Snake-oil, lobsters and lazy-thinking
Jordan Peterson scares me. There’s no one else in mainstream culture with such a reach (the New York Times calls him “the most influential public intellectual in the Western world”) who addresses the psychic hinterland the way he does. Who walks people to their recesses and back, like a YouTube shaman, from mythos to logos, from Jungian archetypes to cleaning your room, gun control and gender relations. He scares me because while his psychological insights are grounded, his knowledge of myth seemingly profound, his pragmatic life advice useful and his desire to help his predominantly young, male audience feels sincere and deeply held, when it comes to his pronouncements on politics, our consensus reality, he’s in shadow. The chaos, the confusion, the lack of scholarship, the ideology, the hysteria he sees in the social movements and the culture of our time: it’s all there in his own political output. It scares me that his audience, who trust him doesn’t see it. And it scares me more that he doesn’t.
A shaman’s role has been to visit other worlds and bring back insight to this one. To do so usefully requires an impeccability of vision and self-knowledge, otherwise the insights and opinions – which carry a weight and vital charge accrued by the distance borne - do not escape the petty prejudices we have as individual subjects in the material world. On this last Peterson fails.
Tellingly his bestselling (3 million+ copies) 12 Rules for Life which included the injunction not to ‘set the world to rights until you’ve tidied your bedroom’, a castigation of young political activists, a more prosaic version of the Biblical “first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye”, Peterson was struggling with mental illness and eventually addiction to benzodiazipines.
Peterson has brought a fresh audience, in a modern culture crying out for meaning and the empowerment of self-knowledge, to the ideas of father of psychology and psychotherapy Carl Jung, notably his powerful concept of the shadow: the unexamined and disowned parts of ourselves which exert great force upon us as long as we are unconscious of them. Jung, in common with shamanistic practitioners saw the integration of our shadows as the task of our lifetimes and guarantor of psychic and emotional health. Peterson, when he ventures, all too regularly, outside his academic and vocational specialism, delivers highly subjective political opinion in deep shadow. This betrays the loyalty and trust of his audience.
He’s in shadow because his political views and opinions are formed in such as way as to be at odds with his stated values and the values he aims to inculcate in his audience. He proposes ‘radical honesty’ and authenticity but is uncritical of Donald Trump, quite probably the most dishonest person in recorded history (he has said he would have voted for him and has praised his intelligence). He attacks a perceived lack of academic rigour in the social sciences but makes political points based upon factual inaccuracies, misunderstandings or misrepresentation, using bad science about lobsters to ‘prove’ things about humans. On the issue for which he is most famous – his criticism of C16, the Canadian human rights law in regard to transgender people – he both misrepresented the Bill as ‘mandating speech’ and without justification and without the deference to expertise fitting for an academic, ignored legal opinion repudiating his alarmist claims. He decries identity politics and tribalism yet is highly perjorative about groups he does not like: ‘leftists’, neomarxists and so on – whose power and coherence are largely a figment of his imagination and personal projections. He values ‘precision in language’ yet makes sloppy generalisations about postmodernism and great assumptive leaps about the dangers of particular movements without logical support. He is critical of chaotic thinking and an out-of-control, irrational feminine archetype yet is himself absolutely hysterical in his claims – for example his tweet following Trudeau’s support for a feminist march that he was supporting a “murderous equity doctrine”, which had led and would lead to the gulags (it would be easier to argue that the hierarchical ideology Peterson is pretty obsessed with had led to Auschwitz). He rails against ideologues yet is himself deeply ideological, posing as a free-thinking radical (he refers to himself as a ‘classic British liberal’, with the attendant gentlemanly above-the-fray connotations this might create in the mind of the less informed – he really means he’s laissez faire, so firmly on the political right). He espouses mainstream free-market fundamentalist and conservative views including, as with his weak climate change denial (he is ‘sceptical’ and retweets deniers) and antipathy to gun control, where the view flies in the face of the evidence. Frankly no one who denies man-made climate change this late in the game deserves to be taken seriously as a thinker. He encourages intellectual autonomy and yet inspires a cult-like ‘group-think’ amongst his audience who attack any critic of their guru. He decries those who seek to change the world before learning to 'tidy their bedrooms’, a prosaic paternalistic version of the Biblical advice to remove the more from your own eye before the beam in someone else’s. Fair enough but he wrote a self-help book (the best-selling and rather grandiosely titled 12 Rules for Life) and then found himself addicted to benzodiazapines. Undeterred he brought out a follow-up, 12 More Rules, which does not I believe include an ownership of the shadow aspects which led to his troubles. Such a book might have helped his fans more than more 'advice' from on-high.
