Jordan Peterson is Mapping and Modeling the Masculine to Multitudes of Men
The Cult of Jordan
I don’t think there can really be much doubt that Peterson, in a very short period of time, has inspired an awful lot of people, most especially young men. These people are more than just fans of Peterson. Some of them have been his students; others may have been his patients (though this is much less likely).
For many of them, the word “followers”—or even disciples—would not be too loaded a term.
Jordan’s followers would swear that Peterson has had a benevolent impact on their lives, in some cases enormously so. Peterson has only had mass influence for a brief period, however, and when we are contemplating a social leader who has inspired people—in such a way that they feel they have been helped to live better lives—can we necessarily assume it’s a good thing?
Scores of young men tidying their rooms and assuming responsibility for their lives can only be a positive outcome, surely? But is responsibility really possible without autonomy, and to what extent is the latter sacrificed whenever we follow the guidance of another, or even allow ourselves to be inspired by them?
Peterson talks a lot about the devouring mother; but there is also an archetype of the devouring father—Cronos or Saturn—and his modus operandi are quite different.
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.
Even without going into obvious historical examples of dark demagogues, do we necessarily believe that Elvis or Marilyn, Kurt Cobain or Lady Gaga, are positive influences on their legions of fans, simply because those fans “love” them, or because they feel inspired by them and may even be moved to action by them?
A cultural leader’s benevolence can’t be measured by the ardor of his or her followers but only in the value of what is being transmitted to them, and the observable effects on their lives in the long, not just the short, term. This is the first thing to “watch” for, regarding Peterson and his supporters, who are carrying him to a position of such social and cultural influence.
The Author’s Own Position on the “War of the Sexes”
Before continuing, I want to be transparent about my own ideological position regarding Peterson’s masculinity-rescue mission: I am in full sympathy with the sentiments behind it, and I consider him correct in his assessment of the widespread cultural maligning of the masculine principle. I consider misandry (unfair prejudice against men) to be every bit as prevalent and destructive a social reality as misogyny, maybe even more so for being so widely ignored, denied, and derided.
On the other hand, I consider opposition between the sexes to some degree inevitable, even natural, just as (barring Tantric ideals) friction is necessary for sexual union to occur, and for the same reasons. I think complementarity of the sexes (also known as https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Complementarianism) is both more realistic and more desirable than equality, but that, if any form of equality is attainable, it must begin with the acknowledgement of the equality of accountability in the so-called “war of the sexes,” as being 50/50, all down the line.
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 Promise of Order
So far, the opposition to Peterson, while widespread, highly vocal, and quite vitriolic, has been generally weak. (The best in my opinion have almost exclusively come from Christian commentators.) In fact, a large part of Peterson’s success is due to how feeble, contradictory, solipsistic, and “spineless” leftist-liberal rhetoric has become—and just how divorced from reality.
On the one hand, this makes a kind of “muscular,” tough love, quasi-conservative, and (his opponents claim) proto-fascist philosophy much more desirable. 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.
On the other hand, the weakness and incoherence of the dominant cultural narratives makes them incapable of coherently countering the new, politically incorrect, faintly authoritarian narrative which Peterson is offering. The promise of order, meaning, and heroic purpose is an intoxicating one, and in my opinion Peterson is modeling both the purpose and the intoxication of becoming a seemingly virtuous role model, or leader.
Peterson is attempting to restore masculine qualities like virtue, discipline, order, control, and courage that have been rendered either anodyne or “incorrect” by decades of liberalization. And while he does not advocate violent masculinity, he does insist that true masculinity depends on a capacity for, and even an experience of, violence.
This is no longer the post-1960s, hippified male that Robert Bly was appealing to with his banging drums and forest rituals. This is Fight Club’s “generation of men raised by women,” and they are crying out for an experience of masculinity sufficiently impactful to bring the blood back into their veins, and sensation back into their extremities.
Young Men in Limbo
That Peterson’s rise to power is as much a mystery to some liberals as Trump’s only reveals how seriously out of touch they have become with the majority of people who exist outside their liberal utopia fantasy bubble. They see this deep collective need for a strong, no-nonsense man as invalid (ideologically unsound), and hence designate the people it issues from as “deplorables,” “beyond the pale,” unworthy of serious consideration unless it be to condemn them or to “educate” them.
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.
