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Part 9 (of 15): Peterson on White Privilege

Assessing Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life
by Greg Boyd

“The degree to which the terrible part of the world manifests itself in your life is proportionate to how insufficient you are….If you got your act together completely, maybe all the suffering would disappear from your life, or at least all the unbearable suffering.”
Jordan Peterson

Since our last post was focused on the issue of race, I thought it appropriate to follow it up with a reflection on Peterson’s well-known opposition to the concept of “white privilege,” despite the fact this topic was not addressed in 12 Rules of Life. I will instead evaluate the case Peterson makes against the concept of white privilege at the end of a much-viewed two-hour lecture on Identity Politics.

I first want to offer two preliminary words. First, I am a white person in America while Peterson is a white person in Canada. While there is significant overlap as it concerns race relationships in the histories of our two countries, there are also significant differences. As a result, there are significant differences in the relationship between whites and non-whites, which I think affects the meaning of “white privilege” in our differing contexts. Nuancing this difference lies outside the scope of this post as well as my expertise. For the purposes of this post, I will focus my attention on “white privilege” in America.

Second, because I am focusing on “white privilege” in America, and in order to avoid going down a number of potential rabbit trails, I am only going to speak about the history of race relations in America, and I’m going to restrict my discussion to the relationship between whites, on the one hand, and blacks and Native Americans, on the other. This is not because I think whites are only privileged over these two groups, but because it was these two groups who were most adversely affect when white Europeans conquered North America and established their white-favoring social hierarchy.

Third, and in the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that this was a difficult post for me to write. The topic of race, and especially of “white privilege,” is one that I have passionate convictions about, and as I shared in the previous post, it is very difficult to remain calm and open minded when discussing deeply held convictions with someone you disagree with. Simply put, the provocative video of Peterson that I’ll be reviewing in this post “triggered” me. I found I had to watch it numerous times to make sure I was hearing Peterson correctly (and I acknowledge that I still could be mistaken). And I will admit that I had to take a number of “timeouts” when writing this post to ensure I was reasoning with my frontal lobe rather than reacting with my Amygdala (and I acknowledge that I still could be influenced by my Amygdala). Readers must judge for themselves how successful or unsuccessful I was at this endeavor.

The Case Against White Privilege

In the video under review, Peterson first professes confusion as to “why the post-modernists have made the canonical distinctions they made: race, ethnicity, sexual proclivity [and] gender identity.” (I am unclear as to how Peterson differentiates between “race” and “ethnicity,” or “sexual proclivity” and “gender identity,” but for the purposes of this post, it doesn’t matter). Peterson grants that these are certainly “four dimensions along which people vary,” but, he notes, there are “an infinite number of dimensions along which people vary.” People vary in terms of intelligence, attractiveness, health, wealth, geography, education, height and weight, to name just a few. So, Peterson wonders, why do postmodernists privilege these four dimensions over all the others?

His answer is: “Because it sustains your bloody Marxist interpretation, that’s why!” It’s thus apparent that Peterson believes that the focus on race, as in the claim that white people are privileged, is arbitrary and ideologically driven. (The same holds true about “sexual proclivity” and “gender identity,” but these are outside the scope of this post).

After a few comical slams on the incoherence of post-modernism (with which I completely agree, by the way), Peterson goes on to review some of the alleged marks of white privilege, such as: “I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty sure that I will not be followed or harassed.” He then asks: “Is that white privilege, or… simply majority privilege?” Peterson insists it is the latter and that it is perfectly natural.

Isn’t that just part of living within your culture?….You live in your culture, you’re privileged as a member of that culture. Well obviously, that’s what the culture is for…. Why would you bother building the damn thing if it didn’t accrue benefits to you.

Peterson acknowledges that one of the consequences of majority privilege is that people who aren’t part of the majority “accrue fewer benefits.” But, Peterson argues, “you can’t immediately associate that with race. You can’t just do that and say its white privilege. There’s many things it could be. It certainly could be wealth,” for example.

Peterson then turns the table on those who, in the name of battling racism, contend that white people are privileged by arguing that this allegation is itself racist. “To attribute to the individuals of a community the attributes of that community on the basis of their racial identity is racism. There’s no other way to define it.”

After serving up several more diatribes against post-modernism and on the dangers of the Marxist ideology that Peterson believes is behind it, Peterson draws his lecture to a close by warning us that postmodernists are

…manipulating us with historical ignorance and philosophical sleight-of-hand to render us so God damned guilty about what our ancestors may or may not have done… that we allow our shame and our guilt to be used as tools to manipulate us into accepting a future that we don’t want to have.

