Don’t Be a Patsy: An Open Letter to Jordan B. Peterson
by Neil Griffiths
2% isn’t bad given the usual ratio of engaged-to-abusive comments on YouTube. About 20% of all comments claimed that Jordan Peterson had changed their life. Around half of all comments took issue with my concern that Peterson sometimes sounds sympathetic to the Alt-Right, or at least used language that might be used to endorse Alt-Right positions. But apparently Jordan Peterson has been rejected by this movement. It’s difficult to know whether this is true – I’m not going to trawl through Alt-Right commentators looking for disavowals of Peterson. I’ll take their word for it. After two weeks, I took the video down. On reflection I decided it was inaccurate. Also, I wasn’t well when I made it, and started to wonder whether, as I lay in bed watching hours of his videos, I had misunderstood his views.
Like many people in the UK, I discovered the so-called ‘father of the internet’ (as in strict, stern and admonitory paternal figure) after reading articles about his interview with Cathy Newman on Channel 4 News. The articles tended to focus on the social media fallout rather than the content of the interview. It is worth noting that The Guardian switched its position on Peterson from ‘interesting Canadian academic’ a couple of week before the interview to ‘potentially dangerous . . . right-wing intellectual.’ Whilst I abhor any abuse Cathy Newman was subjected to, that wasn’t the important story. Trolling is as trolling does. The interview highlighted the pantomime of seriousness in political discourse in the Anglophone world. By any standard it was lazy journalism, intellectually lightweight, and deaf to nuance and precision. Whatever you think of JBP, he’s none of those things. Few people who have read his major work Maps of Meaning (1999) doubt the intellectual scope, integrity and insight.
Let me explain why I was so charmed by his performance on Channel 4 News. There is something about Peterson’s stiffness, the lack of visible affect in his face and his slightly croaky high-pitched voice that suggests he knows something we don’t, and yet something that is too obvious to require flim-flam – in short, something unambiguously the case if we want to accept it, our louche metropolitan post-modern subjectivity notwithstanding. One senses Jordan B. Peterson doesn’t suffer impostor syndrome; he knows who he is and what he thinks. Then there was his reaction to Cathy Newman’s now infamous refrain to almost every one of his answers: ‘So what you’re saying is. . .’ He was patient and unflappable, and without being patronising, did his best to explain that he was, in fact, not saying that, and oftentimes was saying the opposite. He wasn’t evasive; he didn’t obfuscate; he didn’t intimidate – he remained focused and deadly serious, a seriousness different in kind rather than degree to Cathy Newman’s, which might be described as representative of a lot of news presenters: high-handed, cynical, and, as Peterson pointed out late on in the interview, not a little disagreeable. Within days serious publications around the world were discussing Cathy Newman’s side of the interview as a perfect example of how serious media was failing to be, well, serious. It was one of the few times in history – perhaps the only time – when The New Yorker and Fox News agreed: The interview was a notable zeitgeisty moment in news reporting.
So that is Peterson’s manner. What about what he was saying? I confess, I broadly agreed. If we separate out the four main issues, crisis in manhood, gender pay-gap, the nature of equality, and social hierarchy as a product of evolution, I don’t think he has said anything particularly controversial. In terms of ‘manhood’, Peterson believes that some men are struggling to find meaning and purpose in a changing world and are feeling ineffectual, and because of this they are generally less useful, and being generally less useful tends to mean they are specifically less good at being partners to women. It would be foolish to deny this is probably at least partially true. On the surface, his advice was a little old-fashioned, stuff about posture and responsibility, but then his core belief is more fundamental. Suffering is a condition of life. Don’t take it personally. That just makes you a victim. Just accept it, get up and find a purpose. It won’t take the suffering away, but at least you’ll be contributing something, and on the whole it’s better to suffer and contribute than suffer and not. And if you’re really lucky, you might begin to feel a little better for a moment, but don’t imagine the suffering is beaten – it’s still there, a deep and abiding ontological fact. That’s his diagnosis and prognosis of life, and while he maintains it is not gender specific, he recognises that males, at least right now, seem to require more help navigating this condition, and therefore he's tilting his advice towards them. After all, you need to go where help is most needed.
