fo-cos” because the most salient thing about foxes and coyotes for rabbits is the same thing for both, namely, they eat rabbits.

      So it is with Peterson: Pomo-neos want to destroy all the real things that have been built and replace them with impossible things—sky castles. Like the rabbit, whatever differences there are between radicals (and, I suppose, similarities with his own views) are less important than their shared radicalism. And, yes, the same goes for leftist’s interpretations of libertarians and conservatives for leftists themselves (as opposed to books pretending to be dispassionate intellectual histories): What matters most to the progressive is that neither libs nor cons are fighting for the New Dawn.

      In failing to consider this, you didn’t practice what you preach about interpreting others. Peterson isn’t a writing a treatise on pomos and neos, so there’s no pretense of comprehensiveness. As I suggested above, this leaves you two options. You can criticize his footnotes or show his portrait of pomo-neos is incorrect—only the last has any meat to it. To succeed here, you’d need to show that Peterson is wrong on the things salient to him. Setting aside the absurdities I mentioned before, it looks to me like you’d have to prove something contradictory, namely, that radicals aren’t radicals. But forget that for now, let’s consider your case.

      You think you’ve got him on hierarchies. Anarchists and Marxist talk about hierarchies, you say, so Peterson is wrong. But there are two fundamental differences: (1) their hierarchies are different from Peterson’s and, more importantly, (2) their hierarchies are not real—they’re abstractions, paper hierarchies, block diagrams that exist in their minds. Come to that, Peterson’s hierarchies are abstractions from reality that imperfectly single out aspects of human relations. But if Peterson’s hierarchies are once removed from reality, yours are twice removed because they have no referent—they don’t exist anywhere or represent anything real.

      I suspect you fall into this false equivalence between the real and the abstract because—like so many—you mistakenly suppose that abstractions like “capitalism” capture essential, functional aspects of reality. But “capitalism” is a hypothetical paper construct too, a system interpretation of the world. Finding a moral failing in the real world (e.g., inequality) does not mean you can correct it by fixing the abstract system that represents the world (i.e., capitalism) by replacing it with another system that doesn’t have these failings.

      This is the very essence of what Whitehead meant by the fallacy of misplaced concreteness: You mistake the abstraction capitalism for reality, so you mistake whatever non-capitalist system you come up with as a viable replacement for it. But analysis in unidirectional: You can abstract from reality to paper, but you can’t go from paper back to reality. History backs up logic here. Every revolution has taught us the limitations of political abstractions. Of course, the simplest gov’t policy has taught us the same lesson, if you cared to look: Even the best-crafted policies never work as planned.

      In figurative terms, Peterson is defending some aspects of hierarchies, which imperfectly map some aspects of the real world. You’re creating a more attractive map that represents your aspirations for the world and calling him out for not recognizing yours in equal terms. But they’re not conceptually or empirically equivalent: One map is a weak representation of the world as it is and the other’s a map of your dreams.

  4. “And no sociology, economics or philosophy department lacks at least a few courses on Marxism.”

    Almost no economics departments have any courses on Marxism. Economists as a whole, even those on the left, no longer take Marxism seriously and haven’t since at least the early 90s. (Granted, you can find a handful exceptions here and there, mostly who are well beyond retirement age.) No one summarizes the shift as well as Robert Heilbroner’s change of heart.

  5. Neo-Marxism is just Marxism with “class” scratched off and “race” written in in crayon. It’s the exact same old, discredited tropes – just with different villians and victims. You’ll notice that today’s neo-Marxists freely punch down and spew vile hatred about the working classes, that they formerly held in high esteem.

    When I was young, most people in the upper half were perfectly willing to respect those in the bottom half, and some people (leftists) practically worshipped them. Today, it is vastly different. Remarks calling working class “deplorables” and far worse have become quite common today on the left. Leftists say that workers are racist, misogynistic, intolerant, etc. In reality, they are the bigots and not middle America.

