Argue Like Jordan Peterson
Whereas my last article considered Jordan Peterson’s relation to history, I will now consider his atemporal art of argument.
Amidst the great diversity of argumentative patterns in discourse, certain thinkers have signature moves: logical-rhetorical patterns applied again and again that typify the thinker’s thought. The thinking wrestler seemingly deploys these moves to thwart the opponent and thrill the crowd. Some public intellectuals compete, as it were, in Greco-Roman wrestling, others in the WWE: some moves are genuinely powerful, others succeed only by operatic standards. Hailed as the intellectual of the hour or as “the intellectual we deserve,” Peterson perhaps wields a signature move of his own. Let us call it the Peterslam.
Introducing the Peterslam
The logical kernel of the Peterslam is the assertion that some problem or state of affairs has one true, deep cause which Peterson has previously determined, a cause that relocates, reduces, or dismisses the issue at hand (the singleness of this cause is vital). This singular cause can be as accessible and concrete as poverty, or as abstract and capacious as culture itself. On a philosophical or etiological level, the Peterslam collapses complex social phenomena, especially ones seen as unjust, down to a single platitudinous dimension (people are suffering from X phenomenon? well, life itself is suffering!). On a linguistic or pragmatic level, the Peterslam signals a desire to stop talking about the topic and move on: a fancier version of “it is what it is,” “that’s life,” or “that’s the way the world works.” We use these tautologies, pragmatically, to smooth over uncomfortable topics or accept an unfortunate state of affairs. However, in Peterson’s case, he builds grand truisms about how life is suffering into his fundamental coping mechanism. Yet this attempt at consolation equally serves to halt discussions of rectifiable inequalities and injustices. As a master tautologist, he simply tell us that suffering is what it is, or, with Petersonian pomp, that “many of the world’s traditions regard the suffering attendant upon existence as the irreducible truth of Being.” As reassuring as this may be when we’ve been condemned to a certain fate — like Boethius locked away, seeking the consolation of philosophy — this solace readily stifles action in the contingent realm of politics. La tautologie fonde un monde mort, un monde immobile, said Barthes. Tautologies petrify the world.
Pulling Off the Peterslam (Concrete)
The concrete version of the Peterslam is easy. For instance:
- Take an important and interesting question, such as the extent to which women were discriminated against historically. What are the causes of the plight of women?
- Elaborate the question: which societies? Which eras? Is this discrimination de facto or de jure? Are we talking discrimination built into legal, political, economic, and religious structures? Or are we talking about psychological biases? Should we also include the realm of negative or non-representations in aesthetic and cultural production? How might anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers, theologians, legal scholars, and historians regard this question in overlapping ways, from a variety of feminist, non-feminist, or proto-feminist perspectives? In what ways has this discrimination lessened, increased, or mutated in different locales and dimensions? What is the historiography of this question?
- Just kidding! We can skip all those complexities.
- Locate a single cause or factor for the plight of women: poverty made life harsh for both the average man and the average woman. Then, choose late 19th and early 20th century industrialized countries as representations for human history in general: “do you know how much money people lived on in 1885 in 2010 dollars? One dollar a day. The first thing we’ll establish is that life sucked for everyone. You didn’t live very long. If you were female you were pregnant almost all the time, and you were worn out and half dead by the time you were 45. Men worked under abysmal conditions that we can’t even imagine. … Life before the 20th century for most people was brutal beyond comparison. The idea that women were an oppressed minority under those conditions is insane.”
- Voila! We’ve applied the Peterslam. Poverty is the one true cause of women’s plight. Those who believe in women’s oppression are implicitly “insane” (even if they agree that “life sucked for everyone”).
- Finally, our breathtakingly general conclusion: “I don’t think women were discriminated against, I think that’s an appalling argument. … The idea that women were discriminated against across the course of history is appalling.”
