The judicious rulebreaker: misunderstanding Jordan Peterson

11-minute read

No one attracts criticism like Jordan Peterson. Since his emergence as a public intellectual in 2016, Peterson has been accused of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and right-wing conspiracy theorising. He stands apart from the other members of the so-called ‘Intellectual Dark Web’, his name a by-word for everything that is supposedly wrong with the world today. His attacks have ranged from the hysterical (community safety bulletins were posted around his neighbourhood describing him as a “Nazi philosopher”)[1] to the feeble (Guardian journalists have written entire articles criticising him for being angry).[2] The confusion is telling. If Peterson’s failings are self-evident then we would expect his detractors to be able to agree with each other, at the very least. We would expect a consistent critique, but instead there is just a mess of unfocused vitriol. This suggests that many of his detractors don’t actually know why they hate him. And indeed, the attacks have sometimes taken on an almost desperate note – certain sections of the media have resorted to playground insults, for instance. “Mistress Peterson!” shrieked one journalist in an extended character assassination over at Maclean’s. “Dr Jordan Eggman!… Dr Pettyson!.. Jordan Petersonny-don’t-go-away-I-am-here-all-alone!… Jordan Buttercup Peterson!” The journalist went on in this manner for quite some time, and at the end of her article, without a trace of self-awareness, she described Peterson as “completely inane.”[3]

The attacks just got stranger from here. In 2019 the bookstore Whitcoulls stopped selling Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life in response to the anti-Muslim terror attack in Christchurch, the implication being that the book was somehow responsible for spreading Islamophobic sentiment and radicalising people. Having read the book, I can confirm that over the course of 400-odd pages it contains precisely zero references to Islam. Meanwhile Whitcoulls continued to sell a variety of books that actually do criticise Islam, such as Henry Malone’s Islam Unmasked.[4] As the historian Michael Shermer pointed out, Whitcoulls were also continuing to stock Mein Kampf, which seems noteworthy considering that the issue was supposed to be right-wing extremism.[5] (To be clear, I’m not suggesting that bookstores should ever stop selling Mein Kampf. The point is that Whitcoulls were failing to apply their own standards consistently.) Few news outlets mentioned these contradictions, preferring to focus on the Peterson ban, and still fewer reported the fact that 12 Rules For Life was reinstated a week or so later.[6] One might almost suspect conspiracy: the plan had been to blacken Peterson’s name with a public connection to murderous anti-Muslim extremism, the job had been done successfully, and now it was time for Whitcoulls to start quietly making a profit again.

Some observers suggested that the Whitcoulls decision may have been triggered by a photograph taken after one of Peterson’s public appearances. The shot captured him standing next to a fan who wore a T-shirt proclaiming “I’m a proud Islamaphobe.”[sic][7] But such photo sessions involve hundreds of fans shuffling forward one by one, each of them taking their turn and standing with the celebrity for the briefest of moments before moving on. No one could reasonably be expected to vet every single item of clothing on every single individual. Whitcoulls know this. They know that Peterson probably never noticed the T-shirt. They know that even if he had seen it, a person is not made guilty by association. Dare I suggest they also know that a fan may have good reasons for wearing such a T-shirt, and that certain critiques of Islam may be entirely valid?[8] Perhaps I would be attributing too much intelligence and nuance to the simple folk at Whitcoulls. The truth is that they targeted Peterson only because he is the most prominent public antagonist of the radical left. In their confusion, they decided that his critiques of the left must (surely!) link him to the radical right, and therefore to violent anti-Muslim sentiment among such radicals. The ‘Islamaphobe’ T-shirt only seemed to confirm this dubious logic, and so Whitcoulls took action. When they realised that they may have made a mistake, they quietly reinstated the book. No doubt they remain as confused as ever.

I think this shows that we are dealing with ignorance rather than cynicism. There are many people who dislike Peterson, but the same people also don’t understand him. They don’t understand his arguments, they don’t understand why he is so popular, and they have absolutely no idea how to react to him (hence the diversity of the attacks: from shivering hysteria to screeching childishness). We saw the same confusion in the fallout from another controversial photo of Peterson taken a few months earlier. In this one he was pictured posing with members of the band Mumford & Sons. Fans and journalists reacted to the photo with fury, and singer Marcus Mumford said that some musicians even phoned him up to demand an “explanation.” An explanation for what, exactly? A random comment on Twitter provided some clarity: “I assumed they were ‘My-dad-was-a-vicar’ Tory, not ‘concerned-about-white-birthrates’ Tory!”[9] In other words, Mumford & Sons had always been guilty of a certain vague and benign conservatism in the eyes of many people in the music industry, but now they had gone much further – they had actually been caught fraternising with Jordan Peterson. They were associating with white supremacists! To be clear, once again: Peterson is not a white supremacist, he has never expressed concern about “white birthrates” as the commenter seemed to imagine, and he seems, on the contrary, to have little interest in the topic of race. If any of these accusations had even been true, they would still hardly implicate Mumford & Sons – as with the Islamophobia issue, we all reserve the right to associate with people who have different opinions to us. But the most frustrating aspect of the Mumford debacle was the complete confusion as to the nature of Peterson’s sins.

