God Sent Jordan Peterson to the Alt Right
The video is titled “PhD gives up trying to reason with SJWs” and it begins, really, with a shot of him: standing among some nondescript college males, hands in his pockets, a crisp white dress shirt and maroon suspenders delineating his figure. I realize as I rewatch the video now that his face is the kind of face I imagine on Ayn Rand characters; she would describe it with words like “angular” and “harmonious.” The person filming the video asks him a question:
“Peterson do have you any comments on the Nazi presence at your protest?”
“Yeah — I don’t like Nazis.”
The rest of the video consists of Peterson and several protestors of his speech in discussion with one another about the politics of gender pronouns. The description of the video is not a description but a collection of tags meant to direct the likeminded to viewing it:
sjw compilation, sjw cringe, far left, feminist cringe, anti feminist, anti sjw, the real sjw, feminist compilation, liberal, funny sjw, mra, motivational video, ben shapiro, douglas murray, crazy feminist, blm cringe, fat shaming, freedom of speech, rekt feminist, mgtow, political correctness, ayaan hirsi ali, rekt feminist videos, bill whittle, derek turner, buzzfeed yellow, buzzfeed, pbs newshour (tv program), bbc, musicalbethan, frequent feminist, anita sarkeesian (person), laci green, kat blaque, malala yousafzai (award winner), yazidi, human the movie, anti-feminism, anti-sjw, feminist
The sixth tag in the second line — motivational video — is, I hope to explain, the most accurate.
Jordan Peterson, for the uninitiated, is a psychology professor at the University of Toronto who made headlines last Fall for protesting the Canadian government’s Bill C-16, which is an amendment to the Canadian Criminal Code and the Canadian Human Rights Act. The bill, in short, makes it illegal to deny services, employment, accommodations — etc. — to people on the basis of their gender expression. Peterson started his protest because he believed that under C-16’s provisions professors at public universities in Canada would be required to address students by their preferred gender pronouns, or risk being charged with hate speech — which to his mind sets a dangerous precedent. Although it’s unclear that the law would actually have this effect, the point is that Peterson thinks it will, and his public denunciation of this has made him a fixture in the attention of that ephemeral, that shifting, that much-talked-about-but-little-understood thing — the alt right.
The video with which this piece opens is, itself, an artefact of the alt right’s affinity for Peterson. One can see in the screenshot above a related video, titled “Jordan Peterson vs Biology Denier,” which was also taken from Peterson’s small-but-much-publicized event at the University of Toronto last November. There are dozens of these reposts of Petersons’ talks and public appearances — all with editorialized headlines, all with comment sections bubbling and smoking with discussion about SJWs, cultural Marxism, thought policing, censorship, snowflakes, ‘nu males,’ etc.
The alt right is the most recently arrived boogeyman on the American political scene, and, since the 2016 election, has acted as the fodder for countless thinkpieces from every size and stripe of publication. Time, The New Yorker, Vox, Salon, Slate, The National Review, The New Republic — everyone, everyone has written about who the alt right is, what it wants, what it’s doing, etc. Some people have done a good job at answering these questions, a lot of other people haven’t, but in any case this essay is by no means an attempt to trump the coverage of these other outlets, to deliver ‘the truth about the alt right,’ or anything of that sort. No. My subject here is much narrower than that, and can be described roughly as follows: Who Jordan Peterson is, what about him makes him so attractive to particular members of the alt right, and what this attraction might tell us about those members themselves.
That being said, I will dispense one observation about the fundamental ‘nature’ of the alt right, as it were, — and it is that the alt right seems to be defined more by its figureheads than by any recognizable set of principles.
This isn’t to say that its various member groups aren’t connected to one another along some ideological lines — because they are — but it is to say that, by and large, the most accurate way to identify the alt right and its members is by seeing who they follow on Twitter, and who they subscribe to on Youtube. Stefan Molyneux, Paul Joseph Watson, “Black Pigeon Speaks” — a constellation of other middling planets orbiting the angry orange sun that is Trump. This is how you draw the map: you look at these figures and the people around them, (and the people around them,) and you lay down your lines accordingly.
Jordan Peterson is a recent addition to this strange and unlikely cosmos, but he’s turning out to be one of the most illuminating of its members. To be specific: Peterson is illuminating precisely because he’s so well liked by the commentariat of the alt right, by the ‘taste-makers’ of the movement, so to speak. They seem to see in him something special, inspiring, heroic. One of the most-watched videos of Peterson is called “A Hero of #Freespeech,” even: it has more than 500,000 views despite its 27 minute run-time, and consists of a running analysis of a TV debate Peterson participated in late last year after his story started getting widespread attention. Another video in the same genre (running analysis of Peterson’s public appearances) has a similarly dramatic title: “Jordan Peterson: Drawing a Line in the Sand.”
