Jordan Peterson is an apocalypse preacher who attacks progress and modernity under the guise of defending it, argues Emeka Ikpeazu.
In the past couple of years I have dealt off and on with depression and loneliness. I am a graduate engineering student. I definitely understand how busy, lonely, and stressful a time it can be. I definitely don’t blame someone (too much) for finding an outlet for help, whatever that outlet may be. People are complex and can find hope and help in many things. I have found some of Jordan Peterson’s lectures helpful and I definitely think there are some people hellbent on mischaracterizing him and his views. However, as someone who sees the importance of scientific and philosophical rigor there are some things that I cannot allow to go uncriticized. And additionally, as someone who sees himself as a modernist who desires progress at the level of the individual and the society I must take issue with some ideas of his.
This will not be a take on Jordan Peterson’s self-help advice, it won’t be a take on his newest book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, nor will it be a take on his earlier book Of Maps and Meaning. My issue is with meaningless pseudo-philosophical word effluvium and socially detrimental ideas. This is a take on Peterson’s grievance with the left and activism — a grievance that I have to some degree — and what he posits as a solution to it, which I find absolutely counter to anything that could be remotely labeled Enlightenment.
Some years ago — six to be precise — I watched a documentary film called Waiting for Amageddon. It’s a fascinating view into the minds of apocalyptically minded Christians who obsess over the End Times and the Second Coming of Christ. The following commentary on Christians in contemporary society from a pastor by the name of Scott Nelson occurs roughly ten minutes into the film:
Today Christians are becoming increasingly vulnerable to a worldview that certainly resulted in the persecution of the Jews under the Nazis. And whether you had Nazis celebrating the Aryan race and denigrating the Jew, today you have multiculturalists celebrating the feminist and the gay lifestyle and denigrating the white European male.
The film ends with a conference in Dallas, Texas for believers of pre-tribulation theology, the idea that Jesus will return before the tribulation. Here Postmodernism is lambasted as leading people away from a literal reading of the Bible. Another pastor, H. Wayne House, gets up and says, “Postmodernism is a worldview vying for the hearts and minds of the whole world.” He subsequently goes on to implicate postmodernism in interpreting the Constitution as a “living document” in the 1973 case of Roe v. Wade. The legalization of abortion and the decline in Biblical literalism are the lamentations of these enemies of Postmodernism. Such lamentations say quite a bit about their worldview. What happens when we apply the same experiment to Jordan Peterson?
Anyone who familiar with Peterson’s work is familiar with his main attack on “postmodern neo-Marxists” as enemies of Western Civilization. Now who the hell are these people? Let’s define some terms first. Postmodernism is defined below:
In the above lexicographical entry postmodernism is contrasted with modernism. Modernism is thusly defined:
Neo-Marxism is development of Marx’s original theory of economics and the drivers of history. This development incorporates aspects of twentieth-century philosophy such as existentialism, Freudian psychoanalysis, and absurdism.
I am neither a postmodernist nor a Marxist of any kind but I am on the Left. My first criticism is what I see as an oxymoron. Postmodernism and any kind of Marxism seem to be at odds with each other. In its rejection of “grand narratives” or “metanarratives” postmodernism is heavily criticized by Marxists as not dealing with the metanarratives of class struggle and inequality. Similar criticisms find their place in other parts of the left. As Noam Chomsky — who is not a Marxist — says:
…the place where it’s [postmodernism]been really harmful is in the third-world because third-world intellectuals are badly needed in the popular movements. They can make contributions and a lot of them are just drawn away from this. Anthropologists, sociologists, and others…they’re drawn away into these arcane — in my view — mostly meaningless discourses and are disassociated from popular struggles and you can see the impact. I mean, I have had experiences around the third-world…they really indicate that how the level of irrationality that grows out of this undermines the opportunities for doing something really significant and important.