His view on the gender pay-gap is that we need to look at multi-variant analysis before we write our ‘headlines’, that a percentage difference is not the whole story, and a multitude of choices impact pay, and that (OK, perhaps a little controversially) there are some biological determinates that we’d be foolish to ignore. Peterson doesn’t like simplification, it tends to create division, and division in Peterson’s mind is the first step to the Gulag. (In truth, Peterson is slightly obsessed with what might constitute a first step to the Gulag.) Peterson regards ‘equality of outcome’ as a kind of tyranny and ‘equality of opportunity’ as an obviously good thing. Interestingly, here and elsewhere, Peterson prefers to use the word ‘fairness’, because ‘fairness’ is subjective, a value. People don’t tend to feel unequal in society; but they do tend to feel unfairness, and perhaps more importantly, if people think society is being fair, they don’t always want exactly the same as other people, proving the wrong-headedness of ‘equality of outcome’. He is acutely aware of the increasing inequality of wealth and advocates intervention.
Then there is his more problematic issue with accusations of ‘white privilege’. Few sensible people can think it’s a helpful term when it comes to meaningful debate. No colour or ethnic-based definition is true for everyone in that group, and if it’s not true for one person, it risks sliding into racialism. The term is click-bait or shrill political rhetoric. Peterson employs the same kind of analysis he uses to unpack the Gender pay-gap, except this time he is on less firm ground, and can start to sound like a right-wing comedian with bad timing (and no jokes). His spiel on the intersectionality of demographic categories always feels loaded with stereotypes, even though he’s trying to point out such a process takes us right back to the individual. What he needs to do is demonstrate that he recognises that most societies have a majority of some kind, and that this majority tends to have aspects of group identity, and a majority by definition must co-exist with a minority, and majorities tend to have more power, and power creates privilege. That this tends to revolve around ethnic or tribal groups is a historical fact and cannot be ignored. If Peterson wants us to believe there is a residual biological drive towards hierarchies, he can’t also have us believe there is no such thing as privilege, however it’s constituted. They are one and the same thing.
But Peterson is an individualist, and any term that creates a group identity is a negative condition. In many ways, Peterson is a classic Existentialist. He believes his essence precedes his existence, and that cannot be authentically sought or defined by identification with a group, or a belief system, but only through an inner journey of discovery. Before we make any claims on the world, we must first attend to ourselves. Again, I’m broadly in agreement.
Peterson’s journey to himself is a fascinating one. As an adolescent he rejected the church because of the contradictions between scripture and science and between scripture practice. He then becomes a socialist for a couple of years but rejected that after reading Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier. There was a critical moment when he decided Orwell was right: socialists don’t love the poor, they just hate the rich. This is the beginning of Peterson’s rejection of the oppressor / oppressed dichotomy. Whilst obviously not on the side of oppression, he fears the pathology of falsely defining oneself as oppressed. As above, victimhood is psychologically dangerous for the individual and the world.
Most extraordinarily, he next rejects himself. Sometime around the end of the 1970s he realises he has no real beliefs and nothing he says is true. He experiences a kind of dual personality: he overhears himself talking, and judges everything he says to be lies, or at least not what he really thinks, although at this stage he’s not really sure what he really thinks. He recognises this is perilous for his well-being in the world and for the world itself – the world doesn’t need another self-deceiver trying to fix it. At the same time he becomes obsessed with the very real possibility that nuclear war might end everything. He’s in a very bad place. It’s at this moment he discovers Carl Jung, and Jung’s theories become the analytical tools with which he begins to understand himself and world. He trains as a clinical psychotherapist, starts teaching – something he is clearly gifted at – and in between times spends 13 years writing Maps of Meaning – an exhaustive and thrilling account of myth. All goes quiet.
Notoriety comes with his rejection of the Canadian Government’s Bill C-16, a law mandating use of trans-gender pronouns in state funded institutions. He tells everyone who will listen that any mandated language curtails free speech and open discourse and is the first step to the gulag. He lays the blame on ‘the post-modernists’ and Marxists, and the post-modernist Marxists in the academy. They are taking over and brain-washing students. Peterson clearly likes young people, but he recognises them for what they are – open to influence and lacking competence. Peterson really esteems competence. What explicitly concerns him is young people taking radical action without being competent enough to understand the impact their actions might have on complex systems. The world is a complex system and if you meddle without competence you’ll cause chaos. Peterson seems not to understand that ‘competence’ isn’t a value. To hear him speak you’d think that competence is an intrinsic good. It’s an easy win to say the Nazis were competent at many things, but I’ll say it anyway.
