Some personal reflections on Jordan Peterson

If you've been following me for some time, you'll know that current affairs commentary is not exactly my strong suit. I don't really keep up on the news and my own thoughts and ideas are quite untimely — not in the cool Nietzschean sense, but in the lame way: a day late and a dollar short. For any topic du jour, if I even have any thoughts, they will come a few months late after every possible thing has already been said by someone, somewhere.

With that disclaimer out of the way, I just heard about this guy named Jordan Peterson...

For anyone interested in contemporary ideological fragmentation, themes related to exit and escape from institutional oppression, the increasing social power of autonomous intellect relative to gatekeepers, it's hard for me to see how you could find the Jordan Peterson phenomenon uninteresting and unexciting. I probably have a personal emotional bias insofar as I only recently went through a turbulent transition away from pretty hardcore, long-term SJWism. I’m not a Peterson fanboy but I also would be lying if I said that Peterson's Stern Father persona did not strongly resonate with me — and help me — when I found him about a year before his meteoric rise.

For young urban people working to establish themselves in any one of the culture industries (academia, journalism, entertainment of any kind), current levels of SJWism are highly depressogenic, unless you're in the subset of people temperamentally inclined to SJWism (often people already vaguely depressed). The transition from "I'll say and do whatever will get me laid," to "What should I say and do to make the next 50 years good, now that I'm not trying to get laid?" felt incredibly difficult when all I had to go on were deeply unhelpful myths that I had been socialized into believing. Peterson's main messages are just an undeniably potent medicine for this type of socio-cognitive pathology. Peterson's main message, for the millions among whom it resonates, very likely decreases depression — not severe clinical depression, but certainly the vague depressiveness (non-clinical or pre-clinical) that characterizes so many lives today. And I suspect that this vague depressiveness is a much larger problem for the prospect of social movements than severe clinical depression, because it suppresses a much larger quantity of human potential (in a much larger group) than severe clinical depression — and its much more tractable.

From any genuine (i.e. non-SJW), radical left-wing perspective, it seems to me that Jordan Peterson would have to be seen as a massive net-gain for any serious emancipatory political program. If you believe in such a program — say, for instance, you're a supporter of the Democratic Socialists of America, and not for the dubious motives that some critics allege — I don't see how you could not be delighted by the amount of human potential lifted out of confused depressive paralysis by Peterson. The internet is filled with at least hundreds, if not thousands, of testimonies to this effect. I see no reason to doubt them.

I am somewhat biased in that I’m an academic political scientist who spends a lot of his time writing and making things online — probably due to a violent narcissistic masculine immortality project — so to see a random Canadian political psychologist produce such an unprecedented global impact certainly excites some of my own idiosyncratic emotions and interests. But still, if you lean towards a radical leftism such as mine, if you believe the oppression of humanity today is enforced in large part via false and oppressive institutions, then anytime any human being finds a way to speak what they authentically believe to be true, and this breaks through what established gate-keepers want and expect — it's almost by definition an unambiguously positive development in the direction of collective liberation.

I would disagree with Peterson about probably dozens of things but agreements and disagreements are much less important than authenticity and sincere intellectual drive, the drive to seek truth in your own tongue... And if there’s one thing you can’t take from the guy, it’s that.

People criticize Peterson by saying "it’s all clichés," or it's "pseudo-intellect," or that he's even a "fraud," but the odor of resentment is the only unmistakable residue leftover from such claims after you consider that the dude's given the bulk of his life to doing non-popular, not-immediately-useful, hard, patient, social science research, to very little public acclaim. People can disagree or dislike how he boils his cultivated worldview into useful dicta, that’s fine, but one thing I've never heard anyone note in this debate is just how incredibly difficult it is to develop an integrated worldview that you can also speak freely, against an unlimited supply of opponents, even if it's just clichés. (I don't think Peterson's messages are merely clichés.) Integrating psychology, philosophy, religion, neuroscience, etc., into a high-level worldview that is disciplined and in your own unique tongue, that can generate precise and consistent answers to many questions in conversations with normal people? It is very difficult and time-consuming for academics to achieve this kind of will and perspective, and it's one way you know Peterson's longer-term intellectual project is authentic.

