Jordan Peterson
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About halfway through 12 Rules For Life, Jordan Peterson — who believes the Bible to be ‘the foundational document of Western civilisation’ — dissects the story of Christ’s temptation in the desert. The Devil’s first two invitations to Jesus — to turn rocks to bread and to provoke a demonstration of God’s intercessionary powers — are uncomplicated in their meaning, he suggests. We cannot live by bread alone, and we shouldn’t outsource responsibility for our lives to others, not even to God. But it is the third temptation that is most compelling to Peterson. ‘Again the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain’, writes Matthew, ‘and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them.’ The offer is expansive but unspecific (‘all this I will give you’) so Peterson adds unwarranted and self-revealing detail: ‘Christ is offered the pinnacle of the dominance hierarchy, the animalistic desire of every naked ape: the obedience of all, the most wondrous of estates, the power to build and to increase, the possibility of unlimited sensual gratification.’ But it is in the power to do evil, he suggests, where the greatest temptation lies: ‘Power also means the capacity to take vengeance, ensure submission, and crush enemies. Grant Cain enough power and he will not only kill Abel. He will torture him, first, imaginatively and endlessly.’ It’s an unnervingly wet-lipped gloss on scripture and it goes to the heart of Peterson’s modern Manichean take on the world as an unceasing combat between chaos and order, a world in which we are born sinful but can be redeemed by self-discipline. And its dark vision of human nature wouldn’t matter greatly if its author wasn’t also now perched in an exceeding high place.

We measure altitude these days by clicks and likes and Peterson is preeningly aware of his own current elevation. 12 Rules for Life, he explains in a preface to the book, had its origin — in part at least — in the contributions he made to a website called Quora, which allows its users to crowd-source answers to their questions. A kind of crude Darwinism rules in this catechistic safari-park, with users ‘upvoting’ popular responses and ‘downvoting’ others. And Peterson, to his evident satisfaction, found that his answer to the question ‘What are the most valuable things everyone should know?’ proved a winner. To date, he explains it has been ‘upvoted twenty-three hundred times’. The video talks he posts on YouTube are strikingly successful too (‘up to eighteen million as I write this’) and the Patreon account he set up to fund his work after giving up teaching and clinical practice now reportedly earns him upwards of $80,000 a month. Add to that sales in the millions for his gussied-up self-help book and sell-out international tours to address its devoted readers. After years in the foothills of academia, teaching psychology at the University of Toronto, Peterson finds himself, a little breathless, on a mountain top.

What he can see from there matters much less to him, I think, than that he can now be seen from almost anywhere. Because in the psychodrama of Peterson’s life — as it is revealed explicitly and unwittingly in his books and interviews — he has information to convey to the world which is crucial. His adoption (not entirely by his choosing, to be fair) as a champion of the alt-right and his premature canonisation — again almost exclusively by conservative writers and publications — as an important public intellectual provide him with a pulpit from which he can share what he believes to be an essential truth. The epigraph for his previous book Maps of Meaning is drawn from Matthew too: ‘I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world.’ Naturally not everyone is disposed to listen to the sermon. Peterson has been dismissed by many as just an internet-connected Madame Blavatsky, peddling a washy blend of Tao, and Jung and pull-your-socks up common sense (the novelist Hari Kunzru neatly summed up the experience of reading his prose as ‘like being shouted at by a rugby coach in a sarong’). His surge to celebrity status has been presented as evidence of a crisis in our intellectual life, a symptom of disease rather than a cure for it. But he’s also been defended — with gleeful aggression by some of the 700,000 foot-soldiers who follow him on Twitter and, a little more thoughtfully, by readers who find his deference to scripture and inherited spiritual wisdom congenial. His impatience with the more extreme diktats of identity politics, with the balkanisation of human identity into ever smaller statelets of competing grievance, has also won him supporters. And it’s not hard to see why his tough-love insistence that meaning and purpose is what matters in life – rather than pleasure – might be congenial to a generation confused about happiness.. Stop worrying about micro-aggressions, Peterson says, stop expecting to be cheerful, tidy your bedroom and stand tall.  In a culture of readily perceived offence, of trigger-warnings, it has an appeal. The Germaine Greer Work-Out.

