I imagine that there are people who would be disappointed to see me tackle such a topic—people who assume that, because I prefer to write about modernist literature, believe strenuously in something like beauty and its centrality in human life, and take issue with many of the most vicious incarnations of what I provisionally join lazy thinkers in calling “cancel culture” that I am “not like other girls,” by which they mean that I am Above Politics and therefore comfortably sequestered in the airy Realm of the Spirit, where complaints about sexism never disturb halcyon reflections on matters of Great Importance. Not so. It’s symptomatic of the hysterical quality of “the times” that anyone who hesitates to assimilate the ethical to the political and the political to the aesthetic is therefore pegged as the kind of person with a stomach for oratory about the beauty of the countryside and all that schlock. In fact, I have no appetite for cloying traditionalism.
I do not think that a commitment to aesthetics, and a belief that the aesthetic and the political/ethical are sometimes detachable, such as I articulated in my “Sanctimony Literature” essay, in turn commits me to the much less defensible idea that there is something vulgar about stooping to political reflection, or the equally ridiculous yet unfortunately ubiquitous idea that criticizing liberalism’ tendency towards spiritual impoverishment is Big Philosophy, whereas feminism is mere griping. On the contrary, I enjoy political philosophy (and I include feminist philosophy under this umbrella); perhaps I enjoy it less than I enjoy literary criticism, and I certainly have little patience for the wholesale conflation of political philosophy or political praxis with literary criticism, but the former, too, are things I value. There is a certain breed of aesthete who romanticizes peasants working in the fields in what are no doubt highly unpleasant and not in the least ennobling conditions and rhapsodizes about life in some Ruritanian fantasy-land. Heidegger, whom I often love and occasionally find annoying, is in this camp when he’s in his kitschiest mode. I love writing about high art, and there’s not much I love more than climbing a mountain (besides writing about Döblin or whatever), but I am emphatically not in this camp. Politics are a fact of life, and it’s no more exalted to reflect on the cramped state of the soul under neoliberalism than it is to reflect on the lot of a demographic systematically exploited for centuries. As in so many matters, a reasonable person falls squarely in the middle—frustrated with both the more outlandish excesses of class-blind and soul-sucking and beauty-quashing identity politics (e.g., “fans” who demand art in which they can easily see themselves, professional victims who insist that everything vaguely unpleasant amounts to “abuse,” and corporate drones who assure us that sticking a few women in the Amazon HR department is the means to liberation, etc, etc) and appalled by the very real uptick in noxious reactionary politics, with its under-and-overcurrents of ethno-nationalism and misogyny and its veneer of sentimental nostalgia.
Of course, to object to reactionary politics is absolutely not to approve every possible means of rejecting it, and in particular, is not approve arguments against engagement with reactionary rhetoric, which warrants analysis both as “argument” (though it rarely attains this honorific status, in my view) and as speech act. There are those who think that “giving a platform” to people such as Jordan Peterson is a bad idea. It seems to me that Jordan Peterson, whose book has sold five-million copies, has a platform already. In all likelihood, he will continue to have a platform as long as there is a market for what he’s peddling, namely, warmed-over sexism and transphobia, dressed up in a tweedy costume. Our choices are to let him peddle it unchallenged or step in and point out the problems not only with what he says but, as I shall do, with how he says it. Hence the following attempt to sketch an account of a particularly insidious sort of sexism and to explain why it’s so frustrating and so insurmountable.
The first problem that presents itself is that the sort of sexism I wish to discuss is more miasmic than material; it’s designed to appear innocuous, and it is slippery, ungraspable as smoke, for which reason its contours are especially hard to trace. In trying to come up with a name for it, I’m reminded of Susan Sontag’s remarks about camp: “a sensibility (as distinct from an idea) is one of the hardest things to talk about,” she writes. This is because a sensibility trades in hint and insinuation, not in propositions that can be directly identified (and therefore directly attacked). The very difficulty of cleanly defining the sort of sexism I have in mind is a clue. Sontag inadvertently hits on the quintessence of what I’ll name Performatively Rational Sexism: it is in fact a sensibility, but it masquerades as an idea. Its practitioners are usually intellectuals, usually of the sort that hold forth lyrically about, well, what? About something something tradition something something feminine essence. They’re not saying that a Good Woman (tm) has kids and quits her job, of course. They’re not saying anything. They’re just giving the impression of having said something, and something profound at that, and if it just so happens that their audience is wont to hear reactionary recommendations and disdain for women in their non-statements—well, they didn’t say that, did they? They are simultaneously beacons of rationality and, apparently, incapable of argument, since they are only ever “just asking questions.” Lionel Trilling wrote once, memorably, that conservatives make “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” This is exactly what the Performatively Rational Sexist, exemplified by Herr Doktor Jordan Peterson, also does. He performs his rationality—he sweats and sweats to perform it conspicuously, wearing the right cardigans and making the right hand gestures and admiring the right neoclassical monuments—without actually taking any stances. His entire strategy is one of deflection and suggestion, adopted precisely so as to armor himself against the clashes that under-gird true disagreement. Here are just three examples:
Exhibit A: In Which Peterson Claims that Women Wearing Make-Up/Heels in the Workplace Are Sexualizing Themselves. He’s not saying that they’re “asking for it,” but….
