The Fundamental Errors of Jordan Peterson
A critical reading of the controversial Psychology professor's book, '12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos'.
Jordan Peterson. Photo: (Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
That Jordan Peterson is having a moment is beyond all reasonable doubt. Indeed, his rise from University of Toronto Psychology professor to YouTubiquitous commander-in-chief of the Culture Wars has been so startling that you can't help but wonder how long it will be before a university starts offering courses in Jordan Peterson Studies.
His book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos – ostensibly a self-help manual promoting individual responsibility as a way to navigate the inherent unfairness of the world, which seeks to ground its arguments in both (carefully selected) scientific and religious myths and archetypes – has sold over 300,000 copies in the US, according to Publishers Weekly.
"I'm completely shellshocked on one level of analysis," he says of his newfound fame during a Skype interview, from what looks like an exceptionally tidy room in his home in Toronto. "It's too much to take in and to have to readjust my identity as a consequence."
So: how did Jordan Peterson happen, and what might his popularity say about our cultural moment? Is there something of substance in his message, that if we could only reconcile ourselves to The World As It Is and adapt to its unbending rules we could cast off our resentments and pursue our "heroic path" to an existence that would be, not happy – because this is an illusion – but meaningful? Or is it all just a wishy-washy philosophy of individualism paradoxically based on conforming to one idea, a misguided attempt to reconcile the probing, questioning vocation of science with the supposedly eternal truths bequeathed by religious fables?
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There were two main catalysing events in Peterson's unlikely rise to fame. The first was his opposition to Canada's C-16 Bill – which added "gender identity or expression" as a prohibited area of discrimination to the Canadian Human Rights Act – and his refusal to use trans people's preferred personal pronouns. It's "an issue of compelled speech", he says, symptomatic of the identity politics pushed by the "SJWs" and "postmodernist neo-Marxists" exerting a choke-hold over the "corrupted" humanities and social science departments of North American academia.
This made him a cause célèbre, and hours of his eclectic, freewheeling, evangelical YouTube lectures had soon been devoured by a predominantly young, male audience, rudderless amid the uncertainties unleashed by a new era of political correctness and changing sexual politics. In Peterson, they found familiar psychological moorings, attracted to the patina of scientific rigour in which he dressed his advocacy of traditional gender roles. "Not being a Peterson fan," tweeted Infowars conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson, "is like not being a fan of chocolate or sunshine. Humanly impossible."
Aside from the fact his arguments naturally resonate with this generation of Reddit-schooled conservatives, it isn't too hard to fathom the more generic reasons for Peterson's appeal. The times are changing faster than ever – geopolitically, technologically, microbially – and we humans constantly look for guidance amid the uncertainty. Call it the Cambridge Analytica strategy: sow confusion and anxiety through deliberate disinformation and watch people hanker after strongmen or gurus. Self-help sells, and in the political as in the psychological realm, we are susceptible to authoritarians with facile answers. 12 Rules for Life? Great!
And so to the second event behind Peterson's stratospheric celebrity: the now-infamous Channel 4 News interview with Cathy Newman on the day of his UK book launch, the full half-hour version of which hit 7 million YouTube views in a month. Here, according to the fanatical reaction of his devotees, Peterson faced down liberal claptrap about the gender pay-gap, the patriarchy and the right to offend with evidence-based truths. It was, they said, wishful thinking versus science. A column on Breitbart that seemed to capture the mood among the alt-lite crowed that it was "a pivotal victory in the culture wars".
How does Peterson himself feel about being thrust front and centre in these culture wars?
"If I had my druthers I'd rather not be speaking politically at all," he tells me. "I'd continue to do what I was doing before this Bill C-16 came up. But when the legislative process transforms itself, like it has in Canada, so that the legislators step outside their proper domain of operation, then that's not good. So I've stepped into the political realm, and the problem with that is it's a polarising realm. I've tried to counter-balance that with the emphasis on individual responsibility. I'm hoping that the net consequence of that is more good than harm."
Of course, it's more than a little disingenuous of Peterson to claim he's a reluctant participant in cultural politics; this is, after all, precisely what animates his increasingly obsessive vendetta against the "indoctrination cults" of "totalitarian" left-wing academia.
