As the Canadian philosopher gradually emerges from his semi-coma, will society still have use for him?
Michael Washburn October 15, 2020
Jordan Peterson, the best-selling author, University of Toronto professor, popular vlogger, and progenitor of the “Peterson phenomenon,” has been mostly absent from public life for health reasons over the last year. He’s been AWOL at just the time when certain of his insights are most directly applicable to the dizzying events around us.
Peterson is the author of the book 12 Rules for Life, which has sold more than three million copies worldwide and whose only drawback may be its title. Generally, self-help books with this sort of title range from dull to unreadable, but Peterson has inspired millions with his plain but eloquent advice, backed by decades of research, on how to live responsibly and with moral courage.
Where’s Peterson when we need him?
A living hell
According to his daughter Mikhaila, Peterson began taking the anti-anxiety drug in the benzodiazepine class a few years ago to counter an autoimmune reaction caused by certain foods. After his wife’s terminal cancer diagnosis in April 2019, his dependence on the drug grew severe. Attempts to treat the problem in North American clinics failed. The quest for expert care to wean Peterson off the drug, treat withdrawal symptoms, and deal with a nasty side effect, akathisia, which can make a person uncontrollably restless, brought Peterson and his daughter to Russia and then Serbia.
It has been a long and, by all accounts, excruciatingly hard journey. Right now, Peterson is reportedly on the mend and has resumed writing every day, although recent vlogs posted on Mikhaila’s YouTube channel, in which he talks at length with his daughter about the past year, relate bouts of depression marking some of the lowest points in Peterson’s life. But he’s not the only one suffering. We could use him around.
An insatiable mind
Peterson stands out for his rare pedagogical talent. Watching Peterson stride back and forth in business-casual attire and speak in front of a class can be a fascinating and, sometimes, humbling experience. Not everyone can get up and talk coherently and engagingly, without notes, for well over an hour to a roomful of attentive minds on Jung or Nietzsche or Dostoyevsky or Kierkegaard or Marxism or postmodernism.
Peterson’s zeal for knowledge and insight is palpable whether he’s talking about the depth of Dostoyevsky’s insight into the human psyche or Nietzsche’s ability to write passages with a concentrated brilliance of thought and expression or Jung’s desire to return the primeval to the world. The most striking insights in Peterson’s lectures come across in a fluid, conversational way.
Besides broad historical, literary, philosophical themes, Peterson speaks about topics at the nexus of sociology, biology, and the clinical psychology in which he is formally trained. At times, when discussing an issue like promiscuity, relationships, or divorce, Peterson’s point may be a fairly obvious one, yet you may find that you haven’t heard it voiced in quite as many words. At other times, Peterson is startlingly profound. His analyses of the nature of social hierarchies and of gender differences, gender relations, and social inequality depart markedly from prevailing clichés.
Among Peterson’s observations are that extensive surveys of multiple countries across many periods of modern history establish that it is neither possible nor desirable to eradicate inequality completely. Those Scandinavian societies that have striven mightily for decades to alter the gender composition of various professions and achieve gender parity haven’t just fallen short of their goals, they’ve ended up with results that confirm what no enlightened person these days will dare to whisper about the innate differences, and differing proclivities, of men and women. You can appreciate gender differences or you can do your damnedest to deny them, and make others deny them, but they’re not going away. Peterson has decided views on this point.
Peterson also argues forcefully that the study of “white privilege” is a bogus excrescence of an arbitrary and logically indefensible postmodernist charade never subject to any form of statistical analysis. At Peterson’s own school, this pseudo-concept grew out of scholarship so awful it tests our credulity. “At the University of Toronto, in the psychology department, the original paper on ‘white privilege’ wouldn’t have received a passing grade for the hypothesis part of an undergraduate honors thesis. Not even close. There’s no methodology at all,” Peterson says.
Another of Peterson’s feats is to have turned some people against the self-righteousness of Greta Thunberg, the Swedish child activist who has spearheaded a global movement around climate change and led rallies that have convulsed cities. One particularly interesting video contrasts Thunberg’s hiss of “How dare you!” at adults who would stand in the way of her movement and her agenda with Peterson’s calm and lucid analysis of just how complex climate change is and why Thunberg is wrong to suggest that rich countries could act responsibly and solve the problem but are simply refusing to do the right thing. What’s the solution—switch to wind and solar power?
“Good luck with that. Try it and see what happens. We can’t store the power,” Peterson says. “Germany tried it. They produce more carbon dioxide than they did when they started, because they had to turn on their coal-fired plants again. That wasn’t a very good plan. But we don’t want nuclear.” It’s a vexed issue, and complex subjects take years to study and analyze properly. There are reasons why children are told not to speak boldly and rudely to adults.
Obviously, Peterson’s views aren’t bound to make him popular with all students in this age of safe spaces and the shouting down of speakers with incorrect views. But when watching his videos, one senses that his eloquence and the wealth of data he deploys command the respect of many in his audience even if they don’t like what they’re hearing. Peterson vocally objects to the left-wing and postmodernist tyranny in academia, and says he considers the gravest threat to free speech today to come from the radical left. This isn’t surprising given the origins of the Peterson phenomenon.
