Please note: This not an anti-left or pro-right article. Society needs both a right and left wing for a healthy balance. This article is for the benefit of everyone, regardless of political orientation. The ideas presented here, though simple, are not widely known, but should be.
Dear Professor Jordan Peterson,
I have had the pleasure of following you prior to your meteoric rise to fame, and I applaud your courageous battle to free society from the excesses of political correctness. This is my attempt to help you in your mission.
In your recent Big Think talk titled, “The fatal flaw lurking in American Leftist Politics,” and in the subsequent Munk Debate on the issue, “What you call political correctness, I call progress,” you challenged the mainstream left to identify the red line that fellow leftists shouldn’t cross, and for which they must be called out if they do.
Before continuing, readers need to be aware that you are not anti-left. Like Ying and Yang, both left and right are needed for a healthy, free, progressive society. The serious problems result from the extremes. Your battle against the radical left is not because it is inherently more dangerous than the radical right, but because unlike the right, which has pushed claims of racial superiority beyond the pale of acceptability, the left has yet to take any corresponding stand. But because the social sciences have become almost entirely dominated by the left, potentially harmful radical left policies are being advanced with little or no resistance.
Despite your phenomenal popularity in recent months, there is a stumbling block preventing your doomsday warnings from being taken more seriously by the public. It’s that people wonder: Where is the catastrophe?
You regularly refer to the scores of millions killed by the tyrannical ideological regimes of the 20th Century — Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and Maoist China. You warn that it can happen again, here. But where is the evidence? All the leftists are doing is advancing the well-being of non-heterosexuals and other “oppressed” groups. What’s the big deal? Where are the death squads? Who is being hurt?
It is important, therefore, to open the public’s eyes to the tangible harm of political correctness. Citing that we can be fired for criticizing it may not be enough. As long as we toe the party line, our jobs will be safe. People are willing to pay a premium for safety. So you’ll need to show where the blood is. Perhaps I’ll help you see it.
Professor Peterson, you propose that the proper taboo for the left should be equality of outcome based on group identity, rather than equality of opportunity, which is a laudable goal.
This is, indeed, a worthwhile boundary to fight for. Yet it may be too limited. If equality of outcome becomes taboo, you may discover other boundaries the left should not be crossing.
I posit that there is a more basic “fatal flaw of the left” — actually, two fatal flaws. There are two lines the left has crossed. Each crossing is harmful, but the combination is catastrophic. These flaws should be so obvious that even leftists should accept them once lights are pointed on them.
Fatal Flaw One: Erasing the line between objective and subjective harm
There are two basic categories of negative acts: 1) those that cause objective harm, and 2) those that cause subjective harm. Of course, an act can cause a combination of both, but it’s important to recognize the distinction.
Objective harm is the result of an act that, if you do it to me and I get hurt, you are the one who hurt me. Obvious examples are theft, assault, arson, rape, and murder. Less obvious examples are denying me civil rights, such as the vote, equal public education, opportunity for employment, freedom of movement, and access to residence and health care.
Subjective harm is the result of an act that, if you do it to me and I get hurt, I am the one who hurt me. These are acts that hurt my feelings, or that I find offensive. The classic example is an insult. If you insult me, and I feel upset, I really upset myself.
Most of the acts that cause subjective harm are verbal. My attitude towards what you say to me determines how much pain it will cause me.
However, there are words that can cause objective harm. Examples are yelling fire in a crowded theater, slander and libel (which can destroy people’s careers and social life), and incitement to violence.
The acts that are universally considered crimes by all civilized societies are the ones that cause objective harm. The proper job of a government is to protect its population from objective harm and to punish those who inflict it. A government cannot protect people from subjective harm, because our feelings are not in its control. And when a government does treat acts of subjective harm as crimes, it makes everything worse. It increases both subjective harm and objective harm.
Imagine what life would be like if I call the police on you whenever you hurt my feelings. Would you admit guilt? No! You will vehemently defend yourself from the charges and try to blame me. Would you like me better? You will hate me, and will probably look for an opportunity to do something worse to get revenge against me. You will also hate the judge and the government for being so unfair to you. Your anti-social feelings will grow.
But this is precisely what the left has done. It has erased the boundary between objective and subjective harm. It treats offending people as if it's the ultimate act of evil. It has declared the traditional slogan, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me,” to be a lie, and replaced its conclusion with, “but words can scar me forever/can kill me.” The revised slogan teaches that insulting me should cause me more pain and damage than breaking my arm.
The social sciences have become dominated by left-wing ideology. That's why some psychologists are using neuroscience to justify the erasure of the boundary between objective and subjective harm. They point to the fact that when we feel offended, brain cells are activated. This thereby “proves” that the harm is objective, and that the utterers of the offensive words are as guilty of hurting us as if they hit us with a baseball bat. These psychologists ignore the fact that all feelings have corresponding brain activity, but that the pain generated by words is a result of the way our mind processes them. Wittingly or unwittingly, these psychologists reject the basic premises of therapy and wisdom.
The left sees its political activism as a fluid continuation of the civil rights movement of the previous century.
But it’s not.
The civil rights movement was not about combatting subjective harm. It was about objective harm, sanctioned and even perpetrated by no less than the government itself, with laws that discriminated against minorities, including women but especially Blacks. Thankfully, the Civil Rights Movement has successfully led to the elimination of discriminatory laws.
With some possible exceptions, such as rights for gays to marry, the social activists of today are fighting for laws against subjective harm. They want the government to guarantee that people will not feel offended by anyone. The attempt to achieve an impossible goal is bound to cause more harm than good.
