Is Jordan Peterson a gateway to the alt-right?
A new study suggests maybe — but it's still better to engage than to demonise
There’s an interesting analysis over at Heterodox Academy on whether exposure to Jordan Peterson serves as a sort of gateway drug to more extreme (Alt-Right) political material. According to the author Joel Finkelstein, “whether consumption of his content serves as a gateway drug to more alt-right content, lend themselves to empirical investigation.”
I’d love to believe that Peterson doesn’t lead to the harder stuff. Unfortunately, that’s not what Finkelstein concludes:
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Critically, these analyses do not support the notion that Peterson himself is an extremist or Nazi-sympathizer, and none of us believe that such accusations are credible. We also think that it is highly unlikely that Peterson himself knows about these trends. Indeed, we were ourselves surprised by the findings. Thus, these analyses should not be taken as an attack on Peterson’s character or motives.
Unfortunately, most people in the media and academia don’t have the same sort of high principles as the folks at Heterodox Academy, because the political elephant usually leads the impartial analytical rider – and so cancelling Peterson is what they’ll try to do.
I do think, however, that successfully pulling people away from extremism requires engaging with their ideas, as Jordan Peterson does. Steven Pinker received some trouble a while back for pointing out that young men are drawn into radical Right politics because they were “exposed for the first time to true statements that have never been voiced on college campuses or the New York Times or respectable media that are like a bacillus to which they have no immunity… and no defence to taking them to repellent conclusions”.
Pinker was talking about blank slate ideas, opposition to which is at the core of the online Right. Peterson attracts interest among the same crowd because he talks about highly-controversial beliefs that are quite clearly true — average personality differences between men and women, for example, which like all social patterns are partly genetic — but which only outsiders and extremists will now talk about.
The blank slate is untrue — lots of clever young guys know this but mainstream conservatives don’t touch the subject. Ironically the best counter to radical Right thought I’ve read comes from Scott Alexander, who’s a liberal but anti-blank slate, and open to debating opponents in good faith.
Alexander’s “Anti-reactionary FAQ” blogpost, for example, is a perfect example of how to reason with extreme ideas.
But that’s the exception; most of the time radical Right-wing ideas aren’t actually engaged with; they’re just told that they’re bad people (which some of them no doubt are) and their beliefs about demographic change are “conspiracy theories”. It’s an ill-judged approach, since ideas aren’t dangerous because they’re wrong, they’re dangerous because they’re half-right.
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