Peterson has over 1.5 million YouTube subscribers and is offering succour to hundreds of thousands of men who are crying out for direction, validation, encouragement and meaning. He is moving when he talks, tearfully about the “almost total lack of encouragement” some young men have experienced . White American males (his core audience) are the least optimistic social group and they are to an extent right to be. While social opportunities have largely improved for ethnic and gender minorities, their own status has not, while all groups have suffered from the increasing gearing of the economy towards the 1%. Peterson offers folksy but effective and (presumably) clinically-backed guidance and challenge. We live in a world short of positively galvanising male role models. Friends testify to how his ideas have helped them. I personally found his thoughts on creativity very interesting. It is no surprise that he has the loyalty and ear of millions. But this is the problem. He asks, demands even that people think for themselves, while spoon-feeding them bad science, junk philosophy and the neoliberal political ideology which at least economically is largely responsible for their alienation and pessimism.
Radical honesty?: What Peterson gets wrong
“A practical approach to developing shadow is radical honesty”, Peterson tells us. But Peterson falls far short of this. So where does he misunderstand and misrepresent or just get it wrong, irresponsibly so, in his political arguments?
Let’s start with the issue which made Peterson extremely rich and famous, his claim that C16, an addition to Canadian Human Rights law would force him to use neutral gender pronouns, on pain of jail. But his fantasy, where he gets to play his hero Alexander Solzhenitsyn, going on hunger-strike in prison for refusing to bow to neo-Marxist overlords who force him to use their politicized vocabulary is just that, a fantasy. And one which as a public position is unworthy of a serious academic. Legal experts, (which Peterson is certainly not) most significantly the Canadian Bar Association, the voice of Canada’s judges and lawyers, those who will interpret the law, clarify that C-16 does NOT make it a jailable or fineable offense to call someone by the 'wrong' pronoun (see link in paragraph 12). It does make it hate speech to call for violence against those identifying as transgender. And makes it illegal under human rights discrimination to for example not employ or house someone on the basis of their being transgender. Is Peterson really against this? I imagine many of his Alt-Right fan-boys might be. And there is nothing to stop Peterson or anyone else from using 'they' instead of a gendered pronoun. There is simply no possibility of forcing. He’s an intelligent and rational man - indeed he sets great stock in bring rational. So why is he being so hysterical about this? And so misleading? He lauds the importance of precision in language – vital for reading the law. Has he read the verdict of legal experts? If not, shouldn’t he? If so can he answer them? He hasn’t so far.
What are today’s big issues and what does Peterson have to say on them?
