The professor’s conceptions of gender highlight a refusal to acknowledge modernity
It’s an exciting time, folks. Progressive culture is alive and well, and it’s propelling us toward a more realistic and less discriminatory definition of gender every day. This definition is one that recognizes the ways Western society enforces arbitrary gender stereotypes through socialization. It also recognizes and seeks to end the unjust limitation of individual opportunity on the basis of gender identity. This is currently the dominant way gender is taught in post-secondary institutions in relevant fields. But there is a psychology professor at the University of Toronto who has taken to publicly lamenting the declining popularity of the traditional understanding of gender—and his name is Jordan Peterson.
His online lecture videos are often geared directly toward young men—a demographic that represents over 90 per cent of his following, according to Peterson himself. The reason for this is likely the content of his claims like: “Feminism that says Western culture is an evil and corrupt patriarchy [is to blame for] alienating young men.” Peterson’s videos operate on the logic that progressive conceptions of gender are wrongfully oppressing men. He fights to preserve the gender ideals that one might find in a TV commercial from 1950s America.
Peterson’s understanding of the world is so rooted in a binary understanding of gender that it makes sense he would be reluctant to question it. Almost every one of his videos are laced with big, generalizing claims about the inherent personality differences between men and women, and he states in a lecture that he has been studying the topic for over 25 years. If Peterson acknowledges the large role socialization plays in gender identity, as well as the legitimacy of non-binary genders, he risks invalidating 25 years of his own research.
He argues society doesn’t value traditional masculinity as much as it did in the past (and he’s right). He may also be right in proposing that this shift has caused his young male supporters’ troubles. But he is wrong in suggesting that progressive attitudes towards gender—rather than toxic men—need to change.
Peterson refuses to recognize the existence of rape culture or the whole idea of toxic masculinity as a culture-wide problem. He said in a recent video: “You don’t want to confuse the actions of some of the men with all of the men” in response to the #MeToo movement. However, what Peterson doesn’t realize is that this is the exact type of logic that enforces the very alienation of young men he is concerned about. If they dig their heels in and refuse to adjust to society’s changing values, then they’re bound only for ostracization.
Some of the traits that we associate with “traditional” masculinity are courage, independence, assertiveness and leadership (I put traditional in quotations, because as sociologist Raewyn Connell points out, definitions of masculinity have varied dramatically in various cultures throughout the course of history). The thing is, there are a ton of women in my life who have all of these traits, and as progressive culture encourages a more fluid definition of gender, that number will only increase. Don’t get me wrong, there is a long way to go, but people are finding it increasingly easy to act according to their feelings rather than in accordance with societal constraints.
“Traditional” men are finding that their place in society is diminishing, and they are faced with the option of either confronting the toxic behaviour they’ve been instilled with since the beginning stages of their socialization, or becoming bitter about it. There is comfort in Peterson’s lectures for those who become bitter, as he reassures them that society is at fault for progressing away from traditional masculinity.
It’s hard work to acknowledge privilege and confront toxic masculine values, but the social move that questions those things is not going anywhere. You get to decide if you want to be part of the positive change or cling on to archaic understandings of gender. The future is non-binary.
Graphic by Alexa Hawksworth