“Alestalagie is my Kwakwaka’wakw name” — Jordan B Peterson
Jordan Peterson, cowboy from the wilds of northern Alberta, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto — and recent thought criminal — has recently become a huge star. His sensational rise to fame has been, in part, a response to the hysterical reactions towards his critique of mandatory speech laws. He has been called a neo-Nazi, a transphobe, a chauvinist and worse; he’s been subject to white noise and air horns from screaming students and on college campuses. And yet many others, myself included, consider him to be one of the great thinkers of our times.
Peterson published a book called Maps of Meaning way back in 1999, which I have just finished reading. I consider it a rich and important document: ‘written in blood’ to borrow Nietzsche’s words — a book with the power to change lives. Maps of Meaning records Peterson’s monumental struggle to understand human evil and uncover maps of redemptive meaning. I suspect Peterson found his real voice after writing this dense and difficult half-poem/half-textbook—which can be best heard on his many online lectures.
Peterson’s notoriety as ‘alt right’ in progressive circles is bizarre. Hilariously, Peterson has never actually voiced even a classic Republican view: he has not spoken against gay marriage, abortion, or gun control—he is neither anti-immigration nor pro death penalty as far as I can tell after listening to hundreds of hours of his lectures. He’s never said a single thing that can be considered as ‘transphobic’. He has, however, had the guts to dialogue with people on the right, in accordance with his own peacemaking principles. He has been pronounced guilty by association.
Peterson’s ideas are poorly understood by people accustomed sound bites. Twenty years ago, he might have been considered a critic of doublespeak and totalitarianism like George Orwell, but these are strange times. Today, if we can’t fit somebody into our ideological box, we ignore them, demonize them, or call an alt-right Nazi. It’s the favourite game of the age. It seems to me that a lot of people hate Peterson because of the things he doesn’t say. Free speech is also the freedom to be silent when roped into virtue-signalling, and Peterson has had the composure to keep on the subject matter at hand: the totalitarian policing of everyday speech.
But perhaps there is another reason why people want to crucify the good doctor — his directness. Peterson speaks with passion in an age of talking heads. I would even risk saying he is one of the few public intellectuals who is really on fire with the holy spirit to use an old-fashioned phrase. In some ways he is like an old-fashioned preacher — but his message is neither one of religious fundamentalism nor ideology.
Separating the wheat from the chaff
I am puzzled by some of Peterson’s orientations certainly, and it’s good to separate the ‘wheat from the chaff’ — a biblical metaphor he uses often. The ‘wheat’, in my view, is contained in his book ‘Maps of Meaning’ and associated classroom lectures, as well as his biblical lectures. These provide an original, multi-disciplined and deep interpretation of archetypal stories — which are being forgotten to our peril. Personally, I wish more people would focus his serious works, rather than whatever political views he may or may not have.
The first ‘chaff’: I am puzzled why Peterson glosses over any critique of a certain Ayn Rand selfish libertarianism. Can the emptying out of the oceans, the pillaging of the earth, the poisoning the air, the depletion species — be remedied by his beloved liberalism? Can we not be critical of extreme liberalism (or radical selfishness) and also of extreme communism (radical selflessness) at the same time? Do we have to choose between one wrong world view or the other, between the good empire and the evil one?
And then there is Peterson’s critique of the left, which, as a left-leaning person, I do actually have a lot of sympathy for. It’s important to remember that he’s criticizing radicalism. Peterson is bringing more people — from the right and the left — to the centre. Still, I hope he will dialogue with more leftists in the future, who have thus far treated him like the plague. Even if Peterson has actually acknowledged the necessity for the left, which is to extend the net of mercy to the widest group of people possible.
And finally: postmodernism. I wonder: is postmodernism really the devil? And can the excesses of post-modern society can be placed at the feet of a few French theorists? There may a few good things about our post-modern society actually, with all its catastrophic faults: one being is its ability to extend protection to vulnerable people beyond one’s own tribe.
Finally, is Peterson a bit harsh on his arch-enemy, the post-modernist Michel Foucault, who, after all, died quite young and was also critical of post-modernism in the end? Foucault, in his last lectures at the College of France, ‘The Courage of Truth’, seems to me to have come to some of the same conclusions as Peterson weirdly enough — and both men were powerfully influenced by Nietzsche. In ‘The Courage of Truth’ Foucault writes eloquently about the value of parrhesia, the Greek principal of speaking truth to power at great personal risk, or the necessity of free speech above instrumental speech.
Clean your room
And yet, with my few misgivings, let me count the ways in which I appreciate the good doctor. Firstly, because of the deep practicality and usefulness of his thought. That is his genius, actually. His ideas rise above abstraction and move us into the real world. ‘Clean up your room.’ ‘Pay attention.’ ‘Don’t say things that make you weak’ are spiritual maxims, words to live by. Peterson has achieved a most difficult task: to be simple without losing depth. ‘Cleaning our room’ is a larger metaphor for our entire spiritual task. To clean our room means to restore our consciousness to unity. In in the larger sense, it is to restore education to its original meaning: know thyself, as well as to restore the humanities to their original purpose: learning how to live.
