Eric’s Encounter with an SJW
Unless you closely follow Canadian politics – more specifically, Canadian gender politics – there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Jordan Peterson. He’s a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto, and he’s become something of a YouTube sensation and recognized cultural critic since he took on the Canadian government’s new law, Bill C-16, which proposed to add “gender identity or expression” as a prohibited grounds of discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act and simultaneously expand the definitions of “promoting genocide” and “publicly inciting hatred” in the Canadian Criminal Code. Essentially, the law requires Canadian citizens to honor a person’s desire to be called by one of a list of dozens of different pronouns, words, and word groups, if they prefer that to the traditional he/she and him/her.
Peterson stood up and said, “NO! My right to free speech trumps their right not to be offended.” That was in September 2016, and he hasn’t looked back since. He’s written a book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, but more notably, he’s shown up on a host of YouTube shows and podcasts and has been invited to guest lecture anywhere people want to learn more about common sense approaches to the extremes that seem to be pervading our collective thought processes. The extremes seem to abound on all sides: white males being excluded from diversity discussions; worry that if you expressed an opinion other than that the new Black Panther movie was the best film ever made, you’d be labeled a racist; the belief that if you think responsible Americans still deserve the right to own guns, you must secretly harbor a desire to slaughter children in your basement. OK – the last was perhaps extra extreme, but that sure feels like where we’re headed with all of our divisiveness and anger.
Who do you know who hasn’t lost at least one friend since the start of the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign? We can’t even be civil on social media, the place that was supposedly designed to bring us together. The problem, it seems to me, is that we’ve lost our ability to think rationally, about almost anything. We are sacrificing our relationships – that is, our ability to relate to those around us, and the thing that makes us uniquely human – on the altar of being right, being angry, being defensive, being justified.
I make no secret about my politics – extremely progressive, liberal if that word works better for you. So I remember my reaction the first time I heard the term “social justice warriors,” more affectionately known as SJWs. The person describing them wasn’t singing their praises – in fact, he was appalled by their behavior. Wait! That can’t be right. What’s wrong with social justice? Everyone should want that, shouldn’t they?
Well, it’s not really the social justice part that’s the problem, as much as it is the warrior part. SJWs take all-or-nothing stands and set impossible standards that no mere mortal could achieve or maintain – and then become vocally, sometimes violently, agitated when people can’t, won’t, or as in Peterson’s case, don’t adhere to their rules. After all, those rules were made up – and sometimes written down – with everyone’s best interests at heart, weren’t they?
You may have heard about the two Anglo women in Portland, Oregon, who were forced to close their taco truck over claims of “theft” and “cultural appropriation.” And why shouldn’t people be up in arms, after celebrities with platforms like Lena Dunham spout off on Twitter that student dining halls shouldn’t sell sushi because that, too, is cultural appropriation? I’m not saying it never happens – but what seems to be happening more is anger over the idea of something that’s very clearly a gray area as if it were a straight-up offense with no room for debate. There is almost always room for debate.
So as John and I have watched college kids attempt to create safe spaces to insulate themselves from thoughts that even hint at making them uncomfortable and alleged feminists shout into any available microphone that it’s impossible for men to be feminists, we’ve wondered what it must be like to be a college student on an average campus today.
As it happens, my son is a college student at Northeastern University in Boston. And he shared a story with us over our holiday get-together with his family in December that made John grit his teeth and clench his hands into fists. It seems Eric was at a party with some friends. As you might expect, he met people there he did not know, a guy and a couple of girls. I didn’t grill him for the details, so I’m not sure why my son didn’t ask this person directly, but he said to one of the girls, “Does he want a drink?” pointing to their guy friend. Imagine his shock when she stepped toward him, inches from his nose, and with an alarmingly raised voice told Eric that her friend did NOT go by “he” or “him” but preferred to be called “they” or “them.”
This episode had happened weeks earlier and Eric still seemed a bit rattled by it as he recounted it at the dinner table for the whole family. “He visibly appeared to be a guy to me. I’d never met any of them before. How was I supposed to know that he went by they?”
I had to chime in to clarify. “Wait – the person with the gender issue was not the one who corrected you?”
“No. Didn’t say a word. It was their friend who got in my face.”
A huge part of the SJW motivation: get angry and defensive on someone else’s behalf. Find the most persecuted party and become their hero, whether or not they want you to. As long as you feel justified making someone else feel bad, you’re probably making a real difference.
What they completely fail to see is that they’re not helping at all.
That night when we were going to bed, John said, “I kind of hoped all the hype about the SJWs we were seeing on YouTube was just a wild exaggeration. Your son’s living proof that it’s real.”
What I love about Jordan Peterson is that he’s calling for us to stop yelling, to stop judging, to stop overreacting, to stop exaggerating. Each side of the political aisle views him as friend or foe, depending on the issue he’s confronting at the moment. Peterson himself claims he natively leans more liberal, but he’s on neither side, politically, as neither is making a whole lot of sense these days – not here in the U.S., and not in Canada or many parts of the rest of the world, either.
John bought his book today. Maybe after I read it, I’ll share my thoughts here.
Laura Orsini is an author, speaker, and consultant who coaches other authors to make and market exceptional books that change the world for the better. She is birthmother to Eric, who is finishing college in Boston this summer. Their adoption has been open for the better part of Eric’s life. She continues to toy with the idea that these posts will one day become a book. In the meantime, you can learn about her novel in progress, Stan Finds Himself on the Other Side of the World.