This is Noam Chomsky’s criticism of postmodernism, one with which I fully agree. But Peterson has a different view; he blames “postmodern neo-Marxists” for the atrocities of the Soviet Union in the 20th century, particularly the Holodomor (Голодомóр) famine. To understand this you have Peterson’s worldview, particularly as it relates to the left’s supposed “demonization” of “upper class” or “privileged” groups. For him such demonization found itself directed at the kulaks, the 1930s land-owning peasants in modern-day Ukraine, Tatarstan, and Kazakhstan. The kulaks were persecuted by by Joseph Stalin during the collectivization period. His 2017 lecture “Maps of Meaning 4: Marionettes and Individuals” explains this concept in relation to the Pinnochio being given a fake diagnosis of illness which he relates to a diagnosis of victimhood on the part of groups who are not so privileged. In an excerpt from the lecture entitled “When Victimhood Leads to Genocide — Prof. Jordan Peterson on Dekulakization” Peterson says:
There’s a point that’s being made and the point is that people have been oppressed and they suffer and that’s true, that point.
But then the proper framework from within which to interpret — I believe — is that that’s characteristic of life. You can’t take it personally in some sense and you can’t divide the world neatly into perpetrators and victims and you certainly can’t divide the world neatly into perpetrators and victims and then assume that you’re only in the victim class and then assume that gives you…access to certain forms of redress.
This is another way of naturalizing the distinct marginalization that people face. Would this apply to Martin Luther King? Or Thomas Pain(e)? If a certain type of marginalization attacks someone’s person what choice does such a person have not to take it personally? But it gets a bit worse than that because Jordan Peterson’s comparison to the kulaks of the Caucasus and Central Asia is totally backwards. Marginalized groups are not jealous of dominant groups because of their success; it is that often dominant groups have largely built their success on the subjugation of those groups. Peterson goes on to say:
But there’s gonna be some people who are not happy about it at all that are gonna be very resentful about that and jealous. And so those are gonna be people whose characters I would say are of the less positive type. And so when the intellectuals came in and described the reason that these people [kulaks]should be treated as parasites and profiteers it was the resentful minority in those towns — and that would be the kind of guy who hangs around in the bar all the time and is completely unconscientious and fails at everything and then blames everyone else for it — the intellectuals came in and said “This is unfair that this happened to you; you’ve actually been victimized and now it’s your opportunity to go have your revenge.” And so that’s exactly what happened.
In this construction the minorities are “resentful” and “unconscientious” in addition to “fail[ing]at everything” and “hang[ing]around in the bar all the time”. Peterson’s analogy with the kulaks denigrates marginalized groups by implication in the way it portrays them. However, Peterson’s kulak analogy does hold up in a different way. A good comparison with the plight of the kulaks would the destruction of Black Wall Street in Tulsa where a group of African-Americans, despised by the white people of the surrounding area, built a successful community for themselves. This community was not exploitative; on the contrary, it was so financially protectionist that a single dollar stayed within the community for an average of a year before leaving.
This community was bombed with nitroglycerin airstrikes from crop-dusting planes in 1921 after a lie about a white woman being raped by a black man was used to justify invading and destroying it. Wilmington, North Carolina—where the first and only coup in American history took place—has a similar story. For Peterson the frustration of marginalized groups and their urgency to change the status quō is born out of resentment and jealousy rather than the social conditions that have been made for them. In his first interview with Russell Brand he described why he believes the solution to inequality is psychological rather than sociological:
The temptation towards resentment and destruction that’s associated with sociological approaches to inequality is too great. And that as a consequence those movements tend inexorably to become corrupt and destructive. I think Orwell put his finger on it when he said, “Middle class socialists don’t like the poor, they just hate the rich.”
Peterson’s sees this mentality among “postmodern neo-Marxists” as responsible for the atrocities of the Soviet Union. This is a rather anachronistic placement of blame in my estimation. As we see from the lexicographical entry above, Postmodernism is a movement that began in the 1970s. Stalin’s purges and enforced famines occurred between 1930s. The sort of artistic and cultural freedom that allowed for Postmodernism to develop was ushered in by Khrushchev who took power after Stalin’s death in 1953 and even then, this relative artistic freedom developed into postmodernism in France, not modern-day Russia.
