Posted 05 November 2018 - 14:50
A Critique of Jordan Peterson
“Why does Peterson get this so wrong? He simply doesn’t care to present a more complex narrative that would problematize his cute and hyperbolic story about the left.”
Since his 2016 statements in opposition to Canada’s Bill C-16, Jordan Peterson has rocketed to international fame and infamy. On the right, he has been the subject of laudatory and even hagiographic praise in the pages of the National Post and the National Review. Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire has published a string of articles praising Peterson and dismissing his critics for publishing “dishonest, malicious crap” about him. All this furor led The New York Times to christen Peterson as the most “influential public intellectual in the world.”
On the left, criticism has been equally scathing. Tabatha Southey of Macleans characterized Peterson as “the stupid man’s smart person.” The same The New York Times that acknowledged his influence called Peterson the “custodian of patriarchy.” The prestigious New York Review of Books ran an article by Pankaj Mishra discussing the eerie proximity of many of Peterson’s opinions to those of fascists and right–wing mystics. And so on.
Maps of Meaning and Twelve Rules for Life
I find many of these often hyperbolic observations, both laudatory and damning, to be disproportionate to the actual content of Peterson’s academic work and lectures. Overall, he is a reasonably good academic when he writes and speaks about subjects he’s familiar with. I think one’s tolerance for his actual arguments depend a great deal on one’s acceptance of the primarily Jungian theoretical framework he relies on. Peterson is concerned to show that the archetypal images and narratives which emerge from our unconscious mythological, literary, and religious heritage contain psychological wisdom and clues into how human beings establish meaning in our lives. I’ve always found Jung quite interesting, if occasionally grandiose, so I appreciate some of what Peterson says.
Peterson’s first book, Maps of Meaning, invokes Jung, Nietzsche, and a host of other major thinkers to try and describe how and why human beings formulate their sense of life’s significance. Much of this involves an in–depth analysis of ancient mythology and religion. Peterson’s analysis is often intriguing but involves no small bit of grandstanding. Indeed, the book includes a letter Peterson wrote to his father discussing the alleged gravity of his discoveries:
“I don’t know, Dad, but I think I have discovered something that no one else has any idea about, and I’m not sure I can do it justice. Its scope is so broad that I can see only parts of it clearly at one time, and it is exceedingly difficult to set down comprehensibly in writing…. Anyways, I’m glad you and Mom are doing well.”
This comes across as more than a little hyperbolic and arrogant. Indeed, Peterson is very much at home with other right–wing intellectuals-notably Heidegger-who ascribed their work as a tremendous social significance disproportionate to what one might expect from an academic tome on myth, psychology, and meaning. But Maps of Meaning does contain some interesting and occasionally even profound insights into subjects as diverse as the role of Lucifer in Christian mythology and eschatology and even a few interesting asides on the modernized form of these archetypes in comic books and blockbuster cinema.
Peterson’s second book, 12 Rules for Life, draws on this theoretical framework but updates it with more humanizing case studies drawn from Peterson’s private life, his work as a professional psychologist in Toronto, and from public history. The book is mainly designed as a self-help manual, albeit one that draws on the wide range of theoretical interests initially presented in Maps of Meaning. Understood that way, much of the advice Peterson offers strikes me as well intended. It certainly has proven inspiring to its audience of mostly youngish men. 12 Rules for Life also includes some interesting asides, such as his analysis of the psychic motivations of the Columbine killers and their “religious” belief in the worthlessness of human life. Peterson is a fan of Dostoevsky, and his writing can occasionally invoke the infernal power of Crime and Punishment or the chapters on Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov.
Jordan Peterson and the Left
The major problems I have with Jordan Peterson emerge when he tries to extend his ideas into politics. Here things get rather murky. Despite having a partial undergraduate degree in Political Science from the University of Alberta, Peterson has little professional background writing or researching on politics or political theory. His academic work discussing politics largely consists of writing papers relating psychological dispositions to very broadly defined political ideologies, and scattered comments throughout his two major books. Many of his comments are passionately articulated but hyperbolic. Few are well argued.
“Today, the leftists pushing for unbalanced chaos are “collectivist” identity politics activists guided by radical post-modern neo-Marxist philosophies.”
