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Why Jordan Peterson Is Worth Defending

(GAGE SKIDMORE/CREATIVE COMMONS)

And, in the midst of it all, a Canadian psychologist told people to clean their rooms before trying to change the world and has not ceased to be excoriated for his efforts years later. History will be kinder to him than his opponents.”

Cultural upheavals have been known to swell and crash like waves. Although their popularity may rise and fall with the times, the underlying conditions that allowed them to flourish (and their ripple effects in society) run deeper than undulating political trends. Examining why certain ideas gain momentum at a given historical moment is crucial in mapping our present course; otherwise, the ocean of our collective unconscious remains an uncharted and treacherous mystery. 

Jordan B. Peterson was a psychology professor at the University of Toronto when he skyrocketed to intellectual stardom after taking a widely publicized stance against the rise of politically correct culture and social justice ideology on campus. Although his original concern was propelled by the specter of Bill C-16, which added gender expression and gender identity as protected grounds under the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code, his protest was part of a broadening resistance to the excesses of the cultural Left. These excesses of the cultural Left include an emphasis on privilege, structural bias, identity and historical oppression, which have increasingly seeped into our institutions and set the boundaries for polite discourse. Resistance to this narrative and the norms it has promulgated was building up for years, but the expansion of online progressive activism, precipitated by the widespread use of social media, unleashed a massive counter-reaction across the West. 

As his notoriety catapulted online, Peterson became a spokesperson for the burgeoning anti-woke crowd known as the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW), a diverse medley of individuals with various political persuasions united in their disdain for identitarian extremism on both ends of the aisle. As such, Peterson used his platform to expound a message of personal responsibility and spiritual renewal for a world at a loss for meaning.

He was effectively saying to establishment journalists, academics, and pundits who otherwise imagine themselves as being on the right side of history, “You are not so innocent.”

But with notoriety comes droves of untold pressure. His rise was met with a deluge of hard-hitting interviews and hit pieces from mainstream media outlets, some rendered in good faith but the vast majority resembling character assassinations meant to shame and discredit. It is not difficult to see why Peterson was considered a threat: He was challenging the very basis of received wisdom on major cultural issues, not just in terms of prevailing ideas and attitudes but with regards to the entire moral identity that underlied them. He was effectively saying to establishment journalists, academics, and pundits who otherwise imagine themselves as being on the right side of history, “You are not so innocent.” The backlash to this indictment showed through in number of well-documented skirmishes, including the infamous Cathy Newman Channel 4 interview, a 2018 Munk Debate in which race writer Michael Eric Dyson called Peterson “a mean mad white man,” and a GQ interview with Atlantic writer Helen Lewis, which constituted nearly 2 hours of accusational “gotcha” questions. Of course, not all of the pushback was entirely unwarranted; controversial figures should be scrutinized by our cultural gatekeepers, if only to see what all the fuss is about. Yet, the sheer volume of scorn went beyond mere scrutiny. His ascendence was received as a menace. 

But the initial zeal Peterson carried into the culture wars eventually began to wear thin. In his last few televised appearances, he looked visibly worn, with his arguments lacking the authentic spontaneity and charisma of his earlier debates. The highly anticipated clash with Slavoj Žižek was disappointing at best, with Peterson coming off rather anemic and polemically out of his depth. In a bizarre turn, it was revealed he had barely read any Marx at all, the thinker whose ideology he had been excoriating very publicly for years. 

And then in February, it was reported by his daughter, Mikhaila, that Peterson had checked into a Russian hospital (of all places) to treat a benzodiazepine (an anti-anxiety medication) dependence and had nearly died from a severe case of pneumonia while spending four weeks in intensive care. After raising the dosage during his wife, Tammy’s, cancer scare, the effects of the medication backfired, resulting in heightened physiological distress and suicidal thoughts. Although Peterson’s condition is now stable enough for him to have recently left Russia for the United States, he has yet to do any public appearances, and much still hangs in the balance.

With Peterson’s waning magnetism and subsequent withdrawal from public discourse, the energy and momentum behind his rise has receded. 

A number of scathing critiques have arisen of Peterson, most notably from the democratic socialist Left, who might otherwise be sympathetic to condemnations of elitist identity politics. Of course, criticism of Peterson is nothing out of the ordinary. But what’s significant is that—in contrast to the expected epithets hurled from the social justice crowd—these critiques directly address his actual arguments.

