Public intellectuals are a common feature of contemporary discourse. Leary, Lacan, Chomsky and Rand have all had their time in the spot-light, representing entire movements in public thought and political change. However, none of these figures lived in a time in which social media allowed for instantaneous communication and, thanks to the glorious algorithm, the formation of toxic echo-chambers. These modern tools, that have led to the rise of dogmatic loyalty and hyperbolic criticism, have never been more apparent than in the emergence of the controversial Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan B. Peterson.
Born in Edmonton in 1962, Peterson was raised by a fairly well-off Christian family in the small Albertan town of Fairview. At a young age, he recalls that many of his questions on the literal truth behind the biblical stories he was taught were met with surface-level responses. This pushed Peterson away from attending church.
At the age of 13, Peterson was introduced to the works of Orwell, Huxley, Rand and others by his school librarian: Sandy Notley, the mother of Rachel Notley, who would go on to become the 17th premier of Alberta under the left-leaning New-Democratic Party. Interestingly, Peterson actually worked for the NDP throughout his teens and embraced socialism for a short-while. However, he soon become disillusioned, quoting Orwell’s observation that “the intellectual, tweed-wearing middle-class socialist didn’t like the poor; they just hated the rich.”
He would go on to complete a BofA in political science at the University of Alberta and, afterwards, would take a year off from academics, travelling across Europe and reading about the psychological origins of the Cold War and totalitarianism. Peterson also became deeply interested in Jung and Nietzsche at this time, inspiring him to return to Canada and pursue a B.A. in psychology.
Afterwards, Peterson attended McGill as a Ph.D student in clinical psychology. He would specialize in alcoholism, drug abuse and aggression. Peterson himself had struggled with alcohol and, at the age of 25, decided to quit drinking for good in order to more seriously pursue his studies.
His interest in the psychology of substance abuse would continue as he was soon given the position of assistant professor ay Harvard. While there, he continued his research on alcoholism and was greatly admired by his students for his unconventional lecture content and captivating rhetorical style. He would also publish “Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief” after 13 years of work, a book that examined the link between myths and neuroscience in order to understand the origin and systems behind human belief.
Peterson then returned to Canada as a full professor at the University of Toronto. While teaching, he maintained his clinical practice, seeing on average 20 people every week. Peterson had also gained a great deal of attention, having been cited almost 10,000 times and after co-authoring over 100 papers. A majority of these citations were from papers he published in the mid-90s to early 2000s. He also had amassed a collection of Soviet-Era painting which he would display around his house to remind himself of the ways in which idealism can become horror.
In September 2016, Peterson released a video series titled “Professor Against Political Correctness”, largely criticizing a new bill that proposed the addition of gender identity and expression as a prohibited ground of discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act. Peterson’s main argument was that such a bill would allow for institutions to punish its employees on anything such institutions consider offensive, no matter the intention of the employee. He argued that such a law allows for compelled speech, forcing one individual to use another individual’s preferred pronouns.
Several law professors and legal experts disagreed with Peterson’s interpretation of the law, as it never states that the misuse of pronouns would be considered criminal. Simply put, the legal standard for “hate speech” in Canada would require a far more extreme and aggressive form of expression. Furthermore, transgender activists noted that Peterson’s videos further enabled an already-existent culture of transphobia to thrive.
This incident rocketed Peterson’s rise to fame and, in 2018, he published “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote To Chaos”, topping best-sellers lists around the world. The book elaborates on an initial Quora post on abstract ethical principles that he had written. He also began to eat only beef at this time, following a carnivore diet to manage his depression and autoimmune disorder.
In 2019, Peterson debated Slavoj Zizek on the topic of happiness under capitalism, an economic system, versus Marxism, a method of socioeconomic analysis. Afterwards, Petersons health worsened as he suffered a terrible withdraw from the anxiety medication he had been taking while dealing with the cancer diagnosis of his wife. After travelling to Russia, where he was put into a medically induced coma for 8 days and then spent 4 weeks in ICU, Peterson recently returned to the public eye and showed interest in continuing his work in the future.