The Masculine Principal
“Dr Peterson. You appeared in one of my visions (in an an Ayahuasca ceremony) and I asked Her (The Great Mother) who is Jordan Peterson and what is he doing. She responded with crystalline clarity: He is here to invoke and initiate the divine masculine principal on earth at this time.”
I can’t help agreeing with ‘The Great Mother’ in the above quote. Jordan Peterson represents a resurgence of a healthy masculinity which has been so maligned and repressed of late. Today, the good, the rational, the strong, the noble man is seen as a kind of dinosaur, the subject of scorn. However, and contrary to what some people think, Peterson is not trying to ‘bring back the Patriarchy’. His whole philosophy is about complementarity rather than power, pragmatism rather than naive idealism.
Peterson asks questions that are taboo in dogmatic feminist circles. Why are men losing out to women in education and work. Why do they fill up the prisons and the lunatic asylums? Don’t men collect all our garbage and clean our sewage system and do most life-threatening and dangerous jobs, including war? And what about the suicide and homicide rate, porn and video game addiction among men? Where is the gratitude for heroic masculinity?
The lost men of our culture are hungry for Peterson’s message of responsibility and find much resonance there. Peterson gives them a reason celebrate masculine force — as if that were a negative thing. Don’t we need to celebrate the good father archetype just as we appreciate the compassionate mother? Don’t we need a balanced picture of the sexes, which is Peterson’s eminently reasonable proposition? Do Peterson’s enemies have ‘daddy issues’ — or a serious problem with strong, assertive, capable men?
As to the charges that Peterson is an enemy of vulnerable groups: does anybody have a scrap of evidence for a single hateful word or act he has made against them? I haven’t found one, and that in itself is remarkable, as we all make gaffes at times. Actually, quite a number of transgendered people have actually sided with Peterson, not wanting to be referred to by pronouns which were invented yesterday. Peterson has attacked ideologies but not individuals, and so far, he has behaved with grace and dignity, even in the most grotesque circus-like situations.
I am pretty sure it wasn’t Peterson’s intention wasn’t to create a YouTube cult, but he does have great ambitions. He wants to rescue the humanities from zombie-like administrators, to get people to rediscover the underlying metaphysics of their culture, to point out the vast human potential of every person and our abyssal darkness as well — to name just a few. Peterson’s virtue is that he never gives us platitudes or glosses over human darkness but rather asks us to look down into our own abyss, at our own monsters.
You might disagree with some of Peterson’s views. I’ve got a few disagreements myself. Certainly, there is the danger of blind adoration for this paternal figure and the unthinkingly parroting of his ideas. Yes, people with charisma are dangerous, and we should question their motives. And yet, in the balance, I dare say Peterson has a real saintly, bodhisattva-like quality. And he isn’t the first or last philosopher to be called a ‘corrupter of the youth’.
Peterson has not let himself be shouted down by mobs. Aren’t the hate posters put up in his own neighbourhood are a sign of collective hysteria? What is this intolerance of dialogue in name of diversity? Why is this hypocrisy not more self-evident? Are these so-called ‘progressives’ really that bloodthirsty and afraid of the archetypal Daddy? Yes, they are. And how are they different than real neo-Nazis carrying torches here? Freud had a name for this: projection.
I live in France, and perhaps here in the birthplace of Peterson’s reviled ‘post-modern neo-marxists’ it is still easier here to have a conversation. Perhaps Europeans still have a memory of what shrill puritanical monsters are really capable of and know that humour and intelligence matters more than political correctness. Perhaps Europeans have not fully lost sense of the intrinsic elegance to which Peterson has embodied.
Memories, Dreams and Reflections
Peterson was writing Maps of Meaning — which began as a poem — at McGill University at the same time I was an undergraduate student there. I wish I could have met him then, to discuss the books I was devoured at the time: Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Northrop Frye, Kierkegaard, Heidegger — many of same writers on Peterson’s undergraduate reading list. I resonated especially with northern European and Russian writers of the 19th Century — their bleak, massive landscapes are perhaps appealing to Canadian. Like Peterson, I loved those who philosophise with a hammer best (Nietzsche again). For many Peterson is just such a writer.
I also connect with Peterson on the importance of Carl Jung, which few recent thinkers have been able to grapple with. Jung’s biography, Memories, Dreams and Reflections, which I read when I was 19 opened me wide open to a larger mythic/spiritual world, which I have been investigating ever since. Peterson is doing us a great service articulating Jung’s darker revelations and exposing the ‘shadow’ — one of Jung’s great articulations — of contemporary movements like feminism, atheism, scientific reductionism, etc.
As a young man, and in my own awkward way, perhaps from reading many of the same books, I had come to some of the same conclusions as Peterson. That is: that we live in a world of spiritual action rather than dead objects, that mythopoetics matter, and that religion wasn’t just an opiate of the people.
When I first heard Peterson speak about such things it was a great relief to me — although I wish I heard it much earlier. He might have saved me a lot of trouble. In any case, I wouldn’t have felt so alone.
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