Thumbnail credit to Gage Skidmore under CC BY-SA 2.0 license. http://gg.gg/yg4iq. No changes were made.
A Short Introduction to Peterson
Jordan B. Peterson, Canadian psychologist and online personality, has been deemed by the New York Times "the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now." His bestselling self-help manual 12 Rules for Life has sold over 5 million copies since release, topping Amazon charts as the #1 US Bestselling nonfiction work, and his YouTube channel has amassed over 4 million dedicated subscribers.
Beginning as an unknown psychology professor at the University of Toronto, Peterson's popularity has risen substantially per year since his introduction into the online political circuit in 2016 with his opposition to the Canadian Bill C16, which stirred up substantial debate on the role of free speech in identity politics.
Despite his opposition to leftism, and frequent denunciations of "postmodernism", "identity politics", and "cultural Marxism," Peterson has openly communicated a refusal to be seen as a political thinker, preferring to consider himself a third-party. Nonetheless, he is disproportionately supported by conservatives, many of whom regard Peterson as a crusader for the defense of "Enlightenment values" and "rational" Western philosophy.
Through this prism, this article attempts to argue against Peterson's doctrine and explain, with analysis from a leftist perspective, the danger of his ideological claims in current political discourse.
If you were to take any one idea from this article, let it be this: Peterson's ideology is not uniquely dangerous because of its claims— though his views very much fall under the conservative umbrella. Worse people have said worse things— but because of the techniques through which he frames his views to disseminate and normalize right-wing perspectives.
91% of those who view my videos are male. Why? Why so few women?— Dr Jordan B Peterson (@jordanbpeterson) March 3, 2017
Audience appeal: the Peterson Demographic
To begin with, Jordan Peterson's doctrines are uniquely dangerous due to their appeals to centrist, apolitical, and "indifferent" audiences. Increasingly, Peterson's views seem to resonate with a large demographic of demotivated white men, so much so that they have been termed "the Peterson demographic."
These audiences, by virtue of their political socialization, "feel demonized by diversity politics and called out for their 'privilege' when they do not feel their lives are so easy at all." That is, are threatened by emerging waves of equality movements on the left, and thus predisposed to agreeing with a perspective that reinforces hegemonic presuppositions. Enter Peterson.
Says a Quora user on the subject: "He’s basically the Dr. Phil or Oprah for white conservative straight dudes: telling them exactly what they want to hear and making them feel smarter for it by obfuscating what he is and isn’t saying behind a cloud of words.”
In fact, Peterson has admitted himself that 70% of his Youtube audience is male; when consulted on why he believes this is the case, he cited not the aim of his rhetoric but rather a series of pseudo-scientific posturing, saying: "women are more interested in fiction than nonfiction." Here, we begin to identify the harmfulness of the Peterson dogma.
The claim posits the only plausible reason for which his male audience is a significant majority must be demographics innately outside his control, in that statistically men are more likely to enjoy "things" rather than "people." What we see here is an argument characteristic of Peterson's political aura: a dismissal of the role of socialization, gender roles, or any external phenomenon that might influence what he claims to be grounded facts, arguing instead that intrinsic, essentialist characteristics (in this case, that men are more interested in nonfiction than women) are the root cause of an issue. Substituting women with any other marginalized group achieves the same Peterson-esque effect.
The reason this is harmful is that it threatens to confirm underlying assumptions already present in his audience, and reinforce patriarchal values.
In the case of this example, it is damaging because traditional gender roles already denote women to be "emotional" and "sentimental." A commenter on the same video reinforces this point in saying: "spot on with the books, I own around 30 books, ONE is fictional and that's 1984 by Orwell, which in a year or two will be non-fiction anyway."
Here, Peterson's logic is internalized by what is assumed to be a female commentator with evidence from their own life, marking its introduction as a true platitude by which listeners categorize their lives. Peterson's appeal to white male audiences, achieved through this reinforcement, is especially dangerous given that, in the context of current polarization, it threatens to help normalize right-wing perspectives by appealing to a demographic with the potential to organize major opposition to leftist movements.
Says Kaleigh Wiekhert: "For men who feel out of place and victimized in a time of ‘white guilt’, and supposed rising female power, Peterson offers comfort and satisfaction in that they need not be submissive—especially not to ‘radical leftists.’" Peterson's fundamental claim is that the pierced "endangered male role" is valid, and that instead of granting concessions or acknowledging their position and privilege, these audiences ought to stand their ground against what he characterizes as the "crazy" feminists, postmodernists, and leftists.
The hazard in this dogma is that, by its very nature, it is conducive to right-wing and even alt-right radicalization. Indeed, numerous alt-right groups, such as ultranationalist Norwegian party "The Alliance," have already adopted Peterson as a figurehead, twisting and appropriating his "logical" argumentation into granting authority to their claims.
