There’s a storm brewing in Durham.
Durham, a city in the middle of North Carolina with a population of around 260,000, is deeply progressive. It’s one point in the Research Triangle, a three-city region that is home to several major universities (Duke in Durham, the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State in Raleigh) as well as tech companies, pharmaceutical firms, and other big businesses with lots of IP and cash. Of the three cities in the Research Triangle, Durham is, historically, the blackest, with a majority black population and a large black middle class. At one point, downtown Durham was known as “Black Wall Street.”
The demographics have changed significantly in recent years: 20 years ago, you never saw Duke students downtown, but the low cost of housing and opportunities for development have attracted an increasing number of white artists, queers, students, and entrepreneurs, and now it’s the kind of city with more boutique hotels and cocktail bars than jazz joints. (I was part of this shift: I moved there in 2010, and lived in Walltown, a once-black neighborhood named for the wall separating the residents from Duke). Despite the shifting demographics, Durham is still deeply progressive, even for a Southern city, and so when I heard that Jordan B. Peterson was coming to town, I had a feeling that Durham wasn’t going to take it.
If you’ll allow me to quote myself, Jordan B. Peterson is “a controversial Canadian psychologist and University of Toronto professor who burst into international fame through a massively popular series of YouTube lectures on psychology, personality, personal responsibility, and a bunch of other shit that doesn't really seem like it would go viral on a platform more famous for Justin Bieber vids,” as I wrote in a recent review of his live show in Seattle. He’s huge, with YouTube views in the millions and fans across the world who show up to his events, read his books (even the big one), and shill out money for his self-help programs.
Some people (like my colleague Rich Smith) hate him, others (his many, many fans) love him, and the two camps cannot seem to agree on the basics. The haters say Peterson is racist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, etc. In response, the fans say “Okay, where’s the evidence?” This is largely where the conversation breaks down, because, despite the man’s reputation for bigotry, when you ask for proof of the claims, you get lot of statements like “it’s obvious,” but much less actual fact.
This morning, for instance, I was engaged in a stupid Twitter fight with a media person in LA, who claims that Peterson is racist. When I asked for evidence, she sent me a link to a 2016 tweet that was taken wildly out of context. She also sent a screenshot of a Vox article that said Peterson “referred to developing nations as 'pits of catastrophe' in a speech to a Dutch far-right group.” In fact, the Dutch “far-right group” he was speaking to was actually a conference in which both conservatives and progressives were invited to attend and debate immigration and Dutch culture, although apparently not many progressives actually showed up.
At the conference, Peterson said: “When we insist that the immigrants who come to our countries, to become beneficiaries of the game that we're playing, follow the rules, we are not merely saying; 'we have a culture, you have a culture, you're in our culture, so you should follow our rules', what we're saying instead is: 'We have inherited a culture and it seems to work. It works well enough so that we're happy to be here, and many people would like to be, and if you want to come to our culture and be a beneficiary of the game, then you have to abide by the rules that produce the game. We're not saying that you have to do it because it's ours, or because we're proud of it, or because in some sense we're right as individuals, or even as a culture. We're saying it because we've been fortunate enough to observe what the rules that make a functioning society actually are, and sensible enough, thank God, most of the time, to follow them well enough so that there are a few countries on the planet that aren't absolute pits of catastrophe.'"
Referring to developing nations as “pits of catastrophe” may be insensitive at best, Trumpian at worst, but it’s also true that developing nations do have more than their fair share of “catastrophe,” both natural and man-made (including from colonialism and Western intervention itself). Peterson’s statement may be pro-assimilation, but he’s not saying that any one culture or society is inherently better than any other. He’s saying, if you join a new community, play by that community’s rules because they probably work. Is that really grounds to scream “racist”? In 2018, I suppose, yes.
