I’ve been following prof. Jordan Peterson online for more than a year now, and to be honest, initially I found him a bit boring. He was discussing a wide variety of topics but after an 8 minute video I couldn’t remember a particular idea to take away. His lectures sounded a bit chaotic and unfocused, although quite interesting while listening to them, and full of important details. And I love important details.
(I also hate discussing people, but I view the piece below as a discussion of the effects of a certain rhetoric rather than simply an awkward attempt to “profile” a person who’s more educated and prepared than myself.)
At some point I realized the context around him — he’s loved by the “right”, disliked in academic circles (in the humanities and social sciences at least), and generally controversial.
I’ve read a lot of criticism regarding his message, his stances and his rhetoric — that’s he’s right-wing, conservative, white-supremacist, sexist, transphobic, homophobic, etc.
I classify myself as a liberal and I couldn’t find anything like that in his lectures or interviews. They are all well balanced and present multiple scientifically verified facts (and I’ve checked a number of his claims, the literature was indeed in agreement with his claims). He is eloquent, articulate and if he happens to attack something, it’s most often ideas, rather than people or groups of people.
Taking his words out of context, misquoting him, or assigning a different meaning to sentence of phrase, has become common in the criticism against him. In interviews he says “I didn’t say that” more than is normal.
And yes, I’ve found occasional logical fallacies in his talks, as well as several factual mistakes or claims too assertive or too simplified for a nuanced reality, but nobody can avoid those altogether — he’s already going lengths to clarify many points, you can’t always have a speech that is 80% footnote explanations. On the other hand, maybe he is oversimplifying important issues (I’ve caught only the ones that I’m sort-of an expert in, e.g. linguistics).
And in general I agree with his “stories”, or at least the way I hear them, on many topics. On the other hand, his “fan base” seems to consist of people with whom I can rarely agree on. And that’s something that’s bothering me. No, not that I’m in the “wrong camp”, but what’s underneath that — why I agree with the same things that people I don’t agree with, also agree.
While I found him boring initially, that’s not my issue with his approach. In fact, I don’t know what my problem is. But there’s something wrong that I can’t very well define. I like his arguments and the depth of the discussion, I agree with many things, as I interpret them, but there’s still something that’s not right.
While thinking about that, I watched a few more lectures trying to figure out what could that be. And to try to answer the broader question — what is he doing in the first place, and why is he doing it?
My thoughts led me to believe that he’s carefully speaking about important and potentially divisive topics in a way that everyone can hear what they like and what they expect to hear.
The alt-right (and the traditional conservative right) see a warrior, fighting “the liberal agenda”, defying the status-quo of left-wing academics and media who want to thrust decadence upon us. The liberal left sees trigger words and is ready to accuse him of bigotry and x-phobia. And others see a balanced position and wonder “why are these groups in the conservative-liberal specter so hooked to this guy, he’s telling commons sense stuff in very long sentences”.
He’s very good at not telling divisive things, but is also very good at having a divisive message. When he speaks about hierarchies and power structures, and history, and gender balance, he’s mostly rooted in agreed upon research. He merely tells the story of how the world functions and rarely attaches his assessment of whether that’s good or bad. But nevertheless, he passes on a message that’s not so impartial.
The example with the “enforced monogamy” is him just telling how society has developed to have government-mandated monogamy as a way to fight off negative effects of male destructive power. He doesn’t say “let’s make a law to give every horny stag a woman so that he doesn’t shoot people with an automatic rifle”. But using a well crafted language, he appeals to the right who hear what they like to hear; and attracts criticism from the left because of the ambiguity of his words.
And that way he becomes popular — by having a storm of defenders and accusers fighting online on whether he’s alt-right (which he denies) or just a moderate academic. Him not taking a stance, but merely telling how things work is actually typical of academics and the right thing to do. But when that gets broadcast to a wider audience that expects a “moral of the story”, it takes a different shape. And people get “a message”, regardless of whether there’s such intended.
I’m sure he didn’t start off willing to become popular by the arguments around “what he actually meant to say”. He had put his lectures on YouTube long before he emerged on the popular scene. But he’s very intelligent and can carefully craft his rhetoric, so I won’t be surprised if this is now a desired effect. To say things that are simply educational and informative, but in a way that creates a stir.
If what you say is technically correct, but the message that people get is the wrong one, then you may be partly to blame. And knowing that he had studied at lengths the demagoguery of totalitarian dictators, he might be doing that on purpose. But why would he?
If it’s mere popularity, making a few million off books and donations, it would be boring. He’s a complex intellectual and I doubt he’d have motives that are that simplistic.
It could be political ambition, and ultimately, power —the next Canadian federal election is next year and we’ll see if he tries his luck. I don’t have a strong prediction here.
But it could be two other things — first, trying to push more rationality and facts to the right (that are too often mesmerized by the likes of Breitbart and InfoWars); and that would be a noble cause. By liking him, they might absorb some of the rational and good messages that he has (and he’s has explicitly supported some liberal values). And second, trying to somehow counter the extremes in left-dominated social sciences and humanities. To act as a “crusader” against irrational ideas that, in his view, could do long term damage to societies and are, allegedly, already damaging university culture in North America.
So to answer the title of this piece — what is he doing — I don’t really know. He seems too clever to leave it to chance, though, so I assume he’s carefully adjusting his messages and rhetoric to achieve a goal.
If the goal is to educate the conservative viewers, that’s good. If it’s money — whatever, he’ll just reinforce the beliefs that people already have anyway. As I noted above, if you don’t have conservative views, you either won’t find them in his stories, or if you do, you’d hate him for them. If it’s power — it will not be unexpected, and it will be an interesting experiment to see an academic in power. If he seems himself as crusader against left-wing views, he doesn’t seem to be achieving much; but it takes time in academia for a change of direction. And it could be “all of the above”.
The only risk that I see is for his “technically correct” words to cause further division; to abuse, willingly or not, the cracks in western societies, to put groups against each other because they have a different interpretation of the same piece of information about inherently divisive topics. And he should try to not let this get out of hand.
As Stephen Fry rightly pointed out in a recent debate about political correctness where Jordan Peterson was his teammate — “One of the greatest human failings is to prefer to be right rather than effective”. Jordan Peterson may be right, but if he’s not effective in healing the divided societies, then he’s a liability. I hope, though, that his admirers will also admire his liberal stances, and that his critics will make their criticism more rational and consistent, and thus what may seem as a divisive and provocative academic, will turn out to be a force for good.