Saying the unsayable
Peterson’s phenomenal output follows on the heels of a controversy that still earns him the enmity of many enlightened people in Canada and beyond. In 2016, Peterson spoke out against Bill C-16, then before the Canadian parliament, which stood to add transgendered people to a list of those enjoying full legal protections against any form of discrimination, including—in Peterson’s analysis—the “discrimination” of failing to address the transgendered by neologisms, i.e. zim, zhe, zhey. Voluntary use of a given word is one thing, even if the word in question is a concoction of radical left-wing ideologues, but it was clear to Peterson that if nondiscrimination means fostering an atmosphere where people address transsexuals only as the latter feel comfortable being addressed, then the proposed legislation would compel speech by dictating what terms people can use.
As Peterson told the Toronto Sun in 2016, “These laws are the first laws that I’ve seen that require people under the threat of legal punishment to employ certain words, to speak a certain way, instead of merely limiting what they’re allowed to say.” The furor has been running high for years now, but Peterson has never backed down. Under intense fire from the woke p.c. crowd for his alleged bigotry and stubbornness, he has argued cogently that what the ideologues propose to do is without precedent in the history of English common law.
In 2018, Peterson expounded further on the personal philosophy underpinning his opposition to Bill C-16, telling the U.K. interview program London Real, “You have a sacred responsibility in relation to what you say. … I do believe that you bring the world into being through communicative speech. That’s the fundamental Judeo-Christian doctrine, and I think it’s true. And I think that the world you bring into being through truth is a good world. So, if you want to mess around with your words, then basically what you’re agreeing is to bring a substandard reality into existence.”
Given the attitudes expressed here, it’s little wonder that Peterson has turned into such a staunch and vocal enemy of a postmodernist academic culture that denies gender differences and enforces groupthink through grotesque neologisms that weaponize English for ideological ends.
Clearly, Peterson is a problem for the left. The prevailing assumption is that people with conservative views must simply be uninformed, stupid, or both. To be educated is to be a progressive. If you dare let slip an incorrect thought, shame on you. Get your head out of the ground, try to become enlightened, quit parroting what your ignorant parents told you, stop being a Neanderthal if that’s remotely within your power.
It’s an attitude we hear today in the maunderings of liberals like Robert Reich, who has divided the polity of this country into progressives, who often meet people not like themselves, and regressives (yes, his own word—a nice synonym for “deplorables”) who lack the tolerance that comes from working and living with those of different backgrounds and are bent on keeping their guns, denying climate change, opposing the expansion of the safety net, and so on. Liberals, who react violently to slurs against other demographics, use terms like “Gun nut,” “redneck,” and “townie” to describe them. In contrast, liberals are enlightened, forward-looking, and engaged in a battle against irrational prejudice.
Jordan Peterson’s experience turns such notions on their head in the most vivid manner imaginable. Just watch a video or two in which this erudite, thoughtful, supremely articulate man, who calmly states his case against compelled speech with nuanced arguments alluding to history and philosophy and law, walks into a university building and meets with a student protest. Angry kids mob the halls, beat drums, blare horns, and scream things like “Transphobic piece of shit!” It seems unlikely that the protestors have a more nuanced view of the complex historical and cultural issues involved in the controversy. They’re like ignorant villagers calling for tarring and feathering of the learned man.
Of course, people of all political persuasions can and do act like boors. But there’s a special irony when those who purport to carry enlightened attitudes, and to be doing battle with irrational prejudice, display the basest and most savage kind of obscurantism and obstructionism in an effort to prevent a learned, cultured, thoughtful, and sensitive man from stating his point of view.
Peterson has certainly earned more than his share of opprobrium from the left, both in the form of physical protests when he has tried to speak, and nasty articles dismissing him as, among other things, “a right-wing professor,” “an old-fashioned conservative,” and (in one particularly vicious ad hominem screed) “a conservative in denial.” But is he a conservative?
Peterson denies that he’s a political conservative and says that he would oppose right-wing domination of academia, if such a thing should ever come to pass, just as readily as he now opposes leftist-postmodernist tyranny on college campuses. But there can be no doubt that his historical insight, and his restless desire to examine issues in all their complexity, to tease out their philosophical, ethical, and moral nuances, have gotten in the way of some of the more extreme policies and proposals of radical leftists, and they’ve long given up caring about such distinctions.
At the start of this article, I lamented that Peterson is out of service at precisely the time when certain of his insights most apply. I was thinking, in particular, of Peterson’s discussion of the lengths to which conservatives and liberals will respectively go when it comes to distancing themselves from irresponsible people whom they don’t want to claim their public image.
Peterson’s insights are of interest for everyone who’s grown tired of a political culture where two sides scream at each other and rarely productively engage with ideas. Peterson defines thinking as a process that involves being scrupulously fair to the other side. The thinker states the viewpoint or perspective that is antithetical to his or her own views as eloquently and powerfully as possible, and then constructs a response. Instead of attacking a “straw man” version of the opposing argument, the thinker critiques the “iron man” version, as Peterson puts it.
That’s what great minds have historically done. It’s no accident, Peterson says in one of his lectures, that the smartest and most admirable characters in some of Dostoyevsky’s novels are those whose viewpoint the author opposes. This is intelligence at work, and it’s sadly absent all too often on both the right and the left. Lashing out at “fake news” that displeases you is no more intelligent that trying to justify looting and rioting on the grounds that they strike at the heart of whiteness.
It will undeniably be a great thing for those concerned about left-wing tyranny in academia, and the need for students to have greater exposure to non-leftist concepts and ideas, when Jordan Peterson is over his recent problems and speaking and vlogging widely again. He’s of great use to us. It’s not that Peterson is a conservative, it’s just that thoughtful and balanced policy proposals line up suspiciously well with conservative ones. That’s my enlightened opinion, of course, and you’re free to disagree with me. For now.