The Strange and Curious Case of Jordan Peterson, Part II

Updated: Feb 8, 2019


This is the conclusion of a two-part essay. Part I was published August 28, 2018.

The going gets thorny when Jordan Peterson moves away from self-help guidance into the social, cultural, and political arena with some interesting claims, shall we say, about the nature of human existence and social structures, biologically determined differences between men and women, masculinity under siege, the dire and inevitable consequences of postmodernism and neo-Marxism, and so on. These claims predictably raised some hackles and not just among the usual firebrands out on the far left lunatic fringe. Rhetoric and bombast continue to fly with wild abandon. Peterson responds in kind. He takes no prisoners. Critics are rebuffed with a command to look at the data ("look at the data, you idiot" implied if not stated). Conclusions are self-evident. Ideological adversaries are corrupt and pathological.

Hierarchies are the natural order of the world and are the result of male competence. The two main indicators of success are intelligence, measured by IQ, and conscientiousness, hard work. If men are more apt to rise to top positions in business and political hierarchies than women, well, we can draw our own conclusions. Or we could wonder if the dynamic is maybe a little more complex than Peterson would have it.

Weakness is to be feared and shunned. Peterson tells Camille Paglia, "There is nothing more dangerous than a weak man." He fetishizes tough guys. The call to stand up straight with your shoulders back is, he says, an injunction to be combative (Newman). The underlying threat of physicality is always present when men confront one another in a civilized fashion. First men talk, then they argue, and as a last resort they fight. Peterson and Paglia rhapsodize about an idealized scenario where two men get into an argument in a bar, step outside and thrash one another to settle things, and the next night are back at the bar drinking beer together, best buddies.

He knows and admires men who are tough people. Everything you do with them is a form of confrontation. You have to yell them down if you want to be taken seriously. These are men who run things and make them work. They are paid more than most of us and they deserve it because we benefit from their competence. They are the reason buses run on schedule and the lights come on when you flip the switch. Peterson seems to be blithely unaware that there is a technical term for men of this type: asshole.

Sorry about that. I could not resist. Peterson is just wrong here. Yes, there are men of the type Peterson admires, powerful, confrontational, tough guys who have done quite well for themselves. There are also plenty of men, intelligent, accomplished, successful men who contribute to the general welfare and common good, who do not consider every interaction a form of confrontation and who do not find anything civilized in the threat of physicality. A man can be powerful, successful, and, yes, tough, without being a jerk.

That there are differences between men and women that are the consequence of biology and thousands of years of human social interaction and development is self-evident, as Peterson likes to say. No dispute so far. The good professor loses me when he claims that these differences are so deeply woven into the fabric of us as individuals and as a society, hardwired as it is put nowadays, that they can be eradicated only with tremendous social pressure and tyranny (Newman).

Peterson accepts, perhaps reluctantly, that women should have equal career opportunities. Deep down though he seems convinced that women are being sold a bill of goods that leads to unhappiness. He asks Paglia how much of the antagonism toward men that is being generated by college-age women comes from a deep repugnance for the role they have been designated and disappointment with men because the fundamental feminine role of wife and mother is being denied them by pressure to pursue a career.

At one point Paglia goes off on an idyllic depiction of her life as a girl growing up in upstate New York and her mother's childhood in a town in Italy. What joy women had when they were with each other all day long, cooking together, going to the fountain to do laundry together. She tells of family gatherings on Sundays where after the meal the women stayed in the house talking about things that concern women, sewing and cooking and family, while the men went outside and gathered around the car with the hood up, poking around and engaging in man talk. She speculates that the problems of today are the direct consequence of women's emancipation and freedom from housework thanks to capitalism, which in the 19th century made it possible for women to have jobs outside the home for the first time.

