What Is Jordan B. Peterson Really Saying?
BY GARY LACHMAN
If you are an English speaker and have had access to the Internet, television, radio, or newspapers anytime within the last few months, odds are you have heard the name Jordan B. Peterson. A year or so ago you might have shaken your head in ignorance and muttered an innocent ‘who?’ at the mention of Peterson and not been accused of cultural illiteracy. But not anymore. With the release of his book, 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos, at the start of 2018, Peterson shot to the top of the bestselling lists in Canada – his native land – the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia practically overnight, and is maintaining his dominance, an important word for Peterson, even as I write, with successful book tours and sold-out audiences. Before this he was a prestigious but relatively little-known Canadian professor and psychologist who did important work at Harvard in studying the links between aggression and drug and alcohol abuse and who had a long and passionate obsession with the place of evil and suffering in human existence.
This obsession with what C.G. Jung, a central influence on Peterson, called ‘the shadow’ in the human psyche gave rise to a fascination in him with totalitarian ideologies and the question of how human beings can be so enamoured of their belief systems that they were willing to engage in global conflict – even annihilation – rather than abandon them. Nightmares of nuclear catastrophe and nihilistic dread informed much of Peterson’s early years.
Peterson’s research material was ready to hand: the Cold War that he had lived under since his birth in 1962 – in Fairview, Alberta – until the fall of the Soviet Union, the Stalin purges that preceded it and the atrocities of National Socialism that hit a high water mark for human inhumanity. His first book, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (1999) was an ambitious if not entirely successful attempt to come to grips with how human beings generate ‘meaning’ – how we create order out of chaos, a central theme for Peterson – with the help of behavioural psychology, ancient myths, and healthy doses of then current neuroscience. It took Peterson thirteen years to write and it had its readers. Not as many as 12 Rules for Life, although the success of his second-born is benefiting his first. His publishers, keen to capitalise on Petersonmania, are bringing out a new edition of the work. This is not sheer opportunism. The 12 rules for life Peterson sets his new readers to follow are anchored in the insights of his earlier book, and adventurous readers of his later work may want to follow his ideas to their roots.
What took Peterson out of relative academic obscurity and into the media spotlight was controversy. In 2016 he came to public attention, at first in Canada then farther afield, when he refused to comply with rules of ‘compelled speech’ – his term – that would come into effect on the University of Toronto campus, where he taught, when the hotly debated Bill C-16 was passed, as it seemed sure to be, by the Canadian government. This proposition would add “gender identity or expression” as prohibited grounds of discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act. It would also widen the definition of what committing a ‘hate crime’ meant under Canada’s criminal code.
Peterson had by this time attracted attention by his vocal objection to ‘political correctness’, which for him is a form of leftist social authoritarianism, an outgrowth of postmodernism, an intellectual and cultural movement that he considers a kind of nihilistic Marxism. For Peterson the demand that he use neologisms like zhe and zher, as C-16 would compel him to, when addressing a student or faculty member that ‘identified’ as a non-binary gender, was bad news. Innocuous as such a demand seemed, he believed it was the thin edge of the wedge that would open the door to more immediately recognisable and less easily resisted consequences. As he put it, such compulsion marked “the vanguard of a postmodern radical leftist ideology that I detest, and which is… frighteningly similar to the Marxist doctrines that killed at least 100 million people in the 20th century.”1
The links between contentious personal pronouns, postmodernism, and the evils of Pol Pot may not be immediately obvious. But Peterson had his reasons for believing they exist and he was not shy about letting people know.
Introducing Jordan Peterson
I first became aware of Peterson when a Facebook friend suggested I watch the videos of his classroom lectures that were on YouTube. Peterson had been posting them since 2013 and in 2017 he hired a production crew to do a professional job of it. They did. Peterson may in fact be the first YouTube philosopher; it was certainly through these videos, and not the demanding pages of Maps of Meaning, that he became a grassroots sensation. Peterson is an engaging speaker, committed and feisty, something like a prairie Jeremiah come to call the corrupt to account; it’s not surprising that he draws a great deal on the Judeo-Christian tradition, with equal helpings of Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Orwell and Solzhenitsyn. One of his most popular lecture series deals with his reinterpretation of biblical symbols. He also has a sense of humour.
