Almost a month ago, on October 31st, Jordan Peterson was a guest at Room for Discussion at the University of Amsterdam. It is probably the biggest event Room for Discussion has held since its inception, and sparked controversy inside and outside UvA.
The only thing Peterson’s followers and opponents seem to agree upon, is to disagree. Not one slightly negative statement can be uttered in the direction of Peterson for a wall of fans to appear and defend him. They claim the statements are misrepresenting his views. That he is made out to be a boogeyman radical-right fascist while in reality, he is an enlightened super-intellectual who exposed the radical-left for what it truly is. Peterson’s mainly online community of followers sometimes shows cult-like features. They post worshiping appraisals of Peterson and insults to his adversaries, and a diversity of opinions seems nonexistent.
The result is that any serious reflection on Peterson by his followers is avoided. Although there are plenty of examples where Peterson’s views are misrepresented, this does not mean that every form of thorough questioning is an invalid critique or a misrepresentation. However, many of his followers take his words as the absolute truth, and him as an all-knowing guide. For a lot of Peterson’s followers, no form of doubt seems allowed. This is a problem, since there is enough to critique about what Peterson says and writes. For such an influential figure, the question whether Peterson has something of value to say is not asked enough.
So what does Peterson say that is of such major significance? According to Nathan Robinson, not a lot. Robinson describes how much of Peterson’s work is either a platitude dressed in thick layers of academic jargon, or just very vague. His vagueness is a perfect way to dodge criticism (‘That’s not how I intended it, you are willfully misinterpreting me’.) This leaves a lot of Peterson’s writing to be interpreted by the reader. His followers often give him the most favorable interpretation and his opponents do the opposite, which creates a very polarized debate.
Although Peterson claims to be a-political (he said in the interview at Room for Discussion that he’s against ideologies in general), his critiques seem to be primarily targeted at the left. Peterson himself claims that this is because it is the left that controls academia, primarily in humanities and social sciences. These leftist academics are driven by what he calls ‘postmodern neo-Marxism’. To those who are more familiar with philosophy this may seem contradictory since Marxism is an inherently modernist philosophy. Peterson acknowledges this incoherence, and claims this is the left’s own fault.
Peterson describes neo-Marxist postmodernism as a nihilistic philosophy with the ultimate goal to destroy western culture. It is the philosophy that drives a large part of the modern left, from LGBTQI-activists to Democratic Party. Peterson makes far-reaching conclusion based on their political alignment. He claims their ideology is inherently totalitarian and that trans activists can be compared to Mao, since “The philosophy that guides their utterances is the same philosophy”.
Comparing activists for a marginalized group like trans people to the world’s worst mass murderer paints people as an existential danger, an enemy. Peterson turns his growing group of followers against leftists because they supposedly have beliefs he disagrees with, even though it is a gross generalization to claim every progressive is a totalitarian Marxist. And although I don’t think it is his intention, some of his followers may not react very rationally on his claims, as proven in UvA itself, where some of the academics that signed the letter against Peterson got death threats.
Now that we know some things Peterson opposes, what are the alternatives he brings? When it comes to social injustices, Peterson mainly critiques the way ‘the left’ defines that which they want to change. For instance, in the interview he attacked the way trans activists define gender (either a social construct, a choice or biologically defined, which are mutually exclusive). However, his solutions are weak.
For instance, when talking about sexual harassment in the Room for Discussion interview, Peterson held a passionate speech about how poorly feminist groups define sexual misconduct. However, the only solution he poses to sexual misconduct is that men should start acting more responsibly, which isn’t a solution at all since we already expect that from people, and seeing the sexual harassment that still happens, that is just not enough. If Peterson believes in equality of opportunity, which he has claimed multiple times, he should be using his knowledge and influence to propose a better solution for when this equality is breached. Instead, he attacks people who are active for this cause, and compares their intentions to those of mass murderers.
His self-help book Twelve Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos contains twelve rules that do not seem to be very remarkable by themselves. They often resemble the kind of advice your parents told you when you were young, like standing up straight because it boosts your self-confidence, or seek the beautiful things in life. However, many of their justifications seem largely political. To name a few examples, rule 1 is a critique on how ‘neo-Marxist postmodernists’ define hierarchies. Rule 4 explains why inequalities are a fact of life and how meddling with them could weaken society (like Mao and Stalin did.) Rule 11 is a critique of ‘the left’s’ attack on masculinity, and explains why positive masculinity could bring structure in your life. It also serves as a defense of western culture, which Peterson calls ‘fundamentally honest’. For someone who claims to be a-political, his lectures and writings thus contain a remarkable amount of politics.
Here are Peterson’s twelve rules:
Stand up straight with your shoulders back
Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping
Make friends with people who want the best for you
Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today
Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world
Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie
Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
Be precise in your speech
Do not bother children when they are skateboarding
Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street
This leads us to the answer to the question posed in the title. Nobody truly listens to Jordan Peterson because he is not just some self-help guru. There are hundreds of self-help authors that give very similar life advice that don’t reach a fraction of Peterson’s popularity. Peterson has comfortably positioned himself in a highly politicized environment by mixing up his trivial life advice with statements that have large political significance.
For a lot of haters and lovers, this means their opinion is largely based on their political alignment. This is not necessarily a left-right division, because there are also a lot of people who call themselves centrists who are attracted to Peterson. The group of Peterson-followers has in common that they dislike identity politics and political correctness. That is why Peterson became famous not through his lectures or advice, but through a video that went viral of him debating trans activists.
Political scientists often compare politics to the competition between sports clubs. It is more about which ‘team’ wins than about actual policy or ideology. Therefore, we tend to believe the stories that benefit ‘our’ group. That is why the unwillingness of Peterson’s supporters to evaluate critiques has more to do with their disdain for the ‘Social Justice Warriors’ than it has to do with their affection for Peterson. If they would see his life advice apart from their political views, they probably would not thought of Peterson as that much more significant than other thinkers.
This is a critique of Peterson supporters, but the same thing can be said of Peterson’s opponents. I myself most certainly am guilty of determining my support for people based on my political alignment. Also, I will not deny that Jordan Peterson is a gifted speaker that has been of great significance to many people. My point is that Peterson is a symptom of the way we experience politics. Ironically, for someone who passionately denounces identity politics, Peterson seems like one of its main instigators.