The exchange between Peterson and Paglia runs the gamut from annoying to outrageous to amusing, although it is a lot to sit through at an hour and forty-three minutes. Paglia is a serious scholar, contentious and controversial, but serious. She deserves respect for that. Peterson, too, is serious, and as I have said, he is right on some counts. But here they can come off like a pair of cranks, the rhetoric wafting off into the aether as they inspire each other to vaporous excess. At the end Paglia gushes that they agreed on everything. She knew they would!

We are told that three things divide men and women particularly from a psychometric perspective:

  • women are more agreeable than men, the agreeableness trait, compassion and politeness, primarily a matter of maternal development and desire to avoid conflict;

  • women are higher in negative emotions, e.g., anxiety and emotional pain; and

  • women are more interested in people while men are more interested in things.

Peterson's research into political correctness as a pathological condition found psychometric predictors of political correctness. It turns out that being female is a predictor, as are attributes associated with femininity such as agreeableness and higher level of negative emotion. So, too, are symptoms of personality disorder. Peterson hypothesizes that women whose relationships with men have been seriously pathologized cannot distinguish between male authority and competence on one hand and male authority and power on the other. Masculinity is under siege. Our view of it is now dominated by women with terrible personality disorders who have had terrible relationships with men. Softness and harmlessness are the only acceptable virtues.

The fallout from these developments is grim. Men are bailing out of the academic world and maybe the world in general because they do not have any idea how to compete with women. They cannot unleash themselves completely with women in the way they can with men, with the ever-present threat of physicality as a last resort, because if you win you are a bully and if you lose you are "bloody pathetic." Peterson complains that he is helpless against female insanity because he is forbidden to use the tactics he would employ against men. That would be bullying.

The analysis is so over the top and the claims so far-fetched that it starts to come off like a piece of buffoonery from the Onion or maybe a sophomore's half-baked term paper. This is the man conservatives trumpet as the foremost public intellectual in the world?

This somehow all ties into the postmodernist and neo-Marxist project to undermine Western culture. One need not be a postmodernist or a neo-Marxist, I am not neither, to find Peterson's account overwrought and cartoonish. A note about terminology: He sometimes speaks as if postmodernism and neo-Marxism are two names for the same thing; at other times he seems to regard them as distinct but integrally related. Socialism is similarly used interchangeably with Marxism. All three terms are always derogatory. Socialism, postmodernism, Marxism, call it what you will, it leads to the same very bad place.

Peterson's interpretation of Marxism, drawing heavily on his reading of George Orwell and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, comes down to the standard conservative formulation that Marxism equals the Soviet Union, collectivism, famines, gulags, executions, murderous tyranny, the death of millions. The Soviet era was the inevitable consequence of Marxist presuppositions. The same things happened in Mao's China, Castro's Cuba, and Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge's brutal attempt at social engineering included forced evacuation of cities that led to the deaths of more than two million people from starvation, disease, overwork, and execution of potential enemies of the revolution such as intellectuals, people who wore glasses, people who spoke a foreign language. This was the brainstorm of a Khmer Rouge leader whose name Peterson does not recall, he remembers only that it was not Pol Pot, who studied at the Sorbonne and thus acted under the influence of French intellectuals, proving that their teaching leads to the killing fields.

The Soviet Union, China, Cuba, and Cambodia are declared to be experiments in Marxism that prove the ideology always leads to murderous tyranny because this has happened everywhere Marxism has been tried. Peterson lays this proposition out in a lecture about identity politics in language that suggests these experiments provide scientifically rigorous and valid proof no different from his experiments in psychology or a physicist's experiments in the laboratory. Q.E.D. This is absurd. I presume that Peterson knows better and suspect that many, if not most, of his disciples do not.

The study of history and the conclusions we draw from it are qualitatively different from study and research in either the social or the hard sciences. This is self-evident, dadgummit. Even a sophomore should be expected to get it. Each has its distinct methodologies and standards for rigor, argumentation, and validity. Historical study has to take into account historical circumstances, conditions, and contingencies that scientific method theoretically excludes from research or at least tries to take into account in the hard sciences and even in psychology and social science, which have their own problematic areas. To speak as if these distinctions do not matter or do not exist is disingenuous, intellectually sloppy, or worse.