Furthermore, for all that Peterson claims to have had politics thrust upon him, he has certainly borne his cross with eagerness. His Twitter feed continually promotes the views of dark money-financed, energy-lobbyist-front think-tanks – such as Charles Koch's Human Progress – which peddle the deliberately misleading notion of "absolute wealth", which is essentially a smokescreen for justifying relative wealth inequality: as long as people have the proverbial pot to piss in, they shouldn't grumble about their shrinking purchasing power or how many private jets someone owns.
When I put it to Peterson that the British middle class are increasingly turning to food banks, he explains this airily away not as the result of deliberate, ideologically-motivated policies – austerity as a cover for the massive, unprecedented upward transfer of wealth to the 1 percent, say – but suggests, somewhat feebly, that "the rise of the Chinese and Indian middle class has been purchased at the expense of the upward mobility of the Western working-class", as though it were all one big zero-sum cake. Indeed, whenever Peterson comes close to acknowledging the validity of basic progressive notions such as wealth redistribution or equality of opportunity – "I'm not anti-left," he protests, "I'm anti-radical left" – he immediately hides behind the mantra: "But we don’t know how deep the problem goes."
"Yes," the logic goes, "we know there's a fire – but we don't know how the fire started, so we shouldn't try to put it out."
And so to Peterson's book itself, with its trite rules focusing on "individual responsibility". The book is – Peterson freely admits – a recipe for political conformity, as though everything we need to know about organising our societies is there in the norms and codes handed down from our shared past.
In 12 Rules, he tells us that his great insight – that the individual sits at the centre of Western philosophy – came to him in a dream (as did many of his intellectual hero Carl Jung's ideas) in which he was suspended under the dome of a cathedral, the centre of an architectural cross, which "placed me at the centre of Being itself, and there was no escape. It took me months to understand what this meant... [The] centre is occupied by the individual. The centre is marked by the cross, as X marks the spot. Existence at that cross is suffering and transformation – and that fact, above all, needs to be voluntarily accepted."
It may be difficult to square this image of "Peterson, the benevolent healer" with sub-chapter headings like "compassion as a vice", yet there's no doubt Peterson himself is anything but wholly convinced of his mission. Thus, the unrelentingly serious, haranguing tone of 12 Rules for Life starts to feel like Samuel L Jackson's pre-assassination speech in Pulp Fiction. Every waking moment in this psychodrama of Chaos and Order – where "the proper way of Being" is harmonising the two – becomes a potentially decisive and hyper-significant step, i.e. sweeping the leaves from the garden path dispels chaos; an untidy room portends spiritual angst. It's exhausting. After reading a few dozen pages of the book, you feel as though you've somehow found your way onto the ledge of a very tall building and are now being talked down.
But the chief problem with the book isn't that the rules are useless, banal or vague to the point of meaninglessness (see Rule 3: "Make friends with people who want the best for you"). Nor is it that some of it is politically disempowering – insisting, as does Rule 6, that you "Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world" (translation: children have no business questioning the world, which probably would not have played that well with the Parkland survivors and their controversial desire to not be massacred in the classroom by military-grade weapons).
No, the real problems are that it misuses science for unacknowledged political ends; that it grotesquely misrepresents Peterson's intellectual opponents; and that it requires absurd philosophical and logical gymnastics to render the supposedly scientific standpoint compatible with his religious convictions (he has never entirely nailed his colours to the mast when it comes to belief in God, stating only that "I act as though I do"), which he partially skirts around by claiming that "scientific truth is different from religious truth" (precisely the argument of neo-Marxist philosopher Jean-François Loyotard's book The Postmodern Condition, ironically enough).
Take the opening chapter ("Stand up straight with your shoulders back"), in which he draws on the neurochemistry of lobsters and social behaviour of chimpanzees to make inferences about our human socio-cultural behaviour, arguing that we are inveterately wired to monitor our status in the "dominance hierarchy" (a term he adapts to "competence hierarchy" for creatures more complex than crustaceans).
"The fundamental issue with chapter one," Peterson tells me, "is that I wanted to make the case that you cannot lay hierarchical structures at the feet of the sociopolitical realm."