    I first noticed this contempt in academia a couple decades ago. People I thought of as open-minded turned out to be very narrow-minded when it came to credentials, which in turn generally depended on how wealthy the person’s parents were (that is, whether or not they could get into an elite school). It suddenly seemed like I was back in the eighteenth century with aristocrats and commoners. But it’s not just a small slice of the left that is like this. It’s the whole left.

    Watching the left cheer and fist-pump when Peterson was hospitalized with a life-threatening illness told the world all it needed to know about their quality.

    1. “Neo-Marxism is just Marxism with “class” scratched off and “race” written in in crayon.”

      I don’t know if it is even meaningful to say that Peterson’s (or anyone’s) just-so story about a social movement is ‘true’, but the above sure ‘works’. Notwithstanding any academic splitting of hairs, surely Marxism was about class-struggle (good us, evil them, and once We have eliminated Them, the world will be a paradise). As you say, simply replace class with race and everything else works essentially exactly the same: once civilization has been decolonized and the Patriarchy smashed, we’ll have Equity.

    2. Not the whole left, please don’t demonize us. There is a growing class of anti-woke left. Best not to alienate them because they are your allies in this cultural war. Otherwise, 2 thumbs up to everything else you said.

    3. “There is a growing class of anti-woke left.”

      I look forward to joining them when they have made themselves known. Or at least welcoming them, even if my own views are more toward the right. The worst thing about wokeness is that it discredits the entire left.

    4. Agree. I think they have announced themselves – the Areo, Quilette and IDW, wouldn’t you say?

    5. “the Areo, Quilette and IDW, wouldn’t you say?”

      Areo still to small (what can we do about that?), Quillette tends hard right, tho with a few brave lefties. IDW … not so much lefties as line-in-the-sand on fundamental values of Western Civ. Nope, I think I’m asking for some explicitly unwoke but proudly leftist political movement, not just we few chatterers. Imagine (imagine hard) some American Democratic candidate who would say: “The reason so many black lives are lost to police bullets is not that they don’t matter, it is that so many black lives are engaged in crime at the time the police show up.” … or something like that. Or: “Whitey built the most prosperous and free societies in the history of mankind. We should think twice before cancelling him.” … or something like that. But also: “Wall St. has had it all their way for the past several decades. Time to think about working people for a change.”

    6. Quillette is hard right – really! Why do you think so? I share your sentiment about a left politician standing up to the far left race/gender baiting *and* big business.

    7. “Quillette is hard right – really! Why do you think so?”

      Let’s see you there! We can discuss examples in real time.

  6. BTW Ted, right about Dr. Park. His writing is as thick as yours, but you grant us the kindness of paragraph breaks.

  7. Well I dunno if Peterson gets Derrida right or not. But I know my enemies and wherever they came from and however one might label them I know what they are trying to do and I know the worldview that propels them. And I know that Peterson stands against them. Therefore Peterson is my ally and my leader. The rest is academic details which may indeed be interesting.

  8. Good piece. Peterson’s deepest weakness is simply the weakness of the ideology of classical liberalism – that capitalism can be a force for “progress” without hollowing out all culture in the image of capital’s inhuman trajectory. However, this is also part of the right-wing traditionalist critique of Peterson, which would be largely shared by Zizek and many leftists – that capital destroys cultural norms. This is part of the rise of the “anti-woke” left more generally. But when Peterson was at his most prominent, this “anti-woke” left didn’t really exist, and is still largely coming into being. Peterson has been more or less bypassed by history, his work is meaningful to individuals but not so much anymore for a critique of social structures. Still, the fundamental point that the “West”, whatever we take that to mean, has been subsumed by capital, is currently fair game for the trads and the materialist leftists alike. The woke left, which defends the dissolving effects of capital on human culture, should be challenged by more leftists, and Zizek is a good example of one who is, as he openly refused to take on the “left” line of argument against Peterson during their debate. The Marxists and the trad types should ignore the woke types and have a dialogue about what “capital”, “modernity”, “culture”, and “patriarchy” really all mean.

