Right-wing Self-help Guru Jordan Peterson in Atlanta on June 12: Our Response / Some Further Thoughts on Peterson’s “Enforced Monogamy”

Recently, we placed posters around The Tabernacle, a venue in downtown Atlanta. Our posters criticize that venue’s decision to host Jordan Peterson on Tuesday, June 12. Peterson is an academic turned self-help author and internet pundit. Peterson popularizes far-Right theories, cashing in on opposition to so-called “social justice warrior” culture. You can read and download our poster below.

peterson poster
Poster about Jordan Peterson’s appearance at The Tabernacle on June 12. Click image for .pdf download.

With this poster, we have mostly had our say about Peterson and his followers, except for one issue.

Peterson devotees might raise angry objections when they read our poster. “How unfair!” they could say, “You didn’t even mention that Peterson wrote a clarification about his ‘enforced monogamy’ comment.”

Our view is that Peterson’s initial words were clear enough. Peterson’s clarificationhe claims to simply offer “plain, bare, common-sense facts” that have been gleefully misinterpreted by his “motivated critics” – is a deflection of responsibility. The most reasonable interpretation of Peterson’s statement and his “clarification” is that women should be bullied.

The New York Times profile including Peterson’s notorious comment is here. Peterson clearly states that “enforced monogamy” is “the cure” for terrorist outbursts from the incel subculture (as our poster notes, incels are a subculture of men who are angry that women do not have sex with them).

Let’s take Peterson at his word. Let’s suppose he is not proposing “arbitrary dealing out of damsels to incels” or any “police-state” measures. His enforcement of monogamy would be social, not state-authoritarian or totalitarian. Tabatha Southey asks the key question in her response: how is “socially-promoted, culturally-inculcated monogamy” (the words of a Peterson-defender, but quoted approvingly by Peterson) different from what we already have? It must be different, since Peterson is proposing a “cure” for present-day ills. So: how much more should single and divorced people be shamed – especially divorced women – and in what new ways should they be shamed, if not through the legal system? Since monogamy is already positively-reinforced rather extensively in our society, shaming, bullying and other negative social sanctions must be what Peterson has in mind.

In his “clarification,” Peterson stresses his academic expertise and pretends that he was merely pointing out a “well-developed body of basic evolutionary-biological/psychological/anthropological evidence” that “monogamous pair bonding makes men less violent.” He cites two papers, one co-authored by Satoshi Kanazawa – a racist who has been widely criticized by his peers for bad science – and a second paper whose abstract makes clear that it may not not directly support Peterson’s argument, since the paper is about violence by sexually active men.

(As an aside: many scientists – evolutionary biologists, neuroscientists and others – have serious concerns about “evolutionary psychology” as a field, or at least tendencies within that field to lapse into “just so” storytelling, unfalsifiable speculation, and adding a window-dressing of “science” to present-day prejudice.)

Even in the realm of common sense, Peterson’s theory fails dramatically. Let’s accept his claim that prehistoric polygynous cultures typically had more male violence than cultures favoring monogamy, and so over time, monogamous cultures tended to supplant polygynous cultures. Under that account, male violence in polygynous cultures is driven by male competition, within an environment where almost all women reproduce, but many men do not. If “enforced monogamy” is such a natural, reasonable solution for past and current problems (such as murder by incels) then there must be a good parallel between age-old polygyny and the current sexual environment, right?

However, as pointed out by Osita Nwavenu, since the start of the sexual revolution in the 1960s, people have generally married more, not less, within their class. In addition, as mentioned by Gilad Edelman, the higher one’s education level, the more likely one is to marry, and the education gap in marriage is widening. Finally, since the mid-1970s, monogamy has increased, with fewer people having sexual encounters outside of their marriages or partnerships (Tabatha Southey mentioned this in her response to Peterson). The big picture is not one of the highest status men taking an outsize number of female partners to themselves while leaving lower status men solitary. Peterson cannot explain why incel terrorism emerged in a context where monogamy appears to be increasing, at least since the initial jolt of the sexual revolution. On the other hand, we have a pretty good hypothesis: it’s a misogynist backlash against feminist change, with internet echo-chambers exacerbating everything.

Peterson gets things wrong in a way that mirrors some of the worst of the “Manosphere’s” professional misogynists. Peterson’s view of the present-day sexual world is reminiscent of Francis Roger Devlin’s “Sexual Utopia in Power,” which insists that an unhealthy feminist cultural turn has led to a handful of high-status men having plenty of sex, with lower-status men left in the dirt. The point is not that Peterson has studied Devlin, but that the view set out by Peterson and Devlin is a recurring fantasy among modern anti-feminists. It’s not a view supported by the evidence, but it does feel right because it supports their underlying prejudices. Start with sexist fantasy, and it’s no surprise that one’s “solutions” will also drip with misogyny: garbage in, garbage out.

Peterson’s many critics don’t automatically object to phrases like “enforced monogamy,” which are provocative in the context of Peterson’s overall comments, but not when used in anthropological writing or similar fields. We simply object to the bigoted and pseudo-scientific way that Peterson frames the problem. Pretending to have a “cure” for incel ultra-sexists, Peterson broadcasts and amplifies their perspectives as loudly as possible, endorsing key suppositions of their worldview as his own.

If you wish to contact the Tabernacle about the Jordan Peterson visit, the venue’s information is here.