Jordan Peterson is best known as a conservative-leaning psychologist who teaches at the University of Toronto, and also is a practising counsellor.
Dr. Jordan Peterson has often been pictured hanging out with students who are part of the far right, and has seemed to have gained an attachment to Pepe the Frog, and in the origins of the symbolism of the frog mascot. He has helped the far right gain dignity with its association with Pepe, by associating it with frogs in Egyptian mythology, and so on. Peterson is a big fan of Carl Jung, and so he shares Jung’s fascination for archetypes and how they theoretically play a role in our psyches. However, I am not sure that Jung had in mind a badly-drawn cartoon frog as an example.
Peterson’s hobknobbing with the far right makes him an easy target for others to discredit. This is unfortunate, since the book itself is compelling. Peterson tries to present himself as an intellectual force to be reckoned with. I remember reading the late Thomas Szasz, another dissident in the helping professions and another powerful intellectual who wrote the book Ideology and Insanity some decades ago, whose fatal flaw was rooted in the author’s association with the Church of Scientology. I can’t help but seeing parallels here. I have no general explanation for it.
Neither book is a waste of your money. Ideology and 12 Rules For Life are both compelling reading and were hard for me to put down. Both books will change you in some way. Ideology was considered a game-changer for the practice of psychiatry back in the 1970s. It is largely the reason psychiatry has moved from being mostly a “talking cure” to being more biologically-based and science-based. But also in both cases, you can only trust their intellectual prowess so far. For this article, we will focus on Peterson’s 12 Rules.
Peterson’s account of the genesis of his book appear to be from a much briefer and skeletal version of his 12 rules, contributed to an online wiki called Quora. His rules became popular, so he fleshed out his ideas for his book.
The most compelling reading of all have to do with those topics that are central to his profession. He discusses child-rearing in ways that are so down-to-earth and with such conviction that it is difficult to argue with his ideas. He does the same for his discussion of marriage, and of of the complex needs and tendencies of those seeking counselling. He seems like a Rock of Gibraltar here. Utterly clear and well-written. The book is hard to put down at this point.
For some of his rules, he deviates into discussions of the Bible. He takes on the same authoritative tone of various Biblical stories, but in my reading of it (being a churchgoer), they are clearly his views, not views sanctioned by general scholarship, or by the Church. His Biblical interpretations and exegeses are taken to be his own, and supportive of his rules. In his circle of intellectualism, his grasp of the Bible extends just outside the center of his intellect. The Bible is just one of his tools used in support of the rules. Other writings used this way are the writings of philosophers such as Nietzsche. But one senses that the association between philosophers like Nietzche, Dostoyevsky and his rules are a little too neat and tidy.
He also cites dissident political writers such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Soviet citizen who suffered the worst of the Gulags and lived to write three hefty books on the experience. This is where things go a little off the rails. While I have long ago given away my copy of the 3-volume Gulag Archipelago, Peterson has used this as an excuse to indulge in the Western intellecutal laziness of conflating communism with a totalitarian dictatorship, the latter of which was the case for the former Soviet Union, which was never close to being a Marxist utopia (indeed, Stalin banned the reading of Karl Marx). This is where Peterson deviates the most from his rules, and where his pronouncements on the evils of Stalinism deviated the most from any semblance the book’s original themes.
It is also where Peterson would find himself the most at odds with scholars such as MIT’s Dr. Richard Wolff, who actually make their living specializing in studying the history and theory of Marxism. This is where Peterson is the most out of his intellectual depth, showing his passive devotion to standard cold war tropes. The only difference these days is, that most socialist voices in our culture have been silenced in recent decades, reducing this to a mostly one-sided debate. This is why in real life, Dr. Peterson can rest on his laurels by challenging “anyone” to a debate about socialism, since he is confident of the success capitalist culture has had in silencing alternative voices, so that no one of any rhetorical skill will take him on. For the record, Dr. Wolff has accepted his challenge, which Peterson has never answered to.
Conflating communism with totalitarianism is one thing. Conflating capitalism with freedom is another. Freedom doesn’t come from Capital, it comes from a Bill of Rights, and from laws that protect us. Thus, the tropes of Communism=Totalitarianism and Capitalism=Freedom get aired out here, and it is hard to take since one of his rules tells us to avoid ideology. He fails to see that Capitalism is an ideology just like Communism. He seems hypocritical if he is in jingoistic support of Capitalism while making “avoid ideology” one of his rules. We as a society are so awash in pro-capitalist tropes, that the world doesn’t really need yet another mindless screed against communism, which adds nothing new to the mostly one-sided “debate” about it that exists in our culture.
I would like to state that I am against ideologies also. In politics as in real life, ideologies tend to take a brilliant idea and proceed to completely eviscerate it of all life and meaning. The problem mostly is in the need to enforce ideology. If the ideology was “love”, then we have to love, “or else”. There. I just made love into ideology and ruined it, just like that. Not hard to do. I wouldn’t want to live in that world any more than if the ideology was about something more conventional, like economic systems.
Peterson could have made his point much clearer had he chosen a more neutral ideology. Young adults go through a period of their maturation where they espose many ideologies, and most of these adults are not ideological in a political way. The minute you get it into your head that “All X are Y” or “All X should be Y”, or “All X should do Y”, you are raising an idea or a collection of opinions you once had to a general ideology. Young adults need to be aware that the world is infinitely more complicated than their ideologies and hard rules, and yes, ideology should be the least important concept in forming a world view. And this, dare I say it, includes the ideology of capitalism.
Natalie Wynn, who has a vlog on YouTube called Contrapoints, has read and viewed enough Jordan Peterson to say something about the structure of his debate style. Peterson would begin by saying something that is uncontroversial and factual (there are biological differences between men and women, for example), then at the same time, imply something controversial (such as women are under-represented in government). So, what is the response? Either you fall into the trap of arguing against biological differences, or you can guess at what he is implying, where he now has the opportunity of accusing you of mis-representing him. His famous lobster argument seems to be used as a similar trojan to justify any form of authority and authoritarianism, no matter how unjust. But to call him on it invites interpretation, and you will be guaranteed that it will never be the right one, since he never truly states his position on authoritarianism.
Peterson’s book on 12 Rules appears to use solid science and psychology as a Trojan horse to push right wing political views and tropes. Be careful what you get out of it. Take his politics, religion and philosophy with a grain of salt.