He is at bottom a generic conservative—a believer in the moral and civilizational necessity of established authorities and traditions
✎ Wayne K. Spear | November 14, 2017 • Current Events
T’S BEYOND REASONABLE DOUBT that we are living in a time of cultural warfare, and as a rule at such times heroes or saviour figures are lifted up to lead in battle. For the self-designated enemies of feminism, political correctness, and leftism, Jordan B. Peterson is such a figure.
I first stumbled over this University of Toronto professor for the reason many others did—his vocal opposition to Canada’s Bill C-16, amending the Canadian Human Rights Act to add gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination. C-16 further amends the Criminal Code
to extend the protection against hate propaganda set out in that Act to any section of the public that is distinguished by gender identity or expression and to clearly set out that evidence that an offence was motivated by bias, prejudice or hate based on gender identity or expression constitutes an aggravating circumstance that a court must take into consideration when it imposes a sentence.
Peterson objects to many aspects of this bill. He’s deemed it compelled speech and has stated many times that he will not use non-gendered pronouns such as xe or xyr. His broader objection to non-binary (or perhaps it is extra-binary) gender identity and expression is that these are make-believe notions with no grounding either in biological or social reality. And so he has declared war against something he calls cultural neo-marxism, as well as against postmodernism, principally in the form of the propositions that all structures are oppressive and that Western civilization is white supremacist patriarchal rot, and little more, and thus must be overthrown and replaced by more progressive, inclusive, and egalitarian arrangements.
A simple Google search will yield many interviews, podcasts, news articles, and university lectures featuring Mr. Peterson. His notoriety is worldwide, and despite his fame originating in a claim that the university and the laws were out to silence and imprison and ultimately ruin him, Jordan Peterson’s views saturate the air and earn him many hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. Between his income as a tenured professor and his $50,000USD/month (and growing) Patreon subscriptions, to say nothing of his other income streams, Mr. Peterson is a millionaire, or will be one soon. He has a large following, mostly made up of the alt-right, white nationalist, libertarian, and MRM, or men’s rights movement, types of person. He is also admired by a good many atheists, who see him (wrongly, in my view) as a defender of science against faith.
What is it that Jordan Peterson proposes, and why have his statements and positions raised him to his current prominance? These are the questions I am setting out to answer, and along the way I will consider secondary matters, for example the prospect of his efforts to starve certain university professors and disciplines of students and therefore of income.
At the highest level of analysis (and here I am relying on his published lectures) Jordan Peterson appears to be concerned with the relationship of truth and value. Or, to put it as a question, what truth or set of truths will provide the values that allow us to live in this world in a manner that fulfils our individual and collective human potential? It is worth noting that questions of this sort, having to do with ultimate truths and the ideal human society, will as a rule land us in the territory of religion and politics, and so it is in the present case. Jordan Peterson studied political science and was a member of the New Democratic Party until he decided that the political solutions on offer were so much nonsense and turned instead to clinical psychology. But even his interest in psychology is largely an interest in the truth-value of ancient myths and archetypes, as they are rendered in religion and in particular in Judaism and Christianity. So he has in fact migrated from politics to religion, and it is through the door of religion that his thinking is best approached.
Much can be learned about a man from the company that he keeps, and Peterson appears to have ingested a good deal of Nietzsche and Jung and Piaget and Dostoevsky. This is a logical diet of someone who is in search of values by which to live, especially someone of an unconventional, non-conformist outlook who desires a heroic inner life. In college I knew a few Philosophy majors enamoured of Nietzsche, and to a man (they were all men: I have yet to meet a female devotee of Nietzsche) they were oddballs and misfits but I suspected with an imagination that made up for their outward limitations. With Dostoevsky it is much the same, except that Dostoevsky is perhaps even more a moralist than Nietzsche and with somewhat less of the Nietzschean self-aggrandizing bombast—especially of the later, Ecce Homo years, when tertiary syphilis was just around the corner. Piaget is of course an authority of psychological development, having focused on the socialization of children, and from him Peterson would have got the evolutionary-biological basis of the psyche as well as the notion that identity is the product of social negotiation. From his other major influence, Jung, Peterson derived an interest in mythic archetypes and probably in religion also. This brief review covers about 80% of Peterson’s evident influences, and most of the rest has to do with ethology (especially dominance hierarchies and mate selection) and the five-factor model of personality, with which I happen to be very familiar.
Peterson often has recourse to Darwinian natural selection, as well as to evolutionary psychology, and for this reason many atheists mistakenly see Peterson as a fellow-traveller. On his surface he is a rationalist and empiricist, and even to a degree below the surface as well. But if you listen to Jordan Peterson carefully for even one lecture, it becomes clear that he is not a philosophical materialist at bottom but rather some kind of believing Christian. It becomes clear also that his ethology and Darwinism—which is to say his science—are in service of subjective concerns related to masculinity and competitive success and whatnot. (It’s not hard to see why Men’s Rights activists have gravitated to Peterson.) He’s not a doctrinal Christian of an identifiable denomination, but he is a Christian nonetheless. And, being a Christian, he believes—this is I think the proper word for it—in the moral and civilizational necessity of tradition, including the moral Christian traditions that inform marriage and gender roles and so on. In other words his interest in myth and archetype is a prescriptive interest and not a theoretical or abstract one, in the way that an evangelical Christian’s interest in Koiné or ancient Hebrew is not merely intellectual but rather serves a practical goal, that is, attaining a closer relationship with Jesus. He means to apply his observations of things like the hero archetype and the dominance hierarchy and the five-factor model of personality to his life, and it seems to me he wants his students to do the same. Nor is this remarkable, most professors being self-consciously evangelical where their pet ideas are concerned. In short, his life has been a quest for the Guidebook, and now that he has it, he is not going to give up its counsel, or witness its denigration, without a fight.
