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The Jordan Peterson Phenomenon

Questioning Peterson’s social philosophy and exploring his role in current culture wars

by Daniel Pinchbeck

June 15, 2018


Over the last few weeks, I finally immersed myself in the Jordan Peterson phenomenon. For those who still don’t know, Peterson is a psychology professor from Toronto who rose to fame in the last two years. The Spectator, a conservative UK paper, as well as David Brooks at the New York Times, have called Peterson the most influential thinker of our time.

His ascendancy began when he took a stand against a Canadian bill, C-16, since signed into law, which made it illegal to discriminate against people based on their gender identity. He argued that this law could force professors like himself to use the new pronouns preferred by trans people and anyone who did not identify as a man or a woman. Peterson believes this not only infringes on his freedom of speech, but could lead to totalitarian extremism.

I sympathize with Peterson’s outrage at excessive political correctness. One of my mother’s friends is a renowned 1970s Feminist, now in her late seventies. This woman struggles to make ends meet. An untenured teaching post at a university was her main income source. Then one of her trans students launched a complaint against her for failing to use their preferred non-traditional pronoun. In the hyper-politicized environment of the university, this complaint was reason for this elderly woman to lose her job. She was dismissed a year or two before Peterson appeared on the scene. This seemed extremely unjust, shocking — almost, my mother and I said at the time, “Stalinist.” There is no doubt that such policing of speech has gone too far, and represents an over-correction.

Given this cultural opening, Peterson started speaking out on many subjects. New followers discovered a huge archive of his lectures and talks. This included a 40 hour series based on his first book, the 600-page Maps of Meaning, which combines his background in psychometrics with ideas from Nietzsche, Jung, and others into a complex — some would say convoluted — “theory of everything.”

Peterson suddenly found a huge fan base, particularly among young white men in the US and Canada. His ideas were avidly discussed on Reddit and 4-Chan. He became the ascendant star of a loosely affiliated group of talk show hosts and pundits, dubbed the “intellectual dark web” by The New York Times. The group includes neuroscientist Sam Harris, Right Wing pundit Ben Shapiro, evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein, as well as comedians Russell Brand and Joe Rogan.

Peterson currently rakes in over $80,000 per month from followers on Patreon. He fills vast lecture halls. His new book, 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos, has been on the top of Amazon’s nonfiction lists for weeks now. Written in the self-help genre, the book integrates straightforward advice (“stand up straight,” “clean your room”) with stories from his past and digressions into areas such as evolutionary psychology, Jungian archetypes, the Bible, and much else.

Because of Peterson’s skyrocketing prominence, I felt a need to study his ideas and understand what he stands for. This turned out to be a difficult and time-consuming task. Peterson makes himself a wriggly target, vacillating between positions while arguing that interviewers and critics have missed his meaning. He has put out such a huge amount of material on the Internet that many of his statements can be countered by some other point he made, at some other time.

Although his tone is quite dry, he is a skillful public speaker, a fast thinker, and a rhetorician who has mastered a style that makes his ideas difficult to penetrate at first. This allows him to spread controversial — and, in many cases, I would say, pernicious — ideas, while maintaining a facade of academic rigor and scientific objectivity. In television interviews, he often manages to seem affronted, the victim of underhanded liberal and Feminist ploys. He catches his interviewers off guard in a way that delights his largely white male fan base.

In various talks and interviews, Peterson has made many of his positions clear. While describing himself as a “classical liberal,” he has stated that he would have voted for Trump if he was a US citizen, because of his dislike for Hilary Clinton. He argues extensively that “white privilege” is a myth. Generally, he does not believe that inequality based on race, gender, or social class remains a significant issue in the contemporary West, due to the progress made over the last decades. He appears to support the right to bear arms without reservation, despite the onslaught of mass shootings in the US leaving piles of bodies in their wake, saying, “I think it is unfortunate to use an event like Las Vegas or Columbine to make political capital.”

He is a strident opponent of identity politics and postmodernism, which he equates with Marxism, saying, “Postmodernism is a way to keep Marxism going under a new guise. Marxism is fundamentally based on hatred rather than sympathy and empathy.” He seems to see progressive or liberal movements for civil rights or social justice as efforts to bring back an extreme form of Marxism or Totalitarianism. This, he believes, could cause hundreds of millions to die in an effort to create a society without hierarchy or difference, if not stopped. In an infamous Tweet, he equated the Women’s March in Canada with what he calls the “murderous equity” doctrine.

Following Bell Curve author Charles Murray, he proposes that differences in intelligence between different racial and ethnic groups, measured by IQ tests, may be fixed and invariable, saying, “The ethnic differences are difficult to dispense with.” He suggests that ten percent of the population lack the requisite intelligence required to hold jobs in today’s complex society. He doesn’t have much to say about the environment, but flirts with climate change denial, Tweeting articles that cast doubt on anthropogenic warming, rather than those that provide evidence for it.

My work overlaps with Peterson in a number of areas. He has discussed Breaking Open the Head, my book on psychedelic shamanism, in past lectures. He calls psychedelics like ayahuasca and psilocybin, “a very primordial aspect of human existence” that inspired many religions and mystical traditions. Like Peterson, I explore Jung’s ideas — on, for instance, the Archetypes, the Collective Unconscious and the Shadow — in my work.

