Why the Canadian darling of the alt-right is the most overrated public intellectual of our day
The meteoric rise of Jordan Peterson to the status of public intellectual stardom has been one of the most interesting, if not regrettable, cases of how the internet has created idols out of people who would have best languished in obscurity. Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, was a hitherto relatively unknown figure outside of Canada until a number of his videos caught the public attention in 2016. The videos were made in protest of a proposed amendment to Canada’s Human Rights Act (a bill known as C-16), which included “gender identity and expression” to the list of characteristics that would be subject to human rights protection. The bill also included a specific mention to “refusing to refer to a person by their self-identified name and proper personal pronoun” as grounds for discrimination. The bill was clearly seen as a victory, particularly for the transgender community. But Peterson, along with many conservatives, decried it as an abuse of free speech. According to Peterson, the law opened the door for anyone to be jailed if they used the wrong pronoun to refer to a transgender or non-binary person, even if they were unaware of it. Amid the poisonous atmosphere of identity politics that dominates the West (both on the left and right), Peterson’s objections went viral and a celebrity was born.
Since then, Peterson has become one of the most identifiable members of the so-called “intellectual dark web”, a group of pundits and academics who share two main characteristics. The first is their massive online followings; many of them are regulars on the podcast circuit or are otherwise ubiquitous on YouTube. The second is that regardless of their backgrounds and ideologies, most of them share an opposition to radical progressivism, “social justice warriors” (SJWs), and the campus activism that has become commonplace in recent years, mainly in the US. Not all of them are declared conservatives. Most openly dislike Donald Trump or at least express serious reservations about him. Many of them describe themselves as “classic liberals”, an increasingly used cop-out that seems to be a euphemism for hardline libertarianism but which implies a belief in social liberty. Aside from that, the intellectual dark web comes from all walks of life, be it neo-conservative journalists (Douglas Murray), Bernie Sanders-supporting evolutionary biologists (Bret Weinstein), and more traditional conservative pundits (Ben Shapiro). Even unconventional feminists like Christina Hoff Summers and Camille Paglia occasionally join their otherwise almost entirely male-dominated ranks. And the doors are also open to non-intellectuals, like disgraced Google programmer James Damore of the infamous gender memo fame.
Not surprisingly, many of the most prominent members of the intellectual dark web have huge alt-right followings; in Peterson’s case, borderline rabid as evidenced by the commentary in any one of his YouTube videos. But given their academic credentials and their lack of overtly racist pronouncements, many of them (including Peterson) has been labeled the “alt-lite”. They may not be Tikki Torch-wielding white nationalists from Charlottesville but you’ll find many ideas that at best can be described as “hate enabling”, such as spouting contested ideas on IQ differences among race and gender, stringently denying concepts like white privilege, and condemning left-wing activism like Black Live Matters and the #MeToo movement while being remarkably complacent about the activities of the radical right. These views are not unique to the alt-lite or the intellectual dark web but have been spreading even among more respected intellectuals such as the New Atheists and New Optimists (notably Steven Pinker), many of which share an overlapping fandom and can be seen in many of the same online outlets such as the Rubin Report (arguably the headquarters of the intellectual dark web and the alt-lite), as well as the widely followed Joe Rogan and Sam Harris’ podcasts. Snippets of their media appearances are everywhere on YouTube, usually given provocative click-bait titles like “Jordan Peterson DESTROYS progressive interviewer on gender pay gap” and which in reality are far from the knockout blows their titles claim to be once you actually watch them.
The problem with Peterson
I do share with Peterson and the intellectual dark web a revulsion against identity politics, mainly because I feel it is counterproductive to the ultimate aims of progressivism such as diversity and equality which I think are laudable goals for any civilized society. People’s common good is best served by emphasizing the attributes that they share, rather than those that make them different regardless of how much pride one feels at the latter. However, this is probably the extent of my affinity with Peterson’s beliefs. My main problem with Peterson is that I find him to be an incredibly duplicitous individual, one who holds not only strongly conservative views but borderline reactionary ones, yet goes to great lengths to promote them insidiously rather than openly. Peterson then exploits what is one of the most unfortunate characteristics of human nature: once we find someone with an idea that appeals to us, we go to great lengths to justify all their other ones in order to maintain this person in perpetual good light. Rarely are human beings capable of the intellectual flexibility to admit that our idols can have dark sides, and rather than admit they are flawed we are more prone to end up accommodating our own beliefs to that of the idol. In Peterson’s case, his opposition to identity politics is the gateway drug: even I don’t disagree with it. The rest of his ideas, however, are questionable at best — dangerous at worst.
