“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here: This is the war room!” —Stanley Kubrick, Dr. Strangelove
Jordan Peterson is the latest in a long line of cultural action heroes. By now you know the type: the sharp-minded iconoclast who remains stubbornly immune to progressive shibboleths, hand-wringing from the outrage industry, and the chameleonic dance of gender pronouns. Think of Ben Shapiro. Or Milo Yiannopoulos before his precipitous fall from grace.
Wouldn’t it be great to get an outtake of Newman and Peterson bonding over their mutual affection for The Portrait of a Lady? For some, in our hyper-partisan world, such a scenario presents a clear threat, since it breaks the spell of the agonistic ritual most of us embrace without thinking.However, we don’t need to linger on one side of the political aisle for examples. If we want to stabilize the roster a bit, we could also turn to people like Sam Harris and Camille Paglia, both of whom resolutely refuse to traffic in the convenient sound bites of their political camp. Consequently, both are frequently vilified by their constituency and co-opted by their ideological opponents. It’s not unusual for conservative men to try to gain a little street cred by dropping Paglia’s name, for instance. Despite their substantial differences, the public personas of these kinds of figures provide something like catharsis for people who have grown desperately impatient with the current trend of punishing dissenting voices with vitriolic protests and scorn, rather than coherent arguments.1
A professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, Peterson became an international star when he combined his academic aversion to gender-neutral pronouns with a rare level of sangfroid articulacy.2 His YouTube videos have since garnered millions of views, and his new book has even inspired some people to christen him “the secular C. S. Lewis.”
Though no one would mistake him for Jason Statham or Vin Diesel, Peterson’s public image functions very much like what we expect of action heroes. If you don’t buy into the politically progressive script, for instance, you can watch videos of him taking down the “bad guys.” You can live vicariously through him as he demolishes your enemies, and you can cheer him on as his rhetorical punches land with all the force of real, white-knuckled fisticuffs. For those who don’t want to face the risk of flesh-and-blood interactions, these videos also provide good ammunition for longstanding social media spats with relatives and old college acquaintances.3 Buy his book if you want to learn the fine art of taking no prisoners in person.
The latest fan favorite is an interview with British journalist, Cathy Newman.4 This marvel of miscommunication has gone viral and is now serving as a kind of paradigm for how dissenters from the status quo are swiftly mistranslated and then roundly condemned for holding a set of distorted views that bear little resemblance to anything they actually believe. Throughout the interview, Newman misconstrues nearly every word Peterson says.5 He more than meets the challenge—the 22-minute mark is particularly revealing. Part of what makes this exchange so remarkable is that we get to see the dynamic unfold in real time, and it plays out like a kind of microcosm of our greater cultural divisions.
But if iconoclasts like Peterson function as heroes, who are the villains? Our culture war begins to look pretty futile and immature without a serious enemy.
In his new book, How to Think, Alan Jacobs borrows a phrase from anthropologist Susan Friend Harding to name that enemy:6 the “repugnant cultural other.” A repugnant cultural other is any person whose humanity has been seriously overshadowed by their retrograde social, political, or religious leanings. It doesn’t matter what your ideological affiliation is, you’ve got a repugnant cultural other. Maybe it’s a relative. Maybe it’s Samantha Bee. Maybe it’s the President of the United States.7 Here’s a good litmus test for whether someone fits this description: do you see any concession to their general personhood as a form of treason or compromise? If so, hey presto: there’s your repugnant cultural other. Though we occasionally dress our hatred up in the language of respectable principles, hatred remains hatred. For an example of naked hatred masquerading as political resistance, look no further than Kathy Griffin’s notorious publicity stunt.
For some people, the Peterson-Newman interview represents Peterson’s vanquishing of the repugnant cultural other. For others, it’s an obnoxious test of their endurance, the kind of clip one of your annoying relatives might post with the description: “Take that, liberal snowflakes! Watch till the end.” In other words, fresh inspiration for a social media fast.
But what would happen if we refused to buy into this pugilistic script? Is Cathy Newman—a woman of obvious intelligence and capability—really a repugnant cultural other? For that matter, is Peterson? Jacobs puts it well:
If I’m consumed by this belief that that person over there is both Other and Repugnant, I may never discover that my favorite television program is also his favorite television program; that we like some of the same books, though not for precisely the same reasons; that we both know what it’s like to nurse a loved one through a long illness. All of which is to say that I may all too easily forget that political and social and religious differences are not the whole of human experience (italics added).
Wouldn’t it be great to get an outtake of Newman and Peterson bonding over their mutual affection for The Portrait of a Lady? For some, in our hyper-partisan world, such a scenario presents a clear threat, since it breaks the spell of the agonistic ritual most of us embrace without thinking. If Peterson and Newman both started trading quotes from The Office, it would get much harder to suspend our disbelief about the fact that we’re watching a hero and a villain squaring off.
At this point, it should be clear that using the interview as ammunition against one’s ideological opponents simply replicates the futile culture-warring tactics it captures. If the video has anything to teach us, it’s that the issues currently dividing us will remain insurmountable obstacles until we learn to stop seeing people of differing views as repugnant. We need to re-humanize our cultural villains and heroes. In so doing, we’ll be rescuing them from a rather juvenile fantasy and returning them to the sphere of common humanity—a place where the Peterson-Newman interview can be a goad to deeper thinking, rather than a weapon.
Most of us are all too familiar with Christ’s parable in Luke 18:10–14:
Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get. But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.
All you need to do is update the Pharisee’s list of villains to see how Jesus’ words cut through most of our discourse like a knife. A casual survey of our own rants to family, friends, and neighbors makes it clear just how incisive this parable really is: “Thank you that I’m not like my crazy alt-right uncle.” “Thank you that I’m not like Aziz Ansari.” “Thank you that I’m not like my KJV–only neighbor.”
I’ll leave you with one more litmus test: How often do you utter some variation of the phrase, “Thank you, Lord, that I’m not like __”? Maybe the time has come for you to retire your repugnant cultural other designation. Such an endeavor always starts with, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
1 There’s an oval-office-sized elephant in this room, but I’m going to confine myself to Peterson and friends. Suffice it to say, said elephant isn’t suffering from lack of critical attention.
2 It doesn’t hurt that Peterson’s an attractive man with a sharp wardrobe.
3 See how many times you can use the word snowflake in your introduction.
4 Many people experience a similar frisson while watching Ben Shapiro’s response to an impassioned transgender advocate. Whatever the clip’s merits, The Daily Wire’s title will tell you all you need to know about how they want you to use it. I’ll let you be the judge of whether it’s constructive.
6 Read viral videos.
7 I’m just being generic so it doesn’t count.