Many young men have said how, after they heard Peterson speak, their goal became to “speak like that.” Since Peterson provides the paternal behavioral model that these young men lacked, the chances are fairly good that he will succeed in creating a multitude of replicas of himself. And then what? Are these young men seeing themselves—their own true potential—in Peterson? Or are they turning him into an idealized masculine image that they then attempt to conform to? Are they moving closer to or further from their own essential natures?
I think the answer is largely dependent on the degree to which Peterson is himself expressing his masculinity, and how consistent he is being to his message. Somewhat paradoxically, the best way to discern this may be via the effects he has on others.
The Monstrous Feminine (or: Is Kermit the Frog Secretly Gay?)
Peterson has a quite formal, and literal, notion of heroic action and virtue. It is masculine, centers on right moral action, and involves killing dragons, symbolically of course, i.e., taming chaos, represented by the feminine. Yet he himself is quite chaotic, and quite feminine too. Besides his sotto voice (which has been compared to Kermit the frog, long rumored to be gay), he is emotional, reactive, often quite irrational, and—in his open weeping for the young men he identifies with—nakedly empathic.
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
Is chaos simply a not-yet articulated order, or is order merely a defense against chaos? Put differently, it is only from the perspective of order that chaos is chaotic; there’s nothing to say that apparent chaos might not belong to a higher (or deeper) order than a particularly ordered mind can recognize. The question then becomes, what kind of order is Peterson advocating?
The short answer seems to be social order (tidy your room), which then raises the question—according to whose idea of society? 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. It has never worked yet, so why would Peterson expect it ever will?
Is it because—like those optimistic Marxists he reviles—he thinks he can succeed where all others have failed?
The Question of Crowd Psychology
At the end of Bible lecture number 13 (“Jacob’s Ladder,” 2:29:00), the last question Peterson is asked is as follows:
“It seems like you focus very much on the appeal of the biblical stories to the individual’s psychology. Do you have any thoughts on the relative importance of crowd psychology to the appeal and staying power of the Bible, and also the reason why the Bible or the biblical stories took precedence over other ideologies?”
Peterson goes straight to the second part of the question, then closes the meeting without getting to the first. It’s too bad he avoids it, because the question of crowd psychology is central to an examination of Peterson’s project.
What happens when a large number of people decide to stand straight with their shoulders back and start tidying up their rooms? Is it equivalent to all the individuals that make up this crowd (Peterson’s audience cult) doing this in their own lives and so aligning their intents towards moral order? Or is it equivalent to something else?
How far might the reception, expression, and embodiment of Peterson’s principles by a crowd diverge from his original intentions in prescribing them to individuals? Might it turn out to be as great a diversion as the one we’ve seen, historically, in the various collective social expressions, such as the bloody religious movements inspired by The Bible?
Fears of Fascism
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.
Even if they are generally not being well-expressed or argued, I would agree that these fears are somewhat grounded. At the very least, there is an inherent correlation between hero myths of dragon-slaying as metaphors and proto-fascist “maps to meaning” (as seen in a film like Dirty Harry).
What is not yet clear is how aware Peterson is of this correlation, how much he cares, or how much he is setting up the necessary qualifiers (and boundaries) to prevent the worst fears of his critics from coming true.
“The Desperate Man’s Smart Person”
Most of Peterson’s detractors seem to lack eloquence. They may be too resentful and envious to formulate coherent arguments against him. They have tried to denigrate both Peterson and his followers by calling him “the stupid man’s smart person.” Another Peterson-resenting (and socialist-leaning) critic corrected this to “the desperate man’s smart person,” adding that Peterson “feeds on angst and confusion.”
Yet in our present social circumstances, is anyone who isn’t desperate and confused at least some of the time (and if young, also angst-ridden) really paying attention, either to the world or to their own internal state of affairs? The critic makes “desperate” equivalent to undiscerning or gullible, when it could just as easily amount to the opposite.
The suggestion of vampirism—i.e., that Peterson is exacerbating people’s desperation by capitalizing on it—would be damning if the author backed it up with anything, but unfortunately he doesn’t. Presumably he feels that the combination of multitudes of desperately confused and angst-ridden young men with a charismatic leader spouting quasi-religious directives for personal and social reformation is, in and of itself, a sky-written recipe for the liberals’ apocalypse. And here, it is hard not to sympathize, at least a little bit. At the very least, it might require some sort of miracle for some other outcome.
Not that I think Peterson would necessarily be responsible for that; but he may nonetheless be accountable. Exactly inasmuch as he is receiving credit, so must he take the blame.
By His Followers Shall Ye Know Him?