In this telling, Peterson had always been a receptacle for reactionary sentiment, taking advantage of the low-hanging fruit of campus overindulgence (epitomized by the archetypal image of screeching blue-haired feminists) to ultimately score partisan points for the Right. Moreover, the professed principles of self-determination expounded in his lecture series and best-selling book 12 Rules For Life are effectively a defense of the status quo in the form of unfettered capitalism, exposing his inability to recognize the socio-economic root causes of the human suffering he sought to ameliorate. More broadly, the incoherent anti-polarization message of Intellectual Dark Web members masked their own respective biases or, otherwise, reflected a glaring naïveté of how politics works and a misplaced self-congratulation for their faux dissent. The exhaustion of the Peterson phenomenon, according to this view, is a result of the embedded contradictions and fallacies in his positions rather than either the unrelenting attacks and pressure involved in becoming an international sensation virtually overnight.

These contradictions were sharply summarized in a recent essay for the socialist magazine Jacobin by former Quillette contributors Ben Burgis and Matt McManus, quaintly entitled “Why Jordan Peterson Is Always Wrong,” a preview of their recently released book in critique of Peterson. The piece makes three basic points:

  1. Peterson’s preferred ideological boogeyman of “postmodern neo-Marxism,” a fusion of communist ideals and deconstructionism a la Jacques Derrida, which pursues equality of outcome above all and derides the West as a vast system of oppression, is a serious misreading of these doctrines’ historical context and draws a false equivalency between healthier expressions of the modern Left and outright Stalinism.
  2. Peterson strawmans the Left in asserting that its purveyors want to eliminate any and all hierarchy rather than simply mitigate the overreach of traditional hierarchies in accordance with modern sensibilities of fairness, succumbing to an unrealistic bootstrapping absolutism and rugged individualism that would have effectively nullified any historical demand for greater equality such as with abolitionism or civil rights.  
  3. Peterson fails to take into consideration the uprooting effects of capitalism in breaking down traditional moral values and civic engagement, choosing rather to excoriate young people for their lack of gratitude and blame esoteric philosophers for our present crisis in meaning. 

These arguments form an appropriate launching pad for a response. 

It is quite true that Peterson A) overstates his case in respect to the historical efficacy of “postmodern neo-Marxism” B) that he has the tendency to paint with a broad brush in his analysis of Left that might lead to sweeping and reflexive dismissals C) and that he downplays the role of capitalism in our cultural entropy. 

There are quibbles to be made of each point, such as that A) extreme forms of progressive activism can mirror certain totalitarian features of statism in its all-encompassing pursuit of racial/gender parity B) the Left’s inability to restrain its radical fringe contributes to the stigma of Leftism itself being problematic and C) the net benefits of capitalism in terms of general life outcomes is not necessarily in contradiction with its propensity to upend traditional modes of meaning (it can be both/and). But there is a stronger case to be made as to why none of this particularly matters in relation to Peterson’s larger message and impact, despite whatever limitations he may have had as a messenger. 

The energy behind a movement does not go away when its coherence dissolves. It may disperse or remain dormant, but it will eventually be redirected in more or less productive ways. The disciplines of individual self-determination and personal development Peterson articulated offered a path toward releasing interpersonal bitterness through building a culture of responsibility: a reaction to the widening chasm between emergent impulses arising bottom-up from experience and the moral properties enforced top-down by our institutions. Although it tends to escape the solely politically-minded among us, Peterson’s message was fundamentally moral, cultural, and psychological—a repudiation of progressive guilt and the entrenched need to create an identity as against historical sin. Recognizing one’s relative privileges and feeling responsible for spreading them to more people is one thing but ritualistically sermonizing on a society’s past errors and stigmatizing anyone who questions its utility is another thing entirely. A reasonable Left would reject the latter outright. 

On a more personal note, as a young man with a quite severe chronic illness I can say with full confidence that Peterson has positively influenced my life through his teachings. And contrary to what Peterson critics often think about his supporters, I somehow never managed to fall down a far-right rabbit hole online.

