When I was posting regularly on Facebook, there was no topic that was as consistently predictable for garnering reactions than stories or other content about Canadian psychologist Jordan B. Peterson. This post is intended to lay out my history and attitude to the public intellectual in a way that wouldn't have been as productive on Facebook (mainly size and readability limitations).
Here we go…
Rather than have me summarize who Peterson is, I'll let the "About" page on his podcast page do the work:
Dr. Peterson is a professor at the University of Toronto, a clinical psychologist and the author of "12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos" (Jan 2018, Penguin Books). His now-classic book, "Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief", offers a revolutionary take on the psychology of religion, and the hundred or more scientific papers he published with his colleagues and students have substantively advanced the modern understanding of creativity and personality. As a Harvard professor, he was nominated for the prestigious Levinson Teaching Prize, and is regarded by his current University of Toronto students as one of three truly life-changing professors. His classroom lectures on mythology and psychology, based on Maps of Meaning, were turned into a popular 13-part TV series on TVO.
I believe that I'd been aware of Peterson before the 2016 presidential election, but he didn't become a permanent fixture on my intellectual radar until summer of last year. Around the end of May (2017), Peterson had piqued my interest sufficiently that I finally bit the bullet and subscribed to his podcast, and I downloaded all of his archives and those were fodder for fighting boredom during a two day-long train trip from Chicago to New York City (and back) so that I could attend reunions celebrating the 15th anniversary of my class graduating from Princeton. I had an enjoyable time on that train trip and it was fair to say that I was extremely impressed with Peterson's ability to bring synthesize science, history, and religion to support the points that he was making in his lectures and interviews. I was doubly impressed by his engaging speaking style, thinking to myself at the time that if I ever had half of effective a pastor, who spoke about religion as passionately and clearly as Peterson, odds are good that I'd be a believer, and not a weak atheist. For me, Peterson spoke on moral topics in a way that made it personally relevant and actionable that I had been missing.
Odds are good that Peterson popped up on others' radar either through his advocacy of James Damore in his firing from Google or the firestorm that erupted around his comments about the Ontario law relating to the use of transgender pronouns in that province. Those incidents, combined with his public antipathy towards his perceived takeover of education by postmodernists earned him a place on many progressives' enemies list and he's been engaged in an ongoing conflict ever sense. I'll dive into the specifics of these items later in the post.
My current overall attitude towards Peterson is predominantly positive. I think that the world's a better place for him being in it and doing his thing. There are some places where I part ways with him (notably, his continued support for Damore) and there are things that he does that I understand why he's doing it, but I feel like where he may be working against his aims from a tactical perspective. We'll dive into these below.
And now for the disclaimers: I am not writing this post with the goal to persuade anyone to adopt my perspective on Peterson or that you should adopt his philosophies or attitudes. His perspective and background echoes much of my own: we both grew up in rural communities in our respective countries, worked our way through university educations, are involved in the field of scientific psychology, and apparently enjoy poking metaphorical bears the same way. I shared many of the same beliefs towards personal responsibility and achievement (I've been using the phrase "slay the dragon" for years before I heard of the guy), so there's a good bit of shared common ground between the both of us that other readers may not share.
That said, my defenses of Peterson should not be used as de facto evidence that I agree with him on everything, or even the point I'm defending. More often than not, I'm fighting back against someone misquoting the man (unintentionally or not), and trying to get to a point where we can argue about the actual point made as opposed to a fictitious construct ("so you're saying…").
Peterson touches on a lot of contentious topics. Given that I am not writing to persuade you, Constant Reader, I'm going to dispense with the Kleinian disclaimers in this post as the disclaimers for every contentious issue touched upon would bloat what's already going to be a long post. I'd prefer that if you have questions about what I believe on a specific topic, to please make use of the comments below to ask me directly rather than try to assume you know what I think from tea leaves left scattered in this post. You may be surprised.
Finally, Peterson is chronically misquoted in folks' commentary about him. I don't have a lot of interest discussing what you think of what someone else thinks Peterson said, especially given that the man's a prolific speaker. My ground rule for entertaining *any* discussion about something Peterson's said is going to *require* either a direct quote or pointer to a video (include timecodes) where we evaluate both what he actually said, as well as the context in which it was uttered.
