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.