I can identify three of Peterson’s ideas that are particularly difficult to embrace. Given that they underpin much of his ideology, it’s hard to see any value in him once you realize these three ideas are so easily debunked. And to any Peterson fan who is reading this, my objections aren’t superficial: I’ve literally spent hours listening to Peterson online and the more I listen to him, the more I am convinced of his charlatan nature.
Idea 1: The nature of truth
“If it doesn’t serve life, it’s not true.”
One of Peterson’s most publicized appearances was in Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast in early 2017. It was telling of Peterson’s growing popularity at the time that he was the most demanded guest for Harris’ podcast, and by quite a margin. Although the first hour was a relatively benign back and forth between the two on moderately contentious epistemological issues, the second hour bogged down into an almost comical farce. When discussing the nature of truth, Peterson put forward his controversial view that “Darwinian truth” (beliefs that helps us evolve even if they’re not objectively true) was more important than “Newtonian truth” (objective truth). In a nutshell, Peterson believes that we must distinguish between truth that, even if not objective, helps us progress as a species, versus other truth that may be objective but may wipe us out. It’s not hard to see what this idea was being used in defense of: religion. Harris, one of the original “four horsemen” of New Atheism, was having none of this. In the most preposterous moment of the exchange, Peterson suggested that if humans created a super-virus that wiped us out then the knowledge of that virus could not be “true”. An exasperated Harris eventually ended the podcast once it became clear that there was no way Peterson would budge on the issue even after all his arguments (some of them truly laughable and absurd) had been shot down one after the other.
Peterson’s idea of truth is the underpinning of his love of Jungian archetypes to explain almost everything; in other words, insofar as something conforms to an archetype, it holds all the truth one needs. Fiction over fact. In this case, the Bible is one of the greatest repositories of truth given that it conforms perfectly to so many of the archetypes, notably the tragedy of Jesus which he describes as “the worst thing that could happen to the best person”. It is telling of his deceitful personality that Peterson never admits his Christianity fully, in the sense of actually believing in it in any other way other than finding within the religion all the great truths about humanity. Any more proof of the way his personality cults adapts to this is that many of his atheist fans have converted to Christianity. This is not to deny that there is any truth to fiction. Peterson frequently mentions Dostoyevsky as an example of fiction that has more truth in it than most non-fiction. And even an atheist like myself will not go as far as to say that there is no redeeming truth value in the Bible either. But his distinction between these two types of truth is both unnecessary and dishonest. Although some truths may kill us, how can one tell ex-ante? And how is the fault of the truth itself rather than our misuse?
Idea 2: Personal responsibility
Peterson is a staunch libertarian despite never saying so. He frequently defends capitalism and the free market with a zeal worthy of a fellowship at the Cato Institute. He frequently ventures into the Steven Pinker camp of ‘we’re living in the best of times, and how dare you say otherwise’. Like all libertarians, Peterson believes that everyone’s life outcomes depend entirely on our personal choices, leaving no room for luck, privilege (be it because of race or class) or any other favorable circumstances. Peterson’s latest book, the bestselling 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is a veritable self-help guide for “lost” young men (yes, mostly men and mostly suffering from some form of masculinity crisis) who are Peterson’s main audience, thousands of which Peterson has claimed to have helped personally in his role as a clinical psychologist. Now, there is a lot of value in instilling personal responsibility in people. Wandering aimlessly through life is less a recipe for chaos than it is for failure; everyone needs a kick in the pants at some point in their lives. The problem with Peterson is that his emphasis on personal responsibility leaves no grounds for structural factors that explain personal outcomes. By doing so Peterson argues one of the most toxic (and empirically disproven) conservative and libertarian ideas: that people have only themselves to blame for their lot in life. And that everyone seemingly has the chance to progress if they try hard enough, with no need for outside (read: government) support.
Peterson consistently resorts to the excuse of personal responsibility in order to weasel out of openly criticizing capitalism, and especially inequality. During his recent appearance in the Russell Brand podcast, Brand (an outspoken leftist) challenged Peterson on the issue of inequality, to which Peterson expressed some half-hearted sympathy for it, but claimed that the solution was “not sociological but psychological”, completely discarding decades of empirical economic evidence to the contrary, let alone the success of many social-democratic states to achieve generally egalitarian societies (or at least reduce inequality to socially acceptable levels). In Peterson’s world, redistribution is a slippery slope to all-out Stalinism, and it is a shame that Brand didn’t challenge him further on this, preferring to move the discussion into one of spirituality as if this was an applicable policy solution. One can claim that in his role as a clinical psychologist, Peterson is naturally prone to assuming personal responsibility matters more than context. But he’s too smart for that. It really is a subliminal defense of the status quo and therefore his argumentative weapon of choice to avoid criticizing it.
