Jordan Peterson has garnered significant adulation, particularly by those on the right of politics. Mark Walsh explores the content of Peterson’s work, arguing that his politics are deeply rooted in a conservative agenda.
Throughout much of the industrialised world, there is a pervading sense of hopelessness. Economic inequality within most of the OECD nations, and especially in the United States, has reached staggering levels. Workers work harder for less, in increasingly precarious positions, while wealth and power is concentrated in fewer hands. Public confidence in traditional institutions, the mainstream media and establishment politics has plummeted. Rates of depression and anxiety have increased dramatically especially amongst the young. In the United States, a surge in “deaths from despair” from alcohol, drug use and suicide is the leading contributor in an astonishing decline in life expectancy among a large section of the white working class. Amidst the despondency, all manner of demagogues, charlatans and hucksters can prosper. This is evident in the resurgence of the far-right across Europe, and in the election of Donald Trump. It is also evident in the massive popularity of a Canadian intellectual named Jordan Peterson.
Peterson is a university professor, a clinical psychologist and, recently, a social media star. His online lectures have garnered tens of millions of views and by July of 2017 he was said to be earning over fifty thousand dollars per month via the crowdfunding website Patreon. He is a bestselling author, the subject of a plethora of podcasts, newspaper articles and talk shows, as well as a darling of conservative media. Although he declares himself to be non-political, he has developed quite a following on the political right including the so-called “alt-right”. Revered by his fans, his public lectures have an evangelical, revivalist feel about them. His appeal has spread well beyond North America and Peterson is due to speak in Dublin later this week. So what are we to make of this? And what does Jordan Peterson have to say that is, as The Times put it, so “overwhelmingly vital”?
There is always a market for a charismatic self-help merchant, particularly one carrying the authority of clinical expertise and an impressive academic pedigree. This is a major part of Peterson’s appeal. He offers guidance in a world which, for many, has become increasingly precarious. Many of Peterson’s supporters are young men whose once modest expectations of home ownership, steady employment and a secure future feel like impossible dreams. He encourages them to “stand up straight”, to “clean their rooms” and to “aim high and fulfil their full potential”. Playing the role of a stern but loving father figure, he implores them not to waste energy blaming the world for their misfortune but to strive for self-improvement. Peterson spends a great deal of time connecting with his supporters, through his numerous videos and frequent public appearances. Fans can even pay for online counselling sessions. He is often intensely emotional, giving the impression of a man with a profound understanding of pain, of a man who has seen the very worst that life has to offer. “Life is suffering,” he frequently opines, “so get your act together.”
The self-help advice is delivered with supreme confidence. Peterson exudes what feels like endless expertise. His writings and lectures are filled with references to Darwinian Theory, Jungian Psychoanalysis, Russian Literature and all manner of highbrow subjects. To his supporters, Peterson has developed a reputation as an intellectual powerhouse. This isn’t just some random blowhard with a YouTube channel, but a serious academic, a teacher and a clinician. This is a man who can seemingly converse on almost any subject. And he does. The extent to which this reputation is justified is highly debatable. Moreover, the actual intellectual content of Peterson’s academic contributions seems of little interest to most of his defenders. His intellectual authority is enough. Aside from this, and the fatherly reassurance, what many of his supporters find so appealing is his hostility to the left.
Defending the West
Peterson rails against social justice activists, feminists and the “post-modern neo-Marxist types” who have “taken over our universities”. He laments the “feminisation” of modern western man and the “death of masculinity”. Emphasising strength, individualism and a respect for hierarchies, he ridicules those who try to challenge systemic injustice through solidarity and popular struggle. Alarmingly, Peterson speaks with terrifying urgency about the threat posed by such people to “Western civilisation”. Much of this is just old fashioned conservative ideology with a hefty dollop of red-baiting. For his many supporters though, Peterson’s message and the air of authority with which he delivers it form an irresistible combination. The extent to which the left need concern itself with all of this is unclear. However, given the man’s extraordinary reach, it is surely worth taking a look at what he has to say.