Maps of Meaning established the theoretical binary which seems to guide Peterson’s approach to politics. This is the binary between masculine order and feminine chaos, which Peterson finds archetypally represented in a number of mythological, religious and literary cultures. He believes that conservatives tend to psychologically veer towards favoring order and tradition, while the left veers towards favoring chaos and transformation. Peterson believes that societies require both tradition-minded conservatives and creative progressives to remain balanced. Where they become imbalanced, as in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, societies become increasingly totalitarian or anarchic. Peterson argues that contemporary Western societies have veered too far towards favoring left-wing chaos, and have resultantly abandoned the traditions and mores which have unconsciously guided us towards wise decisions and the establishment of an enduring civilization. Today, the leftists pushing for unbalanced chaos are “collectivist” identity politics activists guided by radical post-modern neo-Marxist philosophies.
Jordan Peterson is concerned about the ascendency of the post-modern left because he sees it as eerily reminiscent, even inspired by, the collectivist philosophy of the Soviet Union. Drawing on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s profoundly tragic account of Soviet atrocities in The Gulag Archipelago, Peterson asserts that the moral legitimacy of Marxism was forever destroyed by the mid-20th century. As a consequence, the Left no longer had a respectable philosophical framework to draw upon. As a result, it turned to post-modern neo-Marxism, which is effectively the same collectivist philosophy except now generalized beyond the class bases analysis characteristic of Marx’s work.
Guided by post-modern neo-Marxist philosophers like Foucault and Derrida, the Left has gone beyond just criticizing class based exploitation. The Left now criticizes the impact of all forms of power; especially its impact on so called marginalized groups in society. Because power is understood very broadly, and impacts a huge number of different groups, this has meant the Left is increasingly concerned to tear down all traditions and mores in society in its quest for “equality of outcome” across all social groups. Peterson is concerned that this even more radically “collectivist” philosophy is very dangerous and will lead to the formation of a “vast” and totalitarian bureaucracy that will oversee and police our every actions, right down to the way we address one another. This is why Peterson believes it is plausible to link a trans-rights activist with a Maoist revolutionary; the collectivist “philosophy which guides their utterances is the same” since both mobilize group identity to allegedly push for equality of outcomes while destroying classical liberal freedoms. It is also why Peterson ascribes such insidious significance to campus radicals and their attempts to shut down free speech through acts of shaming, establishing prohibitions, and even violence. Far better that these activists take some time to set their own lives in order before criticizing the world, after which they would apparently recognize the wisdom of Peterson, and those like him, who venerate our auspicious traditions and mores.
Jordan Peterson on Marxism
There are a wide number of problems with Peterson’s characterization of the Left. Firstly, it is pretty clear that Peterson simply doesn’t know that much about Left-wing theory or activism. Take his characterizations of both Marxism and so-called post-modern neo-Marxism. Petersons’ decision to blame Marxist philosophy for the appalling crimes of the Soviet Union and Maoist China is deeply problematic. There is an extensive literature on the relation between the Marxism and the communist regimes, but virtually no scholar argues that either the Soviets or the Maoists were in any way faithful to Marx’s initial theories. To give an example, both Lenin and Mao launched communist revolutions in poor developing countries wracked by war. This is in staunch contrast to Marx’s insistence that Communism could only take root in developed states where the “means of production” were highly advanced. Or to give another example, Marx argued that global capitalism was wracked by contradictions which would eventually exacerbate economic and political crises around the globe. But Soviet Communism and Maoist China both emerged during periods when the capitalist economy was either chugging along or booming. These examples, and many others, undermine the claim that Marxist philosophy inevitably leads to the gulag and the Great Leap Forward. Peterson might contest this by arguing that the root problem is the “collectivist” and anti-traditionalist philosophy underpinning Marxism. This is a very shallow reading of Marx, who was concerned for individual freedoms and criticized capitalism for destroying traditional values. It also ascribes undue blame for the impact one’s philosophy might have on others. Peterson might think that invoking Solzhenitsyn is a decisive rebuttal, but I remain unimpressed. Much as I would be if someone were to present an account of the Spanish conquest of Latin America, approved by the Pope and responsible for the deaths of 187 million people over the century, as a decisive rebuttal of Christianity as a whole. Or if someone invoked the Nazis’ reverence for Nietzsche, a favorite author of Peterson, as a reason not to read the great German thinker.
