The Peterson problem

Last Sunday night I attended Professor Jordan Peterson’s 90-minute talk, Q&A, and book signing at the Clarion Conference Centre in Sherwood Park. Precisely because, and not in spite of the fact that I’m argumentative, combative, carnivorous, and righteous, I sat beside the only two men in the packed 750-seat room who were wearing those gauche MAGA hats.

Peterson is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. In the latter half of 2016 he was tossed into the spotlight, much to the chagrin of social justice communities, when he posted the video “Professor against political correctness” to his YouTube channel, wherein he protested Bill C-16, which mandates the use of a person’s preferred gender-pronouns. Proponents of the bill argue that it’s merely a symbolic act since the bureaucratic hoopla one would endure in order to indict someone under C-16 would be nothing short of gruelling. Yet the move is also unprecedented: for the first time in its history the Canadian government is legislating what must be said, not what can’t be said. It must be stated, Peterson is opposed to the government enforcing compelled speech, not to addressing a gender-nonconforming person by their preferred pronouns. Non-binary and trans people are merely a red herring to a larger agenda of dogmatic equity, so Peterson argues.

And yet, perhaps to the ire of tweedle dee and tweedle dum sitting to my right, he did not entertain his politics during his talk (aside from the slight against Trudeau during the Q&A: “I decided when I was 17 that I didn’t know anything and I think Justin Trudeau should have realized the same.”) This is because Peterson is touring his new book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, released last month, which marks his foray into the self-help genre. His first book, Maps of Meaning (1999), is a verbose, panoramic investigation into the mythical structures that form the substrate of human consciousness. To decry that 12 Rules is a more readerly and lucrative venture than its predecessor is a gross oversimplification.

A pervading thesis against Peterson is he’s a quasi-tycoon charlatan and 12 Rules profoundly capitalizes on his internet success (his Patreon account receives more than $60,000 a month in donations) and were it not for his newfound celebrity he would be an anonymous academic like any other. But monetary success is not a moral failing and writing and publishing a book takes more than 12 months. Unless Peterson had the foresight from the beginning of his involvement in what has become known as the “intellectual dark web” (to quote Sam Harris) to profit from his flash of fame, I am not convinced that he planned for his academic rock star status to coincide with his book deal—let alone plan to be an academic rock star.

Despite the criticisms hurled his way, the antidote to chaos he prescribed Sunday night is rather benign and evident: tell the truth; thwart off ideologies and ideologues; treat yourself like someone who matters. That these prescriptions receive such vitriol would be hilarious if they weren’t so dour and self-serving.

I imagine what the MAGA bros wanted to hear is his appraisal of postmodernism, which carries a philistine twang that is maddened by social justice and likely embedded in his practicality of being a clinical psychologist (postmodernism is not a sturdy framework to scaffold your life on, but that doesn’t mean it’s not useful for other things). I would like to point you to this article, which does a fine job of explicating the cabal of French “postmodern neomarxists” who Peterson believes are so threatening to western culture (but skip the shallow exposition). What I can say here, without taking up more space than I’m allowed, is that his self-help procedures are productive — if you’re into that sort of thing — but his psychology lectures are illuminating, but his politics are frequently reactionary for the sake of rebellion.  

The Peterson problem lies in the wholesale rejection of anyone who believes differently. Peterson is not a member of the alt-right and anyone who thinks so (whether disparagingly or in adoration) is engaging in the laziest form of criticism, but most people on the left unflinchingly scorn him for bill C-16 then snowball their argument from there. I don’t have to ask my friends what they think of Peterson because I already know; my conjecture is their reality. We do and don’t do this with other public figures: Foucault wrote some good books and a few bad books, but he’s still lauded in all my classes; those thinkers on the other side of the political aisle are indiscriminately bemoaned. Peterson is a conservative foil to our everyday liberal lives; a dissident voice so our thoughts don’t become stale. I just wonder whether the Trump apostates would do the same for someone like Noam Chomsky. Judging by their conversation between the talk and Q&A I’m disinclined to be optimistic.

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