Many of Peterson’s lectures are drawn from his 600 page tome, Maps of Meaning. In it, he describes his theories on how humans “generate meaning” from “archetypes” contained in widely shared myths and stories. The book draws from a dazzling array of disparate academic disciplines. Among it’s multitude of references are; the philosophers Plato, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Kuhn, Voltaire and Lao Tzu; the literary figures Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Tolstoy, Joyce, Huxley, Orwell and Goethe; the Mathematicians Euclid, Whitehead and Godel; the Physicists Einstein, Wheeler and Hawking; and of course, The Holy Bible. It is written in a language which sounds both technical and fantastical, brimming with playful metaphors such as the “dragon of chaos” or the “king of order”. There are frequent references to masculinity and femininity, the former being associated with order and the latter with chaos. Its diagrams look like something from a book on advanced Mathematics or Physics. As with his lectures, the initial impression is of an extraordinarily erudite man who has uncovered some deep truths about the human condition.
On closer inspection though, it appears this emperor may not be nearly so well clothed as some suppose. Much of what is written in Maps of Meaning is incoherent. What does make sense is dressed up in highly complex technical language. The reader who makes the effort to decipher this code will uncover some obvious truism, usually of a rather vague generalised nature. Crucially, this means that readers (or listeners to his lectures) have ample room to find their own meaning. Nathan Robinson, in his superb critique of Peterson for Current Affairs magazine, rightly describes how Peterson takes an ordinary insight and “manages to spin it out over hundreds of pages, and expand it into an elaborate, unprovable, unfalsifiable, unintelligible theory that encompasses everything from the direction of history, to the meaning of life, to the nature of knowledge, to the structure of human decision-making, to the foundations of ethics.” Robinson proceeds to draw the obvious conclusion that any theory which seems to be about everything is most likely about nothing at all.
Post Modernism: Missing the Point
There is a tremendous irony here. One of Peterson’s favourite targets is precisely an academic trend where much of what has passed for serious academic work consists either of trivialities dressed up in the most complicated polysyllabic prose or just plain nonsense. This is a philosophical movement known as post-modernism. Many luminaries in the field have unashamedly misused notions from Mathematics and the Sciences in order to dazzle their readers and give their work a sheen of scientific rigour. Much of this was brilliantly exposed by French physicists, Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, in their wonderful book Intellectual Impostures. To be fair, Peterson’s Maps of Meaning, is perhaps not quite at the level of the embarrassing gibberish uncovered by Sokal and Bricmont. But anyone wishing to learn how to write or speak in a post-modern style would do well to check out Peterson. Here are a couple of sample “post-modern sentences” from Maps of Meaning. There are plenty more where these came from.
Individual intrapsychic representation of cumulative historically-predicated human experience makes the one into the many, so to speak; makes the individual into the embodiment of group experience, to date.
Mythic representations of the rapid mutation of environmental contingency (portrayed as the reappearance of the Great Mother or, more fundamentally, of the Dragon of Chaos) are in consequence necessarily “contaminated” with images of the sterile, senescent, or tyrannical king, whose inflexibility renders all inevitable environmental transformation deadly.
Postmodernism is hardly well-defined. At its best it seems to offer a challenge to the optimism of enlightenment rationality. Its thinkers like to point to the role that culture, social conditions and power relations play in the shaping of knowledge and value systems. Unfortunately, some carry these notions to a level of uncertainty which is completely incoherent, espousing moral relativism and even a rejection of objective reality. The early pioneers of the movement came out of the political left in the 1960s and 70s, something Peterson loves to point out. Unfortunately, much of the left had illusions in some deeply un-Marxist figures, such as Stalin and Mao. Eventually, the horrors of the Stalinist and Maoist regimes became undeniable, even to their most stalwart defenders in the West. Disillusioned, some intellectuals responded by rejecting any attempt at understanding or describing the world, seeing such “grand narratives” as necessarily totalitarian. This lead to particular hostility to the values of the Enlightenment. Given that the Marxist project was grounded in, and represented a continuation of, Enlightenment thought, the post-modern movement was in fact deeply antagonistic to the classical Marxist tradition.
