Jordan Peterson's shocking remarks remind us how Nazi apologism has crept back into our political debate

There are many instances in which Holocaust comparisons are inappropriate, but using the Holocaust to minimise the moral repugnance of a government’s policy is an act far more offensive to the memory of its victims

Matt Greene
Thursday 29 November 2018 14:08 GMT
Waking Up podcast:Sam Harris in conversation with Jordan Peterson

In life it’s wise to be wary of those who tell you they’re free-thinkers; like fame, free-thinking is something better displayed than proclaimed.

To the casual observer, Jordan Peterson bears all the hallmarks an intellectual powerhouse: bestselling books, a professorship in clinical psychology at the University of Toronto and, in a currency that’s increasingly relevant, more than a million YouTube subscribers. A closer look, however, reveals that he’s been providing pseudo-science bullets for the alt-right’s online infantry for some time (including such gems as how serotonin levels in lobsters might justify the gender pay gap).

Footage emerged this week, from a podcast recorded last year, of the professor discussing the conditions that led to the Holocaust. There was the normal equating of fascist and Antifa, on account of the latter’s "proclivity to violence" (as if violence were a moral constant); there was discussion of Hitler’s bravery during the First World War, as well as the revelation that "[he] was very sensitive to disgust". According to Peterson (and I’ve no reason to doubt him), Hitler used Zyklon, an easy version of the gas used in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, to clean rats from German factories – and this, along with the economic instability in post-Versailles Germany, to Peterson’s mind, is evidence that the Holocaust was a logical progression.

That the Holocaust followed a series of logical progressions is, in a sense, true: if one were to reverse-engineer the Final Solution, each step would appear to follow rationally from the one before.

But this – as if it even needs saying – is not proof that the Holocaust was logical (and so unavoidable, an objective response to some natural phenomenon, an earthquake or a weather front for example) but that it was the endpoint of a deliberate process that had started many years before; a process that was constantly testing its contributors by moving the conversation further and further towards what would once have been unthinkable.

A process that began with words and ended with bodies.

Footage also emerged this week from the US-Mexico border of US border agents firing tear gas at beleaguered asylum seekers. This too was not the first stage in a process.

In response to images of toddlers in nappies fleeing smoking canisters, newly-elected Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted of her shame: "Asking to be considered a refugee isn’t a crime… It wasn’t for Jewish families fleeing Germany… And it isn’t for those fleeing violence in Central America." The tweet was quickly picked up on by Senator Lindsey Graham who suggested Ocasio-Cortez visit the Holocaust museum in Washington to "better understand the differences".

There are many instances in which Holocaust comparisons are inappropriate, but using the Holocaust to minimise the moral repugnance of a government’s policy is an act far more offensive to the memory of its victims.

What Graham’s comments display is a mirror image of Peterson’s: while one seeks to contemporise the past as a way of making its horrors seem logical and therefore justified, the other cultivates a historical blind spot which places us outside of history, and so frees us to ignore its lessons and repeat its mistakes. Both are apologia that work at once retrospectively and pre-emptively.

Peterson appears to excuse the Nazis by drawing comparisons to our own current economic concerns, while Graham excuses Trump (and his own complicity) by treating each of his choices as the response to an objective condition, and not the response to a previous choice in a campaign of his own making (one of dehumanisation) that makes firing tear gas at toddlers appear to be a logical step.

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But, of course, what both fail – or, more likely, refuse – to do is examine the premise on which such logical steps are taken. For Peterson, Hitler’s "othering" of the Jews and the other people he "went after" was more than a useful political tool; it was a response to some visceral, microbial disgust that operates beneath the level of reasoned thought and so, ironically, can also be forgiven. Once you accept this premise, that a group of people can be considered ‘less than’, what happens next is inevitable.

Just hours after Graham’s tweet, the Auschwitz Museum weighed in: "When we look at Auschwitz we see the end of the process." But the next day, The Onion, a satirical site that is fast becoming our time’s paper of record, had the final word. The headline says it all: "Holocaust Survivors Recall Exact Day Holocaust Started Right Out Of The Blue."

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