By the 1960s and 1970s it became so obvious that even an intellectual could see that communism was no longer tenable or a viable prospect. Postmodernism was cooked up by Marxist intellectuals, mostly French, to keep Marxism going by way of sleight-of-hand rationalizations. The narrative remained about oppressor and oppressed. Instead of capitalists oppressing workers, the devious postmodernist devils present a white, European patriarchy oppressing "the other," all manner of victim groups delineated by race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, &c.

Peterson himself says that he cannot quite work out how postmodernism can reconcile its radically relativist perspective with its rejection of all grand narratives, ideologies, and universalism, including the idea of objective notions of reason, human nature, social progress, absolute truth, and objective reality, with Marxism, which is a grand narrative that claims to include objective notions that postmodernism rejects. The key point for Peterson is that postmodernism and neo-Marxism are bound by the narrative of oppressor and oppressed.

Postmodernism is thus correlated with Soviet striving for arbitrary power associated with "a crazy utopianism." In its contemporary manifestation this is motivated by hatred bubbling up in identity politics and desire to destroy the patriarchy. As a young man Peterson was for a time active with a socialist group in his provincial, small town, but he did not much like his fellow socialists as individuals. He found the town's business people more amenable and accomplished even when he did not agree with their politics. He figured out this anomaly when he learned from reading Orwell that socialists do not love the poor; they hate the rich. Marxism is based on hatred, not on sympathy or empathy. The corpses are evidence for that.

The same holds for insane feminists, social justice warriors, political correctionists, and the rest bound together by a common postmodernist, neo-Marxist narrative of oppressor and oppressed. In the end their road leads nowhere but to murderous tyranny. Against these foes Peterson preaches a doctrine of competitiveness, confrontation, and masculinity strangely mixed with an acceptance of the status quo. If you have a problem with the dominant European culture as understood by American conservatives, clean your room, sort yourself out, and take responsibility for yourself so you can better bear up to it all. He justifies his analysis by citing scientific research when it is convenient. More often he delivers ex cathedra pronouncements of eternal truths he finds rummaging about in mythology, religion, history, and the collective unconscious. This Petersonian gospel is delivered with fire-breathing passion and earnest rectitude to a receptive audience of individuals oppressed by the many-headed serpent of postmodernism, neo-Marxism, feminism, identity politics, political correctness, &c. Neither he nor they seem to be aware that there may be a trace of irony in all this.

Pankaj Mishrai, in a critique that outraged Petterson,* reminds us that "the modern fascination with myth has never been free from an illiberal and anti-democratic agenda."

Peterson may seem the latest in a long line of eggheads pretentiously but harmlessly romancing the noble savage. But it is worth remembering that Jung recklessly generalized about the superior “Aryan soul” and the inferior “Jewish psyche” and was initially sympathetic to the Nazis. Mircea Eliade was a devotee of Romania’s fascistic Iron Guard. [Josephy] Campbell’s loathing of “Marxist” academics at his college concealed a virulent loathing of Jews and blacks. Solzhenitsyn, Peterson’s revered mentor, was a zealous Russian expansionist, who denounced Ukraine’s independence and hailed Vladimir Putin as the right man to lead Russia’s overdue regeneration. ... Peterson rails today against "softness," arguing that men have been “pushed too hard to feminize.” In his bestselling book Degeneration (1892), the Zionist critic Max Nordau amplified, more than a century before Peterson, the fear that the empires and nations of the West are populated by the weak-willed, the effeminate, and the degenerate. The French philosopher Georges Sorel identified myth as the necessary antidote to decadence and spur to rejuvenation. An intellectual inspiration to fascists across Europe, Sorel was particularly nostalgic about the patriarchal systems of ancient Israel and Greece.