But Peterson is not essentially concerned with Marxism. Peterson lazily believes Marxism is so thoroughly discredited he is apparently above actually engaging with what Marx or intelligent Marxists like Fredric Jameson, a scathing critic of postmodernism, have actually said. Instead, Peterson is concerned with what he calls post–modern neo–Marxism. But is there such a thing?
Jordan Peterson on “Postmodern Neo-Marxism”
The idea that postmodernism is simply Marxism by another name would surely surprise many on the Left who regard the two as inimical to one another. Postmodernism largely emerged as a reaction against the thoroughly modernist narrative underpinning Marxist theory. It is an aesthetic and philosophical rejection of the “grand narrative” claims of individuals like Marx, who believed that there was a “science of history” which could be discerned by acute dialectical materialists. Post-modernists in the vein of Foucault and Derrida problematize the idea that one can develop such objective “sciences;” inadvertently aligning themselves with a long undercurrent of skeptics in Western thought which can be traced back to the Sophists of Ancient Athens. While Marx was certainly an influence on postmodern thinking, as he was an influence on economists, writers, and sociologists, Marxism is in no way a direct precursor to postmodernism. If anything, many Marxists are damningly critical of postmodernism in all its variants.
Why does Peterson get this so wrong? I think the answer is he simply doesn’t know much about it or doesn’t care to present a more complex narrative that would problematize his cute and hyperbolic story about the left. During his lectures, Peterson has admitted to reading a fair bit of Foucault and struggling with Derrida, which is hardly a basis for such sweeping generalizations. These problems persist in his written work. In 12 Rules for Life, Peterson primarily targets, indeed conflates, the Frankfurt School of Critical theory and Derrida. But he only cites a single book by one member of the Frankfurt School and largely ignores any of Derrida’s substantial works. This is a deeply shallow sample of the literature that makes one wonder whether Peterson has actually read many authors in a tradition he claims to understand and vilifies. If he had, he would know that many authors in the Frankfurt school, including its contemporary proponents like Jurgen Habermas and Axel Honneth, are highly critical of post-modernism and everything it stands for.
Finally, Peterson argues that the post-modern neo-Marxists press for the destruction of all social hierarchies and the attainment of full equality-equality of outcomes rather than opportunity-for all marginalized groups. He worries that this will lead to the establishment of a totalitarian bureaucracy. It is hard to even argue against this since so few-if any-Leftists actually argue that all hierarchies should be destroyed and outcomes equalized for all. Perhaps he is thinking of G.A Cohen or Jacques Rancierre, who occasionally flirted with such hyper-egalitarian claims. But neither are post-modernist thinkers, nor have there more extreme arguments gained much currency.
“When you boil it down, most of Peterson’s aversion toward the Left stems from a distaste for the style of its activists, rather than anything of substance.”
When you boil it down, most of Peterson’s aversion toward the Left stems from a distaste for the style of its activists, rather than anything of substance. This also accounts for much of his popularity on the right, which has long held that academia and left–wing activism suppress the expression of conservative views. Whether his characterization of the Left’s positions is right or not, many people “feel” the same way about progressive activists as Jordan Peterson, and so just assume he must be correct in his characterization.
I have some sympathy with his criticisms of left–wing activism, as indeed do other leftist thinkers such as Slavoj Zizek. Indeed, many contemporary left–wing thinkers have both abandoned post-modernism and are highly critical of political correctness, though Peterson seems unaware of this. But a distaste for identity politics-which has been around in liberal societies since at least the Abolitionist movement and in many ways is a thoroughly liberal form of activism and political correctness is not a license to engage in shallow generalizations about one’s political opponents. Peterson can be an intelligent and knowing scholar when he knows what he is talking about and reigns in his worst impulses. But he cheapens intellectual discourse when he deals with caricatures and hyperbole rather than really engaging the ideas of his political opponents.
Part Two: The Argument Against Jordan Peterson
“My suspicion is that many of Peterson’s readers feel an affinity to the advice he offers and so don’t look to question his political commitments that deeply. This is problematic because it leads to deep inconsistencies in doctrine that, if applied as stated, would lead to a rather unusual politics.”
In my June 3rd article, I presented the first part of my critique of Jordan Peterson. In that piece, I argued that much of the hyperbole surrounding Peterson, both positive and negative, was overstated. I maintained that he was a talented scholar when he focused on his areas of expertise: namely psychology, and its association with mythology, religion, and literature. This is reflected in the overall quality of his magnum opus, Maps of Meaning. While an overambitious and occasionally grandiose book, it contained many interesting insights into how human beings formulate meaning for their lives. I also observed that Peterson’s recent bestseller, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, contained a significant amount of good life advice that seemed to be inspiring to its audience of mostly young men.
