The Importance of Words

Words are very important. The words we use impact our bodies, thoughts and lives. Words are proven to have an effect on the molecular structure of water and the growth rate of plants. Thus it follows that in a world where mainstream newspapers dominate mainstream opinion angry headlines breed angry people. We do not live in a world in which we can trust everything we read. Agendas exist and as dishonesty and corruption seep out of our political institutions into the news it often feels like half the world has gone mad regardless of which side you are on.

Facts are losing. Propaganda is winning. Or so it seems.

Last September a friend of mine sent me an article about how, in the arts, one would typically be embarrassed about/frowned upon/discriminated against for having any political opinion besides ‘The Left’. Despite being a member of the Jesus-sandal-wearing-vegan-Corbynista gang described in said article I am absolutely capable of accepting the validity of this point. I have witnessed it in the flesh. ‘The Left’ or perhaps I should say ‘The Radical Left’ appear to be in danger of becoming more openly discriminatory than their political counterparts, on some occasions refusing to even interact with a person whose opinion doesn’t match their own. You could say that to converse with a racist is endorsing racism however if we never engage with people who are racist how are they ever going to learn that discrimination is wrong? Fighting prejudice with prejudice is not only counter productive it’s hypocritical. We are living in a divided country and maybe we always have but that divide becomes increasingly obvious when we close our minds to the ‘other side’. Again those words make it feel like we are at war. All of a sudden it is ‘us’ versus ‘them’, ‘Brexiteer’, ‘Remainer’, ‘Alt-Right’, ‘Radical Left’ and although these labels may increase our acceptance within a small minority they promote segregation within the general population pitting us against one another based on difference. All discrimination is wrong not just the type that challenges our beliefs. I believe in free speech even when I disagree with the content.

So does Jordan Peterson.

I mention him because he came up. Admittedly most of the aforementioned article irritated me with it’s intolerance proving that we are all capable of losing a legitimate argument by resorting to insults but what struck me as particularly odd was the statement that Canadian clinical psychologist and lecturer Jordan B. Peterson had become a poster boy for the alt-right. Jordan Peterson entered my universe via a link sent to me by the very same friend at least a year previous and since then I have enjoyed his words. I’ve never found him right wing. I don’t agree with everything he says and does but I find him sensible, specific, willing to say things people don’t want to hear and, as my learned friend put it, a true liberal with a small l. He is also very much controversial with a capital C. I was curious to find out how his words were being twisted to suit someone else’s ideology when he has not endorsed it vocally. Or has he…? More research was required before I dove into this one. I needed more information before I was able to fully form my own opinion. Maybe he was a ‘dangerous’ right-wing-woman-hating-trans-phobic-conservative that the Peterson Haters would have me believe? Maybe I had misheard all the sensible words I thought he had said? Maybe I was being propaganda’d? Having now read (most of) his best-selling book 12 Rules for Life and watched many interviews and Q&A’s I can say with some confidence that Peterson’s reception by the more extreme on either side is a good example of words being misused or even abused.

And words are very important.

Peterson gained notoriety for refusing to adopt non sexual pronouns at the University of Toronto where he worked as a lecturer spiking outrage in a small faction of the young trans community who interpreted his resistance to the pronouns as resistance to their existence. This became magnified when he went onto publicly oppose Bill C-16, legislation stating that if a person was not called by their preferred pronoun (this is most relevant for people of the trans community and was in essence meant to protect this community) they would be able to take legal action under the banner of hate speech. When Peterson spoke out about these two issues one side, let’s call them ‘The Left’, heard ‘Jordan Peterson is against Trans people based on his resistance to these new terms of speech not only on a university campus but in Parliament ergo he is alt-right conservative’. The other side, let’s call them ‘The Right’ heard ‘Jordan Peterson is speaking out against transgender/homo’s/freaks and weirdos etc, etc, he is on our side, long live Trump.’ Now the trouble with both of these statements is that they are broad generalisations of what Peterson actually said and having paid attention to a lot of this mans words I can tell you that the one thing Peterson does not do is broadly generalise. He is painfully specific to the extent that I am unable to read more than a chapter of his book at a time because his thoughts are so complex and complete I need time to digest them. Jordan Peterson’s opposition to Bill C-16 and the use of new gender pronouns on his campus was nothing to do with whether or not a person born genetically male feels or is internally female and wants to go through a physical sex change. Although he has expressed opinions, as a clinical psychologist could and potentially should, on the validity of gender or sexual fluidity from a biological and evolutionary perspective he has not been outwardly discriminatory to people who identify as Transgender. Peterson was far more concerned with freedom of speech specifically enforced speech. He was disturbed by the idea of a government passing a law determining what an individual can and can’t say. 