Jordan Peterson at Young Women's Leadership Summit in 2018. Courtesy of Gage Skidmore, under CC BY-SA 2.0 licence. http://gg.gg/yg4iq. No changes were made.
How do Peterson's rhetorical choices impact his appeal to audiences?
Peterson employs a patented blend of rhetorical and argumentative techniques to render his opinions more appealing, focusing on presentation rather than substance.
This doctrine has a particularly damaging effect on optics: his reactionary argumentative style threatens to antagonize and ridicule leftist movements in the public eye, further predisposing centrist audiences to agreement with right-wing perspectives on gender, class, race, etc. Peterson's rhetorical style, described by Voc as a “hybrid of scholarly air and provocative trolling,” entails an appeal to (ostensible) objectivity through a combination of reactionary techniques, weaponized to antagonize the critics of its arguments and legitimize its own through bloated statements and logical fallacy.
It goes without saying that the majority of these are misogynistic, ableist, and transphobic. He achieves this, first and foremost, through hypergeneralization and the establishment of his views as the most "logical," by incorporating grand concepts— that, by nature of their ambiguity, fall under most people's definitions of morality— into the crux of his arguments.
Through the use of virtue words that evoke concepts such as liberty, free speech, Western civilization, truth, and so on, he ties his platitudes to a perceived sense of universality. In so doing, Peterson manufactures an ideological hostage situation, in which either one agrees to his views, or risks formulating disproportionate counterclaims to dispute them.
Thus, leftists who dare contradict Peterson are vilified as devil's advocates— after all, who would argue against liberty? By tying universality to his arguments, Peterson forms an ideological superposition, a semantic Schroedinger's cat: at once political and apolitical. Through such finely-tuned choices, apolitical crowds are guaranteed to internalize these messages without necessarily acknowledging their right-wing nature.
The hazard in this is that Peterson manipulates the audience's sense of morality to maximize agreement, which has the adverse effect of presenting right-wing arguments as amiable by default. Once the seeds are planted, he outsources their validity to external institutions of meaning by arguing that he is simply being "objective," or "just presenting facts," rather than cherrypicking evidence, ignoring the power structures underpinning the examples he uses, or simply presenting biased information under the guise of rationality.
What makes Jordan Peterson unique?
Had a great conversation with Ben Shapiro this morning.... pic.twitter.com/ENuCRiVPrT— Dr Jordan B Peterson (@jordanbpeterson) April 21, 2018
Unlike other right-wing political commentators such as Ben Shapiro, whose outreach is largely limited to an isolated bubble of like-minded conservatives, Peterson's approach to rhetoric is directed towards a broader audience. In stark contrast to Shapiro's loud, shameless radicalism, Peterson can be considered the silent killer of conservative politics. This is due to a combination of the previously-mentioned appeal to rationality, and his ability to engage in "civil" debate (which in no way decreases the gravity of his claims).
For instance, on ABC Q+A, Peterson constructs what is essentially an antifeminist argument, all while continuously denying the same. In the interview, Peterson extrapolates that feminism deems masculinity itself "inherently toxic." When confronted about this, he responds with: “What do you mean, no one says that? The term exists!” in reference to the concept of toxic masculinity.
Here, one again observes essentialist appeals to shallow logic: he ignores the nuances of the term— the social pressures that foster a sense of destructiveness and toxicity, and the socialization which drives men towards associating masculinity with harmful, outdated ideals. Instead, he simplifies the term to an overgeneralization: that being masculine is toxic, "being man bad," creating a straw man argument to antagonize his opposition. After all, how on Earth could feminists argue that being a man is bad?
Expanding on previous claims, part of the effectiveness of the trademarked Peterson technique is its support through the employment of technical terminology to provide a false sense of legitimacy to his arguments, and a strong charismatic presence to provide confidence to any claim. As mentioned by Current Affairs, the Peterson technique is defined by an attempt to "try to restate your platitude using as many words as possible, as unintelligibly as possible, while never repeating yourself exactly." For instance, instead of outright stating that he disagrees with the idea of patriarchy, he deems it an "appaling sociological doctrine;" providing a sense of validity to his argument through technicality that "makes the reader (listener) feel stupid for not really understanding.” Peterson has been termed "the stupid man's smart person" by Mclean for this very reason.
Peterson's real-world implications in current politics
The professor's use of advanced argumentative techniques and appeals to logic threatens to disperse and disseminate conservativism in the public unconscious. A notable example is his opposition to the C16 bill, introduced in Canada in 2017 concerning pronoun use for transgender and nonbinary individuals.