However, using the coincidence of serotonin as the supposed basis for behavioural parallels between lobsters and humans – trumpeted during the Channel 4 interview, again to give off the impression of scientific authority – has been expertly dismantled by the biologist PZ Myers. Evidently irked by Peterson's intellectual overreaching, Myers claims that Peterson has "built a case on false facts and distortions of general observations from the scientific literature. He has not demonstrated anything about socio-cultural constructions. Not only does he get the evidence wrong, he can't construct any kind of logical argument..."
Worse still, Myers argues, there is an ideological motive for all this: "Peterson is distorting the evidence to fit an agenda... It's appalling the degree to which this man is asserting nonsense with such smug confidence. This man is lying to you."
So much for Rule 8: "Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie."
You're never as ideological as when you believe you're not being ideological, and so when Peterson writes, at the start of a sub-chapter titled "The Nature of Nature", that "it is a truism of biology that evolution is conservative", he is presenting – for entirely ideological ends – an obvious fact about the slow march of evolution as an indisputable truth of how our societies work, despite all sorts of salient details making the parallel unworkable. For one: animals don't have language to mitigate the use of force (that is, to counter the "dominance hierarchy"). More importantly, creatures in an ecosystem operate "blindly", directed by instinct and with no understanding of the global ramifications of their actions. This hasn't been true of humans at least since we put satellites in orbit.
Furthermore, Peterson is well aware that the notion of "fittest design" isn't absolute: evolution is non-linear, and what was once optimal (heavy armour, say, in an arms race with a predator growing ever-sharper fangs) can become sub-optimal (when the armour makes you unable to escape another predator). So, applying this insight to the socio-political environment, over which we can in principle make global, systemic, top-down changes (tax laws, say), "what has existed before" may no longer be beneficial for us as a species. They may no longer be unquestioned blueprints for us to live up to.
Thus, despite knowing Peterson's contempt for "SJWs", I ask him whether – within such an evolutionary framework – socialism and feminism might be considered adaptive responses to our awareness of systemic realities such as global warming or the ultimate un-sustainability of capitalism's entirely irrational model of growth for growth's sake (and the type of competitive, risk-addicted masculinity that fuels it). He briefly concurs, before backtracking: "Not feminism, but the feminine." And then: "But the problem is way deeper than people think, and a lot of the solutions generate more problems than they generate solutions." In other words: capitalism should be considered "natural" – it's just how we are. (Peterson regards the idea that capitalism is responsible for inequality to be "at least a hundred years out of date", although, evidently, Stephen Hawking didn't get the memo when it was passed around the scientific community.)
All this is enough to make a number of the "postmodernist neo-Marxists" berated by Peterson for being unscientific raise a sceptical eyebrow. "Make no mistake about it," Peterson has tweeted, not at all hyperbolically, "the aim of the radical left is the destruction of even the idea of competence" (to which the obvious reply is: um, Trump?). So badly – and wilfully – does Peterson misrepresent his intellectual adversaries that he's able to tweet, only partly sarcastically, that "science is a social construct, remember? That's why planes fly."
If it were just a case of YouTube clickbait or polemics for conservative podcasts it would be more excusable, but the same deliberate misrepresentations and falsifications crop up in Peterson's lectures. Take this one, which begins with a ludicrously hyperbolic ad hominem describing Foucault as a "vengeful misfit", adding: "a more reprehensible figure you could hardly ever discover, or even dream up". So far, so moderate.
I ask whether, neck-deep involvement in the culture wars notwithstanding, he feels any moral obligation to depict these figures to his students more faithfully. He mentions the inevitable "oversimplification" involved in dealing with "this identity politics mess. The question is how do you trace its development? So you say, rather casually: let's attribute it to Marxism, first of all, and then the union of Marxism with the kind of postmodernism that was put forward by Derrida and Foucault. It's like: Jesus, you're summarising an unbelievably complicated problem in, like, 15 seconds. And the nuance is going to be lost. The problem is there is a problem with identity politics, and I really do believe that it's a terribly divisive problem."