Peterson does argue against identity politics and the concept of “white privilege.” Last year, for instance, in a lecture at the University of British Columbia Free Speech Club, he argued that white privilege is being confused with majority and class privilege. This, to some people, is inherently racist as well. In The Indy, Durham’s local alt-weekly, writer Laura Bullard wrote an open letter to the Durham Performing Arts Center (or DPAC), the venue set to host Peterson’s talk.
“Dear DPAC,” it began, “Might we have a quick word.”
Bullard goes on to list Peterson’s crimes as she perceives them.
First, Peterson believes that “white privilege isn't real”—but, of course, reverse racism is—and that intersectionality is “really comical,” because there are an infinite number of ways in which people can be marginalized. “What if you’re black and female? … What if you’re ugly and not very bright and gay and black and female?” he asks. The list goes on! Difference is inevitable! We can’t build a national ethos around accommodation, can we? Peterson goes onto [sic] explain that the scholarship around oppression is never scholarly, and can never be scholarly, because it is based on personal experience. Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman be damned!
This, DPAC, is what racism looks like. And in a city that is 62.1 percent nonwhite (and is located, to further contextualize, in a state that existed under the calloused thumb of Jim Crow until the 1960s), you cannot afford to casually entertain it. We won’t stand for it.
There’s plenty more that “we” won’t stand for, including what Bullard sees as Peterson’s misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, endorsement of rape culture, etc etc etc. And on some of these claims, she may have a point: Peterson has said that children are better off with a mom and a dad than two dads or two moms. This isn’t just contrary to the research, it also just doesn’t make sense: Same-sex couples don’t drink too much tequila one night and wake up pregnant. Becoming parents requires investment, planning, and sometimes even surrogacy or adoption. If people are willing to go through that process, believe me, they want to parent.
But Peterson’s point (and you can watch him yourself) wasn’t that gay people are unfit to parent; it’s that children are better off with both male and female role models in their lives. This, frankly, doesn’t seem all that homophobic to me (and I'm actually a homosexual): plenty of same-sex parents make a point of having opposite-sex adults in their children’s lives. Peterson, however, isn’t great with outliers. He seems to see males as masculine, females as feminine, and little overlap between the two. This might be true in his own seemingly traditional household (Peterson and his wife have been together since childhood) but it certainly doesn’t comport with mine. Still, I’m not sure thinking children need both men and women in their lives reaches the level of “homophobia.” Ignorance, maybe, but hate? He’s a Canadian psychologist with a gay sidekick, not Mike Pence.
Bullard also claims Peterson is transphobic because he came to fame after saying he would reject this use of gender-neutral pronouns if “compelled” to do so under Canadian law. This was more a stance on free speech than trans politics—when I saw Peterson speak recently, he said that he’s actually never refused to use anyone’s pronoun, he just doesn’t want to be told that he must do it. It’s a bit of a toddler-sized argument (“You can’t make me!!!”) but is it transphobic? If you ask Laura Bullard, the answer is yes. She writes, “This, DPAC, is what transphobia looks like (albeit couched in faux-academic, linguistic whininess).... You cannot afford to casually entertain it. We won’t stand for it.”
Bullard continues, “Finally, in October 2016, Peterson was questioned by trans student activists about the Nazi presence at one of his talks. He generally condemned the violence but went on to explain, ‘I’ve studied Naziism for a very long time—it’s been four decades—and I understand it very well. And I can tell you that there’s some awful people lurking in the corners and they are ready to come out. And if the radical left keeps pushing the way it’s pushing, they are going to come.’ This, DPAC, is what a threat looks like.”
Actually, DPAC, that’s what a warning looks like, but Bullard’s piece caught the eye of Durham city leaders, including Jillian Johnson, Mayor Pro Tem of the City Council. In a Facebook post, Johnson wrote,
We recently learned from coverage in the Indyweek that the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC) has invited Jordan Peterson to speak in the venue this September. Though the DPAC is owned by the City of Durham, the theater’s management companies, Nederlander & PFM, are entirely responsible for the choice of shows and performers who appear at the venue. We would like to be clear that we respect Mr. Peterson’s right to hold his opinions and to freely state his opinions without government interference. However, we wish to emphasize that a person’s right to free speech does not include the right to a platform or an audience. As many in our community have been disturbed and angered by Mr. Peterson’s racist, misogynist, and transphobic views, we would like to use this opportunity to reiterate our commitments and values to all of you as your elected representatives.
