Laurie Penny | Longreads | July 2018 | 20 minutes (5,191 words)
“Incredible! One of the worst performances of my career, and they
never doubted it for a second!”
– Ferris Bueller, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
“Now that’s a scientific fact. There’s no real evidence
for it, but it is scientific fact.”
– Brass Eye, “Paedogeddon” episode
“The eternal dragon is always giving our fallen down castles
a rough time.”
– Jordan Peterson, “Biblical Series III: God and the Hierarchy of Authority”
“We have this tree, and we have this strange serpent. That’s a dragon-like form, there—a sphinx-like form that’s associated with the tree… And so the snake has been associated with the tree for a very, very long time. The lesson the snake tells people is, you bloody better well wake up, or something you don’t like will get you. And who’s going to be most susceptible to paying attention to the snake? That’s going to be Eve.”
That’s Professor Jordan Peterson, offering the “realistic and demanding practical wisdom” endorsed by David Brooks in the New York Times.
“The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and his authority — people worshipped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast.”
That’s the Book of Revelation.
“I could not understand why there was a half-man half-chicken statue outside. I spent the next six hours screaming. Non-stop screaming as loud as I could. I’d become convinced I was a dead body lying in a forest. I was in the afterlife, and more than that, I was in hell.”
And that’s a man from Vancouver describing a mishap with magic mushrooms in Vice. Of the three excerpts, it’s the only one that can convincingly claim to be non-fiction.
The first time I waded through the collected polemics and YouTube punditry of Professor Jordan Peterson — the unthinking man’s televangelist, inflated to the status of serious truth-seeker by respectable newspapers around the world — I was expecting to be at least slightly dazzled by his rhetoric. But no matter how long I stared at the magic-eye picture of jumbled platitudes, masturbatory nightmares about being devoured by an all-consuming mother figure, and occasional sensible tips about making your bed, it failed to resolve into a work of epoch-defining insight. Instead, it reads as if St. John the Divine of Patmos settled down and got a job selling insurance but occasionally had flashbacks to when he used to lick blue fungus off cave walls and babble about the Great Dragon.
If every generation gets the intellectuals it deserves, we’re in serious trouble.
Over the past 12 months, and especially since the publication of his internationally-bestselling self-help book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Peterson’s work has been dissected, discussed, and debated on talk shows and in reputable publications across the same Western civilizations whose decline he diagnoses in a manner more lucrative than lucid. Few have led with the obvious fact that neither the man nor the message make coherent sense. 12 Rules disproves, by its very success, one of its central tenets: the idea that we live in anything resembling a meritocracy. The book is messy as hell. It is full of insipid platitudes, trite homilies, and self-regarding detours delivered with the assurance of a man who fully expects to see his childhood finger paintings in a museum someday. At best, he sounds like someone who wandered off into the Desert of the Real without a sunhat. There is, in short, absolutely no way this would be taken remotely seriously if anyone who wasn’t a white guy had written it.
Peterson’s soothing philosophy, such as it is, winds around a lattice of internal contradictions: panting with moralistic propaganda, but exuding a disingenuous appeal to the scientific method. Faithful to the spirit of the age, everything is about sex, except sex, which is about dominance:
“Human female choosiness is also why we are very different from the common ancestor we shared with our chimpanzee cousins, while the latter are very much the same. Women’s proclivity to say no, more than any other force, has shaped our evolution into the creative, industrious, upright, large-brained (competitive, aggressive, domineering) creatures that we are. It is Nature as Woman who says, “Well, bucko, you’re good enough for a friend, but my experience of you so far has not indicated the suitability of your genetic material for continued propagation.”
‘Nature as Woman,’ however, is no benign force, and this is where we sail over the precipice of pseudoscience. From his book Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief:
“The Great Mother aborts children and is the dead fetus; breeds pestilence, and is the plague; she makes of the skull something gruesomely compelling, and is all skulls herself. She is progenitor of the devil, the ‘strange son of chaos.’ She is the serpent, and Eve, the temptress.”
Well, that escalated quickly.