To test the mettle of a thinker we can see what they have to say on the major issues of the day. Climate change and the usurpation of democratic power by corporate interests are the obvious ones. That is they present the biggest challenge to the greatest number of people. To believe that a road to the gulags via political correctness is a greater danger than climate change oblivion is silly – what’s his evidence? Pointing at Mao and claiming that feminists are Maoist won’t cut it. The man elected to lead the most powerful nation in the world, Donald Trump, has boasted about abusing women, and is an id in a Goodfellas suit. Political correctness does not seem to have the upper hand. Across the US, Europe and now, horrifyingly for the Amazon and its peoples, Brazil it is not ‘Social Justice Warriors’ and left wing governments which appear to be in the ascendancy but the right: nationalist movements abound in the US, with Brexit, and homophobic, macho authoritarians rule in Russia, India, Poland, Hungary, the Philippines, and Turkey as well as hard-right Bolsanaro in the world’s 4th largest democracy. In France, fascist Marie Le Pen recently gained almost 40% of the vote. Anders Brevik, Europe’s worst mass shooter was a right-winger, as was the killer in Charlottesville and the church shooter before that. How many have died at the hand of ‘SJWs’? None I’m aware of. Peterson sounds hysterical on this issue. He’s projecting his own hysteria, his chaotic and irrational aspect onto the feminist movement. And with his obsession with postmodernists and marxism, he is projecting a narrow academic issue onto mainstream society and persuading his loyal followers that his psychic enemy is their actual enemy. It’s a effective distraction for those who might otherwise be focussing on the economics of narrowing opportunity and the failure of neoliberalism to create stability and a sense of the common good.
Peterson is an establishment bulwark posing as a radical.
The Peterson MO under fire: reframe and avoid
Peterson uses his rhetorical skills not as a truth-seeking missile but as a weapon to advance his political ideology. It’s no wonder he distrusts other academics on these issues, probably he suspects that they do likewise. But when he sees ideological propaganda everywhere (including, bathetically, in Frozen, whose empowering message he sees as dangerously feminist) he’s projecting.
He holds orthodox American right-wing views on gun control. That is, he is against more regulation. Despite the increasingly commonplace occurence of mass murder. Here in this interview with Time Magazine he employs his usual MO of redefining and avoiding the question on this topic and in regard to #MeToo:
“Q: Would gun legislation help stop school shootings?
A: I think that in the United States the probability that gun legislation would stop the school shootings is basically zero.”
But the question is whether it would help not whether it would stop it altogether – the US is a violent society and it probably would not stop immediately in the short-term. But there is huge evidence from Australia for example and well as simple common sense that less guns = less probability of violence, that it would help. Classic Peterson sleight-of-hand.
“Q: Does the huge number of women who report some kind of sexual assault or harassment suggest that it’s more than just a couple of bad actors? That it is a systemic problem?
A: Well it depends on how you define sexual assault or sexual harassment. The question is: Where do you place the boundaries for defining that phenomena? And if it’s — let’s call it unwanted penetrative sex, then no, I think it’s a very small minority of men who are doing most of the damage.”
Here he basically says that if you redefine sexual assault and harassment to mean rape then there is less of it and its not systemic anymore. It’s bogus. It’s deceitful. It’s radically dishonest. If you redefined littering so that it only referred to the disposal of a full-size refrigerator it would likewise seem less of a problem. Again avoidance under questioning. The shadow slipping away from the spotlight.
Lobsters and lazy-thinking: just how rigorous is Peterson’s political thought?
Peterson deplores what he sees as a lack of rigour and scholarship in the “foully rotten” humanities. It’s largely a projection. His own basic paradigmic political assumptions are unexamined in a deeply unscientific way and he uses bad science to ‘prove them’. As biologist P Z Myers shows, his famous lobster parable is bogus and includes getting the last common ancestor between humans and lobsters wrong by 350 million years. It’s irresponsible and lazy. His story: with lobsters we have serotonin in common (as do bananas), and a reward system based upon a wee boost when our status (or security and well-being) is increased. So he claims we are by nature hierarchical, in the same way as lobsters, and thus inequality and gender wage gaps are ‘natural’ (‘naturalness’ is an unexamined concept). However we have the same serotonin reward system as bonobos too – who are matriarchal - and other animals whose social systems (and bodies!) are far closer to ours, as would be obvious to even a small child (lobsters don’t hunt or gather together nor care for each others’ young, they also eat each other, which has of course been ‘natural’ in some human communities though is a behaviour even most the most extreme libertarian would frown upon). So which system is more ‘natural’? It’s foolish, and given that he preaches to an audience who may know no better (including sadly many journalists who accept such pseudo-scientific guff at face value) even dishonest, to seize upon one of the multi-varied types of behaviour from the animal kingdom to say what human behaviour is natural, especially animals so far-removed from us. Peterson is being incredibly unscientific here, which is his main criticism of the humanities, and cherry-picking evidence which supports his pre-existing beliefs. Of course we may all do this but to do so and imagine that you are uniquely objective among political and social commentators, whilst decrying a lack of scholarship in the social sciences (he has called for defunding of these faculties in Canada) is at best hubris, at worst disingenuous. He projects his own lack of rigor in this field onto the whole field itself.
