Liberals love to blame racism & sexism. Republicans do the same thing. Trump’s campaign convinced white voters to blame others for their problems.
It is rare for the work of an intellectual to achieve mainstream success. Even at prestigious universities, most professors remain hidden away publishing in important but little-read journals, receiving scant attention from the public. Occasionally though, an intellectual touches on the exact mood within society and articulates ideas in ways that have the power to reshape the public consciousness.
Jordan Peterson, a 55-year-old clinical psychologist trained at McGill, Canada’s most revered university, and a former Harvard professor now working at the University of Toronto, suddenly found himself in that position.
Peterson might be the most entertaining public intellectual since the death of Christopher Hitchens, but the message that has propelled him, at times, seems more like something you would hear from your grandfather than from a Ph.D. psychologist. Cloaked in things like telling men to “stand up straight with their shoulders back,” Peterson speaks to a deeper longstanding difference in worldviews that have taken a backseat to the populism on both ends of the political spectrum.
The unspoken question driving many of our political discussion seems to be “whose fault are your bad decisions?”
Peterson’s answer: “You are.”
For several weeks, America has been locked in this exact debate, centered around a troubled 19-year-old who killed 17 teenagers in Parkland, Fla. Conversations after such tragedies often quickly turn to gun-control measures, mental health resources and video games all pointing back to things that society should have done differently. Rarely do they become an opportunity to talk about personal responsibility. This phenomenon is not restricted to gun violence, though.
Most discussions among the liberal political class focus on how “white privilege” and “patriarchy” explain social conditions deemed as negative or excuse actions morally recognized as such. Repulsive acts of sexual harassment cannot be explained as the actions of repulsive people, this logic contends, it is evidence of society’s rotten patriarchal structure. Violent gang behavior, which has driven homicide increases in two-thirds of American cities, is evidence of a society where the subjugation of minorities provides no other reasonable alternatives, the left offers.
It naturally goes hand-in-hand with such logic that if society is at fault, it must also provide for some reparation. This belief is used to justify a panoply of entitlement programs and reform movements aimed at correcting societies grand injustices. Personal responsibility rarely even receives lip service.
Like many things in America, this faulty logic is a bipartisan problem. When it comes to gang violence and entitlement programs, conservatives are quick to champion the banner of personal responsibility. In other areas, they have been less consistent. No aspect of Trumpism is more antithetical to conservatism than the application of the left’s narrative onto issues of trade and immigration and the alt-right’s repulsive Caucasian-identity-politics.
POLICING THE USA: A look at race, justice, media
Trump built an entire campaign around convincing white voters that someone else was responsible for their problems. Rather than giving voters harsh truths like “you should have gone to college,” or “you should move to a community with better jobs,” he too blamed social constructs for negative conditions. Is it the fault of immigrants that some members of the white working class have refused to develop the skills to compete in a global economy? Is it the fault of pharmaceutical companies when someone becomes addicted to a potent substance? Trump offered an answer of “yes” to both.
No one credible discounts that structural social hierarchies exist that exacerbate unfairness, and conservatives shouldn’t either, but any remedy that doesn’t hold the individual responsible for their actions faces long-term consequences. One of the many things that makes Peterson so interesting is his bold promotion of that mentality.
He has been much less selective in his application. On one hand, no thinker has done more to critique the scourge of left-wing postmodern thought. On the other hand, he referred to the attitude that prompted the Charlottesville “white pride rally” as “seriously pathological, reprehensible, and genocidal.” He has demanded men put down video game controllers and get back to acting like men. He has called on women to be more assertive in negotiating promotions and raises in the workplace.
In the world of identity politics and deflected blame he’s proving that there is still be a hunger for “pulling oneself up by your boot straps.” Conservatives who feel inclined to adopt Trump’s politically successful narratives should take note and get back to the basics.
Jordan Harris is the executive director of the Pegasus Institute and an opinion columnist for The Courier Journal, where this column first appeared.