Is it all just a wishy-washy philosophy of individualism paradoxically based on conforming to one idea, a misguided attempt to reconcile the probing, questioning vocation of science with the supposedly eternal truths bequeathed by religious fables?
This made him a cause célèbre, and hours of his eclectic, freewheeling, evangelical YouTube lectures had soon been devoured by a predominantly young, male audience, rudderless amid the uncertainties unleashed by a new era of political correctness and changing sexual politics. In Peterson, they found familiar psychological moorings, attracted to the patina of scientific rigour in which he dressed his advocacy of traditional gender roles.
JP: “If I had my druthers I’d rather not be speaking politically at all… So I’ve stepped into the political realm, and the problem with that is it’s a polarising realm. I’ve tried to counter-balance that with the emphasis on individual responsibility. I’m hoping that the net consequence of that is more good than harm.”
Of course, it’s more than a little disingenuous of Peterson to claim he’s a reluctant participant in cultural politics; this is, after all, precisely what animates his increasingly obsessive vendetta against the “indoctrination cults” of “totalitarian” left-wing academia.
Furthermore, for all that Peterson claims to have had politics thrust upon him, he has certainly borne his cross with eagerness. His Twitter feed continually promotes the views of dark money-financed, energy-lobbyist-front think-tanks – such as Charles Koch’s Human Progress – which peddle the deliberately misleading notion of “absolute wealth”, which is essentially a smokescreen for justifying relative wealth inequality
When I put it to Peterson that the British middle class are increasingly turning to food banks, he explains this airily away not as the result of deliberate, ideologically-motivated policies – austerity as a cover for the massive, unprecedented upward transfer of wealth to the 1 percent, say – but suggests, somewhat feebly, that “the rise of the Chinese and Indian middle class has been purchased at the expense of the upward mobility of the Western working-class”, as though it were all one big zero-sum cake. Indeed, whenever Peterson comes close to acknowledging the validity of basic progressive notions such as wealth redistribution or equality of opportunity – “I’m not anti-left,” he protests, “I’m anti-radical left” – he immediately hides behind the mantra: “But we don’t know how deep the problem goes.”
[JP’s] great insight – that the individual sits at the centre of Western philosophy – came to him in a dream (as did many of his intellectual hero Carl Jung’s ideas) in which he was suspended under the dome of a cathedral, the centre of an architectural cross, which “placed me at the centre of Being itself, and there was no escape. It took me months to understand what this meant… [The] centre is occupied by the individual. The centre is marked by the cross, as X marks the spot. Existence at that cross is suffering and transformation – and that fact, above all, needs to be voluntarily accepted.”
After reading a few dozen pages of the book, you feel as though you’ve somehow found your way onto the ledge of a very tall building and are now being talked down.
But the chief problem with the book isn’t that the rules are useless, banal or vague to the point of meaninglessness (see Rule 3: “Make friends with people who want the best for you”). Nor is it that some of it is politically disempowering – insisting, as does Rule 6, that you “Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world”
No, the real problems are that it misuses science for unacknowledged political ends; that it grotesquely misrepresents Peterson’s intellectual opponents; and that it requires absurd philosophical and logical gymnastics to render the supposedly scientific standpoint compatible with his religious convictions (he has never entirely nailed his colours to the mast when it comes to belief in God, stating only that “I act as though I do”), which he partially skirts around by claiming that “scientific truth is different from religious truth” (precisely the argument of neo-Marxist philosopher Jean-François Loyotard’s book The Postmodern Condition, ironically enough).
“The fundamental issue with chapter one,” Peterson tells me, “is that I wanted to make the case that you cannot lay hierarchical structures at the feet of the sociopolitical realm.”
Evidently irked by Peterson’s intellectual overreaching, Myers claims that Peterson has “built a case on false facts and distortions of general observations from the scientific literature. He has not demonstrated anything about socio-cultural constructions. Not only does he get the evidence wrong, he can’t construct any kind of logical argument…”
Worse still, Myers argues, there is an ideological motive for all this: “Peterson is distorting the evidence to fit an agenda… It’s appalling the degree to which this man is asserting nonsense with such smug confidence. This man is lying to you.”
So much for Rule 8: “Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie.”
You’re never as ideological as when you believe you’re not being ideological, and so when Peterson writes, at the start of a sub-chapter titled “The Nature of Nature”, that “it is a truism of biology that evolution is conservative”, he is presenting – for entirely ideological ends – an obvious fact about the slow march of evolution as an indisputable truth of how our societies work, despite all sorts of salient details making the parallel unworkable.
I ask him whether – within such an evolutionary framework – socialism and feminism might be considered adaptive responses to our awareness of systemic realities such as global warming or the ultimate un-sustainability of capitalism’s entirely irrational model of growth for growth’s sake (and the type of competitive, risk-addicted masculinity that fuels it). He briefly concurs, before backtracking: “Not feminism, but the feminine.”
“Make no mistake about it,” Peterson has tweeted, not at all hyperbolically, “the aim of the radical left is the destruction of even the idea of competence”
So badly – and wilfully – does Peterson misrepresent his intellectual adversaries that he’s able to tweet, only partly sarcastically, that “science is a social construct, remember? That’s why planes fly.”
If it were just a case of YouTube clickbait or polemics for conservative podcasts it would be more excusable, but the same deliberate misrepresentations and falsifications crop up in Peterson’s lectures. Take this one, which begins with a ludicrously hyperbolic ad hominem describing Foucault as a “vengeful misfit”, adding: “a more reprehensible figure you could hardly ever discover, or even dream up”. So far, so moderate.
I ask whether, neck-deep involvement in the culture wars notwithstanding, he feels any moral obligation to depict these figures to his students more faithfully. He mentions the inevitable “oversimplification” involved in dealing with “this identity politics mess. The question is how do you trace its development? So you say, rather casually: let’s attribute it to Marxism, first of all, and then the union of Marxism with the kind of postmodernism that was put forward by Derrida and Foucault. It’s like: Jesus, you’re summarising an unbelievably complicated problem in, like, 15 seconds. And the nuance is going to be lost. The problem is there is a problem with identity politics, and I really do believe that it’s a terribly divisive problem.”
The clip finishes with Peterson offering a caricatured “postmodernist neo-Marxist” view that “the only reason the West functions is because it has raped the rest of humanity and the planet”, which he follows with an uncharacteristic and telling silence before adding, again tellingly, “the less said about that the better”.
Which is perhaps why 12 Rules for Life doesn’t have an index entry for capitalism, or why Peterson’s presentation of historical atrocities doesn’t dwell on slavery, upon which the great civilising beacon of American wealth and enterprise was founded. A sin of omission, as he would himself call it.
It’s somewhat curious that Peterson’s caricature of his intellectual foes’ supposed rejection of scientific evidence is made while giving Jung centre-stage, a thinker whose totally discredited and entirely unscientific theories of universal archetypes were derived from personal dreams and fabricated “research”.