Jordan Peterson is a Canadian professor of clinical psychology, once destined to be a footnote in academia as the author of a single tome, Maps of Meaning, published in 1999, to what could be uncontroversially classified as minimal critical acclaim.
However, he chanced on a more lucrative path a few years back, when he challenged trans activists in Toronto over parliamentary bill C-16, which prohibited discrimination on the grounds of ‘gender identity or expression’. Clips of Peterson telling activists that he maintained the right to refer to them by any term he deemed necessary flew fast over the world. And just like that, a public intellectual was born!
To accompany the text, we re-imagine Peterson in cartoon as an embarrassing suburban Dad, but we hope you read through this article too, in which we consider him as part of a broader malaise that has plagued trans-Atlantic politics and popular culture – its reverence for, and tacit agreement with, professorial peddlers of simplistic binaries, who are often painfully divorced from the actualities of day-to-day life. For Peterson is not the first academic to realise that disposing of nuance pays a rich dividend. He is not the first to reject the possibility of an ambiguity of interpetation, and settle on hawking false dualities for fat fees.
He is most obviously joined by Niall Ferguson, who rather than author original works of research-driven history, instead tours TV studios spreading hyperbolic half-truths, discussing the decline of the West and his new book. But perhaps the founder of this lucred stream of academic charlatanism is Bernard Lewis, a professor of Byzantine history, whose decades-long hostility towards Islamism (read: Islam) found a new relevance in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
Lewis became the in-house philosopher for Dick Cheney, suggesting that the only way in which the world's one billion-plus Muslims could find their feet in the 21st century would be through sustainted ‘interaction’ with the West – with the Iraq War being a necessary step on that path. Bernard Lewis, whatever his dangerous faults, was a linguist, a scholar and a historian. Niall Ferguson is an academic tied to Oxford University, with over 15 published works. Jordan Peterson is none of these things, and isn't even a particularly good writer.
In his second book, the global bestseller 12 Rules For Life, he offers us weak mortals some guidance:
‘What shall I do to ennoble my body? Use it only in the service of my soul.
What shall I do with the most difficult of questions? Consider them the gateway to the path of life.
What shall I do with the poor man’s plight? Strive through right examples to lift his broken heart.’
Peterson believes that these questions, couched in their Biblical form, are those that have puzzled human minds since time immemorial: questions not just about philosophical matters, but as a recently rejected scholar at the Cambridge School of Divinity, about theological issues too. It is worth dissecting his peculiar relationship with the sphere of theology – providing, as it does, a case study for his imposition of dualism onto a vastly complex subject, seemingly unrelated to his own professorial sphere.
He has produced a lecture series on Genesis despite having no Hebrew, no discernible interest or knowledge of the many millennia of extant scholarship of these texts (the external source he quotes from most are his own paraphrased summaries of the thoughts of Carl Jung), and no sense of these texts within the wider whole of the Bible. Commenting on creation accounts in Genesis, as Peterson does, without discussing their relationship to covenental theology in Exodus would almost certainly guarantee a fail in Cambridge’s own undergraduate theology examinations.
Instead of an engagement with the theological fundamentals that make scholarship of scripture possible, the Bible becomes a convenient tool for Peterson to demonstrate his own theory that humans have always been engaged in a struggle between good and evil, and order and chaos. In fact, as St Augustine found, the Manichean insistence on duality is the opposite of the complex, contradictory message that scholars, churches and nation-states have discerned from Biblical texts throughout the ages.
Midway through the second of his lectures on Genesis, at about the moment where he actually begins to mention the Biblical text, Peterson says something very telling:
‘I tried to approach these stories as if I didn't know what they were about.’
Whilst in this aim he has undoubtedly succeeded, the comment provides a worrying insight into Peterson's modus operandi – namely that someone approaching a text or a subject without knowledge will do a better job of assessing it than someone within the corrupt academic establishment – the very people, incidentally, who so cruelly denied him his lecture series at Cambridge. In this secular age, the rigours of theology are more easily ridiculed and its learning more regularly questioned. This means the qualification of its practitioners becomes increasingly devalued. Quick and easy opinions create more impact than those who have dedicated their life to interpeting these works.
