I fell into an instant and deep connection with a man while on a work trip. I’m happily married, so there’s no chance of a romantic future, but the friendship has been, and is, enlivening. We share many interests, but mostly we have an easy understanding—something slow and patient and unusual in this world. We occasionally talk on the phone about life, and we’re looking forward to having lunch when our paths cross again next month.
However, in the gaps between conversations, I’ve come to realize that he might be a fan of Jordan Peterson. He hasn’t mentioned his name, but there have been significant clues. More alarmingly, he has betrayed a thin-skinnedness around sensitive topics like #MeToo and transgender issues. He’s said nothing that’s outright offensive—maybe because I’ve made my politics clear. But if I ask directly, and he responds affirmatively that he is a fan of Peterson, what should I do?
—Not a Fan of Social Darwinism
Dear Not a Fan,
Both of you are lucky. Not enough people make time for real conversation and friendship in adulthood. As well, too many people isolate themselves from anyone whose values or politics are at odds with their own, and when we do that, we get intellectually soft. Worse, we lose the empathy with our opponents that can be so crucial to persuasion.
That said, Not a Fan, I’m delighted you plan to keep your clothes on, not only because you’re happily married, but also because it would be advice-columnist malpractice to condone sex with a Jordan Peterson fan.
For those readers who have been dwelling in happy ignorance, Jordan Peterson is a Canadian psychologist, best-selling author, and wildly popular YouTube star promulgating backward and deeply unoriginal biological determinism with certainty, zeal, and a lot of Jungian mumbo jumbo. Confronting Peterson’s repellent ideas, if you can do so without getting defensive or insulting, might actually help your friend think through some of these issues. There are a few things you can recommend that he check out, if you want to gently counter the propaganda. One is any book by Cordelia Fine, a psychologist who has been ruthlessly dissecting the banal discourse over “essential” differences between the sexes for years. Another is a wonderful video called “Jordan Peterson: ContraPoints,” by the transfemme YouTube star Natalie Wynn, who does a fabulous job of acknowledging the value of Peterson’s self-help advice—you wouldn’t be reading this if no one needed advice!—while exposing his far-right political agenda.
What’s more important than refuting Peterson empirically, says Harrison Fluss, a political theorist who has studied the alt-right extensively, is understanding that he’s an “ideologue” and that you should therefore engage in “philosophical battle.” Peterson, Fluss tells me, has a “disdain for mass society, which he thinks is making us weak, effeminate.” Faced with the growing popularity of socialist and social-democratic ideas, Peterson constantly raises the specter of the gulag. Stalinist dictatorship, to him, is always just around the corner. “It’s a really scary dog whistle,” Fluss says. In that context, if you want to convince your friend not to be a Peterson fan, it’s probably more important to persuade him of the merits of your own progressive ideology than of the specific wrongness of Peterson’s many claims.
If your friend is indeed a Peterson admirer, I also wonder if he might be depressed and lonely. Even more than rage, transphobia, or misogyny, the affect most palpable in Peterson’s public appearances is melancholy. He cries a lot, and the anger he expresses is of a brittle, depressive sort. I wonder to what extent his appeal lies in giving expression to (as well as providing narratives to explain) male sorrow. He also offers sad men empathy, a warm respite from the cold shoulder everyone gets from neoliberalism (and many men imagine they are getting from women and feminism). So you may, outside the context of a political discussion, want to suggest that your friend seek treatment for depression, or at least spend less time on YouTube, which can be a cesspool of self-reinforcing masculine ailments and symptoms.
I’m gaining visibility as an activist against ageism, and I’m also starting to get regular requests from marketing and advertising companies that seek my expertise. The latest is from a global advertising company conducting “an exploratory research project to understand modern retirement.” Clearly capitalism and ageism are deeply intertwined, and clearly they just want to sell things to baby boomers, which is why I’ve said no in the past. I do, however, have some smart stuff to say about “aging in place,” workplace discrimination, mindless techno-optimism, and the like. Might they actually benefit from hearing what I have to say, or would I just be helping them sell shit? They’re also offering a lot of money for an hour of my time, which I could spend on massages for my tired activist shoulders or taking a bunch of starving lefties to dinner. But they should really go fuck themselves, right?
I’m not convinced that they should have to go fuck themselves—they’re going to sell shit no matter what, so why shouldn’t you make a little money out of this? I also wouldn’t assume that they’re necessarily up to no good. There are some societal problems that marketing and advertising can help to address—though, of course, there are also some that these industries either can’t address or will inevitably make worse. I think the key here is to ask yourself: Are they in a position to make a positive difference? If so, go ahead and help them out.
Advertising, even though it exists for the purpose of selling us stuff, does sometimes make the world a better place, because images matter. For instance, ads that show interracial or gay couples, or women in nontraditional jobs, have helped our culture evolve. Ads that depict older people looking glamorous and beautiful—or, better yet, doing things that young people don’t expect them to do, like making scientific discoveries, scaling rock faces, or taking lovers—could help our society progress in similar ways.
Beyond positive imagery, corporations can benefit the public by, as you suggest, creating workplaces more responsive to real people’s aging and life patterns. Your expertise could help them do that. Of course, Sellout, you should avoid contributing your insight to something that actually hurts your cause: Don’t help pharmaceutical companies that lobby against Medicare expansion or cosmetic companies that shame women into buying dumb anti-aging creams. Another consideration is whether the product they’re marketing is actually bad for society. You probably shouldn’t help sell fossil fuels, cigarettes, or SUVs, no matter how enlightened the marketing team might seem.
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