This is where his new book, 12 Rules of Life: An Antidote to Chaos, comes in. You’d think Peterson himself was scared of chaos, but no. In the interview with Dr Iain Gilchrist he claims the ideal existential position is on the border of chaos and order – that’s where learning and development reside. But it seems he has earned the right to inhabit that liminal space. More fundamentally, he understands that the world is imperfect, so trying to make it perfect, as the young tend to want, is a category error, and to aim for such an end, and try and see it through, will lead to the Gulag. Of course, whilst this is a bit extreme, such thinking has led to the gulag a few times, so he’s not completely mad. On the other hand, is it really true that if you can’t ‘clean your room’ (metaphorically and/or literally) you are incapable of doing good in the world? Can it really be the case that only exhaustive knowledge qualifies us to take action in the world, something, by definition, the young can’t have? I’m not convinced.
There is also something else Peterson seems to miss, or at least does not take into account in this particularly instance, which is surprising given his clinical background. Young adult brains are not fully developed. If they are passionate and impulsive, emotional and chaotic it is because their pre-frontal cortex – the place of cognition and order and inhibition and regulation - isn’t fully formed. It’s not a lack of humility in the young’s belief in their ability to correct the world; it’s a neurologic issue – they can’t stop themselves. From that position, you could argue his new book should be called 1 Rule for Life: Don’t do anything until your 25 years old and your brain is fully formed and you will think more carefully about what you’re doing. In short: Peterson is trying to fix something that fixes itself.
We now need to return his leading role in the ‘crisis of manhood’ debate. Right now, Peterson is not only its most articulate spokesman, for many young men he offers the most effective solution. How is this? Key to Peterson’s success is his level of engagement. Here is someone who cares deeply about everything. Watch any YouTube video, whatever the format and you will see he is always ‘on’. His intensity is both thrilling and exhausting to watch. Whatever you might think about what he says, he is not an impostor, a fake or a phoney. He believes in what he says, he really believes in what he says, down to his core, and he wants to explain, explain, explain. After all, the whole of the (Western) world is at stake.
And then there is his more explicit language use. Watch this clip about the perils of spending too much time gaming. The key moment is easy to miss, but it demonstrates the relaxed and honest relationship he has with the world of young people; he’s not looking to score points by being non-judgemental or patronisingly open to something he privately deems trivial. The key moment is after he suggests 50 hours a week gaming is probably too much, when he drops in ‘unless you want to go pro’. It’s lovely. It shows he knows enough about gaming to recognise it’s a thing you can do, and for young men especially, something that’s entirely acceptable. It’s moments like this when young men realise they can trust him, and it allows him to segue into more complex territory without a beat. It’s not ‘bait and switch’; he’s not trading 10 minutes on gaming for 10 minutes listening to the boring stuff. In this case he is genuinely thinking through how a narrow field of interest is potentially damaging if you unquestionably accept all your sense of meaning from it. He is exposing the dangers as he sees them, without taking down the whole world like a parent. It’s not about handing in essays, careers and relationships. He is saying something fundamental: ‘Don’t lie to yourself’ because if you do your interior self will be ‘warped’ when it reads out to you what you think about the world. That’s about as fundamental as it gets.
The second example is this tweet: ‘KEK boys. Seek your 4chan. Don't stay in the underworld. Author your future. Code PEPE. Free 4 U 4 1 wk.’ Who else is explicitly reaching out to that mass of boys and young men who are finding ‘warped’ meaning in the morass of some areas of 4chan? Who else is offering them an explicit programme to ‘author’ themselves? OK, it might sound hideously like the worse kind of self-help, but a route to responsibility, self-respect, integrity can’t be all bad. If it works, I’m all for it. And it seems to.
