My post on Pankaj Mishra’s critique of Jordan Peterson aroused some interesting and thoughtful responses. As I said, I did not know anything about Peterson or his works and some tried to clue me in and provide perspective. As recommended by some, I went online to see some videos by and of Peterson and it turns out that there are a lot! I picked some based on whether their titles promised topics of interest to me, not a very effective strategy with YouTube, I know, but the only option I had if I did not want to devote the rest of my life to watching a ton of his videos. I have watched a few and plan to watch a few more and will post my comments on them after I have had time to digest them.
But at this time, I want to focus on one small aspect to make a more general point, and that is the odd feature that different people seem to arrive at widely different ideas about what Peterson stands for and that this seems to be the cause of the controversies surrounding his views. Daniel Schealler, in his thoughtful comment tried to explain why that might be the case. I want to highlight Daniel’s opening passage.
I’ve been following Peterson for a while. In my experience, he’s something of a Rorschach test.
The people on the radical right think he’s one of them. The people on the radical left agree. The people in the center (me) think he’s a centrist who has been criticizing the radical left, and this has confused both hyper-tribal ends of the left/right spectrum into thinking that he is much further to the right than he actually is.
[H]aving examined Peterson’s work closely, I think the “misinterpretation” of Peterson is only partially a result of leftists reading him through an ideological prism. A more important reason why Peterson is “misinterpreted” is that he is so consistently vague and vacillating that it’s impossible to tell what he is “actually saying.” People can have such angry arguments about Peterson, seeing him as everything from a fascist apologist to an Enlightenment liberal, because his vacuous words are a kind of Rorschach test onto which countless interpretations can be projected.
The essence of the Rorschach images used in those tests is, as I understand it, to be inherently ambiguous. The creator of the image is not trying to convey as clearly as possible a particular message but instead seeks to allow the viewer to project onto it their own meaning, thus providing a means of understanding their inner world. But if as an intellectual, you find yourself being described as a Rorschach test, then you have a problem, unless you are a writer of fiction in which you are deliberately seeking to create a sense of ambiguity. For writers of non-fiction, especially those seeking to drive home a message, ambiguity should not be the goal.
I am well aware that it is very difficult to convey precisely with mere words the rich ideas that occupy one’s mind, especially on complex topics, and that it is inevitable that some degree of ambiguity will exist. As Karl Popper said, “It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood.” But there is a big difference between subtle ambiguities and shades of meaning that different observers take away and need to wrestle with, and people having directly contradictory reactions. When
Daniel says that both the radical right and the radical left see Peterson as one of their own, and when Robinson writes that people see him as either a fascist apologist or an Enlightenment liberal, then Peterson has clearly failed in conveying whatever he is trying to say.
The problem may be, as Marcus Ranum wrote in another comment, that Peterson depends too heavily on undefined labels that are themselves subject to a wide range of interpretations.
There have been several time I’ve thought about trying to do some analysis of his ideas but every time I think about where to start digging in, all I come up with is my Argument Clinic episode on labels. Labelling is his method: he calls things “post modernist” because ‘everybody knows’ that post modernism is bad. And “cultural marxism” – another vacuous label which, I suspect, is interchangeable for “political correctness” in his world.
I didn’t see anything worth arguing about. When I encounter someone who throws up a screen of labels, I assume I am dealing with a charlatan or an ignoramus. The videos I watched did not include definitions of any of the terms he was using – and nobody asked him to define what “cultural marxism” means.
The goal of an intellectual who is trying to deliver a message should be clarity. In the words attributed to Albert Einstein (though there seems to be no actual record of him having said or written it), “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”. It is not a good sign when the reader is left unsure about exactly what you are trying to say but your words are ambiguous enough to project their own meaning onto them.
George Orwell, in his widely read 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, said that this kind of ambiguity is sometimes used to avoid taking ownership of ideas that would be unpalatable if stated clearly. He gave an example of how the writer of the biblical book Ecclesiastes conveys clearly an idea and then parodies how those same ideas might be expressed today.
I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Here it is in modern English:
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
This kind of writing is not yet universal, and outcrops of simplicity will occur here and there in the worst-written page. Still, if you or I were told to write a few lines on the uncertainty of human fortunes, we should probably come much nearer to my imaginary sentence than to the one from Ecclesiastes.
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism., question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.
The goal of non-fiction writing (and speaking) should be to be as clear and direct and simple as possible. If one finds oneself being described as a Rorschach test, then that is a sign that one needs to work on this.