How does Peterson justify his antipathy? His claim is that the modern humanities are hellbent on “disrupting the fundamental structures of Western Civilization.” In a lecture given in the summer of 2017, Peterson said:
The Postmodernists turned the Marxist emphasis on economics into an emphasis on power in the 1970s. And I think they did that as a form of sleight of hand because by the late 1960s and early late 1970s it was obvious to people even as intransigent as say Jean-Paul Sartre who refused to denounce the Communist Party until that late progression of the 20th century. It became obvious to people like that that was no way you could maintain your intellectual and moral credibility and remain a supporter of standard communist doctrine.
Part of the sleight of hand was “Oh, it’s not about economic power, it’s about oppressed and oppressor on a broader sense.” And that’s where we got the transformation into identity politics which the Marxist oppressor-oppressed dynamic that we got under a new guise.
It seems that Peterson attributes identity politics to Marxism. However, even in his characterization of the derivation of identity politics from Marxism, Peterson still gets Marxism wrong. Marxism is a dynamic of the exploited proletariat vs. the exploitative bourgeoisie. This is important because Marxism is purely materialist. It is entirely about economics and class. Under Marxism, oppression on the basis of identity functions as an epiphenomenon of underlying economic issues. The Marxist metanarrative is one of class struggle, but the “oppressor-oppressed dynamic” Peterson falsely ascribes to Marxism is also a metanarrative and thus also antithetical to Postmodernism.
Additionally, Peterson also seems to have a blindspot regarding identity politics. I mentioned this briefly in my previous piece on identity politics that Peterson has no sense of how these groups are seen by the left. His view of identity politics does not start with how certain groups of people (minorities) are originally treated. For Peterson, it starts with the attempts to right the wrongs of history in regard to these groups, this is to say that identity politics is a new phenomenon. He clarifies this in an interview with Helen Lewis for British GQ saying plainly that, “The United States wasn’t founded on identity politics.” A very irrational claim for anyone who has any understanding of U.S. history. But it shows Peterson’s bias; Peterson centers the resistance to marginalization — constituted by movements for social change and progress — in his understanding of identity politics, not the marginalization itself. This is Peterson’s deliberate construction.
When examining an argument it is not only good to look at the points made; it is additionally beneficial to examine who (or what) is served with such an argument. This is far from conspiratorial; it helps craft an understanding of how such a message can and will be received at large. Peterson’s argument against identity politics serve the current state of affairs. Indeed, Peterson deploys the right-wing criticism of identity politics, one that I have previously shot down before, but there’s a subtly disingenuous way he does it. Returning to the same interview with Helen Lewis, Peterson earlier made a left-wing criticism of identity politics, one that I am currently writing about, saying:
It’s certainly the case too that this identity politics battle of ideas was a determining factor in the last American election. If Hillary wouldn’t have played identity politics — played cozy with the identity politics types — she would have kept the working class and she would be president now.
Peterson first deploys the left-wing criticism of identity politics, the use of identity as a cover for an ostensibly anti-class politics, i.e. neoliberal tokenism. He switches to the right-wing criticism of identity politics eighteen minutes later. Does he think that left-wing positions are inherently more intelligent? Or did he do that to grant a platform of credibility to his subsequent talking points? I neither know nor care, but I recognize that the right cynically co-opts criticism of identity politics to make all left-wing movements seem inherently elitist while pretending to care about working people. Author Angela Nagle analyzes this form of Trump apologia in her book Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right:
Although the idea that ordinary people felt alienated by political correctness was not uncommon in right-wing rhetoric, there was also quite a remarkable shift from a subcultural elitism to a sudden proletarian righteousness, or even a bit of noblesse oblige, as though the right had been making Thomas Frank’s argument all along. In reality they had been making pro-inequality, misanthropic, economically elitist arguments for natural hierarchy all along.
Much of Peterson’s worldview is about naturalising hierarchies so his use of Thomas Frank’s argument is ersatz. This is especially true with Peterson’s debunked analogy to the neuroendocrine system of the lobster. Additionally, this is compounded by the fact that Peterson was featured in a video called “Fix Yourself” for Prager University. Peterson ends this video, saying:
The proper way to fix the world isn’t to fix the world. There’s no reason to assume that you’re even up to such a task. But you can fix yourself. You’ll do no one any harm by doing so. And in that manner at least, you will make the world a better place.
