So, I’m sure you remember Jordan Peterson, yes? Yes, you probably do. He was all the rage in 2016-17, and I myself had covered him here to some extent, and I’ve considered him to be something of a Christian crank ever since I read his “Maxims for Men” back in the middle of 2017. Ever since then he had been a figure of prestige in the world of conservative politics both on and offline, but after a few years he seemed to spiral into ridicule and has ceased to be the subject of media attention that perhaps he once was. He released a follow-up to his book 12 Rules for Life last year, but to little fanfare. More recently, it seems that Peterson has retired from teaching at the University of Toronto and announced that he is no longer a professor there. He almost predictably cites diversity initiatives supposedly stopping “supremely trained heterosexual white male graduate students” from attaining faculty positions and careers, a grievance that I would think he had levelled previously and which has somehow not previously inspired Peterson to quit his job.
It’s worth remembering that it’s not like Peterson is being silenced. His books still sell well, he still got to do lectures and podcasts, he actually has a pretty extensive platform in which to display much of his views. And, more recently, after resigning, he returned to The Joe Rogan Experience on Spotify, while wearing a whole fuck-off tuxedo for some reason, for a conversation. This is where we get to what I’m here to talk about. During that podcast, Joe Rogan asked Peterson about his thoughts on what “causes” trans people to exist. You see, in the dull sludgy mind of Joe Rogan, being trans is something that has to be “caused”, rather than something that just occurs in human beings, as seems to actually be the case. Peterson, however, responds to Rogan by describing being trans as a “sociological contagion” which he likened to “the satanic ritual abuse allegations that emerged in daycares in the 1980s”.
Yikes indeed. Not only does Peterson believe that trans people or just the condition of being trans itself are some kind of virus (that’s what’s implied by the term “sociological contagion”), but he also believes that being trans as a phenomenon is comparable to accusations of ritual abuse being committed by devil-worshipping Satanists. That’s basically just his way of saying it’s all some kind of mass delusion.
Why would Peterson make such a comparison? Well, based on what I’ve been able to see, it has something to do with Abigail Shrier’s ideas about “rapid onset gender dysphoria”, which come from a discredited study by Lisa Littman which claimed that young people, particularly young boys or men, tend to identify as trans because of “social or peer contagion”, or basically peer pressure. That study did not derive any evidence from actual trans youth, but instead only surveyed the parents of trans youth, and at that parents who happened to have read transphobic websites. During the podcast with Rogan, Peterson seems to describe being trans as a symptom of autism, or at least he does so by implication when he says “a lot of the people who are manifesting serious issues with gender identity are on the autism spectrum”. Rogan then compares that to Abigail Shrier’s work, which he seems to accept completely at face value seemingly without having done any research into her credibility, and Peterson seems to refer to her ideas about “rapid onset gender dysphoria” as his reason for opposing Bill C-16, on the grounds that “as soon as we messed with fundametal sex categories and changed the terminology, we would fatally confuse thousand of young girls”, a claim that he insists is backed by 300 or 500 years of literature. He then calls it a “social contagion”, and also applies that description to accusations of satanic ritual abuse, which he then blames on women entering the workforce and supposedly leaving their children with strangers and having schizophrenic fantasies about it.
So, in summary, Jordan Peterson believes that recognizing and accepting that trans people exist is like accusing people of satanic ritual abuse because both are “social contagions”, and also we’re told that women are responsible for it because they decided to get jobs rather than spend roughly 20 years of their lives as stay-at-home mothers. On top of just being blatantly bigoted towards women and trans people, it’s mind-numbingly incoherent and impossible to make sense of. Nathan Robinson was right. If Peterson is the modern intellectual cream of “the West”, then honestly “the West” needs to explain itself because it looks like we’ve gone completely insane. I’d say probably the only evidence you need to be convinced of this is just the fact that his books can find themselves in ordinary book shops in the self-help or even “smart thinking” sections! People who may not even be right-wing or particularly reactionary can buy Peterson’s books because they see them in the self-help section, possibly while buying up a bunch of other self-help books. I dated someone who had a copy of 12 Rules for Life and tons of other self-help books, but thankfully I don’t think she even read it, let alone enough to internalize his spiel about women. My point, though, is that’s how widespread his work can be, and to be honest I’m half-suspicious that the media just sort of helps that along even while going through the motions of formally criticizing his views. And we really do need to explain how we thought this man, with his transparently senseless theories about trans people, satanic ritual abuse accusations, and women entering the workplace could ever have been taken as a serious intellectual. And before you say what I think you’re going to say in response, you can only hide behind the speculated grievances of young men for so long before the whole enterprise means nothing.