Peterson's argument against the bill aligns itself with the classic libertarian platitude of appealing to concepts of "free speech" and "liberty" to justify the perpetuation of oppression— in this context, by endorsing hate speech against transgender individuals.
The professor does not overtly condemn "transgenderism"— in fact, he goes as far as to say "I oppose discrimination against gender identity and gender expression" and "unreasonable discrimination is a bad thing." Instead, he argues around the topic in a way which implies transphobia, and is codified by audience reception. This is evident in that the median audience reaction to Peterson's assertions was to support and stand by these claims. For example, a video clip of the 2017 Senate hearing on the bill, entitled "Senator Makes a fool of herself. Bill C-16," has reached almost 10 million views, evidencing a perception of Peterson as morally and rhetorically superior to his opposition.
For instance, Peterson critiques the legislation on the grounds of its methodology: its sampling method, claiming "if the people that you're listening to are randomly selected from a population, then their opinions are worthless from the perspective of testimony." By implying that the practices around which the bill was drafted are biased, Peterson codifies a critique of ideology which claims that the pronouns of trans individuals should, in fact, be respected.
Though always beginning his statements by stating he is not against the ideologies he proceeds to critique, Peterson's implications resonate louder than his truisms. Never mind the fact that "random sampling" is a vague term that includes various methods of statistical analysis and thus can be interpreted through a myriad of contexts.
In addition, Peterson's danger in crafting an "I don't oppose trans rights, I simply believe our free speech is more important (thus, we should be able to misgender them freely)" is that firstly, it can be applied to other marginalized groups in a formula-like pattern, and secondly, it conceals discriminatory arguments under what appears to be convincing and logical evidence.
The effects of Peterson's dogma brought to the extreme are visible in the comments under many of his YouTube videos, one of which serves as a hyperbolic example. "It's actually insane," it claims, "that the whole of Western society is debating this nonsense as if there is any scientific fact to it." Notice, firstly, the term "Western society" as a vague placeholder, appealing to principle in a Peterson-esque fashion.
Secondly, the assertion of an absence of evidence. There is no scientific evidence for what, exactly? The biological validity of transition?
A guarantee of the bill's success? The fact that the claim is kept intentionally vague only serves to exacerbate the idea that Peterson's arguments only utilize "logic" insofar as it confirms their underlying presuppositions, not as a tool to arrive at a substantive conclusion. Never mind the fact there exists a neurological difference for gender dysphoria beyond Freudian pseudo-scientific theories of impaired development.
Analysis and connections: why Peterson is a textbook Libertarian
When analyzing political discourse, it is essential to not only consider what is being said, but why, and for what purpose. Peterson's ideological "shtick" is in bringing up decontextualized evidence that, though true, ignores the root causes of issues, and leaving the audience to decodify its message.
This is effective in normalizing right-wing perspectives as, when consulted on the motives behind his specific choice of examples, Peterson can simply refer to delivering "objective" information, dismissing the implications that they codify and their role as a stepping stone towards supporting conservative arguments.
An overused example is the claim (as many right-wing commentators have before) that in the US, predominantly black neighborhoods have higher crime rates than their white counterparts. This is, on paper, an objective fact. However, especially when it is decontextualized, its use is usually as a leapfrog to support white supremacist platitudes on "black people being violent," or some such bogus.
Where a more overt commentator such as Shapiro may present the example and then immediately claim "black people are violent," Peterson engages in a more advanced level of rhetoric, which presents the example, lays bare the tools for the audience to extrapolate "black people are violent," and leaves it to the receptors to decodify, often subconsciously, the racist messaging. Peterson is less likely to be held accountable this way (and if he actually is, more likely to be able to argue to the contrary) because he does not outright state his intended message; he simply implies it through choices in evidence and language.
It is no surprise, then, that when Peterson claims "the fundamental assumptions of Western civilization are valid" and that the West is "the best of all possible worlds," what he really intends to communicate is, "I equate the West with individualist white supremacist systems of hegemony and am thus attracted to the prospect of a society which values my freedom of speech and my right as an oppressor to oppress, over the emancipation of marginalized groups."
Slotting his arguments into his rhetorical style, one can deduce that the reason his veneration of the West is brought up, is as a proxy to avoid being overtly racist and xenophobic but communicate the basis of the idea through tangential reasoning. Not only does this rhetoric equate what is fundamentally morally "good" with Western (white) society (highlighting what is, in essence, a racist perspective), but it engages, again, with the political socialization of a white man under ostensible "threat" due to emerging movements, to further engage the characteristic Peterson demographic.
Thus, the underlying presuppositions of his claims are, despite Peterson's attempts to argue to the contrary, fundamentally aligned with conservativist libertarianism.