I agree with Peterson that we need to recognize the mythological and heroic dimension of human existence, rather than accepting the flat, materialist view that sees life as merely accidental and contingent and consciousness as an epiphenomena of the brain. I also believe that ancient myths and stories provide a narrative structure that can give our lives meaning and dignity. However, beyond that, I disagree with him in many areas.

Peterson argues the best way to address inequality is by strengthening the individual. He is deeply suspicious of collective actions aimed at reducing wealth inequality or enhancing civil rights. Of course, strengthening the individual is a fine idea, but we also have to reckon with the realities of systemic injustice and structural inequality. Peterson’s social philosophy is reactionary, supporting entrenched hierarchies of power and privilege, as well as a reductive gender essentialism. This is the basis for his extraordinary popularity among white men, who feel growing fear and anxiety because their position is threatened by the rise of women and minorities. In the United States today, more than 70% of high school validectorians are women, and many colleges are struggling to find enough male students to maintain balance, particularly in humanities departments.

Peterson routinely misrepresents his opponents’ arguments by setting up straw men, railing against presumed Leftist positions that do not exist in reality. For instance, he claims that the contemporary Left’s ideal is not just “equality of opportunity” — giving everyone a fair chance to prosper — but “equality of outcome” — leveling wealth and privilege so everyone has exactly the same. Even fervent Leftists would agree that“equality of outcome” is both impossible and undesirable.

The fact is that we have reached an extraordinary level of inequality today. As Eric Levits writes in New York Magazine, “In the United States today, the richest 0.1 percent of households command as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent combined; the average CEO collects 140 times as large a salary as his (or, very occasionally her) typical employee; the median white family is 12 times richer than the median black one; and the superrich can expect to live 15 years longer than the poor.” One recent study from Princeton University found that the US is close to an oligarchy, its policies controlled by a small economic elite. Peterson uses this absurd idea of “equality of outcome” as a way to caricature the Left’s desire for a more equitable distribution of wealth and resources.

“These days, most self-identified “socialists” in the U.S. seem to want little more than the same suite of social welfare programs enjoyed by their peers in capitalist Western Europe,” Levits writes. “And even those lefties who are genuinely committed to socializing the means of production are, typically, quite comfortable with the survival of material inequality within a narrow band (to incentivize and reward socially useful labor).” Whether considering inequality or gender or postmodernnism, Peterson pushes his arguments to extremes. One can agree that the focus on identity politics in universities has become excessive and postmodern critical theory is often incomprehensible without conflating either with totalitarian genocide. It is worrisome that such claims provide the basis for Peterson’s meteoric rise.

To address another one of his views, Peterson suggests, following Charles Murray, that we know enough about environmental and social factors to think that the differential in IQ between racial groups may be immutable. But there is no reason to believe this. Minority groups still face many obstacles limiting their social mobility and capacity for personal development. This ranges from poor schooling to lack of healthy food, from the lead paint used in projects that negatively affects the cognitive functioning of children, to an overall sense of constricted options that has a devastating psychological impact.

The Women’s March 2018 in Key West, Florida. Photo by Ian Rowan.

Despite all of these hurtles, when given reason to hope for a better future, poor minority kids respond beyond any predictive bell curve. To take one famous example, in 1981, Eugene Lang, a wealthy philanthropist, offered a class of six graders at PS 121 on East 103rd St, one of the lowest-performing schools in New York City, mentoring and partial college scholarships if they made it through high school. While the normal dropout rate was more than fifty percent, in this class, 48 out of 61 students graduated and more than 30 went on to college. Peterson — along with some of his fellow travelers in the intellectual dark web — cherrypick studies that promote a gloomy view of human potential rather than an expansive one. This gives cover to conservative policies aimed at stripping away social services.

While one can make a counter-argument to the vast majority of Peterson’s points, this would be a laborious task — certainly too much for this column. Once one grasps the general contours of his thought, the most important thing is to understand the reason for Peterson’s current popularity. He has stepped into a prominent role in the current culture wars as a defender of the traditional order, a throwback to a simpler time when white male privilege was unquestioned, suggesting we might bring back tougher divorce laws and “enforced monogamy.” But it is too late to turn back the clock.

Our society is increasingly polarized. The widening schism between world views has already resulted in individual acts of violence — such as the murderous rampages of young white men identifying as involuntary celibates or “incels” — as well as changes in government policy, like the Trump administration’s increasingly harsh approach to immigration and its repudiation of environmental safeguards. The culture wars may have more drastic consequences in the years ahead of us. Indeed, it is not farfetched to imagine the culture wars, particularly in the United States, becoming an actual civil war, if current trends continue. This war divides on gender as well as class and cultural lines.

Peterson arrives at a time marked by the breakdown of old ideologies, a loss of hope among many progressives, excessive political correctness in universities, and an uncritical acceptance of data collected from the social sciences. In a rapidly changing world, many people feel desperate for answers — for some sense of certainty — and he offers them. He is in step with the authoritarian movements growing in many parts of the world right now, providing intellectual support for them.

What would be the alternative to Peterson’s outlook? What if men accept it as their courageous mission — a kind of initiation, as well as a journey into the unknown — to join forces with women at this critical juncture? What if we work together to create a world without such extreme, unjust, and wasteful excesses of wealth and privilege? What if we supersede the current model of Capitalist competition and status hierarchies, transcending the individual’s alienation in new communities based on shared intentions and ideals? Against Peterson’s self-serving pessimism, this would be the authentic hero’s journey required by our time.