There are of course huge data sets firmly establishing the fact that countries with more egalitarian social systems and which are far more gender equal, such as the Scandinavian nations, also have better mental health than very unequal societies like the US. Yet Peterson ignores this and chooses lobsters to make his case. He ignores the multivariables accounting for serotonin release in humans in other words, which he deplores when it comes to looking a causation for the gender wage gap in the Cathy Newman interview! A post-modernist historian would point out that all sorts of societies, including matriarchies have emerged ‘naturally’ across human time. Does naturalness include by human edict? If not, why not? Are other human creations – like the bow and arrow, museums, hospitals natural? He claims that income inequality is natural. It may be. So are countries with less income inequality less natural? They seem to be in better shape generally.
In the Russell Brand podcast (at 24 min) he denies that capitalism is a cause of inequality and tries to suggest it is a perennial, existing in all fields and all human societies. But it is not a constant as he disingenuously infers. Inequality exists on a broad spectrum, not a binary yes/no. There are clearly no societies on earth which are completely equal. All exist on a range from the Nordic nations and Japan at the more equal end and the usually less well developed ones at the other (with the US and UK nearer the unequal end of the wealthier nations). So Peterson’s description of ‘inequality’ as if it describes one particular society, being ‘natural’, with the inference that meddling with this would be ‘unnatural’ is simply asinine. He gives the example of indigenous Canadians – living in a very different culture in scale and homogeneity - practicing ‘pot-latch’, that is philanthropy as a solution to inequality. Rich people being nice. The billionaire lobbyists the Koch Bros would applaud him. Again. Peterson is selling us right-wing ideology under the guise of science.
What the hell is this monster called postmodernism? And the neomarxists? Should we hide?
Peterson is furious, to a McCarthyite level, about Postmodernism. Even more so than at the other things he is furious about. His claim essentially is that postmodernism is a repudiation of values and that this has caused chaos in the public sphere and in our psyches. But though he tells his audience to “Be precise in your language”, he either doesn’t understand postmodernism properly or he misrepresents it. His new book, though he rails against postmodernists as usual, contains only a single reference to a book about postmodernism, written by Stephen Hicks, a man of little academic repute, a libertarian teacher of the simplistic ‘philosophy’ of Ayn Rand (the anti-democratic and apparently sociopath-admiring novelist, who Peterson read as a teen — for a developing brain definitely “not good”, as Peterson might say), teaching at a small private university. It would be like reading a creationist on evolutionary theory and leaving it at that. Though he has, he says and we must take his word, read much more than that, he’s misleading his audience.
Derrida and Foucault were the main proponents of what became known as postmodernism, though it’s a theory or collection of theories also based on the work of Heidegger and even Nietzsche, a hero of Peterson. Foucault argued that on examining history it is clear that since different things have been held to be certain truth at different times by different cultures, truth is to some extent relative (it’s hard to see how any Jungian would really disagree with this.) He concluded that what is held to be true by those in power may simply be self-serving (which clear to see in the totalitarian dictatorships Peterson fears as well as lately in Trump’s America). The post-modernists’ solution is that ‘competing truths’ must be rigorously interrogated in the public arena – which of course is what Peterson is engaged in himself now, as am I in a rather smaller arena, the rhetorical equivalent of singing in the shower perhaps – so that that which is clearest to objective truth may be known. Rather than simply swallowing the ‘truths’ of the powers that be. It’s a scientific approach. Peterson misunderstands or misrepresents this so that to him the postmodernists are like the cartoon nihilists of The Big Lebowski, believing in nothing.... “Jesus. Say what you like about National Socialism, at least it’s an ethos” – Walter’s response, in the movie, and Peterson’s seems understandable in the face of such a chilling bogeyman. But it’s simply wrong. Postmodernism is not nihilism. It might make compelling YouTubes to conflate the two but it’s wrong. And it’s unworthy of an academic, an educator to get this so wrong.