If my admittedly superficial analysis is correct, what Jordan Peterson proposes is what all tradition-minded conservatives propose—that the answers to our most pressing questions will be found in the past and not in the innovations of radicals and revolutionaries, or even of liberals. Peterson’s exchanges with the podcaster and neuroscientist Sam Harris exhibit a clash of left-versus-right thinking, Harris taking the “left” position that myths from tribal bronze age societies, no matter how laden with practical wisdom, can not guide us successfully through the terrain of urban, high-tech societies. Peterson evidently not only believes that Christianity can guide us, he believes that if we abandon it we will find ourselves between the Scylla and Charybdis of nihilism and totalitarianism. When the news of Louis C.K.’s sexual assualts broke last week, Peterson tweeted that “we are going to soon remember why sex was traditionally enshrined in marriage….” The many casual observers of Jordan Peterson who had assigned him to the Darwinist-materialist camp were confused by this leap, but those of us who have discerned the conservative Christian moralist lurking within his views were not. Without believing in the literal truth of the Christian story, Peterson nonetheless is able to believe in its practical and prescriptive truth. His allegiance to Judeo-Christian values puts him in the company of Steve Bannon and the many radical right figures who are fighting for Western civilization (their preferred tactic is always war) which is to say the institutions, laws, habits, and arrangements of Judeo-Christianity.
The answer to the second question is obvious once the first has been answered. Jordan B. Peterson’s statements and positions have raised him to his current prominence because the need of a strong leader and even of a fierce hero-saviour type is hardwired into the conservative-traditionalist worldview, an essentially hierarchical world that defers to authority. As Jerry Falwell Jr. correctly said of Donald Trump, “We’re not electing a pastor. We’re electing a president.” In Donald Trump, white conservative evangelicals found their outspoken, combative, strong-man leader. They were not looking for meek and mild Jesus and did not want him for the mission. And of course candidate Trump, like Professor Peterson, says what many are thinking, in a way that makes clear his indifference to political correctness and hurt feelings. The main difference between Trump and Peterson (whose constituencies largely overlap) is that Trump dissembles in plain language whereas Peterson is candid but in terms that are complex, hence easily misconstrued. The result is that both have within their followings people who are in the dark where the actual convictions and objectives of their hero are concerned.
As for the prospect of Peterson’s efforts, a few observations seem in order. The first is that Peterson is fighting over, and for, real-world things that go far beyond pronouns—things like traditional gender roles and marriage and sexual norms and the cultural authority of Christian teachings and values. In the future we will either be saying faerself or we will not, most of the battles being of the zero-sum variety. In a society where a minority of people read the Bible and where the general drift has been away from traditional authorities like the church and toward secularism and plurality, only an aggressive and sustained reaction to the developments of the modern world seems likely to reverse course. Such a reaction is not impossible to imagine, and in fact it is now underway both here and in Europe, but by definition the conservative cause is a doomed one. No one knows this more than conservatives, whose conception of historical development has at its core the notion of decline, or, in other words, the abandonment of a golden age and its values and institutions and the drifting away from natural law. If the tendency of the world were stasis, there would be no need of conservatives or of conservatism. The whole point of being a conservative is to fight for the impossible, which is to say the preservation of a world that is forever changing.
On the other side of this argument are the agents of change, who believe in the future perfection (or at least improvement) of the human being, as well as in the upward arc of human societies, driven by repudiation of the revealed wisdom and the norms embedded in and perpetuated by ancient institutions and authorities. Their disagreement with Peterson is deep and will probably occupy our species for the next century and more. In the meanwhile should Jordan Peterson be fired or silenced, as some of his opponents foolishly hope he will be, his followers will add martyr to the CV and promote him further up the dominance hierarchy, where greater helpings of prestige and American dollars and media celebrity await.
There is no use ignoring the points on which Jordan Peterson is doutbless correct. A society can not undergo rapid and enormous changes and not suffer, often in ways that are wholly unanticipated. Whatever its advances and improvements, the culture that jettisons its traditions and re-invents its values wholesale will invariably introduce an element of uncertainty and even of chaos. But no one born in the past one hundred years can believe that the world will not continue to change, likely at an increased pace and in ways it is impossible to imagine. We are, all of us, wondering what is going to happen and hoping it will not be catastrophic. Peterson’s defiance is doubtless grounded in a pessimism informed by this very point. Nor is he foolish to posit a future in which we have leapt the rails. Such a thing may well occur, and the agents of progress and social justice could well be responsible, and probably will be, since the most dangerous thing is to leap into the unknown. Whenever and wherever the refashioning of societies has been undertaken along tribal identitarian lines, the result has been bloodshed and barbarism, so much so that our survival will likely come down to our ability to transcend the evolutionary inheritance of our tribal ape ancestors. Here we are in a world of particle accelerators and nanorobotics, with our reptilian brains primed for a flight or a fight. One day we will have to learn how to live with this unfortunate paradox, if we are to live at all.