But if Peterson was merely a grand eulogiser on religious texts that he couldn't possbily begin to understand; all would be well and good, and undeserving of a second thought. But he has a pronounced tendency to dance on the edge of perilous territory. Consider this statement to Camille Paglia:
‘Here’s the problem, I know how to stand up to a man who’s unfairly trespassed against me, and the reason I know that is because the parameters for my resistance are quite well-defined, which is: we talk, we argue, we push, and then it becomes physical. If we move beyond the boundaries of civil discourse, we know what the next step is...That’s forbidden in discourse with women and so I don’t think that men can control crazy women. I really don't believe it.’
Peterson, in these darker moments, becomes melodrama itself, smuggling in a potent blend of histrionics and aggression; pitting, just as Ferguson and Lewis do, the forces of civilisation against barbarism.
In Twelve Rules he writes:
‘Order and Chaos are the yang and yin of the famous Taoist symbol...Order is the white, masculine serpent; Chaos, its black feminine counterpart.’
While in another passage further on he declares:
‘If theyr’e healthy, women don’t want boys. They want men...If they're tough, they want someone tougher. If they’re smart, they want someone smarter.’
Many journalists have attempted to corner Peterson with hardball questions concerning the fact that his audience is predominantly male, on how his remarks are divisive, and that his research stems from carefully selected sources that don’t stand up to proper scrutiny.
The problem is that in these times of deep emotive performance, his audience don't require him to be totally consistent, nor it could be claimed, do they particularly want him to. So how do we solve a problem like Jordan? It is our belief that hard-hitting interviews, like Andrew Neil’s recent deconstruction of Ben Shapiro, will not prove weighty enough to send him back to that lonely campus from whence he came.
Demand continues to grow, especially among younger generations, for long-form intellectual content. This is witnessed most palpably in the publishing sphere – where sales of books have increased for the fourth year in a row, and circulation numbers for titles like The Times Literary Supplement, The Economist and The New York Review of Books have reached record figures.
For whatever reason, this is a trend that has yet to be recognised by the broadcasting world. There is an idea that television has helped to stupefy the world at large, that it has dulled our keener senses, that it has created a moronic inferno in which the current incumbent of the White House is the most vivid lodestar.
But this is only one reading. Consider the extraordinary popularity (and longevity) of the golden age of factual broadcasting – of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man and John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. One of the reasons that David Attenborough is our unilateral national treasure is that he provides the last link to this era of dazzling program-making, when to earn the right to lecture the world, you must not only be the leader in your respective field, but also a profound humanitarian with a cross-disciplinary knowledge of the full array of the arts and sciences.
The way in which intellectual debate is currently broadcast, with its insistence on brief, adversarial set-tos, plays into the hands of poky thinkers like Peterson. Even if they can be seen to have lost the argument, the anger they can generate is sufficient for core followers to claim victory on their behalf. So – here’s a proposal from The Fence. Would it be beyond the power of any commissioner to bring back the Channel 4 classic After Dark, in which six eminent thinkers debate one single issue deep into the night?
This sort of long-form debate would attract the sort of figures would would truly humiliate Peterson. Imagine him discussing the idea of the notion of masculinity, but with Germaine Greer, Grayson Perry, Judith Butler, Martin Amis and Julie Bindel. Or Peterson exploring the relationship with the Bible and the civic state in the 21st century, accompanied by Rowan Williams, Rabbi Johnathan Sacks, Professor Morna Hooker, Kwame Appiah and Nadia Bolz-Weber.
The ritual squirming that he has occasioned upon poorly-briefed but well-intentioned newsreaders would, we might hope, be deliciously and decisively returned upon him.
At a time when the free exchange of ideas matters more than ever, broadcasters should look at the opening they have – not only to inform and elucidate a public hungry for depth, but also to reclaim the public duty of the intellectual, and to keep tedious little agitators like Jordan Peterson separate from the notion of scholarship and the opportunity of influence.