    1. “this “anti-woke” left didn’t really exist, and is still largely coming into being”

      That’s very good news. I await with joy the appearance of a leftie who is not woke. In any case, one can hardly fault Peterson for not engaging with a movement that did not exist. He has many times said that the left is important and I detect no hostility in him to the traditional left, only to wokeness and — as he claims — its neo-Marxist antecedent.

    2. “This is part of the rise of the “anti-woke” left more generally.”

      I’m not really sure what that’s supposed to even mean given that aside from Marxists most of the left opposition to ‘wokeness’ has come from an old school liberal, secular humanist, universalist left.

  9. I largely agree with McManus’ observations about Peterson, Marxism, postmodernism, and capitalism. However, I’d just like here to suggest one possible reason for Peterson’s recent great popularity among college-age American youth that I don’t think has been sufficiently noted either by his defenders nor his detractors. He appeals, I think, to a generation of young people who are no longer as preoccupied with a generational struggle to embrace modernity as their early and mid 20th century counterparts were–to put it bluntly, who are no longer preoccupied with defining their own identities and life-styles against “hick” or “greenhorn” parents. For much of the 20th century, especially in the period from the 1920’s to the 1960’s, a growing proportion of American college students were either second-generation immigrants still in the process of becoming “assimilated” and “Americanized” from Irish, Italian, Jewish, Polish, German, Scandinavian, Greek, Slovak, Hungarian, Lithuanian, etc, family backgrounds, or small-town or rural boys and girls, the first in their family to attend college. In either case, whether second-generation immigrants or “Heartland” WASP’s, those youngsters were often deeply, intensely engaged in the process of adjusting to urban American modernity and leaving behind “old-country,” small-town, rural, or fundamentalist customs, attitudes, and prejudices–often in the throes of rejecting or questioning “old world” views on the proper role and behavior of girls, or fundamentalist objections to smoking, drinking, dancing, movies, Sunday amusements, and Darwinism, or parental objections to dating or marrying a Jew or a Christian. In this context, exposure to liberal or leftist ideas or professors was just one more part of general all-around urban cultural modernity, as much a natural part of the “whole urban modern cultural package” as smoking cigarettes, drinking beer or booze, dancing the fox-trot or jitterbug, listening to jazz, dating a girl or boy that Mom and Dad considered of the “wrong” religion or ethnicity, or “petting” and “necking.” By contrast, our own time’s college-age bots and girls have grown up in a society where many “thoroughly modern” practices once regarded scandalously depraved are now accepted even in rather conservative circles, where once “daring” things like smoking, drinking, dancing, Sunday amusements, movies, and inter-religious or inter-ethnic dating or marriage are “as American as apple pie” and “no big deal.” Thus, left-wing politics is no longer the self-evidently obvious part of liberating yourself from narrow-minded up-tight old-fogey parents that they may have seemed 50. 60, or 70 years ago!

    1. My Dear Doctor Park,

      I truly appreciate your thoughtful and incisive commentary, finding their perusal highly informative

      and intellectually productive of nuanced consideration, but I have a favor to ask of you, sir.

      Would you please consider, in future, dividing your incontrovertibly erudite missives into paragraphs?

      I have the Honour to remain

      Your Humble Servant,


  10. Reading the section under the post-modern Marxist made me realize something about Leftist’s that make me sympathize a lot more with this type of critique of Peterson – the shallowness of most of the New Atheist arguments against religion. When you dismiss St. Thomas Aquinas in 3 or 4 pages, I suspect you don’t take him as seriously as you should (without commenting on the relative truth of his conclusions). Peterson could do a more careful argument, but he suffers from the activist weakness too, where, like Marx, philosophy isn’t there to understand the world, but to change it. While Peterson had the spotlight thrust upon him in many ways, this has also led to him having more of a general audience than most academics will ever encounter. As Matthew knows, I am a fan of Peterson, but I still don’t know exactly what Peterson means when he says “post-modern Marxism” and whether, as pointed out in the article, there is a significant category confusion on the part of Peterson.