However, I also observed that Peterson ran into significant trouble when he stepped outside of his area of expertise and commented on politics. In the last article, I mainly focused on the problems with Peterson’s criticism of Left-wing philosophy and activism. I observed that he did not seem to understand, or know very much about, what he set out to criticize. In particular, Peterson offered very shallow arguments against so-called “post-modern neo-Marxism.” I concluded the article by maintaining that the locus of Peterson’s appeal as a critic of the Left was that many people felt the same way he did about left-wing activism. They, therefore, assumed that he was offering salient criticisms of the philosophy allegedly underpinning this activism. I do not believe this to be the case, which is unfortunate since Peterson has the capacity to be a good scholar when he tries. This makes his unwillingness to engage with the left in any substantive or fair manner disappointing.
In this article, I am going to conclude my critique of his work by dealing with the more constructive dimension of Peterson’s political thought. This consists of his support for “classical liberalism,” meritocracy, and Judeo-Christian tradition. While Peterson is on intellectually firmer ground when invoking these tropes to offer psychological advice, his positions become confusing and even self-contradictory when generalized to the level of politics.
Agency, Hierarchy, and Setting One’s House in Order
Far into Maps of Meaning Jordan Peterson comments on the archetype of the “decadent”: a person who shirks responsibility for their life and assumes that everything that happens to them is the product of social circumstance and bad luck. He characterizes this person, willing to blame others for their lot, as psychologically-fueled by resentment and jealousy towards those who have more than he does. Peterson sees this archetype embodied most maliciously in the figure of the Soviet Communists, who engaged in brutal violence to take from those they viewed as privileged and therefore responsible for other people’s poorer lot in life. Here I will quote Peterson at length since this passage neatly summarizes his political position:
“For example, when I am faced with a frustrating situation I do not ask myself what I am going to do about it. I ask myself who is responsible for it—and I am always ready to conclude that if the other person were to act properly then the problem would not exist. What is evil about that, you ask? Obviously if I am determined to overlook my own part in the failure to resolve my own frustrations, if I am determined to find a scapegoat for my problems, then I am just a stone’s throw away from the mentality that was responsible for Hitler’s final solution, or for the Spanish Inquisition, or for Lenin’s cultural cleansing. What was it you told me when I complained about the flaws in capitalism, about the fact that so many people take advantage of the capitalist system? Something like ‘the fact that people go on consolidating their financial position ad nauseam is another problem, but it is no reason to conclude that there is anything virtuous in refusing to even try to consolidate one’s position in the first place.’ But it is so much easier to crown one’s cowardice and laziness with the accolade of virtue.”
Peterson’s argument effectively seems to be that demands for a redistribution of goods and resources are predicated, first and foremost, on the resentment of some individuals towards those who appear better off. Peterson is, therefore, highly suspicious of arguments for redistribution because he believes that the underlying psychological motivation is not ultimately to make individuals better off. It is to seek revenge against those who have worked hard and achieved more in life. This psychological interpretation of individuals who push for a more egalitarian distribution of goods and resources as proto-totalitarians is also reflected in Peterson’s biographical account of becoming disillusioned with his early socialism. He recounts reading The Road to Wigan Pier and agreeing with George Orwell’s observation that many socialists do not care a whit for the poor. They only hated the rich. This superhero origin story is recounted in both Maps of Meaning and 12 Rules for Life, highlighting the importance of this insight for Peterson’s political inclinations. Interestingly, that primary purpose of The Road to Wigan Pier was to present Orwell’s staunch defense of socialism is ignored by Peterson in his first book and quickly brushed past in the second.
Peterson’s belief that a desire for a more egalitarian distribution of goods and resources is predicated upon dangerous resentment seems to be the basis for his more concrete political positions on hierarchy and distributive justice. These are presented, in a rather scattered way, throughout his two books and many lectures and interviews. Peterson believes that, rather than blaming others or social institutions for our failings, individuals should look to their own efforts. These political beliefs are often linked with his psychological injunctions to, “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world” and to “Stand up straight with your shoulders back.” Rather than blaming capitalism for being poor, or patriarchy for not being admitted into a STEM program, individuals should apolitically focus on what they can do to better their lot.
