The Strange and Curious Case of Jordan Peterson, Part I

Updated: Feb 8, 2019


The strange and curious case of Jordan Peterson could be the scenario for a television minidrama scripted by a disciple of Ayn Rand. An obscure, middle-aged professor finds himself catapulted into the limelight when he launches a series of YouTube videos expressing opposition to a Canadian law that he calls an unprecedented attack on freedom of speech that would "require people under the threat of legal punishment to employ certain words, to speak in a certain way, instead of merely limiting what they're allowed to say." The words in question are pronouns related to gender identity and orientation. The professor takes his stand:

If they fine me, I won't pay it. If they put me in jail, I'll go on a hunger strike. I'm not doing this. And that's that. I'm not using the words that other people require me to use. Especially if they're made up by radical left-wing ideologues. (quoted by Cumming)

Critics counter that the bill does not criminalize failure to use an individual's preferred pronouns. The professor is misrepresenting it, either intentionally or through misunderstanding (Cossman; Cumming). He does not back off. Radicalized by this and other offenses of the radical left, he hurls himself into the fray to save Western civilization from evil collectivists, tyrannical social justice warriors, and insane feminists. Along the way the heroic professor proves adept at harnessing the resources of the internet and social media to monetize his newfound celebrity by playing to an audience of aggrieved, young, white males.

Caricature? Not by much. The picture is harsh, incomplete, and somewhat one-sided, but that is more a matter of tone than factual exaggeration or distortion. Jordan Peterson (b. 1962) is a wildly successful pop psychologist and self-help guru, professor at the University of Toronto, clinical and research psychologist reported to be widely cited and well-regarded in his field, intellectual dark webster, and in conservative circles a ballyhooed intellectual who is the scrounge, I mean, scourge, of postmodernist and neo-Marxist academics who have seized control of the universities where they undermine Western culture by indoctrinating students with malign ideologies of identity politics and political correctness. Zut alors, as a demonical postmodernist French intellectual might say.

Margaret Hoover opened her Firing Line interview (PBS, August 6, 2018) by provocatively asking if the Left should be afraid of Jordan Peterson. She introduced him as "an accidental icon of the conservative movement" who "has been called everything from the most influential public intellectual in the Western world to Oprah for men." He is, she went on, an internet celebrity known for challenging identity politics and political correctness on campus. Later in the interview she suggested that many on the Left are indeed fearful of him and his message, to which he replied that they have reason to be.

Fans pack lecture halls and public arenas when he speaks.* His YouTube channel attracts millions of viewers and reportedly generates $80,000 a month in donations through Patreon. Fans post YouTube clips of interviews and debates where Peterson "owned" or "destroyed" critical interviewers and ideological foes. I was number thirty-four in line for eight copies of his book Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief when I placed a hold on it at Multnomah County Library. He is, as they say, generating some buzz.

I find the phenomenon puzzling. Peterson is a strange fellow who to my mind comes off at once tormented and arrogant, magisterial and insecure, the kind of person who relishes the perceived destruction of adversaries while prickly about criticism directed his way. He cites the size of his audiences, book sales, and online hits as if popularity and commercial success constitute evidence of the rightness of his ideas.

He is not a captivating speaker, nor is he a profound thinker. It goes without saying that Peterson's legion of fans do not share this assessment. Some commentators also perceive him differently on this point. William Davies refers to Peterson's "undoubted eloquence" in a review of a roundtable discussion (Short Cuts) that featured Peterson and fellow intellectual dark websters Sam Harris, iconoclastic neuroscientist and New Athiest, and Douglas Murray, neocon defender of white, Christian Europe. Their performance drew an audience of thousands at the O2 arena in London. It can, says Davis, be a "mesmerizing act" as Peterson "moves so seamlessly back and forth between scientific research and metaphysics, the primordial and the modern, that the audience scarcely notices the joins."

I have been weirdly intrigued but by no means mesmerized by what strikes me as a semicoherent hodgepodge of religion, mythology, history, and research in neuroscience, biology, psychology, and social science. Idiosyncratic interpretation of myths and Bible stories, Jungian archetypes floating about in the collective unconscious, and free and easy extrapolation from animal research on rats, chimpanzees, and lobsters to explain biologically determined human behavior follow one after another to make up a smeared heap more akin to a Jackson Pollack painting than a seamless whole.