I have yet to figure out exactly why I am so weirdly intrigued by Jordan Peterson and why he so often irks me as he does. His guidance on how to live in ways that may enable us to better tolerate the horrors of the world and better cope with the lesser challenges that are just part of the deal that goes with being human resonates with a sizable audience. Some aspects resonate with me, others not so much. There is testimony that Peterson's guidance has helped troubled individuals turn around their lives. I am always a little skeptical about conversion experiences that dramatically change people's lives. Established patterns of behavior and ways of seeing our place in the world are not easily brushed aside and cast away. Dramatic changes do not always hold over the long haul. Maybe this does not matter. The old existentialist in me believes that making ourselves who we are is a process that ends only with death. Peterson's twelve rules can for some individuals be a good step in that incremental process and for them worthwhile for that alone.

The self-help teacher is only half of the Peterson package. The other part is the cultural warrior. The two shade into one another. There are differences of opinion about which is the primary source of his popularity. They may shade into one another for the audience too. While the two parts are not inseparable, it is in the sphere of the cultural warrior that I find Peterson's ideas most problematic. Idiosyncratic interpretations of myth and history are presented as unarguable conclusions. There is not a doubt in his military mind, as an old college pal used to say. Findings from research on rats, chimpanzees, and lobsters are the basis for explanations and rigid classifications of human behavior that are taken to be writ in stone. Critics are commanded to look at the data from social science research, a field where there is at present a lot of debate about replicability issues and what to make of research findings. This is not to advocate that the research be ignored. Rather, I think that we should consider the data and conclusions cited by Peterson with a critical eye, judicious skepticism, and as much open-mindedness as we can muster. They may not be as sacrosanct as he takes them to be.

Jordan Peterson is in his own way every bit as much a true believer as those true believers who gave us the gulags, the executions, the concentration camps, the lynchings of Negroes, and other atrocities of the twentieth century. His fragmentary mythology goes beyond championing the positive aspects and benefits of Western culture, liberal democracy, and capitalism to a darker place where criticism of the status quo is illegitimate. "Everything works which is a goddamned miracle." You flip a switch and the lights come on. The buses run on schedule. This really is kind of amazing when you think about. For the many people for whom things do not work all that well, the only recourse offered is to sort yourself out and buck up. If you object to Western culture and liberal democracy, go live in one of the many countries where these things are not present. Yes, he says this at the end of the lecture on identity politics.

Peterson has said that he is not political, or that he only got dragged into the political by his idiot government and ideological foes who are monstrous and corrupt. He considers himself a conservative by Canadian standards and explains this makes him a moderate in American terms. His assessment of Donald Trump and Trump's supporters may give some indication of his political stance:

After the 2016 US election, Peterson described Trump as a "liberal" and a "moderate", no more of a demagogue than Reagan. In as much as Trump voters are intolerant, Peterson claims, it is the left’s fault for sacrificing the working class on the altar of identity politics. (Lynskey)

Elsewhere he parrots the Trumpian line that economic gains in China and India have come at the expense of American workers, who have been abandoned by the Democratic Party.

Maybe the worst thing about the Peterson phenomenon is that he is a distraction for comrades on my wing of the political bird who seek to reclaim the left from political correctness run amok, if I may be allowed to use this phrase as a shorthand for problematic trends in some leftist and progressive circles, just as conservatives and Never Trump Republicans such as William Kristol, Jennifer Rubin, Tom Nichols, and Steve Schmidt want to reclaim conservatism and the Republican Party from a contemporary Know Nothing agenda (Boissoneault) of which Trumpism is not the source but only the most recent and dangerous manifestation. Unfortunately Peterson's megaphone is too large to ignore. It provides pseudo-intellectual cover for right-wing revanchism while drowning out legitimate criticism of left-wing excess and goofiness by tarring it all as a postmodernist, neo-Marxist program that inevitably leads to murderous tyranny.

