THIS week Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, dubbed “dangerous” by WA media, was in Perth for two public lectures.
The West Australian newspaper’s description of him as a “gateway to far-right extremism” was hard to reconcile with the mild, esoteric, and slightly flat performance Prof Peterson delivered at Tuesday night’s show at HFB Stadium.
Critics argue that his professorial veneer when talking about how people should get their lives together and improve themselves is one of the things that makes him dangerous.
When the quiet scholar logs in to Twitter, Peterson becomes a bitter combatant in the culture war against the ‘woke left’, lashing out against transgender people and complaining about having to listen to Qantas give a traditional land owner acknowledgement.
On the ground in Perth, he was mild, slightly rambling, and said nothing more controversial than what you might hear from an uncle at Christmas dinner this year.
He talked about the importance of working manual labour jobs, of not thinking ‘entry level’ positions are easy, or beneath you. A long story about his time as a dishwasher was one of the highlights of the night, and it was still only slightly entertaining.
It was some in the crowd (mostly male, Anglo, and millennial) who seemed to want Peterson to go further, to be more reactionary and controversial.
During the Q&A, someone asked how to keep children safe from indoctrination by the radical left.
It was the most provocative point of the night. Peterson’s utterly uncontroversial answer was to suggest that if people wanted to influence the way their society was going, they should engage in civic involvement and put in some work on school boards or local politics, AKA democracy.
I think the gulf between Peterson’s online and in-person personalities is an example of what happens to a lot of us online as we’re removed from the usual niceties required by face-to-face conversation and start giving in to social media’s perverse incentives that reward conflict with an audience.
This week a Gen-X friend, who’d heard about the article calling Peterson “dangerous”, asked “What’s wrong with JP? I read his book and it helped me a lot – it seemed fine”.
JP probably does seem fine if you’re not chronically online.
JP himself probably would still be fine if he wasn’t chronically online. But he is addicted to Twitter, and he’s seemingly been pushed from what started as a middle-of-the-road stance in the mid-2010s further into extremism year after year, guided by a feedback loop of praise from the extreme right and damnation from progressives.
He’s tried to quit Twitter.
Earlier this year he swore off the platform, publicly announcing he would have his staff change his password so he would no longer be tempted to use it. He said the “endless flood” of insults and the way the platform’s incentive structure, providing the biggest audiences to the most controversial tweets, was “dangerously insane”. He resumed tweeting later that day.
On the internet, the popular left is pretty unforgiving. They see the pain caused to victims of racism, homophobia, and transphobia, and feel justified in bullying the bullies.
And there is no point in apologising to them. Contrition and clarification has rarely helped offenders.
They can be hounded for years even after their apologies. It’s been nearly a decade since American media consultant Justine Sacco apologised for posting what was widely perceived as a racist joke on Twitter. Sacco was about to take off on a flight to Cape Town when she posted on Twitter “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
By the time she’d landed, the outrage had spread far and wide online, and people had contacted her employer. She lost her job, and the next job she got after that, and several more after. Her apology meant nothing as campaigners hounded her from one employer to the next, certain they were doing the right thing in preventing a racist from spreading harm.
She’s still called “racist” in much of the social media commentary about her in 2022.
In person, if she’d made those comments to real people in the real world, Sacco may have been able to explain to any objectors: No, sorry, I was clumsily trying to use an ironic joke to draw attention to the way diseases have disparate effects on different people. That was the thrust of the explanation she eventually gave, but it was too late.
As the old west cowboy singer Tom Russell put it: “Trouble rides a fast horse, forgiveness rides a mule.”
That’s amplified when trouble’s brought on fibre optic cables, and the lightning speed of reactions that social media facilitates had ruined Sacco’s life before there was time for a right of reply.
And when everyone had already weighed in with their condemnation, and praised each other for standing up to Sacco’s racism, they had no interest in hearing an explanation.
That unforgiving, lightning quick method of justice might be an effective tactic.
It might deter some people from ever taking a step out of line, from ever thinking about saying something hurtful, or from ever even risking a joke that might be read as offensive.
But social media’s ruthless and rapid approach to ruination can also mean that once you’ve fallen out of favour, there is no path back to forgiveness.
And even the psychology professor who told so many young men how to get their life in order can’t beat the social media addiction.
Peterson was still posting in Twitter’s culture wars at 7.37pm on Tuesday night, seven minutes after the show was supposed to start.
His uncontentious performance ended around 10pm, and then he logged back onto Twitter, and stayed up posting until 12.55am.
By DAVID BELL