Caitlin Flanagan, Jordan Peterson and the false objectivity of rejecting ‘identity politics’

nature laptop outside macbook
Photo by Stokpic on


I haven’t really paid attention to Jordan Peterson, which is perhaps a mistake. I know that tons of young white men are flocking to him and are finding meaning in what he purveys, so maybe I should sit down with his book sometime.

That said, it’s not difficult for me to find fault with this Atlantic essay about “why the left is so afraid of Jordan Peterson.” Why? Because there are plenty of reasoned critiques of Peterson out there. And the essay’s author doesn’t deal with any of them, instead filling this piece with tired, sneering contempt for left-of-center folks who think Peterson maybe isn’t all that.

The author, Caitlin Flanagan, depicts Jordan Peterson’s appeal through the eyes of her young adult son.

The young men voted for Hillary, they called home in shock when Trump won, they talked about flipping the House, and they followed Peterson to other podcasts—to Sam Harris and Dave Rubin and Joe Rogan. What they were getting from these lectures and discussions, often lengthy and often on arcane subjects, was perhaps the only sustained argument against identity politics they had heard in their lives.

That might seem like a small thing, but it’s not. With identity politics off the table, it was possible to talk about all kinds of things—religion, philosophy, history, myth—in a different way. They could have a direct experience with ideas, not one mediated by ideology. 

Emphasis added. Which I read to mean:

They could have a direct experience with ideas, not one mediated by … ideas.

They could have a direct experience with ideas, not one mediated by … how other people might be affected by them.

But let’s get down to brass tacks here: Deciding you don’t want to consider the racial implications of an idea is, itself, ideological. It presumes whiteness to be the default, to be objective and unbiased and the natural point of view. And that of course is nonsense.

An acquaintance objects that my objection to Flanagan is “very much like the followers of C.S. Lewis who have long assured me that by rejecting the teachings of their Church I was taking a stand just as religious as theirs.”

Well. No and yes, and the reasons for this deserve a little parsing. I’d agree that objecting to the Church is not (necessarily) an act of faith in the same way that, ahem, an act of faith is. But, like going to church, rejecting faith teachings *is* making a judgment on metaphysics.

Similarly, a snotty rejection of “identity politics” doesn’t actually place you outside the debates involving identity politics. You’ve made a judgment! It doesn’t make you more able to understand ideas, but thinking it does might make you actually blind to some of the implications of those ideas.

I’m not sure why so many legitimately smart people don’t understand this. I’m convinced, at this point, that the people who sneer most actively at “identity politics” are its greatest practitioners, operating under some bit of self-delusion.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s