At times, Peterson connects this to arguments about the natural inevitability of hierarchy and the traditional Judeo-Christian virtues of a meritocracy. Chapter one of 12 Rules for Life opens with a now (in)famous discussion of how even simple lobsters, our genetic relatives, organize themselves into hierarchies based on attributes associated with physical and sexual dominance. Throughout 12 Rules for Life, Peterson suggests that the possession of analogous attributes in humans, such as higher intelligence or competitive/aggressive drive, will inevitably lead us to organize into similar hierarchies. Sometimes Peterson is fatalistic about this, claiming we must simply accept it as the way we naturally are. As he sometimes puts it “life is suffering” and “unfair.” Some people will be on top, and others will not. Other times Peterson invokes the aforementioned meritocratic virtues to suggest that hierarchy is not just inevitable—but desirable. This suggests that individuals should take responsibility for developing the attributes necessary to wind up at the top of the pecking order.
In combination, Peterson rather mysteriously seems to believe these injunctions reflect an individualism consistent with a grab bag of what is best in the Western-and other- traditions. At times, he aligns it with the individualism of Judeo-Christian doctrine, at other times with “classical liberal” principles. Sometimes he’ll invoke Buddhist and Daoist symbology and mythology to buttress the claim that life can be unfair. This erudition is impressive, but it is also extremely confusing. Peterson links doctrines that are not entirely consonant and even in contradiction with one another. Take the example of liberalism and Judeo-Christian doctrine. Liberalism from Hobbes onwards largely emerged as a reaction against traditional Christian doctrine. Liberals such as Locke, Voltaire and others argued that individuals should reason for themselves, be suspicious of tradition, and look to their private happiness. This is in stark contrast to Christian philosophers, such as the Thomists, who argued that reason was the handmaiden of faith, that religious traditions going back to Abraham should be venerated, and that pursuing the “good” was more important than private satisfaction. Unfortunately, this is just the first instance where confusion sets in.
Psychological Advice and Political Theory
It is very difficult to know how to interpret Peterson’s political positions because they are not presented in a transparent and precise manner. As mentioned, they are mostly presented in association with psychological advice offered to hypothetical individuals in need of guidance and wisdom. Now there is nothing wrong with this in and of itself, and the criteria for what constitutes good psychological advice at any one time is significantly different from what constitutes a consistent and defensible political outlook. But problems arise when Peterson tries to generalize from this advice to defend a certain type of politics.
Debates about hierarchy aren’t debates about whether any hierarchies should exist. They are debates about which hierarchies are morally defensible and conducive to aggregate social welfare. Simply observing that hierarchies are natural gets us nowhere in such discussions.
Take Peterson’s comments about hierarchy. At points, Peterson invokes the idea of natural hierarchy to dismiss the alleged claims of left-wing thinkers that hierarchies are entirely the product of unjust social institutions, like global capitalism. It is difficult to actually make heads or tails of what this is meant to suggest. Firstly, I am unaware of anyone, even on the far Left, who argues that all hierarchies are inherently unjust and must be eliminated. Even proponents of anarchism maintain that certain hierarchies, for instance, speaking order in public meetings, must be maintained to ensure social stability. And the feminist activists who want more female CEOs running Fortune 500 companies are certainly not anti-hierarchy. No one denies either that hierarchy is a feature of human life or that it is needed in some circumstances. Debates about hierarchy aren’t debates about whether any hierarchies should exist. They are debates about which hierarchies are morally defensible and conducive to aggregate social welfare. Simply observing that hierarchies are natural gets us nowhere in such discussions.
For instance, few today would argue that a feudal hierarchy is justifiable, though many thinkers at the time tried to defend it by appealing to natural differences between people as ordained by the Christian God. This is because classical liberal thinkers argued that both the moral equality of individuals and the need to increase aggregate welfare by engaging in market exchanges entitles them to equally enjoy the standard package of liberal civil and political rights. Those, who argue against the stark inequality of contemporary economic hierarchies—most notably liberal egalitarians like Rawls, Nussbaum, and Dworkin—make similar arguments to justify a more equitable distribution of goods and resources. Now one might disagree with the moral arguments for a more equitable distribution of goods and resources, or, at least, argue that a more equitable distribution would not be conducive to the aggregate welfare of all. These are the arguments thinkers like Nozick and Friedman respectively leveled against the liberal egalitarians. But neither the liberal egalitarians nor their opponents claim that their preferred hierarchies are “natural” to defend their respective positions. Instead, they appeal to moral and empirical points to justify this or that given hierarchy.
