Straw Gods: A Cautious Response to Jordan B. Peterson

By Guy StevensonOctober 1, 2018

Straw Gods: A Cautious Response to Jordan B. Peterson
MOST LEFT-LEANING ACADEMICS and public intellectuals have greeted the rise of Canadian psychologist Jordan B. Peterson with incredulity or muted amusement. That a cranky, little-known professor could — in the space of a year — have amassed millions of YouTube followers, shifted two million books, appeared on primetime chat shows, and sold out a 20,000-seat arena tour, has drawn little serious comment from scholars of the humanities and social sciences. That these people are the most common targets of his ire — cast as evil collaborators in a conspiracy by “postmodernist neo-Marxists” to take over the universities and the whole of Western culture — makes the silence all the more remarkable.

The accusation is at the very least a gross exaggeration — no doubt part of the reason why so many have chosen to ignore Peterson. Why engage with such fanciful slander? Why stoke the flames? Yet his popularity among young people is real and growing, and it would be remiss not to consider, first, why this is and, second, how to answer the claims he is making. To put it in the fire-and-brimstone terms Peterson himself so often employs, “ignore him at your peril.” Since first making the news in 2016 with a protest against a law enforcing the use of gender-neutral pronouns, he has achieved a level of pop-cultural recognition well beyond any of his recent contemporaries. Next to Peterson, Vice favorite Slavoj Žižek and even the late Christopher Hitchens look like small fry. In fact, you’d have to go back to Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s and the furor around his “medium is the message” slogan, to find a public intellectual — let alone a humanities and social sciences prof — with this kind of widespread celebrity.

Like McLuhan, Peterson has overcome a rather stuffy appearance to package himself as a countercultural guru, able to speak to young people over the heads of their parents and teachers, to offer an alternative way of thinking in an age of radical transition. He has done so, however, not by explaining the brave new world thrust upon them by technology but by counseling sanctuary from the anxious present through a retreat to the psychological, moral, and social certitudes of the past. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Peterson’s self-help-manual-cum-theory-of-everything (which is outselling the Bible this year), aims to restore clarity of purpose — for the individual and the culture at large — in a post-religious, post-’60s modern world. This clarity of purpose, he claims, will resurface when people learn to shift their day-to-day attention from the “rights discourse” that has dominated since the ’60s to a deeper-rooted and biologically necessary sense of “maximal responsibility” to self and society.

Curiously, Peterson’s cultural conservatism is indebted to some of the same thinking that laid the groundwork for that rights discourse. What separates him from conventional conservative critics of identity politics, and what partly accounts for his attractiveness to millennials, is that he spices up his back-to-basics ordinances with the romance of psychoanalytical and philosophical mysticism. 12 Rules for Life and its longer, less accessible predecessor Maps of Meaning (1999) draw consistently on Carl Jung and Friedrich Nietzsche, two thinkers now deeply unfashionable on the left but influential in the post-1945 North American countercultural revolution.

Jungian psychotherapy, with its insistence on the mythical archetypes that exist in the “collective unconscious,” and Nietzschean meta-history, with its belief in the “resentiment” that comes from the individual’s neglect of the “will” — were inspirational to the Beat Generation, the hippies, and the New Age movement that succeeded them. Along with Freud, the pre-existentialist Søren Kierkegaard, and the Eastern religious texts of Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism (which are also quoted extensively by Peterson), Jung and Nietzsche provided the symbolism for much of the anti-establishment writing produced during the 1950s and ’60s. In 2018, Peterson has reinvoked these mystical forces and married them — improbably — to a stern defense of biblical tradition.

What does this Christian-Jungian-Nietzschean revival reveal about our age? Primarily, it is proof — more than the 2017 White Power march on Charlottesville, more than Milo Yiannopoulos’s pseudo-stand-up routine — of a widespread youth reaction against a model of progress most of us complacently take for granted. Unlike the fringe alt-right, with whom he is commonly and inaccurately associated, Peterson commands an audience that is large, increasingly mainstream, and energized by the feeling of being at the vanguard of an intellectual-cultural revolution. The majority of Peterson’s fans are — the statistics show — male and under 30. They have flocked to him, though, not simply and solely for the kind of prankish kicks afforded by a Pepe the Frog meme or the chance to trigger social justice warriors (SJWs), but because he appears to offer thought-through, practical solutions to problems they perceive in the rules they have been brought up to obey.