Fatal Flaw Two: Replacing might makes right with weakness makes right
In the lawless world of nature, might makes right. You can kill me, and no one arrests you.
Civilization cannot function by might makes right, or we would suffer from unrelenting tyranny and bloodshed. The most basic feature of a civilized society is a legal justice system. It replaces might makes right with justice makes right. We take our grievances to a court of law, which applies principles of justice to determine guilt and punishment.
The Old Testament, the Jewish Bible, forbids judges from engaging in favoritism. They are to favor neither the rich and powerful person nor the poor and weak person. Sometimes the rich and powerful person is the wrong one, and sometimes the poor and weak person is the wrong one.
Our natural tendency when witnessing a struggle is to side with the apparent underdog. As Wilt Chamberlain said, “Nobody roots for Goliath.” Siding with the underdog is great in entertainment, but it readily leads to evil when it becomes a policy in real life. Weakness makes right is just as arbitrary and amoral as might makes right. It makes it impossible to objectively judge between right and wrong. It results in unjust punishment in instances when the top dog is actually in the right, and it facilitates the unethical use of weakness to manipulate the system.
And herein lies the second fatal flaw of the left. It has replaced might makes right not with justice makes right, but with might makes wrong and weakness makes right.
Policies can only work if they operate in accordance with the laws of nature. Weakness makes right turns the entire natural order on its head. Feeling pleasure in power is useful not only for survival in nature, but in civilization as well, as it drives us to strive for success rather than failure. In today’s new order, we're expected to feel guilty about our natural instinct for power and to see weakness and victimhood as virtues rather than stations in life to avoid. Imagine what would happen to sports if the way to win a game is to lose. Well, the same thing would happen in real life.
The nature and harm of political correctness
The combination of these two flaws constitutes the essence of political correctness: The ultimate wrong is to offend the feelings of people with a status of weakness.
But people will legitimately ask, where is the harm? Where is the bloodshed?
Professor Peterson, you think the situation is bad in higher education. But it’s much worse in lower education, because college students engage in bullying much less than younger kids, and are much less likely to turn to the school authorities for help with their social problems than are their younger counterparts.
I expect you may not be aware of it, but the anti-bullying psychology, created by left-thinking university psychology professors, is the ultimate in political correctness, turning every one of us into a potential bully or victim or, to use your preferred language, oppressor or oppressed.
Thanks to the successful political activism of the anti-bullying field, schools are now required to function as totalitarian police establishments responsible for children’s interpersonal relationships 24/7. School staff need to do double duty as security guards, detectives, and judges, treating any complaint of subjective harm as a serious crime needing thorough investigation, interrogation, adjudication, reporting, and punishing. Rather than eliminating bullying, these laws have led to a growing epidemic of bullying and intensified hostilities among students, parents, teachers, and administrators.
Today is the most stressful time in history to be a school administrator, as they can face lawsuits for failing to accomplish the impossible. (Research has shown that the most highly regarded anti-bullying programs barely cause a dent in the problem, yet schools are supposed to know how to stop all children from being bullied.) Just today, the media reported that a Pennsylvania court awarded a student $500,000 dollars, because the school district could not stop fellow students from ridiculing her “gender-nonconformist presentation” — in all three schools she attended! Half a million dollars! American dollars, not Canadian!
For a mere $500, I could have taught the girl how to stop being bullied, but now we, the taxpayers, have to fork out half-a-million bucks because schools can’t force all children to respect nonconformist gender presentation. In actuality, the schools’ attempts to stop the bullying made the bullying escalate.
Almost all school shootings are committed by victims of bullying. These kids are consumed with anger, hatred, and desire for revenge. Anti-bullying policies were intended to reduce the frequency of these horrific massacres. Instead, mass shootings happen with tragic and increased frequency. Should this surprise us? Ever since preschool, students have been taught to think of anyone who upsets them as an evil bully who deserves to be hated and eliminated from society. Even adults have taken to blaming bullies as justification for committing murder.
Have you seen the German film, The Lives of Others, about life under the East German totalitarian police state? The underlying political theme is the high rate of suicide resulting from government surveillance of citizens' social lives.
Many children who take their own lives do so because they can no longer tolerate being bullied. Anti-bullying policies are intended to prevent suicides by victims of bullying. Instead, the suicide rate has skyrocketed among kids — tripling among girls — during the same period that schools have been officially combatting bullying. Why? For two reasons.
What happens when kids are taught that words can scar them forever or kill them? They become more upset when they are insulted, which unwittingly fuels the bullying, so they get insulted even more.
Second, schools have been informing children that they must tell the school authorities when they are bullied. What happens when kids get the school authorities to investigate the bullying complaint? Hostilities immediately escalate, as each side and their parents try to convince the school that they are right and the other is wrong, and the informer becomes known as a snitch, which can be a social death sentence.
If the child is lucky, the school authorities will succeed in making the bullying stop. But too often, the bullying spirals out of control, even leading to serious violence. The victim of the bullying, feeling betrayed by the school’s false promise to make the bullying stop, may eventually despair and decide to put a permanent end to their suffering (and occasionally, to the suffering of schoolmates and teachers).
Professor Peterson, you are a great advocate of truth; truth sets us free. There are two simple, basic truths that the left — and the rest of us, too — need to recognize:
1. Subjective harm is different from objective harm.
2. Weakness does not make right.
We need to call to order anyone who denies either of these truths, just as we would denounce anyone who would argue for racial superiority.
Then the excesses of political correctness will be contained.
Izzy Kalman has been a school psychologist specializing in bullying for four decades, and authors a Psychology Today blog: Resilience to Bullying.