There are seven points I’d like to make in response to Peterson’s case against white privilege.

(Deep slow breath).

1. Why Focus on Race?

Peterson is obviously correct that there are an (virtual) infinite number of ways people vary from one another, but I don’t think it’s at all fair to say that people who concern themselves with “race” or “ethnicity,” rather than with any of the other many ways people differ, are doing so because it fits their “bloody Marxist interpretation.”

It wasn’t Marxist-driven ideologues that decided to canonize race as the primary way of distinguishing people in America and (to a lesser degree) Canada. This was decided five hundred years ago when white Europeans enslaved and otherwise brutalized millions of Africans and massacred and betrayed untold numbers of Native Americans. These people didn’t carry out these brutal injustices on the basis of people’s wealth, or attractiveness, or height, or intelligence, or any of the other “infinite….dimensions along which people vary.” It was done on the basis of race. Indeed, the very concept of different races (as opposed to ethnicities) was created by white Europeans in large part to justify enslaving and massacring other ethnicities, which they deemed inferior.

The injustice that was involved in establishing the white hierarchical structure of America (and Canada) reverberates to this day. And in this light, Peterson’s professed confusion about why people (not just postmodernists) are focused on race seems historically naïve.

2. Is It Marxist to Focus on Race?

Related to this, Peterson’s claim that those who concern themselves with race, rather than with any of the many other “dimensions” in which people vary, are driven by “a Marxist ideology” is also off the mark. Yes, there are postmodernists whose concern for race is part of a larger philosophical and social agenda, but it seems to me that Peterson’s opposition to this group has blinded him to the possibility of people focusing on race issues simply because this is where many most of the injustices of western society have taken place in the past, and where many are yet taking place in the present.

For example, does one need to be driven by a Marxist ideology to be troubled by the fact that the so-called “War on Drugs” has been focused on predominantly black inner city neighborhoods and on crack (the “poor man’s cocaine”), despite the fact that numerous studies indicate that whites use illegal drugs at least as much as blacks, though they tend to use cocaine rather than crack?(1) And does one need to be driven by a Marxist ideology to be enraged over the fact that the mandatory sentencing guidelines for crack are literally a hundred times more severe than they are for cocaine, which is just one of the reasons the overwhelming majority of those who are incarcerated during this “War on Drugs” are black?(2)

I care deeply about these things, and yet I have no affinity for Marxist ideology and I believe I’m as opposed to the philosophy of radical postmodernism (deconstructionism) as Peterson is.

3. “White Privilege” is not “Majority Privilege”

I don’t doubt that it’s generally true (though unfortunate) that the people who build a culture and establish the social hierarchies of that culture generally enjoy more benefits than those who are not part of the dominant culture (though, I will argue in a later post that it should not be this way among Kingdom people). But here I think Peterson fails to see the forest through the trees.

It’s one thing for minority groups to “accrue less benefits” than the majority in the culture that the majority established, but quite another thing for a group to establish itself as a majority and establish its preferred culture by invading a land, massacring and stealing from its indigenous population, reducing them to a minority in their own land, and then getting centuries of free labor by importing and enslaving people from Africa! Whites benefited, and continue to benefit, in a multitude of ways from these foundational injustices, and blacks and Native Americans continue to suffer in a multitude of ways from these foundational injustices. For Peterson to treat this as just another example of typical majority privilege is to essentially normalize this racist past and the racist social hierarchy it established.

Peterson claims that “we can’t immediately associate” the privileging of white people “with race” by calling it “white privilege.” “You don’t just get to do that,” he argues, for “[t]here’s many things it could be,” like “wealth,” for example. Now, I agree that we should be open to the possibility that there are a number of factors other than race that might contribute to a comprehensive explanation of the statistically significant economic and social disparities between whites, on the one hand, and blacks and Native Americans, on the other. For example, from the mid-1960’s up to the present, there has been a steady erosion of traditional family values in black communities. The number of children being raised in single parent homes has tripled, and with this, the number of families living in poverty as well as the number of young adults committing crimes and ending up in prison has skyrocketed.

Obviously, this catastrophic shift can’t be explained by appealing to slavery, or to anything else prior to the mid-1960’s. While I would argue that the “War on Drugs” contributed significantly to the sharply increased prison population of blacks, some social scientists have argued that the most obvious explanation is the explosion of the welfare state that began in the mid-1960’s. I am not convinced of this thesis, but it is certainly a consideration to be taken seriously.

