Few have reigned as steady and strong a champion of free speech as well as an opponent of political correctness as University of Toronto professor of psychology, Jordan Peterson. Over the years he has attracted a host of followers in his crusade against identity politics, postmodernism, and campus orthodoxy. Additionally he has been able to earn an impressively high honorarium through donations from his ever-increasing fan base.
However, despite his growing reputation, because of his refutation of Bill C-16 and his criticisms of socialism and gender identity, some have claimed that Jordan Peterson is an ally of neo-nazis and “right-wingers.” Many however, including this author, have come to his defense believing these comments and their accusatory tone are farfetched and miss their mark.
Let’s be clear: Peterson is erudite. He has impressive knowledge in a vast array of seemingly unrelated fields. On a podcast hosted by evolutionary psychologist, Gad Saad, they both agreed with Steven Pinker’s premise in The Blank Slate that our core psychological traits are designed by evolutionary mechanisms. In other words, Peterson is not uninformed on a number of complex and pressing issues. Even in a surprisingly convoluted podcast with Sam Harris (where the discussion was bogged down over “what is true”), Peterson still managed to affirm his understanding that things like gender, race, sexual preferences, etc. are not just social constructs.
To reiterate, Peterson’s criticisms of identity politics and postmodernism are in concordance with that of this author’s. For example, while I listened to the Joe Rogan podcast which included Bret Weinstein (of Evergreen State College fiasco fame), Peterson’s comments resonated almost identically to my own. I had little to no disagreement with what he said. But closer inspection reveals a man behind a curtain.
When Peterson articulates his understanding of how the evolutionary mechanisms of group dynamics have set the stage for modern identity politics something of curious note arises. I say “of curious note” because although he seems to levy fair accusations against postmodernism, is able to brilliantly elucidate the toxic nature of identity politics, and while he clearly is able to espouse on the evolutionary roots of identity, upon careful inspection, the philosophical premise he operates on has at least one wheel in the ditch.
In an article Peterson published, he sounds not so much a critic of postmodernism, as he is heralded, but more like a bishop of it. In this article, Peterson pays homage to the philosopher, Heraclitus, whose ancient philosophical works on logos, many agree, are the progenitors of postmodernism. He agrees with Wittgenstein, whose magnum opus, Tractatus Logico-Philosphicus, influenced the way postmodern and poststructuralist thinkers have come to believe language is a tool of the oppressor. He also mentions Alfred Adler, whose individual psychology paved the way for a paradigm shift in utilizing postmodern thinking with psychotherapy.
Peterson rails against postmodernism but in the article referenced above he suggests that subjective experience is the equivalent with what is in fact real (which is the exact argument postmodernist and poststructuralist thinkers make). This makes as much sense as when someone criticizes ISIS but praises the Saudis. So as to avoid a straw man argument here, it is important to consider alternative explanations. Perhaps Peterson had a change of heart — after all, the document was published in 1999. Was Peterson, like this author, once PoMo, but now no mo’?
In a nutshell: he criticizes the anti-rationality of postmodernist and poststructuralist thought but then goes on to suggest (in a number of places) that we do not live in an objective world. To use his own phraseology: what if we risk the presupposition that he is a charlatan and conclude that Peterson’s rhetoric is nothing but fanfare designed to lead his followers up the garden path?
Is Jordan Peterson and/or his followers even aware that he is doing this? To be clear, the question isn’t so much whether or not Peterson says subjective experience is prime but then goes on to criticize this notion himself — he undoubtedly does, and does it often. The question that arises is what degree of self-deception is he practicing? Is he, like the Wizard of Oz, playing a game of smoke and mirrors to make people happy while he is fully aware that he contradicts himself? That would be something! On the other hand, if this is ignorance on his part is a result of basic human cognitive errors, he should address it and change his views somehow. But if this deception is in fact willful then the question is to what degree is he a hypocrite and to what degree is he psychologically compensating for the loss of something? What exactly is going on here?
