To be quite honest, the Jordan Peterson phenomenon largely passed me by, appearing only in the periphery of my consciousness. I kept coming across his name in various places but what I fleetingly gathered did not suggest to me that whatever he was saying or doing was worthwhile investigating to find out more so I ignored it, much like one tries to ignore a fly buzzing around but don’t completely succeed. I adopt the same policy whenever I see the name ‘Kardashian’, quickly moving on.
But apparently this clinical psychologist at the University of Toronto has created quite a stir in some circles with his views. Even though I did not know what those views are, it is always nice to read a careful and methodical takedown of someone whom the author considers to be a poseur, and Pankaj Mishra does the honors in an essay the New York Review of Books titled Jordan Peterson & Fascist Mysticism.
Following Carl Jung, Peterson identifies “archetypes” in myths, dreams, and religions, which have apparently defined truths of the human condition since the beginning of time. “Culture,” one of his typical arguments goes, “is symbolically, archetypally, mythically male”—and this is why resistance to male dominance is unnatural. Men represent order, and “Chaos—the unknown—is symbolically associated with the feminine.” In other words, men resisting the perennially fixed archetypes of male and female, and failing to toughen up, are pathetic losers.
Such evidently eternal truths are not on offer anymore at a modern university; Jung’s speculations have been largely discredited. But Peterson, armed with his “maps of meaning” (the title of his previous book), has only contempt for his fellow academics who tend to emphasize the socially constructed and provisional nature of our perceptions. As with Jung, he presents some idiosyncratic quasi-religious opinions as empirical science, frequently appealing to evolutionary psychology to support his ancient wisdom.
Closer examination, however, reveals Peterson’s ageless insights as a typical, if not archetypal, product of our own times: right-wing pieties seductively mythologized for our current lost generations.
Reactionary white men will surely be thrilled by Peterson’s loathing for “social justice warriors” and his claim that divorce laws should not have been liberalized in the 1960s. Those embattled against political correctness on university campuses will heartily endorse Peterson’s claim that “there are whole disciplines in universities forthrightly hostile towards men.” Islamophobes will take heart from his speculation that “feminists avoid criticizing Islam because they unconsciously long for masculine dominance.” Libertarians will cheer Peterson’s glorification of the individual striver, and his stern message to the left-behinds (“Maybe it’s not the world that’s at fault. Maybe it’s you. You’ve failed to make the mark.”). The demagogues of our age don’t read much; but, as they ruthlessly crack down on refugees and immigrants, they can derive much philosophical backup from Peterson’s sub-chapter headings: “Compassion as a vice” and “Toughen up, you weasel.”
Nowhere in his published writings does Peterson reckon with the moral fiascos of his gurus and their political ramifications; he seems unbothered by the fact that thinking of human relations in such terms as dominance and hierarchy connects too easily with such nascent viciousness such as misogyny, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
Like Peterson, many of these hyper-masculinist thinkers saw compassion as a vice and urged insecure men to harden their hearts against the weak (women and minorities) on the grounds that the latter were biologically and culturally inferior. Hailing myth and dreams as the repository of fundamental human truths, they became popular because they addressed a widely felt spiritual hunger: of men looking desperately for maps of meaning in a world they found opaque and uncontrollable.
As is plain to see just from those brief excerpts, Mishra’s critique of Peterson is undoubtedly harsh. Peterson, being an academic, has responded in a calm and mature manner, overlaid with the legendary Canadian politeness. He called Mishra an “arrogant, racist son of a bitch” and “And you call me a fascist? You sanctimonious prick. If you were in my room at the moment, I’d slap you happily”. Peterson apparently has legions of devoted followers who think he is some kind of genius and will leap to his defense and attack his critics, somewhat like Sam Harris’s acolytes, so Mishra can expect to have heaps of vitriol directed at him.
Is Mishra’s critique fair? I am hardly in a position to judge since I have barely heard of Peterson and have read exactly zero of his output. But there are often cases where one enjoys a long form essay and learns from it even when one knows little about the main target of the piece. I recall reading a collection of George Orwell’s essays when I was around college age and although I did not know much about some of the topics he was writing about, I enjoyed reading them and learned a lot about the subject being covered. One such essay Benefit of Clergy was a critique of Salvador Dali that I still remember even though I knew nothing about art then and haven’t gained much knowledge since. Another article was Charles Dickens that analyzed Dickens’s attitudes towards class and work. I had not read anything by Dickens up to that pointed but was stimulated by the essay to read and enjoy many of his novels.
In my opinion, Mishra’s piece is another such essay. He brings in ideas about many writers and thinkers related to this topic and I found that quite fascinating, even if I did not know (or care) much about Peterson himself.