Before the Munk Debate on political correctness began, the moderator interviewed each participant individually. This is a paraphrased summary of Peterson’s pre-debate interview.
What have you been doing for the last few months?
Since I’m a psychologist, I’ve been concentrating on psychological work at the individual level. I’m on a tour right now, and I’ve talked in about 26 cities, and there are about 60 more.
When I talk with people afterward, they tell me about their attempts to put their lives together– that they were unhappy in their relationships, not doing very well in their careers, or in a dark place for one reason or another. They tell me that reading and listening to what I have been saying has been helpful to them. So, that’s great, you know?
How do you think your work relates to this debate tonight? You’ve talked a lot about political correctness.
That’s right, I’m no fan of the radical left. And just because I’m no fan of the radical left doesn’t mean I support the radical right. It’s just that Universities are dominated by left-wing thinking, and the collectivist doctrine that unites them is unacceptably harmful in the long term, and that disturbs me.
There’s every reason to have a left-wing. It’s not going away because it’s partly temperamental, but also because our society produces hierarchies and the people who are inevitably stuck at the bottom need a voice, which is the left.
But, just as the right can go too far, so can the left. But when the left has gone too far is not well defined, and to me, that’s not acceptable, because we know the left can go too far, and are going too far in Universities right now.
Another thing that bothers me about political correctness is the idea that someone can use it to say that they are the only ones with empathy. First of all, empathy is not even close to enough, and too much of it can lead to terrible things. Second of all, no, no one has a monopoly on empathy.
And to combine all that with a philosophy that assigns people their identity via group membership and to read battles between these groups into history and our current society is obviously dangerous if you know anything about history.
What do you think of the idea of privilege? The idea that certain people, because of their race, class, or gender, have enjoyed historical privileges, and that we need to share with those who did not have those historical privileges?
I think it’s a good example of conflating empathy with ideology. The majority in any society has privilege because society is set up so that the majority of people can do well, then you have to build in protections for minorities. To conflate that with race is not acceptable.
And when we talk about “historical” privileges, what span of time do you mean? If my ancestors 150 years ago were privileged, does that mean I should pay for that now in some way?
How can you be sure that my specific ancestors were privileged? My grandmother was a cleaning woman for farms in central Saskatchewan in the 1930s. She cooked for threshing crews, she chopped wood piles that were a big as the damn cabin to get through the winter. My father grew up in a log cabin until he was 5. It had like 3 rooms. Where is the privilege?
I see, it accrues to me as a consequence of my race, so we have to have a discussion about race. Within the toxic left, everything is about group identity. And even if we say that someone is differentially privileged from a historical perspective, then what? Are we’re going to make everybody, on the basis of their race, pay for some historical iniquity?
And they also view the history of the relationships between men and women as fundamentally one of oppression. They don’t believe that men and women fundamentally cooperated throughout history to bring themselves out of catastrophes. They don’t see it that way despite the fact that in 1895 the typical westerner lived on less than a dollar a day in today’s terms, far below the UN’s guidelines for abject poverty. Despite all that, they say that the fundamental reality of the world is that men oppressed women.
There is an idea that men need to check their privilege, and that women are awakening to their power in society. What is your response to that?
Discussions about power send a shudder down my spine because part of the post-modern doctrine is that everything is about power. Hierarchies are only about power when they’ve already transformed into tyrannies.
Reliable birth control and menstrual sanitation opened the playing field for women. Women were fundamentally welcomed into every position of authority and competence that could be opened to them. They were opposed, but fundamentally welcomed. It’s at the point where almost ¾ of humanities and social sciences students are women, and they dominate the healthcare field. Some will argue that it would not have happened without political pressure, but that’s not the case. It’s transformed utterly in 50 years. How fast do you expect the transformation to take place?
I’m not against equality of opportunity. I’m not sure what would have to be wrong with you for you to be against equality of opportunity. Even if you were fundamentally selfish, equality of opportunity would be in your own benefit. As for equality of outcome, well…
Where do you think the debate goes from here? Do you think this is a cultural spasm, or do you think there is something more fundamental happening here, a new tribalism?
It depends on how we each behave in the next 10 years. Things could get better everywhere really fast, or we could degenerate into our 20th-century tribalisms.
There’s a lot of pressure in both directions. I’m glad that people are taking the material I’ve produced to heart. I’m saddened that everything is presented as a political argument when it’s not. Despite the fact that the discussion around political correctness is presented in political terms, it’s not actually political, it’s theological and philosophical. It’s presented that way because radical leftist collectivist ideology views everything through the political lens, as hierarchies at each other’s throats in a power struggle.
The free speech discussion is interesting because from that ideological perspective you can’t have free speech. It’s just each group making statements in order to advance their own power. That’s the basis of the whole system.
In a very, very dark way, the funny thing about this post-modern insistence on identity is the emergence of intersectionality. You have all of these groups, but how do their identities interact? Gender and ethnicity are considered almost infinitely divisible, so how are you going to try to control for all those variables? But they will try to do that before they give up their ideology.
The reason the West decided on a radical individual perspective is because everyone is so unique that you can split their group right down to the level of the individual.
I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but I think the Universities have done themselves in.
You can read a transcript of Peterson’s interview here. It has been edited for style, meaning that things such as “um” and “you know” have been removed, and grammar corrected.
This is part of a larger series focusing on the Munk Debate on Political Correctness.