But all this is predicated on there being a meaningful ‘crisis of manhood’, a cultural moment that needs intervention. Peterson obviously thinks so, or rather he thinks if we haven’t yet reached crisis point, there is confusion, and if we don’t sort out the confusion, we’ll likely drift into crisis, and we know what follows. Not the Gulag this time, but chaos. When it comes to issues of gender in the modern world, one of Peterson’s refrains is that ‘we don’t know what the rules’ are. Peterson likes rules, they help people cooperate and enjoy the game. After all, if we know the rules we know how to act, and if someone doesn’t act correctly, we know what to do about it because we have meaningful points of reference – the rules.
According to Peterson, the current gender crisis in the workplace has arisen because we can’t know what the rules are, it’s only been 50 years or so since we’ve been in this situation, and that’s not long enough. It’s a brave statement, because he’s not apportioning any blame at this stage, which is different to saying he agrees or disagrees with any type of behaviour. His position is this: society is changing so fast we don’t yet know how to navigate the impact of our increasing equality, especially in terms of sexuality. In evolutionary theory this potentially leads to ‘error catastrophe’ – natural selection can’t take place because mutations accumulate faster than they can be selected for or against. But it’s more than that. Peterson believes neither gender really understands the underlying drives of their behaviour, and therefore neither gender knows what the consequences of their behaviour might be.
At this point, Peterson becomes more evolutionary psychologist than clinical psychologist. He is specific when he claims that we know what wrong male behaviour looks like – it tends to be explicit, domineering, performative; but this is less the case when it comes to women, where behaviour tends to be more implicit, subtle and, separately, but adding to the confusion, politically sensitive. ‘Wrong’ is not the right word, of course. Rather, our behaviour has an implicit objective that is hidden from us, both in its drive and the desired reciprocal drive it wishes to actuate. Peterson wants us to understand that our behaviour is not specific and targeted as we might think, but more generalised: it’s species-level behaviour. We do it because we’re programmed to do it. What makes Peterson's position problematic is that he will say it’s not always up to males to resist their impulses whatever woman do, but we must look at the evolutionary psychology of both genders, and judge how it might play out in this new psycho-sexual space. So, yes, he will say, it’s OK to ask how much is the right amount of make-up a woman might wear to work, or the height of her heels? Because it’s not only an individual’s choice involved, the behaviour has meaning beyond this, it is supposed to have consequences. Whatever you think of Peterson’s position on gender politics, there’s no denying that he does tend to look uncomfortable when talking directly about women. He gets flushed, irritable, even a little cross.
The composition of Justin Trudeau’s cabinet is where a number of Peterson’s beefs with modern society intersect and it’s an interesting case study of all of the above. Peterson is not necessarily wrong in principle but sounds wrong in practice. And it’s an example of what happens when he strays outside his specialism and the argument involves women. After his election as Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau committed to a 50/50 gender split in his cabinet, even though his pool of choices from parliament was 80:20 male/female. When asked for his reason for doing this, Trudeau said ‘because it’s 2016’. Peterson was and is still enraged by this (‘You choose on COMPETENCE not gender’), and as for Trudeau giving the year as a reason, it’s a rare moment when Peterson seems dumbfounded.
But what would have appeased Peterson – an 80/20 cabinet? That’s not choosing on competence, that’s just counting. A transparent selection process? One senses Peterson would have found fault. Peterson himself making the decision? Peterson would say he doesn’t care if the whole cabinet comprises women if they are the best people for the job. But if that was the case, he wouldn’t buy it, because statistically it is highly unlikely that women are going to be the best candidate for all the positions. None of these are solutions. The one real defence Trudeau has is that as long as there is no real loss of ability because of the smaller pool, over-indexing women in cabinet positions might show a different kind of competence, a more strategic competence, in leading the way to build a manifestly more equal and progressive society.
