Thursday, June 24, 2021

Talking Past Each Other…


…and missing the center.

Jordan Peterson had a conversation with Michael Malice.  I take it from one of the comments from Malice that he is friends with one of Peterson’s children, and perhaps this is why / how he ended up on Peterson’s radar.  In any case…

I have heard Malice a couple of times in the past, so I cannot say that I am terribly familiar with his views.  I have written a post or two based on podcasts he has done with Tom Woods.  One of these, I believe, is relevant to revisit here.  I focus on one comment from Malice:

It’s also just bizarre that a movement that’s rooted in individualism and regards value as subjective is going to be baffled that other people have different priorities and different perspectives, and not only just baffled but insist that those priorities are wrong.

My reaction: if libertarianism is rooted in individualism, there is no movement.  I close the post with the following thought:

If libertarianism is rooted in individualism, there is no movement.  No libertarian who holds conservative values will fall on their libertarian sword for your right to have a sausage orgy. 

In any case, to suggest libertarianism is rooted in individualism is not really correct.  It is only “rooted” in describing when the use of physical force is justified, and is best thought of as a theory of punishment or legitimate defense.  It really has nothing to do with individualism.

Returning to the Peterson-Malice discussion: the first fifty minutes or so, they had a broad general conversation – covering 4chan, memes, the mainstream or corporate media, etc.  This all flowed very nicely.  Then they move to Malice’s anarchism.  And this is where I felt they started talking past each other.

Anarchy or anarchism – such a loaded term.  One can view it as the proper extension of the non-aggression principle, which it rightly is; another can view it as riots on the street, which is how most people understand the term.  My sense, from both the conversation and knowing something of the background of each of these two individuals, is that Malice sees it as the former, while Peterson sees it as the latter.  That this was never clarified tainted the entire conversation, it seemed to me.

But, given how Malice portrayed it, I can’t blame Peterson.  When using a loaded term, it is incumbent on the one using the term to define his meaning clearly.  Further, as will be developed later in this post, Malice never discussed the necessity of properly functioning intermediating institutions (and even seemed to dismiss the necessity).  Maybe he believes these are necessary, but it didn’t come out in the discussion – which again, leaves Peterson to think “riots” every time Malice says “anarchy.”

Finally, Malice dislikes the idea of duty or responsibility beyond a market transaction (you sell me juice, I give you money).  Yet duty and responsibility in a broader sense are necessary if one is after liberty – just a question of duty and responsibility to what and to whom.  Yet, Malice will often state a duty.  And nowhere is the source of this duty explored (natural law / Christian ethics) – which would have done both of these individuals some good.  With that, some detail:

MM: I don’t think that’s true, because you are taking it as a given that cooperation is desirable.

Right off the bat, Malice is using insider talk with someone who hears “riots” when he hears “anarchism.”  And in this context, the “absence of cooperation” equals “riots” for Peterson.

Malice then elaborates in the context of the United States, and the strong divide that has been created by the media and identified with the singular litmus test: “Donald Trump: for or against?”

MM: There’s no reason, other than some kind of sense of inertia, for these two or more groups to be under the same polity; there’s no reason for you to have the president you don’t want.

I agree with Malice.  The peaceful solution in the United States is decentralization.  Yet, here again, the two are talking past each other – and I place the burden on Malice, because he is the one who uses the loaded term.  He doesn’t have to clarify these things on a Tom Woods podcast or cruise ship; he does when speaking outside the bubble. 

Malice is speaking of political force; Peterson is speaking of authority based on a community-shared hierarchy.  Again, this is never clarified or explored.

It could be seen that the disagreement is on the size of the group.  Peterson speaks of children having to cooperate in order to play a game.  But is this a game that five children are playing or 300 million or seven trillion children must all play together?  The force necessary to contain such a large group is where Malice is pointing, it seems clear – but clear to me only because I understand something (not a lot) of him and his use of the word anarchy. 

But this never was clarified or explored.  I felt it left Peterson believing that cooperation is not part of Malice’s framework – which is understandable given a) Peterson’s likely view of what anarchism means to him, and b) Malice basically said this at the beginning of this section of the discussion (noted above).