The fact that this is being taken seriously, that it demands to be taken seriously, is frankly embarrassing to converts and critics alike; a symptom of an intellectual and political culture running on fumes. The emptiness of Peterson’s pronouncements, as Nathan J. Robinson writes at Current Affairs, “should be obvious to anyone who has spent even a few moments critically examining his writings and speeches, which are comically befuddled, pompous, and ignorant. They are half nonsense, half banality. In a reasonable world, Peterson would be seen as the kind of tedious crackpot that one hopes not to get seated next to on a train.”
But we do not live in a reasonable world. Instead, we live in a world where the worth of an idea can be measured in dollars. Many of Peterson’s true believers fall back, when challenged, on the indisputable fact that he sells a lot of books and brings in almost a hundred grand a month on Patreon, and that’s before you get to his appearance fees and billable extras. (A test called the “Big Five Aspects Scale” that promises to help you understand yourself will set you back a cool $9.95. I downloaded it on a whim. It told me I had poor impulse control. Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day.).
There’s an ambient grandiosity to it all, like fridge poetry for Roman Emperors. “Don’t underestimate the power of vision and direction,” Peterson writes. “These are irresistible forces, able to transform what might appear to be unconquerable obstacles into traversable pathways and expanding opportunities.” You might suspect 12 Rules of having been authored by a bot, but it’s too pompous. No self-respecting AI could replicate its level of paranoid hubris. Point any of this out, however, and watch a grown man who makes a living telling other people to toughen up rebound into spasms of outrage, threaten to sue you, threaten to punch you, and whip up his followers into such a storm of harassment that a great many critics are now nervous to push back on his ideas at all.
And this is the great free-speech defender.
Christopher Hitchens did not behave like this. William F. Buckley did not behave like this. Peterson reacts, more than anything, like a man who is afraid of being found out. He reacts like a man who can’t believe how much he’s getting away with and can’t understand the reason he’s pulling it off.
There is a reason, though. And it says a lot more about us than it does about him.
Peterson’s anxious army of acolytes would claim that if you don’t understand his work it’s not necessarily because you’re an idiot, but because you haven’t read every single word in every comment thread and watched every single grainy video of Peterson pontificating about lobsters. Because what you really need to consider — and here’s the chorus that repeats — is the context.
Yes, absolutely. Context is vital. But what is the context that actually matters here?
* * *
The context is despair. The context is cultural civil war. The context is two thousand years of violent religious patriarchy, five centuries of brutal capitalist biopolitics, and a decade of punishing austerity that has left a great many young men quaking in the ruins of their own promised glory, drowning in unmet expectations. The context is a profoundly impoverished intellectual and political climate where the feeling of truth is more meaningful than truth itself. That’s the context in which Peterson’s ascendency was as predictable as it is humiliating for anyone clinging on to the idea that there might be a few drops left at the bottom of the barrel of moderate conservative thought. Outside that context, it would make no sense.
Not that it has to make sense to make money. It is the idea of Peterson that matters, not Peterson’s actual ideas. He doesn’t have a cohesive philosophy so much as he has an aesthetic — the right look, the right rigid, paternalistic attitude, the right nasal chuckle — and an audience desperate to ascribe intellectual authenticity to its own teeming insecurities. Aesthetic is all it takes.
And this one comes tried and tested. The figure of the asshole white-male intellectual has a totemic quality in culture: the cadaverous chap who bleeds tweed and gets away with being theatrically awful to everyone around him because he’s cleverer than them. He’s almost certainly English — at a pinch, Canadian will do — and he suffers fools with gritted teeth. Peterson has all of the external signifiers of this type of person without any of the inquisitive rigor.
(You know who’d play him in the BBC dramatization. Benedict Cumberbatch would play him, and would do so better than Jordan Peterson plays Jordan Peterson, because every time that Bendybatch plays this character he manages to evoke a brooding, resentful sexuality that Peterson, thankfully, never quite achieves. )
Peterson is playing a role, but he’s not a grifter. On the contrary, his hallucinogenic body of work suggests that he has been liberally sampling his own product. He believes what he’s saying, and in this intellectual climate that sort of authenticity carries weight, even if what you’re actually saying is a paranoid mess of evolutionary psychology, horrified homophobic superstition, and religious mysticism.