We believe that Durham is a place for all of us - black, white, Asian, Latinx, indigenous, and mixed-race, trans and cis, gay and lesbian, queer, and straight, disabled and able-bodied, young and elderly, women, men, and non-binary, native and immigrant, secular and people of faith. Those who seek to exclude or deny the humanity of others will find no comfort here.
We believe that everyone in our city should have the opportunity to thrive in an equitable and inclusive community. We understand that this opportunity has been intentionally and unjustly denied to many of our residents on the basis of race, class, gender, and other aspects of their identities. We are committed to taking action to remedy these injustices.
We honor single parents, non-nuclear families, gay, lesbian, and queer families, and chosen families who are building lives full of love and support for each other and for the children in our community. We believe that all types of families raise healthy children who are prepared to succeed and make a positive contribution to the world.
We believe that men and women are equally competent leaders and thinkers and that women should be in leadership roles in our community. We believe that violence against women is horrific and unacceptable under any circumstances. Women do not owe anyone access to or any level of control over their bodies or sexuality. We honor trans and non-binary residents and believe that respecting each other requires a commitment to using the names and pronouns that each of us identifies with. We will do all that we can to ensure that trans and non-binary people feel safe and respected in our community.
We invite the Durham community to recommit ourselves to these values as a city and a community and to reject and resist bigotry wherever we encounter it.
This was signed by Johnson, as well as Mayor Steve Schewel and the rest of the Durham City Council. Soon after, the story began to spread. Peterson responded to The Indy's story as well as the City Council’s letter on his own blog. He points out some factual errors in the the City Council’s letter (he wasn’t invited by DPAC; he rented out the space) and, in typical Peterson fashion, he is both defensive, dismissive, and turns to personality analysis right off the bat:
"Consider this," he writes, "people who run theatrical operations are likely to be high in openness to experience (the very trait that also best predicts left-leaning political views). Thus, the DPAC administrators being thrown under the bus for committing a crime (inviting me) that they didn’t even commit are likely of similar political mindset to the councilors and mayor/mayor pro tem. What could possibly motivate such an act? (other than desire to deflect responsibility for my appearance in Durham). Here’s an answer: There is little self-aggrandizement involved in claiming moral superiority to me (particularly given my reprehensible characteristics, as outlined below). But if the mayor/mayor pro tem and the councilors can claim moral superiority even to their left-leaning compatriots, then they shine forth from the background ever so much more brightly and purely—better as they apparently are even than those already on the side of the true and the good.”
Ouch. As Peterson has never met the members of the Durham City Council (just as they’ve never met him) it seems unlikely he would know their internal motivations, but I happen to be Facebook friends with Jillian Johnson, so I reached out and asked her about his claim that she was just virtue signaling for the left.
“Communicating my values to my constituents is part of my job,” she said. “I’m not that worried about how people who don’t share those values and don’t live in my community react.”
Johnson had never heard of Peterson before she read Bullard’s piece in the paper, and afterward, she told me she watched a couple of his videos to see what he’s about for herself.
“I agreed with The Indy article that some of [his ideas] are misogynist, transphobic, etc.,” she said. “But I didn't think it was hate speech and didn't think it made sense to call for him to be canceled. He's not Richard Spencer. More like a white boy's Deepak Chopra with some rape culture on the side. There were serious concerns about him in the paper and the DPAC is a city-owned facility, so I felt we needed to respond in some way.”
