Overview:

Jordan Peterson has doubled down on his Sports Illustrated claims. Unfortunately, his arguments don't stack up. At all.

Reading Time: 12 minutes

As the old adage goes, if at first you make a fool of yourself… double down.

You might remember that recently, Jordan Peterson got himself into embarrassingly hot water when he made a very public proclamation to his 2.7 million followers on Twitter that Yumi Nu—a singer, plus-size model, and person of color who was featured on the recent cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition—was not attractive.

Because that’s what you do when you find someone unattractive—you tell the world about your subjective value judgment, while also having a pointed dig at the authoritarian left for supposedly telling you whom you must find attractive.

It’s worth including the rather prescient question Peterson had previously asked his followers in 2017:

The whole thing blew up when Peterson was robustly challenged on Twitter for his comment by many in the anti-Peterson lobby but also by many of his own followers. Peterson didn’t appreciate being publicly piled on and shown to be something of a hypocrite.

The episode caused the former psychology professor to rage-quit Twitter.

Sort of. Not really. He’s kinda still there.

Much of the issue wasn’t with his opinion. Even though I am on the left, I couldn’t give a damn whom Peterson finds attractive. What I and many others objected to was this: He came onto Twitter to insult someone by voicing how he found them unattractive in an attempt to attack the woke left, and then stormed off in a huff after he got insulted in retaliation, claiming victimhood.

That’s hypocrisy.

Opinions can be quite damaging when made in this way, since women (in particular women of color) are far more likely victims of online abuse. Peterson was also failing to take a leaf out of his own book of advice, 12 Rules for Life.

It’s somewhat ironic how he thinks only pushing one body type is somehow not authoritarian.

The New York Times once described Peterson as “the most influential public intellectual in the Western world.” I’m not sure this influence is well-directed.

Now what?

Peterson’s daughter is an example of the apple not falling far from the tree. She has her own YouTube channel that occasionally platforms her father’s long-criticized opinions. Recently, Peterson defended the above actions in a video titled “‘F*** you, if you don’t like it’ Jordan Peterson Responds to Sports Illustrated Controversy:”

Let’s look at the statements he made in this interview more closely.

Peterson’s hypocritical thoughts on Twitter

“It’s sort of like standing in a public park where anybody, no matter who they were could come up and yell at you to any size audience about anything they wanted, day or night, and so…I’ve been thinking that through and I’m going to write an article on what’s wrong with Twitter and social media in general.”

Says a man with a massive following effectively shouting anything he wants at the world so that the world can hear and…react. It seems that the effect he always wants to achieve is to create drama and wind up the “wokeists.” And after poking the hornet’s nest, he then whinges that he gets stung. He needs to remove the log from his own eye.

Peterson is being authoritarian himself

The whole nature of his evaluation and opinion is that he can’t be told whom he finds attractive, which is odd, because he then spends a lot of time telling others what their opinion should be by laying out supposedly objective criteria for beauty based on evolutionary psychology and biology. Yet he does this only after conceding that Yumi Nu does indeed fulfill some of these criteria!

“I looked at the Sports Illustrated cover and they had a rather overweight young woman, quite symmetrical—so nice facial features and so forth—with a very revealing swimsuit on the cover, and I thought, ‘No!’ Not in a personal way but it’s unbelievably manipulative for about three different reasons.”

Is she, then, somewhat beautiful? Does Peterson hold the keys to access a corporation’s magazine front cover, and whether someone makes the cut or not? Is the delineation of this special honor dictated by evolutionary biology? Has evolution dictated the criteria for magazine cover selection?

The three reasons that Peterson gives for how manipulative this cover is do not stack up with his position, or are just flat-out incorrect.

“The first is, it’s a very tawdry attempt to capitalize on cheap sales—and I mean cheap in a specific way. Sports Illustrated hit the goldmine with their swimsuit cover…because obviously it’s a sports magazine so it’s about athletics, it’s about athletic bodies, and they had a swimsuit issue…. And it’s a very specific kind of cultural icon because it focuses on a very exceptional kind of high-end beauty. And so that beauty would involve symmetry and signals of youth because that’s part of beauty, sexual beauty, physical beauty, waist-to-hip ratio for women.

