I’ve sniped at Jordan Peterson a few times. I’ve tended to focus on just a few of his overtly and demonstrably wrong claims, because I don’t want to study the long-winded stream of garbage that he spews out on the internet — the very last thing I want to do with my life is become a Jordan Peterson authority. He is simply not worth it, a property that works in his favor, because no one with any sense wants to dwell for long in his mansion of madness, so only his True Believers immerse themselves in his toxic verbosity. Nathan Robinson did a great job with an overview, but all I’ve done is laughed at a few fragments of obvious absurdity.
But now to the list of people who’ve really looked at the big picture of Jordan Peterson’s career, we can add the fabulous Laurie Penny. She goes right to the heart of the Peterson oeuvre.
Over the past 12 months, and especially since the publication of his internationally-bestselling self-help book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Peterson’s work has been dissected, discussed, and debated on talk shows and in reputable publications across the same Western civilizations whose decline he diagnoses in a manner more lucrative than lucid. Few have led with the obvious fact that neither the man nor the message make coherent sense. 12 Rules disproves, by its very success, one of its central tenets: the idea that we live in anything resembling a meritocracy. The book is messy as hell. It is full of insipid platitudes, trite homilies, and self-regarding detours delivered with the assurance of a man who fully expects to see his childhood finger paintings in a museum someday. At best, he sounds like someone who wandered off into the Desert of the Real without a sunhat. There is, in short, absolutely no way this would be taken remotely seriously if anyone who wasn’t a white guy had written it.
I have to disagree mildly with that last bit, and mention Deepak Chopra and Camille Paglia as counter-examples…but perhaps counter-examples that prove the rule. You can write popular, successful word salad as a non-white-man as long as it doesn’t threaten the dominance of white men. But otherwise, yes — it’s badly written hash of the sort that, once upon a time, skeptics would have scornfully ripped to shreds and spat upon the tatters (now, unfortunately, skeptics line up to pay money to hear the Great Man speak).
Peterson’s anxious army of acolytes would claim that if you don’t understand his work it’s not necessarily because you’re an idiot, but because you haven’t read every single word in every comment thread and watched every single grainy video of Peterson pontificating about lobsters. Because what you really need to consider — and here’s the chorus that repeats — is the context.
Oh god yes. As I said, I’ve only touched on a few things, like his claim that modern lobster behavior is somehow relevant and evolutionarily related to human behavior, or his claim that ancient Chinese scholars somehow knew something about the biochemical structure of deoxyribonucleic acid and portrayed it in metaphors of divinity, but all I hear from Peterson bros is two words: “strawman” and “context”. It doesn’t matter that I quote him literally or include a video, I’m misinterpreting him, and if I would only listen to 50 hours of his YouTube videos, I would see that he’s right.
No. I do check out the immediate context of the controversial statement, and they don’t help him at all. But Penny points out that there is an even bigger context that explains, but does not justify his popularity.
Yes, absolutely. Context is vital. But what is the context that actually matters here?
* * *
The context is despair. The context is cultural civil war. The context is two thousand years of violent religious patriarchy, five centuries of brutal capitalist biopolitics, and a decade of punishing austerity that has left a great many young men quaking in the ruins of their own promised glory, drowning in unmet expectations. The context is a profoundly impoverished intellectual and political climate where the feeling of truth is more meaningful than truth itself. That’s the context in which Peterson’s ascendency was as predictable as it is humiliating for anyone clinging on to the idea that there might be a few drops left at the bottom of the barrel of moderate conservative thought. Outside that context, it would make no sense.
So the context is that Peterson has forged an identity that appeals deeply to losers, people who are resentful about lost opportunities and loss of status. They’ve tumbled down the hierarchy that Peterson loves so much. The really bad news is that he’s tapping into a huge and growing group, and yeah, society should do something to restore dignity to everyone. The even worse news is that Peterson’s philosophy is all about trashing cooperative group behavior and feeding the self-destructive resentment even more. But he and his followers don’t see that. They are all true believers.
Peterson is playing a role, but he’s not a grifter. On the contrary, his hallucinogenic body of work suggests that he has been liberally sampling his own product. He believes what he’s saying, and in this intellectual climate that sort of authenticity carries weight, even if what you’re actually saying is a paranoid mess of evolutionary psychology, horrified homophobic superstition, and religious mysticism.
Many of Peterson’s fans reassure themselves that there’s a seam of genius here buried beyond their reach, that there’s so much damn context that even a true believer can only ever see it all through a glass, darkly. Those demands for context are a cop-out: rummage around on Reddit for ten minutes and you can find enough evidence to garnish any crank’s crockpot.
