This is rather late for a critique of Jordan Peterson, but we might apparently be witness to a debate between the eminent professor and Slavoj Žižek in October, which is proof that Peterson is going to be hanging around in the world of the internet, if nothing else, for the foreseeable future. The prospective debate seems to me likely to be something of a damp squib, because for all the criticisms people level at Žižek there is no doubt whatever that he is a very erudite political philosopher, whereas Jordan Peterson most certainly is not. In fact, the slightest scrutiny of his comments reveals that he is totally out of his depth. He is managing to maintain his ascendancy solely through the mindless cheerleading of unintelligent conservative commentators, and a judicious mix of pathetically feeble and politically sympathetic interviewing which has failed to interrogate any of the categories on which he founds his world view.
What are these categories? Firstly, liberalism. This is something that Peterson likes to talk about a lot. But as far as anyone can tell, his understanding of liberalism is based on a pop history of the Enlightenment, in which the (male) individual, armed with the light of objective Reason, single-handedly sees off the tyranny of corporate society and establishes a free community of equals who may or may not also have picked up an international empire somewhere down the line. Whenever Peterson talks about Reason, it is with a capital R: see for example this interview, in which he fetishes Reason in distinctly Enlightenment terms. Perhaps this is to do him an injustice, but it seems as if he conceives of reason as a kind of objectively-existing force whose power individual minds can access if they think critically enough. Oppression comes about, in this schema, when the individual gives up Reason and resorts instead to tribalism and from there, violence and authoritarianism. He thus draws a simplistic link between loss of respect for the individual, and the totalitarian state.
This link is, by his own claim, based on his “close reading of twentieth-century history”. If this is the conclusion he has come to, we can only surmise that he is potentially unable to read. The totalitarian mindset, as thinkers from across the political spectrum from Albert Camus to Isaiah Berlin have noted, is precisely a product of the Enlightenment rationalism that Peterson so admires. If, the argument went, there is a spirit of reason available to all human beings, then it is also possible to create a society of pure harmony, since no rational being’s interests will conflict with any others. Only in such a society is the individual free. This is the vision that motivates totalitarianism: the individual as a creature that is currently unfree because it is bound by its prejudices and other social conditioning. One can draw parallels between this mindset and social justice activism of a certain kind, which undoubtedly understands the individual as an entity shackled by socially-created presuppositions which it is necessary to break through control. However, it is not, in fact, a vision that is totally unlike Peterson’s understanding of his detractors, and his proposal that people discipline themselves to get rid of their more socially-harmful attributes. Peterson is obviously committed to the ideal of value-pluralism and it would be deeply unfair to him to imply otherwise: in this respect he is a true liberal. But by his own metric, his opponents too are true liberals. To ascribe totalitarianism, and the modern social justice movement, to an impulse to worship the collective no matter how much the individual suffers is to misdiagnose catastrophically both of these phenomena. Social justice activists of the kind he despises in truth embrace the individual as much as he does, and to simplify their proposals to a group mentality is to fuel exactly the kind of political misrepresentation he otherwise complains is killing free discourse.
Speaking of discourses, equally impoverished is his understanding of postmodernism. It is evident when he speaks about it - here, for example - that he has got no further down his postmodernist reading list than Jacques Derrida’s Wikipedia page. He seems to believe that postmodernism is no more than a mask placed roughly over Marxism. He makes vague and unsophisticated reference to power-knowledge - he claims to have read Foucault but this is not much in evidence - and extrapolates the concept to tribalism once again, claiming that it discourages people from engaging in debate. This is flatly incorrect - not merely because that conclusion is in no way implied by the theory, but also because social justice activists talk constantly about the importance of engaging with the oppressor precisely in order to make them understand the sources of their privilege. There are criticisms to be made of the use of concepts like emotional labour to castigate those who make enquiries about the movement, but Peterson does not have the intellectual tools with which to make them. His endorsement of the idea of Cultural Marxism, a bizarre and anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that could never be taken seriously by anyone with more than a superficial knowledge of either Marxist theory or the Frankfurt School, only goes to demonstrate still further that Peterson has not inquired seriously enough into the issues he talks about.
This is not a snobbish attempt to query Peterson’s intelligence, which I am sure is perfectly adequate. That his reading has been quite shallow is hardly surprising: this is not his area of expertise. He is a psychologist, not a political philosopher, and no doubt he is a very good one. But it does grate a little to see him receive so much praise for spouting nonsense about theories into which he has not bothered to enquire. There is a strong contrast with one of his liberal predecessors, Karl Popper, a philosopher of science by training who, aware of his inexperience with political philosophy, read substantially into Plato, Hegel and Marx before writing an informed critique of all three authors in his now canonical work The Open Society and its Enemies. Peterson just got mildly famous by protesting about gender pronouns, and since then has happy to parade his half-baked ideas around the world’s media with apparently no self-consciousness about the paucity of his understanding. The irony of this strident critic of the idea that the world is created by and for the benefit of middle-class straight white men, is that there is no way someone with so little knowledge of his subject would have been taken nearly so seriously had he not been a middle-aged, well-spoken male professor with a convincingly thoughtful expression.