Moreover, the argument that postmodernism is chiefly to blame for a fractured culture isn’t very convincing. Are the sometimes confusing or even confused musings of academics, and their students really of more significance than the wholesale destruction of communities by leaving their fate to market whims – the post-industrial urban deserts of Detroit, of Wales and of the North of England, where traditional male employment has been devastated, whose populations, especially male, then turned to nationalistic and cultural totems like Brexit and MAGA? Good jobs provide bread and the security of continuity – a routing of our academic institutions of postmodernist influence is unlikely to provide the consolation they need. It’s a red-herring and a typical right-wing positioning of culture over economics.
Peterson makes a similar error in his conflation of Marxism with postmodernism (despite his frequent references to these phantoms he’s unable to name a single ‘neomarxist postmodernist' in discussion with Slavoj Zizek and also reveals he’s read almost no Marx beyond a pamphlet aimed at
workers). Some postmodernists are Marxists, others are not. They are not the same. Most are deeply critical of totalitarianism which is the real enemy surely, whether a fascist or Marxist version?
The Indian state of Kerala has had an elected Communist government – that is one inspired by Marxism - on and off since 1957 and is the state in India with the longest life expectancy, most educated population, least poverty, least disease, most opportunity for women and is one of the wealthier and by far one of the cleaner states. There are no gulags. Marxism is not totalitarianism anymore than it is post-modernism.
Peterson advances the peculiar conspiracy theory that at the end of the Cold War Marxists turned to intersectionality and identity politics in order to over-turn the fabric of Western society. But the ‘left’ is not some homogenous entity plotting together in a dark room. That’s nuts. He argues himself, that intersectionality, that is ‘identity politics’ undermines the idea of common endeavour. He can’t have it both ways. They’re divisive and they plot together? When he froths about neomarxists he might as well be talking about the lluminati, or Jews, or lizards of something. It’s silly. Sound and fury. And it does society no good to create scapegoats for complex problems. We’ve been there before and it’s bad. I wonder if Peterson can think of a single example of a country which ended up with gulags and Thought Police which began this path with affirmative action programmes, requests for kindness in speech or attempts to remedy gender inequality. Rather than began with bloody revolution attempting to address gross economic inequity.
Does Peterson really value free speech and autonomy of thought or just for ‘autonomous’ individuals who agree with him?
If you’d asked MLK, Ghandi or Nelson Mandela if they saw themselves as warriors for social justice there seems little doubt they’d have answered in the affirmative. But ‘Social Justice Warrior’ has become a perjorative to delegitimise social movements and protests. The right-wing narrative is as follows: since we are all selfish, egoically-driven and atomised individuals, any one who seeks to further a more general cause, say to fight climate change, is disingenuously attention-seeking or acting out ‘their stuff’. It is a distorted and simplistic view and of course to hold it in a way which is self-convincing it helps to deny that their chosen cause has any merit. This naturally works backwards too: you don’t wish to see merit in the arguments that for example, Black Lives Matter activists are making (or can’t discredit them rationally) so instead, you, ahem, shoot the messenger. Peterson’s scathing broadsides against ‘SJWs’ make him sound like any old reactionary railing against a younger generation who dare to question contemporary values. It’s an unpleasant counter-point to his obvious concern for young men.
