Turns Out It’s Neither
A couple of months ago, Jordan Peterson hosted Sen. Josh Hawley on his podcast to discuss “the conservative vision.” As a libertarian, I do not regard myself as a conservative, although I do share some of that movement’s anxieties about the excesses of what has become known as “wokeness” on the far left, and I generally admire Peterson as a thinker. However, one part of the conversation alarmed me, when Peterson appeared to suggest that woke progressivism fails because it focuses too heavily on the individual, while neglecting broader societal institutions like community, church, family, and tradition. Meaning, Peterson claimed, “is not found through an atomistic, self-defined liberalism.” The word “liberalism” could mean a couple of different things here, but the broader context of the conversation points to something like “left wing.”
Peterson goes on to say that leftists “are assuming that individual autonomy is a higher good… and now we can’t do that anymore.” Oh, can’t we? What could possibly be a higher good than individual autonomy and self-determination? Maybe Josh Hawley has the answer. He responds by agreeing with Peterson that “liberalism is a cult of satisfying your own desire, whatever it may be today, and it leaves people alone, adrift, and isolated.”
This is a surprising conclusion. Hawley has always been a conservative nationalist, but Peterson leans more classically liberal, and has spent much of his public career defending the concept of individualism and condemning collectivism as a broken and damaging ideology. Indeed, collectivism is perhaps the single most important defining feature of far left ideology, from communism that demands the sacrifice of the self to the greater good of the Party, to identity politics which demands that every person be judged based on a hierarchy of group identities from race to gender to sexual orientation. On some level, Peterson knows this; I’ve heard him say as much many times over the past several years. So how has he managed to now reach almost exactly the opposite conclusion?
Peterson is not alone. This condemnation of supposed left wing individualism is something I’m seeing more and more from the American right, particularly social and religious conservatives. Why is this the case? Did leftists suddenly turn into individualists when I wasn’t looking, or is this analysis mistaken in some way? I believe it’s the latter, in which case it’s incumbent upon me as a radical defender of individualism to identify the error and correct it, so as not to allow the label to be tarnished by its mistaken association with a movement that is about as fundamentally tribal as it’s possible to get.
To begin, I think I can see why Peterson has been lured into making this mistake. He is imagining the typical representative of the far left, a young person bespangled with tattoos and piercings, dyed hair, and clothing designed to express an individual identity. Such people tell us that they can define themselves anyway they want, that their gender is whatever they say it is, and that their subjective experience of the world, their “truth,” is as real and valid as any other interpretation. People with this worldview are typically hostile to established institutions, iconoclastic, and eager to do away with what they see as outdated and backwards traditions. Sometimes, they can be heard rejecting the use of labels themselves as too restrictive, unwilling to be pigeonholed by categories conceived and enforced by others. It is certainly understandable how such a position can, in isolation, appear to be the height of individualism. But is it really? I think a closer look is in order.
What I have described above is a stereotype, but it is one which will be recognizable to most 21st century Americans, at least those living in major population centers. The fact that such a stereotype is so familiar and can apply to so many different people should be the first clue that what is going on here is not wholly focused on the individual at all. Indeed, I would argue that adherence to a group or tribal identity offers a far better explanation for the above than does any sort of individualism. Above all things, the progressive left demands conformity. You must think as they do, vote as they do, and behave as they do. Most importantly, you must speak as they do, using a menu of approved words they will provide for you, and studiously avoiding any terms labeled “hateful,” “appropriative,” or “non-inclusive.” Failure to comply will result in doxing, campaigns to get the offenders fired, public harassment, banning from social media, and even death threats. The punk rock apparel and accessories described above are a uniform disguised as an expression of individuality, a signal that you are on a particular team and belong to a particular tribe.
Now, let’s talk about identity. Again, the ability to self-define and identify in any way you choose would be pretty individualistic if that’s what the far left were actually proposing, but I don’t think it is. What’s actually being celebrated is not individuality, but membership in certain favored groups. If you’re gay, trans, female, or non-white, progressives will cheer you on because they want to claim you as “one of them.” That is, of course, as long as you don’t deviate from the sacred tenets of their ideology.
One phenomenon I’ve always found odd is the public celebration of celebrities coming out of the closet. The most recent example that springs to mind is when Cassandra Peterson, better known as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, announced in her autobiography that she was in a long-term relationship with another woman. The joy I witnessed on social media told me that many people I know experienced this announcement as a major victory. But why? Some may claim that they are just happy that she gets to be her authentic self in public, and fair enough I suppose, but what about all the straight actors and actresses being their authentic selves? What if someone formerly thought to be gay announced that they were actually straight? Does anyone imagine that such an announcement would be met by anything but rage by the commenting class? It’s clear that this is not about individual self-expression, but rather a belief that it’s simply better to belong to Team Gay than to Team Straight.
We see this same pattern with other demographics as well. Women who vote Republican are attacked for being traitors to their gender. Black people who express conservative opinions are called traitors to their race. Asian Americans, who overcame widespread discrimination including internment in government camps during World War II, are called “white-adjacent” for being too successful and not politically active enough. If self-expression and individual empowerment were actually the goal, we would see the far left celebrating these brave nonconformists rather than hurling epithets at them.
Despite the left’s purported rejection of labels, the briefest of internet searches related to gender identity, neo-pronouns, as well as physical and mental disabilities will reveal nothing short of an obsession with categorizing and labeling every conceivable aspect of human personality. Every quirk, kink, weakness, preference, or self-perception has been assigned its own term. It’s no longer enough to simply be a little different than those around you, perhaps a little socially awkward, perhaps more interested in a romantic relationship than a purely sexual one. No, you must now carry a diagnosis as a neurodivergent demisexual with hints of Asperger’s Syndrome. The purpose of these labels is not to celebrate individual diversity, but rather to provide people with a collective identity they can share with others, a password for inclusion with a particular group.
Why does any of this matter? Because I believe that the only humane and just way to understand society is through an individualist lens. Individualism preserves human dignity, and demands that we treat others as we would wish to be treated. Individualism frees us from the determinism of the bodies or countries we were born in. Your destiny is not determined by the color of your skin, nor the shape of your genitals, nor the language you speak, nor the pattern on your nation’s flag. Individualism allows you to be the master of your own fate, in a way denied by those who want to reduce you to a set of intersectional demographic characteristics. In dismissing individualism as “atomistic” or “a cult of satisfying your own desires,” people like Peterson and Hawley risk undermining the very worldview most responsible for liberating billions from secular and religious tyranny all over the world.
Continuing his conversation with Jordan Peterson, Josh Hawley added: “What conservatives should be saying is, go and find somebody to serve.” Under the guise of injecting meaning into the lives of admittedly confused and struggling young people, Hawley is proselytizing service, obedience, subjugating your own happiness to the desires of others or to some hypothetical greater good. In short, a government official is telling you that the path to personal fulfillment involves being a good little citizen and doing what you’re told. If that raises alarm bells, it should. It’s the same kind of rhetoric that communists, fascists, and totalitarians have always used to preserve their own power while keeping the people quiet and complacent. We must, we are told, do our duty to society, even if it comes at the cost of our dreams, our ambitions, and our happiness. It’s an absolutely appalling doctrine, but it’s what you get when individualism is represented as shallow and selfish rather than empowering and humane.
What I fear is not individuals seizing the reins of their own lives and pursuing happiness in any way that seems best to them, but rather a reactionary right wing movement that rejects individual autonomy, that demonizes the pursuit of happiness, and that imposes its own brand of collectivist fealty on Americans. Far left ideology has no shortage of flaws, and now conservatives are in danger of embracing one of the worst: not too much individualism, but too little.