Jordan Peterson is Mapping and Modeling the Masculine to Multitudes of Men
(This is a condensed version of a longer essay. For the full version, go here.)
As with all my criticisms of Peterson, what follows is not a reaction against his political incorrectness or his challenge to current ideological givens, almost all of which I am in accord with. Rather my truck is with the sorts of radical solutions Peterson is offering up —frequently half-baked and half-cocked—and, above all, with the confused philosophical, psychological, sociopolitical, and metaphysical or spiritual presumptions they are nested in.
The Persuasive Power of Charisma
One thing we do know from history is that men who are able to exert a powerful influence over large numbers of people are invariably seen at the time as benevolent by those they influence, even while history (i.e., given some distance from the period) often testifies otherwise.
Cultish behavior—and whole movements—is contingent on the persuasive power of charisma. Charisma is a largely unquestioned currency in our culture. Mostly I think this is because, when we are under its sway, we conflate it with virtue. Yet there is no more evidence of a correlation between charisma and virtue than there is of one between virtuous words and virtuous deeds.
A New Order of Monsters
Nature abhors a vacuum, and where chaos and incoherence reigns in the cultural debate, the need for order—even the slightly simplistic and moralistic order that Peterson is offering—increases.
Based on much of what he says, it’s fairly clear to me that Peterson is appealing to the young male in limbo by both mapping the hero’s journey and attempting to model it to him. He has said that he wishes to “encourage” people, to instill them with courage, and that as courage increases, so does the capacity for heroic action.
There is an inherent danger in this, because it creates a sort of infinity loop that potentially goes nowhere: if Peterson’s heroic journey is to become a public figure who proselytizes about the hero’s journey, and who inspires others to follow his example and embark on their own hero’s journey, he risks doing little more than inviting them to imitate him and follow his 12 rules to worldly success. But there can only be one Jordan Peterson.
Ironically, while Peterson admires Nietzsche, who wrote “Battle not with monsters lest ye become a monster,” Peterson advocates becoming a monster (owning one’s monstrous nature) in order to battle monsters. So far, I have not heard him address the danger of such reasoning, namely that it might lead to the unleashing of a new order of monsters into the world, in a kind of Shadow succession drama.
This is implicit also in his insistence on a primary polarity of order and chaos (and his apparent leaning towards order/masculinity), which I think is a largely arbitrary (false) dichotomy. One (wo)man’s order is another man’s chaos.
A Dangerous Assumption
Peterson turns to mythic narratives (Jungian archetypes and Bible stories) to extrapolate the desired social order, on the assumption that this is the purpose and the origin of these stories. This is a dangerous assumption, because the stories in question are about realities that transcend the social—and even the temporal—order of being.
Myths are a means to see beyond the world. They are not ways to reorder the world to make the myths more literally true or practical, and in the process render the world more mythical. This, at base, is the totalitarian instinct: to impose absolute realities (those that pertain to eternal truths) onto the relative sphere of temporal (social, human) existence.
What his most vocal critics fear is that Peterson is either a witting or an unwitting bellwether for a reemergence of archaic, mythopoetic quasi-religious or occultist drives historically associated with fascism; or at least for a lot of semi-organized, orgiastically inspired young men violently imposing their idea of order onto what they perceive as chaos. In the wider sense of using force to solve problems—which would include the “antifa” movement)—this is essentially what “fascism” does.
Jordan Peterson, SJW?
“Hailing myth and dreams as the repository of fundamental human truths, they became popular because they addressed a widely felt spiritual hunger: of men looking desperately for maps of meaning in a world they found opaque and uncontrollable. It was against this (eerily familiar) background . . . that demagogues emerged so quickly in twentieth-century Europe.” ~Pankaj Mishra, “Jordan Peterson & Fascist Mysticism”
As an example, admittedly minor but nonetheless illustrative: Peterson’s response to the New York Review of Books article quoted above was peppered with expletives, insults, and a threat about how he’d “happily slap” the author around if they were in the same room together. Was this a case of Peterson semi-consciously modeling his idea of what true masculinity looks like?
Anything but contrite, Peterson defended his behavior afterwards as appropriate, most of all because Mishra had made a racist slur against Peterson’s Native American friend. Ironically, Peterson was behaving exactly like a social justice warrior, some of whom openly advocate violence against racists and fascists. His self-justifications suggested he was in accord with their view, and that, to paraphrase Harry Callaghan, “There is nothing wrong with slapping as long as the right people get slapped.”
By choosing to focus on the most offensive element in Mishra’s article ~ or the most politically incorrect ~ Peterson deflected attention (starting with his own) away from the more serious arguments in the piece, destroying them ad hominem, not by intelligent counter-argument.
The Measure of a Man
At the very least, aren’t the historical trends Mishra cites worth factoring into Peterson’s project? Peterson’s claim to be actively looking for critical dialogues to help him find the weaknesses in his model suggests he would be open to at least considering this argument. Instead, he hurls cuss words and threatens violence.
It was as if his response were designed to fan the flames of panic which his project had already kindled in so many “liberal” hearts and minds. At the same time, it served to stoke the very same coals of moral indignation—and the notion that it can be most honestly expressed via threats of violence—that he claimed to be trying to dampen down. Something similar occurred when he was quoted by the New York Times prescribing enforced monogamy as a solution to involuntary (male) celibacy.
Maybe Peterson’s engine of cultural revivification runs on nitroglycerine?
Peterson can talk all he wants about trying to restore order and initiate dialogues between opposing viewpoints. But if the result is an increase in polarization, then it suggests Peterson’s idea of masculinity and heroism may be overly dependent on proving how many dragons he can slay.
It seems tragically bound up with an unconscious, compulsive evocation of monsters.
(For the full version).