To Peterson’s credit, his claims about the oppression of women were qualified and toned down (thanks, editors) for 12 Rules for Life: “It looks to me like the so-called oppression of the patriarchy was instead an imperfect collective attempt by men and women, stretching over millennia, to free each other from privation, disease and drudgery” (n.b. paternalistic and economic arguments for slavery abound). Even in this more careful statement on the “imperfect collective attempt” of patriarchy we find the Peterslam in the word instead: Peterson cannot accept genuine oppression of women by men, only a difference in roles amidst economic hardship (eg. “the high probability of unwanted pregnancy”). The idea that there could be multiple interacting causes or factors for a certain social problem — hardly a radical idea, indeed the basis of much social science — he cannot tolerate. Somehow, psychology is a “multifactorial” domain for Peterson, but sociology cannot be.
Pulling Off the Peterslam (Abstract)
The slight of hand that turns the historic plight of women into a purely economic matter has an obvious weakness: the fallacy of the single cause. Accumulating non-economic evidence of discrimination is easy, in part because this evidence is abundant and concrete. Yet by elevating the Peterslam to a high level of abstraction, it becomes more difficult to argue with him. For instance, consider the left-wing or social justice notion that Western culture is associated with patterns of white men dominating other groups (which Peterson uncharitably turns into a caricature for 12 Rules of Life with help from Stephen Hicks). Instead of acknowledging the nastiest baggage of “Western culture” — this term itself deserves some suspicion — Peterson relocates the cause of oppression to culture itself in the abstract: “Of course, culture is an oppressive structure. It’s always been that way. It’s a fundamental, universal existential reality. The tyrannical king is a symbolic truth; an archetypal constant.” Since particular cultural issues fall under the massive and massively abstract banner of “culture,” any specific grievances are thereby vanquished.
How are critics of Western colonialism, let’s say, supposed to dialogue with someone who responds to their tangible criticisms by claiming that the hyper-abstracted thing called “culture” is an “oppressive structure”? Or shall we reassure the victims of brutal state violence by reminding them that “the tyrannical king is a symbolic truth; an archetypal constant”? Peterson retorts: sorry, oppression and suffering are what they are. The moral obligation to address specific tragedies is downplayed by gesturing to the all-enveloping “tragedy of self-conscious Being [which] produces suffering, inevitable suffering.” If Peterson’s mantras yield meaning and purpose for the individual, then they equally yield collective political nihilism: no plan for coordinated reductions of suffering, no plan for toppling tyrants, and fundamentally, no theory of a just society: for our clinical Thrasymachus, justice is little more than deference to the dominance hierarchy.
It would be a mistake to surmise that oppression doesn’t exist for Peterson. But thanks to the Peterslam, he will re-frame the oppressor on his terms, relocating oppression to an intractable entity such as the dominance hierarchy, this “near-eternal aspect of the environment.” According to Peterson, “much of what is blamed on these more ephemeral manifestations [of dominance]” — “patriarchy,” “capitalism,” “communism,” and the “military-industrial complex”— is a product of the supreme dominance hierarchy’s “unchanging existence.” Of course, this mystical mega-hierarchy, which stands “older than trees,” reaches a higher level of abstraction than something like capitalism or the military-industrial complex. By naturalizing hierarchy in the most abstract way possible, Peterson will agree that systemic oppression is real — and agree precisely to the extent that almost nothing can be done about it. Thus is the weapon of our heroic Status Quo Warrior.
The Finishing Move
It is not enough to deflect and parry accusations with the Peterslam; one must eventually go on the offensive. Quite fittingly for a psychologist, Peterson’s finishing move is to psychopathologize his opponents. After dismissing the substance of their grievances — life is suffering, suffering is suffering — he seeks to explain why they would have the gall to bring them up in the first place. This psyche, as described in 12 Rules for Life, consists of “aggrieved victimhood that produces, first, resentment, then envy, and then the desire for vengeance and destruction.” Since he lacks a theory of justice, he cannot differentiate between his righteous and whiny critics: this great diverse mass appears to be a single individual with a victim psyche.
Modern psychologists generally fall on the center-left spectrum, thus it took a reactionary Peterson to stand out from his peers, and it took an individualist psychologist to become a household name. A “sociological” Peterson figure is an impossibility, for he would have to acknowledge a world of multiple complexities and causes, of individual pathologies colliding with structural injustices; a sociological Peterson could not Peterslam his way out of all the predicaments put to him. Indeed, a Peterson figure who acted in good faith would need a dialectic between real and imagined oppression, between systems and individuals. Instead, our heroic tautologist offers little more than a theme and variations: the dominance hierarchy “is what it is,” which is to say: you should accept the world as it is.