“But with Sports Illustrated, it’s also highlighting a kind of athleticism in body type and that’s a very specific form of beauty. You have to be young, you have to be female (generally), you have to be extremely athletic, you have to be shapely in a very particular way, and that would be with a waist-to-hip ratio of .68 because that’s what’s been established cross-culturally as ideal from the perspective of male sexual interest, let’s say, but that’s also associated with fertility, and so it’s a marker that has a biological basis.

“And so, even if you’re a very beautiful woman, you’re hard-pressed to be beautiful enough to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated for the swimsuit issue, and so it’s a pinnacle achievement of sorts and it’s focused on a very idealized and specific form of beauty. And that’s obviously exclusionary—it excludes everyone.”

So, essentially, Peterson is telling the woke left that they can’t be authoritarian in dictating who is beautiful because nature has defined this and how Peterson interprets this nature is how it should be.

Another word for this approach is, oh what’s that word, oh yes…authoritarian.

It’s somewhat ironic how he thinks only pushing one body type is somehow not authoritarian.

And since he admits it excludes everyone, given that there are cover models, every one of them must be an exception, to differing degrees, from his perfect form. This includes Yumi Nu, as well as every other cover model. It’s just a case of degree. Peterson sees himself as the arbiter of the cutoff line as to what is an acceptable exception and what is not.

Apparently, Nu is not.

Where was Peterson in 2016 when the cover model, Ashley Graham, was the first size 14 model to grace the cover? Is size 14 just within the realms of Peterson’s binary categorization?

He talks about exceptions in terms of people pointing out to him the painting of Rubens to show a different ideal of beauty. He said the following, with a tone and facial expressions of real disdain:

“There are some cultural boundaries around that, so you could say, ‘Well, it’s a Westernized form of beauty.’ It’s like, yeah, and you can point to Rubens’ paintings of more plump women and say, “Well there’s an exception-” It’s like, great, you think you’re a genius for finding that exception. Good for you, you know the Rubens painting! Like, more power to you! But that doesn’t say anything about the universality of the images of beauty.”

The Three Graces, Peter Paul Rubens, 1630-35

But this universality speaks of some non-arbitrary delineation of beauty. Any readers of my previous writing both here and in my books will know I love the Sorites Paradox thought experiment. These abstract ideas, such as beauty, are conceptually constructed by the individual conceiver. His whole point rests on the ontological position of Platonic realism such that there is an objectively true category of “beautiful” and “not-beautiful” that exists out there, outside of our minds, in the aether.

This is nonsense.

At best, we could argue there is a norm, a common form of a woman that specifically men (given the evolutionary and reproductive biology that Peterson is dipping into) find more attractive on average.

But that doesn’t define beauty in any meaningful way. Are we to take that as defining what everyone must find attractive? And our attractions exist on continua. It’s not like women, for heterosexual men, fall into only two categories: beautiful and not-beautiful. As soon as someone slips just out of the beautiful category, according to Peterson, they fall into not-beautiful in some binary fashion.

Again, nonsense.

So who is to say that this private magazine shouldn’t put someone on their cover who doesn’t fit neatly into Peterson’s ideal box?

Oh right, Peterson. I forgot the magazine is solely for him.

Alternatively, he could let people vote with their feet and see if the magazine loses subscriptions and social media traction. That’s the free market. You know, not authoritarian.

What about athletes?

But there are more problems. Peterson talks about the cover models being “extremely athletic.” Because, of course, those revealing swimsuits are designed to be used in athletic contests and the models are genuine sportswomen.

The list of swimsuit models is not a list of athletes. There are a handful, but most are models with differing degrees of plastic surgery and enhancements, or indeed none.

Take Kim Kardashian, well known for her specific type of “athleticism.” In fact, her “athleticism” has evolved naturally over a hundred thousand years to culminate in the pinnacle of sporting athleticism: butt implants (allegedly, of course). These have subsequently been removed (also, allegedly).