Jordan Peterson is largely influenced by the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who believed that the myths and legends shared across the world reflect the fact that there is a collective unconscious of ancient archetypes that still impact our psychology. This embrace of Jungian thought is most evident in Peterson’s first published book: Maps of Meaning. In this book, Peterson sets out to examine why humanity tends to participate in social conflict. He specifically investigates the reasoning and motivation that leads individuals into supporting the atrocities that marked the 20th Century. He does this through exploring world mythology, claiming that groups create symbols and stories to deal with the chaos of the world.
By chaos, Peterson means everything that we do not understand or cannot explain but must nonetheless experience while alive. This existential sense of uncertainty, along with the fact that we all attempt to move from a place of uncertainty (or chaos) towards order, is a universal component to human nature. Sometimes, however, individuals will crave a sense of certainty and identity to the extent to which they are willing to sacrifice anything. This is best seen in some ideologies that lead to totalitarianism, in which individuals are willing to trade their basic freedom and rights for an identity.
Peterson argues that ideologies are a substitute for true knowledge. These systems and the ideologues that promote them function as if they can comprehensively explain how the world works and how to make it a better place. Peterson argues that we must take care of ourselves or “set your house in order” before attaching oneself to idealistic visions.
This point is further elaborated in his second book “12 Rules For Life”. Peterson argues that suffering isn’t the product of victimhood nor oppression but rather due to the fact that suffering is a guaranteed component to human nature. His “antidote to chaos” is through the establishment of rules based on a system of value. As he explains
“we must have the meaning inherent in a profound system of value or the horror of existence rapidly becomes paramount’’
Peterson believes that these rules are best found in an integration of traditional values with the best of what we know now. These are found in “value hierarchies”, a concept best exemplified in his comparison of lobsters with humans. Lobsters, according to Peterson, organize themselves in a hierarchical fashion based on competency, where the top 1% have more resources than the bottom 50%. Extending this idea to the human realm, Peterson suggests that this is similar to the fact that a handful of authors are published and a minority of people hold the majority of wealth. He argues that such a system is natural, proposing that modern socioeconomic norms have emerged from these prehistoric hierarchical impulses.
This point was criticized by a 2020 paper in the Journal of Jungian Studies in which the authors pointed to the fact that Peterson appears to ignore the wide-ranging research surrounding naturally occurring egalitarian societies. Pre-agricultural organization appears to be matrilineal and lacking social hierarchy up until the rise of agriculture, suggesting that egalitarianism may be just as “natural” an impulse as hierarchy. This point has also been criticized for committing the naturalistic fallacy; which occurs when somebody argues that if something is natural it must be good.
Nonetheless, Peterson suggests that the foremost universal rule that emerges from the value hierarchy is the idea that one should take responsibility for their life. As he writes
“Order can be excessive and that’s not good but chaos can swamp us, so we drown and that’s also not good. We need to stay on the straight and narrow path…”There” is the dividing line between order and chaos. That’s where we are simultaneously stable enough, exploring enough, transforming enough, and cooperating enough. It’s there we find the meaning that justifies life and its inevitable suffering.”
Here, Peterson expands on his idea that we must clean our room and fix our own lives before we attempt to change the world.
This argument has also had its fair share of critics. Zizek notes that some of our personal issues actually have transparently political dimensions that cannot be changed without collective or global action. As one article puts it: “If your marriage is falling apart because you are working two jobs and never get to see your partner, there is an obvious personal element. But your situation also speaks to the severe flaws of neoliberal capitalism.”
This argument also fails to hold true on a historical level. Civil Rights Era activists likely would have struggled to enact any change at all if they focused less on their right to vote and more on the cleanliness of their rooms. And despite MLK’s difficulty in keeping his own house in order, few would argue that he was ineffective in the political and social realm.
A major point of Peterson’s thought, that bridges mild-mannered self-help with reactionary politics, is his assertion that post-modern Neo-marxists have co-opted North American humanities departments in their mission to tear down the hierarchy of values.
Peterson claims that postmodernism has made any worthwhile system of value arbitrary as it views all rules as simply tools for one group to exert power over another. Individuals now struggle between nihilism and dogma due to the moral relativism evoked by post-modernist neo-marxists.