There are points on which we may be uneasy allies. Some targets of his criticism are rightly targeted. Too often though his analysis goes off the rails and runs to extreme claims, questionable assertions put forward with dogmatic assurance, and outright goofiness. In an extended conversation with Camille Paglia, herself a noted contrarian and firebrand, no stranger to controversy, Peterson says that ideologies are fragmentary mythologies. It may be helpful to bear this in mind as we proceed.

Peterson says he was radicalized because the radical left wants to eliminate hierarchies (Bowles), which are the natural order of the world and the consequence of male competence. He tells Hoover that he only got dragged into the political because his "idiot government thought it was okay to demand a certain form of speech in the name of compassion, and that was a no-go zone" as far as he was concerned. An obsession with Marxism also plays into it.

Mr. Peterson’s home is a carefully curated house of horror. He has filled it with a sprawl of art that covers the walls from floor to ceiling. Most of it is communist propaganda from the Soviet Union (execution scenes, soldiers looking noble)—a constant reminder, he says, of atrocities and oppression....

"Marxism is resurgent," Mr. Peterson says, looking ashen and stricken. (Bowles)

He starts from a pessimistic perspective. Life is filled with suffering. It is not someone else's fault. It is just how things are. We make it worse with our voluntary stupidity, willful blindness, and even malevolence. Weakness makes us suffer stupidly, and that makes us cruel.

If you make yourself weak by engaging in deceit, if you fail to take responsibility, then you transform yourself into something that cannot bear to endure the structure of existence. And you will torture yourself, and that leads to very bad places. Very bad places.

This is how people end up guards at Auschwitz and school shooters. (Firing Line).

Nutshelling it, "Life is very hard. If you make yourself weak and suffer stupidly because of it you will become bitter, and once you become bitter, you'll become vengeful." So, as my old French teacher Marie Laure used to say, whacha gon' do?

You know, we contend with suffering and malevolence. And, as a consequence, it’s necessary to pursue something that has substantive meaning to set against that. And I think that it’s self-evident—once its articulated, anyways—that most people find deep meaning in their life as a consequence, not of their rights or their impulsive pleasures even, but as a consequence of bearing responsibility for themselves, for their family, for their community. And the heavier the responsibility, the better.

I would not put it quite as Peterson does. Life is not all suffering, at least not for most of us, but there is suffering aplenty and it is not necessarily someone else's fault but just how the world is. Peterson might not go for the qualifier "necessarily." The causal progression from voluntary stupidity and willful blindness to weakness and more suffering that makes us cruel and takes us to bad places like Auschwitz guard and school shooter strikes me as problematic. There may be something to it in some circumstances, but it is too pat. When we get to the relationship between responsibility and meaning, Peterson and I may not be exactly on the same page, but we are sort of in the same chapter in the book.

In 12 Rules for Life Peterson offers self-help guidance of the "tough love" variety.** Stand up straight with your shoulders back. Clean up your room. Take responsibility. Get your own life in order. Sort yourself out. It is, he says, a message of radical individuality. Here is a strategy that will help you better tolerate the horrors of the world by developing your character to the fullest and taking full advantage of every gift you have. Peterson says that he has received thousands of letters from men who say he has helped and even saved them. People who know him testify that he is a compassionate person who genuinely wants to help these individuals and is deeply moved by their stories (Yang).

This is the first of two parts.

References

The list of references is lengthy and far from exhaustive. Here are a few suggestions for places to start if you want to read more about the Peterson phenomenon. J. Oliver Conroy argues that the self-help guidance is the primary driver of Peterson's popularity. He includes a selection of testimonials from people who have been helped by it. Pankaj Mishra delivers a harsh critique with which I tend to agree. Wesley Yang has a favorable view of Peterson. Nellie Bowles is good.

Notes

*Peterson has said that 80 percent of his YouTube audience is male (Newman interview) and that his online audience is 90 percent male (Chensvold). Wesley Yang asserts that conventional wisdom that Peterson's audience is predominantly male is inaccurate. He writes of a talk at Toronto Public Library that was as "mixed in age and sex and no less racially diverse than Toronto itself, which is among the most diverse cities in the world." Yang spoke with Hispanic, Indian, Asian, and black men and women at other events he attended and with one transgender man.

**The 12 rules serve as titles for chapters in the book: (1) Stand up straight with your shoulders back; (2) Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping; (3) Make friends with people who want the best for you; (4) Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today; (5) Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them; (6) Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world; (7) Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient); (8) Tell the truth – or, at least, don't lie; (9) Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don't; (10) Be precise in your speech; (11) Do not bother children when they are skateboarding; and (12) Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.

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David Matthews

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