If you would like to do a little homework and prepare some fodder for discussion, this interview from Lafayette University that landed on my radar yesterday (via Peterson's podcast) and does an excellent job tackling the controversies in which Peterson's found himself and provides enough quotable bits to understand where the guy is coming from if you're interested in a fair and context-laden presentation of his views.
It's a long video (2 hours, 45 minutes), but I can't recommend it enough as an encapsulation of the man's attitudes, ideology, and philosophy.
That all said, let's dive in.
What Jordan Peterson does well
As I mentioned in the introduction, I think Jordan Peterson's presence and activities in this world is an overall net positive. He's an engaging speaker that's widely read enough - primarily in the Western canon - that has the rare gift for jumping over the (rising) barriers that separate fields of intellectual inquiry to present syntheses of religion, psychology, and history that's sorely lacking in our modern discourse.
Where I feel like Peterson shines the most isn't in his larger social commentaries, but his simple advice for personal living. He recently released his book, "12 Rules for Life", which is a distillation of his approach and advice to private clients suffering psychologically. I have to confess that I haven't read the book, but it from what I've read, it's a distillation of points he's made repeatedly in the content that I have consumed that I feel comfortable commenting on the Rules as well as his overall approach.
Those twelve Rules:
1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back
2. Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping
3. Make friends with people who want the best for you
4. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today
5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world
7. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
8. Tell the truth – or, at least, don't lie
9. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don't
10. Be precise in your speech
11. Do not bother children when they are skateboarding
12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street
I'm not going to comment in-depth on each of these rules, but in my "reading" of Peterson, several themes emerge:
1. You are a person with value. Have enough self-respect to stand up for yourself and to associate yourself with people that also recognize your value (Rules 1, 2, 3).
2. You are personally responsible for what happens in your life. While there may be forces influencing your life that are beyond your control, you have the agency to make the space to act intentionally and meaningfully to make your life better from one day to the next (Rules 4, 6, 7).
3. Truth is important. You have an obligation to be as honest and truthful as possible. (Rules 8, 10). However, you do not have a monopoly on Truth and it's also your responsibility to listen to others so that you may learn and your Truth comes closer to the Platonic objective Truth (Rule 9).
4. If you don't take the time to recognize and appreciate what's good in this world, constant negativity will turn you into a spiteful and hateful person. Celebrate what's good and precious in your world. Do your best to live up to and be a worthy recipient of the good things this life has to offer.
5. Raising children properly is important. Children must be socialized properly to thrive in the social world (Rule 5), but we also need to let them develop the mechanisms that will allow them to learn and generate their own meanings themselves (Rule 11).
As a guidebook for personal conduct and advice for leading a meaningful life, I have absolutely no problem recommending these guidelines to anyone. I don't think that they are exhaustive (nor are the exhaustive for Peterson), in particular, they are light on the theme of standing up for others (though "Don't let bullies get away with it." from the prior link may cover it) and treating others as you would want to be treated (the Golden Rule). That said, there's nothing I would strike, and I'd only amend Peterson's Rules to include some additional maxims (expanding on the Rule 7) for when folks generally have their act together and are looking to leave the world a better place than they found it (a Rule that I've personally adapted from the Boy Scouts). If I had more faith that people would read a book, I'd gift Peterson's "12 Rules" to youngsters and adults in my life in a heartbeat. (That's a free book offer for friends and family reading between the lines.)
Moving on from guidelines for living, the part of my life that Jordan Peterson has had the largest positive impact is in justifying and fostering an appreciation for the wisdom of antiquity. If I had to pick the one bit of Peterson content that I wish he focused more upon, it would be on his lectures about order and chaos as informed by the ancient Mesopotamian deities, the deep lessons found in the Bible, and so forth. In a recent discussion on this topic, a friend mentioned that Peterson could cast his net wider to other cultures (assuming that I didn't miss the lectures on African and Asian lessons), and I would enjoy that. I find it deeply ironic and amusing that the appreciation I have now for Christianity isn't a function of my being raised in that tradition, but from a wonky Canadian psychology professor.