A distinction needs to be made here between economic Leftism and the cultural Left. The former involves ideas of wealth redistribution and broad-based social programs based on principles of equality, fairness, and universal dignity to mitigate suffering. The latter is about retribution for historical injustices and leveling inequalities between groups. Put bluntly, cultural Leftism is vastly less popular, with 80% of Americans reporting an aversion to political correctness in the Hidden Tribes, because it operates through repression and moralization. Economic Leftism, however one feels about it’s tenets and purveyors, is more pragmatic as it does not require mind-reading accusations and unfalsifiable theories to pursue its ends. The prospect that Peterson and the IDW did not draw a clear enough line between them does not justify their critics doing the same.

Finally, the forces that laid the groundwork for Peterson’s rise have not vanished in his absence. The progressive bias in our cultural institutions remains stark and has been met with an increasingly reactive and reactionary Right. The ever-expanding definition of the racist/sexist epithets is occurring at the same moment that the demographic makeup of the country is rapidly changing and men, in particular, are falling behind on a number of important socio-economic metrics. This lends credence to far-right movements, which will only grow stronger with time and change. The decline of religion in the West and the explosion of digital technology has opened up a vacuum of purpose and identity that is not being filled by modern culture. And, in the midst of it all, a Canadian psychologist told people to clean their rooms before trying to change the world and has not ceased to be excoriated for his efforts years later. History will be kinder to him than his opponents. 

On a more personal note, as a young man with a quite severe chronic illness I can say with full confidence that Peterson has positively influenced my life through his teachings. And contrary to what Peterson critics often think about his supporters, I somehow never managed to fall down a far-right rabbit hole online. For those unconvinced that Peterson’s appeal was anything other than political, consider some videos I spliced of Peterson on my YouTube channel which have racked up millions of views and decide for yourself.

Godspeed, Dr. Peterson.

Sam Kronen is an autodidact interested in the intersection of politics and culture. He can be reached on Twitter @SalmonKromeDome.

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C.M.
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C.M.

You offer a better critique of Peterson here then many of his detractors, and have done so in an article written to defend him. I’ve always conceded the man has flaws, but then so do all great thinkers. People who view Peterson as an all knowing savior do themselves and Peterson a disservice, people who seize on his flaws and use those to discount his many contributions mostly just do themselves a disservice. He helped me break out of a bad spot in my life, for that I am very grateful, and I too managed not to fall down any extremist rabbit hole. I hope he returns to public life after his recovery, I hope he considers the better criticisms against him and returns stronger for it, but only time will tell.

Mark
Guest
Mark

This article turns from somewhat fair handed to leaning towards the counter factual when it comes to economic socialism. From the mention of the Slavoj Žižek debate onward, the author shows his proclivity for the socialist system. By all accounts, actual Marxism is indefensible – and even Žižek says that in the debate. This then prompts Peterson to eventually ask how Žižek became known as one of the world’s leading Marxist thinkers – which Žižek, with likeable humor and wit, says he can’t account for. Peterson is not a proponent of unfettered captialism and that certainly isn’t a conclusion from 12 Rules for Life, in fact he lays out a the utility of the Left (liberalism) and the utility of the Right (conservatism) and shows them as necessary and complimentary. Much like chaos and order are both necessary as he often references through the metaphors of the Taoist ying-yang symbol, and paradise – a serene walled garden which simultaneously barricades and contains the natural and unexpected. The real point of… Read more »

Brian Gerrits
Guest
Brian Gerrits

Jordan Peterson is an intellectual Ferrari. I would akin his detractors to people who’d look at a Ferrari and call it a worthless piece of junk because it had a scratch on its door. I am involved in the hard sciences. Facts and rationality are far more important to me to evaluate a political situation than someone who can yell the loudest that they are offended and loudly engage in name calling. The man does not argue to defeat someone. He tries to do a factual analysis of a given question. That’s what any intelligent rational person of ethics should do. He is a breath of fresh air in a room filled with a giant political fart.

Michael McVeigh
Guest
Michael McVeigh

Firstly, I find it interesting that comments are invited here as opposed to the piece in Jacobinmag by the 2 opponents of Peterson’s views.
I would say to anyone who believes that Peterson is wrong – they have not understood his message in the same way that millions of people right around the globe have gelled with his talks. To them, as to I, Peterson’s words made complete sense of what we have been experiencing in our ‘political’ lives, they were easily understood and joined the dots on some of the questions of life – he simply fulfilled the jigsaw in plain sight.
I certainly will never forget his impact on my life & many others feel the same.
The bigger question is why people who are opposed to Peterson’s views (including my son) cannot see what he was saying with the same clarity to which his followers can?