In place of “impotent anger” at oppressive systems, people, and language, he promises a sense of strength and purpose through learning to “orient yourself properly in the world.” In place of resentment at the personal injustices heaped upon us by a cruel world, he offers, first, the historical perspective to understand that life has always entailed and always will entail suffering and, second, a means of lessening that suffering by careful attention to it.

Whether or not you agree with his advice, it is important to consider the rejection of cultural orthodoxies its positive reception suggests. What is wrong or has gone wrong with modern standards of social justice to precipitate this backlash? Like many of his contemporaries on the so-called “Intellectual Dark Web,” Peterson concedes the need for civil rights reforms during the 1960s but claims that Western culture lost its way when the drive for emancipation of genuinely oppressed people became an attempt to police language and to bid impossibly for “equality of outcome” rather than achievable “equality of opportunity.” That concession may in fact be lip service — indeed, he tends to come a cropper when questioned on whether he’d have supported specific acts of protest in the Civil Rights era — but his point about a well-intentioned system of thought gone awry has some power. In her own controversialist, bulldozing way, Camille Paglia has been expressing something similar for years — that a countercultural movement based on freedom of speech and sexuality has been reduced since the ’60s to a one-size-fits-all embargo on what can and cannot be said.

Given the current state of affairs, it would be foolish not to listen to explanations from people “in the trenches.” But our combustible times require an extra-careful tread, and Peterson needs to be called out for riding through the scene roughshod. Faced with a generation that shares his unease at the progressive status quo, he makes a show of dissecting those politics with empirical care. Like the totalitarian figureheads he warns against, however, he cannot resist pinning the blame for all the world’s wrongs on an inflated, intangible bogeyman — “the Postmodern Neo-Marxists.” Many of the problems Peterson identifies are tangible and pressing — even the staunchest believer in the benefits of political correctness must concede that retrenchment now, after Brexit and Trump, risks further backlash — but his brand of charismatic and proselytizing PC- and leftist-bashing seems programmed to polarize rather than unite.

Instead of Peterson, today’s curious, disillusioned youth would benefit from exposure to calm thinkers on these subjects. The English philosopher John Gray, for example, who for almost 20 years has been carefully outlining many of the same flaws in Western progressivism. Like Peterson, Gray looks to evidence of humanity at its worst (Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago [1973] and Arthur Koestler’s Scum of the Earth [1941], among others) to warn against utopian visions of the future. He understands, as Peterson does, the historical myopia and/or arrogance of assuming that science and Enlightenment reason have usurped or could ever usurp religious superstition for good or for the better. Where the religious Peterson is on a mission to shake his audience awake, however, Gray attempts the much humbler and more realistic task of “applying cloth to fogged glasses.”

The message of Gray’s illuminating 2002 book, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, is that every Western political concept of progress inherits and reformulates the delusional monotheistic myth of special humanity ordained for redemption. As a result, he is equally critical and equally indulgent of all belief systems, religious or political, and the human flaws they embody. Peterson has struck a chord by making a similar point about secular morality — that it has its deep roots in the religious traditions it claims to reject and that most proclaimed atheists in the 21st century are religious in their actions without knowing it. Like Nietzsche, like many of the modernist writers of the early 20th century, however, he responds to the “chaos” of modern politics by sinking back into the comforting myths of religion at their source. In his righteous worldview, the especial individual can find redemption by reflecting on his will and aligning it with the “logos” or “the word of God.” Gray, who takes Arthur Schopenhauer rather than Nietzsche as his guide, also counsels reflection, and an appreciation of the brutality humans are capable of, but he cautions against the myth-intoxicated notions of revelation and redemption in Nietzsche and Jung.

The knee-jerk, broadsheet response to Peterson has been to straw-man him as an alt-right-affiliated fascist. This is both dishonest and unhelpful. Pay proper attention to his writing, his lectures, and the many interviews he has given over the past couple of years, and you’ll see that he opposes the rhetoric of racial superiority, of boosting esteem through group identity, in all its forms. Clearly, he also means well by much of his advice. At the core of the philosophy in 12 Rules for Life is the constructive Nietzschean lesson that “it is possible to learn good by experiencing evil” and that the problem with 21st-century approaches to moral education is the fear to admit resentment and malice, and the importance of regulating the potential in all of us to do ill. In this respect, he follows in a venerable line of post–World War II thinkers who have recuperated Nietzsche for positive purposes. What is disturbing — and, to many, alluring — about him is that he is also romantically taken with what John Gray calls the “dichotomy of violence and bliss” in Nietzsche.

