I used to listen to a podcast called Secret Feminist Agenda (SFA), a peer-reviewed show, self-described as “a weekly podcast about the insidious, nefarious, insurgent, and mundane ways we enact our feminism in our daily lives”. I enjoyed it and, while I didn’t agree with the views and methods of all the guests, I found the radical feminist perspectives fascinating, thought-provoking, and strangely calming. The show could feature anything from an indigenous feminist talking about their political activism, to another feminist talking about the process of making sourdough bread. I found it quite charming.
A few months after I started listening to SFA, I was introduced to Jordan Peterson. If you haven’t heard of Peterson (although you probably have), he’s a controversial Canadian psychologist, who has found a strong online following for his psychological and theological lectures and webcam Q&As. Again, I didn’t agree with everything he was saying (in fact, I am pretty sceptical about some of it), but I found him an interesting counter to contemporary identity politics.
It wasn’t until a few months later that these interests collided. One day, sitting in my bedroom, I was listening to SFA Episode 3.12, Not Nice, Not White, and Not a Lady, with guest Tara Robertson. At one point Robertson, speaking about the issue of free speech on university campuses, commented “Jordan Peterson has a sold-out speaking engagement at the Chan centre. How does [the University of British Columbia] hold up Truth and Reconcilliation, while having a white supremac… an academic white supremacist at a sold-out event. Like, is it about the money? Is it about, like, this idea of, like, academic freedom?”. To which the host answered “the idea of academic freedom… I know a lot of male academics in particular who think that Jordan Peterson is just an interesting provocateur. Because there’s no fucking stakes for them, right?!”. Immediately, I began to feel bad. Was Jordan Peterson a white supremacist and I just hadn’t realised? Or was a podcast I liked attempting to silence someone by calling them a white supremacist without any foundation to that claim? It made me feel a little sick.
Wanting to know more, I wrote into the podcast. First, I complimented the show and said how much I had enjoyed it over the past few months. Then, I said:
I am writing to express concern about something that was said by your guest in your last episode. I know that Secret Feminist Agenda […] has been receptive to feedback in the past, and I thought it was important to reach out.
In Episode 3.12, you interviewed Tara Robertson who, during your discussion of free speech and campus values, called Jordan Peterson a “white supremacist”. While I don’t always agree with Jordan Peterson, I disagree with this statement and I don’t believe that analysis of his work suggests that he is a white supremacist. (Though I should note that I have not read or listened to all of his work by any means and am prepared to change my opinion given further evidence.)
Nonetheless, whether or not it is fair to describe Peterson in this way, I believe it is very dangerous to publish work that calls someone a white supremacist without justifying this comment or providing any evidence of it in the podcast or the show notes. This is especially true of a podcast that is currently seeking to become a peer-reviewed academic work. I do not think it is fair or academically rigorous to provide no references to such strong claims. While, in Canada, Peterson might be well-known, listeners in other countries (like me) may well not have been exposed to him before.
A few days later, I received a decidely clipped email back, stating:
I’ve decided to dedicate the next episode to addressing why calling someone a white supremacist can’t be something we shy from, why being a white person within white supremacy and not actively fighting it constitutes white supremacist behaviour, and how people like Peterson in particular are forwarding agendas like race science that promote white supremacist ideologies.
In the episode that followed, Episode 3.13 Understanding White Supremacy, the host, Hannah McGregor, introduced that week’s content by saying “one listener emailed, suggesting that it was inappropriate and unscholarly to call Jordan Peterson a white supremacist”. She then outlined what white supremacy means to her.
“A question like is it fair or unfair to call X person a white supremacist has within it a particular logic which says that’s an outrageous claim, that’s a [sic] inflammatory claim, that’s a libelous claim, that’s a claim that demands evidence. And I would argue the contrary. I would, in fact, argue that the default of being a white person living within white supremacy is being a white supremacist. I’ve said it before, that we want to point to white supremacy as being extreme examples of racial violence, so we can other that kind of behaviour […] from ourselves. That’s an attempt to find a way out of complicity with the violence of this system. I would instead say that the onus is on white people to actively demonstrate your distance from white supremacy on a daily basis. And it worries me to see white people say ‘oh, is it too much to call that person a white supremacist?’. That tells me that you are assuming a sort of neutrality to the way that whiteness operates, as opposed to the default being violence”.
Clearly, McGregor is using a very niche definition of what it means to be a white supremacist.
For a start, she says that to label someone a white supremacist does not require evidence. Well, that way madness lies. This assertion is so logic-defying, it is almost hard to argue with. If this is the case, the term ‘white supremacist’ ceases to mean anything at all, because the label can be attached to anyone at any given time.
Furthermore, McGregor argues that, to be a white person not actively engaged in a particular kind of identity politics, is to be a white supremacist. Of course, if that’s the criterion, almost every white person is a white supremacist, and there is nothing special about Peterson. Nevertheless, this is not how McGregor or her guest originally deploy the term. They use it, not to describe Peterson as an average person, but as a reason that he should not be allowed to speak on UBC’s campus.
And therein lies the key problem. McGregor asserts that the use of the term ‘white supremacist’ should be mundane, not inflammatory, not libellous; the default term for any white person not engaged in a particular brand of identity politics. But she uses it to argue for an extreme consequence; banning someone from talking on a campus. It is this gap, between her justification of the term and the consequences she endorses, that troubles me. Within this ideology, being white and displaying any variance from one type of identity politics (a fairly mundane occurence) makes someone a literal Nazi (an extreme conclusion).
So, clearly, there are problems with the way McGregor defines ‘white supremacy’, and that’s what I really wanted to highlight here. But is Jordan Peterson a white supermacist in the more traditional sense of the term? That’s something I’ll get into properly in my second post. But, on his part, Peterson has said that claims that he is a white supremacist are “ridiculous” and “preposterous”, stating that he is an honorary member of a Native American tribe and that he has specifically taught students about the “horrors” of the Holocaust. He says, on the idea that he is a white supremacist, “not only is it not true but it’s anti true, it’s seriously untrue”.
I stopped listening to Secret Feminist Agenda. I stopped because I didn’t want to increase traffic to a podcast that I disagreed so fundmentally with. I stopped because I didn’t want to listen to a podcast that I felt I couldn’t trust anymore. But I really miss it. I miss the show’s cosiness and its focus on the little, comforting details of life. Maybe I’ll go back to it. If I still listen to Peterson, who I disagree with at times, perhaps I can still listen to SFA. I’m just not sure anymore.