But this has always been the problem: the truly damaging prophets aren’t the ones running an open con, but the ones who are absolutely confident that they bear the truth. This has been the case throughout history, that there are people so certain of their beliefs that they’ll send men off to their deaths in war, or even march straight to their own martyrdom. It doesn’t justify it or make it less contemptible to say that the prophet truly believes deep in his heart everything that he says. Intent isn’t magic, as all the kids say.
It explains his success…
Peterson has worked out the secret to monetizing his own persecution complex: If your audience is angry and lonely and you tell them that’s justifiable, you can take that muddle of meaning, blend it, and serve it through a candy-colored straw to those who are prepared to swallow anything and call it a juice cleanse. You can go quite far in the gig economy of modern entrepreneurial proto-fascism by talking to young men as if their feelings matter.
…but his motives don’t excuse the end result.
Writing in the LA Times, Cathy Young says that “for all his flaws, Peterson is tapping into a very real frustration,” and that even if they don’t like what he has to say, feminists should pay attention to Peterson’s fans and engage with their feelings.
The problem is that we already are. Constantly. Angry white male entitlement is the elevator music of our age. Speaking personally, as a feminist-identified person on the internet, my Twitter mentions are full of practically nothing else. I’ve spent far too much of my one life trying to listen and understand and offer suggestions in good faith, before concluding that it’s not actually my job to manage the hurt feelings of men who are prepared to mortgage the entire future of the species to buy back their misplaced pride. It never was. That’s not what feminism is about.
There are plenty of reasons why society treats the pain of young white men as a public concern. A great many of us learned from an early age that bad things happen when white men have hurt feelings. Children of color learn, often painfully, the importance of making the white people around them feel comfortable. Little girls are taught not to “provoke” their male peers into attacking or harassing them. This can get confusing for white boys, bless their hearts: when everyone else treats your hurt feelings as immovable facts that have to be managed by those around you, some confusion is understandable. That’s how we got to a position where male pain is intolerable, but everyone else’s pain is par for the course. I’m throwing truth-bombs, but you’re crying victim. Fuck your feelings, but make gentle, empathetic love to mine.
The old guard is falling. We can understand why they’re unhappy about it, but it shouldn’t imply that we ought to prop them up. You better believe that I think white men have an earned place in the culture — we just have to learn that it is not automatically the top spot, and that all the Proud Boys and neo-Nazis actively damage the status we should earn. We also don’t accomplish anything by scurrying backwards to embrace bad ideas that we think help our cause. Bad ideas like evolutionary psychology.
How do you launder a bad idea to send it back to market? You bundle it up with some slightly better-sounding ones and repackage the whole deal as dazzling insight. Right now, the rhetoric of evolutionary psychology is a popular detergent, as it has been for the last two centuries. The enduring notion that civilization is merely an extension of men’s biological urge to battle it out for sexual access to the highest-quality women, that reproductive, racial, and economic injustice are both natural and morally just, is nothing new.
Anything goes for Peterson fans. They’re desperate. They’ll grab at anything they think will restore their supremacy, and Peterson’s secret is that he can serve any old garbage that will reinforce that nonsense, and they’ll gobble it up.
The people buying what Peterson has to sell are not doing so out of stupidity, or even ignorance. Plenty of information exists about, say, the limits of comparison between the complex lives of human beings and the simple ones of giant sea insects. Gently explaining that they’ve been sold a lot of horseshit does no good. “Tell the truth,” their guru exhorts them, “or at least don’t lie.” But what good does that do when you’ve been given license to experience your most embittered suspicions as cosmic wisdom, and liberty to define your own truth from a drop-down menu of superstition and conspiracy?
So what can we do?
We cannot continue to take Jordan Peterson seriously as a scholar and still respect the Western philosophical tradition in the morning. Jordan Peterson is a very silly man. He is also a very serious warning about how our intellectual culture has been downgraded. Engaging in any serious political conversation with him can only debase both our conversation and our politics. There is much to be gained, though, by seeing him clearly for what he is: the yammering sidewalk mystic of our age, the canary twittering madly to alert us to the imminent collapse of political coherence, with all that is solid melting into airtime.
Are you planning to debate Peterson, as his fans so often tell me to do? Don’t. I make the same recommendation to anyone planning to debate creationists — we’ve been doing it for decades, and all it does is reinforce their sense of entitlement and their belief that they should be taken seriously. You should know this by now, because creationists, like Peterson, love debate and beg to be invited into them. Stand apart. Tear into their arguments. Point out where they’re wrong. But don’t dignify these frauds with one-on-one engagements.
That’s the third most common taunt I get from Petersonions. 1: “Strawman!” 2: “Context!” 3: “Debate him!”. All are bogus.