At the same time, while I agree that other factors need to be considered, for Peterson to suggest that white/majority privilege might have nothing to do with race strikes me, once again, as historically naïve. You can’t enslave and massacre a race of people for four centuries and then, a century and a half later, claim that the on-going struggles of this people have nothing to do with race! Yes, blacks and whites are finally equal in terms of the law, thanks to the Civil Rights Movement. But the repercussions of slavery in the past as well as the systemic racism that continues to this today are about so much more than laws.

The bottom line is that Peterson and I don’t just benefit because we are part of the majority. We benefit because we are white and we are the indirect beneficiaries of all the injustices our white ancestors perpetrated against others.

I acknowledge this doesn’t mean that white people today should feel personal “shame” and “guilt” for what our ancestors did, as Peterson seems to assume. But it does mean that, as the benefactors of our ancestors’ racial injustices, whites who care about justice should acknowledge their privilege and seek to use it to create opportunities for all who were disadvantaged by the same injustices we benefited from.

Peterson’s view that white privilege is simply an example of normal majority pretends that whiteness is devoid of racial significance. But he doesn’t just get to do that. The racist history that privileges whites over blacks, Native Americans, and others can’t be undone. Nor should it ever be normalized or (what comes to the same thing) swept under the rug by disassociating privilege from whiteness.

4. Misunderstanding White Privilege

I believe Peterson is missing the point when he argues that the concept of “white privilege” is a racist concept. If “white privilege” meant that all individual white people were guilty of racism, then it would indeed be a racist concept. For in this case, the concept would “attribute to the individuals of a community the attributes of that community on the basis of their racial identity.” In reality, however, “white privilege” simply describes the obvious reality that white people tend to enjoy privileges in North America that are not afforded to blacks and some other minority groups. And it acknowledges that this is, to one degree or another, associated with the fact that whites established themselves as the majority in this land and established their white-favoring culture in this land at the expense of African slaves and Native Americans.

In short, “white privilege” is a statement of fact, not a judgment on individuals. And as a statement of fact, I frankly struggle to see how anyone can deny it.

5. A Disturbing Closing Statement

So, we must wonder, why is Peterson so opposed to acknowledging this? The answer, I believe, is found in his closing statement. As we’ve seen, he is convinced that the charge of white privilege is part of an attempt of post-modernists to “render us so God damned guilty about what our ancestors may or may not have done…that we allow our shame and our guilt to be used as tools to manipulate us into accepting a future that we don’t want to have.”

I frankly find this statement to be puzzling, and a bit disturbing, for three reasons.

First, who are these post-modernists who are trying to get us white people to accept a future we don’t want by making us feel guilty for what our ancestors “may or may not have done”? I’ve read and dialogued with numerous thoroughly postmodern people, and I’ve honestly never come across anything resembling the sinister agenda Peterson ascribes to them.

Second, I found it curious that when Peterson railed against white privilege, his language became distinctly parochial. He alleges that the postmodernists are trying to “render us so God damned guilty …that we allow our shame and our guilt…to manipulate us into accepting a future that we don’t want to have.” Who is being referenced by these first-person plural pronouns? White people, obviously.

I will resist the temptation to psychologize why Peterson suddenly talks this way. Instead, I will simply point out the curious fact that Peterson is here identifying himself with, and speaking on behalf of, a social group (white people) that he clearly believes is facing persecution. When representatives of minority groups talk this way, Peterson accuses them of playing identity politics. It’s not clear to me how what Peterson is doing here is any different from that.

Along the same lines, Peterson frequently points out how wrong it is for any member of a group to assume they can speak on behalf of an entire group, as if the group was homogenous. Yet, here Peterson is talking about how postmodernists are trying to make “us” whites feel so “God damned guilty” that we will allow ourselves to be manipulated into “accepting a future we don’t want to have.” I will just note that there are multitudes of white people who would adamantly disagree with this representation of what white people experience and want.

And third, what exactly is the “future” that we [white people] allegedly “don’t want” but that we are supposedly being manipulated into accepting? Whatever else this undesirable future may be, it seems clear that for Peterson, it’s a future in which whites either no longer enjoy special privileges, or a future in which we feel shame and guilt if we do. Which means that the future we white people apparently want, according to Peterson, is a future in which we can feel guiltless as we continue to enjoy our white privilege.

Here again I will just note that there are multitudes of white people who would adamantly disagree with Peterson’s representation of the future that we white people want.