Many of Peterson’s fans reassure themselves that there’s a seam of genius here buried beyond their reach, that there’s so much damn context that even a true believer can only ever see it all through a glass, darkly. Those demands for context are a cop-out: rummage around on Reddit for ten minutes and you can find enough evidence to garnish any crank’s crockpot. Here’s his explanation of why men are frightened of women. (It comes with diagrams in the original video. They don’t help much.)
“Out of chaos emerges this first form, it’s the feminine form, it’s partly the form that represents novelty as such, and on the one hand it’s promise and on the other hand it’s threat…. Well, here’s the decomposition of the fundamental archetype. The dragon of chaos differentiates on the one hand into the feminine, that’s the unknown, and the feminine differentiates further into the negative feminine and the positive feminine. The negative feminine is the reason for witch hunts.”
Believe me, you are not too dumb to understand this. I speak fluent theory-wonk, and I promise, there’s no great secret here. I had a university housemate who used to come out with this sort of stuff at 3 a.m. on the morning before his essay was due while contemplating the ineffable beauty of his own screensaver in a fug of weed-smoke. In fact, I suspect that in order to absorb the full shuddering impact of platitudes like these, one needs not merely to be mired in the throes of a male identity crisis but also catastrophically high, and that would be a waste of good drugs.
He doesn’t have a cohesive philosophy so much as he has an aesthetic — the right look, the right rigid, paternalistic attitude, the right nasal chuckle — and an audience desperate to ascribe intellectual authenticity to its own teeming insecurities. Aesthetic is all it takes.
Peterson has worked out the secret to monetizing his own persecution complex: If your audience is angry and lonely and you tell them that’s justifiable, you can take that muddle of meaning, blend it, and serve it through a candy-colored straw to those who are prepared to swallow anything and call it a juice cleanse. You can go quite far in the gig economy of modern entrepreneurial proto-fascism by talking to young men as if their feelings matter.
* * *
In times of angst and confusion, anyone who accurately describes how you feel will briefly seem like God’s own prophet. This, as any half-decent writer can tell you, is a talent that is extremely easy to abuse.
Buried under Peterson’s crustacean digressions and esoteric gabbling is about a third of a moderately useful self-help book — make your bed, don’t tell lies, the sort of sound advice about basic personal responsibility that most of us learned in kindergarten. Stand up straight. Criticize yourself before you criticize other people, especially if those other people happen to be University of Toronto Professor Jordan Peterson. You can find most of this advice more succinctly in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, the writings of Gretchen Rubin, or any of the many ADHD handbooks I read halfway through, none of which ever invited me to remember that “consciousness is symbolically masculine and has been since the beginning of time.”
I’ve enjoyed some very silly self-help books over the years. I still read SARK, who spells her name in all-caps and hand-illustrates books with names like “Succulent Wild Woman,” for which I forgive her, because no one asks to be born a hippie, and anyway all she’s suggesting is that we take more naps and be a bit nicer to ourselves. Peterson takes that basic attitude and twists it into a weaponized magical realism.
The suggestion that lost, angry young men might do better to channel their energies towards basic grooming and life skills is not an unhelpful one. Part of the reason this book is selling like it is may well be because Peterson has stumbled on a way to flog basic personal hygiene to a male audience: the Axe for Men of self-care. Maybe modern masculinity really is fragile enough that men can’t tidy up without pretending to symbolically slay the great mother dragon, embodiment of chaos, in an epic battle for order. If you can’t pick up a mop without telling yourself it’s a mighty sword, go ahead. As activist and queer icon Kate Bornstein’s take on the golden rule says, do whatever you have to do to survive. Just don’t be mean.
It’s that second part that Peterson’s readers sometimes struggle with. In her devastating review of 12 Rules for Life in the Times Literary Supplement, philosopher Kate Manne notes that it is “a fast-acting, short-term analgesic that will make many of his readers feel better temporarily, while failing to address their underlying problem. On the contrary, the book often fuels the very sense of entitled need which, when it goes unsatisfied, causes such pain and outrage.”
In times of angst and confusion, anyone who accurately describes how you feel will briefly seem like God’s own prophet. This, as any half-decent writer can tell you, is a talent that is extremely easy to abuse.