Mati C.
Guest
Mati C.

Peterson’s re-shared biblical lectures have basically become my Sunday morning worship. So grateful to have his voice adding to the chorus of voices making the world a better place. Fingers crossed he comes state-side soon!

Walter Schumm
Guest
Walter Schumm

I’d support Peterson in at least two ways. First, in social science a large number of “findings” and “sociological consensus” have been shown, IMHO, to be incorrect, but that is seldom acknowledged. Second, those who criticize sociological consensus can be marginalized in a number of creative ways, for example, using conference codes to blame them for any number of ways of having offended someone. It might make sense except that there is no need to say who did it, no need for the accuser to give their name, the accusation can be done entirely on the web by people who didn’t even attend the conference, the accused has no right to a hearing or a defense but can be banned for life from attending any of the future conferences by the board of directors who are accountable to no one. This type of totalitarian operation surely Peterson would reject. And yet many liberals see this sort of thing as entirely useful and fair. However, Peterson is also right that suffering… Read more »

Jon Miner
Guest
Jon Miner

You say, “With Peterson’s waning magnetism and subsequent withdrawal from public discourse, the energy and momentum behind his rise has receded.
I doubt it. His website now has a lot of subscribers:
Jordan B Peterson
2.72M subscribers
And his book 12 Rules is highly rated and sells well:
Since it was published on Jan. 23, Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos has soared to the top of the charts. This week it tops the Star’s non-fiction list and other lists across Canada.

Readers in the United States seem to like him, too. It’s the No. 4 best-selling book in the U.S. overall, according to Publishers Weekly. It’s No. 1 on Amazon. It’s No. 2 on the Washington Post’s non-fiction list. It’s No. 4 on USA Today’s overall list.

But it didn’t seem to cast even a shadow on the New York Times’ prestigious list. Why would that be?

Clinton
Guest
Clinton

Jordan Peterson is not an authority on economics, Richard Wolff is. It is easy to point out the problems of cultural Marxism, where students at a University designed to make them elite pick apart elitism and privilege in a setting sure to make hypocrites of all who participate. It is easy to point out the problems of unfettered “free markets” because they are so glaring and obvious, like Bezos taking health care away from Whole Foods workers then building a huge super mansion just like feudalism. The difficult thing in life is finding balance and perspective. Jordan Peterson is good at helping people find balance, purpose and adventure. Sometimes adventure looks like driving down the road using vodka to keep the windshield from turning to ice. Sometimes it is going to Russia to get treated for an addiction. In an age of easy access to power, every wing nut can make a podcast, buy an AR15, put huge obnoxious bumper stickers on their truck and be furious at their perceived… Read more »

Megan
Guest
Megan

Thank you for defending Jordan and his ideas. I don’t think he has ever held himself up as all wise although he is obviously highly intelligent. He is a very human truth seeker. I so hope he recovers strongly, his voice is needed.

Stuart Johnson
Guest
Stuart Johnson

The issues are large and complex.
Both sides have valid arguments.
Perhaps there is wisdom in the middle. Unintended consequences
from a wrong cultural turn puts us all
in peril.
That’s why we need ongoing
discussions about important topics.
I have appreciated Dr. Peterson’s
engaging style (as in a fascinating
college course). His topics hit a chord with me, as with many others.
Psychological theology is a heck of a course. My prayer is that Jordan recoverS fully and rejoin the fray.
Expanded mind are a wonderful
thing!

David Schuessler
Guest
David Schuessler

I am thankful to have found Jordan Petersen as no one has influenced my thinking like him since I read Joseph Campbell. I am more left in my thinking and orthodox religion has nothing for me unless I read the stories in terms of their metaphorical message and not if they are literal fact or not. His message of finding meaning through personal responsibility transcends politics in my view and can help any individual and thus any community to which they belong to prosper. The lack of social justice that many suffer from is still an issue, but I believe it is a separate (political) one.