Yet Peterson is belittled by mid-tier thinkers and writers who couldn't even give clichéd answers to half of the questions that Peterson's worldview is at least able to parse honestly and flexibly.  To be able to do that even half-competently is a rare feat. And as a young academic, as someone who has, I guess, always been driven by certain public-intellectual aspirations — although I've always understood them in the radical left register of the revolutionary intellectual — when I see someone like Peterson blow up and become the nexus of extraordinary ideological confusion and also power re-distribution in some sense… I think... "Well, damn... Good for him, and good for the prospects of all patient and dedicated thinkers." One reason why someone might not have this emotional response is if they are ambitious intellectuals, but playing a different kind of game. For some, Peterson is an alarming indication that maybe the leftist social climbing method of intellectual influence is not the only game in town, and maybe there are better and truer and more impactful ways to constitute an intellectual life.

I always like any smart people who take up interesting and serious anti-Leftist lines, because it gives my left-leaning instincts meaningful stimulation and motivation. My intellectual energy toward theorizing collective emancipation has generally been negatively correlated with my immersion in left-wing subculture. And again, I don't think I'm alone. The reason I did some data analysis on Jordan Peterson's followers is because I had a hunch that he’s giving inspiration to many left-leaning deserters of SJWism. And I was right. A lot of people still don’t really understand this, but they will eventually.

6 comments on “Some personal reflections on Jordan Peterson”

  1. This jives with my own assessment of the author's unconscious reveals in the piece, that he is interested in left wing revolution primarily as a status strategy and means of social climbing. It is transparent to me that the entire modernist revolution pose from Machiavelli to today's SJWs only even pretends to speak for the voiceless because the voiceless don't get to object to their self appointed "representatives", who are simply after power and status for themselves. Morally, there isn't anything lower IMO, whatever its occasional social or historical utility shaking up calcified power structures. Incidentally, it is also entire clear to me that today nearly all the calcified and corrupt power structures are ideologically on the left, the hard left having long since completed its long march through the institutions, and having now settled down to exploitation and petty tyranny.

  2. Reading texts which we take to banish resentment and negativity whether in a vulgar vitalism, a negation of negation, or an appeal to let shit go and take responsibility/be worthy, obviously has a powerful anti-depressive kick to it, but this can leave one wide open to the risk of premature foreclosure, narcissim, splitting, and the desublimation of the will to power, all the more because that shit has been ostensibly dealt with. It’s not that this can’t be risked but as far as I can tell Peterson doesn’t exercise any caution or self awareness to speak of around this risk.

    You talk about “just how incredibly difficult it is to develop an integrated worldview” and how
    “Peterson’s longer-term intellectual project is authentic.” But can we name what that world view is? Can we say what moves he is making?

    As far as I can tell what Peterson does (at least in his incarnation as a public intellectual) is take his foundation in Jungian phycological quasi-metaphysics and fortifies it with evolutionary biology and uses this a hermeneutics of everything. This amounts to a world view of fixed dichotomies and original natures, with hardly any room for the dialectic or a genealogy, (so basically very anti-modern). If you think that is cool or interesting (or perhaps have a different read on this) fine, but why not name it?

    This world view is presumably the authentic, instinctive motivation for his animosity to what he never names as post-structuralism. But let’s not pretend like he ever actually engages with the actual texts, he just reduces them to nihilists (like Nietzsche lol), and exhorts us to pretend like we never killed god, while trashing the “postmodernist” for supposedly continuing to “believe” in Marx.

  3. Just in case you weren’t sure if my issues with Peterson aren’t (also?) somehow Oedipal:

    The wonderful woman who raised me rather accidentally spent some of her formative years in the home of William Sheldon, dabbled in fundamentalist christianity, and picked up a fair amount of jungian tropes along the way to go with her basic waldorf teacher anthroposophy. By no means an “intellectual”, like most adults over say 35, she managed to synthesize a fairly robust “world view”, which as it just so happens, isn’t that far removed from Peterson’s (I dread the day the algorithm will introduce her to him). While I don’t begrudge her this “worldview” which may get her through the day and help her make sense of things, it all seems much to the detriment of her more basic instincts towards feminism, class consciousness, cosmopolitanism and even mystic spirituality. It’s all to say that arriving at a world view which arms one with halfway coherent and impervious antipathies, concerns and opinions on everything, is for everyone (which makes it no less gloriously human on an individual level), but to celebrate a public intellectual on the basis of these generic merits, especially one who relies so heavily on appeals common sense, mystification and just so stories (I have nothing against the vital productivity of “clichés,” the adventure of the “pseudo-intellect,” or even the fabulating “fraud,”), seems like setting a low bar or dispensing with commitments to a dynamic space of public “thinking” but perfectly in line with the praise of the mere propagation, and circulation/exchange of “thoughts” in the marketplace of ideas.

