Professor, author and public speaker Jordan Peterson has become a massively influential individual in recent years, despite his controversial messages. His self-help exercises, lectures, and books have led to hundreds of success stories concerning coping with mental illness and overcoming addictions, to name a few. Some of the messages he promotes, however, are undoubtedly regressive in our current equality-promoting society. His views on monogamy and traditional gender roles, for example, call for a return back to a previous, more unequal time. It is no surprise, then, that he has faced a wave of criticism from feminists, who see him and his following as an obstacle to gender equality.
While originally Jordan Peterson’s critics responded to him with contempt and widespread denouncement, more nuanced approaches have since been taken. People are beginning to suggest that Jordan Peterson’s success is more than just a ‘misogynist backlash’ to the social progression of women. For example, Jac Lewis has suggested that Jordan Peterson’s fanbase is a natural reaction to the unease brought about by changing gender norms and identities. This unease may lead young men in particular to follow a man offering a place for them to belong, a place where their gender identity is not uncertain. While this analysis does take a far more respectful approach to the people who rationally support Jordan Peterson’s message, it still leaves a question unanswered: Why exactly do men feel so uneasy about their changing gender identity?
In response to this, many quickly offer up the solution that men are simply lamenting their loss of social power and dominance, and are pushing back against feminist notions accordingly. However, why is the majority of Jordan Peterson’s audience consistently characterised as both male and young? If it truly were the loss of social power and dominance that Jordan Peterson’s fans are lamenting, his audience should be comprised of middle-aged and older men. Given that his audience is believed to be lamenting what is being lost, the social group that has actually experienced these aspects of social power and domination should be the ones who are pushing back with the most force. Rather, the characteristically young audience of Jordan Peterson may suggest something else; it might be that these young men feel uneasy with how society currently views them. Perhaps they, like all people, feel that they should have a say in how their identity should be constructed.
If men are the most powerful social group, though, surely they define what their identity is. Maybe. But this classically defined idea of masculine identity has long been the subject of public ridicule and social upheaval, and for good reason. Feminism, as a social movement, has made great strides in identifying how male identity has historically harmed women and how its perpetuation causes gendered inequality worldwide. One of the largest and most influential steps in this regard was the introduction of intersectionality into gender issues.
Intersectionality is the understanding that different intersectional oppressions felt by an individual, such as race, gender, age, and so on, are not separable. Thus, a black woman does not feel the oppressions of black people and women separately and as separate issues; she experiences oppression as a black woman. Her intersectional oppressions of being black and being a woman do not add up, they multiply and create something uniquely oppressive. This view has led to the understanding that the oppression felt by some women is vastly different than the oppression felt by others. Importantly, it led to the understanding that the oppression felt by women is not universal, and that solutions to white gender equality will not always be solutions to the gender inequality of the elderly or the gender inequality of black women.
One thing the idea of intersectionality also aided in popularising is identity politics. Identity politics is the organisation of individuals of a particular identification, whether that be race, sexuality, gender, or so on, to promote the political rights of the group. While many have seen this method as understandably divisive, there can be no doubt that it has been for the most part successful in promoting the interests and rights of identity groups.
Implicitly, identity politics promotes the message that you should take pride in your identity, and you should feel solidarity with those who identify the same as you. This has no doubt been a very powerful message that many have brought to heart and have employed to overcome the social oppression they feel. No person should feel ashamed or marginalised because of factors out of their control, or because of who they are.
Or so the argument goes. This message promoted by identity politics is not one that all people feel everyone should take to heart. In fact, to many feminists, this message would be considered sexist and harmful if a white male were to take it up. Indeed, it would be problematic if white males were to continue to proudly identify with a masculine identity that has caused the oppression of countless others throughout history. Thus, white males, those having the most advantageous and privileged identities, are not meant to proudly identify with masculinity. They are pushed to problematise it.
In the quotes presented above some ideas stand out: ‘All men make women feel uncomfortable sometimes’; ‘Men cannot be feminists, they need to work for the opportunity to support equality’; ‘White men have an issue with identity politics because it ruins their social advantage’. In some sense, all of these messages have a point, bringing to light social facts that are problematic and are no doubt true of some. However, all of these quotes also assimilate all men, or all white men, into one category and in the same breath label their identity as problematic.
Perhaps, then, it is this message that Jordan Peterson’s fans are reacting to. Maybe they are beginning to feel as if the problematising of their identity is not something they want to endorse. Such an explanation would explain why they are supporting a figure who is offering a positive view of male identity.
It is this insight that feminists should take to heart. The problematisation of male identity without offering a valid solution or alternative, positive identity to endorse will only be met with opposition. Feminism has made amazing strides in highlighting harmful and oppressive aspects concerning the social views of gender, but the movement has only sought to promote the construction of female identity. Conversely, the male identity is signified and highlighted as harmful, and for good reasons, but nothing positive is offered to the new generation that can be positively endorsed. Why would a young man want to identify as male if society is beginning to see male identity as nothing but a problem?
Jordan Peterson and his increasing popularity should be viewed as a chance for feminists to introspect. It is no longer enough to simply identify an issue as an issue. Instead, solutions should be offered. Otherwise, the trend of problematising masculinity without offering a positive alternative for endorsement will only cause its further condemnation. Young men will either increasingly resist or begin to normalise the idea that they are an issue because of an identity they do not even want to endorse.