Maria Kunda
Guest
Maria Kunda

Which socio-economic metrics are men falling behind on?

dvstklm
Guest
dvstklm

The difference between what in the article are called “economic Leftism and the cultural Left” is much more than one can think. I submit that they do not belong to the same spectrum but stem from radically different philosphical views. “Economic leftism” is based on individual human rights, including the right to free speech, free entreprise etc. It is concerned with redistributing wealth while protecting human rights. Individual human rights are the most important thing, more than social equality. The “cultural Left” is concerned with “liberation”, equality and retribution for injustice above all, human rights are subordinated to these goals (just look at freedom of speech). It is easier to understand the current and historical excesses of the “Left” once this is understood.

Roeland
Guest
Roeland

I never got how Peterson could talk about ‘left’ and ‘leftists’ and at the same argue against identity politics. He had a big blind spot, which made him fight against his own principles. He got stuck in his own intellectual web. It’s a sad thing but should remind us that life should be lived above all, you can’t think your way out of it. It’s an endless game of oppositions, best thing is to play it lightly.

sam
Guest
sam

you make so many statements and don’t expand on any of them

Roeland
Guest
Roeland

Because im not writing an essay. In short I’m saying Peterson is guilty of generalizing the ‘left’. Downgrading individual people to make them fit into one group and then accusing them they can’t think for themselves. It’s good he emphasised on individual responsibility but no man stands alone, only in relation to a group or society we define ourselves. So Peterson needs to attack the group in order to define the individual. It’s the game of political left vs right that is healthy to the degree that you don’t intellectualize is, making it abstract and then declare one the enemy of the other.

Michael
Guest
Michael

You can say all you want, it’s still just baseless accusations. Peterson had to do with enough individuals from the political left who behaved like absolute mongrels, and then he had discussions with leftists who were very sensible, well-articulated and educated. He’s too smart and open-minded to call a political orientation wrong because of a few bad individuals. You’re probably just pissed because one or two things he said personally offended you, and you just can’t handle that.

Roeland
Guest
Roeland

hm yeah no that’s not it. He said he was non political but continuously attacked ‘those leftist types’, where do you think that puts him on the political scale then? On the side of ‘too smart and open-minded’?

Mati C.
Guest
Mati C.

Hi Roeland, thanks for your comments and perspective. I wanted to share my two cents on your first comment, specifically where you say: “I never got how Peterson could talk about ‘left’ and ‘leftists’ and at the same argue against identity politics.” I think you’re conflating terms, which is easy to do (I accidentally do it all the time). If I’m reading you right, you’re saying, “How can Peterson criticize people’s use of categories to describe groups of people (e.g., identity politics) when he uses categories to describe groups of people (e.g., Left, Leftist)?” I think this misses the point. It’s not the use of categories per se that’s bad, it’s the Left’s (see, I use categories too) view that people’s immutable and meritless group characterisitics (race, sex, sexual orientation, etc.) are more than likely to blame for their personal shortcomings (i.e., a source of supposed oppression). As a 33-year-old college graduate who had every opportunity in life but still got lost in addiction, depression, and existential dread, I can’t… Read more »

Roeland
Guest
Roeland

I think it comes down to how you view yourself. Are you a product of the society or is the society made out of individuals? It’s both but sometimes we identify ourselves as a group and sometimes we see ourselves as an individual. Peterson acknowledges this as well but meanwhile (and here comes the conflation you are talking about) he expresses his favor for the individual. He values the individual over the group, and out of that rolls his political view. So now he left the world of thought and start pointing to what’s going on in reality. Because he sees in the real world (mostly on university campus) people that feel they are entitled based on characteristics of their group like you said. He names it the radical left (but also just ‘left’ or ‘those leftist types’, to make the group bigger). Peterson uses this group to stimulate his political view of individuality. It’s part of his success. He needs an enemy as a contrast. It’s his own conviction,… Read more »

Jordan
Guest
Jordan

Drug addict. Supporter of Russia. Hater of Transgender people. Liar about an all meat diet. A nut job Christian. His book was absolute crap and I’d often forget what rule he was talking about. I don’t see what redeeming values he has. Also isn’t he in a coma?

Jre
Guest
Jre

What a loser.

Doug
Guest
Doug

So much hate

Lotti
Guest
Lotti

Not one solid argument, just ad hominems, and ill informed ones at that.

David Schuessler
Guest
David Schuessler

If you don’t relate to the message of the mythology Dr. Peterson is talking about then good for you. You have it all figured out it sounds like. To not leave it right there, but to go on and disparage the man makes you just another hater.