Jordan Peterson: neither hero nor Hitler

Beyond Order exposes the banality of Peterson's thought.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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Topics Books Politics USA

The culture wars made Jordan Peterson. Without them, he would still be a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. Popular among his students, and highly regarded, especially in his specialist field of personality traits, but, beyond academia, little known.

Sure, some might have heard of his 1999 opus, Maps of Meaning – a typically grandiose attempt, in the manner of Carl Jung and Star Wars inspiration Joseph Campbell, to unveil the common, narrative structure and dramatic archetypes manifest in stories and myths the world over. But it’s tough going, even for the determined.

As for Peterson’s politics, few would have cared. Aside from a youthful flirtation with socialism while a student at the University of Alberta, his views had long been essentially liberal, small-c conservative.

But the escalation of the culture wars over the past decade changed everything for someone like Peterson. That increasingly shrill, monotone assault, launched by Western cultural and educational elites on the allegedly regressive attitudes and values of the lower orders, transformed his idiosyncratic conservatism into something radical and oppositional. He was no longer a fiftysomething lecturer with a sideline in kooky hermeneutics. He was now a man of the people, standing up for the silent majority against the woke elites. Which meant, in the eyes of those he challenged, he must be a fascist.

It happened almost overnight. In 2016, as part of the C-16 bill, Canada’s federal government was proposing to add gender identity and gender orientation to the Canadian Human Rights Act. Peterson publicly objected. He claimed that the bill would force him to use gender-neutral pronouns, and violate his right to free speech. It was an incendiary, but perfectly timed intervention. The unease many felt as everyday attitudes and language were seemingly being changed from above suddenly had a confident, public voice. As Peterson puts it in his new book, Beyond Order, ‘what I say and write provides them with the words they need to express things they already know, but are unable to articulate’.

From that moment on, Peterson’s star waxed. His YouTube lectures, combining self-help with broadsides against Marxism or its supposed heirs, postmodernism and feminism, were watched by millions. His confident, assertive performances in TV and radio debates were compelling. And his second book, 12 Rules for Life, published in January 2018, sold an incredible five million copies. Which was about 4,999,500 more than his first book two decades prior.

What is odd looking back, though, is just how banal 12 Rules is. Its rather unobjectionable, overarching point was that people should take responsibility for their lives. He did give it an existential gloss, populating his prose with ‘abysses’ and ‘dreads’, and urging his Übermenschen to confront their nature, and reckon with their utmost, mortal limits. But Peterson is a clinical psychologist, and a Jungian one at that. His worldview is essentially therapeutic. For all the talk of individuals taking responsibility, and confronting the ‘chaos’, he was still instructing them in the art of feeling good about themselves. His esteem-raising demands included such pearls as ‘Stand up straight with your shoulders back’; ‘Tell the truth – or at least don’t lie’; and ‘Pet a cat when you encounter one in the street’.

But those buying his book didn’t care. Having been long demonised under the gaze of assorted ‘-isms’, as white, male or heterosexual, these normies didn’t want revolution. They wanted affirmation. And that’s what Peterson offered in spades. In his confident, authoritative way, he said that they were okay, and, with a bit of self-work, could be even better.

But just as he was hailed in spite of the banality of his offering, so he was vilified, too. Take his infamous 2018 ‘interview’ on Channel 4 News with presenter Cathy Newman. In her eyes, the man opposite her was a rabid reactionary, his tedious evolutionary psychology a veil for old-fashioned misogyny. He won the debate simply by not being who Newman thought he was. And she was not the only one who fought a strawman and lost. Listen to this 2018 debate on BBC Radio 4’s normally sedate Start the Week. Peterson is treated by presenter Tom Sutcliffe less as a guest than an antagonist, with a copy of Mein Kampf to promote.

Not that the aggressive, wilful misrepresentation of Peterson did him much harm. Quite the opposite. It elevated him further, angering and energising his online fanbase, and burnishing his image as the nemesis of all that was woke. To his followers he was the light. To his opponents, the dark. But for both he was massively important. This culture-wars dynamic propelled him into a mammoth worldwide lecture tour, including a live-streamed double-header, dubbed ‘the debate of the century’, with the left-wing thinker Slavoj Zizek. At that point, Peterson’s rise seemed inexorable.

And then, in the autumn of 2019, it all stopped. He disappeared from view. As he himself now documents in Beyond Order, his life was falling apart. His wife had developed kidney cancer, and, as a consequence, his long-standing dependence on the anti-anxiety drug benzodiazepine had deepened. From that point on Peterson began his descent through several rungs of hospitalisation before finally ending up in a medically induced coma in a Russian healthcare facility. Add in akathisia, pneumonia and a bout of Covid in Serbia, and it is a surprise to see Peterson back again at all, let alone with Beyond Order to promote.

But something has changed during his absence. Peterson is no longer generating as much culture-war heat.

In part it is because Peterson himself has not moved on. His thought, such as it is, seems stuck on a loop. Beyond Order follows the same template as its bestselling predecessor, issuing yet another 12 Quora-sourced self-help dictums, including: ‘Do not do what you hate’; ‘Do not allow yourself to become resentful, deceitful or arrogant’; and, everyone’s favourite, ‘Do not hide unwanted things in the fog’. It is also animated by the same vague existentialist ethic, in which he urges readers to face up to ‘the limitations of life courageously’, be prepared to ‘focus on the abyss’, and, ultimately, to shoulder the responsibility for one’s own life. And it even features an all-too-familiar screed against ‘thinkers powerfully influenced by Marx and overwhelmingly influential in much of the academy today (such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida)’ – a view that ignores the fact that Foucault and Derrida were influenced far more by Nietzsche and Heidegger, two of Peterson’s own heroes, than they were by poor old Karl.

Beyond Order is a flabby re-tread – a therapeutic hodgepodge of evolutionary psychology, Jungian religiosity, and existentialist atmospherics – with only absurdly long analyses of the Harry Potter novels to distinguish it from its predecessor. (And, boy, does Peterson love Harry Potter – ‘Christ transcends the law’, he writes portentously, before adding, in straight-faced parentheses, ‘as does Harry Potter’.)

And this familiarity seems to have bred a certain amount of, well, understanding. Broadsheets which, in the past, have treated Peterson as an alt-right Houston Stewart Chamberlain have been reviewing Beyond Order with a mixture of boredom, mickey-taking and even sympathy. But no horror.

That’s because they are now seeing Peterson as he is, not as they fear him to be. Some, such as those staff members at Penguin Random House Canada who last November called for Beyond Order to be dropped, still cling to the idea that he’s basically Hitler. But for those who have read this latest book, it’s clear that he’s not a ‘fascist’. He’s a therapist.

It seems the culture wars, having made Peterson, may now have dispensed with him.

Tim Black is a spiked columnist.

Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life, by Jordan Peterson, is published by Allen Lane. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)

Picture by: Gage Skidmore, published under a creative-commons licence.

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