Peterson explains that people must speak their truth, find their voices or not only will they become bitter and resentful psychologically but metaphysically: "not only does your soul depend in it, I would say the fate of the world depends in it". It’s a beautiful piece of encouragement of the kind he rightly says is all too often lacking for young people. Is it only aimed at young conservatives? Reading online commentary on Facebook and Reddit so many of his followers seem to ‘find their voices’ and ‘think for themselves’ by bitterly repeating his simplistic dismissals of ‘SJWs’, to the extent that I’m reminded of the scene in Monty Python’s the Life of Brian where Brian tells his followers they’re all individuals and all different and they agree and repeat this in unison (except for one, wonderful voice, who claims he isn’t).
He lambasts and disrespects the intellectual autonomy of young people whose views he dislikes in interview with the RSA in London. He claims that young activists are “acting out of the delusion that they care” and that they are ‘too young’ to be able to “think”. Would he dare say this to now the Freedom Riders and those who otherwise protested segregation in the 60s, who were beaten, fire bombed, spat-on, abused? Many were college students and 75% were between 18-30. He makes the risible false binary: "if you can’t make your damn bed, quit waving placards at corporations". Would he enquire if Malala Yousafzai, activist since her early teens, had tidied her room? In the West, especially the Anglophone world, there has been great young concern that young people are amongst the least likely groups to vote (recent exceptions being Corbyn and Bernie-mania). Would Peterson prefer that young people were less politically active? Peterson claims in the interview to “know the difference between someone who can make a complex situation better and someone who can make a complex system worse". This is the complacent arrogance of a middle-aged man. He knows nothing of the individual lives and motivations of these people, who he casually groups together as a monolith, with chaotic inner-lives (to be marched to the gulags if they don’t tidy their collective bedroom). As an educator myself I frequently saw young people whose maturity and responsibility put the average adult to shame. The interviewer Dr Jonathan Rowson echoes this, saying "what those people observe are not wise adults managing complex situations adeptly, they see people giving subsidies to fossil fuel companies". Characteristically, Peterson refuses to address this specific, this precise point and when Rowson pursues the issue of climate change as material evidence of establishment and generational failure, Peterson asks "Did you drive here?". Rowson in fact had used public transport and Peterson laughs hollowly as if he had made a friendly joke rather than lamely attempt and fail to make a global and generational issue about individual morality (like that’s working) so as to trickily undermine the point.
The most insulting and baseless claim Peterson makes in this interview is that protest is illegitimate or pointless - has he paid any attention to history? Does he know anything about the Civil Rights movement? The Anti-Vietnam war movement? His grounds for opposition to climate change activists is purely ideological, as is his suggestion that the only way to engage with climate change is by devoting 80 hours of your life to coming up with a technological solution, as the brilliant Boyan Slat did with his gadget to help de-plasticize our oceans. Again, individualism. Always individualism. As long as those individuals don’t come together to collectively make a point. Then the individuals are bad and should tidy their rooms. And to hell with free speech.
Climate change, inequality and ostriches
Peterson refers to the environment, as "that great abstraction" and posits environmentalism as being anti-humanism by choosing a few highly selective quotes (see link). So much for rigour. What is anti-human about standing up for indigenous rights against logging companies, or for air cleanliness for Londoners? On the most important issue of our age he has nothing to say except this shrug of responsibility and the false binary that being for the environment means being against humans. He’s "sceptical about some of the models used". Remember he’s a psychologist not a climatologist so it’s like a pastry chef being sceptical about the advice given by your plumber. About the advice given by 97% of plumbers actually, since that is the percentage of climatologists who agree that climate change is occurring and is caused in significant part by man. Like many on the right, as pointed out by Naomi Klein this scepticism has nothing to do with science and everything to do with psychic protection of the political view that state regulation and communal action are bad, therefore since these are the only realistic ways to tackle climate change, and the market can’t solve the problem, then it must not be a problem. It’s a cowardly, ostrich-like stance. A genuine conservative should want to conserve nature and take a pragmatic rather than ideological approach. Genuine conservatives were at Dakota, protecting the water – and as per Derrida, we need such conservatism, to balance the opposing force of radicals (in this case the radicals are free-market fundamentalists). And make no mistake. Peterson is politically an ideologue. His ideology is of dominance and of nature as the bounty of man. Of market supremacy. And it’s an ideology which is destroying us.
