Saturday, November 11, 2017

Professor Peterson's crusade against postmodernism

The controversial University of Toronto psychology professor, Jordan Peterson, is a strange body, to be sure.
Professor Peterson is well known for his beliefs that the university's teaching staff and students are dominated by Marxist, socialist and postmodern ideas. He already has an online video empire, through which he makes thousands of dollars out of criticising the university's system, and he has been accused multiple times of encouraging the harassment of his critics through tweets and social media postings. His extra-curricular speaking engagements are frequent flashpoints for campus protests.
Now, he is threatening to launch a website that would specifically identify faculty and course reading lists that are what he calls "postmodern" (read, "leftist"). And "threatening" is the word, because even he admits that it could lead to chaos and possibly even violence. A similar website in the USA has resulted in death threats to at least one professor who was flagged as harbouring a "radical agenda".
Now, I know: that is the USA, this is relatively sensible Canada. But there are plenty of unstable, right-wing wackos here too. The university's faculty association claims that the project would create "a climate of fear and intimidation" and a "threat to ... the academic mission of the University", and has taken the unprecedented step of calling for an emergency meeting with the school's Provost over the issue. UoT's Women and Gender Studies Institute warns that the establishment of such a website would present "a serious case of harassment, fostering unsafe work and study conditions for students, faculty and staff". Peterson himself admits, "I've had qualms about whether or not to do this ... I think it's wrong to increase polarization, because it's dangerous."
According to Prof. Peterson, the disciplines of social sciences, law and humanities, at UoT and elsewhere - as well as, of course, women's studies and ethnic and racial studies - have all been "infected" by postmodernism, and what he calls "corrupt ideology" (meaning, presumably, anything left of centre). He believes that the poor, unsuspecting students should be warned about this clear attempt at subliminal radicalization.
Setting aside Peterson's tendencies towards patronization and perhaps paranoia, I think his use of the term "postmodernism" in this little crusade of his is disingenuous, to say the least. Postmodernism merely means anything that departs from modernism, usually referring to the spheres of art, architecture.and philosophy. In practice, and more broadly, it tends to encompass skepticism, irony, irreverence and moral relativism. What postmodernism is not, is (as Peterson seems to believe it to be) the same anti-rationality, or an abdication of concern with the truth.
But, in reality, Prof. Peterson is not objecting to the philosophies of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. He is more objecting to the leftist politics that these philosophers also espoused, and which so often comes with a postmodern outlook, even if the two things are not necessarily connected. If Peterson means "leftist", then he should say so, and not obfuscate and pussyfoot around it. If he means that he wants to out "political correctness" in all its insidious forms and disguises - and most of his recent obsessions and diatribes against ideas like white privilege, cultural appropriation, preferred gender pronouns, etc - suggest that that is where he is really coming from - then, again, he should say so.
I'm sure the University of Toronto would dearly love to get rid of this troublesome guy, but as a tenured professor, they will have real difficulty doing so. Eventually, he will probably do or say something that is beyond the pale. But, in the meantime, they are stuck with him.

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