Michael Shermer has seen a pseudo-spiritual element to the behaviour of these critics: he says they view evil as “a quasi-mystical force akin to Satan.” This means that figures like Peterson “are seen as carriers of evil, much like witches channelling demons from below, no matter that they never actually say or do anything evil in nature.” Peterson embodies white supremacy and institutional racism, as far as these people are concerned, and his actual behaviour is of no importance. As Shermer explains, when people stop thinking of evil as a descriptor of individual motivations and think of it instead as a hazily idealised force, then they “imagine the locus of evil as lying completely outside their own intentions and actions.”[10] This absolves them of all manner of horrendous activity, while removing any chance of absolution for the ‘evil’ party. In this way Peterson has become a magnet for many lurid accusations.

And so there may be an element of his critical base that acts disingenuously, understanding him very well and seeking to misrepresent him, but the vast majority of anti-Peterson sentiment is simply ill-informed. See the ‘enforced monogamy’ episode, for instance. Peterson used this phrase as part of his response to the Toronto killer Alek Minassian, suggesting that Minassian was “angry at God because women were rejecting him,” and “the cure for that is enforced monogamy.” As he went on to explain, this is actually why monogamy emerges in human societies in the first place.[11] Men exist in a perpetual, unforgiving, biologically-determined dominance hierarchy (envisaged most easily as a giant pyramid), and the natural result of this arrangement is that the few privileged men at the top of the pyramid monopolise all of the women, while the hordes of men in the lower half of the pyramid have no choice but to go without. This is exactly what has happened all over the world for most of human history, and it is one of the reasons that only 40% of our male ancestors procreated, while 80% of our female ancestors procreated. Men without women will inevitably turn violent, leading in the worst-case scenario to societal collapse, and the best solution to this problem has always been monogamy.[12] Today we find that almost all surviving cultures implicitly enforce monogamy. Think about it – how do most people respond when they find out that someone they know has been cheating on his or her partner? The reason most people react negatively is because they are practitioners of socially enforced monogamy, whether they realise it or not.

When we take all of this into account then we can see that Peterson was hardly making a controversial point. Unfortunately a small number of devious journalists took his use of the phrase and presented it out of context, and as a result a much larger number of ordinary readers were led to believe that Jordan Peterson wants the government to force us into unwanted unions (presumably they imagine this happening at gunpoint). I’ve spoken to people who angrily present this nonsense as their main reason for hating him. It’s a convenient gaudy headline that they’ve grabbed onto – Enforced Monogamy! – and for most people a headline is enough. We don’t teach logic to our children in schools, and as a result they are growing into adults unaccustomed to nuance. In the case of enforced monogamy, if I might resort to an old but useful cliché, the lie gets halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on.

Many people have observed an increase in political polarisation since the rise of the internet, but I think that we are also seeing a growing gulf in the level of intellectual debate. As the Social Justice Warriors dumb everything down, crushing heretics and steamrollering nuance, flinging accusations of ‘racism’ and ‘sexism’ at non-racists and non-sexists who happen to disagree with them on any topic at all, there has been a corresponding rise in the sophistication of the discourse. This sophistication can be seen most clearly among the various members of the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’. Society seems to be getting both dumber and smarter, and now one half can no longer understand the other half at all. Think back to Peterson’s Channel 4 interview with Cathy Newman in January 2018 – the watershed moment that introduced him to a much larger audience.[13] That conversation was really just an extended breakdown in communication. Newman became an internet meme with her repeated misrepresentations, each of which began with the now-infamous “So you’re saying…” No doubt she needed to reduce his opinions to snappy soundbites for the purposes of a short news programme, but I think that she also needed to reduce his opinions to snappy soundbites for the purposes of her own understanding.

