View from
The Center

Writing about Jordan Peterson for the First Time

(Rick Madonik/Toronto Star)

“Nevertheless, The Rise of Jordan Peterson comes to me as a relief. Prior to Peterson, the position of the hip professor loved by college students (with all sorts of memes and merchandises using his image), was occupied by Slavoj Žižek.”

Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist and global thought leader, is a frequent topic of exploration for authors at Merion West. Peterson’s work is often discussed, both by his supporters and critics at this outlet. Thus far, I have remained on the sidelines of these debates. But, given the degree to which Peterson has become a cultural icon, I suppose the time has come for me to weigh-in. And, as intellectual apprentices usually do when it comes to engaging with a topic they do not already know much about, I began by watching an introductory film.

The Rise of Jordan Peterson, directed by Patricia Marcoccia, is very useful in this regard: for serving as an introduction for a Jordan Peterson neophyte like me. Needless to say, in just ninety minutes, the film cannot address all the complexities of Peterson’s thought. However, it does an effective job in presenting Peterson’s main views. The film is never dull, and—like any good good intellectual portrait—it also offers a glimpse into Peterson’s personality and private life. And, true to Peterson’s own intellectual spirit, the film is fully open to dialogue, avoiding a one-sided portrait. Both enthusiasts and adversaries are given their due in the film.

As the film tells it, Peterson rose to fame when he announced he would not comply with the Canadian government’s requirement to address someone by their preferred pronoun; predictably the transgender community in Toronto was not happy about this, and some tried to silence Peterson. The first half of the film focuses on this controversy. While watching it, I could not help being reminded of the 1967 Muhammad Ali vs. Ernie Terrell fight, in which Ali—resentful that his adversary called him “Cassius Clay”—continuously yells, “What’s my name, fool?” I suppose that many of us have felt like Muhammad Ali at some point in our lives: some of us hold dear an identity, but society refuses to acknowledge who we are. Yet, as the case of Rachel Dolezal proves, our culture is—at best—inconsistent and—at worst—hypocritical. If you are biologically male but feel like a woman, you are entitled to being acknowledged as such. However, if you look white but feel like an African American, somehow you are a monster. If one even dares to point out the obvious parallelisms between transracial and transgender identities, one assumes the risk of being on the receiving end of bullying from the Social Justice wing of the Left, as Rebecca Tuvel  learned the hard way

Now, Ali was a tough guy, and he fought hard to receive the identity recognition he desired. Sadly, the transgender community seeks the easy way: they want the State to punish those who—even without intent to cause harm—fail to address them with the pronouns they choose for themselves. And this is the crux of Peterson’s crusade: it is not so much a transgender issue but, rather, a free speech issue. The State must not be in the business of regulating silly little words; to do so would, indeed, bring us closer to totalitarianism. I think Muhammad Ali would have agreed.

He appears obsessed with the Soviet Union, to the point of having his house replete with Soviet propaganda paintings—perhaps as a reminder of where the West might be headed if the culture of political correctness continues its expansion. This, however, is where Peterson looses steam and becomes harder to take seriously.

As the film goes on, this concern with totalitarianism comes up as a constant in Peterson’s thought. He appears obsessed with the Soviet Union, to the point of having his house replete with Soviet propaganda paintings—perhaps as a reminder of where the West might be headed if the culture of political correctness continues its expansion. This, however, is where Peterson looses steam and becomes harder to take seriously.

For example, in one scene, Peterson mocks a portrait of Marx, and then there are the occasions when he speaks about the threat of “Cultural Marxism.” Marx may have been wrong on many things, but he never proposed any totalitarian scheme. Furthermore, Peterson speaks a lot about “Cultural Marxism,” but it is never clear exactly what he means by it—other than a sort of suggestion that there exists a secret cabal that is using some hidden agenda to rule the world. The professor does appear to dip into the conspiratorial every once in a while. In the film, one twelve-year-old child approaches him to express admiration and begins to rant about how his teachers are all “Cultural Marxists” and how his classmates do all they can to keep the teacher in check. Peterson does nothing to tone down the child’s paranoia, and I would suspect that, actually, the child’s teacher is the one who would be afraid to speak his mind in class. It seemed to me this particular child was not unlike those activists that—in the first half of the film—had sought to deplatform Peterson. 

In the film, one of Peterson’s friends and colleagues at the University of Toronto, cleverly says that Peterson ultimately becomes very similar to what he so vehemently criticizes. Indeed, Peterson has proposed scrutinizing college courses about their level of political correctness—so as to warn students not to take them. This is very concerning. The overzealous opposition to Stalinism can lead to McCarthyism, its mirror image. And, it seems to me that Peterson is falling into this trap. 

He is certainly right in criticizing the Soviet Union as a totalitarian State. But, tellingly, he has little to say about post-Soviet Russia. Now, any reasonable person would agree that Putin’s Russia is almost as authoritarian as the Soviet Union. But, somehow, many conservatives do have a soft spot for Putin—on account, perhaps, of his muscular approach to politics, views on sexuality, relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church, and, of course, his relationship with Trump. My guess is that Peterson would also have some degree of sympathy for Putin (although Peterson acknowledges that he is not so certain about Putin’s honesty), precisely because Putin seems to embody the anti-political correctness that the West desperately needs. 

