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What’s going on with the Jordan Peterson phenomenon?

High culture is dead and the era of the public intellectual is over, Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa lamented in his Notes on the Death of Culture. Something strange has been quietly fomenting in the past few years, however, proving that Vargas Llosa was wrong. A psychology professor at the University of Toronto has gained mainstream success without resorting to shilling snake oil on daytime TV or otherwise compromising his integrity. Jordan Peterson’s fame has skyrocketed in the past year. His avuncular demeanor and hardline stances on social issues, his oratorical poise and his densely-layered lectures have endeared him to fans and perplexed critics. But who is Jordan Peterson? Is he the alt-right demagogue his critics claim? Or is he the champion of disaffected young men, unsure of their places in a politically correct world that has turned its back on them?

Peterson has become so controversial that I think it best to open with a disclaimer. I have been listening to Peterson’s lectures (via his podcast) for a year. At first, I thought he was verbose and obtuse. As a PhD in religious studies, however, I thought I should slog through his psychological interpretations of the Genesis stories. Once I adapted to his extemporaneous speaking and psychological jargon, I was hooked. I write this piece, therefore, as something of an apologia for Peterson and his saner fans, both of whom have been on the receiving end of vitriolic and, in my view, grossly inaccurate pop-journalism pieces. I am not asking any reader to become a Peterson fanatic or to adopt his way of thinking. Rather, my goal here is to explain why the Peterson phenomenon makes sense to those for whom it might appear baffling and to encourage cynics to take Peterson’s ideas more seriously in order to elevate the level of public debate.

Who is this Jordan Peterson guy, anyway?

Two years ago, no one had heard of Jordan Peterson. He was a popular psychology professor at Harvard for a time, and his neigh-impenetrable first book, Maps of Meaning, had a small audience of specialists. At the University of Toronto, Peterson began putting his lectures on YouTube. Then, in mid-2017, Peterson embarked upon a series of lectures interpreting Biblical stories from a psychological perspective, in time, lead to his meteoric rise.

Peterson’s lectures on the Bible are dense. Even as a scholar of religion, I often have to rewind and listen to entire sections a few times before I feel comfortable with Peterson’s arguments. And arguments they are. He weaves not only laboratory and clinical psychology into his claims, but also world history, religious history, evolutionary biology, and mythologies from around the world. His grand narrative approach has long since fallen out of favor among academics, who believe that such sweeping arguments are too general to be of any use. As an academic, at first I found it all a bit hard to swallow. But while I could argue against some of his specific points, I found that overall these lectures were at least worth serious consideration––and at most quite convincing.

In Peterson’s thinking, humans organize the world into two fundamental categories: order and chaos. Whatever else happens on top of those categories, these are the basis on which we organize and live in our world. The biblical stories, he suggests, offer a way to make sense out of chaos. The ultimate chaos, he tells us, is the knowledge that we are mortal. This knowledge is the burden of the Fall, and the biblical stories teach us to shoulder that burden and live productive lives. Peterson believes that Westerners are losing touch with these stories due to the neo-Marxist and postmodernist trends in culture (more on that in a moment). Peterson is not alone in lamenting the waning importance of biblical stories. His lectures have been viewed or listened to millions of times. Even atheists have remarked that, although Peterson has not converted them, he has convinced them of the significance of biblical stories and helped them see why people might be religious.

Jordan Peterson: anti-feminist transphobe?

Despite their popularity, these lectures were not enough to make Peterson a household name. That happened when the Canadian government passed bill C-16, which dictated that state employees must call people by their preferred pronouns. Peterson posted a response to this on YouTube and wrote about it online.

Social conservatives rallied to Peterson, making him a champion of those who were concerned with the rising push for trans rights and acceptance. Social liberals, in turn, called Peterson a fascist and a transphobe. The clash made him famous, but few stopped to listen to what Peterson actually said.

Is Peterson a transphobe? The answer is clear: no. In this interview, he said clearly that he would call a trans person by either he or she, whichever they wished. His concern was not with the trans issue per se; rather, Peterson worried that C-16 compelled speech, thus infringing on the right to free speech so foundational to Western political values. Only tyrannical governments force people to speak in certain ways, Peterson argued, drawing comparisons to Hitler’s Germany, Mao’s China, and Stalin’s USSR. That the government was compelling speech over such a new, relatively unknown, and controversial issue signaled to Peterson that this law was entirely ideological, and that worried him. And so we come back to the neo-Marxist postmodernists.

