Photo: Balázs Szecsődi/PM’s Press Office
Jordan Peterson is a “classic British liberal,” one who strives to protect individual freedom from the assaults of “collectivists” — no matter their ideological stripes. His opposition to the politics of “group identity” is fanatical but ecumenical. The professor may have made his name denouncing the Marxist totalitarianism of an anti-discrimination law, but his intolerance of right-wing identitarianism is no less absolute. As Peterson said of the “alt-right” in a 2017 lecture:
I don’t think that the caucasians should revert to being white. I think that is a bad idea. It is a dangerous idea, and it is coming fast … I think the whole group identity thing is seriously pathological … Where we’re making your group identity the most important thing about you. I think that is reprehensible. It is devastating. It is genocidal in its ultimate expression.
Above all though, Peterson believes in the moral necessity of speaking one’s truth — no matter the consequences. “Don’t underestimate the power of truth,” he has argued. “Now, in order to speak what you may regard as the truth, you have to let go of the outcome … You have to think, ‘Alright, I’m going to state what I think as clearly as I can … and I’m going to live with the consequences, no matter what they are.’”
Or at least, this is what Peterson claims to believe.
Viktor Orbán is a nationalist, one who strives to protect his people from the dangerous speech of foreign individuals who do not share their group identity. The Hungarian prime minister believes that his country is “not a simple sum of individuals, but a community that needs to be organized, strengthened and developed.” Thus, in 2014, he explained that “the new state that we are building is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state” — which is to say, a government that will crack down on any “political activists” or “NGOs and civil organizations” that “promote foreign interests” within Hungary’s borders.
Orbán has made good on this promise. Through punitive laws and belligerent propaganda, the prime minister forced the Central European University — a liberal institution whose avowed purpose was to protect the open society from authoritarianism of the right or left — to withdraw from Hungary. At the nation’s remaining colleges, Orbán has banned fields of study that conflict with the state’s conception of truth. And while Orbán identifies as an illiberal democrat, his party has insulated its power against the threat of popular rebuke to such a degree that many scholars describe his regime as a creeping dictatorship.
If Orbán is a faux democrat, though, he’s lived up to his billing as a nationalist. In fact, he is such a staunch believer in the supreme importance of group identity that the prime minister has refused to significantly expand legal immigration despite his nation’s labor shortage on the grounds that “we do not need numbers, but Hungarian children.”
Last Thursday, Peterson was in Budapest to speak at the Brain Bar Festival, when Orbán invited the author to join him in a discussion of “current political issues.” Peterson accepted. The Orbán-friendly news outlet Hungary Today described their meeting as an amiable conversation about the dangers of illegal immigration, political correctness, and Jean-Claude Junker’s apologias for Karl Marx:
Peterson and Orbán also touched on a current tendency to “minimise” the crimes committed under Communist regimes. They cited an “infamous” speech by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, in which they said he “defended Karl Marx[.]”
You shouldn’t believe everything that you read in a Hungarian news article written off quotes from Orbán’s press secretary. But it has now been five days since this account was published — and Peterson has not issued any public statement disputing Hungary Today’s description of his meeting with Europe’s premier advocate for illiberal nationalism.
It is hard to reconcile these actions with Peterson’s purported commitment to protecting individual liberty from the scourge of identitarian collectivism, or his signature admonition to always speak one’s truth. After all, Peterson was not ignorant of Orbán’s politics. The author was asked about the Hungarian government’s assaults on academic freedom last year in an interview on Danish television, and he responded by decrying such policies.
And yet, if Peterson’s behavior in Budapest is incompatible with his purported beliefs, they’re not entirely out of character. Like many of his fellow denizens of the Intellectual Dark Web, Peterson has long evinced less concern about right-wing governments that are currently using state power to achieve illiberal ends than about left-wing college students who could theoretically do so in the future, assuming they take their rhetoric to (what Jordan Peterson sees as) their logical conclusion.