What exactly does this mean? It means that the activists protesting and grassroots movements for change are making fruitless noise. There’s no use protesting an oppressive system if you can’t first fix yourself. How would this argument hold up against the Civil Rights Movement? Or the Women’s Suffrage Movement? Peterson expands on this statement in an interview on The Rubin Report with Dave Rubin, Ben Shapiro, and Eric Weinstein:
What I’ve been suggesting to my audiences is, “Get your act together as much as you possibly can because the way you deal with uncertainty is by being prepared for anything and everything that’s gonna come your way.” And so you want to put yourself together so that when the difficult decisions come along — even though we can’t predict what they are — you’re gonna be in the best possible solution.
Individual improvement is a good thing and something that I am currently practicing as it relates to me. But using it to prepare for “uncertainty” is something quite different. What about economic uncertainty? How would this apply to the working class about whom Peterson supposedly cares? Should the working class simply “get their act together as much as possible” or should they be active against candidates—who in Peterson’s words—
“[play]cozy with the identity politics types” in favor of a more working-class politics? Should a black woman affected by voter suppression efforts simply get her act together? This is how Peterson smuggles in a defense of the status quō and Weinstein voices his disagreement later in the interview. As Scott Oliver put it in his piece in VICE:
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.”
From all of the above it is clear that Peterson cannot possibly maintain this illusion of him as a soldier for modernism in light of his worldview. His insistence on the individual is not meant as a bulwark against an irrational collectivism. It is a denial of our ability to use reason to make sociological change. After all, our reason allows us to predict economic meltdowns in a country of over 300 million people. To endorse a worldview that denies or downplays this isn’t modernism; on the contrary it’s very much in line with postmodernism. Keeping the status quō as it is and shaming any attempt to change it isn’t modernism. Pushing blatant climate-change denial as honest inquiry isn’t modernism. Casting doubt on the competency of same-sex couples to raise children isn’t modernism. Fearmongering about how the birth control pill “might do [the West]in” as a civilization isn’t modernism. Refusing to acknowledge the variations and complexities of gender expression in everyday life isn’t modernism. Affirming the centrality of patriarchy to Western Civilization — going so far as to lash out at the movie Frozen — isn’t modernism. Calling women who complain about sexual assault in the workplace hypocritical because they wear make-up isn’t modernism. Blaming secular humanism for the atrocities of the Soviet Union isn’t modernism. The above ideas represent pre-modern traditionalism and therein lies the contradiction in Peterson’s worldview. He’s a pre-modernist in that he repackages the old order of things and presents it as new. But he is a postmodernist in his loony view of truth, and his scepticism about how much good sociological change can be made through our understanding of current economic and geopolitical realities. Such a worldview only makes for a politics that is profoundly unenlightened.
Jordan Peterson is a modern-day Anthony Comstock, a doomsayer, an apocalyptic preacher, not unlike those featured in the aforementioned documentary film. His is an ersatz theology of hope for those who want to maintain the social status of the dominant groups under the guise of maintaining ‘competence hierarchies’ and whose apocalypse is an ultimate abolition of the oppressive ‘traditions’ of the past. However, Peterson is right in one aspect. The power of myth is very real and the myths with which people align themselves can profoundly shape their worldview. Peterson’s personal myth is that the ‘good old days’ — for which he has a somewhat pressing nostalgia — were ever really that good. This myth is not particularly uncommon; the toxic campaign of this current presidential administration was built on it.
It’s about time we abandoned this myth and truly modernized.
Do not all theists insist that there can be no morality, no justice, honesty or fidelity without the belief in a Divine Power? Based upon fear and hope, such morality has always been a vile product, imbued partly with self-righteousness, partly with hypocrisy.
— Emma Goldman, “The Philosophy of Atheism”
Emeka Ikpeazu is a recent graduate in Electrical Engineering from the University of Virginia. In his spare time he likes to write, go on long runs, watch movies, and listen to classical and jazz music.