“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.”
ultural 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.