Take it from a regretful philosophy major: the discipline is full of terrible ideas expressed incompetently. Half of it, as a collegiate concern, is trying to understand the text; the other half is then poking holes in the author’s work, or arguing that other people have misread it. There’s really not much else! Pupils adopt or refute existing ideas, never to develop their own.
I’m sure this problem persists as it has for centuries, but it’s been compounded by the rise of YouTubeified snake-oil barkers like Jordan Peterson, who loves to claim that campuses and the humanities have “become completely dominated by radical leftists.” To hear a philosophy professor tell it on Reddit, that view and other far-right-friendly pap has turned students against the notion of critique as discourse; they blithely parse the work of, say, Simone de Beauvoir as “entitled liberal bullshit.”
Sites like the Daily Caller and the Daily Wire seem to agree with the New York Times and Telegraph opinion columnists that colleges are now illiberal pockets of anti-free-speech fascism where reasonable conservatives are routinely censored or punished for their politics. The data, however, shows that the people denied a platform almost always belong to the same handful of toxic sideshow freaks who build a reputation with those incidents, while left-leaning speakers are often shut down as well. And in classrooms, it is the Petersonesque character who objects to a fair exchange of concepts, trying to claw his way to internet celebrity with that one-note contrarianism they want to frame as courageous, principled heresy. So you get breathless headlines about a kid allegedly kicked out of class for saying there are just two genders but come to find out that he really got the boot because he insisted on derailing conversations, loudly refusing to watch a lecture by a trans person, and openly attacking the professor.
This neatly aligns with the fragile-aggressive masculinity Peterson taps into when stroking his fanbase of frustrated young white men — the anxious wannabe alphas who get off on “videos of conservatives ‘destroying’ weak-minded liberals” and the cocktail of mutually reinforced racism and sexism as delivered by a Ph.D. in a suit instead of a high school dropout in a MAGA hat. What they learn from him is that their most reprehensible opinions can be legitimized if you sound halfway smart in describing them, using analytic language, but since they don’t actually have the talent to pick apart someone like de Beauvoir, their dismissals and acts of defiance get scanned as the underthought tantrums they are.
Philosophy, with its focus on dismantling the material presented as a worthy exercise in itself, is especially susceptible to this well-poisoning. As the fed-up professor on Reddit wrote, students are supposed to challenge what they’re reading, though cogently. Simultaneously, these boys have a huge blind spot in Peterson. A real philosopher would doubt each hot-button premise. Instead they swallow these whole.
To zoom out further: It’s going to be hard to get anything out of college if you’ve already accepted that 99 percent of professors feed their classes neo-Marxist propaganda to usher in a societal endgame. This resistance to seminal theories of gender, identity, etc., has little to do with someone like de Beauvoir, whom the Peterson acolytes don’t understand anyway — all they know is that if it’s being taught, it is part of some anti-masculine agenda. That’s why their summations barely rise to the level of a put-down, and why those with children are hysterically suspicious of educators at every level. Fathers fret that their kids’ elementary school teachers show “hints of radicalism and postmodernism” and, despite their wives telling them to shut the fuck up about it, deliver seething vows like “I will be damned before I sacrifice my son at the altar of the progressive movement” when they hear about a workshop on multiracial community.
If you’re going to give Peterson credit for anything, it’s got to be how he’s managed to undermine the forms of scholastic inquiry that expose him as a charlatan. He wants to do for higher learning what Trump’s “fake news” has done for media — destabilize the institutions that threaten his status, paint them as enemies of the truth in order to legitimize his own narrative. Of course, if Peterson had but a crumb of wisdom to offer the world, he probably wouldn’t respond to incisive takedowns of his cultish nonsense with rancor and threats of violence. Clearly he has long resented his colleagues in ivory towers like Harvard and McGill, and if he can gin up a small army of 19-year-old blowhards to programmatically disrupt their classes, that’s a win for him.
Like these angry, misguided lads, he’s lashing out at the people who stand at the podium, not what’s on the blackboard. He can call it a culture war all he likes, but the grudge is personal, and he seeks to settle it for no one but himself. Every student who goes far enough in philosophy will begin to create disagreement for sport, for power and attention and, in some cases, revenge. At that point, you believe whatever you have to.