Part 19 (of 20) — Peterson’s Most Controversial Interview
Assessing Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules of Life
For the final two posts of my Peterson series, I’d like to evaluate Peterson’s most controversial interview and then close this series with a discussion on the possible reasons why Peterson has gained such a remarkably large audience over the last two years.
I think that everyone who follows Peterson extensively would agree that the interview that has generated the most controversy is one in which Peterson discusses whether or not men and women can work together in the workplace without sexual harassment taking place. Many defenders of Peterson have argued that Vice News, which conducted and aired this interview, edited it in a way that made Peterson sound sexist. If you listen to the edited interview side-by-side with the unedited interview, I think these defenders have a point. I will therefore base my comments on the un-edited version, but I’ll use a clip that plays the two versions side-by-side so readers can discern for themselves the extent to which Vice News did or did not intentionally distort Peterson’s discussion.1
The controversial part of this interview begins when Peterson suggests that sexual harassment isn’t going to stop in the near future because “we don’t know what the rules are” when men and women work together. To illustrate his point, Peterson proposes one such rule that he believes needs discussing. “How about no makeup in the workplace?” he wonders. “Why should you wear makeup in the workplace? Isn’t that sexual provocative?”
Jay Caspian Kang, who conducts this interview, is clearly baffled as to why Peterson would think makeup is sexual provocative, so Peterson explains: “Why do you make your lips red?” he asks. “Because they turn red during sexual arousal. Why do you put rouge on your cheeks? Same reason.” Kang then asks if Peterson is suggesting that women who put on makeup before going to work have “sexualized themselves,” to which Peterson replies: “That’s what makeup is for. Jesus, that’s self-evident! Why else would you wear makeup?”
Peterson then turns his attention to high heels.
How about high heels? They’re to exaggerate sexual attractiveness. That’s what high heels do. They tilt your pelvis forward so your hips stick out. That’s what they do. And they tighten up your calve muscles. They’re a sexual display.
Peterson makes it clear, especially in the uncut version of this interview, that he is “not saying people shouldn’t use sexual displays in the workplace.” But he is saying that this is what women who wear makeup and high heels at work are doing, and he thinks it’s a topic that needs to be discussed.
At one point the interviewer avers that most people do not think that wearing makeup to work is “inviting an atmosphere of sexuality into the workplace,” to which Peterson replies, “I would say that. That’s exactly what it’s doing. Why else would you wear lipstick?” Indeed, Peterson says “you’re absolutely naive if you don’t think it has anything to do with sexuality.”
When asked if he believes wearing makeup or high heels “contributes to sexual harassment in the work place” and renders sexual harassment “more likely,” Peterson responds: “Sure it contributes” (though, when later asked once again if these things “contribute to sexual harassment in the work place,” Peterson replied “I don’t know”). The interviewer then asks Peterson if he felt that “a serious woman who does not want sexual harassment in the work place…[but] “who wears makeup …is being somewhat hypocritical?” Peterson’s response is blunt. “Yeah, I do think that. I don’t see how you could not think that. It’s like, makeup is sexual display. That’s what it’s for!”
To reiterate, Peterson explicitly denies that he is suggesting that employers should ban women from wearing makeup, lipstick or high heels at the work place. Nor is he providing any excuse for men (usually) sexually harassing women who wear makeup and high-heels (or anyone else). He is rather simply engaging in a thought experiment and “pushing a limit case” to illustrate the kinds of questions he believes we need to be asking if we hope to reduce the amount of sexual harassment that takes place when women and men work together.
I have a dear friend whose son was getting very interested in Peterson, so she got on the internet to do a little research on him. Unfortunately, this interview was the first thing she came upon. She found Peterson in this interview to be so offensive that she said she could never take anything he said seriously. Indeed, she was very puzzled, and not a little irritated with me, that I would legitimize “such a sexist” by writing a twenty-part series on him.
I completely understand her point. If I hadn’t already read 12 Rules of Life and watched a sizable number of lectures on Peterson before encountering this interview, I might very well have come to the same conclusion. Like many people, I usually find Peterson’s willingness to fly in the face of political correctness and to discuss taboo subjects to be refreshing, as I’ll discuss in the final post in this series. In this interview, however, his anti-PC rhetoric was simply offensive – at least to me and my friend.
I’ll offer three comments before considering explanations for Peterson’s remarks in this interview.
First, Peterson suggests that sexual harassment happens in the workplace, at least in part, because “we don’t know what the rules are.” So, if we established clear cut guidelines for men and women working together, perhaps sexual harassment in the workplace would be reduced, if not be eliminated. To be perfectly frank, I consider this suggestion to be so patently absurd that I have trouble believing Peterson himself really believes it.