“I’m not saying that you shouldn’t wear makeup,” he says. “I’m not saying that people shouldn’t use sexual displays in the workplace. I’m not saying that.” Of course, “the Maoists put everyone in uniforms to stop that sort of thing from happening.” (What sort of thing? Did the Maoists really put everyone in uniform to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace? I’m skeptical. Anyway.) But of course he’s not recommending the Maoist tactic? Of course he’s not saying that women in the workplace are at fault when they’re sexually harassed if they happen to be wearing lip gloss, is he? Of course not. Herr Doktor Peterson, paragon of rationality, is just pointing out that wearing make-up issues a sexual invitation. He’s just asking questions!
Exhibit B: In Which Peterson Claims that the Women Entering the Job Market Is Why Wages for Everyone Are So Low, and Also That Most Women Choose to Leave Their Jobs to Become Mothers at Thirty. He’s not saying that women should leave labor market to do dishes full-time, but….
First of all, Peterson’s evidence for the claim that “women” (apparently a homogeneous class across countries and professions) choose to leave the workplace en masse at 30 to spawn broods of children to which they then spend all waking hours ministering is as follows: for a few years, he worked as a therapist for a small group of high-power lawyers, during which time he observed that a lot of the female ones quit at thirty. Why he feels entitled to generalize, on this basis, to “women” I’m not sure, but let’s set this pungent mystery aside. Second of all, it is simply false that adding new members to the workforce yields a decrease in wages, because increases in the workforce yield new markets. This is a fact so widely acknowledged that Peterson’s mistake is named: https://www.investopedia.com/terms/l/lump-of-labour-fallacy.asp.
But—whatever. The important point for my purposes here is not whether Herr Doktor Peterson is wrong, though I think he is wrong, but rather that he is intellectually cowardly. He’s not saying that women should leave the workplace so that men can get paid a decent wage again and we can return to the joys of Rockwell-esque domestic bliss, with women on industrial-grade Xanax baking lumpy bread and absolutely loving it, leaving poor men to quake beneath the responsibility of solving intellectual puzzles; he’s not saying that any woman in her right mind chooses to leave her high-power job at the age of thirty to breed and spread pimento cheese on sandwiches; he’s not saying that everyone has to have children, on pain of leading a meaningless life, that it’s a mistake to seek fulfillment via labor organizing or art-making or gardening or baking or philosophizing or doing math or playing chess; he’s just saying that it’s “a barren future without children,” and (some small subset of Canadian) women do choose to leave the workplace at thirty (for which there is of course no possible explanation besides their realization that they are natural mothers), and women did make it impossible for any of us to live in single-career homes.
Exhibit C: In Which Peterson Claims that the Availability of Birth Control Occasioned Social Upheaval. He’s not saying that women shouldn’t have access to birth control, but….
but….there are studies showing that women on birth control are more sexually attracted to effeminate cucks with lower levels of testosterone, and as we know, we should optimize for testosterone at all costs, to the point of injecting it directly into our eyeballs. “I’m not saying that’s necessarily the case,” he says, meaning that he is not actually claiming abstaining from the joys of motherhood makes women unhappy, but there is “good evidence” that “women’s level of unhappiness has increased since the 60s.” Have other people’s level of unhappiness also increased since the 60s? Might women’s increase in unhappiness, assuming women actually are more unhappy than they once were, be explained by any number of world-historical catastrophes rather than by the prevalence of birth control? Herr Doktor does not investigate. After all, once again, he’s not saying anything: he’s just asking questions.
The problem with “just asking questions” is that the questions at issue, given their framing, have fairly obvious answers. If you say that the availability of the birth control is responsible for the slow erosion of all that is good in the world, or that women are all miserable when they have jobs, you are essentially prompting your audience to draw the obvious conclusions—namely that women should stop taking birth control and leave the workplace. In philosophy, the term for a premise that is clearly doing work in an argument but that remains tacit is a “suppressed premise.” Peterson is gesturing not only as suppressed premises, but suppressed conclusions. What’s happening looks like this, if we formalize it, which Peterson et al. would never do, because the very point of their whole way of being in the world is to say things without having to take responsibility for saying them:
 Stated premise: High-power jobs make women miserable.
