Danyl Mclauchlan on the ‘ersatz enlightenment’ of Jordan Peterson, who opens his New Zealand speaking tour with tonight’s sold-out event in Auckland.
“Oh people still buy his book,” a Wellington bookseller told me when I asked her if Jordan Peterson was still even a thing. “And they’re also buying his recommended books. He’s published a reading list.”
“What’s on it?”
“You know – Orwell; Huxley; Nietzsche. Pretty much what you’d expect.”
“And the people who buy them – are they alt-right guys? Do they wear camouflage?”
“No,” she replied, her gaze sweeping the crowded floor of the store. “They look normal. They could be out there right now. They’re just customers. They hear him on Kim Hill and think he sounds interesting. They don’t know who he really is.”
But who is he? That’s the thing about Jordan Peterson. His name is Legion for He is many. You can watch hours of his videos on YouTube, listening to his insights on religion and psychology and modernity, and come away with an impression of an innocuous, fascinating and wise thinker, and you can also read dozens of scathing progressive take-downs of Peterson – the Guardian publishes a new one every few days – which aggregate all his rambling pseudo-philosophical nonsense and his creepy remarks about women and the evils of feminism, and come away with an impression of a malevolent gibberish-spouting misogynistic demon. And then people who’ve had those divergent experiences can jump on social media and scream at each other about how they’ve FAILED TO UNDERSTAND JORDAN PETERSON.
All of this turns out to be a great marketing tool. Peterson is now the most famous public intellectual in the world, and this week he’s here in New Zealand, speaking to crowds in the Auckland Town Hall, Wellington Michael Fowler Centre and the Royal Theatre in Christchurch. Tickets are around the $150 mark, which is $150 more than you’d usually pay to see an author on a publicity tour. I wrote about Peterson’s book early last year, just as he ascended into global infamy and the bestseller lists, and I was not a fan. But his star has continued to rise despite near universal loathing from cultural commentators – almost as if nothing we say really means anything! – and I’ve argued with both his admirers and enemies over the last year, and come to suspect that what Peterson is doing and the way he interacts with the modern media ecosystem is more important than what he’s actually saying.
To most of his readers Peterson is an intellectually respectable self-help guru. He’s a guru for people who look down on self-help. Instead of the usual pablum about loving yourself or following your dreams or finding inner strength, Peterson quotes Nietzsche and Taoism and the evolutionary psychology literature. And, because he’s a genuine psychoanalyst, a lot of his advice is actually pretty sound. People sneer at the banality of his tips: “Tidy your room,” “Stand up for yourself,” “Take care of yourself,” “Choose good friends” – like, do you really need to pay Jordan Peterson $150 to hear that? But when I was arguing about this with a friend who is a Peterson fan he made an interesting point.
“What Peterson is mostly talking about,” he said, “is that many people who live in post-religious societies like ours feel very lost and empty. The suggestion that they need to practise self-care and find meaning and structure and value in their lives is something they’ve genuinely never been told before, especially if they’re young millennial guys stumbling across him on YouTube. Peterson is communicating that message to people who aren’t going to join an organised religion or political party or a new age cult, and he’s saying it in a way which doesn’t sound condescending. If you don’t need to hear it and you think you’ve got your life squared away, then good for you. But not everybody does.”
There is something very priestly about Peterson: he’s otherworldly, yet stern and moralising; also he literally tells you to look for answers in the Bible, albeit as a literary text not divine revelation. And I think there’s truth in my friend’s theory that Peterson is a religious figure in a post-religious age. In that light maybe it’s appropriate that some of what he says makes no sense. There’s no faith without mystery.
Peterson is also an enemy of the modern social justice movement and if you’re very political and/or very online and you’ve taken up virtual arms in the great global culture war – like the majority of his critics – this is his defining quality. He’s not the only self-help guy operating in this space: Mark Manson, the mega-bestselling author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck – probably-not-coincidentally the only self-help author selling more books than Peterson at the moment – is even better at pushing a subliminally political message in an apolitical medium. If you’re white or male or both and you’re uncomfortable with the claim that society is structured in deeply unfair ways that privilege you above everyone else, these are the guys to read.
