“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”
-Audrey Lorde, Our Dead Behind Us: Poems
There is a troubling belief gaining traction within the various spiritual communities I am apart of. In various ways, people are claiming that so-called “identity politics” further separate us into our individual differences, that somehow they widen the divide of “us and them.” I have seen teachings of Ram Dass, MLK, and Neem Karoli Baba used to support this view. This has been almost entirely expressed by white men. Not only is this spiritual bypassing of “identity politics” problematic for the world, but we can’t actually be whole until we consider their implications.
Jordan Peterson, a psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto, has gained a following among mostly-white-and-male spiritual seekers. Due to his incorporation of Jungian Psychology, mythology, and transcendence into academic psychological thought, he is often used as a “spiritual authority” as to why “identity politics” often oversteps its boundaries. In the video “Jordan Peterson Debunks White Privilege,” he states, “I can’t quite figure out why the postmodernists have made the canonical distinctions they’ve made. Race, ethnicity, sexual proclivity, gender identity, those are four dimensions along which people vary, but there is a very large number of dimensions along which people vary… There is an infinite number of dimensions along which people vary. So the postmodern question is, why would you privilege some of those distinctions over others?”
Here he is not making any real arguments of merit. He is simply using pseudo-intellectual lines of logic to obfuscate what should be plainly clear: these “distinctions” are four of the primary ways that we discriminate and oppress in our culture. This is not a philosophical abstraction. For people of color, women, and members of the LGBTQIA community, this is a daily reality. So what he calls “identity politics” is a needed remedy to a system that unfairly privileges whiteness, maleness, middle-and-upperclassness, etc.
So-called “identity politics” don’t further ensnare us in our separate selves, they actually help free us by shining a light on our deeply embedded identities. For white, heterosexual, cisgender men, our identities are so thoroughly supported and reflected by the dominant culture that they are made invisible to us. The acknowledgment of these identities is often painful because it shows our complicity in an oppressive system. Actually taking the time to understand how white supremacy or patriarchy functions in our culture shows us the ways that they function in our own mind. This does not reify the ego, it only clearly names its underlying structure.
The Buddhist practice of “noting,” can be a very powerful tool. Sometimes just naming a complex set of thoughts, emotions, and sensations such as “anger” can have a relieving effect and enable us to gain an objective distance. We can respond to the anger rather than react to it, potentially saving us from causing undue harm to ourselves and others. In this same way, naming white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, or the gender binary can help us to respond to their influence rather than blindly reacting, thus potentially minimizing their ability to cause harm through our actions.
“You are in prison. If you wish to get out of prison, the first thing you must do is realize that you are in prison. If you think you are free, you can’t escape.” -G.I. Gurdjieff
For white males, we have a tendency to become defensive about this because it pops the illusion of spiritual progress. It’s easy to pretend that we have transcended our egoic identity of race or gender because we have never had to face it as a barrier. So we pretend we have evolved past it rather than acknowledging that we have never even bothered to look. If there was ever a time to use the word “spiritual bypass,” this would be it.
Many people call Jordan Peterson a “free thinker.” He seems to see the controversy surrounding him as a sign that he has “struck a nerve in our culture.” But belittling movements that work to promote equal rights does not make him a free thinker. That actually makes him the status quo. Actual free thinkers have had to continually battle a system that tries to undermine, silence, and destroy them. We are finally in a moment when some of their ideas have begun to be accepted in certain aspects of mainstream society. To put it plainly, refusing to call someone by their preferred gender pronoun is not “controversial.” It is actually just cruel.
My problem is that he co-opts the perennial wisdom and uses it to uphold his privilege. This is confusing for anyone on the path who may not yet have taken the time to explore the ways our culture has programmed the inner workings of our psychology. He allows people to bypass this programming and uses transcendence as a way to actually strengthen an ego-structure that causes suffering.
This is what allows people to make the claim that Jordan Peterson is misunderstood, or worse that there is some conspiracy by the left and mainstream media to smear him. If you feel this way, I strongly urge you to read any of the theorists I have linked to from the keywords this article. It is only possible to feel this way because we are blinded by our privilege and cut off from the suffering of the world. I promise you, when women and people of color claim that sexism and racism still exist, it is not a Marxist conspiracy, whatever that means…
For me, the perennial wisdom of “love everyone and serve everyone” means just that- everyone. But we can’t even begin to actualize this if we don’t acknowledge that not everyone is loved and served by our dominant culture. This includes looking at all of the oppressive structures of our society and working to dismantle them. It means striving to be a good ally. I can’t fathom how it means actively working to undermine liberatory movements so those who already hold positions of power can keep their privilege.
And it is true that loving everyone also includes white men. But dismantling white supremacy and patriarchy is not about “hating men” or “hating white people” as some people have claimed. It is a deep recognition that the power imbalance and exploitation in our system is bad for everyone. bell hooks, for instance, has written:
Patriarchy as a system has denied males access to full emotional well-being, which is not the same as feeling rewarded, successful, or powerful because of one’s capacity to assert control over others. To truly address male pain and male crisis we must as a nation be willing to expose the harsh reality that patriarchy has damaged men in the past and continues to damage them in the present. If patriarchy were truly rewarding to men, the violence and addiction in family life that is so all-pervasive would not exist.
She continues to say that the crisis facing men has nothing to do with feminism, as many in the men’s rights movement believe, but rather is caused by patriarchy, stating:
The crisis facing men is not the crisis of masculinity, it is the crisis of patriarchal masculinity.
Or as Ram Dass has said, when discussing the ways we deny our complicity in oppressive systems:
How much closing of your compassionate heart must it take to continue to play the game of king of the mountain, what’s in it for me?… The pain for all of you is that we are not living our life in harmony with our deepest wisdom. And that is my pain… My heart says there is justice. My heart says there is compassion. Because that is what my heart is, its a just and compassionate entity. And so is yours. And we armor them with rationalization to deal with the fact that we are acting in ways that are not just and are not compassionate.
Like any addiction, the benefits gained from an oppressive system are only masks that cover a deep spiritual pain. The defensiveness we feel about acknowledging this covers the fear that we aren’t strong enough to face these inner demons. We have never been fulfilled by this system. Just as our current president points to a past that never existed by saying he will “Make America great again,” the men’s rights movement and other reactionaries such as Jordan Peterson point to a mythical time when white men were actually deeply fulfilled.
If we want to actually think freely, we need to actively work to decondition our mind from our cultural programming. If we want to be free from the limits of identity, we need to acknowledge all of the ways that identity functions in our life. If we want to stop labeling other people as “them,” we need to first understand who we have already labeled that way.
Rather than spiritually bypassing “identity politics,” lets actually work to acknowledge our “imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchy” and all of the ways it has infiltrated our mind.
For my fellow white men on the spiritual path, if you want to explore your masculinity in a spiritually liberating way, rather than turning to someone like Jordan Peterson, maybe try digging a little deeper and read someone like bell hooks.