While I would like to think that I came to Peterson through his Jungian readings to Marduk and Abraham, odds are good that the original bit of content that "hooked" me was one of his criticisms of the "postmodernist takeover" of Western universities. I would have come to Peterson already predisposed to the notion that cultural Marxists are rewriting our educational institutions' DNA with a focus on power and group identity that crowds out viewpoints that attempt to situate things in a more classical logical framework grounded in the belief in an objective and observable Truth accessible to all. Peterson's not necessarily my default "go-to" guy for this, given that there are others who can make that point more convincingly to other audiences (Jonathan Haidt for one). What I do think Peterson does very well is ringing the alarm bells of what the consequences of these trends can be by pointing back to his own studies into the histories of totalitarian regimes and how cultural power wielded in this way has lead people to dark places. (The irony of Peterson using a Marxist power argument in this way isn't lost on me.) The major value that I see Peterson providing in this conflict is serving as an example that you don't have to submit to the mob and you can (and should) stand your ground to defend your Truth. I wish more folks in university communities internalized this and acted accordingly.
Finally, relating to the exercise of power, I think Peterson's an effective spokesperson for a distrust of the overbroad exercise of state power. Given the controversy surrounding his comments around the Canadian law on the enforced use of transgender pronouns (C-16), I think it's extremely unfortunate that the criticism of Peterson has been on the grounds that he's transphobic (he's not) rather than understanding that Peterson's objection to the law is that it criminalizes particular kinds of speech (and thought by extension). There's a very good discussion to be had whether C-16 is the same kind of law as we've seen in past totalitarian societies, or whether it's entirely consistent with Canadian values surrounding freedom of speech and thought. (Given that C-16 amends an existing code that already established protected classes and defined hate speech, it would seem like it is consistent with those Canadian values, and Peterson's lost that (Hobbesian) battle in his own country.) While Peterson has lost that fight in his own country, his message has been heard and I personally value it, as someone who expresses as a federalist inclination towards governance structure and what actions are appropriate in what sphere. In the age where that kind of thinking (structuralist over tribalist) is often left out of the debate in contemporary American politics (politicians seem to only be federalists when the other side holds power), I'm extremely glad that Jordan Peterson is out there sounding the alarm and pointing (very passionately) to the history that has him worried.
That concludes my perspective on why I'm glad to have Jordan Peterson around. The next section describes where I part ways with him as a fellow traveler.
Where Jordan Peterson misses the mark (for me)
While I'm generally a fan of Peterson, there are a few places where I think he could be better or disagree altogether. For me, the largest chasm between me and Peterson is his continued championing of James Damore. While I understand why Peterson began defending the guy (I started out as a Damore defender as well), I think Peterson's continued citation of Damore as evidence of the postmodernist conspiracy does his case no favors. I'm likewise wary of Peterson's use of dominance hierarchies found in nature as relevant to the conduct of an intentional human in modern society. While I enjoy Peterson's passion in his rhetoric against the postmodern forces corrupting modern academia, he's generally not the resource that I cite when I'm trying to make a persuasive case about its existence and effect. Finally, I think that the things that catapulted Peterson into becoming a phenomenon recently is criticism of postmodern social constructs, there are a good number of modern social constructs that have demonstrable value that Peterson would be well-served discussing and incorporating into his rhetoric.
I started my own "Damore journey" as a defender of the fired Googler on the grounds that as long as he cited evidence to make his case and Google delayed firing him until it became a public relations nightmare for them, Google was in the wrong and Damore was in the right. My initial departure from the position came with the realization that the situation around Damore made him a toxic presence around Google, given that he would be cited as Exhibit A in any cases where gender was on the table in any group that he touched. Thinking as a business owner myself, it's not worth the time and attention to defend all of these suits, so dismissing him was the only sane option on the table. Damore did himself no favors after his firing by quickly jumping on the right-wing victim circuit. That made it untenable for me to continue defending him as an engineer that was making arguments in good faith in order to try and work towards viable solutions to the problems that Google was facing and trying to address (which prompted his memo in the first place). As scientists weighed in on the controversy and spoke out on what Damore got right and what he got wrong, his scientific arguments became harder to defend. The final piece that destroyed any remaining support for him was a detailed takedown of his piece by a biologist that examined Damore's arguments and refuted them in a pretty substantial scientific manner. That's when I hopped off the Damore train completely.