And that, I think, has also gotten lost in this fight, because the Durham City Council didn’t actually demand that Peterson be canceled. In fact, they asserted that Peterson does have the right to speak without government interference—just as they have the right to make a public statement about him coming to town and others have the right to stand outside his performance waving signs if they feel so inclined. Still, after Johnson's letter was published, she was swamped with negative comments (though many positive as well). Peterson’s fans (much like their guru) are defensive, and it’s not all that hard to see why. Peterson, in many cases, has changed these people’s lives. His videos, lectures, and self-help book has inspired them to take responsibility for themselves, and, contrary to much of the media coverage about him, he’s helped people who otherwise feel alienated and shrugged off by the left turn away, not toward, the alt-right.
I know this because I’ve spoken to his fans, both online as well as at his shows in Seattle and in Vancouver, where he debated Sam Harris about the utility of religion last month. The shows were surprisingly diverse, with large numbers of non-white people, of women, and of both the young and the old, many of whom had flown across the U.S. to see him speak. But, when Peterson's fans see people calling him racist, sexist, etc. they lash out, taking to Twitter and Facebook and everywhere else, attacking anyone who attacks their man right back. This has the effect of making his fans seem rabid, unhinged—even if it's only a small, vocal minority doing the yelling—and so, Peterson's critics dismiss their concerns, arguing that anyone who follows Peterson must be a bigot too. No one wins in this cycle, but truth and reason and fact are quickly forgotten.
I’m not a Jordan Peterson fan. I think personality analysis in particular (and social psychology in general) is about as valid and even less interesting than astrology, and I find his reliance on metaphors and allegories to be dull, hard to interpret, and based more in an outsized love of storytelling than on science itself. I also find him overly traditional, regressive, and I think he should spend as much time talking about collective social responsibility as he does self-empowerment. He has also said some weird shit about women. But I don't think that he is the alt-right or the alt-light and when the media misrepresents human beings, and those misrepresentations are taken as fact, I find myself in the uncomfortable position of defending someone I don’t particularly like.
As I’ve written before, Jordan Peterson is psych 101 packaged in a three-piece suit. He’s only a threat because the media (and some cities and some protestors) have decided he is, but every time some city pitches a fit about Jordan B. Peterson, all they are doing is bringing more people into his orbit. If the goal is really to shut him up, trying to de-platform the man is going to do anything but.
In Seattle, we have a city ordinance that prevents businesses from denying people service based on their political beliefs, so while it’s possible Jordan Peterson could get kicked out of some venue or Durham’s finest new craft cocktail bar for what he believes (or for what other people believe he believes), in Seattle, that’s an illegal act. Last week in Crosscut, Nate Christiansen argued that this local ordinance needs to be repealed. He was talking not about Jordan Peterson but about Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was kicked out of a Virginia restaurant a few weeks ago. “People here should be able to throw out Sanders, too, if they wish,” he writes. But, if businesses in Seattle can kick Sarah Huckabee Sanders (or Jordan Peterson) out, there’s nothing preventing businesses from kicking out people with Black Lives Matter t-shirts or Hillary Clinton hats. The law doesn’t just protect people with odious beliefs; it protects everyone else too.
This issue is complex. I reached out to every member of the Seattle City Council as well as Mayor Jenny Durkan and the ACLU, and every single one either ignored me or declined to tell me if this law should repealed. A spokesperson for Washington chapter of the ACLU said, “We don’t have anything to say about that.” And that’s a shame. Because while the left is over here refusing to talk, the right has realized that once liberal values like open-mindedness and tolerance and free speech are theirs for the taking. To be sure, this is a lie—the right cares no more about tolerance or free speech than than they do about fighting climate change—but they are successfully using these values to turn people against the left. PragerU, Breitbart, the Federalist, Fox News, and other conservative groups are pushing the myth that Republicans are the party of tolerance, and it’s working because everywhere people look, the left is attempting to shut people like Jordan Peterson down. This will not have the intended effect: Like Jillian Johnson told me, Jordan Peterson is not Richard Spencer, and when people realize that he’s being mischaracterized by much of the left (and he is), they aren’t going to turn against him, they are going to turn against us. And that is a much bigger problem than his one-night show in Seattle, in Durham, or anywhere else.