On Jordan Peterson

A review of Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris and Douglas Murray, speaking at The O2 arena on 16th July, published in the London Review of Books.

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  1. Peterson, Harris and their cohorts are an odd bunch. They present themselves as rational voices of Enlightenment reason in a world overrun by media driven emotional groupthink, terrified “snowflake” students afraid to step out of their comfort zones and the cynical deployment of a divisive identity politics that rewards victimhood at the expense of free expression and debate. While there may be a grain or two of truth in these broad characterizations, Peterson and friends are not quite the reasonable and intellectually honest paragons of virtue they make themselves out to be.

    These are educated and learned chaps, we are told, who felt compelled to speak out against the illiberal irrationality that they say is dominating public discourse. Yet these brilliant men have apparently never considered that they too are fallible human beings who are vulnerable to being ambushed by their cognitive biases. Take Sam Harris’s obsession with Islam, a religion he considers barbaric and fundamentally incompatible with Western liberal Enlightenment values.

    Leaving aside Christianity’s long history of murder and torture (Harris, btw, approves of torturing Muslim “terror suspects”) how does Sam rationalize the near total destruction of Iraqi society after a decade and a half of devastating sanctions and aggressive wars inflicted on that country by the United States and its allies? From depleted uranium munitions contaminating the landscape and spiking childhood cancer rates, to deliberately destroying essential infrastructure like water purification plants, classifying, and banning, common medicines and goods as WMD precursors to the disastrous, and illegal, 2003 invasion that kicked off a horrific civil war that brought death and violence to every Iraqi family. Post-1945 no other country has been as systematically savaged and torn to pieces like Iraq. In the name of (at various tines) revenge for 9/11, which Iraq had nothing to do with, bringing neocon “freedom and democracy” to the lucky people of Iraq, protecting the world from WMD (that never existed) and fighting Islamic terrorists (that also never existed in Iraq before the 2003 invasion).

    Is this what Harris thinks enlightened liberalism looks like? It boggles the mind that a philosophical thinker is so blinkered by his own hypocrisy. What should “barbaric” Muslims make of this? 2016 and 2017 saw Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq bombed and besieged with a fury that even the Baathist Assad regime in Syria and its Russian Aerospace Forces allies could not match in their bombing and besieging of cites like Aleppo and Homs. Thousands of corpses are still rotting underneath the rubble and packs of feral dogs feast on the bones and remains of the dead. These are not propagandistic fringe theories from RT or Press TV, but verified and well documented events. Is it less barbaric than ISIS summarily executing “apostates” and running POWs over with tanks?

    An honest intellectual engaging in good faith inquiry and dialogue does not shy away from shining light on his own culture’s transgressions. I just picked the most recent examples, there are many many more to choose from. e.g., On whose land was America founded and how are those people doing today? Harris is on record saying of course ISIS is morally inferior to the USA. A guy like that presenting himself as virtuous and reasonable cannot be taken seriously. (Incidentally, many liberals of yore were fully on board with Europe’s colonial conquests and subsequent legacy of imperialism. Something about bringing the superior values of Enlightenment inspired civilization to “subhuman backwards savages”.)

    Next up: Jordan Peterson. To his credit, he seems to have distanced himself from the alt.right and stopped denouncing his opponents every two minutes as “cultural Marxists” or “the left”. He presents himself as a guy who dispenses common sense advice to stagnating young men who are prolonging their adolescence indefinitely and refusing to take responsibility and “grow up”. He blames feminists and “liberals” (using the American formulation of that term) for the supposed crisis of masculinity that is sidelining young, white males.

    Listening to his talks patterns emerge. He does offer young men some practical advice. Stop loafing around and watching porn, learn to delay gratification, set goals and work towards achieving them, cultivate relationships with real humans, take responsibility for your actions. A kind of very basic existentialism that nobody would vehemently disagree with.

    He throws in his version of the Apollonian versus Dionysian duality (Order versus Chaos) and links order to the masculine and chaos to the feminine. He talks about how these traits complement and balance each other….but it all amounts to a defense of patriarchal values that feminism and the liberal left ostensibly want to destroy. Chaos attempting to usurp order, he says. The liberal left also represents chaos, says Peterson, encouraging hedonistic pleasure seeking and indefinitely shirking responsibility. Together feminism and the endlessly partying left have destroyed the family and demonized the masculine (order, responsibility, discipline etc). This basically is Peterson’s core schtick.

    The solution: men must reclaim their rightful place as calm, rational and responsible disciplinarians and leaders, and bring balance back to gender relations and society as a whole. He does not explore other possible causes for the disunity and polarization plaguing present-day western society. Such as the rise of neoliberal finance capitalism that saw the offshoring of manufacturing jobs, the decline of the labour movement and the end of stable jobs and the relatively high wages it brought workers, the state losing its ability to tax the wealthy and fund policies that the ruling classes oppose…all of which contribute to massive income inequality, a precarious and volatile employment market, upward social mobility grinding to a near halt and the effective end of the modestly prosperous western middle income class.

    Peterson never explores this possibility. At all. Or any other possible explanation. He gets very passionate, however, about denouncing Stalinism (very relevant in 2018) and equating “communism” with national socialism, which does no favours for his credibility as a public intellectual. He apparently has not even noticed that the mainstream left today embraces consumer capitalism and promotes a distinctively neoliberal notion of diversity (but never equality…of any kind). Again, hard to take this guy too seriously.

    The icing on his cake, however, is launching a book subtitled ‘An Antidote to Chaos’. So chaos (women) are poisonous and must be neutralized by the “order” of the rational male? Taking Peterson’s words at face value that is the logical conclusion one must draw.

    I have not spent unduly much time analyzing Peterson’s thought and I am sure there are other, more charitable, interpretations of his core position…and I am more than happy to consider them. However, no matter what position one takes, the stuff he promotes is not particularly novel or profound and at heart it is a reactionary response to feminism and the fact that he feels threatened by women gaining influence in society and disturbing his comfort zone.

    I have not delved into Harris’s philosophical positions and have no immediate plans to do so. Guys like him, the late Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins who nurse a seething irrational hatred of religion and a pathological inability to accept that their precious liberal values have been, and still are, used to justify killing and bloodshed makes their tone deaf rants about Islam and religion sound like the ravings of dogma spouting secular fanatics.


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