Are we really to believe that the main problem with men like Bill O’Rielly, Roger Ailes, and Harvey Weinstein is that they didn’t know what “the rules” were? I rather submit that when these men used their power to coerce women into having sex with them, they knew perfectly well they were breaking “the rules,” because we all know the basic rules about what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate sexual behavior with co-workers. To illustrate, are there any working American or Canadian male or female that is unclear about the following two “rules”?
* You aren’t allowed to threaten negative consequences or offer positive gains to a co-worker as a means of getting them to engage in any sort of sexual behavior.
* When a person says “No” or in any other way indicates that they are uncomfortable with your behavior, you must immediately discontinue that behavior.
These “rules” aren’t exactly rocket science. Anyone who claims they don’t know these rules is either lying or is seriously mentally challenged.
This isn’t to deny that circumstances may arise where general guidelines, which we all know, are ambiguous and misunderstandings can occur. Such circumstances will inevitably arise from time to time when men and women are working together. But the epidemic of sexual harassment that is presently being exposed in western culture has little to do with this ambiguity.
Second, it strikes me as seriously misguided for Peterson to address the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace by turning his attention to the way women dress. Sexual harassment in the work place happens because men (for the most part) use their position and authority — and sometimes their brute strength — to get women (for the most part) to engage in sexual activity they would rather not engage in. This behavior is utterly inexcusable, and whether the victims happen to be wearing lipstick and high heels or are dressed in a full body hajib with sneakers is utterly beside the point. To make this issue about women’s apparel and makeup, which Peterson does in this interview, gives the impression that Peterson believes woman are somehow at least partly to blame for whatever harassment they receive. In fact, Peterson actually comes close to saying this explicitly when he affirms the outlandish claim that a woman who says she “doesn’t want sexual harassment in the workplace” but who nevertheless wears “makeup and high heels” is being “somewhat hypocritical.”
Now, based on my reading of Peterson’s 12 Rules of Life as well as from the many interviews and lectures I’ve now watched, I know that Peterson actually places the responsibility for sexual harassment solely on the individual men (mostly) who chose to engage in this reprehensible behavior. There was even a hint of this in the Vice interview. When Kang asked him what could be done about harassment in the workplace, Peterson suggested that banning all “sexual tension” in the workplace would create a tyrannical work environment and would have numerous negative consequences. But “there are other solutions,” Peterson adds. “You could allow for a certain amount of sexual tension and then not act on it in a reprehensible manner.” This comment pins the the blame for sexual harassment squarely on those who act in a “reprehensible manner.” In the context of this interview, however, this point almost comes across as an incidental comment, when it should have been front and center throughout t the discussion.
Finally, while there are undoubtedly cases in which an attention-seeking woman wears makeup, high heels, and sexual suggestive clothing to the workplace as a “sexual display” and in order to introduce “an atmosphere of sexuality into the workplace,” this is not why women generally wear makeup and high heels, as Kang points out. Peterson’s claim that the practice of wearing makeup originated for “sexual display” sounds reasonable enough, but the relevance of this insight to the topic of sexual harassment in the workplace is far from clear. The reason a practice originated and the reason it continues are two very different things. For example, I doubt anyone putting lights on a Christmas tree this year is doing so to ward off demons, but that is why the custom originated in Europe during the Middle Ages.
It seems to me that women generally wear makeup and high heels for the same reason everyone showers now and then, combs their hair, brushes their teeth, tries to hide facial blemishes, and wears clothing that conceals their more undesirable features. We aren’t trying to sexually arouse anyone. We just naturally want to look and smell our best, or at least not our worst, when around other people.
From other things I’ve read and heard from Peterson, I’m virtually certain Peterson would agree that most women aren’t consciously or intentionally putting on make-up or wearing high heels as a “sexual display.” Along with a number of other evolutionary psychologists, Peterson rather believes these things are “sexual displays” in their effect, and they tend to have this effect for reasons that tie into our evolutionary past and that typically reside well below the level of our consciousness.2 Peterson failed to communicate this clearly in this interview, however, which is why he comes across as placing some of the blame for sexual harassment on victims who wear makeup and high heels to work. Indeed, by affirming that a woman who wears makeup to work while claiming to not want to be sexually harassed is being “somewhat hypocritical,” Peterson gives the distinct impression that this woman is making a conscious choice to engage in “sexual displays,” despite the fact that I’m virtually certain Peterson doesn’t believe this is usually the case.
After everything I’ve learned about Peterson over the last two months, I am frankly nonplussed as to why Peterson performed so poorly in this particular interview. My aforementioned female friend has one possible explanation. She suspects this interview reflects Peterson’s own sexist view of women as well as his own personal struggles with women who wear makeup and high heels. My friend believes that, as men have frequently done throughout history, Peterson is projecting his own struggles onto the women he is struggling with, thereby making their makeup and high heels the problem rather than owning this struggle as his own.
