by Patrick McAuliffe Jr.
I was first introduced to Dr. Jordan Peterson in the middle of January when he was interviewed on Channel 4 News by Cathy Newman. As she constantly tried to strawman his arguments about the gender pay gap, modern masculinity, and transgender activists, Peterson calmly explained how he arrived at his conclusions and refused to take her intellectual bait. He is not specifically a Ben Shapiro or Milo Yiannopoulis by trade; instead, this University of Toronto professor of psychology merely happens to have ideas that many on the political right find appealing. Beyond his book 12 Rules for Life that gives tips to today’s men and his analysis of the gender pay gap through multiple factors, Peterson has one intriguing idea that pertains to an expensive crustacean dinner. He seeks to use the lobster as evidence of the existence of human hierarchies beyond a socio-cultural basis. (By the way, if you think a discussion of lobsters and gender is not exactly fit for a Sex Issue, gender = sex. And there are only two.)
Dr. Peterson examined the nervous systems of lobsters, a species which he claims we share a common ancestor with, and has used the apparent similarities to the human nervous system as a way to tie the two animals together. For example, the same serotonin exists in the brains of both lobsters and humans, and allegedly, human antidepressants work on lobsters. With this basic connection established, Peterson jumps to looking at lobster “society” in which there are gendered hierarchies between male and female lobsters, with male lobsters usually on top. Because animals without speech or capacity for reason, like lobsters, have natural hierarchies, Peterson deduces that humans must also have these natural hierarchies that are independent of any social convention.
Before he went on Channel 4 News and defended himself from what he calls Cathy Newman’s “animus possession” (a Jungian term that means using arbitrary opinions to provoke a challenge), Dr. Peterson first made headlines when he refused to obey Bill C-16 in 2016. This Canadian bill added not using somebody’s proper gender pronouns as grounds for discrimination. Peterson saw this as another instance of what he calls “neo-Marxist postmodernists” taking over Western civilization and refused to comply. Protests at the University of Toronto and beyond broke out in response to his stance, and he has been labelled (falsely) as a member of the alt-right. According to The Guardian, Peterson also defended James Damore when he was fired from Google. He asserted the gender differences that Damore put into his memo, saying that it was no more than the current scientific consensus.
Peterson touches on these differences in his interview with Cathy Newman, specifically in the workplace. There are many factors, he says, that go into why women seem to be paid less than men, and they go beyond the basic “life choices”/”more time off for child care” arguments you may see most often. Speaking statistically, he says, men are more often than women to be competitive in the workplace. Agreeableness as a personality trait is found more in women than in men, and he claims that this difference (while not found in every woman) is more likely than not to predict lower wages and an overall less competitive nature at work. When Newman attacks him for making generalizations about all women, Peterson turns away from the statistics and directly confronts Newman herself, saying that she worked very hard for the situation she is now in, leaving gender out of the equation entirely. Something that may frustrate Peterson, and many who know that the gender pay gap isn’t as straightforward as it seems, is that when proponents of the pay gap succeed in their career, they attribute it to their hard work, and when they fail, they complain that it is due to patriarchy or gender discrimination.
I like Jordan Peterson, I really do. He brings a realm of science and facts to political and social argumentation that has primarily become normative debates over each party’s heads. However, he is far from perfect, and the direction he likes to take on certain topics is far from scientific. For example, the original topic of this article, his lobster hierarchy argument, does not follow the logical progression that he wants it to. Lobsters may have a similar nervous system, but primates are much closer biological ancestors to us than crustaceans. In addition, lobsters or any other animal cannot speak or reason, and our ability to at least conceive of rudimentary egalitarianism may have something to do with it. I’ve always thought that humanity is interesting in the fact that we are the only animals that can actively choose to kill themselves, which isn’t exactly pertinent to ordering human hierarchies, but it can point to human reason’s ability to overcome natural boundaries. If natural hierarchies exist, as Peterson and other thinkers all the way back to Aristotle have argued, humanity has the ability to at least mitigate the extremities through their rationality. Humans aren’t completely equal, but through reason (which both men and women share, no matter their gender or “agreeableness”), they can find social and therefore political common ground.