Jordan Peterson and Gender

and the disappearance of Ivan Illich

Andrew Sweeny

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In 1982 Ivan Illich published his masterpiece ‘Gender’ and promptly disappeared from public life. In the book, he practically coined the term gender, which has been politicised to mean the arbitrary and socially constructed nature of the sexes. However, his meaning was just the opposite: that deeper gender roles are actually essential to the art of living — he mourned their loss. This made him an enemy of some of the feminist establishment, which considered the book an insult to the march of progress towards the equalisation of the sexes.

However, Illich was actually concerned with sexism: he simply thought we were blind to many of its modern manifestations. He compared what he called ‘economic sex’, a reduction of our our complex being to economic cyphers, to ‘vernacular gender’ or the subtle dance between men and women, expressed in language and tools. He pointed out that before the industrial age, even farm tools had specific male and female shapes, qualities, and functions—and suggested that modern economy, with its emphasis on generic ‘economic sex roles’, pits men and women against each other. He argued that the modern economy actually devalues women by creating a ‘shadow economy’ where men are forced to ‘compete’ in the home and women in the office. His remedy was complementarity rather than mere equality — which implies mutual responsibility and growth.

It is time to bring Ivan Illch—who was both a traditionalist and miles ahead of his time—back into the conversations. Illich saw far into the future: he saw the consequences of the breakdown of all traditional categories, the collapse of monolithic modes of being in institutions, the dangers of technocratic language. His book ‘De-schooling Society’ is prescient of what is happening today as education gets decentralised, and new schools of thought, such as the informal one growing around Jordan Peterson on YouTube, arise organically.

Besides the radical claim that sex and gender were not arbitrary — Illich’s crime was to see the beauty of complementarity. It seems to me that complementarity is coming back into the fray. Many are asking the question: Is ‘sameness’ — or mere equality — really so desirable? There is something missing when polarities are…

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Andrew Sweeny

Compressed scraps of angel melody, stories, essays, rants against reductionism, commands from the deep.