and the Sort of People You Won’t
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.
The Jordan Peterson Demographic Isn’t Going Away
the glib elite consensus is that because American men are born with a head start, dominate the upper ranks of the country’s major institutions, and don’t face any particular challenges, life should be easy for us. Do the men who dropped out of high school need to be “convinced” that this isn’t true? What about the men whose friends are suffering from drug addiction, or who are addicted themselves? The men with no job prospects, no social capital, and no hope of finding a life partner? When Carlson pointed out, correctly, in the first entry of the series that American men are increasingly dropping out of school, addicted to drugs, falling out of the job market, committing crimes, and killing themselves, it wasn’t an exercise in persuasion. Carlson’s target audience doesn’t need him to “convince” them that their lives have gone awry; they know it already.
.. What Carlson was actually doing in “Men in America,” which concluded last week, was offering his version of an explanation of why conditions are dreadful for so many American men. He blamed a combination of
the vilification of traditional masculinity, and
certain ill-advised government programs
.. For whether or not he’s right about the reasons why men are facing hard times, Carlson is surely right that they are. Meanwhile, his critics, in a representative stand-in for polite progressive opinion, were content to mock or deny the existence of this state of affairs rather than take a stab at offering an alternative explanation for its causes.
.. Elliot Kaufman calls the Jordan Peterson demographic: men in their late teens, twenties, and early thirties who are frustrated with the way their lives are going, often for good reason, and eager for someone to recognize their plight and offer a way out
.. the Peterson phenomenon; the writer Park MacDougald describes his message thus:
Life is hard, you will suffer, and in order to handle that suffering, you will have to be prepared. Preparing means taking responsibility for yourself. That’s hard, too, so you may try to avoid it. You may use all manner of evasions and rationalizations to convince yourself that things will sort themselves out on their own, or that others will bail you out, or that if they don’t, it’s their fault and not yours. But that’s a lie. So stop lying. Accept responsibility for your fate.
.. “Peterson has become a celebrity by telling young people to get their act together, which suggests that there are a lot of them who need to hear it.”
.. one of Peterson’s virtues is that he appeals to men who have fallen out of society — those “not in education, employment, or training” — who might otherwise wind up in fringe movements.
.. Angela Nagle who, in her book about the Internet culture wars, posited a connection between the “growing celibacy among a large male population,” the “anxiety and anger about their low-ranking status in the hierarchy” that such persistent sexual frustration engenders, and the mushrooming of the so-called alt-right in 2016.
.. Peterson appeals to the same folks, but scorns the identitarian movement that has captured many of them.
.. to the extent that Peterson’s rise has drained support for cranks, there’s a strong case that in consequentialist terms it has been a good thing.
.. And, as the dismissive criticisms of Peterson and Carlson show, the Left has little on offer for young men save for a choice between self-abnegation and enduring slurs about sins of the past. Peterson is on to something: They could use a sustained dose of the insights they used to get from tough-minded teachers, coaches, clerics, professors, or drill sergeants. Many of the institutions represented by those stalwart role models, however, have decayed.
.. nobody should be blamed for feeling ambivalent that Fox News’ most cynical host is chief among them. Carlson’s career has been an exercise in switching convictions. His decision to pivot toward Peterson is intended to grow his rapt audience, not promote his sincerely held beliefs. He’s a shrewd actor and savvy businessman, not a responsible thinker.
.. Rather than grousing that the wrong people are reaching out to this demographic, it would be more productive to think honestly about why the demographic exists at all.