Response to Vox “Feminist Philosopher” Dr. Kate Manne of Cornell

On June 6, journalist Sean Illing (email posted on Vox: interviewed Assistant Professor of Philosophy (Cornell Philosophy Department) Dr. Kate Manne (the “feminist philosopher”) (Dr Kate Manne’s Website) about me and my work. I have decided, in general, not to respond to such pieces, unless (1) they are extremely high visibility (as in the case of the recent New York Times piece) or (2) they are written by a professor employed at a reputable educational institution (as in the present case). Dr. Manne works at the Sage School of Philosophy at Cornell University, so she qualifies as an exemplar of the latter.

After reading the piece, I wrote a letter about what I regarded as Dr. Manne’s most negligent and egregious comments, and emailed it. As of today, I have received no response. The letter is reprinted immediately below, and is followed by some additional commentary and analysis.

Dear Professor Manne:

You were recently featured in a VOX article commenting about me and my work (most particularly, as a therapist). In my latest book (12 Rules for Life), as you indicate, I wrote about a client of mine who was deeply upset about a number of her sexual experiences. She told me, uncertainly, that “she thought she might have been raped — five times.” You might note first that she would not have told me this if I had not already gained her trust. No matter.

You claim that I wrote that she had not been subject to sexual assault, in the following manner: “I’d raise an alternative explanation: Maybe she was raped — five times, as she stated — and then was effectively undermined or even gaslit by her therapist. To be clear, I’m not saying that that is what happened. I can’t possibly know, on the basis of what Peterson writes here. But I’d certainly like to know more, and I’m surprised Peterson has not yet been asked about these and similar passages, in which he comes across as highly contemptuous of female clients.”

However, I clearly stated with regard to my client in 12 Rules for Life that the interpretation that she had been raped was also of potential validity but that it was not up to me to make that decision. It was up to her and I was not going to impose any viewpoint on her, but help her explore and determine for herself. In fact, I made both interpretive arguments in the book (raped and not raped).

Here are the relevant sections, where both sides are presented:

“I thought, ‘I could simplify Miss S’s life. I could say that her suspicions of rape were fully justified, and that her doubt about the events was nothing but additional evidence of her thorough and long-term victimization. I could insist that her sexual partners had a legal obligation to ensure that she was not too impaired by alcohol to give consent. I could tell her that she had indisputably been subject to violent and illicit acts, unless she had consented to each sexual move explicitly and verbally. I could tell her that she was an innocent victim.” I could have told her all that. And it would have been true. And she would have accepted it as true, and remembered it for the rest of her life. She would have been a new person, with a new history, and a new destiny. But I also thought, “I could tell Miss S that she is a walking disaster. I could tell her that she wanders into a bar like a courtesan in a coma, that she is a danger to herself and others, that she needs to wake up, and that if she goes to singles bars and drinks too much and is taken home and has rough violent sex (or even tender caring sex), then what the hell does she expect?” I could have told her, in less philosophical terms, that she was Nietzsche’s “pale criminal”—the person who at one moment dares to break the sacred law and at the next shrinks from paying the price. And that would have been true, too, and she would have accepted it as such, and remembered it.'”

You see: both sides. And you should note that I did not say these things, but was outlining them to describe two forms of extreme and opposing possible reaction. And then I wrote that I told her neither story, as it was not appropriate for me, as the therapist, to make such a decision, but to allow and encourage the client to make the decision herself – as detailed here:

“If I had been the adherent of a left-wing, social-justice ideology, I would have told her the first story. If I had been the adherent of a conservative ideology, I would have told her the second. And her responses after having been told either the first or the second story would have proved to my satisfaction and hers that the story I had told her was correct—completely, irrefutably correct. And that would have been advice. I decided instead to listen. I have learned not to steal my clients’ problems from them. I don’t want to be the redeeming hero or the deus ex machina—not in someone else’s story. I don’t want their lives. So, I asked her to tell me what she thought, and I listened. She talked a lot. When we were finished, she still didn’t know if she had been raped, and neither did I. Life is very complicated.”

It is not possible to more clearly state the fact that I did not dispute (or agree with) the rape interpretation. Let me repeat this: It is not possible to more clearly state the fact that I did not dispute (or agree with) the rape interpretation. What this means is that (1) you did not read the entire section or (2) you misunderstood it or (3) you purposefully misrepresented it. None of those options are acceptable, since you chose to go on public record. It is particular unacceptable (and potentially libelous) given that you also chose to publicly criticize my integrity as a clinical psychologist (implying, as you point out, that my client was “effectively undermined or gaslit by her therapist”). I would suggest that you contact the journalist and set the record straight. I would also point out that there are equally egregious errors sprinkled throughout the piece, and that you might also consider addressing them as well, when you make such contact. Perhaps you were misquoted. Perhaps not.


Professor JB Peterson

I sent a couple of followup messages, as well:

I would also say that your statement that I cherry-picked “the few more dignified-sounding sentences from the diary of one of the Columbine killers, Eric Harris” and that you describe that as “downright dishonest” was also bordering on libellous, implying as it does that there I am somehow expressing admiration for this man when the chapter as such describes his motivation as malevolent, resentful, evil – even Satanic. Nothing could be further from the truth, Professor Manne, and it is entirely inappropriate of you to suggest such a thing.

and, finally:

You say, “Harris, like many other mass killers, was obsessed with the very hierarchies whose importance or validity Peterson never really challenges or offers an alternative to.” This is also entirely misleading — and, I believe, purposefully and willfully so. The main thrust of the argument in 12 Rules for Life is actually (1) that hierarchies can become rigid and corrupt (that’s too much order) or (2) that hierarchies can be undermined and dissolved (that’s too much chaos) so that (3) the proper move forward is to find balance between the two. Plus, the implication is that I am thinking in a manner that is similar to Harris and other mass killers…. (or at least sympathetic to their arguments).