I’d just like to point a few things out about the Bill C-16 thing for a moment. In the podcast with Joe Rogan, Peterson seems to have shifted away from the free speech argument when discussing Bill C-16. Rather than being about how Bill C-16 was supposed to land people a jail sentence for not using the correct pronouns and somehow usher in a Maoist dictatorship, and just so we’re clear none of that ever happened in Canada since Bill C-16 was introduced, Peterson instead argues that Bill C-16 was bad because it meant “messing with fundamental sex categories”, which to him means “fatally confusing thousands of young girls”. I have to imagine that if Peterson didn’t make fallacious free speech arguments about C-16 the first time, and only rambled about how calling trans people by their preferred pronouns would confuse everybody, nobody would be paying attention to him, or if they did they would be condemning and mocking him as a bigot and then move on, and I consequently might not be talking about him today. From his arguments here, it actually seems like he would prefer to control any speech that represented “social contagion”, and his society would if anything make overtures to ban the non-cisnormative use of gender pronouns. From his standpoint, why not, considering he thinks trans people represent the decline of civilization?
Now, why do I refer to all this as “Satanic Panic Lite”? Because it technically isn’t an actual Satanic Panic as such, in that he doesn’t seem to argue that satanic ritual abuse as a phenomenon is real, and appears to be as convinced as almost anyone else that the accusations of satanic ritual abuse were just that: accusations. But then the whole spectre of satanic ritual abuse, even when acknowledged as a collection of accusations with no basis in reality, is invoked so as to frame trans people as essentially a similar threat. For Peterson, trans people may not be worshipping Satan and ritually abusing and sacrificing children, but they are inducing mass delusion in a way that lines up with the fear of satanic ritual abuse, somehow. In this, the “real” satanic panic is the fear of satanic ritual abuse, which he believes trans people induce an equivalent state within society. So in other words, Jordan Peterson thinks trans people are like a satanic panic about a satanic panic, and their existence inspires that through “the confusion of gender norms”.
Of course, this is all a very long-winded way of saying that Jordan Peterson is a transphobic, and misogynistic, lunatic. And like many other reactionaries before and since him, he needs some form of Satanic Panic to support his ideology, even if that means just the fear of a satanic panic. Whereas a Satanic Panic in the classical sense means taking a scapegoat figure and putting them at the center of an active conspiracy to abuse and kill children, we might look at Peterson’s arguments as a kind of Satanic Panic Lite, as in a set of ideas that approaches Satanic Panic but does not properly embody it, on the grounds that, instead of accusing trans people of being satanic ritual abusers, Peterson is accusing trans people of creating satanic panic or a similar condition in society. Thus the fear of Satan and of Satanism is laid at the feet of trans people in order to cast being trans as a “social contagion”.
Remember, again, Peterson isn’t exactly being stopped from giving these utterances. He just went on a podcast seen by millions of people on a mainstream streaming service to do it, and if The Joe Rogan Experience were banned from Spotify, Peterson and Rogan would simply find a new platform on which to espouse transphobic ideas along with several other out there bigotries and dysfunctional conspiracy theories. Furthermore the man not only writes books, his books get to be sold as mainstream self-help. Such a man could hardly claim to be a persecuted outsider to the establishment, even if he and his cult-followers need that myth for sustenance. A new Satanic Panic is being ushered in, and it’s a satanic panic about a satanic panic, which is being blamed on trans people. And the establishment, no matter what its cries, is going to help Peterson and others bring it in. Why? Because nothing’s changed much since the 1980s. The idea of progress that led to people turning away from the subject of social oppression to a set of largely imaginary contemporary grievances is based on a lie. When something threatens to challenge the social order or at least change our ideas about what that means, society will always invoke the forces of Satanic Panic to protect itself from scrutiny by casting the forces of this change as a conspiracy of predators working in the shadows to destroy the innocent.
So long as society needs the reactionary ideology of Satanic Panic, which is to say until we have demolished or reshaped society as it exists, our struggle with the spectre of Satanic Panic will never end.