The Intellectual We Deserve

Having safely established that Jordan Peterson is an intellectual fraud who uses a lot of words to say almost nothing, we can now turn back to the original question: how can a man incapable of relaying the content of a children’s book become the most influential thinker of his moment? My first instinct is simply to sigh that the world is tragic and absurd, and there is apparently no height to which confident fools cannot ascend. But there are better explanations available. Peterson is popular partly because he criticizes social justice activists in a way many people find satisfying, and some of those criticisms have merit. He is popular partly because he offers adrift young men a sense of heroic purpose, and offers angry young men rationalizations for their hatreds. And he is popular partly because academia and the left have failed spectacularly at helping make the world intelligible to ordinary people, and giving them a clear and compelling political vision.

.. Peterson first came to international prominence when he publicly opposed Canada’s Bill C-16, which added gender expression and identity to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination in the Canadian Human Rights Act. Peterson claimed that under the bill, he could be compelled to use a student’s preferred gender pronoun or face criminal prosecution, and suggested that social justice activists were promoting a totalitarian ideology. In fact, there was nothing in the bill that criminalized the failure to use people’s preferred gender pronouns (full text), and I share the belief that government legislation requiring people to use particular pronouns would be an infringement on civil liberties. But since that’s a position shared by Noam Chomsky and the ACLU, it’s not a particularly devastating criticism of the left. And when Peterson goes beyond the very narrow issue of compelled speech, his take on social justice isn’t much much more sensible than his lecture on Jungian archetypes in the story of the pancake-dragon.

.. The reason he’s stuck here is that there’s no evidence the Canadian Human Rights Act is about to bring us a gulag archipelago, but that’s what his grandiose statements about left-wing totalitarianism imply will happen. So he must either allege Alberta is about to get its own Great Leap Forward or draw a distinction between Mao’s Red Guards and the University of Toronto LGBTQ center, neither of which he wants to commit to. So we get another heaping dish of Peterson waffle.

.. [Liberalism] got flipped so that the world was turned into one group against another. Power struggle from one group against another, and then the social justice warrior types and the lefties, even the Democratic party, started categorizing everybody according to their ethnic, or sexual, or racial identity, and made that the canonical element of their being. And that’s an absolutely terrible thing to do! It leads to, in the Soviet Union when that happened, for example, when they introduced that idea along with the notion of class guilt… So for example, when the Soviets collectivized the farms, they pretty much wiped out, or raped and froze to death all of their, all their competent farmers—they called them kulaks—and they attributed class guilt to them, because they were successful peasants, and they defined their success as oppression and theft. They killed all of them pretty much, shipped them off to Siberia and froze them to death, and they were the productive agricultural to the Soviet Union, and then in the 1930s in the Ukraine because of that, about six million Ukrainians starve to death.

.. I think it’s worth remembering here what anti-discrimination activists are actually asking for:

  • they want transgender people not to be fired from their jobs for being transgender,
  • not to suffer gratuitously in prisons,
  • to be able to access appropriate healthcare,
  • not to be victimized in hate crimes, and
  • not to be ostracized, evicted, or disdained.

Likewise, the social justice claims on race are about:

  • trying to fix the black-white wealth gap,
  • trying to reduce racial discrimination in job applications,
  • trying to reduce race-based health disparities

.. Read the Democratic Party platform or the Black Lives Matter policy agenda. Disagree with them! But Peterson spares himself from having to actually engage in substantive debates on policy questions, by writing off the left as a bunch of brainwashed totalitarian postmodernist neo-Marxists.

..  When a questioner asked himwhat he thought people should do to effect change, given his opposition to student activism, his answer was telling:

This happened in the 60s, as far as I can tell, that we got this misbegotten idea that the way to conduct yourself as a responsible human being was to hold placards up to protest to change the viewpoints of other people and thereby usher in the utopia. I think that’s all appalling, I think it’s appalling. And I think it’s absolutely absurd that students are taught that that’s the way to conduct themselves in the world. First of all, if you’re nineteen or twenty or twenty one, you don’t bloody well know anything. You haven’t done anything. You don’t know anything about history, you haven’t read anything, you haven’t supported yourself for any length of time. You’ve been entirely dependent on your state and on your family for the brief few years of your existence. And the idea that you have any wisdom to determine how society should be reconstructed when you’re sitting in the absolute lap of luxury protected by processes you don’t understand… let’s call that a bad idea… The idea that what you should do to change the world is to find people you disagree with and shake paper on sticks at them, it’s just…