This is only a sample of the errors made by Manne. For example, she levies this criticism: “[Peterson’s] idea (in chapter six of his book) that what leads to mass shootings in general, and school shootings in particular, is a kind of ahistorical, existential angst, or a “crisis of being” — that’s the phrase he uses! — about the despair and misery and suffering of human beings. Peterson thereby takes on a huge burden of explaining why white women, people of color, nonbinary folks, and so on, almost never act on our existential angst and despair in this way. Because, as you know, the vast majority of school shooters have been white men.”

But I do precisely “take on this burden.” I have explained repeatedly — in a manner frequently criticized by feminists/leftists such as Manne — that men, on average, score lower than women on Big Five personality tests assessing trait Agreeableness. Low agreeableness is the best personality predictor of violent behavior — of the type, for example, that is likely to result in imprisonment. Although such differences are not great at the midpoint of the distribution (so that there is only a 60% probability that a man randomly drawn from the population would be less agreeable than a randomly drawn woman), the effect of such differences are magnified at the tails or the extremes. This means that if you select the most disagreeable percentile or two of individuals (precisely those at high risk for violence and incarceration) they are overwhelmingly male. It is for this reason that there are almost 10X as many males as female who have been imprisoned. It is exactly this explanation — higher propensity for male violence (which is not entirely explained by differences in Agreeableness, by the way) — that explains why most mass shooters are male. Why are they mostly white? Well, they aren’t. at least not disproportionately. There is a good lay article here which indicates that “white men” actually commit a smaller number of such crimes (54%) than you would predict from the facts (1) that they are white and (2) that they compose about 63% of the male population. But Manne already knows the cause of such things (after all, she is a “feminist” philosopher) and has no need to cite or even consider the facts, which are undoubtedly only a construct of the Eurocentric scientific patriarchy in any case, and unreliable for that reason.

Here’s the journalist’s admission: “Peterson has been called a ‘sexist’ and a ‘misogynist.’ To be honest, I’m not sure this is a fair characterization of his work, but I haven’t read his book, and I haven’t listened to all of his lectures. I’m curious what you think.” First, Iling hasn’t read my book and so is unable to determine whether Manne’s criticisms are informed or reliable. This is actually a problem. Second, he poses what is clearly a leading question, despite his self-admittedly ill-informed status. Manne picks up the bait, stating that if I’m not outright misogynist I’m at least sexist. She does so because I cite the extraordinary extensive psychological literature (generated, let us note, by a discipline that is overwhelmingly left leaning in its makeup) detailing differences in personality and interest between the sexes and also pointing out that as societies become more equal in their sociopolitical policies (1) fewer women, not more, enter fields that tend towards male domination (such as the STEM disciplines) and (2) personality and interest differences increase rather than decrease in magnitude. I produced a list of dozens of such papers here (discussing James Damore):

Manne simply appears not to know know the literature, and dismisses it with this comment: “This is based more on sexist stereotypes than compelling scientific evidence. And even in the gender progressive environment of Scandinavia that Peterson mentions, it’s not as if all sexism and misogyny has been eradicated overnight; many patriarchal norms linger and are sometimes enforced, or whose breakdown has led to backlash. As a result, there is currently no control group of people raised in a truly non-patriarchal culture, which is what we’d need to investigate claims that men “naturally” prefer masculine-coded activities and women “naturally” prefer feminine-coded ones.”

True, there are no “control groups” of people raised in “a truly non-patriarchal culture” (and who would define what that is, even in principle?) but there is overwhelming evidence that as societies become more egalitarian (with the Scandinavian countries serving as case in point) men and women get more different — which is a consequence that is precisely opposite to what Dr. Manne insists must be the case.

Here’s the issue: as you flatten the socioeconomic differences between the sexes (the “playing field,” let’s say) then the biological differences have the opportunity to maximally manifest themselves. It’s not what anyone expected (including the researchers) but that’s what happened. And to call that “sexist stereotype” is simply not a response appropriate to a professor of philosophy at Cornell.

Finally, in what is probably the most egregrious comment in a piece littered with carelessness and willful blindness, Manne takes me to task for “waffling” on what I hypothetically meant in the New York Times by “enforced monogamy,” which I clarified, in detail, here . The NYT journalist misrepresented me, in a rather treacherous manner (given that an infinitesimally tiny proportion of the time she spent interviewing me involved the issue of “forced monogamy” and knowing full well that what I meant was enforcement by social norm). In any case, I do believe and state forthrightly (1) that monogamy is a universal social norm (although not an absolute) and that is because (2) that social arrangement provides women and men with optimal partners, stabilizes society in a broader sense (particularly compared to polygmamous cultures), and sets up a comparatively reliable environment for children.

There is nothing the least bit controversial about any of this, unless you are a doctrinaire radical of the sort likely to characterize your ideological indoctrination and lack of familiarity with the relevant psychological and anthropological literature as “feminist philosophy.”