Peterson has great admiration for Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn certainly can be admired for many things, but he was not exactly a great representative of anti-totalitarian liberalism. Solzhenitsyn was a victim of Soviet totalitarianism, but he still wanted a Russian society that would go back to Czarist traditions (not exactly the apex of an open society). I suspect that, were he alive today, Solzhenitsyn would not be too dissatisfied with Putin’s approach (Solzhenitsyn’s widow is a big fan).

So, as the film itself portrays it, it is not entirely clear that Peterson is wholly removed from the kind of authoritarianism he abhors. Take, for example, Peterson’s constant plea to youngsters to clean up their room. Now, of course, hygiene and tidiness are important. But interestingly, obsession with these things does have an association with authoritarian personalities, which as Adorno famously claimed, can lead to totalitarian politics.

Nevertheless, The Rise of Jordan Peterson comes to me as a relief. Prior to Peterson, the position of the hip professor loved by college students (with all sorts of memes and merchandises using his image), was occupied by Slavoj Žižek. A film about him was also made. I would say Zizek! is one of the worst films I have ever seen; for two hours, Žižek spouts incomprehensible and ridiculous claims, and, of course, his books are not any better. By contrast, Peterson is a straight-forward, no-nonsense type of guy who does say many reasonable things. But, the beast must be tamed. This is where The Rise of Jordan Peterson excels: it presents a man’s courageous fight to put an end to all the campus craziness overtaking North America; yet at the same time, it provides useful hints about the limits that must constrain this new crusade against political correctness.

Dr. Gabriel Andrade is a university professor. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post. His twitter is @gandrade80

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Carlos
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Carlos

There is only one problem with the author’s analysis on the question of “cultural Marxism.” No one accuses Marx of proposing a “totalitarian scheme,” but ideas in what is called “Cultural Marxism” are derived from him, even indirectly. Coincidentally at the same time as I read this text another published by Jonathan Church in Aero Magazine explains the “link” between Marx and cultural Marxism (or postmodern neomarxism). (I’ll leave the link: https://areomagazine.com/2020/01/09/jordan-peterson-is-not-entirely-wrong-about-postmodern-neo-marxism/ The author puts forward his idea of ​​why Peterson is not totally wrong. I found it interesting to quote.

C M
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C M

Speaking generally I am a fan of J.P. but when you say ” The overzealous opposition to Stalinism can lead to McCarthyism, its mirror image.” I heartily agree. I value much of what the man has to say but if he makes a mistake its a mistake in this vein. When J.P. oversteps in his criticism, and he does overstep, it can be akin to McCarthyism. Ultimately I worry this leads to critique of the modern academic left that is easier to dismiss, particularly by left leaning moderates who may have otherwise found value in the substance if not the tone and framing of the statement.

Your criticism on cleaning ones room is off base though, this is clearly a metaphor for putting your own world in working order before attempting to fix the wider world. This position can be criticized to be sure but it is no literal call for deranged levels of personal cleanliness (though one may start working on the metaphor by cleaning ones room or house).

Gabriel andrade
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Gabriel andrade

Ok, point taken. But, anyways, how are you so sure “clean your room is not literal”? Progressives are known for not caring much about clean rooms, because allegedly that is a burgeois concern. So, I figured JP means it literally. Has he explicitly said that this is only a metaphor?

Carolina Nigro
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Carolina Nigro

Hello,
He has. I can’t recall the interview, perhaps some other followers’ memory shall recover absent pieces, but he explicitly said that it was a metaphor after the interviewer declared to pay someone to do it.
What is a room? Expect an arbitrary lines that is encircles us. Might be a room, a house, a neighboorhood. The message I understand is that rearanging your environment must be a priority that shall grant you ”order of the mind” and additional motivation to maintain that orderness because everything is done and clear. If one burden was to strike your door, because you only have that sole thing bothering you, you’d hurry to get it done.
I might be mistaken of course.
Regards

gabriel e andrade
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gabriel e andrade

Ok. I still think that, whether it is literal or metaphoric, JP is still very concerned with order. Nothing wrong with that, but excessive concern with it, does lead to authoritarianism. And, as my point goes, JP does have one foot into it.

Matt
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Matt

Note to the author:
Why do a critique of a critique? Why not read and listen directly from JP? Prefacing a description with “hip” leaves a taste the auther has some jealousy towards the subject. JP has even called it. He knows people are coming after him. Egos.
One of the more profound teachings is how he says, “learn to speak the truth at all times”, he also is a proponent of listening to other people carefully because they may know something you don’t. This is why he endears himself to people that follow him. I thibk you need to give him more time. Maybe critique the complete Maps of meaning series and report back.

Andrea
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Andrea

Your comment is a critique of a critique of a critique. Perche?