Peterson loves to speak about post-Modern Nihilism, Marxism and Socialism frequently opposing all three. This has also been misinterpreted as an endorsement of right wing conservative ideals and made him unpopular among factions of the media who hungry for headlines go for the jugular missing the detail. Peterson’s argument here is that most young supporters of what’s now known as ‘The Radical Left’ have little to no knowledge of what Socialism or Marxism actually are or more specifically were. He talks of how Socialism is a nice idea and appeals to the compassionate side of our human nature but its’ young supporters tend to ignore the failure of these ideologies in the USSR, Venezuela and North Korea. Interestingly when researching this topic I came across two articles using the same quotes of his, word for word, with different standpoints-one was fairly sensible possibly more liberal and the other was an ultra Conservative American site that if you scrolled down warned of ‘The Left’ trying to ‘take away your freedom’. This is a perfect example of how a sensible persons words can quite easily be used to endorse opposite ideology without their knowledge.   

In January 2018 Peterson was subject to a brutal grilling by Cathy Newman on Channel Four News, a grilling that lost all my admiration and respect for Cathy Newman. Focusing on gender differences and the ‘pay gap’, topics that follow Peterson around mainly because he’s one of the only people brave enough to talk in an unbiased way about them, Newman went to great lengths trying to put words into the Professors mouth branding him sexist, misogynist and anti-feminist. This backfired catastrophically for Newman as she showed herself to be far less tolerant than Peterson. As a woman who has watched this interview several times I am far more offended by Newmans’ inability to listen than Petersons’ calm quotation of statistics. Listening is very important. Especially when dealing with a creature such as Jordan Peterson. I wonder if the world is simply not ready for him. He is very specific, well researched and well read. Let us not forget he is a clinical psychologist so does not define the world or human interaction in such simple terms as the rest of us. He is also an academic so the structure of his arguments and length of his thoughts are not only intimidating but difficult to absorb. You really do have to listen to understand his points. If at any stage you begin to assume, judge or gloss over any of his words it is likely you will misinterpret them. The Cathy Newman debacle is the best example of this that I have ever seen.

Peterson has built a huge fan base with something like 1.9 million subscribers on YouTube. He is often criticised for these followers being majority male despite the fact that 80% of YouTube subscribers are male. I myself was labelled a ‘pariah’ on a tube just last week by a man who was taken aback by me being female reading Peterson’s book in public. Peterson appeared in the British press recently when Cambridge University rescinded an offer for him to study there over two months as a visiting fellow. They stated that they could not allow a Professor into their institution that did not ‘uphold the values of an inclusive environment’. I find this interesting as I’ve seen no evidence to suggest that to be the case if anything it is often environments like Cambridge and Channel Four News that are not inclusive of Jordan Peterson. I wonder if this was a reaction to Peterson’s response at a Q&A there in 2018 when asked about climate change, another sensitive subject the Professor does not hold back on.

Peterson states that men and women are different and is called anti-feminist. Peterson opposes enforced speech and is named trans-phobic. Peterson is against Socialism or ‘The Radical Left’ and is labelled alt-right. One does not necessarily equal the other. In a time when tension threatens to reach boiling point it is important for all of us to not only be selective but balanced with the information we choose to base our opinions on. It is so easy to be led astray by brightly coloured text labelling an interview with an academic as a battlefield. Peterson may appear cantankerous and it’s no wonder; the world must be a frustrating place when you have to constantly explain yourself to people with a lower level of understanding, knowledge and tolerance than you. Whether you agree or not with Peterson’s opinions we could all take a leaf out of his book when it comes to words. As he said himself  ‘ I’m very, very, very careful with my words’.

Words are very important. 


Janna Fox is a writer and actress. For more information please visit @fox_janna

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