One year before that interview Peterson appeared at a hearing of the Canadian Senate Committee of Legal and Constitutional Affairs. He was explaining his opposition to the Canadian government’s Bill C-16, which had opened up the possibility of Canadians being prosecuted for using the wrong pronouns when addressing people who identify as transgender. Peterson and legal counsel D. Jared Brown sat in a room full of senators for an hour, and the two of them looked for all the world like adults surrounded by children. “I’m a little bit lost in the arguments,” said one senator. “Dr. Peterson, I’m trying to understand your position,” said another. They never did manage to understand his position, but they disagreed with him anyway.[14] In a later television interview a Swedish politician opposed Peterson on the grounds that, as she put it, “our sons and daughters should have the same opportunities and the same dreams… equality and gender equality is very important.” But as Peterson has pointed out a thousand times, and as he went on to explain again in that interview, there is a huge difference between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. The former is an obvious good which aims to remove all barriers to success or a particular path in life, while the latter is an evil which aims to rig the results. Because of this, the two equalities often turn out to be mutually exclusive. Unfortunately no one in the TV studio seemed to grasp the distinction.[15] He will probably spend the rest of his life explaining it over and over in debates and interviews, while his opponents sit and watch his mouth moving and understand nothing.

Of course Peterson is not without his flaws – it seems to me, for example, that he spends too much time sourcing the Old Testament for rich seams of psychological insight and moral instruction. There is likely to be just as much wisdom in the Iliad, or the Atrahasis, or the Rigveda, or plenty of other surviving texts of the ancient world, if one goes looking for it. Peterson seems to be able to find significance in almost every line of Genesis,[16] and this has endeared him to many people within the Christian community. They see their traditions being unexpectedly legitimised (at this late stage in the day) by an intellectual heavyweight. And yet I can’t help wondering if most of these insights are not really in the book at all, but in the reader. It may be that if Peterson were to expect to find the same divine wisdom in the Qur’an, or the Upanishads, then lo and behold, he would find it there. This would not prove that the pages really contain such wisdom. It would just demonstrate the human capacity for over-interpretation, especially when confronted with something that we have been told is sacred. The Bible is part of Peterson’s cultural inheritance as a Westerner (regardless of his personal beliefs), and because of this it will surely have a hold on his imagination that the Upanishads do not have. It may be that he has failed to appreciate the extent of this hold.

Few of his detractors share these concerns, however. They are much more interested in personal attacks, all of which are unwarranted. A Jordan Peterson caricature has emerged, but it bears little resemblance to reality. I think we saw something of his true character at a Liberty University event in March 2019. He was in the middle of giving his talk when an unidentified individual charged onstage and shouted “I’m unwell! I need help!” Now I’m not sure what the protocol is in such situations, but I’m quite certain that it does not involve moving towards the stage invader. No one knew who the man was or whether he had a weapon or an explosive device of some kind. But Peterson responded instinctively to the call for help, rising from his seat and approaching the individual, and then consoling him as he collapsed in sobs. Our evil Nazi philosopher was in tears himself when the talk resumed.[17] In fact, he can regularly be seen crying in interviews when discussing society’s lost and suffering: people to whom his message is especially aimed. There is a real flesh-and-blood human being beneath the caricature, and as the writer Esther O’Reilly has suggested, this human being is characterised by “chivalry… (a) distinctively masculine virtue.”[18]

We also saw the real Jordan Peterson during the Bill C-16 affair, as mentioned earlier. “If they fine me I won’t pay it,” he said, referring to potential prosecution. “If they put me in jail I’ll go on hunger strike.”[19] This is what we really need from our public intellectuals: this integrity and resolve, this refusal to accept the lie – even when the lie has the full weight of the state behind it. Peterson has made reference on a number of occasions to what he describes as the archetype of the judicious rulebreaker. “Your typical hero,” he says, “is always a rule-breaker, always… There’s judiciousness behind the rule-breaking. The hero breaks the rule in the service of a higher good, but he’s still breaking the rules, and that’s what puts him outside the boundary of the social establishment.”[20] I think that he himself sometimes embodies this heroic archetype. He has shown a willingness to break the law of the country if necessary, but he has also broken numerous unwritten rules in the process of standing up for what he believes in. Each transgression has put him further “outside the boundary of the social establishment,” and that is where he remains today: misunderstood and reviled, a judicious rulebreaker working in the service of a higher good.