After I arrived at my current understanding, I was curious whether Peterson would follow suit, especially in the months after the memo when Google fired a progressive activist, thereby disproving conspiracy angle. I was looking forward to seeing Peterson come around, but his use of Damore as evidence for the postmodernist conspiracy as recently as this last week, doesn't do him any favors in my book. I'd like to see him come around and address events since the firing and the scientific evidence contradicting Damore, but it doesn't look like Peterson's going to give up this hill.
On his use of "dominance hierarchies" found in nature as part of his arguments that what follows flows from an objective reality (you can observe and measure the phenomenon in nature), I find it a bit wobbly. While I'll readily acknowledge that we can see these structures reproduced in human organizations and cultures, the predictive power of knowing that doesn't seem to be all that great to me. If we treat these hierarchies in the same fashion we treat the other ones Peterson is opposed to (more on this below), I would like to see a little more discussion of personal agency in the picture, given that we can "reprogram" much of the environment and mental states that give rise to dominance hierarchies. In my own life, I have trouble identifying the dominance hierarchies that impact my own existence, and I think that a large part of that is avoiding situations where they would be a problem. (One of "Chris's Rules for Life": Don't allow unreasonable people to seize power over you.)
On his crusade against cultural Marxists and postmodernists in our universities, government, and rest of society, I'm largely in agreement with Peterson that it's problem with dark repercussions down the road. I laud his passion for this topic and I'm extremely glad that he continues to stand up as a role model that folks don't have to be cowed by progressive mobs. That said, his takes on this is literally preaching to the choir at this point. He'll get an (agnostic) "Amen!" from me when I hear him speak on this topic, but he's not an effective evangelist on this topic. He's an effective rabble-rouser (against those rousing rabble against him), but I don't see him doing much more than radicalizing folks either with or against him. As I mentioned above, when it comes to this topic, if I'm in a persuasive mood, I'll cite Jonathan Haidt (and his Heterodox Academy) before I'll ever provide a Peterson link. Where Peterson has chosen passion on this topic, Haidt is coldly methodological in building a scientific edifice that's much easier to defend than Peterson's passions.
Finally, on the issue of social constructs: as a Psychologist who engages history, religion, and philosophy to make his arguments, Jordan Peterson readily employs social constructs in his scholarship and work. He also employs them in tearing down others' social constructs where he warrants. Unlike some other commentators, we can't attempt to appeal down to an objective reality to consistently validate the constructs Peterson values over others. I think Peterson would concede to that point.
So, the biggest piece missing from Peterson's overall program is more of a focus on the malignant constructs themselves as opposed to the people deploying them. Too often (and especially in the culture war issues he gets involved in), Peterson rails against the Marxists (and associated postmodernists) using Marxist frames when discussing and predicting the outcomes of these issues. Peterson is on the record that the issue isn't the presence of Leftist or progressive thought on campus, but rather that it's out of balance with the classical, traditional, or Rightist/conservative lines of thought. Rampant postmodernism doesn't become an issue until it starts to crowd out the other ideologies that offer fair and useful critiques of the ideology. (Same can be applied to other ideologies, be it scientism, traditionalism, etc.) Given that the optimal solution is an ongoing debate between these competing schools of thought (with new schools arising as well), I would enjoy seeing Peterson engaging more with these ideologies employing the philosophical Principle of Charity (i.e. interpreting the statements in the strongest forms possible), then dissecting what works about them and what doesn't.
One of the biggest issue with the Peterson phenomenon is how easy and frequently folks quote him out of context to make a point in support of their position. I had a friend on Facebook tell me the story of a friend who fell down an Alt-Right rabbit hole and was using Peterson's criticism of the cultural Marxists as supporting evidence that race was a fictitious social construct. That didn't square with my own reading of Peterson, so I went out to see if there was a "Peterson on Race" video or blurb and came up empty handed. What I gave him as a response was a distillation that I made how if you're acting consistently with Peterson's "12 Rules", then the idea that race and racism is a fiction is hogwash. Fortunately, in the video embedded above, the issue does come up, and Peterson acknowledges the existence of structural issues and talks about existing in those structures, so I have a decent "Peterson on Race" pointer now.