Perhaps the 2022 issue on which she appeared was celebrating their removal because she is now the odds-on favorite to win Wimbledon?

As soon as someone slips just out of the beautiful category, according to Peterson, they fall into not-beautiful in some binary fashion.

I’m not sure how athletic pregnant people are, since two pregnant models appeared on the cover in 1994. They obviously fulfill the fecundity criteria in terms of evolutionary fitness and thus beauty, but any other criteria? Are they athletic now? Will each of those models have had a chance of winning the 100m sprint final?

Indeed, should we have women’s 100m sprint champions on the cover only? Or women’s marathon runner champions—thinner and less voluptuous, but far more athletic? Or women’s shot put champions?

Evolved beauty

Here’s a meme for you that looks at body image in relation to fertility in times gone past.

Fecundability is the ability to become pregnant and is the measure of fertility that Peterson is really alluding to here. Waist-to-hip ratio (WHR) is then one of Peterson’s main indicators of choice for beauty. But, while it is a useful indicator, “it may not be as ‘magical’ as often assumed, and not all the features correlated with WHR are linked to mate value.” A lot of ink has been spilled over this subject but one thing is for sure: The biggest indicator of fecundability is age.

I wonder what Peterson thought of Maye Musk (yes, Elon’s mother) becoming the oldest cover model this year at the age of 74. She won’t be getting pregnant any time soon and barely fulfills any of the criteria that Peterson hints at. And that’s not beautiful, right Peterson? But we didn’t see your outrage there.

And has Peterson checked each one of the cover models from 1970 onwards to see if they hit the WHR targets that he is formally dictating?

Again, Peterson is being a moral-aesthetic dictator.

A fallacy and an analogy

I’ve been playing with an analogy for Peterson’s reliance on some kind of naturalistic, evolutionary rationale for his absolutist claims to beauty. His idea is that beauty is somehow defined by the predilections set in place by biology and history. First and foremost, this is the naturalistic fallacy. He is deriving an ought from an is. Peterson is declaring that a magazine ought to place a particular body type on its cover because men ought to find a particular type of woman attractive because that is an adaptive evolutionary trait.

I’m not quite sure what he’s got to say about homosexuality or any behavior that strays from being evolutionarily adaptive…

Peterson likes how things are favored due to evolution. He finds some kind of objective measure, benchmark, and delineation from this. Yet evolution has favored in-group psychology where we naturally have more affinity for people who are more like ourselves than from people outside of our in-group, tribe, or norm. This breeds racism and is something we need to work hard to overcome, using moral reasoning.

I am a heterosexual white male. So, using such evolutionarily derived psychological predispositions, I should only find white women attractive. As a result, I am going to tweet out to my millions of followers that the next woman of color on the cover of Sports Illustrated is not attractive because of the color of her skin, no matter what the authoritarian left tells me.

Of course, that would be insanely insensitive and stupid.

But that appears to be Peterson-logic.

Look, we’ve got the right to find whatever adult we find attractive beautiful, but I think it’s ill-advised to make loud negative judgment calls on the aesthetics of people we don’t find attractive just to make cheap political jibes.

Attractiveness (aesthetics) subjective, even if we have biological or natural influences.

Let’s talk about “cheap manipulation”

This terrible Peterson monologue gets even more deeply riddled with error and poor thinking, which is a real surprise for “the most influential public intellectual in the Western world.”

“The cover bothered me a lot because it was a cheap manipulation of something that had been working very well for Sports Illustrated.”

I’m sorry, but is Peterson concerned with the sales of the magazine? Is this a judgment about what works well as some kind of marketing strategy. Peterson really does have wide-ranging interests and expertise! Is this what underwrote his outburst? He’s being really presumptuous about the goals for the cover and what the sales team and editorial staff might have had in mind. Perhaps Peterson is actually working for the magazine’s marketing team, since it hit its social media goals with aplomb as a result of the Yumi Nu controversy.

With Maye Musk and Yumi Nu on TV shows getting coverage for the magazine, this really was a marketing success.

Or, another way to put it, Peterson was wrong again.