Jordan Peterson at Young Women's Leadership Summit in 2018. Courtesy of Gage Skidmore, under CC BY-SA 2.0 licence. http://gg.gg/yg4iq. No changes were made. Retrieved from Wikipedia Commons. http://gg.gg/yg4iq.
Likewise, Peterson's rhetorical choices are uniquely conducive to polarization, as he appears overly fond of attributing large-scale, complex problems to simple concepts. Peterson's weaponization of postmodernism is an especially prevalent manifestation. The term, which YouTuber ContraPoints has described as the "vaguest word in the English language," is reduced by Peterson to essentially mean political opposition to hegemony.
Thus, postmodernism becomes a rhetorical tool to which the audience can attribute blame for the "problems" Peterson manufactures, ranging from trans rights to mental health. Much as a skincare brand may advertise their new-and-improved acne cream as being the ultimate solution to pimples and blackheads (which often have complex and nuanced causes not easily addressed by a single product), so does Peterson present the deplatforming of "postmodernists" as a similarly binary solution.
For context, Britannica defines postmodernism as "characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power." In Peterson's case, this focus on the relativity of truth is morphed to fit a right-wing agenda; first of all, Peterson's modernism equates "truth" with hierarchy, stability, and conservative values, rather than considering its historical background and connection to scientific enlightenments. As a result, Peterson's postmodernism is skewed and misappropriated to the point that it becomes a placeholder for leftist movements in general.
Thus, in assuming that postmodernism's ultimate goal is to subvert and question universal truths, he (subconsciously) reinforces the idea that hegemony is desirable and that opposition to it only results in chaos and anarchy. It is, in addition, interesting to note that for someone so apparently keen on defending individualism, Peterson is quick to disavow one of the most fundamentally individualist movements ever known.
Though this level of attention to detail may seem pedantic, each of these particular choices has a relevant unseen impact on audience reception, considering the amount of times Peterson has attributed current issues to "postmodern neo-marxists." For a slightly skewed comparison, just as anti-semites reinforce their backwards and outdated claims by citing conspiracies on Jews controlling the banking industry, the world economy, or some variation, Peterson similarly argues that postmodernism (read: leftists and particularly people of marginalized identities) increasingly "dominate(s) the humanities and, increasingly, the social sciences in universities." Having established Peterson's manipulation of "postmodernism," this tactic seeks to spark fear into the audience through magnifying an overstated threat: it describes leftists as holding more power than they realistically do, in order to justify criticism and, on a smaller scale, reverse the relations of power to imply he and his band of Enlightenment critics are, in reality, the groups being oppressed. It is interesting to observe how close this rhetoric is to the antisemitic argument.
Jordan Peterson at Student Action Summit in 2018. Courtesy of Gage Skidmore, under CC BY-SA 2.0 licence. http://gg.gg/yg4iq. No changes were made.
Consolidation: what are we left with?
In essence, Peterson's political aura is one of perpetual double negatives. We are left with a libertarian who weaponizes misconstruitment and false logic to reinforce damaging political views on gender, race, sexuality and social movements for equality, all while presenting his arguments as perfectly objective and reason-based.
We see what is essentially a reactionary who argues with just as much "emotion" as the people he attempts to criticize, who hypergeneralizes, simplifies, and straw-mans his way through political discussions, and legitimizes his points with empty technicalities. We see a critic who exploits the predispositions of a significant demographic during a vulnerable period in sociopolitical identity-based political debate by reinforcing hegemonic preassumptions to normalize right-wing ideologies and, furthermore, refuses to take accountability for his radicalization.
Having "talked a lot of talk," Peterson's bi-dimensional persona as motivational speaker and writer by day and rational libertarian hero by night must be acknowledged. The last intention of this critique is to assume absolutist moral binaries that perpetuate the same patterns of argumentation which it is out to criticize.
His motivational work, and especially his most recent book Beyond Order, presents valuable insight in the area of self-help, and likewise, his more detached philosophical inquiries, such as his 1999 book Maps of Meaning, are genuinely thought-provoking. The intention here is not to criticize the all-encompassing whole of Peterson's work but rather the underlying ideological assumptions that underpin its majority, and in this context, I argue that Peterson cannot be viewed as anything other than dangerous.
If you'd like to read more on Jordan Peterson, consider the following articles:
Leader of the Pack: On Jordan Peterson's Fanbase by Kaleigh Weickert:
Jordan Peterson, the obscure Canadian psychologist turned right-wing celebrity, explained by Zack Beauchamp:
The Intellectual We Deserve by Nathan J. Robinson:
Why it’s important to oppose Jordan Peterson’s views on gender pronouns by Lane Patriquin:
Jordan Peterson – reluctant darling of the radical right? by Cathrine Thorleifsson: