“Peterson is neither sacrosanct nor untouchable. He would agree with that statement himself.”
“Whenever there is a reaching down into innermost experience, into the nucleus of personality, most people are overcome by fear and many run away…The risk of inner experience, the adventure of the spirit, is in any case alien to most human beings. The possibility that such experience might have psychic reality is anathema to them.” – Memories, Dreams, Reflections by Carl Jung and Aniela Jaffé
On January 7th, an assistant professor — and “anti-fascist” — from the University of Calgary by the name of Ted McCoy tweeted his thoughts on the well-known Canadian psychologist, Jordan B. Peterson, in the form of a (McCoy’s words) “joke.” McCoy stated in his since-deleted tweet that: “I heard it rumoured students will fail my class if they cite Jordan Peterson and I’d like to clarify that this is absolutely correct.” After much feedback, McCoy revised his view on Peterson by tweeting that he acknowledges his students’ right to hold a dissimilar political viewpoint than his own. Whether this is truly McCory’s actual belief, however, remains unclear.
A portion of Peterson’s fans — certainly not all of them — make use of a method of argumentation by attacking disagreements with empty “Petersonisms,” which I define as thoughts, arguments, or ideas that Jordan Peterson has once articulated.
My issue is less with McCoy and people like him, who frequently criticize Peterson with little depth to their criticisms. (This is not to say, of course, that these people and their “freedom-injuring” attitude belong in academia.) However, any personal animosity that I have had towards Peterson’s critics is being increasingly redirected: towards Peterson’s followers and those of public intellectuals similar to Peterson. A portion of Peterson’s fans — certainly not all of them — make use of a method of argumentation by attacking disagreements with empty “Petersonisms,” which I define as thoughts, arguments, or ideas that Jordan Peterson has once articulated. Empty is the way that many deliver these sayings; they often amount to little more than grateful gestures towards Peterson, without fundamentally agreeing with the underlying ideas.
Nevertheless, Peterson’s views should be scrutinized and defended in a thought-out and considered manner. Unfortunately, the polarizing effects of Peterson’s work can be especially problematic for those seeking to engage with his ideas in a thorough way, given all of the knee-jerk assumptions about his body of work. However, engaging with his ideas superficially only serves to further polarize Peterson, as well as his followers (including those who are trying to engage with his ideas thoughtfully) by reinforcing stereotypes about Peterson and his followers. This further polarization also diminishes the significance of being an “authentic” Peterson follower.
In one of his lectures, Peterson mentions this idea of paying attention to what you’re saying — resembling Rule 10 in his book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos: ‘Be precise in your speech’— by describing a dichotomization of his mind between a judging part and a talking part. The former part was, as Peterson put it, “watching the part that was talking and going: That isn’t your idea; you don’t really believe that; you don’t know what you are talking about; and, that is not true.” The same could be said when engaging with Peterson’s own ideas: Reconsidering your current alignment with Peterson’s views can be more beneficial than mindlessly reciting his work.
Now, Peterson’s latest book (12 Rules), as well as his Youtube lectures and debates, have proved helpful to many people. Without being redundant, the beneficial element of Peterson’s work has already been described in great detail at Merion West. Whether one supports Peterson or not, this part of his work is eminently significant and should not be seen as trivial or be discredited by those seeking to portray him as destructive or immoral. To separate the wheat from the chaff— an idiom often used by Peterson himself — is a crucial process when analyzing controversial thinkers like Peterson.
When we ignore this process, we risk becoming incapable of considering other points of view—like how the 15-year-old teenager in the film The Rise of Jordan Peterson described it: “After following him [Peterson] so much, he becomes like a legendary figure in your mind.” One of the teenager’s presumable friends (also 15 years of age) acknowledges that it’s understandable to hold such a view of Peterson in an environment where his ideas are less tolerated. The polarizing essence of Peterson, however, can result in one becoming trapped in a “Peterson-vacuum.”
To prevent that from happening, one ought to expose himself to refined criticisms of Peterson’s work. Many have tried — or are trying — to produce such articles, videos, or books that contain constructive criticisms of Peterson’s ideas. Yet, a great many have failed to do so, resulting in numerous ad hominem attacks of Peterson himself, rather than engagements with his works. In November, 2019, four authors at Merion West — Ben Burgis, Conrad Hamilton, Marion Trejo, and Matt McManus — attempted to comprehensively critique Peterson’s work, without dipping into the ad hominem. This attempt is still ongoing; their upcoming book, Myth and Mayhem: A Leftist Critique of Jordan Peterson has yet to be published. Unfortunately, the annunciation of their book has mostly been met with backlash. However, both Peterson’s allies and adversaries may benefit from sophisticated criticisms of his work. Those attempting to criticize Peterson, however, should avoid exerting a fault-finding approach as a reply to the previous lack of effective critique on Peterson. If there is no smoking gun, it’s probably a signal that Peterson’s critics have to look somewhere else. Engaging in such a manner with any intellectual one disagrees with results in the tendency to act as an empty skeptic. (The empty skeptic is a concept I described in an earlier article of mine at Merion West. This form of skepticism invokes thoughtlessly critiquing another’s thinking by using different fallacies in order to avoid actual confrontation with the opponents’ actual, fundamental ideas (e.g. Straw man fallacy or Red herring).)
Nevertheless, McManus and his colleagues have undertaken an ambitious task. They introduced the article by mentioning the many different approaches fellow left-leaning critics have taken when addressing Peterson’s “mistakes”—and how these commentators have failed in discussing the complete Peterson-encyclopedia. I won’t get into the different ways McManus and his colleagues have not (yet) met their promises; this can be read at length in the comment section. As I’ve stated at the beginning, I am less interested in the critics themselves; however, for the sake of argument, it might be interesting to examine a bit their incentives to produce this book—besides just their political disagreements with Peterson. One of the reasons stated by the authors was their, “belief that it is necessary to argue against political opponents in as sustained a manner as possible.” Not many will refute this justification. Both left-right or any other dichotomy prefers strong players on both sides of the game, irrespective of the type of game.
Furthermore, they proceed by reminding readers about Peterson’s relevance in today’s intellectual climate: “Peterson is the most significant anti-leftist critic in the Western world today, and answering his charges in a reasonable and popular manner is necessary if progressivism is to be convincing both practically and intellectually.” These motives so far are not illogical by any means. In my opinion, we should give it time to see how the authors continue to analyze Peterson’s ideas. Jordan Peterson is not going away anytime soon.
Per contra, adopting the notion that Jordan Peterson’s frequent misinterpretations are unalterable and that we should just move on — as someone suggested in the comment section of McManus’ article on a sample chapter of the book — is simply admitting that Peterson is unable to be criticized. Peterson is neither sacrosanct nor untouchable. He would agree with that statement himself. In his earlier book, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, Peterson describes different satanic traits, including arrogance:
“It is not that easy to understand why the act of presuming omniscience is reasonably construed as precisely the opposite to the act of creative exploration (as the adversary is opposite to the hero). What ‘knowing everything’ means, however — at least in practice — is that the unknown no longer exists, and that further exploration hast therefore been rendered superfluous (even treacherous). This means that absolute identification with the ‘known’ necessarily comes to replace all opportunity for identification with the process that comes to know [Peterson’s italics]. The presumption of absolute knowledge, which is the cardinal sin of the rational spirit, is, therefore, prima facie equivalent to rejection of the hero — to the rejection of Christ, of the Word of God, of the (divine) process that mediates between order and chaos.”
What unifies the so-far ineffective different criticisms of Peterson is that they usually take the form of the “Poisoning the Well Fallacy,” which describes using irrelevant, negative information related to a certain figure — or what a certain figure has said —to discredit him as an individual, or to discredit his ideas. We’ve seen this happening with Peterson regarding his stance on transgender pronouns, woman wearing lipstick in the workplace, and, of course, enforced monogamy. These mischaracterizations are not only ineffective, but they also act counterproductively if one is actually interested in assessing the essence of Peterson’s ideas.
Much of what Peterson espouses is seemingly politically neutral. Let us, for instance, take his eminent advice: clean your room (or in the book: “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world”). Whether one is on the Left or the Right should not impact one’s decision to take that advice. Yet, in the May, 2019 debate between Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Žižek entitled: “Happiness: Marxism vs. Capitalism,” Žižek made the remark that it could be the case Peterson’s aforementioned piece of advice could not be practiced because of the way society is deranged. That is, “much of the reason why they [someone’s house/room] are in disorder, is that there is some crisis in our society.” Notably, Žižek’s point does not imply that society’s status is a justification for your chaotic room; rather, the understanding is that your personal choices are not the only factors that determine if such a state exists. Žižek’s critique does not detract from the effectiveness of Peterson’s advice—or the reality that it has benefited many people who have taken his advice to heart. And, then there is the further important point that many of Peterson’s followers began to learn about psychology through Peterson and then embarked on a further exploration of the discipline.
Some of the means by which Peterson teaches others to view the world are theoretical constructs (e.g. paradigmatic assumptions or statistical information). These are mostly taken from his experience as a successful clinical psychologist. Peterson—in both his latest book and his online Youtube lectures—presents information about the field of psychology in a truly accessible manner. Those who immerse themselves in Peterson’s work do indeed consume part of the theoretical (and religious) knowledge linked to Peterson’s expertise. On top of that, our intuitive psychology makes us predisposed towards information associated with the understanding of ourselves and others (the latter being known as folk psychology or theory of mind). These “innate modules”—as the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker names them in his 1997 book How the Mind Works—are the underlying mechanisms that support the acquiring of knowledge. To clarify this function, Pinker makes a (relatively) dated comparison:
“Learning involves more than recording experience; learning requires couching the records of experience so that they generalize in useful ways. A VCR is excellent at recording, but no one would look to this modern version of the black slate as a paradigm of intelligence.”
This does not suggest that any psychologist who utters statistical knowledge related to the relation between IQ and job complexity, for example, is on the road to stardom. Most of Peterson’s listeners/followers presumably didn’t initially come to follow a 2-hour long psychology 101 lecture. Titles like: “How To Stop Procrastinating” or “What Women Don’t Understand About Men” are subjects that get you intrigued and— before you know it—you’re hooked on watching psychology lectures all day long. (I must mention that these videos and titles are often from third party channels, actively using clickbait titles without Peterson’s involvement.)
However, even with all of these upsides to Peterson’s work, there is still the need to view it—in its totality—with some soberness. In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell suggests that the only way to decipher Socialism — and the reasons why people despised it — was to step away from it. Similarly, we ought to play advocatus diaboli when dealing with similar attractive theories — like “Petersonism” — to save ourselves from groupthink or, worse, group polarization. Anyone familiar with the workings of academia knows that any group resisting criticism is sensitive to dogma. Evaluating your beliefs about a subject, of course, is hardly tantamount to rejecting that subject. If one ends up disagreeing with Peterson on a particular subjects, that does not mean he needs to adopt a complete distaste for everything the man has to say.
All these previously mentioned processes — contemplating the strength of your belief in certain ideas or intellectuals, separating the “usefulness” from the less useful, and playing devil’s advocate — can be practically referred to as truisms when dealing with public intellectuals of a magnitude like Jordan Peterson. Making someone work on his personality is a complicated task in itself. Labeling it anything other than meaningful — or worthy of attention — has shown to be ineffective. Yet, those who have benefitted from Peterson’s advice should be thankful for it in a manner that does not jeopardize their own moral and political attitudes.
Alessandro van den Berg is an economics teacher in the Netherlands.