As I mentioned earlier, I fully understand how this interview led my friend to this suspicion, especially since she was unfamiliar with anything else, let alone everything else, that Peterson has said on the topic of male and female relationships, and he has said a lot. I haven’t listened to all this material, but I’ve listened to quite a lot over the last two months, and I have to say that, other than the interview we’re currently discussing, I haven’t found anything that would justify the conclusion that Peterson is a “sexist.” In fact, in most of the material I’ve watched, Peterson usually sounds to me like he is a progressive egalitarian!
To be clear, I think Peterson’s perspective on order, chaos, and male and female archetypes inadvertently favors men over women, primarily because the archetypes he consistently appeals to reflect a male perspective and are, not surprisingly, biased in favor of men, as I argued in an earlier post (see post 7). Moreover, Peterson adamantly believes there are statistically significant inherent psychological and biological differences between men and women, which is enough for some of his post-modernist critics, who think gender is a social construct, to label him a sexist. I strongly disagree with this criticism, but I have to grant that there are times when Peterson speaks of inherent gender differences almost as if they were absolute (though at other times he is more qualified). But none of this justifies the conclusion that Peterson is a “sexist.”
On top of this, while in this interview (and sometimes elsewhere) Peterson sounds like he is just expressing his own personal opinions, his perspectives on the variables that contribute to a “sexualized environment” are based on a wealth of anthropological and psychological research.3 One may of course disagree with the conclusions of this research, for it is not uncontroversial. But the very fact that his views are based on scholarly research counts against any suggestion that Peterson was simply projecting his own personal struggles onto women in the Vice interview.
So why did Peterson come across so poorly in this interview? Peterson likes to state things in provocative, politically incorrect ways, and I initially thought that he just went overboard in this interview. I still think there is some truth to this view, but conversations with my good friend Cory Wright, whom I mentioned in my previous point, has convinced me that something else was also going on.
I now suspect that Jay Caspian Kang simply succeeded in getting under Peterson’s skin. In fact, Peterson admits as much in an interview in which he discussed the Vice interview.4 Without mentioning him by name, Peterson said that he felt like Kang was “smug” and came at this discussion with “an air of intellectual condescension.” In Peterson’s words, Kang’s attitude was from the start:
I know what you’re doing, and I know what’s up, and I know how to take you apart, and I know that whatever you’re talking about is just an attempt to defend your reprehensible opinions.
This clearly ticked Peterson off. If you watch the entire two-hour interview, I can’t say that Kang’s “smugness” is obvious, but the tension between him and Peterson often is. Peterson has several times publicly admitted that his greatest weakness is that he can “get riled up,” especially when confronting liberal smugness, and he admits that he allowed this weakness to be “exploited” in this interview.
I suspect that this is why Peterson was so argumentative, unnuanced and offensive in the section of the interview in which he and Kang discuss men and women working together. Had Peterson been able to remain calm and collected, as he admits he should have done, I’m quite sure he would have made it abundantly clear that he believes the perpetrator of sexual harassment is solely responsible for his (or her) reprehensible actions, as he does elsewhere. I also think Peterson would have clarified that to say something “contributes” to a “sexualized environment” that renders sexual harassment “more likely” is not at all to suggest that something causes sexual harassment. In other words, he would have made it perfectly clear that he is not placing any of the blame on victims of sexual harassment.
Moreover, had Peterson been thinking straight, I’m quite certain he would have been much more nuanced than he was about the contexts in which make-up and high heels may contribute to a “sexualized environment,” and contexts in which they do not. And he would have made it clear that in making these claims, he was not merely expressing his own personal opinion, as Kang understandably assumed, but was rather speaking from an evolutionary perspective with a good bit of scientific scholarship to back him up – had he not allowed himself to get triggered.
In this light, I’m inclined to consider this controversial video to be something of a fluke, and I consider it extremely unfortunate. In fact, while Peterson grants that his penchant for getting “riled up” was “exploited” in this interview, I personally think it would have been helpful – and perhaps might still be helpful – if Peterson owned the mistakes he made in this interview more explicitly and apologized for them. For, as my female friend’s experience demonstrates, if a person listens to this interview without any prior knowledge of Peterson’s philosophy, it would be understandable for them to write Peterson off as a sexist and dismiss anything else he has to say.
Which is unfortunate, if for no other reason than because, while I obviously have fundamental disagreements with him, I’ve also discovered that Peterson has a lot of good and helpful things to say – when he’s not “riled up.”
___ ___ ___
3 See the previous footnote.