When Israel’s right-wing government uses state power to officially discriminate between different categories of legal residents on the basis of religious identity — or to deny basic political rights to those it rules in occupied territories — Peterson feels little need to speak out; in fact, he has suggested that the harshest critics of Israel’s illiberalism are motivated by anti-Semitism.
When transgender teenagers on a college campus demand that their professors use their preferred gender-neutral pronouns, however, Peterson warns that such illiberal activists threaten to revive “the Marxist doctrines that killed at least 100 million people in the 20th century.”
Similarly, Peterson has had relatively little to say about Donald Trump’s explicit threats to sic federal law enforcement on his critics, praise for war crimes, and encouragement of police brutality. But he has seen fit to call on the Democratic Party to issue a public apology for allowing “the discourse within [its] ranks to become increasingly dominated by a tiny, well organized and disruptive minority, who have insisted ever more stridently that our culture is a tyrannical, destructive patriarchy, and that we are not sovereign, responsible individual citizens, capable of negotiating a shared and prosperous peace, but oppressive or oppressed minority group members, defined above all by our sex, race, ethnicity and sexual preference.” (Peterson demanded this apology last November, after the Democrats had run a midterm campaign focused almost exclusively on issues of health-care and tax policy.)
Meanwhile, it isn’t hard to see how Peterson and Orbán might see eye to eye. The latter has effectively banned “gender studies” from his nation’s universities, while the former has called on his nation to do the same. What’s more, in a diatribe that Orbán’s speechwriters may wish to crib from, Peterson went so far as to suggest that left-wing instructors at a Canadian teachers college should be prosecuted for crimes against the state.
“The Ontario Institute for the Studies of Education — that bloody thing is a fifth column,” Peterson said in a 2017 interview with the Epoch Times. “The people who are producing the educators that emerge from that institute, they should be put on trial for treason. Like it’s serious stuff … The idea [is] that the purpose of education is to get them while they’re young — in Kindergarten — so that this radical, postmodern Marxist ideology can be so thoroughly inculcated when they’re young, they have no chance of escaping from it. And that’s what’s happening in the education system.”
Peterson will occasionally say negative things about the far right and positive ones about single-payer health care. And when he isn’t calling for the abolition of “subversive” human-rights organizations — or the prosecution of cultural Marxists who poison the minds of Canadian youth — the professor offers useful (if banal) self-help tips to unhappy young men. This has led some mainstream commentators to regard Peterson as a benign iconoclast and the left’s contempt for him as incomprehensible.
But whatever Peterson truly believes, in his heart of hearts, the dissonance between his muted criticisms of illiberal right-wing governments — and hysterical diatribes against (supposedly) neo-Maoist intellectual currents in academia — has consequences. It gives the public a distorted understanding of where the most immediate threats to liberal democracy are coming from — and gives the authoritarian right a rationale for attacking the bedrock institutions of open societies.
Perhaps Peterson wishes to establish neutral standards for adjudicating the academic legitimacy of various fields, instead of having the state target specific disciplines for execution (as he suggested on Danish television last year). Perhaps he was indulging in hyperbole when he accused “postmodern” education professors of treason or described the Ontario Human Rights Commission as “a very subversive and dangerous organization” that should be “abolished.”
But if you are going to popularize the idea that leftist academics and human-rights organizations are poisoning the minds of children, and fomenting a subversive ideology antithetical to the health of your nation, then you simply cannot meet with an authoritarian prime minister who has used nearly identical arguments to justify state crackdowns on independent universities and NGOs — then issue no public explanation of why you took this meeting or objection to reports characterizing your conversation as convivial — and call yourself a principled defender of liberal values.
On the other hand, this is a fine course of action for anyone who wishes to call himself “another North American academic who served as a useful idiot for Eastern European authoritarians because they happened to share some of his own critiques of Western society.” If Peterson wishes to place himself in that tradition going forward, then he’s welcome to carry on calling for inquisitions against left-wing academics, and rubbing shoulders with right-wing nationalists, without concern for the outcome.