Peterson’s Politics Applied
So what do we make of Peterson’s position? I think the unarticulated and implicit reasoning seems to be that current status quos are justifiable along the moral and empirical lines I just mentioned, though he offers little in the way of moral argument and empirical evidence. (Angry moralism doesn’t count). As mentioned, his justification for these positions often takes the form of individualized psychological advice with a political undertone. His justifications seem to consist in realizing that life is “unfair,” hierarchy will always exist, and we must simply deal with it. He also argues that we stop resenting those who get ahead through merit and take responsibility for improving our lot. So, on the one hand, we have fatalism about the status quo—on the other, moralism about merit and getting ahead in contemporary hierarchies through effort.
As psychological advice for a person in need, either comment might be valid. The criterion is what the individual needs to hear in order to make sense of his situation and improve it. But when generalized as part of a political theory these two pieces of advice border on being mutually contradictory.
Indeed, for all Peterson’s invocations of being a “classical liberal,” he seems curiously disinterested in liberalism’s historic concern to rectify injustices resulting from the persistence of illegitimate human institutions and hierarchies.
Take his comment that life is “suffering” and “unfair.” If this is true by nature, then individuals are largely fated to wind up where we are regardless of our particular effort and character. The rain will fall on the just and the unjust alike, poor people will work hard and not get ahead, and rich people will be born into advantages they did nothing to earn. In such a context, moralizing to individuals by telling them it is their fault for where they wound up because they didn’t merit anything more would seem strikingly tactless. On the other hand, if it is true that life is “suffering” and “unfair” because of human institutions, not just by nature, this brings us back to the aforementioned problem I highlighted about which hierarchies can be justified. If human institutions are responsible for “suffering” and “unfairness” simply then advising people to apolitically accept this and make the best of it seems strikingly reactionary. Instead one should be making a concerted effort to change things. Indeed, for all Peterson’s invocations of being a “classical liberal,” he seems curiously disinterested in liberalism’s historic concern to rectify injustices resulting from the persistence of illegitimate human institutions and hierarchies.
Peterson is an adept psychologist who offers useful advice to individuals in need of life guidance. In such contexts, drawing on a plethora of different sources, and offering fatalistic advice one day and promoting strident self-effort the next, might be useful. But generalized into political doctrine it becomes a rather confusing mishmash of distinct belief systems that don’t gel into a coherent whole.
My suspicion, as with his critical observations about the Left, is that many of Peterson’s readers feel an affinity to the advice he offers and so don’t look to question his political commitments that deeply. This is problematic because it leads to deep inconsistencies in doctrine that, if applied as stated, would lead to a rather unusual politics. One stressing liberal freedom and Christian moralism, communal traditionalism and hyper-individualism, and one assumes many other good things conveniently wrapped together. Politics may be complicated. But that is no excuse for generalizing anecdotal and individual self-help into a comprehensive guide on how to order society.
Jordan Peterson and Conservative Critiques of Modernity
“If we value our heritage, conservative intellectuals like Peterson need to stop pandering to their followers, and instead start motivating them to be more reflective about the culpability of complex social forces.”
Canadian university Professor Jordan Peterson made headlines recently when left-wing superstar Slavoj Zizek attacked him for being an alt-right supporter in the pages of The Independent. This is an odd claim. Peterson has long described himself as something of a centrist, arguing that society needs a reasonable number of people to push for progress and an equal number to preserve traditions. That has not stopped him from becoming an intellectual hero to various groups on the right, due to his standing against using a diverse array of gender pronouns, for his fight against “PC culture” at the University, and his attacks on post-modernism.
Despite the accolades from these groups, bordering on hagiography at points, many of these groups, strangely, seem disinterested in the actual content of his ideas. There is a frustrating tendency to just accept the surface of what he says—post-modernism is bad, end of story—than actually probe why he makes these arguments. Here, I venture to theorize as to why he has taken these conservative positions, and to show that Peterson’s analysis of modernity is flawed in more than a few respects.
