Opinion
2 min

How to really push back against conservative martyrs like that U of T prof

We need a new game plan to preempt people like Jordan Peterson

University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson posted a New Year’s letter to his Youtube followers on Dec 31, 2016, with a special thank you to those who have supported his recent work. Credit: Jordan B Peterson/Youtube

It’s been nearly four months since Professor Jordan Peterson made headlines with his public declaration that he would refuse to compromise his grammatical principles by referring to individual trans students as “they” when requested.

Prior to this, the University of Toronto prof made a career in studying the psychological effects of living under historical dictatorships, then went on to counsel professionals stressed out by politically-charged workplace codes of conduct. Out of this, he presumably came to equate refuting university pronoun etiquette with fighting Big Brother.

Seeing an influential academic make a media event out of being rude to non-binary and trans students, queers pushed back hard. The results? Well, after a media tour, Peterson is supplementing his very-much-uninterrupted teaching income with a well-crowdfunded series of Youtube lectures that look like a curmudgeonly uncle got his hands on a degree and a copy of Powerpoint. Our pushback became his publicity.

This is a familiar pattern. Cultural conservatives build a hill to die on and meet left-wing resistance. They do the rounds in print, TV, and funded websites to ironically claim that they’re being silenced. They get famous, make bank, push their agenda, or even get elected. Jordan Peterson. Sweet Cakes bakery. President Trump.

While it’s absurd that our opponents now include rich and famous “martyrs” who mistake disagreement for discrimination, these people make a cultural impact. So we need a new game plan. Our old tools aren’t just ineffective, but often counterproductive.

Where did we go wrong? Is this blowback for asking for too much too fast? Well, for our opponents, any small improvement within their lifetime is too much too fast. So, no, toning it down is a non-starter.

Are we too out? Too loud? Some among the older generations still long for decades when Jane average didn’t grasp that queers existed next door, let alone voted for whichever bigot shouted the loudest about protecting her daughters from our equality. I’d rebut this politic founded on silence among the passable few — but there’s no debate to be had. This genie is out of the closet.

So how do we stay out and proud, and kibosh professional bigots? Trying to shame them or shut them down can stoke their martyr complexes and flesh out their fans and their funds. Simply debating them only entrenches their views.

What we can do is preemptively steal their fans. This sounds cool but it’s hard — this time we are the ones that need to change.

I’m not going to preach that all of us left-wingers just need to patiently listen to any old Trump campaigner. Asking folks to indulge someone who’s midway to stripping you and yours of civil rights and full lifespans is an absurd request.

But between those of us under the rainbow who live relatively safe lives, and our queer allies, we can poach the other side’s ambivalent fringe. Watch some Megyn Kelly, learn the worldview, and go talk politics. Or rather, “listen politics” — let them do most of the talking while getting a feel for what’s actually scaring them.

Once you’ve empathized, slip in one or two ideas for them to chew on, like an anecdote about how a friend is afraid of physical violence if he goes back to his hometown or uses a public washroom. Do this right, come back in six months and they’ll often be spouting your idea to their friends. . . and you may be spouting some of their ideas to yours. Don’t worry, it makes you a better person.

It’s easy to inflame rage against a distant and unmet other — right, left or centre. But if those of us who can do so safely can foster a sense of compassion and kinship with our opponents’ audiences, we will make (and become) allies where we never expected. And then we can all push back together.