When I clicked on one link my correspondent had sent, I was taken to a video of an exchange between Peterson and a transgender student which was warm to begin with but quickly heated up. Peterson, however, didn’t lose his temper and stuck to his point, expressing it as clearly as he could. He gave his reasons calmly but firmly, maintaining a composure that has served him in good stead.2 He was serious. A crowd gathered and soon shouting started. But he kept to the issue: that while there are things he agreed he shouldn’t say – he is no fan of ‘hate speech’ – he would not comply with words that he was compelled to say. He was being told what he had to say, what he must say, and he refused. Period.
I got his point. It was, as Peterson maintained, a question of freedom of speech, which ultimately means freedom of thought. Words are what we have to think with and what we use to express thought. Being compelled to use certain words means being compelled to think certain thoughts. That, of course, is the whole idea of Orwell’s 1984 in which the dictionary of the English language becomes smaller and smaller with each new edition, leaving fewer and fewer words with which to express one’s fewer and fewer thoughts. Eventually all that are left are grunts and groans, or in our case, emojis.3 Paranoid? Perhaps. But Peterson’s point came home to me and I had to say that I agreed with him.
I watched a few other videos, read some articles about the pronoun scandal and others, and learned that at campuses and other sites Peterson had been shouted down and his talks cancelled because of student protests and disruptions that became increasingly familiar to him and his followers.4 This happened to some other academics who were also deemed not politically correct.5 Even teaching assistants were being interrogated for not denouncing Peterson as an evil equal to Hitler.6 It was also happening to advocates of more obviously far-right ideas, putting the notion of ‘tolerance’ through several difficult twists.7 They, too, were shouted down and suddenly it seemed that ‘free speech’ had become a conservative issue, a neat turnaround. Predictably, Peterson, who declares himself a centrist and “old style British liberal” with no interest in the far-right, got entangled in this, and has been picked up by some fans of the alt-right. In recent times he has gone out of his way to make his political position more clear.8
When we think of student protest we generally have in mind the 1960s, and the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war demonstrations. But there were students before the 1960s and they did not always protest in favour of peace and love. In the 1930s, in Nazi Germany, students harassed Jewish professors until they resigned, were fired, or worse; they also burned books.9 And in the 1960s, many leftist student radicals were not averse to using violence to attain their aims.10 Protest in itself is neither here nor there; who is protesting and for what are the important questions. And there is a difference between a protest and a mob. Free speech means being able to say things that others disagree with. It also ensures that those who disagree can voice their arguments in reply. The aim of this exchange is to think things through. It is not so much a right, as Peterson points out, as a responsibility. It is through this dialogue that civilisation carries on, and bad ideas get weeded out. Shouting down voices you do not want to hear, as a mob does, is a sign of barbarism, not civilisation.
There was another reason I found myself agreeing with Peterson. I was aware of the dominance of leftist ideas and sensibilities on American universities, of the spread of postmodernism and deconstructionism through the humanities, having experienced some of the effects of this myself, years earlier. While getting my undergraduate degree in California in the late 1980s, I was advised not to be seen reading Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, which sounded a warning about precisely the situation that Peterson, and many others, believe we are in. Thirty years ago Bloom warned that the student radicals of the 1960s were now tenured professors – ‘tenured radicals’ as another book had it – and in their classrooms were spreading the medley of half-digested Nietzsche, Heidegger and the Frankfurt School that fed the postmodernist monster.11 A few years later I hit this wall myself when I embarked on a PhD track in English Lit at a prestigious southern California university. The department was dominated by the fashionable postmodern schools and I soon realised that had I continued I would most likely not have found a job. I was a white male mature student who had no interest in deconstructing anything. I dropped out after a year and abandoned the idea of an academic career – a good decision, as it turned out. Now Peterson seemed to be taking on practically singlehandedly the fully grown behemoth that I had encountered in its infancy and I found myself thinking ‘good for him!’
The Post Modernist Project
What does Peterson have against postmodernism and the politically correct shibboleths to which it has given rise such as the ‘patriarchy’, ‘equity’, ‘white privilege’ ‘cultural appropriation’ and others, which increasingly seem aimed at giving modern white males a guilt-complex and undermining Western civilisation, if not seriously impacting on children’s Halloween costumes?12 The short answer is that he sees postmodernism and its fellow traveller, deconstructionism, as Marxism 2.0.