Idea 3: Set your house in order
“If you can’t make up your damn bed, quit waving placards at corporations.”
Related to his views on personal responsibility is his idea that you “set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world”. In fact, this is one of his new book’s twelve rules (number six to be precise). Peterson frequently describes college campus protesters — or just protesters in general — as infantile, sanctimonious idiots who protest out of self-interest rather than actual conviction or knowledge of their cause. A huge number of them certainly are. But this makes no claim on the validity of the protest; before making a value judgment one must separate the message from the messenger. Yes, some of the leaders of the BLM and MeToo movements have some dubious histories but does that alone delegitimize the nature of the protest themselves? Does one discard the rights of minorities and the validity of structural discrimination only because some protesters are doing it for retweets and Facebook likes? By this logic, the outright racism seen among the alt-right should be reason enough to condemn it vociferously, but Peterson follows an oft used adage among ideologues: condemn the opposing side if just one of their members is morally suspect; defend yours unless all of them are. With unrelenting attacks on “post-modern cultural neo-Marxism” (whatever that is) and pictures taken with white nationalists (done “in jest”), it’s clear what side he’s on.
The idea of setting your house not just in order but “perfectly” so, therefore has a sinister intent: nobody is entitled to criticize or protest unless they are old enough, smart enough, or morally untarnished enough to cast the first stone while being free of sin. Given that few people will live up to the standard that Peterson feels necessary to be worthy of criticizing the world, it means that nobody is entitled to do so in the first place. You can see how this plays out in practice. If you’re just a student, how dare you criticize capitalism if you haven’t even had a real job? And now that you have a real job, how dare you to criticize it when you still haven’t got the necessary experience? And when you have the necessary experience, how dare you criticize it unless you are mature enough to truly know that the structure that has dominated your life was questionable from the very start? Perhaps Peterson thinks the only ripe age to protest is upon your retirement, by which time you will be too tired, jaded, and bitter to do so. As with personal responsibility, one could say that Peterson merely means that one should have some moral authority before criticizing others but again, I think Peterson is too smart and devious to have been unwillingly ambiguous about this, even considering how vague he is about almost everything else. His use of “perfect” in the rule is evidence that he means it.
Ultimately, this idea is a logical fallacy, one known as the tu quoque. As with his view on Darwinian truth, it assumes that there is some justification of a truth claim beyond truth itself, that somehow the characteristics of the person who makes a truth claim influence this truth. An example of a tu quoque is a chain-smoking father who tells his son to not smoke — this seems hypocritical but the benefits of not smoking are true regardless of whether the person who said it smokes or not. One does not need to be a morally flawless, mature individual to claim that the Iraq War, or women’s rights, or black lives, are worth protesting for. Causes and ideas are true or false regardless of whether you make your bed every morning or not, an analogy that he uses frequently to prove that this rule is meant both literally as well as figuratively. Ultimately what Peterson wants is for people to not protest. At all. How convenient. In possibly his most preposterous defense of this idea, he goes on to state the following:
“And people say, ‘I’m taking climate change seriously, I’m going out to protest’. Like, you’re not taking it seriously. That’s not serious. Serious is, you’re going to devote 80 hours of your life [sic? probably meant week] for the rest of your life, you’re going to work on that so intensely that you’re going to think about anything else. That’s serious”
An archetype of untruth
It is unfortunate that YouTube — the second most widely viewed internet site in the world — has been all but taken over by the right, which allows people like Peterson to get to promote their ideas almost unchallenged. Ideas that ultimately revolve around people embracing a non-critical view of the world. Ideas that ostensibly seem to promote individual strength but, in the end, only serve to entrench the intellectual weakness of his already feeble followers. One article described Peterson as the “stupid man’s smart person” and I have to agree with it, even though the article itself was poorly written and sensationalist. There is very little to suggest that Peterson’s followers have the capacity to separate his few good ideas from his many bad ones and conclude that the balance works against him.
There are some genuinely good counterpoints out there, such as a pair of excellent podcasts by Reality Rules but these are swamped by the click-bait snippets of Peterson supposedly DESTROYING or OWNING (always in capital letters) any hapless leftist that dares oppose him. That said, I can certainly see why a certain type of person, including critics of identity politics like myself, can become enthralled by someone so open in his opposition to the “regressive left”. But in this ever-narrower echo chamber of bad ideas, that someone like Peterson can rise from obscurity and become a public intellectual for this generation is both depressing and tragic. To his followers, he may be the Jungian archetype of the wise old man with a hint of the outlaw, one intent on pursuing uncomfortable truths in an obsessively politically correct world. But upon closer inspection, his intellectual dishonesty becomes patently obvious. One can only reach the conclusion that the archetype he more closely reveals himself to be is none other than the trickster himself.