Jordan Peterson and Gender

and the disappearance of Ivan Illich

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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 flattened, a certain ennui which pervades the landscape. Now men and women are mostly free to be whatever they want. But what will they do with that apparently freedom? As Jordan Peterson keeps pointing out: we can’t have the conversation about rights without the same one about responsibility—which is part of complementarity.

Today Jordan Peterson is saying some of the same things about gender as Illich, and, perhaps because he is more extroverted and pugnacious, he is getting the message through to a lot of people: that sex difference matters. Are people now ready for this seemingly depressing message?— That no matter how much we trying to flatten the difference between the sexes, they stubbornly endure; that gender is not something that was invented by men to oppress women—that the story is far older and more complicated.

Certainly, there are scores of people who would like to crucify Peterson for his very reasonable claims, which are backed up by real data. And the data shows that the collapsing of gender categories very often has an unintended negative effect. Peterson’s oft used example is Sweden, where institutional equality has caused the biological imperative to take over: there are more women nurses and men engineers in Sweden than ever before.

To understand why we just have to look at what happens when we collapse gender categories in sports: women, on average more flexible but less strong then men, will inevitably lose a wrestling match. If judged within their own domain (assuming that such a domain exists), women will excel and flourish; if made to compete, aggressive, testosterone-addled men will run the show. So often the very well-meaning intention to equalise the sexes can easily result in the strengthening the so-called patriarchy.

Ivan Illich mourned the loss of gender, but without offering any solutions for the post-modern and post-gender world. He did, however, suggest that the art of living could be renewed? How? Could one answer be the renewal of polarity? After all, if there is no polarity, there is no erotic spark, no creativity — just a bland unisex landscape. Could the next revolution be about revalorising the delicious and mysterious polarities of our deeper, older nature?

The dynamic between male and female poles is an essential aspect of us: the penetrating and fiery male principle is eternally searching for a receiving and watery female principle. That is not to say that these elements are fixed and can’t be reversed. Incidentally, male and female dynamics exists in gay couples also — and are not limited to biological sex. You could say that man and women, as represented by the yin/yang symbol, are what the world is made of, metaphorically speaking. The eternal opposites: form and emptiness, space and matter, day and night, the sun and the moon, alpha and omega— have always been represented as being male and female.

The criticism of the male/female symbolism as being ‘oppressive’ or ‘biological determinism’ seems to me a capricious denial of reality. Certain New York Times writers have demonized Peterson in the same way they once did Illich: in service of an incredibly shallow orthodoxy and as an offence to naive utopianism. However, this idealism is wearing thin, as the popularity of Peterson’s message attests. Peterson’s refusal to embrace this shallower kind of technocratic feminism, may indicate that the time is right for another ‘turning of the wheel of revolution’, or reintegration of the deep male and female archetypes.

A revolution is a full circle—ending where it began — but it is not a backwards movement. Nobody wants a regression to traditional categories, but a reintegration of their most desirable aspects seems to me the way forward.


The Chinese Zen teacher Qingyuan Weixin had a saying which also may be relevant:

At the first level on the path he saw mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers.

On the second level of the path he saw that mountains are not mountains and rivers are not rivers.

And at a third level he saw once again mountains were mountains and rivers were rivers.

The mountain can be thought of as a symbol of the masculine principal. It rises out of the earth to penetrate the heavens — it represents the vertical thrust upwards. Rivers are feminine, they run laterally over the whole earth to nourish the soil. They receive and contain the earth. Both the mountain and the river appear discrete but are an interpenetrating whole. The two live in profound complementarity, even within the person (we all have both feminine and masculine characteristics). The mountains dry up without the rivers. The rivers have nowhere to be without the mountain. Whether we like it or not we live in what Ivan Illich called ‘radical contingency’.


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