Peterson points out that by the late 1960s and early ‘70s, the belief in Marxism as an ideology furthering the human project had bottomed out. Although many French intellectuals, such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, had bent over backward to absolve Stalin of his crimes – at least six million Russians were killed in Ukraine alone during the agricultural collectivisation of the 1920s – or at least to ignore them, the events of the Prague Spring and the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago (1973) made it apparent that, as the title of an early critique of Communism had it, the Soviet experiment was a “god that failed.”13
Yet old intellectual habits and political resentments die hard. What happened, according to Peterson, was that the new crop of anti-Western ideologues, the generation of May ’68, abandoned the old economic class war as the basis for their detestation, which they could no longer uphold and be taken seriously, and widened their brief. Now economic oppression need not carry the weight of their condemnation alone. It was no longer simply that the bourgeoisie oppressed the worker. The entire structure of Western civilisation was built on the principle of oppression. From day one the system was geared to favour white European males and the mechanics of oppression inform it from top to bottom. It is rooted in our language and in the very attempt at using logic and reason to understand the world – which, sadly, the West has been trying to do since around 500 BCE, give or take a century, with admittedly debatable results.
Although versions of this assessment had earlier been voiced by Nietzsche and Heidegger, this last indictment was made most influentially by the doyen of deconstructionism, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, an avowed Marxist. Derrida argued against the very idea of logic, a neat trick for a philosopher, or anyone, as argument itself relies on it. But no matter. Yet that is precisely the point. As Peterson spells out in lecture after lecture, the whole idea of logic and argument is anathema to postmodernism. Logic is a tool of white European male oppression. Technically it is termed ‘phallogocentricism’, a Derridean coinage highlighting a male organ not usually associated with logical thinking. To avoid it, many promoters of political correctness rely on emotion and what Peterson calls “weaponised compassion” to support their ideology. Hence the attempts to paint Peterson as a bully when he merely tries to be logical and stick to a point. But that is what an oppressive white male would do, wouldn’t he?
Derrida took the work of the nineteenth century Swiss linguist Ferdinand Sausurre who argued that language was based on a system of arbitrary signs, and ran with it. There are signifiers – words – and the signified – things – but there is no necessary relation between them. Words point, they do not ‘mean’, in the sense that they do not point to a meaning that is there, waiting to be discovered. Meanings are culturally generated, which is not far from Marx’s belief that all ‘meanings’ and ‘values’ are socially produced, are the products of ‘history’, that is, relative, not absolute. Truth, in the sense that the Western mind has pursued it since Plato, does not exist; nor for that matter do the Good or the Beautiful. Even worse: all three are agents of oppression and have been used to secure and maintain the dominance of one view of the world to the exclusion of others: that of Dead White European Males, or DWEMs. This meant Plato, Shakespeare, Dante, Newton, Goethe, Beethoven, and the rest of what we consider the A list of Western culture. What it also means is that all criteria of truth produced by this culture are suspect. Does 2+2=4? For a diehard postmodernist, it does only for those who benefit from such an equation – which, one assumes, includes the postmodern professor, when it comes to his pay-check.
As Peterson points out, this is an expression of the postmodern belief which has practically come to be accepted as fact – forgetting that postmodernism itself denies the reality of facts – that everything we know, believe, and understand about ourselves is ‘socially constructed’. What is behind this process, Derrida and company say, is power, nothing more. How could there be if there is no Truth but only ‘truths’ relative to the cultures that produce them? What a postmodernist would say about the ‘truths’ of National Socialism is unclear, although one prestigious deconstructionist, the Belgian Paul de Man, was able to accommodate some aspects of it.14 Just as for Marx, religion, philosophy, literature, art – all culture in fact – were merely part of the ‘superstructure’, the pleasant façade of Western society camouflaging the ugly truth that everything depended on the ‘means of production’ – which, of course, was in the hands of the hated bourgeoisie – so, too, for postmodernism all ideas about Truth are simply many disguises concealing the ugly truth – we can’t escape the word – that what is at work here is simply power, who has it and how they keep it.
