I long ago stopped reading whenever the name Jordan Peterson came up because it usually consisted of the same old pseudo-intellectual tripe. I have a similar reaction to Thomas Friedman or David Brooks. Chauncey De Vega interviewed Matthew A. Sears, an associate professor of classics and ancient history at the University of New Brunswick, about the role that right-wing intellectuals like Jordan Peterson are playing during the Trump era. Here is Sears’s reply to the question: “Why is Jordan Peterson so compelling for a certain type of man with a very particular political and social worldview?”
I think Peterson is actually anti-intellectual in many ways because he actively advocates the shutting down of entire disciplines that he does not like. In that sense Peterson is literally anti-intellectual. Peterson is appealing to a certain type of person because he is a professor. And because he is a professor he is even more appealing because he is seen to be standing against — supposedly out of sheer bravery and determination and grit — the cultural and social movements that are supposedly associated with academia.
He’s arguing for very traditional conservative ideas. For example, traditional ideas about the family and gender relations and power dynamics. Peterson loves to talk about “dominance hierarchies” and how he believes there are always going to be these hierarchies, even in nature, and therefore they are inevitable in human society.
In that way Jordan Peterson is giving intellectual and academic backing or respectability to the kinds of positions which a certain type of person already believes. In addition, Peterson is a man who is a full professor at the University of Toronto. He speaks with such certainty, conviction and vitriol.
I have compared Jordan Peterson to Don Quixote — the fact that you have this knight who is centuries too late for chivalry, but still kind of rides around as if he’s one of the Knights of the Round Table while everybody just kind of rolls their eyes at him. I see Peterson as like almost being in the Old West, challenging someone to pistols at dawn — Twitter pistols.
Maybe some people are challenged by what Peterson says, but I think at the end of the day those who read him are just happy to finally have a “respectable” academic reinforcing traditional values.” For example, Jordan Peterson has made claims about gender roles and the problematic nature of women wearing makeup in the workplace and this kind of thing. In this moment with the MeToo movement and a backlash to women’s rights there is an eager audience for that.
Peterson will make claims about dominance hierarchies and allude to classical myths and stories where he concludes that some people are heroes and some people are not. By implication this is taken by him and his followers to mean that trying to make a workplace more equitable and trying to avoid the cutthroat, backstabbing nature of the corporate world is just fighting against universal archetypes and human nature.
Other than that Peterson does not really appear to talk about the classics as more than just a source for him to find myths.
The problem with approaches like that is they completely whitewash the fact that the ancient world had slaves, and a lot of Enlightenment-era values were used to undergird and justify scientific racism and antebellum slavery in the United States, for example.