Nov 19, 2021 • 7M

Friday Poem: On Jordan Peterson’s assertion on Question Time that racism should be tackled on an individual level because the concept of structural racism is too abstract, imprecise and low-resolution

A poem followed by a blog

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Niall O'Sullivan
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Written in response to this statement on racism by Jordan Peterson.

I like to take care of my garden at a weed-by-weed level.
I see you mr thistle, gotcha miss dandelion!
Now the knotweed, that one pops up a lot,
all over the shop, but I’m nimble
and have plenty of time to burn, bucko!
I pluck it from its toehold on the earth
and consign it to the compost heap.

Some people tell me about a
[scarequotes]NETWORK OF ROOTS[/scarequotes]
that haunt the subterranean level
of my vegetable patch,
but I find that kind of thinking
to be too abstract, imprecise,
and low resolution (doesn’t that last bit sound clever?)
How convenient indeed that this
[scarequotes]NETWORK OF ROOTS[/scarequotes]
just happens to exist just beyond the domain
of the naked eye? Pah!

Weed-by-weed is the way.
I see you Mr Knotweed!
Not so fast Mrs Knotweed!
Die, Ms Knotweed!
The day will come
when I will pluck the last of you
and my marrows will balloon
to the size of galleons.

An army of frogs nods in agreement.


(I haven’t added links to the many statements that I make about Jordan Peterson but the stories that I mention are very easy to find online)

I could spend ages talking about all the ways in which it is a bad idea to present Jordan Peterson as a public intellectual. You could start with him coming to prominence over his (perhaps wilful) misunderstanding of Canadian legislation that treated repeated, deliberate misgendering as harassment — choosing instead to frame it as a free speech issue where any instance of misgendering would be criminalised. I could also talk about his acceptance of flawed IQ studies on racial groups as evidence of unchangeble, hereditary genetic characteristics. I could also bring up his repeated blaming of feminism for mass shootings by individuals that identify as incels and how he floated the strategy of “enforced monogamy” as a means to avoid these events.

Then there’s his constant insistence that he is a scientist despite him being a practitioner of Jungian psychoanalysis, choosing a 100% beef diet to combat his depression or being voluntarily placed into a coma to deal with his addiction to benzodiazepine (which, to be fair, originated from a prescription from his doctor). I mention these last two not as a way to ridicule his troubles but as credible contradictions to his assertions of scientific rigour.

We can also look at how ready he was to pass comment on the recent testimonies by Azeem Rafiq and others over structural racism within British cricket — despite knowing nothing about the specifics of the situation that he was commenting on. Perhaps this is the problem with most public intellectuals, they mistake their eminence within a particular field as a qualification to pass judgement on everything else.

What I would really like to focus on is his ideological position that societal problems such as racism must be dealt with at the level of the individual, which he finds to be tangible and practical, rather than at the level of social structures and heirarchies that he finds to be abstract and, in his recent terminology, low resolution. He is not the only person to default to this position. I have witnessed many intelligent people fall for this dichotomy, pointing out for instance that we can’t argue for societal solutions to ecological catastrophe because society consists of individuals!

The first problem with this reading is that it actually works both ways. We belong to societies but we see ourselves as individuals because of differences that are perceived within that grouping. Both categories are dependent on each other. We don’t have a society without individuals and vice versa.

The second problem is that the individual is as much a construct as a society. This is a tricky one for Western centric cultures to grasp as it forms the theoretical bedrock of our identity. From society’s point of view, an individual is a legal construct. It exists within degrees of responsibility. A child or a mentally disturbed adult for example are exempted from a certain amount of  individual responsibility for their actions.

On an experiential level, as many a Buddhist might tell you, there is no individual either. There are a number of sensations, that can be conceptualised by most of us into inner and outer sensations. A feeling of pain in one’s leg is an inner sensation and the experience of a wide blue sky is something that is experienced as being outside of our selves. Similarly we can discern between outer voices when others are talking to us and the inner voices of our tortuous internal monologues. What many meditators and nondualist practitioners find though, is that this sense of having an inside and outside can dissolve into clouds of sensation and that the strict border between our bodies and the world exists more as a conceptual boundary than an experiential one.

To be human is to flit between different states of embodiment and personality. We can lose our sense of being an individual when at a political rally, concert, religious service or football match. Similarly, we can shrink to the level of the individual when jostling for an arm rest on a packed tube carriage with noise-cancelling earbuds stuffed into our lugholes.

This is where my gardening metaphor becomes a bit more helpful. The plant does not differentiate between the root and the stem, it functions as a single organism. The leaves do not sprout if there are no roots to draw nutrients from the soil and the roots need energy from the leaves in order to grow further.

In contrast to Peterson’s pontifications about individual responsibility, racism functions in a way that involves a complex interplay between individuals and social structures. In fact, white people such as me can deflect responsibility on the level of the individual (I’m not a racist, some of my best mates are…) and also on the institutional/structural level (my racist actions are not my responsibility, they were unconsciously influenced by pre-existing cultures and heirarchies!). We take responsibility on any social issue by recognising how individual responsibility and social structures mutually sustain each other. If our circumstances dictate that we start with one form of responsibility, it does not absolve us from eventually having to confront the issue from the other perspective.

Thanks for reading this,