Radical honesty, Trump and post-truth politics
Peterson has had little to say about Donald Trump, arch-liar and a man of pretty clear personal monstrosity who seems to represent our collective shadow around power, narcissism and dominance, except to remark on his supposed "intelligence" and, on Joe Rogan, drawing a false equivalence on honesty with Hilary Clinton, a false equivalence which runs pretty damn close to lying, while also taking a peculiarly toothless and naive interpretation of Trump’s Charlottesville comments. Trump’s attacks on the press, his dictats banning NASA and the EPA from publishing climate science, the shameless lies of his press secretaries and his calling accounts that make him feel 'less than' fake news are a far greater threat to a notion of objective truth and to free speech than the Ontario Court, SJWs or academics. This champion of truth, free-speech and personal integrity likewise has nothing to say on Trump’s short-comings here. Recently, after everything, he has even declared he would have voted Trump. Why? This seems unprincipled. If in doubt try Google: while free-speech advocates and ‘muscular liberals’ like Sam Harris (a much more original, self-aware and intelligent mind than Peterson’s) have coruscated Trump, Peterson has said nothing negative. He has been far more critical of Trudeau. Why? I’d guess because he shares Trump’s politics and some of his values and the ends justify the means.
Jordan and Pepe: denying white privilege
On the alt-right: he has a huge following, yet he has had very little of substance to say on their racism and misogyny. Or their violence. He gets much more upset about SJWs. The idea that gender pronoun use might lead to death camps is his pet-theory and no more. It is certain that racism leads to murder.
He allowed himself to be photographed posed alongside Pepe the Frog, an emblem of the Alt-Right. He is indulgent of Milo Yiannopoulus, a sort of toxic Instagram Oscar Wilde for people who won’t read more than 140 characters, who says things like “Behind every racist joke is a scientific fact”, claims lesbians do not exist and blames Black Lives Matter for police violence on black Americans.
Peterson denies that ‘white privilege’ exists. To do this he uses his regular straw man trick of misrepresenting something in order to point out that it’s ‘wrong’. He implies here that ‘white privilege’ means that all whites are guilty of something, which he says is racist (right-wingers absolutely love to point out anti-white racism. A delicious chance to play victim). But that’s not what white privilege is. White privilege is simply the recognition that in the post-slavery US for example whites have enjoyed, on average, comparative cultural and economic privilege (it’s far from ancient history: the last African American who had been a slave died in 1971). He attacks the lack of objective methodology in establishing white privilege in a very tangential and showy aside about psychological methods. Playing to his audience, he chooses to interrogate the 1987 essay by Peggy MacIntosh, a subjective first person account, which first coined the phrase. Peterson doesn’t look at the wide range of empirical data available in the thirty years since, for example an American Bar Association study showing that even when background and nature of the crime were accounted for, black defendants were far more likely to receive the death penalty than whites (perhaps they were too disagreeable). With a far more pronounced disparity when the victim was white, or it was the black victim of a white killer. Or the huge amount of evidence of different treatment while in police custody. The economic disparities. Or the history of exploitation vs inherited reward. It is lazy. It is disingenuous. It shows no real desire to engage with the issues raised. It’s simply an attempt to ridicule. Indeed the video is more reminiscent of a stand-up comedy routine (think a nerdy Andrew Dice Clay) than an academic argument. Is he against the idea that racism exists? That white people are advantaged? Whites in the USA have on average 20 times more wealth than blacks – this fact cannot be taken out of the historical context – of slavery - and made all about discreet individuals as Peterson would like.
