There are innumerable ways to persuade others of an argument or point of view that don’t rely on solid reasoning and logic but instead employ persuasion tactics, either wittingly or unwittingly. This is rhetoric: the art of persuasion. Many arguments can have the appearance of being correct, but under scrutiny, the flaws start to appear. There are many public intellectuals who use rhetoric when espousing their opinions; two well-known conservative ones, who will be the focus of this article, are Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson.
I am not focusing only on Shapiro and Peterson here in an effort to peddle an anti-conservative narrative. Rhetoricians exist across the spectrum of ideology and political beliefs. However, because Shapiro and Peterson are, by many people, held up as these paragons of rationality, as protectors of cold logic, emotionless facts, and sensible ideas, I think it’s useful to examine how they both actually heavily rely on rhetoric to cover up their bad ideas and poor argumentation. One rhetorical technique they both use, which attracts so many people to them as the voices of reason in an irrational world, is the way they articulate their ideas. Before looking at the powers of articulation, however, here are some examples of Shapiro and Peterson’s dubious ideas and other rhetorical devices used to support them.
Despite Shapiro holding dearly onto his mantra “facts don’t care about your feelings”, the conservative commentator repeatedly contradicts himself (so what are the facts he holds to be true?) and makes feelings-based arguments, either expressing his own feelings to make a point or stoking emotional reactions in others through the use of inflammatory language and insults.
In making what appears to be a common-sense and cogent argument against the gender that transgender people claim to be, Shapiro actually fails to understand the meaning of crucial terms. He continues to mistakenly view the categories ‘man’ and ‘woman’ as biological categories, rather than social categories, which are not fixed by nature. Sex and gender are not synonymous, even if they are related. The YouTuber ContraPoints (Natalie Wynn) highlights this confusion by pointing out that the word ‘parents’ can refer to biological parents or adoptive parents. Calling adoptive parents ‘parents’ is not denying biology. As Nathan J. Robinson states in a piece on Shapiro for Current Affairs, detailing the conservative commentator’s position on transgender people as well as the minimum wage and unions, “Shapiro is a skilled propagandist because he is good at dressing up his ideology as “myth-busting” and the presentation of mere fact.”
Robinson goes on to write that “This man’s ongoing popularity may be a sad comment on the quality of our public discourse,” although I think this also speaks to the perennial influence of rhetoric. There have always been ways to conceal the shoddiness of bad ideas, and wearing and promoting the presentation of the Facts and Logic Guy is just one manifestation of that. In an earlier piece for Current Affairs, Robinson addresses some of Shapiro’s other controversial, apparently purely fact-based claims, such as that racism is not a serious problem facing black people and that an issue like the black-white wealth gap “has nothing to do with race and everything to do with culture.” with Robinson highlighting the pertinent facts Shapiro leaves out, which contradict his positions on racism.
Robinson ends the piece by saying that what annoys him about Shapiro is that he “is lying to his audience, by telling them that he is just a person concerned with the Truth, when the only thing he actually cares about is destroying the left.” And that the mantra “facts don’t care about your feelings” is “worthless if you’re going to interpret every last fact in the way most favorable to your own preconceptions, if you’re going to ignore evidence contrary to your position, and refuse to try to understand what your opponents actually believe.” In other words, Shapiro cares about convincing others he’s right but not actually being right.
Now let’s turn to Peterson, who David Brooks in a 2018 New York Times piece called the “most influential public intellectual in the Western world.” That may be true. But what is relevant in this discussion is that Peterson’s image as this heavyweight intellectual is suspect. For example, the Canadian psychologist seems to talk a lot about postmodernism, without properly understanding it; he essentially sets up a straw man (a common rhetorical device) and attacks a distorted version of what he perceives as his ideological opponents.
Peterson warns about the scourge of “postmodern neo-Marxism” and “cultural Marxism”, how these ideological forces have infiltrated academia and now threaten to undermine the fabric of Western civilisation. His concerns verge on conspiratorial thinking, and his use of the term “cultural Marxism”, a right-wing antisemitic conspiracy theory, has helped to bring this term into the mainstream. While not antisemitic himself, his rhetoric around this term – seemingly ignorant or unappreciative of its implications – can end up fuelling those on the far right who use the term to argue that a tiny group of Jewish philosophers (belonging to the Frankfurt School) have tried to destroy the American way of life, with the threat of ‘cultural Marxism’ persisting today.
Peterson may, like Shapiro, be seen by the public as a reasonable, level-headed thinker, but much of his thinking seems based on fear of a non-existent or exaggerated enemy. In a piece for Jacobin titled Why Jordan Peterson Is Always Wrong (I’m not a huge fan of the headline), Ben Burgis and Matt McManus point to Peterson’s impassioned criticisms of Bill-C16, a Canadian piece of legislation he thought would choke free speech. The purpose of the fact was to protect trans people from discrimination, in areas such as housing. The word “pronoun” appears nowhere in the text of the legislation (Peterson was worried Bill C-16 was a totalitarian “compelled speech” bill that would force people to use others’ preferred gender pronouns, with punishment falling on those who failed to do so). The Canadian Bar Association stressed that the bill would not obstruct freedom of expression: “Recently, the debate has turned to whether the amendments will force individuals to embrace concepts, even use pronouns, which they find objectionable. This is a misunderstanding of human rights and hate crimes legislation.”
