I listened to a fascinating podcast yesterday where an older British intellectual (Philip Dodd) took Jordan Peterson to task on one subject after another. It was very argumentative and quite contentious – not to my irenic liking.
Jordan Peterson has risen to fame recently in a parallel way to “Make America Great Again” based on the same ‘things are out of control’ discomfort and backlash. This is a phenomenon that I am particularly intrigued by.
Peterson’s brand of ‘we have to get back to the preferable past’ reclamation project is the perfect blend of two things that I am very familiar with: The academic approach of Alasdair MacIntyre and the therapeutic manliness of John Eldredge’s “Wild at Heart” series.
Eldredge has a therapeutic approach to masculinity based loosely on Jungian archetypes (warrior, king, magician, lover) and thinkers like MacIntyre are trying reclaim Aristotle’s ancient Greek notions of virtue, ethics, and moral character.
When you combine “Wild at Heart” masculinity, with Aristotelian principles in ethics, and throw in a dash of ‘make culture great again’ … you get Jordan Peterson.
Peterson’s book is “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos”. The first six rules are:
- Stand up straight with your shoulders back
- Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping
- Make friends with people who want the best for you
- Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today
- Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
- Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world
None of these rules seem intrinsically bad. Rule 1 is very ‘Wild at Heart’. Rule 6 is very MacIntyre.
Now I have written a lot about MacIntyre and the problems of Aristotelian reclamation projects. Susan Heckman has convinced me that the solution is not simply to (re)claim/(re)cycle/(re)purpose ancient, antiquated, or Aristotelian concepts from the pre-modern world.
“MacIntyre’s approach exemplifies a disturbing characteristic of much of the communitarian literature: the romanticization of premodern societies that ignores the oppression and hierarchy that was endemic to those societies. Even Sandel (1984), despite his modernist leanings, sometimes falls prey to the tendency to glorify traditional communities. The narrative selfhood that MacIntyre lauds can only be obtained at a high price: the ascription of traditional roles.”
“When it comes to the highly charged issue of the sexism and racism of the traditions he praises so highly, MacIntyre seems to abandon his interrelationship thesis. With regard to the Aristotelian tradition, he tries to deny the claim that sexism and racism are an integral part of this system of virtues.
… throughout his writings MacIntyre unambiguously asserts it is this traditional community we must foster if we are to return to any semblance of a moral life:
“What matters at this stage are the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us (1984).”
To thinkers like MacIntyre and Hauerwas and Peterson, we are descending further into an age of darkness. Their answer is to (re)claim or (re)turn to some former understanding or expression of virtue and order. Hekman is right though – we cannot even attempt to do so without acknowledging and addressing the inherent racism, sexism, and disparity built into every level of the structures from which those romantic notions come.
This is the problem with Jordan Peterson’s notion of the past.
Three thoughts that I want to leave you with:
Don’t read Peterson – it is too predictable. Read instead Teaching Community by bell hooks and Church In The Round by Letty Russel if you want to understand and do something in our historical moment.
The future is going to be slightly like the past but largely unlike it. The world is really changing in some ways and this cultural shift requires not just a new mental framework (thus my interest in ‘social imaginaries’) but a new skill-set. In a land based culture, farmers develop a certain set of skills. As we move to a more liquid and fluid culture, sailors need to develop a different set of skills and knowledges. Both require strength and intelligence … but they are very different.
Peterson came to prominence for contesting Canada’s language directives to use gender-neutral pronouns for trans people. Now, leaving out the argument about the government telling us how to talk (a whole other subject) I just want to say that using ‘they’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’ is not that difficult and doesn’t take anything away from your masculinity.
It is a really easy change to make once you realize that language (and especially English) is always adapting and evolving anyway. Referring to people by their preferred pronoun is a gracious thing to do (Peterson claims to be a Christian and bases much of his thought on Hebrew Bible stories) and it models Christlikeness through Kenosis (self-emptying) as seen in Philippians 2.
 Hekman, Susan. “The Embodiment of the Subject: Feminism and the Communitarian Critique of Liberalism.” The Journal of Politics 54, no. 04 (November 1992): 1098–1119.
 In the consumer society of the 21st century, it is not enough to want to ‘get back’ to a former era of romanticized notions which utilize previous formulations of order and social coherence. We must follow Jesus’ example of interrogating the ‘as is’ structure of our given systems. Jesus employed tactics which subverted the assumed nature of the status quo to inspire people’s imagination about the way that things can be. The way that things are is not the way that God wants them. Things can be different. The gospel calls us to imagine that the world can be a different way. This is good news (evangelion) in the original sense.
May 18, 2018 at 11:27 pm
There’s one trait of Peterson’s that once noticed you hear him do repeatedly.
He quotes research and evidence, but he uses it to argue that this is how things have always been, so it is undesirable to fight against it. That way he tends to side with traditional values – stereotypical masculinity, gender roles, male definitions of success governing income differentials justified by various characteristics.
He rarely or never uses evidence to argue that traditional values are flawed, but we can choose to be different – more equality etc.
Because he has a great recall of researched evidence he sounds very authoritative, but he generally endorses a reactionary cultural position on a range of issues.
June 4, 2018 at 12:05 pm
“Leaving out the argument about the government telling us how to talk (a whole other subject)” — this was in fact the sole basis of Peterson’s objection. He has said that if someone asks him to use their preferred pronouns he does. So it’s not a whole other subject — it’s the entire substance of Peterson’s objection. A legitimate criticism would be that the law (not a directive) about which Peterson was complaining did not mandate enforced speech.
For the most part I share your opinion of Peterson’s psychological work. I find his argument from lobsterdom mind-boggling (and, amazingly, uncriticized). But opposition to Peterson has been weakened by all the inaccurate accusations that have been made against him (at the Munk debate he dealt effectively with Michelle Goldberg by repeatedly pointing out that he had never said the things she claimed he had said).
June 4, 2018 at 1:46 pm
Instead of “lobsterdom” substitute “lobsterhood”.
I haven’t been able to verify that Peterson repeatedly told Goldberg that he hadn’t said what she claimed he said. But certainly many wildly inaccurate claims have been made by many people about him, and that has been an obstacle to serious criticism of his ideas.