Peterson and Modernity
“And where he tries to update these argument by directing them at new targets—for instance, post-modernism—he often does not seem to have a good understanding of what he is criticizing.”
One of the unfair criticisms directed against Jordan Peterson by some on the far-left is that he strongly supports alt-right, and even racist, positions. While he has not done everything he could to disavow support (or taking money) from some of these groups, there is little to suggest Peterson is a closet racist. His book Maps of Meaning opens with a touching, if a tad sentimental, account of his interest in learning what accounts for the development of totalitarianism in society. Inspired by Jung and Nietzsche, Peterson then proceeds into a refreshing review of various foundational myths in Western and other cultures.
This culminates in an extensive look at the structure of Christian myth, including its treatment of evil in the figure of Satan. Peterson argues that it is Satan’s pride and desire to dominate the world, regardless of the cost to its inner value, which forms the core of his evil nature. He then goes on to argue that, with the advent of secular nihilism in our scientific era, people in modern societies have gone on to react in one of two ways. Some individuals become increasingly hyper-skeptical, and by extension, apathetic. While he does not signal them out as such in this book, it is not hard to connect this category of persons to the post-modern relativists Peterson now claims to despise.
Other individuals become radicalized, turning to totalitarian philosophies as a way to re-establish some sense of control over the world. In Maps of Meaning, Peterson’s main targets are reactionary groups, like fascists and communists. Today, it is also not hard to see him connect this category to various advocates of politically correct culture who want to control language and dictate what is taught and discussed.
There is an undeniable appeal to this argument; he writes in an engaging and passionate manner. He is, in part, correct that the advent of modernity has resulted in social trends pushing people toward radicalization. I would be more sympathetic if these argument were presented in a less self-important manner. Even in 1999, Peterson often wrote in an intensely personal way—as though he is on an epic quest to discover the roots of all social ailments. This attitude can be admirable, but it is also cloying. It is less noticeable in Maps of Meaning than it has recently become. Peterson now often speaks as though he is single-handedly fighting the most important battle of our time. This is a rather grandiose sentiment for someone whose primary target seems to be university policies.
My biggest problem with Peterson, however, is the lack of originality in his primary arguments. Much of it has been said before. And where he tries to update these arguments by directing them at new targets—for instance, post-modernism—he often does not seem to have a good understanding of what he is criticizing.
Conservative Critiques of Modern Life
“We view at the world as matter in motion that can be manipulated for human needs.”
The argument that the movement to secular modernity has resulted in either apathetic skepticism or radicalization is hardly new to conservatism. As far back as the nineteenth century, great critics like Max Weber made these observations. Often, they did so in a way that was deeper and more interesting than Peterson’s arguments.
Weber is probably the most notable. Throughout his lengthy work, Weber argued that modernity has led to what is often called the “desacrilization” of the world. Where once the world was taken as a sacred and mythical place, filled with independent meaning by religious and traditional doctrines, it is now perceived through a secular and instrumental eye. We view the world as matter in motion that can be manipulated for human needs.
This has a positive upswing. Combined with the powers of modern technology and science, it means that we have been willing to transform the world to improve the quality and length of human life. The benefits of this are pretty obvious. Even a relatively poor Canadian would probably choose his life in 2018 over living as an aristocrat in the eighteenth century—a time without central heat, electricity, indoor plumbing, and all the other wonders of the modern world. But Weber pointed out that this rosy picture, too, has a downside. The desacrilization of the world has also meant that people no longer feel they have any deeper meaning to their lives. They feel like empty numbers governed by “specialists without soul, sensualists without heart,” replaceable cogs in the social machinery. As Weber pointed out in his Politics as a Vocation lectures, such people are prone to either apathetic resignation to the gloom of their temporary pleasures or radical attempts to restore some kind of deeper meaning to the world.
Thus far, Peterson would probably agree with much of this, updating it as needed. The problem is, where Weber and other great conservative thinkers give deep and often tragic reasons for why modernity resulted in secularization and desacrilization, Peterson sticks exclusively to the surface.
His primary target for these trends seems to be professional. The reason people feel their lives increasingly have little meaning is because a number of left-wing, post-modern intellectuals have been spreading doctrines to that effect. This is a rather superficial analysis. It is also self-serving: it means that intellectuals who refuse to conform to this post-modern trends are at the forefront of saving civilization from its enemies.