It should be noted that the term “post-modern neo-marxism” has been widely criticized in its similarities to the Cultural Marxism conspiracy theory, a far-right anti-Semitic theory that claims an elite group of Marxist theorists are subverting Western society by undermining Christian values, capitalism and conservatism through political correctness and multiculturalism. This theory has been tied to several acts of terrorism in recent years.
Peterson believes that many 60s era post-modernists publicly abandoned Marxism but privately supported an equality of outcome through the emergence of identity politics and political correctness. Due to this theory, Peterson has been criticized for lacking basic knowledge regarding postmodernism, as many postmodernists were fervent critics of totalitarian USSR and Marxism.
Postmodernism, a critique of meta-narratives and Marxism, a meta-narrative itself, also makes the term “post-modern neo-marxist” somewhat contradictory, although Peterson has argued that this labelling contradiction is intentional as he believes that postmodernists practically, rather than theoretically, endorse Marxism. Nonetheless, the only concrete theoretical link between Marxism and postmodernism appears to be in both camps complaints about forms of oppression, a fairly weak link as a concern over oppression predates Marx by thousands of years.
Furthermore, in his debate with Zizek, Peterson struggled to identify a single individual who could actually be considered a post-modern neo-marxist. Despite his claims, there does not appear to be a single prominent leftist thinker who advocates for the eradication of all social hierarchy. And this isn’t surprising. As Foucault explained, his view of power isn’t that it’s evil but that it is a game of strategy. Although we can’t free ourselves from the power of external controls, we can make the choice on which controls are more dangerous than others.
“The ethico-political choice we have to make … is to determine which is the main danger”
Regarding Peterson’s political views, he advocates for equality of opportunity, in which every individual is given the same chance at success. Such a system is common amongst classical liberals and traditionalists, labels that Peterson has identified with. However, the question remains as to whether or not a society in which wealth can be inherited is capable of fulfilling this form of equality. Being born into a wealthy family versus a poor family evidently does not allow for either individual to gain an equal access to an education or career. Would true equality of opportunity still allow for the inheritance of wealth?
The phenomenon of Jordan Peterson could be interpreted as the symptom of a generation of young white males born into a world that does not hierarchically favour them. In the same way that Peterson had poignantly diagnosed those who had wrapped themselves up into Cold War ideologies, he too has, to a smaller degree, offered a perceivably coherent world view of post-modernist scapegoats, Jungian archetypes, evolutionary psychology and theology to a large group of lost and confused young adults.
And perhaps this isn’t all that bad. As long as Peterson’s lectures have sparked an intellectual appetite for Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche, the harm is fairly unfounded. His genuine passion for understanding the human condition and unquestionable creativity in connecting the dots across several fields is a healthy inspiration for those who are interested in diving into philosophy and psychology. But his critics do raise a serious issue.
Peterson’s problematic associations are left unexplained. His firm belief in a value hierarchy is oddly useful in justifying several right-wing talking points. And his unquestionably loyal fanbase does sometimes feel a little dogmatic. Just as soon as he offers solid clinical advice on goal-setting and responsibility, he then brings in radical Leftists and the fall of the Western ideal. Is he self-improvement gone political? Is he conservatism gone psychological?
Or maybe Peterson is neither a serious danger nor an intellectual powerhouse. At the most, his ideas are slightly insightful or slightly problematic regurgitations of other thinkers. He does appear to sincerely care about his clients and students. He does seem genuine in what he believes in. And he doesn’t appear to be a hateful or mean-spirited person by any means. His psychological advice is certainly helpful for many young adults lost in a world without any sense of order. And being a small-town Albertan who went on to study at McGill, I even recall being inspired to take up psychology after listening to some of his lectures. I’m sure he would be a really cool professor to have and probably a delight to talk to.
Nonetheless, in closing, I’d argue that Jordan Peterson’s greatest attribute and greatest weakness is in his willingness to go far beyond his area of expertise, whether it be Canadian law or gender studies. Doing so has led to Peterson sharing with us an endless supply of seemingly controversial views, hailed by his supporters and opposed by his critics, with neither entirely agreeing on exactly what he meant. And perhaps this is the most important question raised by the phenomenon of Jordan Peterson;
If nobody can really agree on what someone has said, have they really said anything at all?