Given Peterson’s view that temperament is a very strong factor in informing political opinion, it’s easy to imagine that in another century or culture he’d be justifying slavery or child labour as ‘natural’ (both have been perennial just like inequality — and who knows, perhaps lobsters keep slaves) against the SJWs fighting against these. Peterson’s an intelligent man. I wish he would make more intelligent and nuanced political arguments. Proper discussion could then be had. He elevates his Alt-Right audience’s understanding of narrative, of their inner lives, of their own psyches. Of that I’m sure. But politically he seems to simply meet them where they are. Distressingly, he appears at home there.
Narcissistic projections and brittle masculinity
When it comes to politics this supremely rational man has a blind spot. He experiences a threat from ‘the left’, which, like a classic narcissistic misperception, is in the mind of the beholder of far greater magnitude than in the shared objective world of events. When there is a transgender president enforcing gender pronouns by Presidential decree, rather than a misogynist, racist, corporate authoritarian despoiling the environment gleefully, he might have a point. Perhaps if he embraced his feminine side more, his chaos, his emotional side, rather than keep it in shadow and project his anxieties, he’d be more congruent. Jung recommends such integration as the path to maturity.
As a role model for masculinity in the unique challenges of the 21st century, Peterson is too rigid, too emotionally unskillful and, when it comes to owning his shadow, he’s too fearful. Peterson’s riposte to the concept of ‘toxic masculinity’ is simply that it is nonsense, that masculinity is great – to the cheers of the beleaguered and weary. But he, typically, misrepresents the critique, which is not of masculinity itself but of the contemporary aspects of our culture which damage men, damage women and damage our environment. As indigenous writer and activist Pat McCabe reminds us, masculinity (like femininity) is beautiful and natural when it is in service to life. But the masculinity of Trump, of Weinstein, of Bolsanaro, the patriarchal world view of dominance and separation upon which our exploitative and destructive economics is based, this serves ego and is the enemy of life. It is literally killing us. From high male suicide rates to sexual assaults to the raping of our planet. There are many other men and models of masculinity out there – less adept at or less focussed on social media than Peterson perhaps – from Mankind Project, Boys to Men, Band of Brothers, the Good Man Project, the work of Robert Bly, Steve Biddulph, Charles Eisenstein, Eivind Skjellen, sacred sexuality work. The recent documentary The Work is a powerful exposition of the supportive challenge men’s shadow-work offers (with lifers in the US prison system). These men offer a critique of a society that doesn’t serve men or model or celebrate healthy masculinity enough, they also, unlike the reheated hyper-individualism, alpha/beta hierarchical obsession and ‘victim’-bonding of Peterson, offer genuine community and brotherhood. Warning: these men will challenge you to clean up your shadow and reclaim your soul and not just your bedroom. Unlike Peterson they do not offer hungry men the empty calories of scapegoats and right-wing politics.
(Note: Writing this article has been for me an integrative process of my own pugilistic masculine with my feminine’s desire for greater connectivity in my inner and outer world. I’m indebted to men’s work and shamanistic practice and am responsible for my own shortcomings in this regard. Like all men, all humans, I’m a work in progress.)
Thank you for reading. An extended version of this article is available as a Kindle Short. It explores the masculine and feminine polarities and how they intersect with neoliberal (and Peterson’s) political philosophy. It also takes a deeper look at Peterson’s reaction to #MeToo, to postmodernism and gives a close analysis of the Newman and Vice interviews. The Shadow of Jordan Peterson: Snake-oil, lobsters and lazy-thinking The Shadow of Jordan Peterson: Snake-oil, lobsters and lazy-thinking https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07LBX38J2/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_apa_i_vCKtCb17Q2Z21
I’m working on my next book ‘We Are Politics: the Spiritual Warrior’s Guide to Politics and Economics’. This will explore the personal and societal shadow of politics and serve as a toolkit to those who are passionate but cautious about that murky and vital aspect of our lives.