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Jordan Peterson and Conservative Critiques of Modernity

“If we value our heritage, conservative intellectuals like Peterson need to stop pandering to their followers, and instead start motivating them to be more reflective about the culpability of complex social forces.”

Canadian university Professor Jordan Peterson made headlines recently when left-wing superstar Slavoj Zizek attacked him for being an alt-right supporter in the pages of The Independent. This is an odd claim. Peterson has long described himself as something of a centrist, arguing that society needs a reasonable number of people to push for progress and an equal number to preserve traditions. That has not stopped him from becoming an intellectual hero to various groups on the right, due to his standing against using a diverse array of gender pronouns, for his fight against “PC culture” at the University, and his attacks on post-modernism.

Despite the accolades from these groups, bordering on hagiography at points, many of these groups, strangely, seem disinterested in the actual content of his ideas. There is a frustrating tendency to just accept the surface of what he says—post-modernism is bad, end of story—than actually probe why he makes these arguments. Here, I venture to theorize as to why he has taken these conservative positions, and to show that Peterson’s analysis of modernity is flawed in more than a few respects.

Peterson and Modernity

And where he tries to update these argument by directing them at new targets—for instance, post-modernism—he often does not seem to have a good understanding of what he is criticizing.”

One of the unfair criticisms directed against Jordan Peterson by some on the far-left is that he strongly supports alt-right, and even racist, positions. While he has not done everything he could to disavow support (or taking money) from some of these groups, there is little to suggest Peterson is a closet racist. His book Maps of Meaning opens with a touching, if a tad sentimental, account of his interest in learning what accounts for the development of totalitarianism in society. Inspired by Jung and Nietzsche, Peterson then proceeds into a refreshing review of various foundational myths in Western and other cultures.

This culminates in an extensive look at the structure of Christian myth, including its treatment of evil in the figure of Satan. Peterson argues that it is Satan’s pride and desire to dominate the world, regardless of the cost to its inner value, which forms the core of his evil nature. He then goes on to argue that, with the advent of secular nihilism in our scientific era, people in modern societies have gone on to react in one of two ways. Some individuals become increasingly hyper-skeptical, and by extension, apathetic. While he does not signal them out as such in this book, it is not hard to connect this category of persons to the post-modern relativists Peterson now claims to despise.

Other individuals become radicalized, turning to totalitarian philosophies as a way to re-establish some sense of control over the world.  In Maps of Meaning, Peterson’s main targets are reactionary groups, like fascists and communists. Today, it is also not hard to see him connect this category to various advocates of politically correct culture who want to control language and dictate what is taught and discussed.

There is an undeniable appeal to this argument; he writes in an engaging and passionate manner. He is, in part, correct that the advent of modernity has resulted in social trends pushing people toward radicalization. I would be more sympathetic if these argument were presented in a less self-important manner. Even in 1999, Peterson often wrote in an intensely personal way—as though he is on an epic quest to discover the roots of all social ailments. This attitude can be admirable, but it is also cloying. It is less noticeable in Maps of Meaning than it has recently become. Peterson now often speaks as though he is single-handedly fighting the most important battle of our time.  This is a rather grandiose sentiment for someone whose primary target seems to be university policies. 

My biggest problem with Peterson, however, is the lack of originality in his primary arguments. Much of it has been said before. And where he tries to update these arguments by directing them at new targets—for instance, post-modernism—he often does not seem to have a good understanding of what he is criticizing.

Conservative Critiques of Modern Life

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We view at the world as matter in motion that can be manipulated for human needs.”

The argument that the movement to secular modernity has resulted in either apathetic skepticism or radicalization is hardly new to conservatism. As far back as the nineteenth century, great critics like Max Weber made these observations. Often, they did so in a way that was deeper and more interesting than Peterson’s arguments.

Weber is probably the most notable. Throughout his lengthy work, Weber argued that modernity has led to what is often called the “desacrilization” of the world.  Where once the world was taken as a sacred and mythical place, filled with independent meaning by religious and traditional doctrines, it is now perceived through a secular and instrumental eye. We view the world as matter in motion that can be manipulated for human needs.

This has a positive upswing. Combined with the powers of modern technology and science, it means that we have been willing to transform the world to improve the quality and length of human life. The benefits of this are pretty obvious. Even a relatively poor Canadian would probably choose his life in 2018 over living as an aristocrat in the eighteenth century—a time without central heat, electricity, indoor plumbing, and all the other wonders of the modern world. But Weber pointed out that this rosy picture, too, has a downside. The desacrilization of the world has also meant that people no longer feel they have any deeper meaning to their lives. They feel like empty numbers governed by “specialists without soul, sensualists without heart,” replaceable cogs in the social machinery. As Weber pointed out in his Politics as a Vocation lectures, such people are prone to either apathetic resignation to the gloom of their temporary pleasures or radical attempts to restore some kind of deeper meaning to the world.

Thus far, Peterson would probably agree with much of this, updating it as needed. The problem is, where Weber and other great conservative thinkers give deep and often tragic reasons for why modernity resulted in secularization and desacrilization, Peterson sticks exclusively to the surface.

