No. 29: The Culture War Gets Its PsyOps Man
Use your psychological training to exploit the psychological weaknesses of fragile internet denizens.
Thanks to YouTube*, a bad interviewer, and content-hungry journalists, Jordan B. Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, is famous—public intellectual famous, at least. Peterson seems to be a less vulgar, less interesting Michel Houllebecq. Possibly less fatalistic, as well, depending on one's interpretation. He's so put off by the excesses of liberalism and political correctness that he opposes all aspects of liberalism and political correctness; the problem is he's fighting extremes and caricatures. He fights excesses with his own goddamn excesses. Well played, smart person. His academic background gives him heft, but he seems to be a typical culture warrior, railing against things that most of his opponents don't give a shit about. "Peterson loathes identity politics, rails against postmodernism and 'neo-Marxism', and despises gender studies and political correctness," says Gareth Hutchens in an entertaining Guardian article entitled "Not all he says is defensible, but Jordan Peterson deserves to be taken seriously." Does he? A lot of the paragraphs in Hutchens's article contradict the thesis presented in the article's title. Almost everyone loathes identity politics, whatever that means. (Read this essay by Parker Molloy from Media Matters.) The thing I hate about identity politics is when people who whine about identity politics engage annoyingly in identity politics, as when certain types of white, conservative Christians moan about reverse racism, white genocide, a war on Christianity, and bullshit like that.
Peterson hates postmodernism. Fair enough. Very few people even know what postmodernism is; I have English degrees from the University of Colorado and The City College of New York. The amount of time I spent learning about or discussing postmodernism was very minimal. I'm aware that my experience can't be used as evidence to suggest that no one in academia gives a fuck about postmodernism; it's only my experience. I don't want go build an argument about something based on generalizations. Or generalisations. Granted, I wasn't educated in the hoity-toity circles Peterson runs in, but I've been around enough, I've read enough, to see that the right-wing and identitarian fixation on postmodernism is based on exaggeration. As for neo-Marxism, gender studies, and political correctness—these are straw men, fodder for Twitter beefs and not much more. (There should be a disclaimer on Twitter: this is not a real place and it is not an accurate representation of reality or real human discourse.) Culture war bullshit.
I don't really know what "political correctness" means anymore, aside from it being a useful term to throw at people who challenge your statements and ideas. The most egregious examples of what I might call political correctness are perpetrated by right-wingers: if you criticize the policies of Israel, you are attacked as anti-Semitic; the Centers for Disease Control have been prohibited or severely restricted, at the behest of the National Rifle Association, from studying gun-related violence since 1996, although this de facto ban might soon be lifted; you can get sued in thirteen states for being too critical of the food industry, especially if you go after Texas cattle; the governor of Florida directed government employees not to use the terms "climate change" or "global warming." When people are not allowed to speak the truth because of some sort of political strictures, or fear of political consequences, that is a dangerous situation. I oppose that sort of political correctness. But Peterson means something else.
This is getting too serious. Here's a fun section of the Guardian article. We need to take this man seriously, says Hutchens, even though:
"His call to starve all postmodernist academics of money by ripping funding from humanities departments indiscriminately is extreme." In this respect, I suppose we should take him, not necessarily his ideas, seriously because he seems to present a threat to academic freedom.
"He has a frustrating tendency to advise his students to speak carefully and to use language wisely, but then turn around and speak in wild generalisations about 'the humanities' or 'postmodernists and neo-Marxists,' which comes across as lazy." Big strong academic man is hypocrite, relies on generalizations, is sometimes careless with language, BUT WE MUST TAKE HIM SERIOUSLY.
"I don't know if what he says about the dominance hierarchy is correct. His generalisations about gender differences can sound kooky, and maybe some of them are." I'm not a stay-in-your lane type of person; I think you should be able to talk about whatever you want, but fucking hell. If a psychologists wants to talk about gender, I don't have a problem with that, but how are you unsure whether his opinions on the subject are kooky or not? Does The Guardian still have editors? I don't have an editor; I could get away with a lazy paragraph like this, but someone who's getting paid to write an opinion article in a major newspaper shouldn't be allowed to get away with this. Fucking figure out if they're kooky or not. Provide some examples and analysis.
"But his critique of the state of modern society is resonating deeply with people, so it's worth understanding how he's tapped into that." He has tapped into something; the fact that he is resonating with people doesn't mean his ideas are serious, or that serious people need to take them seriously, but we do need to try to understand why so may people are taking him seriously. Gareth Hutchens says Peterson has tapped into something; I say he's riding a wave. People want a smart person to say the things that they want to hear, and he says them, so they respect him. Here's my critique of the state of modern society: people are too interested in people with extreme opinions and personalities. And celebrities.
Jordan Peterson is the perfect author for people who want to think of themselves as independent thinkers but also want an authority figure to tell them what to do and think, but that doesn't mean we should take his ideas seriously. Peterson's new book is called 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. How the fuck do you need 409 pages to cover twelve rules? I don't like rules. I especially don't like books about rules. But if I had to make a rule of my own I guess it would be don't take advice from YouTube stars.
*He's got nearly a million subscribers.
Author's note: if you ever find yourself tempted to take this man seriously, read this interview: "Why Jordan Peterson Thinks 'Frozen' Is Propaganda."
Current Affairs has an excellent essay about Peterson. It’s funny and smart and if you like this culture war grifter it mind change your mind. It’s called “The Intellectual We Deserve.” Beyond making fun of Peterson and refuting his positions, the piece is worth reading because it examines the flaws/vacuums within left-wing culture that have opened up space for people like Jordan Peterson to be taken seriously.
I also recommend this interview with philosopher Kate Manne.