As a writer who identifies as a leftist, and who sympathizes with Noam Chomsky’s anarcho-syndicalism on a root personal level, I should theoretically be joining the chorus of critics who have decided that Jordan Peterson is a reactionary.
In fact, Jordan Peterson has plenty of followers on the left, but watching the media climate surrounding his book release, you’d think he appeals only to the most reactionary, hyper-masculine discontents of the modern world. To be fair to the journalists, it is true that there are two Jordan Petersons. There is the lecturer, who juxtaposes mythological and religious themes with psychology and evolutionary biology, presenting a synthesis of science and religion, and then there is the social media culture warrior. Watching Peterson’s lectures versus watching snippets of him online, in recent interviews, you are watching two different men. It’s what the digital era does to people – it fragments them. Hundreds of hours of brilliant speeches are to be judged based on a few soundbites on Mic or Vice, or whatever dense abstractions can be made to look absurd by a political writer with no interest in Peterson’s field, such as Nathan Robinson.
But Peterson’s critics have barely engaged with his basic claims. Maps of Meaning is an attempt to take the wisdom of religion and ancient cultures and explain, through a contemporary lens of modern psychology, what these cultures got right. It is an attempt to revive the past as a source of deep knowledge, not wreckage to be discarded at the altar of scientific materialism, or a postmodern presentism.
Peterson’s argument is simple: repeated cultural symbols, in large part, represent aspects of our psychobiological nature, and many of these symbols have been expressed universally across cultures through myths, legends and archetypes. Such symbols may include the snake swallowing its own tail (chaos) and the heroic individual (the Self emerging out of chaos). This Jungian work may be difficult to read, and to validate empirically, but it is not subjective mist. Its basic assumptions derive from neuroscience, evolutionary biology and developmental psychology. Unlike postmodern thought, Peterson’s work is built on synthesising what we know from the behavioural sciences with the vast accumulated record of mythological story-telling and what these stories tell us about human nature. It is an ambitious project that no other public intellectual has dared to provide in an age that is exhausted and cynical of grand narratives.
In a better world, Peterson’s critics would be helping him refine his theories and hone his argumentation, moving our cultural conceptions of human nature forward. Instead, the caliber of his critics, and their desire to completely dismiss Peterson as a fraud, have created parallel worlds that do not meet.
Of course, criticism of any public intellectual is always going to occur. Any person who promotes their ideas in the public sphere is going to be scrutinised, often robustly. But the hatchet jobs on Peterson have possessed a particularly malicious tone. One wonders if Western intellectuals as a class have simply become complacent, fat, and soft-in-the-head. In The Guardian and The Baffler, Peterson is a “charlatan”, who uses “quackery”, and is obsessed with “conspiracy theories” of postmodern dominance.
And yet, the “conspiracy” of a postmodern intellectual class becomes a reality when the mere mention of basic scientific facts is condemned as reactionary and immoral. There is a sickly resistance to science among the left-leaning media class, where solid psychometric findings are treated as a matter of moralizing opinion. No doubt, to Peterson’s critics, such findings as average sex differences in occupational interest, or in personality traits such as agreeableness, classify as “pseudoscience.” And no doubt to Peterson’s critics, the notion that cognitive ability, or intelligence, is not arbitrary, and is also heritable, is also “pseudoscience” despite the fact that findings on intelligence are some of the most robust and replicable in all of social science.
These science-blind assumptions do real damage. If we assume that cognitive ability doesn’t matter, and build a society on ruthless ideas of meritocracy where only the cognitive elite can succeed, we will produce a broken system that will produce many, many losers. If boys and men are repeatedly told that masculinity is essentially “toxic” and in need of suppression, this may produce a society of angry, repressed men. At every level of our civilization, human biology is relevant, and engaging with it thoughtfully could not be of more critical importance. If we can’t be honest about the biological aspects of our nature now, how will we possibly deal with debates going into the future? Discussions around gene editing, cognitive enhancement, even artificial intelligence and automation are more crucial than ever. But if we cannot even agree on the basic scientific facts about our own fallible nature, how can we possibly agree on the right ways to proceed?
In an article titled “Jordan Peterson’s Bullshit” published in the Marxist magazine Jacobin, Harrison Fluss dismisses “real differences between men and women” without even attempting to address the research, let alone counter it.
Jordan Peterson thought is filled with pseudo-science, bad pop psychology, and deep irrationalism. In other words, he’s full of shit. https://t.co/9iocFNvXUf
— Jacobin (@jacobinmag) February 6, 2018
Fluss’s viewpoint is so ideologically hammer-headed that his hit piece on Peterson argues that the tragedy of being does not come “from an inherently unknowable and mysterious world. It comes from capitalism.” Perhaps, if he had listened to Peterson’s lectures, he would understand that dramatic inequality not only preceded the industrial era, but also preceded the existence of humankind. If we want to do something about it (which we do), why pretend that suffering itself was a capitalist invention?
What is behind this near-uniform reaction from the moralizing, young, intellectual, media class? I almost certainly know what it is: guilt.