I have to ask if the time and effort devoted to this essay would have been better spent addressing issues in my camp. In the end I think we have to take on misguided and wrongheaded ideology wherever it is found if we are not to abdicate the intellectual responsibility to speak truth to power, gibbering ideologues, and assorted dingbats, whatever flag they may fly.

Writing in 1989, shortly before his death, the American socialist Michael Harrington proposed that socialism "is the hope for human freedom and justice under the unprecedented conditions of life that humanity will face in the twenty-first century" (Socialism: Past & Future). You do not have to consider yourself a socialist, and you do not have to hate the rich or the patriarchy, to share this hope and the hope for a society based more on cooperation and less on competition. Biology, evolution, and social ways of being that have developed over many centuries are not things that can be denied or easily shaken off. But human freedom and responsibility do not mean much if they do not mean that we have the capacity to imagine that things can be different and better and to act on that imagination. We may never rid the world of suffering, but we are not condemned to resignation in the face of it. Our motives will always be mixed. Our idealism may bear traces of resentment that tarnish but do not invalidate it. To temper belief in the rightness of our cause with knowledge that it is always possible that we are wrong is an enormous challenge. This does not mean that we should not take it on.

The history of ideas is littered with intellectual pretension, folly, arrogance, and plain blockheadedness. Postmodernism and the Marxist tradition have their share of these qualities and then some. Intellectuals of the left, especially in France but elsewhere as well, did not shower themselves with honor during the Soviet era. There is plenty for which they can be held accountable. Tony Judt, for one, undertakes this task with an admirable display of rigor and scholarship in Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals 1944–1956. Between Judt and Peterson, Judt is the resource for this critique.

Where in Jordan Peterson's fragmentary mythology is a place for great social movements and struggles of the 19th and 20th centuries that extended freedom and justice and expanded opportunities for individuals? Sometimes things went wrong. There were costs. History is littered with utopian projects gone wrong, if not always so terribly wrong as the Marxist projects of the 20th century. The demand that people sacrifice terribly today for the sake of a vision of some future paradise can indeed lead to very bad places. The noblest of intentions can have awful, unanticipated consequences.

Does it follow from this that Martin Luther King was wrong to take up the cause of civil rights for black people in this country? Or that workers in the 19th and 20th centuries were wrong to fight for fair wages, safe working conditions, humane hours, and an end to child labor? Was Gandhi wrong in India, Mandela in South Africa? Or Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and suffragettes in many countries who fought long and hard for women's rights? Were their causes rendered invalid, morally mangled beyond redemption, when some individuals did bad and even terrible things in their name? Did they put us on the road to murderous tyranny? Or did they make the world a little bit better place? Did they perhaps widen the parameters within which individuals could take on the burden of responsibility for themselves, their families, and their communities?

On that note I bring this modest try to a close. It is sketchy and incomplete. The topics and themes merit extended treatment, a lengthy book, a veritable tome, which I am not prepared to take up for now. For all my disagreement with Jordan Peterson, and an instinctive antipathy that may not be altogether fair, the attempt to come to grips with his fragmentary mythology leads as such things should to examination and reconsideration of my own fragmentary mythology. That is an ongoing project.

Memo from the Editorial Desk

Minor revisions were made to this essay after it was published.

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.

Note

*Peterson tweeted "You arrogant, racist son of a bitch Pankaj Mishra: How dare you accuse me of 'harmlessly romancing the noble savage.' That's how you refer to my friend Charles Joseph (http://charlesjoseph.ca/ ), who I've worked with for 15 years?" The reference to romancing the noble savage is taken out of context. It seems clear to me that Mishra is talking about an intellectual tradition traced back to Rousseau and extending down specifically through Joseph Campbell, not about any particular friend of Peterson. Peterson has reportedly said he would slap Mishra if he was in the room (Malik).

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David Matthews

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