Speaking recently to Camille Paglia, Peterson equated the quest for truth with a willingness to scrap, physically:

When men are talking to each other in any serious manner, that underlying threat of physicality is always there, especially if it’s a real conversation and it keeps the thing civilized to some degree. If you’re talking to a man who wouldn’t fight with you under any circumstances whatsoever, then you’re talking to someone to whom you have absolutely no respect.

Such macho posturing is depressing (not to mention ungrounded even in lip service to “the research” he usually cites). It is the kind of talk we expect from temperamental rock stars and reality TV celebrities who find themselves in office, and it seriously discredits an academic who is purporting to use his years of training, teaching, and clinical practice to guide a generation of lost young souls. Predictably, YouTube is teeming with fan videos that splice quotes like this with Peterson’s many aggressive put-downs of SJWs, including a recent tweet to an unfriendly reviewer that “if [he] were in the room at the moment, I’d slap [him] happily.” You have to go back again to Christopher Hitchens (celebrated for his “Hitchslap” heroics) to find a public intellectual with as many triumphalist e-tributes. Of course, like Hitchens, Peterson cannot reasonably be held responsible for the use others have made of his words, but he should account for passing his own bad temper off as universal law and for refusing to cast aspersion on the glee this incites.

That stern, mildly menacing paternal approach continues to work very well indeed. Kids who, for whatever reason, hadn’t considered history as formative to their moral worldviews have found in Peterson a father figure who helps explain why making difficult life choices has to be so difficult. As David Brooks put it in The New York Times, Peterson seems to have provided “the perfect antidote to the cocktail of coddling and accusation in which they were raised.” But the express danger, as Bernard Schiff, Peterson’s colleague and former mentor at the University of Toronto, pointed out recently, is that impressionable — and justifiably confused and aggrieved — minds are being woken up not only to important truths about the inevitability of suffering or the need for individual responsibility, but to the specific reality Peterson perceives through his reading of Jung and Nietzsche.

Like many charismatic countercultural figures, Peterson’s uncompromising, pugilistic style draws unquestioning adulation and imitation, including the aggressive derision of opponents. It is the same derision, as he has rightly pointed out, that contaminates much leftist commentary on conservative ideology. The good faith that sensible commentators like Jonathan Haidt, Stephen Fry, and Sam Harris have found in Peterson’s project is severely compromised by this appropriation of a stated enemy’s tactics and the misguided use of those tactics to muddy rather than clear the cultural waters.

John Gray’s genuine aversion to the limelight means he is unlikely to join the Peterson road show any time soon, and more is the pity. Now more than ever, his sane, objective contribution is needed. On the “Intellectual Dark Web,” George Orwell is regularly, reductively cited as a Jeremiah of our current illiberally liberal society. The briefest glance at Orwell’s writing tells us he would have shuddered at this latest attempt to march in his name. Distrustful of all movements and agendas — political, religious, and philosophical — Orwell would have recognized Peterson, Ben Shapiro, and even Sam Harris as missionaries for their own particular causes, believing themselves to stand only for fair, open debate but intoxicated by the desire to convince the world of what they believe to be right.

In the absence of the kind of calm, fact-based thought presented in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) and Orwell’s essays after the Spanish Civil War, John Gray’s assessments of liberal humanism and the anthropocentric, religious impulse that drives it have the capacity to expose this current counterculture in real time. Offering themselves as manna for an audience that has been crying out for “detailed, in depth, unscripted, spontaneous meaningful conversation,” Peterson and his populist contemporaries fail to declare — or perhaps even notice — the zeal that propels them and the bad blood it risks breeding.


Guy Stevenson is a lecturer in English Literature at Goldsmiths, University of London. His essays and reviews have appeared in The Times,The Times Literary Supplement, and the National Post.

LARB Contributor

Guy Stevenson is a lecturer in English literature at Goldsmiths and Queen Mary, University of London. He specializes in literary modernism and is the author of Anti-Humanism in the Counterculture (2020). His essays and reviews have appeared in The Times, The Times Literary Supplement, and the National Post. He is currently working on a second book, about the 1960s and its bearing on contemporary divisions over the language of race, gender, and sexuality.


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