The deference to myth is real and deep. 12 Rules For Life dresses itself in a click-bait folksiness recognisable from the social media world which shaped it. The chapter titles (‘Do not bother children when they are skateboarding’, ‘Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping’) have a bumper-sticker simplicity about them and the prose is casually conversational, just as likely to cite The Simpsons or The Lion King as Nietzsche or Socrates. (Peterson approves of The Lion King but is fretful about the ‘deeply propagandistic’ Disney film Frozen, with its message of female empowerment). But inside its admonitions to self-discipline and stoicism you can still see the bones of his first book — Maps of Meaning, a key to all mythologies which appeared without trace in 1999, after some thirteen years of hard labour. The book was, he explains in a confessional preface, a response to a private crisis which followed his realisation that left-wing politics offered only a culture of grievance: ‘All my beliefs — which had lent order to the chaos of my existence, at least temporarily — had proved illusory; I could no longer see the sense in things. I was cast adrift: I did not know what to do or what to think.’ Tormented by violent impulses and brutally apocalyptic dreams (Anubis-like jackals butcher his cousin in one typically lurid example), obsessed with the Cold War, Peterson found a way out of his personal wilderness with the help of Jungian archetypes and a conviction that he could uncover the deep grammar concealed within world mythologies. Where science offers only an explanation of the world as a place of things, he writes, myths, properly interpreted, can guide us through the world as ‘a forum for action’. That’s right: the famous clear thinker, the lucid public performer, has all the cranky credentials of a Billy Sunday or W B Yeats.

The result is a clotted melange of comparative mythology, self-penned fairy tales, and oneiric revelations (at one point he shares a dream in which his grandmother strokes his face with a brush made of her own pubic hair). The arguments are regularly summarised with the kind of feverish diagram you see on serial killers’ walls in Hollywood thrillers — maps of abstraction full of reciprocal arrows, ouroboros symbols and grandiose labels — ‘The Precosmogenic “Egg”’, ‘The “Patriarchal World” of Light’, ‘”Sexual” [Creative] Union’. As illustrations of his ideas they are not exactly helpful; as illustrations of his mental state at the time, they may be. Towards the end of the book Peterson includes a long rambling letter written to his father, in which he attempts to explain what he’s been up to and why his ideas matter. ‘I don’t know Dad’, he writes, ‘but I think I have discovered something that no one else has any idea about and I’m not sure I can do it justice. Its scope is so broad that I can see only parts of it clearly at one time, and it is exceedingly difficult to set down comprehensibly in writing.’ His discoveries, he reveals, ‘border on what might normally be considered insanity’. (The concern any parent might feel on reading such a letter was presumably allayed a little by the breezy manner in which Peterson ends it: ‘Anyways. I’m glad that you and Mom are doing well. Thank you for doing my income tax returns’).

In Maps of Meaning there is an elemental combat in play — between the ‘eternal unknown’ (feminine, and chaotic) and the ‘eternal known’ (masculine and disciplined), a war that can be mediated by the ‘eternal knower’, a figure who is ‘the knight who slays the dragon of chaos, the hero who replaces disorder and confusion with clarity and certainty, the sun god who eternally slays the forces of darkness’. And though Peterson repeatedly insists that a balance between oppositional forces is what he seeks, it’s conspicuous, both in his writings and lectures, that he fears chaos far more than discipline. (The subtitle of 12 Rules is ‘An Antidote to Chaos’, rather than  ‘A Middle Way’ or something similarly even handed). We have, Peterson suggests, turned our backs on inherited social structures and need to return, fast, to their controlling embrace: ‘Order 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.’ With our safe spaces and our diversity programmes and our affirmative action, he suggests, we tinker with an inherited machinery of stability. ‘We have learned to live together and organise our complex societies slowly and incrementally, over vast stretches of time, and we do not understand with sufficient exactitude why what we are doing works.’

The sentence takes it for granted that what we are doing does work and shows no interest at all in the possibility that ‘what we are doing’ might not work for everyone.

Or indeed, that forms of behaviour that have proved durable amongst lobsters (or even closer cousins such as chimpanzees) might not offer a simple template for life in Toronto in 2018. Peterson’s enemies (not always scrupulous about attacking what he actually does mean, rather than what they indignantly hope he does) have had a lot of fun with his sloppier deployments of evolutionary psychology, in particular his invitation to his readers to ‘Look for your inspiration to the victorious lobster with its 350 million years of practical wisdom’. No scuttling across the floors of silent seas here. If you find yourself high in the pecking order — or the snapping order — you’ve earned it.

The atavism — for all its appeals to psychobiology and scientific research papers — is just another version of that old reductio of conservative philosophy, ‘It’s just not natural’. (A lament that usually forgets that repudiating natural instincts is at the heart of social conservatism.) For Peterson, we’re profoundly naive if we believe we can think our way round our (notionally) hard-wired inheritances. ‘You simply don’t understand how what you want — and therefore what you see — is conditioned by the immense, absymal, profound past. You simply don’t understand how every neural circuit through which you peer at the world has been shaped (and painfully) by the ethical aims of millions of years of human ancestors and all of the life that was lived for the billions of years before that.’ The passage is typical in its absolutism (‘every neural circuit’) and its blurry conflation of cultural and biological evolution. But for Peterson this stuff is gospel too. When presented with a counter-argument one of his favourite responses is ‘there’s not a shred of evidence for that’. It’s a poker-player’s tell, generally a sign that he’s encountered another lobster and feels the need to maximise his own height.