The tragedy is not just that Manne is right, but that pointing out the obvious moral and ethical sinkholes in Peterson’s grab-bag of resentful bromides should merit a two-page review by one of the greatest feminist philosophers of her generation. The mistake that so many critics and commentators have made is to try to defeat Peterson in formal debate. It’s not that his ideas cannot be defeated — it’s that taking them seriously gives them a credence they do not deserve.
Peterson is not a philosopher of Manne’s caliber. He might most generously be read as a prose poet, or a performance artist trying to express the insipid conundrum of modern masculinity via the medium of YouTube televangelism.
There is nothing morally wrong with recognizing that young white guys are not coping terribly well in this frightening and uncertain world they suddenly find they have to share. The problem comes when you announce, as men like Peterson do, that the way white men feel about things is the way things are. Feelings are not facts. Just because young white men are experiencing hurt feelings does not make those hurt feelings rational, or reasonable, or a sound basis for policy-making. It certainly doesn’t oblige anyone to dignify those hurt feelings with the status of cosmic wisdom.
Peterson, like a lot of angry white men, appears to experience his feelings as facts and his neuroses as truths. Not everyone is quite so obsessed with hierarchy or quite so terrified of powerful women — sorry, of the negative female archetype, the Great Mother, the Dragon — as Professor Jordan Peterson. But in debate after debate he insists that his paranoid fantasies and esoteric anxieties be debated as if they were concrete facts, and in debate after debate he trounces his opponents, because it turns out you can’t really argue someone out of a feeling. Particularly not a feeling of frustration, or anger, or loss.
Writing in the LA Times, Cathy Young says that “for all his flaws, Peterson is tapping into a very real frustration,” and that even if they don’t like what he has to say, feminists should pay attention to Peterson’s fans and engage with their feelings.
The problem is that we already are. Constantly. Angry white male entitlement is the elevator music of our age. Speaking personally, as a feminist-identified person on the internet, my Twitter mentions are full of practically nothing else. I’ve spent far too much of my one life trying to listen and understand and offer suggestions in good faith, before concluding that it’s not actually my job to manage the hurt feelings of men who are prepared to mortgage the entire future of the species to buy back their misplaced pride. It never was. That’s not what feminism is about.
There are plenty of reasons why society treats the pain of young white men as a public concern. A great many of us learned from an early age that bad things happen when white men have hurt feelings. Children of color learn, often painfully, the importance of making the white people around them feel comfortable. Little girls are taught not to “provoke” their male peers into attacking or harassing them. This can get confusing for white boys, bless their hearts: when everyone else treats your hurt feelings as immovable facts that have to be managed by those around you, some confusion is understandable. That’s how we got to a position where male pain is intolerable, but everyone else’s pain is par for the course. I’m throwing truth-bombs, but you’re crying victim. Fuck your feelings, but make gentle, empathetic love to mine.
Failure to address white male pain has never been the problem. In fact, dealing with it has been the self-appointed central task of literature and culture for a great many generations. All that Peterson is doing is talking to young men about how they are feeling, and offering a superstitious self-improvement program that provides an entry point for some boring, ugly, predictable ideas about race, class, and gender. That does not make him a great intellectual. It does not even make him an effective therapist. It makes him an extremely savvy short-trader now that the bottom has dropped out of the marketplace of ideas.
* * *
How do you launder a bad idea to send it back to market? You bundle it up with some slightly better-sounding ones and repackage the whole deal as dazzling insight. Right now, the rhetoric of evolutionary psychology is a popular detergent, as it has been for the last two centuries. The enduring notion that civilization is merely an extension of men’s biological urge to battle it out for sexual access to the highest-quality women, that reproductive, racial, and economic injustice are both natural and morally just, is nothing new.
And yes, this is where the lobsters come in.
Peterson insists in the very first chapter of 12 Rules for Life that if you’re an adult human man worried about your place in the world, you’ve a surprising amount in common with lobsters, “especially when you are feeling crabby, ha ha.” He then draws a thick, wonky line through several hundred million years of natural selection to advise human primates on their posture. If you stand up straight, like the biggest, toughest lobsters do, “you are a successful lobster, and the most desirable females line up and vie for your attention.”
