“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