6. Questioning the History of White Racism

I’m also disturbed by Peterson’s reference in his closing statement to “what our [white] ancestors may or may not have done.” What is the point of this qualification? Peterson tips his hand just enough to let us know that he clearly thinks there is some room to doubt some reports of “our [white] ancestors” using, abusing, and killing non-whites, but he leaves the question wide open. His qualification cracks the door just enough that one could easily entertain the possibility that the behavior of our white ancestors toward non-whites was perhaps not nearly as bad as has been reported.

Peterson is perhaps concerned that some postmodernists are exaggerating the horrors that whites inflicted on blacks and Native Americans in the past. I’m personally not aware of any such exaggerations, but let’s assume this is happening. In light of all the horrors that whites inflicted on blacks and Native Americans that are beyond dispute, and in light of the fact that this racist past has usually been minimized in the past and continues to be minimized by right-wing zealots in the present, should Peterson really be all that concerned if someone exaggerated this wrongdoing — so concerned that he would introduce, at the close of a public lecture in which he’s talking about white privilege, an open-ended question about the over-all historical veracity of white racism?

At the very least, this strikes me as unwise and insensitive. Imagine for a moment that you are Jewish and had relatives who endured Nazi concentration camps, with many of them perishing. How would you feel if a highly respected German speaker ended a talk defending the normal “majority privilege” of Germans in Germany by saying he will not be made to feel guilty about things the Third Reich “may or may not have done”? Precisely because the qualification is indeterminate, this speaker just legitimized the perspective of those who deny that the Holocaust, which your ancestors endured, ever happened.

7. Acknowledging the Meaning of Whiteness

I’ll end with an observation. Peterson embraces a radically individualistic perspective in which every individual is “a minority of one.” He resists any group identification that would lessen the uniqueness of each individual, which is one of the reasons he is so opposed to identity politics, why he hates group generalizations, why he is wary of anyone claiming to represent a people group, and why he doesn’t approve of “white privilege.” To this same end, both in 12 Rules of Life and in lectures and interviews, Peterson delights in showing how frequently people are mistaken when they make assumptions about individuals based on the group they belong to.

I think Peterson’s individualist perspective and pushback on group identifications yields many insights. And, I should in fairness add, his strong stance against all forms of “collectivist thinking” distances him from the Alt-Right and especially from White Supremacy groups. But I also suspect Peterson’s strongly individualistic perspective prevents him from seeing, or at least from fully appreciating, the reality and significance of the larger inter-human wholes each individual is a part of.

While every individual is utterly unique, it is also true that they are who they are by virtue of things they have in common with others. To one degree or another, they are who they are because they belong to a particular race, have a particular gender (or not), belong to a particular family, are part of a particular history, and participate in a particular culture. And while the shared features that identify a person as belonging to a particular group should never cause us to minimize their individual uniqueness, I believe we also need to be concerned that we not allow their individual uniqueness to minimize the significance of the features they have in common with others.

Jordan Peterson is radically unique, but he shares the trait of being white with other white people, past and present, including those who conquered North America and established the white-favoring social hierarchy. This is part of who Jordan Peterson is, as it is part of who I am, and whether Peterson acknowledges it or not, it has a great deal of cultural significance. But if there is anything I took away from the video I’ve been discussing, it’s that Peterson doesn’t see this. For example, I can’t see how any white person could see this and yet go on to argue that “white privilege” is simply normal “majority privilege.”

I suspect Peterson fails to see the significance of his whiteness in part because his radically individualistic perspective blinds him to it. But I’m virtually certain Peterson fails to see this because of his own white privilege. For if Peterson was black or brown, pretending that his race didn’t mean anything probably wouldn’t be a viable option. At least for most black and brown people in America, they encounter the meaning of blackness and brownness on a daily basis.

Among other things, it means you don’t get to go shopping alone and not have to worry about being followed or harassed.

White people in America have the luxury of not being reminded on a regular basis what it means to be white. Our whiteness allows most of us to float above the harsh realities that regularly remind blacks, Native Americans, and others what their race means. In fact, most white people don’t even think about themselves as white. And this, I suspect, is why it is easy for Peterson to overlook the cultural significance of his whiteness.

The thing is, none of us get to decide the meaning that our skin color and ethnicity has in our particular social and historical context, let alone whether or not it has any meaning. We inherit this, the same way we inherit the meaning of words in the language we use. And if we are concerned with working for justice and with improving race relations in our land, we have to acknowledge this meaning and grapple with it.

As Peterson frequently says, you have to honestly face reality before you can understand how to improve it (203-30).

___ ___ ___

(1) See M. Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2012). 49-52.

(2) Alexander, The New Jim Crow, 109.

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