Idiots will believe anything; fools will believe anything that makes them feel better. Peterson’s followers are not idiots. In November 1975, the New York Review of Books published an open letter from a group of Boston scientists, educators, and students entitled “Against Sociobiology,” in which they warned about the enduring popularity of biological justifications of inequality, ideas for which there is scant evidence but huge public appetite: “The reason for the survival of these recurrent determinist theories is that they consistently tend to provide a genetic justification of the status quo and of existing privileges for certain groups according to class, race or sex.”
Peterson is extravagantly dedicated to this justification, festooning his unscholarly interpretations of nature documentaries with ethical significance. His vision is of a world of crustacean anhedonia, an ordered utopia of jostling invertebrates endlessly battling to be top lobster, all tough carapace and no backbone.
This is Social Darwinism, not science. Peterson is working in a long, long tradition of conservatives, from Galton to Rockefeller to Reagan, using weak scientific data to give their dogma the mouthfeel of objectivity. Actual science journalists like Cordelia Fine and Angela Saini have done the hard work of going through every lazy assumption exhaustively, making it clear that using evolutionary theory alone to make sweeping pronouncements about human behavior is about as useful as scrying from the migratory patterns of birds or the entrails of whatever we’ve sacrificed to the god of late-capitalist male fragility on this day. Possibly our principles.
Social Darwinism, by itself, is a feeble philosophy. Combined with an investment in mythology and spiritualism, however, it becomes more dangerous. And this, brazenly, is what Peterson does. Standing up straight, for example, is important because of the lobsters, but also:
“To stand up straight with your shoulders back means building the ark that protects the world from the flood, guiding your people through the desert after they have escaped tyranny, [and] making your way away from a comfortable home and country… It means shouldering the cross.”
The simultaneous appeal to both science and religious mysticism, to God-and-or-genetics, is an ingenious arse-covering mechanism: if God didn’t strictly say he created man to compete in a series of vicious status battles and fuck the other guy, then genetics probably did, and any blue-haired social justice neuroscientists popping up to explain that that’s really not how gene expression works simply haven’t grasped the larger cosmic context. If there’s no actual scientific evidence for it, then it’s all a metaphor. It’s a prosperity gospel for toxic masculinity, The Art of the Deal via the Book of Leviticus.
It’s also a familiar excuse. This precise irrational rationale is the intellectual formula of choice for budding totalitarian regimes. Peterson didn’t come up with it; it was already a supporting wall of alt-right ideology, as it has been of authoritarians for generations. As Pankaj Mishra pointed out at the New York Review of Books, “The modern fascination with myth has never been free from an illiberal and anti-democratic agenda. Richard Wagner, along with many German nationalists, became notorious for using myth to regenerate the volk and stoke hatred of the aliens — largely Jews — who he thought polluted the pure community rooted in blood and soil.”
Peterson’s response on Twitter was typically measured. “You arrogant, racist, son of a bitch Pankaj Mishra…you sanctimonious prick. If you were in my room at the moment, I’d slap you happily.”
None of this is to say that Peterson himself is a fascist. An obsession with hierarchy does not make a person a totalitarian, just as a devotion to proto-eugenic thinking combined with a rigid religious morality does not make a person a Nazi. They do, however, have real gateway appeal for anyone considering a career in neo-fascism, and while Jordan Peterson may not be a hatemonger, the same cannot be said of all of his fans — many of whom move from his relatively measured pronouncements to the hard stuff.
Just because young white men are experiencing hurt feelings does not make those hurt feelings rational, or reasonable, or a sound basis for policy-making. It certainly doesn’t oblige anyone to dignify those hurt feelings with the status of cosmic wisdom.
In most of his online debates, Peterson keeps a cool head. He rarely insults his opponents openly, preferring to baffle them into submission. The people who upload the videos, however, and those who come after any woman foolish enough to argue against him, have no such qualms. Time and again I clicked on a link claiming to show Peterson “wrecking” or “destroying” evil feminazi hags only to be presented with seven minutes of politely exasperated chat where female public intellectuals gamely try to point out the holes in Peterson’s thinking and he blithely demonstrates that he doesn’t care. Peterson does not hate women or people of color with the dedication or drive of his most ardent fans. He is as sensitive to criticism as any street hawker worrying someone will check the sell-by date on the merchandise, but he does not actively direct the hordes of trolls who descend on anyone who dares question his genius. Nor, however, does he discourage them.