The clip finishes with Peterson offering a caricatured "postmodernist neo-Marxist" view that "the only reason the West functions is because it has raped the rest of humanity and the planet", which he follows with an uncharacteristic and telling silence before adding, again tellingly, "the less said about that the better". Which is perhaps why 12 Rules for Life doesn’t have an index entry for capitalism, or why Peterson's presentation of historical atrocities doesn't dwell on slavery, upon which the great civilising beacon of American wealth and enterprise was founded. A sin of omission, as he would himself call it.
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It's somewhat curious that Peterson’s caricature of his intellectual foes' supposed rejection of scientific evidence is made while giving Jung centre-stage, a thinker whose totally discredited and entirely unscientific theories of universal archetypes were derived from personal dreams and fabricated "research". Indeed, for Pankaj Mishra in the New York Review of Books, the invocation of such pseudoscientific guff places Peterson alongside a host of other "intellectual entrepreneurs" in a lineage of "fascist mysticism" (this criticism did not go down well). For all that he admonishes the postmodernists for abandoning the Enlightenment, he is a profoundly anti-Enlightenment figure.
And ultimately, this – not the eternal drama of Chaos and Order – is the conflict that Peterson’s work cannot resolve: on the one hand, the psychologist drawn to (apparently) rational scientific explanations; on the other, the proponent of archetypal myths as "objectively true" in the sense of guides as to how we should act, to our "structures of meaning". It's as though his own heroic quest was trawling through these texts, and now he feels obliged to shoehorn everything into their esoteric, superstitious framework.
"Everything I'm saying and thinking about religion is nested inside an evolutionary viewpoint," Peterson has said, presumably aware that the standard evolutionary psychological account of the emergence of religious and superstitious beliefs is that, for our ancestors, faced with an overwhelmingly complex and terrifying universe, ascribing causal agency to anthropomorphised Gods or spirits that can be reckoned with (through sacrifice, obedience and suchlike) alleviated anxiety. As with us moderns and our strongmen or self-help gurus, half-baked half-truths are functionally advantageous and better than chronic uncertainty. The drive for meaning – one of "the fundamental instincts", as he depicts it – doesn’t prove the existence of God; God is the result of the drive for meaning (that is, the need to make practical sense of the world). And a relatively primitive one at that. Similarly, our ancestors portraying the world as a drama of Order and Chaos doesn’t mean that is how it actually is. It means that was their best guess, given their lack of a scientific understanding of material processes.
Anyway, the solution to the hardships of life is not to change the world – play the game, don't tweak the rules! – but for individuals to "Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)", according to Peterson's Rule 7. And by "meaningful", he of course means within the collective hierarchy of values underpinning our order, which is "tribe, religion, hearth, home and country. It's the warm secure living-room where the fireplace glows and the children play. It's the flag of the nation. It's the value of the currency... It's the greatness of tradition, the rows of desks in a school classroom, the trains that leave on time... Order is God the Father, the eternal judge, ledger-keeper and dispenser of rewards and punishments. Order is the peacetime army of policemen and soldiers. It's the political culture, the corporate environment, the system. It's the 'they' in 'you know what they say'."
Become individuals, Peterson tells his followers, but in a way that doesn’t challenge this symbolic order. It's an idea of individualism not too far removed from that which consumer capitalism ceaselessly sells us. Think different, says Apple.
A philosophy of personal responsibility is one thing, but by repeatedly insisting that your destiny as an individual is primarily a matter of better life choices and fitting in – by insisting, that is, on the myth of the self-made man – Peterson not only plays down the crucial importance of politics and economics in the shaping of our lives, but also denies the malleability of that reality: "It just is, so deal with it."
And yet, as 12 Rules depoliticises with one hand, so his actions say something else.
"To enter into the political domain is to risk contributing to polarisation and destabilisation," Peterson reflects. "But to abstain from it is to risk the consequences of voicelessness and inaction. So I picked the first risk. And it's definitely a risk. And I've tried to be as reasonable about it as possible. And no doubt I could have been more reasonable. I keep trying to learn to be more reasonable. And I have people who are in my immediate circle watching what I'm doing all the time and criticising what I'm doing extremely intensively. Including my family. And I'm paying attention to the feedback and I'm listening when I go to my talks. And I'm trying to be as reasonable as I possibly can. Now, that doesn't mean I'm succeeding as well as might be hoped – that's for sure."
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.