According to Peterson, post-modernists pose a serious threat to the university and the wider society. He calls for the shutting down of entire academic departments which have become “corrupted” by the “post-modern neo-marxist” ideology of “identity politics”. Leaving aside identity politics for a moment, and Peterson’s rather hysterical McCarthyite tone, it is worth noting that some of what he says has merit. In the 1980s and 90s, the post-modern tendency did have a negative effect on some university departments and on the quality of their intellectual output. It gave many intellectuals an illusory veneer of radicalism, while they maintained a splendid isolation from any useful political activity or even engagement with popular struggle. More than this, it fostered a deep cynicism towards attempts at understanding the world and actually challenging injustice at a systemic level. In effect, the post-modern stance is a deeply conservative one. Indeed, another irony of Peterson’s position on the negative impact of post-modernism is that it is the left, and the social movements associated with it, which have sustained the bulk of the damage.
Interestingly, Peterson’s concern for the welfare of the university ends with criticism of the Humanities and the nefarious role of supposedly left wing ideologies. No mention is ever made of the role of right wing ideologies in departments like Economics and Finance or the vast growth in the number and size of Business Schools in the university system. Public universities in the United States in particular, are increasingly starved of state funding. More and more, universities are forced into dubious partnerships with the corporate sector, stifling pure research in both the Humanities and the Sciences. This deeply anti-intellectual development poses far more of a threat to the mission of the university than the passing fad of post-modernism.
There is another reason to doubt Peterson’s sincerity when he frets for academia. Recently, Peterson has joined the “faculty” for the online Prager University, founded by conservative radio talk show host, Denis Prager. Like Trump University, this is not a real school. Instead, it is a production company and Youtube channel dedicated to producing slick five minute propaganda videos for the American religious right. Much of its funding comes from the fracking billionaires and christian fundamentalists Dan and Farris Wilks. The channel features videos which argue against the scientific consensus on climate change, explain how the gender pay gap is a myth, police discrimination against African-Americans has been falsified, why the US should not have a $15 minimum wage, why all Americans should stand for the national anthem, as well as a plethora of videos purporting to prove the existence of God. Peterson’s partnership with this festival of hate-filled ignorance should put to rest any lingering claims that he is apolitical or a serious intellectual.
Undoubtedly, the most vociferous support for Peterson came for his stances on what is usually called “identity politics”. In September 2016, Peterson, then a relatively unknown University of Toronto professor, released a series of video lectures where he voiced his objection to a proposed Canadian Law, Bill C-16, which aimed to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of gender identity. In particular, Peterson stated that he would not be compelled to use the preferred gender pronouns of colleagues and students. It should be noted that nothing in the bill actually criminalised the refusal to address people by their preferred gender pronoun. But this did not matter. Peterson was lauded by various conservative activists for taking a stand against the perceived overreach of political correctness. This was the breakthrough. Since then, this preacher on the apocalyptic dangers of identity-based politics has been raised to the level of a social media prophet.
The term Identity Politics describes a wide range of political positions and movements. The idea, which is as old as the hills, is that individuals who share an identity, come together to advocate on behalf of their group. Classic examples are the movements for black civil rights in the United States and its more recent manifestations like Black Lives Matter, the Catholic civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, movements for LGBTQ rights or the women’s movement. Usually, as in the examples cited above, these groups have very real grievances based on a history of oppression of their particular community. There are also forms of identity politics, which though often espousing victimhood, are based on a history of dominance and suppression of others. This would include movements like white supremacism.
It is easy to see that the subject of identity is fraught with complication and, in isolation, some of what Peterson says on this actually sounds reasonable. There are certainly problems with ascribing to individuals the characteristics or supposed interests of a group. The undermining of Bernie Sanders’ progressive credentials—by certain supporters of Hillary Clinton—on the grounds that he is septuagenarian straight white male, demonstrate this amply. There are in fact all manner of lively debates within and between the socialist and liberal left on issues related to identity and how they relate to the wider struggle against a system that creates oppression. For example, the use by many liberals of the term “white privilege” is something that, as well as being objectionable to Peterson, is actually objected to by many on the socialist left. This is on the grounds that it misrepresents what privilege actually is and ignores the role of class. But Peterson is not interested in any of this. Contained in his voluminous contributions to this debate is a highly reactionary agenda, demonising the left through numerous bad faith arguments, misrepresentations and utter falsehoods.