To put this in context, I’m aware that in writing a critical essay about Peterson’s work, I am risking my safety. I am risking the same harassment and death threats that Cathy Newman and others received when they challenged the good Professor in public. Offering dissenting opinions in good faith should not involve this sort of risk, ever, and the fact that it does is a more important free-speech issue than any fusty academic’s fury at having to respect his students’ pronouns.
It also tells us something about the stakes of holding Peterson up as a modern-day prophet. Peterson isn’t the only one who listens to anxious, angry young people talk about their problems. This morning I received an email, not the first of its kind:
“I’ve navigated the world for most of my life as a white male who is attracted to women…I’ve basically been having a political identity crisis since I first came across Jordan Peterson a few weeks ago, because he spoke so eloquently to that sense of resentment I feel, like it really struck a chord, except that I hate everything that he stands for. Because of that I believe he is the most dangerous right-wing figure I’ve ever seen, and it makes me feel so scared, because I have this impending feeling that the left is going to lose the culture war, and that affects me intimately as a trans person and more so other people who are in more vulnerable positions than I am.”
Peterson is not a Nazi, but he does give a lot of comfort and encouragement to young men vulnerable to any surrogate father figure who appears to want to listen to their problems. He also appears relaxed about these young men’s failure to behave with the basic moral decency that he expressly encourages.
The people buying what Peterson has to sell are not doing so out of stupidity, or even ignorance. Plenty of information exists about, say, the limits of comparison between the complex lives of human beings and the simple ones of giant sea insects. Gently explaining that they’ve been sold a lot of horseshit does no good. “Tell the truth,” their guru exhorts them, “or at least don’t lie.” But what good does that do when you’ve been given license to experience your most embittered suspicions as cosmic wisdom, and liberty to define your own truth from a drop-down menu of superstition and conspiracy?
This is the heart of it. This is the reason Peterson has traction, and it’s the same reason he doesn’t actually have to worry about being found out. The market for comforting falsehoods that feel true has always been a seller’s game. Peterson’s sales pitch is, on one important level, the same as Trump’s. He says things that feel true, at a time when a feeling of truth is more important than facts, reason, or judgement. Debunking will do no good — but ethics obliges us to least try.
* * *
There’s no punchline here. Peterson is not actually, much as we might like to believe it, a performance artist pulling an extended prank on the public by seeing just how much hokum he can spout while dressed as a respectable intellectual. He is for real, and we apparently have no option but to deal with his paranoid rants and temper tantrums for the foreseeable future. In a reasonable world, we could just ignore him; in this one, he demands to be taken seriously. I propose that we do so, but not on the terms that he desires.
Here is my proposal: Jordan Peterson is treated with orders of magnitude more relevance than he deserves as a public intellectual, but he’s drastically under-appreciated as a novelist. He may not think of himself as a writer of experimental magic-realist fiction, but these are strange times in the literary world, too, and the man clearly makes a good living by deliberately confusing symbolism with sense. He has given the world a pathos-drenched dramatization of the inner turmoil of young men casting about for their place in the modern world like sick children marooned in the centre of a great bed, weighed down by sweaty blankets of self-deception, fumbling for the edges of reason and never finding them.
We cannot continue to take Jordan Peterson seriously as a scholar and still respect the Western philosophical tradition in the morning. Jordan Peterson is a very silly man. He is also a very serious warning about how our intellectual culture has been downgraded. Engaging in any serious political conversation with him can only debase both our conversation and our politics. There is much to be gained, though, by seeing him clearly for what he is: the yammering sidewalk mystic of our age, the canary twittering madly to alert us to the imminent collapse of political coherence, with all that is solid melting into airtime.
I’m sure I’ll be made to suffer for saying so. Guess I’ll just have to stand up straight with my shoulders back.
* * *
Laurie Penny is an award-winning journalist, essayist, public speaker, writer, activist, internet nanocelebrity and author of six books. Her most recent book, Bitch Doctrine, was published by Bloomsbury in 2017.