And yet, Peterson’s tautological vision of the world features a mystical twist: the world is not always as it seems. Indeed, Peterson believes in neither positivism, realism, nor naturalism; he seeks to cure the disenchantment of the modern world (a worthy goal, I might agree). Our world, it is clear, lacks something. The higher truths he seeks, however, cannot be be derived from the empirical realm. So what will it be, Dr. Peterson? More argumentum ad lobsterum, more “scientific” arguments about hierarchy that take a specious leap from the world as it is to the world as it ought to be? Or more non-committal, non-empirical Christianity — a belief-in-belief but no actual belief — a tendentious exegesis of the Bible that omits, again and again, Christian obligations to other people? If one wants to abandon the massive terrain of pagan or secular ethics from Plato to Parfit, it would seem reasonable to actually believe in the founding tenets of one’s chosen religion (he does not), or at the very least, interpret them in accordance with religious authority. Nothing could be more vulgarly postmodern than expediently embracing secular, naturalist rationalizations for hierarchy and then arbitrarily adopting certain imperatives from a certain religion — treated as scrapbook rather than creed — except those imperatives that are anti-hierarchical in their assertions. Peterson thus becomes a syncretic “critical theorist” of the reactionary variety, who freely draws upon sometimes-incompatible traditions for his rather instrumental purposes.
Let us consider one final Peterslam, perhaps the ultimate one, which I touched on last time. The contemporary “problem” of social justice has purely continental sources for Peterson and his cabal of reactionary, rather illiberal “classical liberals.” They perpetually neglect that social justice vastly predates 1960s French thought, and owes an enormous amount to Catholic activists (such as Dorothy Day) and other thinkers who practiced the social gospel or other “collectivist” religious dogmas — to the extent that they wanted to transform society. Indeed the broad traditions of social justice owe more to religion than to Marx. If “you cannot serve both God and mammon,” then surely you cannot serve God while celebrating the individualism to the extremes of Peterson, and lest we forget, of Ayn Rand.
In Maps of Meaning, Peterson speaks of the “paramount divinity of the individual” as if this was not an affront to both theology and political science. The cliché that the Bible is the seminal text of Western civilization (what of Homer?) allows Peterson to omit a massive repository of “Western values” latent in the civic tradition, best exemplified by Cicero. According to the Roman orator, “Not for us alone are we born; our country, our friends, have a share in us.” This has been condensed into the worthy motto non nobis solum. Imagining the western world on an purist odyssey of individualism testifies to Peterson’s anachronistic, buckshot projection of cold war ideals onto peoples who recognized hupokeimenon and subjectum, who participated in the polis and civitas, but who knew nothing of the Enlightenment or Romantic sense of “the individual” — though as Foucault would point out, we can speak of an ancient “care of the self.”
How should one care for oneself? Under what conditions? What comes next? These are difficult questions. Whereas Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, for instance, prescribed a tidy four weeks of cleaning one’s figurative room before returning to worldly affairs (a Jesuit domain, unlike the more reticent orders), Peterson prescribes this practice in perpetuo — an enforced retreat, it would seem, from civic and social obligations. What begins as a urgent effort to deal with personal issues risks a selfish renunciation, if it goes on indefinitely, of the many dire and complex social problems irreducible to individual problems. The epitome of this would be climate change, an issue where Peterson is, most generously, a dissimulator and equivocator. The only tool in his climate toolbox is to guilt individuals for their contributions (better than nothing, but far from a solution). Western civilization is under siege by nefarious (but long dead) postmodernists, says Peterson. All the while, the planet threatens to become increasingly inhospitable to all civilizations, capitalist or communist, indiscriminately ignoring all ideologies and the state of cleanliness in our rooms.
Ultimately, Peterson’s dictum remains “sort yourself out.” If this was the first step in a long process of personal and social care, it might be quite noble. Yet hearing this refrain again and again — and perceiving its omissions— one gets the sense Peterson has mystified his way out of higher responsibilities to society and, his faith allowing, to God. Who indeed is Jordan Galt?