Interestingly, Peterson has another beef with Trudeau, and it says more about Peterson than Trudeau. Peterson doesn’t think Trudeau has earned his position, suggesting his success is based on his father’s legacy. Peterson believes in the notion of reward through working hard – it’s another part of the journey towards achieving purpose, meaning. During a Q&A’s on YouTube, he is asked about the structure of his day. The answer is revealing: ‘I get up around 6 and 8am and then I work until 10pm, flat out, as hard as I can, every single day.’ He then says he made a decision early on in his adult life to be as ‘hyper-efficient and hyper-productive as was possible . . . I challenged myself to see how much I can possibly do in the shortest period of time, all the time.’ And even though he says it ‘lends his life a lot of meaning’, it might be regarded by some as deviating from the norm, a little obsessive, and perhaps a ‘warped’ sense of what needs to be accomplished to give one’s life meaning. Frankly, I’m envious – I wish I had that drive, energy, stamina. But once again, such attributes are not values. We must judge ourselves on what we set out to achieve, just as much as our application in doing so. Because, well, you guessed it, we’re back to the Nazis.
I want to explain why I took my video down, beyond its more obvious flaws: pretension, sloppy thinking, witlessness. I came across a couple of YouTube videos of Peterson on Fox and Friends, Fox News’ morning show. They are very difficult to watch. They flatter him, fawn over his credentials, and he smiles and looks as comfortable as Jordan Peterson ever looks. But what he fails to realise is that they have him on because they know if they push the right buttons he will say exactly what they want him to say. To use parlance Peterson won’t like, they ‘trigger’ him. All you have to do is show Peterson a left-wing ideologue, preferably a college professor, and watch him go. ‘The post-modernists this’, ‘the Marxists that’. It happens every time. But that’s not real the problem. We’re all susceptible to a bit of flattery; we all have triggers. It’s that for years Fox News has broken one of Peterson’s 12 rules, and to my mind, his cardinal rule, and he doesn’t call them on it. He plays along.
Professor Peterson, if I may: you know as well as any sane person in North America and the Anglophone world that Fox News break this rule time and again, and yet rather than take the opportunity to call them out, you collude. Which of my 12 rules is it, you ask? It’s the lodestone on which your entire psychological structure is built, it’s was central to your own development as a young man. In your book you have it down as number eight, but you say it often, it has become a kind of mantra, and rightly so.
‘Tell the truth. Or at least don’t lie...’
Everyone knows, except the truly partisan and the stupid, that Fox News is a de facto propaganda wing for the US right; that they are ideologically closed to facts, data and debate. You only have to watch for an hour to realise their version of multi-variant analysis is we’re right and everyone else is wrong. We’re not even talking about sins of omission; but the explicit creation of false narratives to promote an ideological agenda. In short, everything you stand against. Any yet, there you are.
Professor Peterson. Intellectually, I find Maps of Meaning thrilling. Rationally, I agree with much of what you say. Emotionally, a small part of me has a man-crush on you. Your success in turning around the lives of young men is admirable and should be encouraged. But there is something that worries me, and I think it runs deep in you. When it comes to any dissent, you are quick to anger, even a little bitter, as if you’re carrying a slight from long ago, an unhealable wound. Ironically, it is as if you’ve taken a moment of life’s unfairness personally and can’t let it go – it’s become sublimated and now manifests itself as a kind of victimhood. Except, following your own wisdom, you’re not allowing yourself to be weak or cowed, but stride meaningfully and with purpose into the suffering world. But it’s still audible in the almost shrill way you speak about ‘the post-modernists’, when you refuse to discuss ‘white privilege’, when talking more generally about women and gender politics. It’s visible in your face – you start to flush and vibrate.
Weirdly, it also happens when you speak about young people and their drive to right the world’s wrongs, those same young people you talk to so effortlessly, so honestly, so effectively in your lectures. Why are you so cross with young people being actively idealistic? It’s really not a case of ‘the best lack all conviction, while the worst / are full of passionate intensity’ – we are not quite there yet. It might be ‘the best are full of passionate intensity, but lack a little competence, while the worst are . . . well, they might be full of passionate intensity also and competent at the same time.’ Most of the totalitarian leaders of the 20th Century were approaching middle age when they took power and were highly competent. I’d worry more about age plus competence. Let the young learn on the job.
Letting Fox News pander to you makes you look naïve, and foolish and vain. It makes you look stupid. They use you like a right-wing patsy – an ideological stooge. But worse: you give them credibility. And ultimately, when you give liars and hypocrites credibility, you’re at risk of losing your own.