The most immediate objection to Peterson’s take on these issues is that not all forms of identity politics are coming from the same place. A movement such as Black Lives Matter, comes as a response to the very real suffering, and the cheapening of life, experienced by black Americans on a day to day basis. It is not a movement that threatens to oppress white Americans or anybody else. It is simply an urgent call for recognition and action to a society which is either complicit in, or complacent about, the very real racism still faced by black Americans today. It is an entirely different thing to the sort of white supremacist thuggery we saw in Charlottesville, Virginia, last Summer. The latter movement is based on a cult of violence, domination and utterly imagined victimhood. Sure, some of these men may have real gripes with how the world has treated them, but their whiteness is absolutely not the cause of their problems. Peterson, at best, regards all forms of identity politics as equally troublesome. Worse, is the hugely disproportionate amount of invective he emits when speaking about the former kind, only really acknowledging the latter when prompted.
Peterson’s views about women and the women’s movement are particularly disturbing. In an interview with Camille Paglia, Peterson lamented that men can’t control “crazy women” because men are not supposed to “fight women”. Predictably, online videos of this interview attracted appalling levels of misogynistic bile in various comment sections. His attitude to the feminist movement is utterly contemptuous. In one debate in New York, he angrily belittled Western feminists and accused them of supposedly failing to support the women of Saudi Arabia. The idea of juxtaposing the struggles of women in the West with the women of Saudi Arabia, as if these struggles were mutually incompatible, is a disgusting debate tactic. This is of course an old trick: de-legitimise a person’s grievance by pointing to someone worse off. The fact that Peterson would resort to such an insulting cheap shot is quite telling. But this is not the worst of Peterson’s bad faith arguments.
In a now infamous Channel 4 interview with Cathy Newman, Peterson described how trans activists, in their struggle for equal rights and protection from discrimination, are following in the “left wing totalitarian ideology [of] Mao”! This is a common refrain. Whenever Peterson discusses the struggles of any group with a shared history of oppression he asserts, unashamedly and with total seriousness, that the philosophy underlying their struggle is precisely that which gave us the cultural revolution or the gulag! This is the sort of hyperbolic ahistorical nonsense one would expect to hear from Alex Jones or Glenn Beck. It also reminiscent of the kind of thing you hear from pundits on Fox News when warning the American public about the dangers of universal health care.
Of course, here we get to the nub of Peterson’s politics. Whenever he makes his “gulag” argument it is invariably followed by an emotional salute to something called Western civilisation and its value of the “individual”. Peterson demonises the left wing notions of solidarity and popular struggle while creating a caricature of the individual. This provides a false choice. Even a cursory look at the history of any part of the Western world will demonstrate that for the most part, the lives of the vast majority of the individuals that lived in it were considered cheap. Peasants and workers lived, worked and died in their millions in the most appalling squalor. What was it that made life bearable for the individual? Where did we get virtually every scrap of the democracy, dignity and security that allow us to claim that we are in any way civilised? The answer is human solidarity. By cooperating in groups to accumulate and share knowledge about the natural world, by forming unions, by coming together in movements of protest and popular struggle, the battles against ignorance and oppression were fought and won. None of this takes away from the importance of individual innovation and enterprise. Quite the opposite. It is the support and solidarity of one’s fellow creatures that makes it possible to truly realise that individual potential.
His recent bestselling book 12 Rules for Life is essentially a summary, in self-help form, of Peterson’s cult of the individual. His is, in particular, a cult of the Western male as a rugged masculine heroic figure. To men who feel adrift and who are struggling to cope with the growing gap between their reality and their expectations, Peterson’s appeal to individual toughness and pride in Western heritage may sound attractive. His cheap and emotive distortions as to the causes of the crises affecting so many men may sound convincing. And for some, his message may even help them become better competitors in a dog-eat-dog world. But for most, it is a poisoned chalice. As a species, we face grave problems. Along with obscene economic inequality, we face the existential threats of runaway climate change and nuclear war. Appeals to masculinity and individual toughness offer little here. We will solve these problems together through mass cooperation, combined struggle and solidarity, or not at all.