His fondness for crudely simplified Darwinism does not appear to have led him — as it has led so many others — into racism. Peterson has repudiated racial prejudice explicitly (though he also hedges his bets by repudiating what he calls the ‘Marxist lie of white privilege’). It isn’t racial difference that has earned him his particularly fractious celebrity but gender difference. Peterson has a problem with women — many of whom are understandably wary about his appeal to under-occupied young men who lurk on some social media sites griping about ‘social justice warriors’ and their involuntary celibacy. It isn’t hard to find passages in 12 Rules that, despite Peterson’s often stated contempt for the politics of grievance, seem dependent themselves on a sense of grievance for their force – that seem, dare one say it, a little whiney. ‘If men are pushed to hard to feminise, they will become more and more interested in harsh fascist political ideology’, he writes at one point. It’s the classic abuser’s exculpation: ‘You made me do it.’

Elsewhere he notes that resentment might be a symptom of the resenter’s immaturity – but it might also be evidence that ‘there is tyranny afoot’. His advice is revealing: ‘When should you start pushing back against oppression, despite the danger? When you start nursing secret fantasies of revenge; when your life is being poisoned and your imagination fills with the wish to devour and destroy.’ Your paranoia, in other words, could well be proof that they really are out to get you. And who’s ‘they’?

Incels looking for guidance won’t find it hard to find sentences they can slash through with a highlighter pen. ‘It is woman as Nature who looks at half of all men and says “No!”’, Peterson writes. ‘For the men that’s a direct encounter with chaos, and it occurs with devastating force every time they are turned down for a date.’

Bullying, meanwhile, has its values. Peterson has a soft spot for Nelson Muntz, the sneering goon from The Simpsons. ‘Without Nelson, King of the Bullies, the school would soon be overrun by resentful, touchy Milhouses, narcissistic, intellectual Martin Princes, soft, chocolate-gorging German children, and infantile Ralph Wiggums. Muntz is a corrective, a tough, self-sufficient kid who uses his own capacity for contempt to decide what line of immature or pathetic behaviour simply cannot be crossed.’ Peterson’s surprising identification with Nelson, his empathy with the urge to hurt and demean is at one point startlingly highlighted by the accidental hiatus of pagination. ‘Once you become consciously aware that you, yourself, are vulnerable, you understand the nature of human vulnerability in general’, he writes. ‘You understand what it’s like to be fearful, and angry, and resentful and bitter. You understand what pain means. And once you truly understand such feelings in yourself, and how they’re produced…’ At this point a page turn gives the reader a micro-second in which to predict the conclusion of the sentence; ‘…you resolve not to exploit the vulnerability of others’, perhaps? Or ‘…you see how your own actions may have consequences you don’t intend’? No. For Peterson this is a moment of opportunity  — ‘…you understand how to produce them in others’, he continues (my italics). Behind the stern (and banal) advice about responsibility and incremental self-command, behind the showy erudition and the references to the Tao and T S Eliot, this is what really lies at the core of Peterson’s philosophy…a profound terror at what he, personally, might be capable of. His books — and his online talks and tweets — are an attempt to universalise a private anxiety. After all, if everyone’s like this (and it’s all because the matriarchy has got above itself) maybe he’s not so terrible after all. The truth about him is the truth about everyone — though only he has the courage to point it out.

In Middlemarch, Mrs Cadwallader describes another earnest explicator of world mythologies, Edward Casaubon, as ‘a great bladder for dried peas to rattle in’. It won’t really fit Jordan Peterson…he’s too intense, too troubled, too eager for combat. But it’s a perfect metaphor for the online culture which has brought him to our attention. Without the bladder to amplify the rattle, you have a querulous academic, tetchy at the novelties of social discourse, and presumably depressed because he was restricted to putting the world to rights one patient at a time. With it, you have a man who’s convinced himself that he might just be the ‘eternal knower’. Will he resist the obvious temptation — to say the things that make the most noise, and sustain those numbers? Well he’s already succumbed to it, and it’s unlikely to get better when the attention moves on or the ‘Likes’ and the retweet numbers start to drop. One can’t help wondering how he’s going to make it back down from the mountain.

 

 


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