 Notes

 [1] https://twitter.com/PhDBaby/status/923384386065756160/photo/1?utm_source=fb&utm_medium=fb&utm_campaign=jordanbpeterson&utm_content=923568584361521152

[2] Nesrine Malik – “Sorry, Jordan Peterson: rage isn’t a great look for a self-help guru,” The Guardian, 23 March 2018 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/23/jordan-peterson-rage-self-help-guru-cathy-newman-twitter?CMP=fb_gu

[3] Tabatha Southey – “Is Jordan Peterson the stupid man’s smart person?,” Maclean’s, 27 November 2017 http://www.macleans.ca/opinion/is-jordan-peterson-the-stupid-mans-smart-person/

[4] Daniel Rutledge – “Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life removed from Whitcoulls following Christchurch terror attack,” Newshub, 23 March 2019 https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/entertainment/2019/03/jordan-peterson-s-12-rules-for-life-removed-from-whitcoulls-following-christchurch-terror-attack.html?fbclid=IwAR0AJjMI1hBXaxGBL8iIGRlN86lhSGjR6s-VMkpxHENKPIVLm1GsHl99e5M

[5] Michael Shermer – “Banning evil: in the shadow of Christchurch, quasi-religious myths can lead us astray,” Quillette, 26 March 2019 https://quillette.com/2019/03/26/banning-evil-in-the-shadow-of-christchurch-quasi-religious-myths-can-lead-us-astray/

[6] https://www.whitcoulls.co.nz/product/12-rules-for-life-an-antidote-to-chaos-6331349?fbclid=IwAR2LpZrYMADaW17Waym5VC0ws8U_9ib_SMP9vOBphhVroJD7YnsvcoSLAK8

[7] https://twitter.com/D__T_____/status/1106690698244317184/photo/1?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.newshub.co.nz%2Fhome%2Fentertainment%2F2019%2F03%2Fjordan-peterson-s-12-rules-for-life-removed-from-whitcoulls-following-christchurch-terror-attack.html%3Ffbclid%3DIwAR0AJjMI1hBXaxGBL8iIGRlN86lhSGjR6s-VMkpxHENKPIVLm1GsHl99e5M

[8] Spencer Case – “Is it wrong to blame Islam?,” Quillette, 19 August 2017 https://quillette.com/2017/08/19/wrong-blame-islam/

[9] Rachel Aroesti – “Mumford & Sons on Jordan Peterson, the Grenfell tragedy – and being hated,” The Guardian, 16 November 2018 https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/nov/16/mumford-sons-on-jordan-peterson-the-grenfell-tragedy-and-being-hated

[10] Shermer, op. cit.

[11] Nellie Bowles – “Jordan Peterson, custodian of the patriarchy,” The New York Times, 18 May 2018 https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/18/style/jordan-peterson-12-rules-for-life.html

[12] Joseph Henrich, Robert Boyd, & Peter J. Richerson – “The puzzle of monogamous marriage,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 5 March 2012 https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rstb.2011.0290; Patrick M. Seffrin – “The competition-violence hypothesis: sex, marriage, and male aggression,” Justice Quarterly vol. 34, 2017, issue 4, pp. 652-73 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07418825.2016.1216153

[13] “Jordan Peterson debate on the gender pay gap, campus protests, and postmodernism,” Channel 4 News, 16 January 2019 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMcjxSThD54

[14] Senate hearing on Bill C-16, 17 May 2017 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KnIAAkSNtqo

[15] “Jordan B. Peterson – full interview,” Skavlan, 29 October 2018 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_iudkPi4_sY

[16] Jordan Peterson – “The psychological significance of the Biblical stories (lectures 1-4),” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qH7X7RGQWJY

[17] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RyNqXMLaFQM&fbclid=IwAR05bNQ66qavHzcnNL8mB-rg8wy4OnyKNQ1Urc_vaMzFejgNvPQJfS_bgUI

[18] Esther O’Reilly – “Jordan Peterson, and the new chivalry,” Quillette, 12 April 2019 https://quillette.com/2019/04/12/jordan-peterson-and-the-new-chivalry/?fbclid=IwAR0l8ZoSchDktYV3qJTHmQ3HDUVHM3Xf9B8KSxyEfk5d1FSynjsPepmyKW4

[19] “Prof Jordan Peterson hunger strike if jailed over trans bill: ‘I’m NOT doing this & that’s that’,” LGBT Canada in the Media, 27 October 2016 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WQ-M5MgqVOo

[20] Jordan Peterson – Personality lecture 7: “Carl Jung and The Lion King, part 1,” 31 January 2017

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3iLiKMUiyTI&feature=youtu.be

2 thoughts on “The judicious rulebreaker: misunderstanding Jordan Peterson”

  1. Extremely well researched article Aaron. Difficult to find any reasons to disagree with you. Very informative and beautifully written!

    1. Great piece. Theology has bored me since I became agnostic 50 years ago, so I am quite fascinated by someone who can provide a sensible, even useful, profundity for every verse in the Old Testament

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