Having studied postmodernism and poststructural thinking in graduate school I am familiar with the “double speak” that many deconstructionists and poststructural lecturers and writers utilize. Many of these academics are what some might call “moderate Christians” (for lack of a better phrase). Meaning they have left the dogma of the church but retain many elements of its thinking — including its obfuscations, its biases, as well as its parochialism. With one hand they will (as Peterson often does) say science can in fact make valid predictions about reality. With the other, however, they will incite an almost convincing cantrip and say, “but since a person’s ‘subjective experience’ is prime, anything beyond one’s immediate experience of ‘the things themselves‘ (which includes science) is nothing but an abstraction and is to be considered secondary at best.” This use of (dare I say) “logic” is similar to the type employed by Pope Francis when he declared evolution and the Big Bang to be real — but ultimately thanked God for them.
Like recent others, I too have wondered for some time how Peterson manages to make such spot on critiques of postmodernism (like he does on podcasts with Gad Saad, Joe Rogan, and others) while at the same time praise the primacy of subjectivity as well as things like legends and Jungian myths (which, as most academics know, are often loosely associated with phenomenological psychology and postmodernist/poststructuralist frameworks). When someone makes valid and well stated critiques of postmodernism and identity politics but tips their hat to Heraclitus, Wittgenstein, and Adler, a healthy amount of skepticism should be applied.
Those who offer counter refutations to refutations of Peterson’s comments will often say something like: “Well, what’s the big deal? Why are you being so smug? Myths are beneficial and help give meaning to peoples’ otherwise secular lives.”
To be fair, Jordan Peterson is a person who, like anyone else, struggles with the reality of existence. So then who am I to criticize how someone makes meaning in this or any other world? Identity is complex and is not as black and white as we often think it is. Why should anyone get on someone’s case for using free speech and earning some money while doing so?
But when someone says personal truths are the same as reality, that we live in a more spiritual world than a materialistic one, and when this person makes a substantial earning by condemning and criticizing a philosophical framework that holds aloft the very thing he earns a living criticizing (i.e. the primacy of subjective experience), one’s alarm bells should be ringing. To shed light on why this discrepancy in Peterson’s philosophy is so important, it may help to contextualize this.
If someone (like Jordan Peterson, for example) says experience is prime and that truth is based on one’s subjective experience (as Peterson ostensibly does), one is then essentially saying that anyone’s experience is prime. This would mean then that the experience of the Antifa and neo-Nazis are both valid truths… that is, unless you are proclaiming social hierarchies — which is precisely what postmodernists do. By suggesting that one’s experience is the equivalent of what is real, as Peterson does, he is not attacking postmodernism, he is either a follower of it or contributing to it — and his followers are inadvertently and unwittingly helping him subsidize this intellectual cesspool.
Although Peterson may not publicly endorse the dogma and superstition of Christianity, he has stated that in order to prove something scientifically, one’s subjective experience must include a belief in God. There is nothing necessarily wrong with personal beliefs per se — in fact, religious beliefs can be healthy. But claiming subjective experience (which includes personal belief) as prime is not antithetical to postmodernism (as Peterson claims it to be) — it is in direct conjunction with it. Placing personal belief in front of scientific evidence is an epistemological error.
But deep down, since this author is a humanist, I understand that in life we are all jousting windmills one way or another. Postmodernism is quite toxic as an orientation to the world, but it may have some clinical applications. When people give up the dogma of religion, they seek things to fill the loss of that certainty. Some end up believing in auras while others become lost in substances or astrology. A few deny the moon landing and wax into conspiracy theories about 9/11, while others seek righteous indignation that is often supported by postmodernism. And because it has essentially come to resemble a religious organization itself in terms of campus orthodoxy, dissent from those who dissent, as with any other group, has consequences — just like membership has its privileges.
What happens when we begin to critique the very thing used to replace religion? What happens when it retains vestiges of the elements that caused us to leave it in the first place? One thing that can happen is that a person can start equating a subjective, moral truth with a fact in the shared world. Secondly, that person can pretend they aren’t pedaling their own brand of identity politics while at the same time criticizing it.
In the end, I support Jordan Peterson on his stance on free speech but his inconsistencies and his equating the truth with “what is useful” or meaningful has left this author wondering how a person can hold such incompatible views at the same time. That is, how can he on one hand criticize the primacy of subjectivity on the side of postmodernist and poststructural thinking but valorize it when it comes to myths and religion? That, I propose, is the curious case of Jordan Peterson.