  4. The overlapping of Jungian archetypes with evolutionary biology has another name - a potential synthesis of scientific and religious concepts, a trajectory that the intellectuals who reject Peterson tend to have zero ambitions toward. These intellectuals have no interest in the fundamental structures of nature and being, and look clever and well intentioned because they never step out of their depth.

    I broadly agree with your assessment - the message of the revolutionary left is a neo-gnosticism that says the whole "self" is itself a bourgeoisie fabrication. You cannot attain wholeness until capitalist patriarchy is defeated. No doubt that this produces bad conscience like few other ideologies can. Peterson is taking the full brunt for saying the world and its structure, despite their flaws, are still worth living in. The unconscious assumption of our age is gnostic, that the world went fundamentally "wrong" somewhere in its past and we are living in, to a large degree, a world of false emanation. I've personally yet to fully make up my mind on this massive theological/metaphysical question. But I'll be damned if the moralizing hectoring of those who think they've already figured it out can make me dismiss Peterson (and all those like him) wholesale

  5. Hi Justin,

    My critique isn't that Peterson is a fraud or that he's clichéd. What he does beyond clinical orthodoxy is to link despair to the broader cultural and material phenomena of contemporary nihilism. I also appreciate that Peterson has uploaded his lectures to the internet and that doing so has allowed the viral reproduction of his work. I have a deep appreciation of his work as indicative of the failures of the left to address despair in our society. The left has failed to accept the realities of psychological distress and the near-term pragmatic needs of individual, groups and institutions.

    I have in the past connected this failure and what Peterson calls "the crisis in meaning" to the appeal of extremist heroic-cultural systems. I had a post on a now deleted blog that made the claim that ISIS understood the cultural dynamics of nihilism better than any other contemporary tendency. I took this insight from a glossy propaganda video featuring a white Canadian dude talking about how great his life was and how he'd met every cultural marker of success in his habitus and how this left him with a deep sense of spiritual emptiness. From here he goes onto talk about how deeply fulfilling life is in the Caliphate as a soldier of Allah. He look directly into the camera and speaks words I take to be the most concisely penetrating analysis: "Jihad is the cure for depression."

    All this is to say I share a lot of his analysis and that the left is entirely wrong to dismiss it. I'd go further and say that the left is constitutively unable to even recognise the validity of his analysis. It's also completely unable to recognise the validity of the tools and techniques that he uses to help the masses of people he has helped.

    That said the radicalism of Peterson can only be seen as radical if you're completely detached from clinical practice and coming from within the left. He isn't pioneering new work. He's disseminated tried and trusted therapeutic techniques and operating in a clear tradition of psychological professionals who situated their work in response to cultural failures and disappointments. If we're coming from a left that has totally identified psychology with capitalism and psychiatry with power then Peterson must look really troubling. But the left and its intellectuals has always abused those critiques. The really powerful ones have come from psychologists and psychiatrists and have been oriented at improving the care field. The rejectionist line has been a kind of "ultra left infantilism", an aberration.

    The problem with Peterson isn't to with his analysis of nihilism or the majority of his recommendations. The problem with Peterson is inseparable from his political capture, ie. both his annexation by the right and the hysterical left wing phobia towards his insistence on basic requirements for psychological health and resilience that it cannot accommodate. The Jungian shit is pseudo-scientific but that barely matters in clinical practice. The point of therapeutic work is 100% relational - if Jungianism help him to help his clients that's great.

    What he's done is to shake shit up. I guess my critique - my demarcation of the limits - is that Peterson himself isn't himself that interesting or deserving of attention. That he takes up so much social cognitive bandwidth is symptomatic of our cultural self-awareness. So my problem isn't rooted in frustration but impatience. I want the entire cultural conversation to clean its room.

    As a parting gift - here's a conversation between Peterson and John Vervaeke that's really incisive at times and shows Peterson at his best:


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