.. Activism, then, is arrogant brats holding “paper on sticks,” a peculiar and appalling phenomenon he believes started in the 60s. Nevermind that what he is talking about is more commonly known as the Civil Rights Movement, and the “paper on sticks” said “We shall overcome” and “End segregated schools” on them.

.. And nevermind that it worked, and was one of the most morally important events of the 20th century.

.. Peterson, who is apparently an alien to whom political action is an unfathomable mystery, thinks it’s been nothing but fifty years of childish virtue-signaling. The activists against the Vietnam War spent years trying to stop a horrific atrocity that killed a million people, and had a very significant effect in drawing attention to that atrocity and finally bringing it to a close. But the students are the ones who “don’t know anything about history.”

.. Peterson seemingly discourages all serious political involvement. He says cultivating the self and reading great books is “more important than any possible political action.” Don’t focus on changing the world, focus on tidying up your life.

.. 12 Rules For Life makes it explicit: stop questioning the social order, stop assigning blame for problems to political actors, stop trying to reorganize things.

.. Have you taken full advantage of the opportunities offered to you? Are you working hard on your career, or even your job, or are you letting bitterness and resentment hold you back and drag you down? Have you made peace with your brother? … Are there things that you could do, that you know you could do, that would make things around you better? Have you cleaned up your life? If the answer is no, here’s something to try:start to stop doing what you know to be wrong. Start stopping today… Don’t blame capitalism, the radical left, or the iniquity of your enemies. Don’t reorganize the state until you have ordered your own experience. Have some humility. If you cannot bring peace to your household, how dare you try to rule a city? … Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.

.. And since one’s house can never be in perfect order, one can never criticize the world.

.. This is, most obviously, an invitation to total depoliticization and solipsism.

.. Peterson speaks to disaffected millennial men, validating their prejudices about feminists and serving as a surrogate father figure. Yet he’s offering them terrible advice, because the “individual responsibility” ethic makes one feel like a failure for failing. Oh, sure, his rules about “standing up straight” and “petting a cat when you see one” are innocuous enough. But you shouldn’t tell people that their problems are their fault if you don’t actually know whether their problems are their fault.

.. Millennials struggle in part because of a viciously competitive economy that is crushing them with debt and a lack of opportunity.

.. But if you can’t pay your student loans, or your rent, and you can’t get a better job, what use is it to tell you that you should adopt a confident lobster-posture?

..  Why is Jordan Peterson’s combination of drivel and cliché attracting millions of followers? Some of it is probably because alt-right guys like that he gives a seemingly scientific justification for their dislike of “social justice warriors.” Some of it is just that self-help always sells. Another part of it, though, is that academics have been cloistered and unhelpful, and the left has failed to offer people a coherent political alternative. Some of it is probably because alt-right guys like that he gives a seemingly scientific justification for their dislike of “social justice warriors.” Some of it is just that self-help always sells. Another part of it, though, is that academics have been cloistered and unhelpful, and the left has failed to offer people a coherent political alternative.

.. Tabatha Southey was cruel to call Jordan Peterson “the stupid man’s smart person.” He is the desperate man’s smart person, he feeds on angst and confusion.

.. Who else has a serious alternative? Where are the other professors with accessible and compelling YouTube channels, with books of helpful advice and long Q&A sessions with the public?

.. it’s futile because ultimately, you can’t escape politics. 

.. Our lives are conditioned by economic and political systems, like it or not, and by telling lost people to abandon projects for social change, one permanently guarantees they will be the helpless victims of forces beyond their control or understanding. The genuinely “heroic” path in life is to band with others to pursue the social good, to find meaning in the collective human striving to better our condition. No, not by abandoning the idea of the “individual” and seeing the world purely in terms of group identity. But by pooling our individual talents and efforts to produce a better, fairer, and more beautiful world.