In addition to "supporters" who think Peterson's in their corner for some reason or other, his opponents find it too easy to try and extrapolate Peterson's internally-held views based on an utterance he said. This was on full display when BBC's Cathy Newman attempted to paint Peterson as a masculine sexist with regressive attitudes toward women, when nothing could be further from the truth:
Now, while I think higher standards of journalism should be practiced, I think that it would be in Peterson's best interest to make a top 10 list of the things folks are accusing of, and directly addressing them head on with Charity. On the topic of race, I would love to see interaction between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Peterson on race. I expect we'd see some initial agreement that the issues exist, with a divergence on the proper way of dealing with (likely an individual vs. structural approach). On the issue of sexism, I'd enjoy seeing Peterson tackle the constructs of sex (and especially gender) from Charitable stance to determine if the proponents of the C-16 bill had a point and where there might be some basic points of agreement towards making the lives of women and transgendered folk more just.
Now, it's entirely possible that I'm committing the same sin as Newman and attributing expected attitudes to Peterson that may be incorrect. Even if that's the case, the point still stands, and we'd have a nice resource to discuss what Peterson expressly thinks instead of applying our own lens and interpreting accordingly.
The Jordan B. Peterson Phenomenon
As I mentioned above, the point of this post if not to convince you, Constant Reader, that you should be a fan of Peterson or agree with what he says. The man's prolific and visible enough now that you have more than enough information to make your own decision. To what extent I was ever trying to convince people to listen to Peterson, I've largely given up at this point, given that life is too short. That said, I've been fascinated by his rapid rise in stature, since I feel like I hopped aboard just before the rocket ship took off.
Two things that have piqued my interest:
1. Nathan J. Robinson (a self-described socialist libertarian) has described Peterson as an intellectual Rorschach test where folks will see in Peterson what interpretation suits them best. While I disagree with Robinson's assessment that Peterson is a poor intellectual exemplar, I'm on-board with the idea that the flexibility in Peterson interpretation is largely a problem of Peterson's own making, and one that has a simple solution (see three paragraphs above).
2. The "So you're saying…" thing is something that percolated after the Newman debate and had been stewing in my mind for a while. From watching the coverage, I'm pretty firmly convinced that I can classify commentators into one of two bins, those who actually take the effort to read and understand Peterson's attitudes and views, and those quick to seize a nugget, remove it from its context, and use that as a point to slander the man. It's become a useful heuristic to determine who are serious commentators and who are not. And for the record, even though I think Robinson was editorially unfair to Peterson in the link above in the presentation of Peterson's spoken dialogue (I would assume that an editor of a magazine would be able to insert line breaks on relevant verbal pauses), it's clear that Robinson has taken the time and applied the attention to understand what Peterson is saying, and reacting to that. (Precisely because of his critique, Robinson won me over as a print subscriber to "Current Affairs".)
On the flip side, you have Pankaj Mishra's "Jordan Peterson & Fascist Mysticism", which fails at the title, with the author assuming that one knows Peterson's thoughts on Facism (and that the author assuming that he understands what that term actually means). The rest of his essay is no better, choosing instead to try and make second-order critiques (with nary a Peterson quote in context) as justification for slandering Peterson for things he's adamantly against. (Needless to say, I am not a subscriber to the New York Review of Books.)
I expected that this would be a longer blog post, but 9 pages later (I'm composing in Microsoft Word), I'm still surprised at how long this turned out, even after I dropped some lines of discussion as being redundant (notably thoughts on the association with the Alt-Right pushed by both conservative supporters and liberal opponents). I'm pretty much mentally wiped at this point and will wrap up with the parting offer to engage as much as you like in the comments. I'll reiterate that if you're going to argue for or against Peterson directly in the comment, situating your comment in a link to something that Peterson said is your cost of admittance. If you commenting with something someone said about the guy, the commentator will likely be more fair game than Peterson himself, unless the commentator has also provided the relevant citations or links.
While I don't plan to write another post centered on Peterson, I'm happy to comment (there's a parable about mud wrestling with a pig that may be relevant) and elaborate and respond to anything left unaddressed in the comments below.comments powered by Disqus