Manson’s take is that okay yes, life is unfair; yes, society has winners and losers. But that is not your fault and not your problem: just don’t worry about it. Peterson is more aggressive. Yes, life is unfair. Life is chaos! And you know whose fault that is? The social justice movement! The feminists and Cultural Marxists and trans-activists are ruining everything. The people trying to make things better are actually making it worse, because nihilism materialism biological gender socialism gulags death camps. I’m not sure how much of this stuff Peterson’s fans take in, especially in New Zealand where we don’t have campus wars on the same scale as North America. Most of the time Peterson’s agenda is covert, hidden behind stern admonitions to Always Tell the Truth and Let your Kids Take Risks. Maybe that’s what makes him so dangerous…
Last year the psychiatrist blogger Scott Alexander coined the term ‘Anton-Wilsonism’ in honour of Robert Anton Wilson, a sci-fi/occult/conspiracy theory writer most famous for the Illuminatus Trilogy. You don’t hear about him so much anymore but he was big in the 1990s, at least among the incredibly nerdy subcultures I moved in. Anton Wilson had this storytelling technique where he would talk about, say, the history of the United States and tie it in with the Freemasons and the Illuminati and H P Lovecraft and George Washington smoking pot and the social construction of money and occult symbols on the one dollar bill, and the assassinations of Lincoln and Kennedy, and you would come out of it thinking: Wow! Not only do I now understand everything about US history, I understand it all in a deep way that those brainwashed idiots who’ve studied it for years can’t even begin to imagine. Obviously you didn’t actually understand anything, other than a lot of very tenuous bullshit, but you felt like you did.
I think this is a very seductive technique, especially for a certain type of guy who wants to understand the world in a way that elevates them over everyone else, and I think Peterson is the master of Anton-Wilsonism. When people read him on, say, evolution inventing gender during the Proterozoic era because of the Taoist dichotomy of Yin and Yang, Jungian archetypes which align to chaos and order, and thus men and women are fundamentally different because of primordial hormones, they feel like he’s letting them in on the deep secrets of existence, while I think most people who read Peterson’s work come out of it understanding even less about gender and evolution and human endocrinology than they knew going in. And I think that sense of ersatz enlightenment is a lot of what you pay for when you buy his ticket.
But maybe I would think that. Scott Alexander came up with another term that describes Peterson well. In his short story “Sort by Controversial”, Alexander hypotheses the existence of “Scissors”: ideas or arguments or scenarios algorithmically designed to tear people apart. Scissors don’t just generate disagreement over interpretation: they generate disbelief that anyone could possibly have a different interpretation than you, and contempt and rage for everyone who does. “Of the Scissor’s predicted top hundred most controversial statements, Kavanaugh was No. 58 and Kaepernick was No. 42. No. 86 was the ground zero mosque. No. 89 was that baker who wouldn’t make a cake for a gay wedding.” Peterson is a pretty typical scissor, generating conflicting views that confirm our own priors and setting partisan groups against each other.
Peterson’s view on politics is that it’s taking the place of religion in people’s lives: it’s the new opiate of the masses. We affiliate to political parties and movements to find a sense of meaning and value and belonging, and – because politics is adversarial – rage against the members and beliefs of different parties, who we see as existential threats. We shouldn’t do this, he feels. We should ‘cultivate our own gardens’, just like Voltaire told us, and try and find our own values and sense of meaning in the world.
He ignores his own advice, of course, as he ignores most of his own rules, and is an active participant in the culture wars, repeatedly accusing his opponents of destroying civilisation, and this allows him to function as a divisive agent of chaos while literally marketing himself as “an antidote to chaos”. Yes, it undermines his own message, and most of what he claims to stand for – but if Jordan Peterson followed his own advice he wouldn’t be a “Scissor”, and thus the most famous self-help guide in the world.
The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books.