Malice often refers to the “they.”  Peterson presses him: who is the “they”?  Malice offers a short summary including the Fabian society, the political philosophy of Gramsci, the role of the universities and the media.  Peterson replies: let me be an advocate for the role of the patriarchy.  Which is really a confusing response even for me despite my being aware that these two are using a different framework regarding the word anarchy.

Malice offers that no one can invoke or force upon another person responsibilities such as duty or gratitude.  He offers respect to Peterson in the conversation because Peterson has earned these things.  But here, there is no “why.”  Why does Malice believe that because Peterson has acted in some manner that Malice finds “good,” does Malice believe this requires a certain response from him?  What makes whatever this “good” that Malice sees in Peterson “good”?  From where does he get his “ought”?

Malice points to the universities, the corporations, etc., as the driving forces in this totalitarian control of the population.  Peterson is suggesting that there is something deeper.  But they don’t go further here, despite this being a two-hour-plus conversation.  Which is unfortunate.  This needed to be explored.

There is something deeper, and I don’t hear it from Malice: tradition, a natural law ethic, Christianity.  Peterson has explored Christianity deeply, but doesn’t bring it up here.  There is a “why” to explain the “why” of the role of societal destruction being played by universities and corporations and politicians and media and bureaucrats.  It is explained by Gramsci – destroy the Christian culture in the West via the lower classes controlling the culture, and communism can be ushered in.  Peterson knows this; it isn’t clear to me that Malice does (he might; again, I am not terribly familiar with his views).

Meanwhile, Malice makes a strong argument of the irredeemable nature of these institutions – and he points to Walter Duranty as an example – the same example I used in pointing to the naivete of Bari Weiss and her New York Times experience – as if such destructive behavior only began yesterday.  Malice says nothing was ever done to rectify the deadly reporting of Duranty, other than to pretend “we” at the Times don’t do that anymore.  Malice calls BS to that; they have done it ever since and do it all the time. 

He is right, of course.  It dates back further than Weiss claims to understand, and further than Peterson has ever acknowledged.  This liberal order, absent Christianity and a natural law ethic, had its death built in from the beginning – say, from the Enlightenment.  It only has taken time because Christianity and natural law was, for a time, still part of the culture that birthed it.

Peterson says “I agree with all of that except the attribution of blame.”  Peterson is looking for some way to redeem at least something of Harvard (as a shortcut for the “they”).  Malice agrees – there are still individuals deserving or proper esteem in such institutions – but this is no longer the character of the institutions. 

In this regard, Malice speaks positively of the Steven Pinker types.  Which comes back to the part missing in Malice – no natural law ethic, no Christian foundation; this is Steven Pinker.  And add to this one of the stereotypes believed of anarchists (and I don’t know if Malice fits this stereotype, but he never clarifies this): no intermediating institutions.

Peterson attributes the issues not to the institutions, but to the corruption of the institutions.  Malice doesn’t agree – as corruption implies that these institutions can be salvaged.  Malice offers that these institutions are beyond corrupt, they are malevolent.  In many cases, this is right.  Do we believe that the principalities and powers are acting only in our dreams, floating in the Æther?  No, of course not.  These principalities and powers act through real flesh and blood human beings, and many of these flesh and blood human beings sit at the top of these institutions.

Malice makes a powerful point: whatever Peterson believes about the “good” in at least some politicians, “if you are voting to send people overseas to kill innocent people, you are a bad human being.”  Peterson has no real comeback for this, and how could he.

But, regularly, the two are stumbling over the word force; I have to believe Malice knows the distinction of force vs. aggression, but it doesn’t come out here.  It is another point that would have helped to bring clarity to the conversation.

Despite earlier pushing back against the word “duty,” Malice later says he has an “I don’t know if I would use the word ‘duty’” duty to do something about the lives of people suffering in North Korea… “because no one disagrees that there should be more liberalism in North Korea.”  He makes other statements of “should” and “ought,” but doesn’t identify the source or the reason.  These aren’t statements regarding violation of the non-aggression principle, these are regarding non-violent ethical norms.  Where do these “oughts” come from?  What is the source?  Who is the “we” that all agree?  Why?  None of this is explored, which is unfortunate.


The two of them are trying to remember the title of a book – and each gets it almost right, but not quite right.  Peterson looks it up real-time, and says “oh, we were both wrong.  That probably characterizes our entire conversation.”  It was a great point of humor, and Peterson got a good laugh out of Malice.

They were both right about many things, and both wrong on the key things.  And, for this, I really have to look to Malice.  Using loaded terms is certain to set a conversation down a wrong path unless the one using the loaded term works diligently to clarify his meaning.  This might have led the entire conversation to a more fruitful place – even to include Peterson incorporating what he knows to be true about the Christian ethic and the archetype of Jesus.

And, ultimately, natural law.  It is where this broader conversation needs to go if liberty is truly the objective.


  1. Great commentary. I would definitely like to see a round two between these two where they address the specific issues you've raised.

    "Malice that he is friends with one of Peterson’s children"

    Malice is friends with Mikhaila Peterson who has her own very successful podcast (331k subscribers! For reference Tom Woods has about 70k), though I've never watched it.

    "Peterson replies: let me be an advocate for the role of the patriarchy."

    I think Peterson considers the patriarchy basically the current culturally and politically dominant secular institutions we have, like the universities, the state, the press - basically The Establishment, prior to Woke-ism and the ascendance of identity politics.

    "This liberal order, absent Christianity and a natural law ethic, had its death built in from the beginning – say, from the Enlightenment. It only has taken time because Christianity and natural law was, for a time, still part of the culture that birthed it."

    Dynamite statement and so true. Reminds me of a good one by the Archbishop Fulton Sheen:

    "The bold fact the enemies of God must face is that modern civilization has conquered the world, but in doing so has lost its soul. And in losing its soul it will lose the very world it gained. Even our own so-called liberal culture in the United States, which has tried to avoid complete secularization by leaving little zones of individual freedom, is in danger of forgetting that these zones were preserved only because religion was in their soul. And as religion fades so will freedom, for only where the spirit of God is, is there liberty.”

    I think you stayed on the most important thread of the conversation, one which I sort of missed when I listened to it: the missing discussion of natural law. I think I got distracted by some of Peterson's odd statements like that he identifies himself with the worst oppressors in history and his overly broad conception of 'we' (which I believe must have contributed to his mental health crisis). Whereas Malice's 'they' was portrayed as too arbitrary in the discussion.

    Also, Malice's predisposition for shocking statements (being an elite member of the Twitteratti who regards trolling as a fine art) didn't help the discussion either as you point out. Saying it is not a given that cooperation is desirable, without much of a clarification is not helpful. It's almost as bad as Proudhon saying "property is theft." Of course Malice was right that cooperation is not always good, after all, one can cooperate with others to steal from or enslave the rest, but he needed to make his position more clear.

    Thanks for the great discussion.

    1. Above I should have said that Peterson regards the Patriarchy as not the current establishment but that which ruled prior to the rise of identity politics and of which some elements still remain. Not 100% sure of this, but from what I've heard from Peterson, I'm pretty sure this is the case.

  2. Peterson should read Malice's book. It won't help the conversation but maybe he would better understand where MM was coming from.

    1. I think Peterson mentioned that he read it or skimmed it or some such. In any case, even if Peterson was familiar with the book, his audience likely is not (beyond some subset, perhaps).

      So the audience would remain equally lost or confused, even if Peterson was not.

  3. Thank you for making this well documented.

    There are anarchists against hierarchy, but there are also anarchists NOT against hierarchy, just STATE hierarchy, and Jordan often uses state interchangeably with society rather than in the technical sense as a territorial monopolist of aggression.

    1. Thank you.

      There will always be a hierarchy. The primary issue: what value determines what, or who, is at the top.

      This is what anarchists who do not value hierarchy miss. It is what makes them sound no different than post-modernists.

    2. "Jordan often uses state interchangeably with society"

      I've noticed this too. He should have read Max Weber, but I guess he is a psychologist, not a sociologist, so of course he would be naturally inclined to treat a nation-state as a singular entity (not as society and state, or as a plurality of many different cultural and political groups under one flag).

      This coupled with his apparent pre-disposition to place himself in the driver seat of the worst state regimes in history may explain his recent mental health issues. Trying to understand why the state goes totalitarian is like wondering why a pet tiger goes 'tiger' and kills its owner. It shouldn't be hard to understand, but if you've spent your whole adult life deluding yourself (and getting deluded by others) about the inherent nature of tigers, you may find yourself at a loss for words when the blood finally starts flowing.