For any academic who has found it difficult to get students to read a 10-page article, let alone convert them into Foucault’s disciples, this is a remarkable claim. It essentially makes the to-and-fro of academic fashion into the primary battlefield of our culture. Other intellectuals have been prone to this conceit. Heidegger is the most notable example in the last few decades. But Peterson is especially prone to thinking in these terms, and he has convinced many of his followers and admirers on the right to adopt this viewpoint.
Capitalism, Technology, and the Sacred
“The medium is the message.”
Few great conservative thinkers have ever given into this self-serving tendency. Part of the reason is really probing into the roots of desacrailization often means criticizing social forces many conventional conservatives happen to like. This is what a great thinker does; they challenge their followers to look closely and critically at their own prejudices. While Peterson panders to his followers by pinning blame on groups and people they already dislike, a great thinker like Weber opens up tragic spaces of choice and re-evaluation.
Take Weber, for example. For Weber, the collapse of tradition and mythology was brought about in no small part due to capitalism. Capitalism, with its relentless compulsion to transform the natural world into a collection of objects for exploitation, drove the creation of nihilistic ideologies where individuals gave up their conventional beliefs to become consumers. This was also the point made by Arthur Schumpeter when he talked about the “creative destruction” of capitalist forces. In the continuous need to create new values to market and profit from, capitalist forces destroyed traditional ways of life to erect new ones. Now neither Weber nor Schumpeter was anti-capitalist per se. Weber was cautious towards it, Schumpeter often wrote in praise of it. But both recognized that if one wanted the benefits of capitalism—with its vast array of new products and technologie—-one had to be prepared to give up on a world that was treated as the sacred territory of God.
The same is true of technology. Heidegger was another great critic of modernity, who observed that developing technologies means treating the world as meaningless “standing reserve” to be manipulated for our purposes. This applies in a modern context where digital technologies allow us to manipulate and present our identity to an immense degree, including by sticking within a fragmented communication bubble rather than going outside and interacting with others who are part of our shared culture. Each of these thinkers would probably think it rather ironic that someone like Peterson would decry the collapse of traditional values, while simultaneously becoming a YouTube star pandering to increasingly fragmented social groups and profiting from their resentment.
The forces of technological and economic change are powerful in transforming society in ways we have difficulty to fully understand. It is easier, and more comforting, to ascribe blame for social transformation to specific individuals and groups, who are seen as single-handedly moving society in a direction we do not care for. But this ascribes far too much agency to human actors and intellectual ideas.
Take post-modernism, for example. I believe it is very much a cultural epoch brought about by technological transformations in the way people interact and communicate. It is very tempting to regard technological mediums as simply neutral tool. But technological mediums are not simply neutral, especially when it comes to communication. As the prophet of the post-modern epoch, Marshall McLuhan, put it: “The medium is the message.” When we communicate through television, radio, and tweets on the Internet, this fundamentally changes the content we espouse and how it is received. These transformations were also well noted in Neil Postman’s prophetic work Amusing Ourselves to Death.
Postman argued that with the advent of television, modern people were gradually losing their ability to think through complex information the way they had when inhabiting a highly literate print-reading civilization. He blames this on short attention spans: new mediums such as television were inclined to present complex issues by encapsulating it in a five-minute soundbite. The immense competition for attention also meant that the entertainment value of the information had to be increased, raising the temptation to give it a hyperbolic—and partisan—spin. This greatly empowers the partisan identity politics Peterson and others so despise.
My point is not to suggest Peterson is a bad conservative thinker. When he focuses on topics he is familiar with and trained in, like the structure of myths or the psychoanalytic thought of Carl Jung, he often says insightful and interesting things. But as a political commentator, he does not really add much to conservative discourse. Where he says something valid, it has often been said before and better. This is not a bad thing in itself. But where he tries to update these ideas, for instance by attacking post-modern intellectuals, he is often superficial and intellectually shallow. Oftentimes, he simply panders to the prejudices of his followers.
A truly great intellectual should challenge his followers, and where necessary, make them recognize where their own conceits and prejudices reinforce tendencies they claim to hate. As Kant pointed out, these moments of critical reflection are what the Enlightenment was all about.
If we value our heritage, we need conservative intellectuals to stop pandering to their followers, and instead, start motivating them to be more reflective about the culpability of complex social forces—including those we may admire—in generating problems facing the modern world.