Peterson has been accused of conspiracy-mongering and obsession with neo-Marxist postmodernists. Blogs and opinion pieces sometimes mock his obsession with neo-Marxism to discredit Peterson. There is no such thing as neo-Marxism, they claim, at least not in the West. These pieces misunderstand Peterson, however. When he uses this term, he is not referring to political Marxism but rather ideological Marxism, also known as materialism. Karl Marx revolutionized the study of history by suggesting that all of history can be explained by economics. Everything boils down to a struggle between the haves and the have-nots.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, Marxist materialism was falling out of favor in the academy thanks to the work of Michel Foucault. Foucault’s impact on the past several decades cannot be overstated. Even if you have no heard his name, you’ve lived in his shadow. Like Marx, Foucault believed that history could be explained by the struggle between those who have material goods and those who lack them. He went beyond Marx, however, and argued that materialism did not explain everything. Instead, Foucault went one step farther and suggested that everything boiled down to power. Those who had wealth kept it by exerting their own power and limiting the power of others. Foucault’s life work was to unravel the webs of power and unveil the ways in which the elite kept the poor downtrodden. Foucauldian and Marxian readings of history and society have much in common: both believe that one idea unlocks the mysteries of society, both separate the world into the elite and the masses, and both propose a toppling of that hierarchy. For Peterson, then, neo-Marxism is the rebirth of Marxist ideological principles through the work of Foucault and Foucault’s followers.

And what about postmodernism? This term has become so overused that it is nearly impossible to define concisely, so I will focus on how Peterson uses the term. For Peterson, postmodernism describes a mindset in which there is no absolute, universal, or objective truth. From a postmodern mindset, to employ an overly simple example, there is no such thing as “good” or “bad,” because these things are culturally dependent. Postmodernism also suggests that everything in society is a human construct and is, therefore, subject to examination and deconstruction. Most germane to this discussion are ideas surrounding sex and gender. The oppression of women occurs because social rules have evolved to preference men. Notions of gender, furthermore, are entirely socially constructed. Gender is only tied to sex because society has conflated the two.

Peterson worries that postmodernism has led to a dramatic loss in our cultural foundations. The classics––especially the biblical stories––have offered men and women ways to survive the chaos of life for millennia, but neo-Marxism and postmodernism suggest that these stories are not only irrelevant but also the tools of oppression. Classic books, poems, myths, and scriptures are therefore falling by the wayside and, in Peterson’s mind, people are less equipped to deal with life’s inherent difficulty. Among those suffering the most, he says, are young men who have been taught that their masculinity is toxic, that their behavior is bullying, and that their instincts the result of an oppressive patriarchy.

Peterson’s disdain for neo-Marxist postmodernism was at the root of his protest against C-16. Things have become muddy the controversy swirling around the debate, especially as the trans issue took center stage and accusations of transphobia and anti-feminism began to fly. Peterson’s C-16 protest had just faded from memory when an interview on a British news program went viral. A Channel 4 interview with Newman made Peterson even more famous, but it also had very unfortunate fallout.

 

In the interview, which you can watch above, Cathy Newman accused Peterson of transphobia, misogyny, and pretty much everything under the sun. It is clear that Newman did not take the time to read Peterson’s writings or listen to his lectures, nor does it seem in the interview that she listened to his answers. Rather than ask substantial questions, she made intentionally-inflammatory accusations against him, using blunt language designed to trick him into getting angry. Peterson maintained his calm until around the minute mark, when, annoyed by another baseless claim, Peterson turned the tables on Newman:

 

For those fed up with what they considered the easily-offended, politically correct-obsessed trend in popular culture, Peterson’s response was a major coup. Things turned ugly, however, in the interview’s aftermath. Newman became the target of a cyberbullying campaign––at least some of the bullies appear to have come from a Russian bot farm, but that doesn’t excuse the rest of the trolls. This gave Peterson’s critics yet another reason to detest Peterson, and increasingly importantly, his fans. From here on out, Peterson and his fans were often linked to the alt-right––usually without evidence––in journalistic and opinion pieces.

After the interview, Peterson-baiting became something of a sport for journalists. Vice posted snippets of an interview with Peterson, culling sections obviously designed to make him look bad. Hit pieces in major and minor publications became more common, often with clickbait titles mirroring the ridiculous titles pro-Peterson YouTube accounts use. In the months following the interview, both pro- and anti-Peterson sentiment has become increasingly irrational.

Both sides have ceased trying to understand his densely layered arguments and instead have retreated into their respective echo chambers. Meaningful engagement with Peterson in the public sphere is dying out, and his ideas have become simplified and commodified in order to garner clicks––or worse. My own concern is that Peterson’s work has been hijacked by the same “fake news” farms that influenced the 2016 election and used to sew yet more discord amongst Americans.

Conclusion

The Peterson phenomenon tells us that culture may not be dead, but it is certainly crippled. The sloppy, ideologically-driven, and intellectually lazy attacks on Jordan Peterson prove that the anti-intellectualist trend in popular culture will attempt to discredit the public intellectual by any means necessary––except, of course, through thoughtful discussion. But the growing mass of people who are taking Peterson and his ideas seriously offer a ray of hope that intelligent debate is not a thing of the past.

 

Whether you agree with Peterson’s ideas is irrelevant. What matters is that, unlike his critics, you engage with them in a meaningful way. I encourage you to listen to Peterson’s podcasts or read his book, try hard to understand them (and they are challenging!), and talk about them with your friends or family. It doesn’t matter if you disagree or agree, because what Peterson teaches us above all else is that we must not resort to inflammatory language, ad hominem attacks, or in-grouping and out-grouping. Instead, we should listen respectfully to people, especially those with whom we disagree.

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