His primary target for these trends seems to be professional. The reason people feel their lives increasingly have little meaning is because a number of left-wing, post-modern intellectuals have been spreading doctrines to that effect. This is a rather superficial analysis. It is also self-serving: it means that intellectuals who refuse to conform to this post-modern trends are at the forefront of saving civilization from its enemies.

For any academic who has found it difficult to get students to read a 10-page article, let alone convert them into Foucault’s disciples, this is a remarkable claim. It essentially makes the to-and-fro of academic fashion into the primary battlefield of our culture. Other intellectuals have been prone to this conceit. Heidegger is the most notable example in the last few decades.  But Peterson is especially prone to thinking in these terms, and he has convinced many of his followers and admirers on the right to adopt this viewpoint.

Capitalism, Technology, and the Sacred

The medium is the message.”

Few great conservative thinkers have ever given into this self-serving tendency.  Part of the reason is really probing into the roots of desacrailization often means criticizing social forces many conventional conservatives happen to like. This is what a great thinker does; they challenge their followers to look closely and critically at their own prejudices.  While Peterson panders to his followers by pinning blame on groups and people they already dislike, a great thinker like Weber opens up tragic spaces of choice and re-evaluation.

Take Weber, for example. For Weber, the collapse of tradition and mythology was brought about in no small part due to capitalism. Capitalism, with its relentless compulsion to transform the natural world into a collection of objects for exploitation, drove the creation of nihilistic ideologies where individuals gave up their conventional beliefs to become consumers. This was also the point made by Arthur Schumpeter when he talked about the “creative destruction” of capitalist forces. In the continuous need to create new values to market and profit from, capitalist forces destroyed traditional ways of life to erect new ones.  Now neither Weber nor Schumpeter was anti-capitalist per se. Weber was cautious towards it, Schumpeter often wrote in praise of it. But both recognized that if one wanted the benefits of capitalism—with its vast array of new products and technologie—-one had to be prepared to give up on a world that was treated as the sacred territory of God.

The same is true of technology.  Heidegger was another great critic of modernity, who observed that developing technologies means treating the world as meaningless “standing reserve” to be manipulated for our purposes. This applies in a modern context where digital technologies allow us to manipulate and present our identity to an immense degree, including by sticking within a fragmented communication bubble rather than going outside and interacting with others who are part of our shared culture. Each of these thinkers would probably think it rather ironic that someone like Peterson would decry the collapse of traditional values, while simultaneously becoming a YouTube star pandering to increasingly fragmented social groups and profiting from their resentment.

The forces of technological and economic change are powerful in transforming society in ways we have difficulty to fully understand.  It is easier, and more comforting, to ascribe blame for social transformation to specific individuals and groups, who are seen as single-handedly moving society in a direction we do not care for. But this ascribes far too much agency to human actors and intellectual ideas.

Take post-modernism, for example. I believe it is very much a cultural epoch brought about by technological transformations in the way people interact and communicate.  It is very tempting to regard technological mediums as simply neutral tool. But technological mediums are not simply neutral, especially when it comes to communication. As the prophet of the post-modern epoch, Marshall McLuhan, put it: “The medium is the message.” When we communicate through television, radio, and tweets on the Internet, this fundamentally changes the content we espouse and how it is received. These transformations were also well noted in Neil Postman’s prophetic work Amusing Ourselves to Death.

Postman argued that with the advent of television, modern people were gradually losing their ability to think through complex information the way they had when inhabiting a highly literate print-reading civilization. He blames this on short attention spans: new mediums such as television were inclined to present complex issues by encapsulating it in a five-minute soundbite.  The immense competition for attention also meant that the entertainment value of the information had to be increased, raising the temptation to give it a hyperbolic—and partisan—spin. This greatly empowers the partisan identity politics Peterson and others so despise.

Conclusion

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My point is not to suggest Peterson is a bad conservative thinker. When he focuses on topics he is familiar with and trained in, like the structure of myths or the psychoanalytic thought of Carl Jung, he often says insightful and interesting things. But as a political commentator, he does not really add much to conservative discourse. Where he says something valid, it has often been said before and better. This is not a bad thing in itself. But where he tries to update these ideas, for instance by attacking post-modern intellectuals, he is often superficial and intellectually shallow. Oftentimes, he simply panders to the prejudices of his followers.

A truly great intellectual should challenge his followers, and where necessary, make them recognize where their own conceits and prejudices reinforce tendencies they claim to hate. As Kant pointed out, these moments of critical reflection are what the Enlightenment was all about.

If we value our heritage, we need conservative intellectuals to stop pandering to their followers, and instead, start motivating them to be more reflective about the culpability of complex social forces—including those we may admire—in generating problems facing the modern world. 

Matt McManus completed his PhD in socio-legal studies at York University. He is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. He is in the process of formalizing a deal for a second book, The Rise of Postmodern Conservatism. Matt can be reached at garion9@yorku.ca.