‘Existential Self-Help’: 12 Rules for Life
These concerns have trickled down from the academic heights and infiltrated everyday life, Peterson says, affecting how we live and what we think, hence his worry. The social and political influence of postmodernism, he believes, is wholly pernicious because, among other things, it denies the reality of human nature and the unique differences and potentialities with which each individual is born. For postmodernism, the idea there are things about us that are not ‘socially constructed’ but simply given – such as gender and its differences – is merely another weapon in the hands of the oppressor. It hates the idea of a human nature because it suggests something resistant to its desire to create a perfect world through social planning and legislature, as previous Marxist experiments attempted – with, as Peterson points out, disastrous results. This would be a world of ‘equality’ where there are no winners or losers, no differences between people, only a homogenous sameness – an odd target for utopians concerned about ‘diversity’. In the meantime, what this leaves, Peterson warns, is a culture of victims and perpetrators, a society of the ‘oppressed’ which is encouraged by postmodern ideology to take out its revenge – called ‘social justice’ – on its oppressor, in order to level the playing field.
What this amounts to for Peterson is an attack on the individual and the value of personal responsibility. For politically correct reasons, he or she is reduced to being merely a member of a group; as such they are responsible for the perceived guilt or privilege of that group, regardless of their own individual conduct. Just as Marxism does, postmodernism denies the autonomous ego. They – we – do not exist. There are only representatives of different communities – racial, economic, national, sexual, etc. – who are embroiled in a ‘war of all against all’ in the scramble for power. Hence ‘identity politics’ and ‘tribalism’. This is Hobbes’ vision of our natural state before civilisation, enshrined as its summit.
For Peterson, such a vision enables one of the darkest, most shadowy aspects of human reality, what Nietzsche called ressentiment, to arise. This is the sour grapes attitude toward life. It blames its own shortcomings on others and disparages what it is unable to achieve. In the worst cases it takes revenge on life itself – or ‘being’, as Peterson prefers – for not going out of its way to make things easier for it, and for allowing others to do well. This existential spite, Peterson argues, is behind much of human evil, from Cain’s slaying of his brother Abel, to violent revolutions, serial killers, and totalitarian governments.
Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life is his prescription for the exact opposite attitude. It is a personal and professional pep talk and day-planner for taking responsibility for one’s life. As a motivational work, which it is, it is less combative and more inspirational than his videos. At times it does not avoid an eyebrow raising earnestness. But for a self-help book – Peterson is, after all, a psychotherapist – this is not unusual and shouldn’t take away from the main message. Which is: don’t blame anyone else – the ‘system’, your parents, your wife, your boss, the ‘patriarchy’ – for your failings. This, he tells us, is the first step in overcoming them. No wonder that ‘clean your room’, ‘get your act together,’ and similar admonitions are his mantras.
I call this a work of ‘existential self-help’. It begins with the fact – one not socially constructed – that we find ourselves in a world we do not understand, having no idea where we came from, why we are here, and what we are supposed to do now that we are. But we nevertheless have the capacity – the responsibility, Peterson insists – to face these dark unknowns honestly, authentically, and with some dignity. This means, as Peterson points out, taking on the burden of being and consciousness, embracing the pain, suffering, confusion and failure that are inextricable parts of life – perhaps its most important parts – without trying to avoid them or resent them as the work of some oppressor. This is an existential attitude, and he finds it in Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, but it could also be called a religious one.
As I followed Peterson through his rules – I leave the reader to discover them if they haven’t already – it struck me that they all emerge from what we can see as his own Golden Rule #6 in the book: Set your house in perfect order before criticising the world.15 If you want to change the world, the best place to start is with yourself. You can start with something small and go from there. As the Swedish savant Swedenborg said long ago, do the good that you know. It is not hard to find. Usually it is right there, in front of you.
It’s this call to the individual to stand up for his or herself – straight and with your shoulders back, Rule #1, that is responsible for Peterson’s popularity, especially with young people. He challenges them to own their own lives rather than whine about them, and to fix what they can rather than save the world. His message seems to be getting across. His audience is growing. His YouTube subscribers number more than one million and his videos have been seen by over 50 million viewers. 12 Rules for Life remains on the bestseller lists and his Patreon forum, which raises a not inconsiderable sum, has nearly 10,000 supporters.16 If Petersonmania carries on like this, we may be post-postmodernists sooner than we think.