Riding the ever-surging wave of alt-right sentiment in recent years, right wing political commentators have effectively monopolized the production of incendiary thought. Their provocation of the left comes in many fiery varieties; whether you’re more entertained by Milo Yiannopoulos’ claim that lesbians do not exist, or perhaps by Ben Shapiro’s remark that “Arabs like to bomb crap and live in open sewage” mostly comes down to personal preference. These statements are entertaining because they are – at least in part – meant to be: their purpose is to provoke, and as such the majority of political commentary from the right tends to get ignored by the left, dismissed as intentional bait. This isn’t a laudable approach to engaged debate: what happens when someone from the right comes along whose purpose is not to provoke? Someone with persuasive points looking to gain followers from both ends of the political spectrum – might they also be dismissed by the left as well? This certainly seems to be the case with Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson.
A hitherto barely relevant professor at University of Toronto with a penchant for Jung and Freud, Peterson did not initially make any waves in the academic community. His first book, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (1999), was a dense psychoanalytic tract, almost incomprehensible to the uninitiated layperson. It was not until 2017 that Peterson began to turn heads: he appeared in Canadian Senate to dispute Bill C-16, a proposed stipulation that would make the intentional misgendering of an individual (through actions such as failing to use their desired pronouns) punishable by law. He announced to the Senate that he would not “use made-up words of post-modern neo-Marxists, who are playing a particular game of gender identity as an extension of their particularly reprehensible philosophy.” The impressive hyphenation of “post-modern neo-Marxist” aside, Peterson began to attract the attention of the growing alt-right, who were also fed up with ceding ground to liberal dogma. It wasn’t until the beginning of 2018, however, that Peterson became noticeable all along the political spectrum.
His book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (2018) immediately rocketed to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list, and the recordings of his lectures (posted on YouTube) began to amass a considerable audience, having now received upwards of 40 million views. The philosophy Peterson professes in his new book and in his videos has been coined by some as “the gospel of masculinity.” Peterson sees young cis men as lost souls, sidelined by an authoritative liberal agenda which teaches them to be guilty and apologetic for their privileged position in society. Peterson believes that this demographic has been effeminized and led astray. He tells his followers to toughen up, to fight back against the liberal order which seeks to emasculate them and claim the societal dominance which is their biological birthright.
The argument’s persuasive edge, however, does not lie in the content of Peterson’s views, but in the quality with which he delivers them. In his recent interview with Channel 4 News’ Cathy Newman, Peterson absolutely trounced his opponent’s position, countering every one of Newman’s outraged objections to his philosophy with calm, measured arguments for the validity of his views. Garnering upwards of 6 million views and described by Fox News’ Tucker Carlson as “one of the greatest interviews of all time,” the video cemented Peterson’s reputation as an intelligent, comprehensible political commentator with worthwhile views. Newman should serve as a lesson to all political commentators on the left: if you arrogantly assume that your opponent will be as unintelligible and absurd as all who came before, you put yourself in an extremely risky position. As it turned out, Peterson delivered a lot of highly incendiary views in an extremely persuasive manner, successfully making the left’s representative look both unprepared and incompetent. It’s time to stop ignoring the intellectual heavyweights of the right wing: engaging with their arguments and reclaiming the mantle of reasoned debate is the left’s only viable path forward.
This is not simply an exercise in mutual respect; it takes thorough consideration of an argument to find its weakest points, and Peterson’s possesses many: delve beneath the surface of his argument for man’s biologically determined dominance and you find some very objectionable foundations. Jung’s pseudo-scientific ramblings on the psyche turn out not just to be Peterson’s passion, but also the grounding for his work. In his lectures on psychoanalysis, Peterson actively espouses the Jungian notion that chaos is feminine and order is masculine. Peterson’s well-known claim that women are searching for men who can “outclass” them stems in essence from the Jungian notion of masculine heroism; the indomitable warrior present in all men. At one point in his book, Peterson argues for our natural proclivity to create dominance hierarchies by pointing to those created by lobsters. Apparently we could learn a thing or two from our crustacean brethren.
The foundation of Peterson’s philosophy is far from rock-solid, and any intellectual on the left wing worth his salt should be able to prove as much; the question is only whether they’ll correctly regard him as worthy of engagement. Left unchecked, Peterson will surely continue to amass his flock of disciples: it falls on the left to demonstrate that he amounts to little more than – as lovingly coined by one Canadian columnist – “The stupid man’s smart person.”
Photo: “Peterson Lecture”