The identity of the group providing the intellectual foundation for both critical theory and the social justice movement are mostly white middle-and-upper-class intellectuals from the political left in advanced Western economies. It may be more illuminating to see this group’s interests as the driving force of societal change, rather than those of the ever-changing group of the powerless. In effect, the intellectuals of the political left are creating the type of society they personally want to live in. ‘The powerless’ are temporary allies on this journey.
Over the past few decades, this group has become increasingly powerful, essentially becoming a bourgeoisie much like the one Marx and the early critical theorists were criticising, and using many of the same mechanisms: suppressing criticism through control of the news media and now social media, enforcing rigid etiquette in speech and behaviour, using the education system to teach its values, and most importantly, representing its own interests as universal values and beliefs.
Peterson represents a growing group of people who are now waking up and starting to look more closely at contemporary morals, beliefs, and institutions that they had previously held beyond reproach and are now asking: “Are these things really universal or interest-neutral, and if not, whose interests are they serving and whose values do they represent?” This is a process, I think, that is inevitable.
I linked to this as a noteworthy article the other day, but I wanted to return to this part in particular because if the vague concept of a Zeitgeist is ever apt, I think it is here. Not just because Harris perfectly sums up the pretensions of our clerisy, who rhetorically scorn power even as they voraciously pursue it and tenaciously cling to it, but also because he’s on to something when he identifies Peterson as symbolic of the, uh, resistance to social justice fanaticism.
In a postmodern age, it’s become second nature for us to be suspicious, if not cynical, of any claims to neutrality and objectivity. In what Foucault called a “genealogical” approach, and which others call a simple ad hominem, it has become common to reduce an argument from its propositions down to the biases and motivations presumed to underlie it, which makes it easy to redirect and dismiss the argument without engaging it in good faith. (Of course, as a cishet white male, I obviously would say that.) This is supposedly done in order to theorize our way toward a world without “unjust” power disparities, by unmasking and criticizing the various ways in which white, masculine, capitalist, etc. norms are promulgated and reinforced, keeping oppressive structures and relationships in place. But the greatest trick the power-hungry intellectual class ever pulled was convincing people it was somehow exempt from its own critique. The same people who insist that everything in society boils down to a power struggle between oppressor and oppressed have somehow been allowed to go largely unquestioned on the assumption of their good intentions. In truth, the only problem they ever had with power was their own lack of it, and they were cunning enough to realize they could obtain it by branding themselves as the official representatives of values which most people intuitively share. It’s poignantly ironic that Nietzsche, as the pioneer of the genealogical method of criticism and a wellspring of much postmodern philosophy, would have instantly seen these frauds for what they are.
Up until very recently, they’ve been able to relegate their critics to the “Here There Be Dragons” section of the intellectual map by dismissing them as “conservatives,” even when the newly-minted conservatives in question had earnestly considered themselves card-carrying liberals in good standing right up until the moment of their dismissal. The liberal fear of looking conservative, or of being suspected of associating with conservatives, did the rest. But as videos like this go viral, it becomes harder to smear people like Peterson as some kind of hidebound reactionary, while it also becomes necessary to recognize that conservatives were right about these people all along, even when the rest of us were too cowardly to acknowledge it. Like the saying about generals fighting the last war, liberals have been wasting time fighting the last culture war against straggling remnants of Christian Republicans while ignoring the influential and powerful enemy on their left. It’s also ironic, but amusingly so this time, that the social-justice left has become today’s analogue of the religious right of my youth — humorless, censorious, detached from reality, corrupted by power, infatuated with their self-righteousness, and arrogantly oblivious to the stench of their own decay.