Alongside mischaracterising postmodernism and Bill C-16, Peterson is guilty of claiming that those on the left are fundamentally anti-hierarchy and want to abolish all hierarchies. Burgis and McManus write:
An obvious response is that while leftists might think that, all else equal, a less hierarchical society would be a better one, no one on the Left wants to eliminate all forms of hierarchy…The question has always been how many and what kind of hierarchies might be justified, not whether hierarchy should be permitted at all.
Peterson has also famously drawn on the behaviour of lobsters, our genetic relatives that compete to form dominance hierarchies, to justify highly hierarchical human societies. The lobster analogy allows him to ascribe his own political agenda; by positing hierarchies as natural and unavoidable, they are therefore justifiable. The rhetoric here is using a fact (about lobsters) to support his ideological position; but this perhaps commits the naturalistic fallacy, describing what is the case to argue for what should be the case. The naturalistic fallacy is a common rhetorical device. However, it should be noted that Peterson is only saying what is true of lobsters. He doesn’t establish that humans are naturally prone to dominance hierarchies, as opposed to cooperation; plus he ignores the natural cooperation in societies of many other species we are related to, and more closely related to than lobsters.
Like Shapiro, Peterson has his own mantra: “Clean your room”, which stands for his attitude of sorting out your own life before trying to change the world. As Peterson puts it:
Don’t blame capitalism, the radical left, or the iniquity of your enemies. Don’t reorganize the state until you have ordered your own experience. Have some humility. If you cannot bring peace to your household, how dare you try to rule a city? Let your own soul guide you.
Burgis and McManus say the weakness in Peterson’s reasoning here is as follows:
One problem with Peterson’s argument is that it could have been used at any point in history to defend any class hierarchy: Are you a slave? Don’t blame your suffering on slavery! Another wrinkle Peterson largely ignores is that while no one denies that personal problems very often have nonpolitical dimensions, they sometimes have transparently political dimensions, too. If your marriage is falling apart because you are working two jobs and never get to see your partner, there is an obvious personal element. But your situation also speaks to the severe flaws of neoliberal capitalism. Insisting that people exclusively focus on the dimensions of their problems that social progress can’t solve is as foolish as saying that no one should go to the doctor because not all human suffering is caused by curable diseases.
I won’t go into any greater detail about Peterson’s arguments in favour of capitalist hierarchies and arguments against trying to change them. The point should be clear that Shapiro and Peterson’s supposedly sensible arguments rest on shaky ground, and often rhetorical devices. What I want to emphasise, which I think is underappreciated, is how the way both Shapiro and Peterson speak benefits their ideological positions and the fanfare they enjoy. These public figures, like many others, as well as ordinary people, can convince others they are right (partly) based on the fact that they speak articulately.
Shapiro is known for speaking quickly. So quick that you could mistake audio recordings of him as sped up. He can also form arguments quickly. But this skill or ability does not make what he’s saying correct. Speaking well and making points quickly might impress some, who might see it as a kind of verbal, intellectual assault against an opponent debater, but this is a pretty superficial way of analysing a debate. It appeals to ‘debate me bro’ culture, where debating centres more on competition, winning over the audience, and striving to appear intellectually superior.
Expressing bad ideas well is a common rhetorical trick, one that unfortunately fools many (including myself), and which I’m sure I’ve been guilty of engaging in, when writing something well but realising the arguments are actually simplistic, flawed, or pretty biased. So I’m not criticising Shapiro and Peterson here as doing something heinously deceptive that others (including myself) don’t do; but since these figures are so popular, and their ideas impactful, I think the way they cover up bad ideas with articulation and persuasion deserves more attention.
Shapiro and Peterson are both adept at expressing themselves easily, clearly, and effectively, and with a strong sense of authority, seriousness, and confidence, but this is a skill at speaking not rational argument. The ability to use verbose language and complex concepts (as Peterson is particularly prone to do) is, like talking quickly, perhaps superficially impressive; it gives the impression of correctness and authority, but it is no substitute for a strong argument. Some might say Peterson isn’t actually as articulate as people make him out to be; his verbose, jargon-laden, vague, and convoluted way of talking sometimes makes his arguments unclear and hard to understand. His statements may thus have the appearance of complexity and profundity while saying little or making quite banal points and platitudes. As Friedrich Nietzsche stresses in The Gay Science (1882), “Those who know they are deep strive for clarity. Those who would like to seem deep to the crowd strive for obscurity.” It is ironic, then, that Rule 10 in Peterson’s bestselling book, 10 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (2018), is “Be precise in your speech.”
Nonetheless, Peterson is still seen as articulate, and generally is very articulate. As is Shapiro. But again, oratorical ability – the artful arrangement of syllables and words – is something that has to be separated from the actual content of what is being said. This is a separation that is sometimes difficult to make, especially since what someone says can be registered as sounding impressive and wise before the content has been dissected and scrutinised. It is true, as Shapiro says, that “facts don’t care about your feelings” (a principle he should take more seriously), but to this, I would like to respond with a modified version of this mantra: “facts don’t care about your articulation.”