“It was also an insistence, that all of a sudden, this non-athletic body type is as beautiful as the standard swimsuit model for Sports Illustrated and it’s not. It’s not as athletic and it’s not as healthy, and that’s that.”

But is that, indeed, that? (Incidentally, his seething anger can be seen on the video in this last sentence and tells me all I need to know.) I’m not sure anyone is really making this insistence. If anything, there is an insistence for plurality and not making an absolutist, authoritarian judgment call in the way that Peterson is (and then attacking others for authoritarianism).

I wonder what Peterson thought of Maye Musk (yes, Elon’s mother) becoming the oldest cover model this year at 74. She won’t be getting pregnant any time soon and barely fulfills any of the criteria that Peterson hints at.

And how is he defining “healthy?” How many models over the years have starved themselves to “get into shape,” how many have taken drugs, or had surgery to enhance or take things away? Who is to say any of those models are any healthier than Nu? Peterson is making so many assumptions here just to try to substantiate his own little Twitter evaluation outburst.

The whole thing is a lie and it’s a manipulation of that young woman. Now she partakes in that because she participates in it… They’re not on her side. They’re exploiting her as far as I’m concerned…. So don’t pull any moral stunts on me because you’re irritated about my opinion about this Sports Illustrated cover when it’s bloody clear to anybody with eyes that that was manipulative in twenty different ways.”

It appears that Peterson believes that putting this particular woman on the cover of a magazine aimed overwhelmingly at the pleasure of men is exploitation but portraying any other woman on previous covers is not exploitation. I’m not sure I need to say any more on this point other than to accuse him of special pleading and making very bad arguments.

“I’m also not willing to sacrifice these ideals for inclusiveness. It’s like, ‘No, not everyone’s a genius; no, not everyone’s Picasso; no, not everyone’s young and healthy; and no, not everyone is a Sports Illustrated model. Period. And F*ck you if you don’t like it.”

No, not everyone is. But Nu was literally a Sports Illustrated cover model and no amount of Jordan Peterson whingeing will change that. Ever. But it’s also worth noting that the list he gives is all over the place. Not everyone’s a genius—and intelligence is difficult to define—but New Scientist or Guitar Monthly can put whomsoever they want on their cover. It’s not a case of demanding that the reader has to agree with their choice. And, you know what, some people don’t rate Picasso’s art. And there are some evolutionary theories and theorists that seek to argue similar sorts of norms that Peterson uses for human beauty, applying them to art and aesthetics in general (See Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works, for example).

This terrible Peterson monologue gets even more deeply riddled with error and poor thinking, which is a real surprise for “the most influential public intellectual in the Western world.”

And I can bet you that Peterson wasn’t even a Sports Illustrated subscriber! He sees himself as having to sacrifice his ideals as a result of what some corporate entity places on one of their magazine covers? Get over yourself, Peterson. Though there might well have been some good moral intentions involved in the decision, the cover choice will have largely been a marketing ploy that Peterson has himself played into.

Yumi Nu was placed on the cover of a magazine as a model to try to boost sales, one imagines, but to also represent a pluralism in body shape, appealing to a broader readership while also representing a broader range of women. This widens the idea of what women look like.

But the cover is not telling you women should look like that, in the same way all the previous covers aren’t telling you women should look like them: There you will find a range of different heights, skin colors, BMIs, hair lengths and styles, breast sizes, states of pregnancy, ages, and all the other variables. Sports Illustrated isn’t the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Bible, or any other moral diktat or formal guidance. For right or wrong, it’s a magazine with scantily clad women on the front to titillate men. Or women. Or whatever.

Really, whatever. Get over it.

Personally, the cover story would probably have elicited nothing more than a raised eyebrow and a “meh” from me. But Peterson has an ax to grind and he wants everyone to know when he’s grinding it.

My advice to him is not to grind his ax on the whetstone of Twitter. Actually, don’t do it in public at all. Just keep those opinions to yourself. And if you do feel it necessary to voice those opinions in some weird desire to poke the hornet’s nest, don’t get angry with the hornets. They’re just doing what they’re evolved to do.

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...