Intellectual anti-intellectuals

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.


  1. John Morales says

    I tried to find the nub:

    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.

    Alas, this doesn’t gibe with the rest of the quoted response; also, were that the case, Mano or PZ would be equally appealing to that type of person by virtue of professorship, and merely without the purported enhancement the message provides.

    (Me, I think it’s the other way around)

  2. brucegee1962 says

    I often listen to David Brooks. He was pretty unenthused about W, rapturous about Obama, and has never had anything good to say about Trump or his followers. I suspect that he’s been voting a straight democratic ticket for the last decade or so, but still presents himself as “conservative” because that’s his brand that gets him invited to the talk shows.

    Just the other day, the NPR host went to Brooks first, and Brooks did all the liberal talking points. Then the host turned to the liberal commentator saying “I guess David already made all your points for you.”

  3. says

    Peterson appears to have been created by the gods as a way of demonstrating my argument that psychology is a field that consists of so much bullshit that it needs to be reinvented on sound evidence-based methodology. Often, when I point out that psychology is guilty of promoting a lot of “pop psychology” like IQ tests and bizzare experiments with methodological flaws, someone comes along and says “but real psychologists don’t take IQ tests seriously!” But satan created Jordan Peterson to demonstrate my point thoroughly. Not only does he take IQ tests seriously, he uses them to justify ‘scientific’ sexism and (coyly) gives comfort to scientific racists and eugenicists. It’s as if he was created to prove my point. Except that I’d never ask for such an embarrassing disaster to happen to someone else, just to prove my point. What a toxic windbag.

  4. KG says

    Marcus Ranum@3

    “Psychology” is not “guilty” (or innocent) of promoting anything. Despite the huge and obvious chip on your choulder about it, it hasn’t done anything to you because it’s not an agent.

  5. bmiller says

    KG: One can say the same thing about, say, Alchemy. When we say Alchemy is nonsense, we are not assigning agency to Alchemy per se. Just the common tropes and theories and hypotheses behind the “science”.

    I share Marcus’ skepticism. In addition, too much of psychology and psychiatry seems to be dedicated to naming the varieties of human cussedness with pseudo-scientific terms. What does “oppositional disorder” mean, for instance?

  6. lanir says

    @John #1: The point that’s making is pretty simple. He’s the one example of the thing you don’t like that agrees with you and that makes him okay because he reinforces your point and undermines the arguments of the rest of the group he’s in. He’s basically betraying their values to support your preferred argument. A certain sort of scumbag does this with racist arguments all the time and that may be the clearest place to look for it and get an understanding of the concept.

  7. lanir says

    The one thing I wish the idiots like Peterson and his crowd would take the time to understand is that the concepts they’re promoting are just one choice about how to live one’s life.

    Some of my friends are into ideas that I strongly disagree with. It helps them be happy and I’ve simply come to realize that as long as people are able to choose without bias or pressure what sort of environment they want to be in, it’s all fine. With the one caveat that no one is being seriously harmed or forced into anything, just about anything goes.

    There are subcultures I don’t get and that I find uncomfortable to be around. I’ve realized that’s just me not understanding them well and it really doesn’t say much about the subculture itself or those who participate in it.

    I suppose it might feel good to say “Everybody should be like me, but the rest of you are all flawed somehow” but I’m not a narcissistic tool.

  8. Ichthyic says

    Peterson is appealing to a certain type of person because he is a professor.

    how many times must the wheel be reinvented before people see?

    this is all about authoritarianism. something both psychologists and sociologists identified as a definable explanatory trait in humans decades ago.

    people just refuse to accept that 30% of us (on a sliding scale, give or take about 10%) lean heavily authoritarian in outlook and personality, and that can and DOES affect how they process information.

    if you are NOT authoritarian, you will not really comprehend viscerally why they do the things they do. they are different; they process information differently, and until we accept that there are basic, fundamental, differences that exist in our societies and figure out how to properly manage that, this cycle of minority authoritarians taking control and driving us into the ground will just keep repeating over and over and over again.

    this is no fucking mystery to solve. we’ve know the answer to this for a very long time. we just refuse to accept that we have to deal with it.

  9. Ichthyic says

    But satan created Jordan Peterson to demonstrate my point thoroughly.

    Your science is bad if you consider a single data point sufficient for statistical rigor.

  10. Ichthyic says

    …no wait…

    your science is just bad, in general.

    I blame PZ for promoting the idea that all pschology is bad because there are bad actors in evo psych.

    sounds very much like the people who starting claiming sociology is bad because people abuse it.

    and people who claimed evolution was bad as a science because of people who abused it to make claims about human society.

    your opinions, and that’s what they fucking are, just like PZs, are NOT helping science.

    trash an individual study for poor rigor? that’s good.

    trash and entire field because there are bad papers?


    stop being stupid.

    go actually take a course in psychology at a uni, or actually read a fucking basic textbook on the subject.


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