In my experience, it’s true that Peterson’s advocates—often his fierce defenders—seem to lack eloquence, rationality, or good grace equally as badly as his detractors. I get to experience both sides, because I am attempting to bridge the divide between them by looking at both the good and the bad in Peterson’s output.
What I find is that neither side is satisfied with my attempt to reconcile the opposites. I am not critical or condemnatory enough for his enemies, nor am I (anywhere near) supportive or worshipful enough for his advocates. Both sides seem to perceive the smallest divergence from their position as proof of the opposite stance: any praise is seen by his distractors as avocation, any criticism by his advocates as an attack. (There are of course exceptions, as seen in many of the comments at my blog.)
In the case of an artwork, polarization, or love-it-or-hate-it responses, are often seen as proof that the work is profoundly innovative. But does this extend to a public spokesperson who is supposedly attempting to offer a way to reduce social tension and bridge the gulf between warring sides by stressing the necessity of dialogue between them?
By their fruit—or by their followers—shall ye know them?
What Sort of Masculinity is Peterson Modeling?
If Peterson is not only mapping but modeling (his idea of) masculinity, what does it look like? Norman Young is currently exploring the potential pitfalls of Peterson’s over-simplification of masculine attributes, including his reliance on a Darwinian frame of reference (standing tall with shoulders back, standing up to bullies, and the like). So what about the modeling?
Peterson received praise for his respectful, restrained handling of Cathy Newman in the (in)famous Channel 4 interview. I would agree that he did a reasonable job, though I am not sure that how Peterson performs on live TV, while under the gaze of millions, is the best measure of his character. Nor was Cathy Newman much of a worthy opponent for Peterson: at no point were his arguments under any threat from her barrage, only his public image.
As a contrast, Peterson’s reaction to critics on Twitter—i.e., while in the privacy of his own head-space—indicates a more volatile, reactive, and bullying personality. Specifically, his response to an article written for the New York Review of Books was peppered with expletives, insults, and a threat about how he’d “happily slap” the author (Pankaj Mishra) around if they were in the same room together. I don’t wish to nitpick about Peterson’s character flaws here, only to raise two specific questions regarding his influence as a model of masculine behavior.
Putting Out the Fire with Nitroglycerin
First up: is Peterson’s online hissy-fit with Mishra just an example of him flipping his lid and acting rashly (chaotically, emotionally, “femininely”)? Or is it a case of him 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.”
But by choosing to focus on the most offensive element in Mishra’s article, or at least the most politically incorrect, he deflected attention (starting with his own) away from the more serious arguments in the piece, destroying them ad hominem and not by intelligent counter-argument.
In his (admittedly only so-so) article, Mishra writes that
The French philosopher Georges Sorel identified myth as the necessary antidote to decadence and spur to rejuvenation. . . . 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—a “revolt against the modern world,” as the title of Evola’s 1934 book put it—that demagogues emerged so quickly in twentieth-century Europe and managed to exalt national and racial myths as the true source of individual and collective health. The drastic individual makeover demanded by the visionaries turned out to require a mass, coerced retreat from failed liberal modernity into an idealized traditional realm of myth and ritual.
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?
Might is Right or Right is Might?
Peterson’s behavior with Mishra was congruent with some of his written and spoken values around masculinity. Specifically, it echoes his assertion that men, if they are to be truly virtuous, need a capacity for violence, albeit one that they must contain and inhibit. Peterson has also argued that the threat of violence keeps discussions between men civil. This hardly seems to have been the case with his threat to bitch-slap Mishra, however (at the very least, it begs the question as to what constitutes civility in Peterson’s book).
This leads to my second question, namely: if this was a case of Peterson modeling masculinity (i.e., if it is inseparable from his overall project of inspiring young men to step into their own manhood), how much is this sort of argumentative, reactive, bullying behavior being imitated by his followers?
The idea that Right is Might refers (in part) to how important truths, by their very nature, have power and force behind them. It’s an idea that can all-too easily morph into Might is Right, i.e., that the more violently we express our opinions, the more we assert our righteousness. This method of “dialogue” is argumentative and not discursive; it is oppositional and not reconciliatory; and it is usually evidence of emotional insecurity, not of moral conviction. It is the very opposite of manly.
The proof of the tree is to be found in the fruit that falls from it. 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.
 There are also countless examples of directed (i.e., ordered) chaos throughout history, meaning that the same agents (those of social engineering) can frequently be identified behind both order and chaos.
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