2020s >> 2022 >> no-1417-september-2022

Pathfinders – Growing up with Jordan Peterson

A darling of the ‘alt-light’ (that’s ‘alt-right’ without the swastikas) is clinical psychologist and self-help guru Jordan Peterson, whose YouTube videos and podcasts have been blowing up in recent years. To call him a divisive figure is an understatement. He is deplored and denigrated by some as a misogynist, even fascist ideologue bent on spreading hate. He is adored and promulgated by others as an articulate warrior against identity politics, post-modernism and ‘cultural Marxism’, popular if vague dog whistles that Peterson and his fans have no problem conflating into one toxic conspiracy bundle.

Credit: Gage Skidmore

Not surprisingly, his grasp of Marxism is non-existent – Stalin and Mao killed millions, end of. He likes big ideas designed to shock, but without fussing over details. So he argues that order is male and chaos is female, and that chaos is currently winning. This has produced a ‘crisis of masculinity’ in which men are being turned into feminised weaklings who need to stop being man-children and grow the hell up. At the same time, women who want to get ahead in the world and stop playing second fiddle to men in terms of jobs and pay, should learn to overcome their built-in tendency to please and appease. The world is a hierarchy based on competence, not on discrimination, and the sooner you quit whingeing about how unfair it all is, the sooner you’ll start changing your life for the better.

His runaway success has come as a surprise to many who must have thought society had moved beyond caveman capitalism but who, it is argued, have ‘underestimated the fury being inspired by modern preoccupations like white privilege and cultural appropriation, and by the marginalization, shouting down or outright cancellation of other viewpoints in polite society’s institutions’ (bit.ly/3C2rU8j).

To all this, he offers a simple antidote, indeed alibi. Instead of having to fit in with your socially aware friends and pretend you care deeply about the hard lives of underprivileged foreigners you’re never going to meet, how much easier it is to say ‘Screw them if they can’t keep up’. Instead of going to the effort of listening to other perspectives and honestly evaluating criticisms of your own behaviour, what a relief to say ‘Go kiss a leper, loser’. Peterson absolves you of all guilt and concern for others. You never have to feel inadequate. You never have to empathise. You never have to doubt. Don’t ask, just take. That’s what real empowerment looks like, buddy. And what’s more, it’s the natural order of things, as explained by Science.

The problem his opponents frequently have is that they share, or at least don’t question, the assumptions that underpin his own worldview, so their attempts at criticism start off wide of the mark and stay there. Instead they pick away at him guerrilla-fashion, attempting to bury him in moral indignation or truculent fact-checking. It offends them to think he’s right, but they can’t see how to argue with him.

A socialist would see through Jordan Peterson in 10 seconds.

It’s the circularity of the argument. Suppose you find yourself in a savage kill-or-be-killed environment, and you’re unhappy about behaving in a savage kill-or-be-killed way. Your life coach tells you that your sub-optimal behaviour is the problem, and advises you to stop being such a pussy and get out there with guns blazing. He doesn’t ask or care why society is savage and kill-or-be-killed. He’s a psychologist, not some woke social justice warrior or cultural Marxist. If you suggest that the psychologist and his advice might be the very factors helping to perpetuate the savage kill-or-be-killed society which drove you to seek his advice in the first place, he will accuse you of refusing to take personal responsibility and tell you to grow the hell up.

If you have bought into the capitalist mindset, people like Peterson make a kind of terrifying sense, however uncomfortable that makes you feel. And if it makes sense today, it must have made sense yesterday, and for all previous days. Thus the circularity appears timeless. This is probably why he permits himself to justify human hierarchies by pointing, not to some historical event or near genetic cousin, but of all things, to lobsters. Lobsters, he says, are tyrannical hierarchs, and because we share some lobster genes inherited from our remote past, we are surely programmed to act the same way.

But you could apply this argument to anything. On this logic, all men should be rapists because, well, just look at ducks. For infanticide, see lions. For cannibalism, check out chimpanzees, hamsters and even hippos. But lobsters? No ‘proof’ can elude someone who is willing to go back so far along the evolutionary chain they’re no longer in the same genus, family, order, class or phylum. The term ‘logical fallacy’ barely does justice to this kind of thinking.

Jordan Peterson’s worldview is essentially a snapshot of the world right now, made to look immortal and unchanging. He doesn’t care that it’s ahistorical and if anything untypical of human behaviour in deep time, as many anthropologists would be at pains to point out. Indeed he dismisses anthropologists as being infected by the disease of postmodernist cultural Marxism, as indeed are the faculties of sociology, English literature, and ethnic, race and women’s studies, all of which, like the equally infected and spurious science of global warming, should be defunded immediately in his view.

Like any snake-oil salesman, he doesn’t consider the downstream consequences of the Randian product he is pushing. With the profit-driven frenzy of capitalism already burning the Earth and causing the sixth mass extinction of species, he is quite happy to advise emulating the same behaviour, in order to cash in on gullible people who think their failure is somehow because they weren’t ruthless enough.

On the plus side, Jordan Peterson does admit that his popularity is mainly on YouTube and that the YouTube audience is 80 percent young males. Once these young men have had a dose of trying to behave like the callous psychopaths he advises them to be, and finding that it makes them lonely rather than rich, they will perhaps start listening to wiser counsel. But we can’t wait that long. We need them to realise, right now, that capitalism is a gigantic and destructive social problem to which the only possible solution is gigantic and constructive social cooperation. That’s what growing up really means.

PJS


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