 Obvious Suppressed Premise: It’s bad to be miserable.
Thinly Veiled Conclusion: Women should not have high-power jobs.
Needless to say, you can’t have an argument with someone suppressing premises and conclusions all over the place. Premises and conclusions must be unsuppressed if they are to be tested. But you can’t exactly not have an argument either, because to do so is to leave unchallenged the perfectly obvious insinuation that you and your talented friends should quit your jobs and take up knitting at home, where it’s mercifully safe to wear make-up. You’re damned if you do: then, you’re irrationally reading too much into the conversation because of your feminine over-sensitivity, when Peterson and his avatars were just asking questions. And you’re damned if you don’t: then, you’re tacitly accepting a series of indictments of your humanity. Worse, if you exit a conversation in which such conclusions are implicated,* or, worst of all, if you exit in such a way as to make it known that you are not perfectly emotionally composed, you are demonstrating that you are too overwrought to engage in rational debate. You would have to be Jordan Peterson not to know that one of the ways in which women’s legitimate concerns have been historically dismissed is by way of accusations of irrationality. Women see ghosts where there are none, cry “rape” when there are only well-meaning men jovially pawing them, and need smelling salts when they become incensed by something incensing. They have fragile constitutions and brains suited largely to child-rearing.
What it comes to is that, in a sham argument with an interlocutor more interested in cultivating an aesthetics of rationality than in mastering its mechanisms, you are doomed to lose, for you will almost certainly end by losing your composure, confirming your discussant’s likely presumption that you are too tremulous for the jostle of intellectual life. Women who demand that Peterson “precisfy” (as philosophers have it) his premises, or put their naturally sweet and charitable dispositions to work by doing him the favor of imputing precisified premises to him, are in fact demanding rationality from him, for they are insisting that the pre-conditions of argument be satisfied. But they are making a fatal mistake in assuming that argument is what he wants at all. In fact, what performatively rational sexists crave is a contest of sensibilities, a contest in which what is at issue is who appears more rational, as in television shows in which intellectual activity is pathetically dramatized. (I’ve long wanted to write an essay about depictions of ratiocination in film—you know, all those stupid montages in shows like Sherlock that signal that a character is thinking big thoughts by showing him seeing equations in the air and the like.) Such contests tend to make women angry—who wouldn’t get angry when forced to compete in a popularity contest disguised as a debate?—which in turn allows men to perform their rationality all the more exaggeratedly. The man thinks, and you know he is thinking because he is making all the gestures we associate with intellection, such as squinting a lot or clamping his hand to his forehead as if the contents of his skull are about to burst out; the women emotes, and you know she is emoting because she is either leaving the conversation in a funk or insisting that the man said things he did not, technically, say.
It’s worth noting that the emotion/rationality dichotomy may be a red herring anyway, for reasons I might explore at greater length elsewhere but that in any case are well-documented. As Martha Nussbaum, Bernard Williams, and others have noted, emotions like shame or compassion are not just brute feelings but constellations of mental motions with evaluative and often quite morally important content. Emotions are therefore subject to norms of rationality, and it seems to me that anger at a Peterson is warranted to the point of being practically a rational requirement. Nonetheless, anger is not immediately legible as rational, so the outcome of the sensibility contest is a foregone conclusion. Put on a tweed jacket and make a puzzled expression when people ask you about all the things you haven’t-quite-said, and you’re golden. You’re an intellectual, kid.
This state of affairs is frustrating for obvious reasons. Competing in a series of rigged contests feels like trying to swim with your arms bound, like screaming while gagged, like hurling something squishy at a wall repeatedly in futile attempts at breaking through it. It’s also frustrating because there are casualties, namely the people who really are just asking questions but who are drowned out by the chorus of Peterson-imitators “just asking questions” as a way of sensibility-mongering. By the time you encounter someone who is really, genuinely just asking questions, you may have exhausted your energy by pseudo-arguing with so many performative rationalists. Nobody who actually wants to ask questions, or for that matter, who actually wants to make an argument is satisfied. It’s only the salesmen of sensibility who emerge unscathed.
*I know “implicated” is pretentious here, but I simply cannot unsee the analytic philosophical distinction between “implication”—a logical relation, in which one proposition entails the truth of another—and “implicature”—an informal relation in which a proposition is “gestured at” or suggested by what is said.