The alt right is, again, a fluxing cocktail of a political movement, so Peterson isn’t universally liked by all of its members — plenty of them criticize him for not being more broadly nationalist, for instance — but the people who don’t like him also don’t tend to make widely watched Youtube videos. Peterson’s critics are the ones making posts in comment sections, not the actual content that gets linked on 4chan or the various subreddits that members of the movement have fled to since r/AltRight got canned a few months ago. They’re not the focus of analysis here, then; this highly distributed, quasi-media of the alt right is — because it is this body which likes Peterson the most, because it is this body which is most illuminated by an analysis of Peterson as a public figure.
So what kind of public figure is Jordan Peterson?
Jordan Peterson holds a doctorate in clinical psychology from McGill University. In interviews he will explain that he started out as a political scientist, — it’s what he got his bachelor’s in , anyway — but decided that the methodology of the field in its current state was inadequate to study politics as he thought it had to be studied, which made him settle on psychology. In the broad sense. In the very very broad sense.
Maps of Meaning, Peterson’s best-known book, is probably the best example of just how encompassing his conception of psychology is, as well as the best example of how he presents himself to the now very interested public. On his homepage, he describes the conclusions he reached in the book as follows:
I had no idea where my search would lead me. I came over the course of a decade and a half to understand the meanings of many things that had been entirely hidden from me — things that I had cast away, stupidly, as of little worth. I came to realize that ideologies had a narrative structure — that they were stories, in a word — and that the emotional stability of individuals depended upon the integrity of their stories. I came to realize that stories had a religious substructure (or, to put it another way, that well-constructed stories had a nature so compelling that they gathered religious behaviors and attitudes around them, as a matter of course). I understood, finally, that the world that stories describe is not the objective world, but the world of value — and that it is in this world that we live, first and foremost.
The notion I would like to convey to you is that the approach Jordan Peterson takes towards psychology is one which seems to be from the early 20th century rather than the early 21st. I don’t intend this as a dig: I mean, literally, that Peterson seems to treat psychology as it was originally conceived, as a half-philosophic, half-scientific investigation of psyche, the soul. Perhaps this isn’t clear to people involved with the discipline, but the plain fact is that in most of North America academic psychology does not begin to approach topics as sweeping or airy as the ones Peterson describes above: the closest someone in a psych department might come to ‘understanding’ things like “the world of value” we inhabit would be a social psychologist studying attitudes or cognitive schema in a piece-by-piece, experiment-by-experiment, exceedingly prosaic and unromantic fashion.
Not so with Peterson. There’s plenty of empirical evidence marshalled in Maps of Meaning, but it’s far from the main event of the book. Turning to its references pages, one finds plenty of citations that look like this:
“Fox, N.A. & Davidson, R.J. (1986). Taste-elicited changes in facial signs of emotion and the asymmetry of brain electrical activity in human newborns. Neuropsycholgia, 24, 417–422.”
But one finds even more citations that simply read:
“Dostovesky, F. (1993). Crime and Punishment. New York: Vintage Classics.”
After one scan of the reference pages I counted three Dostovesky novels, two books by the literary theorist Northrop Frye, eight works of Nietzsche’s, one dialogue by Plato, three of Shakespeare’s plays, Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations and Milton’s Paradise Lost. There is also — as is only fitting, given the book’s stated topic — a smattering of references to Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell, and to a variety of historical works with titles like Rousseau and his era: Vol. 1.
The point is that the book, properly, seems to be a work of ethnography, or cultural anthropology, — though Peterson still seems to cover it under the umbrella of academic psychology.
The reason this fact is at all important is, again, that it means something for Peterson’s public image, which in turn means something about the people on the alt right who like him. To get to the point: What it means for Peterson’s public image is that, although he has the credentials of a researcher — and indeed is a researcher — the most pronounced part of his work is much more sweeping, much more romantic than what that discipline usually encapsulates. Indeed, Peterson has about him the image of a scientist from the last epoch: in his own description of the book’s origin he wants us to see him trudging forward, driven by actual visions which came to him in the night, seeking to find a scientific explanation for man’s self-destructiveness before it’s too late for all of us:
I started writing Maps of Meaning in 1985. I was very upset by the processes of the cold war — by the superhuman energy of the arms race, by the terrible ideologically-motivated battle taking place on the world stage. Other aspects of political and social behavior and conception appeared equally mysterious and distressing to me. I could not understand what forces drove the Nazis, the Stalinists, or the Khmer Rouge. I could not make sense of the human propensity for belief-inspired violence. I had frightening, re-occurring nightmares about the possible destruction of the world. I decided, in consequence, that I would devote myself to the alleviation of my ignorance. I have attempted to do so, ever since — while finishing my doctorate at McGill University, while serving as a faculty member at Harvard and the University of Toronto.
If Peterson is a hero of the alt-right, I argue, it is in large part because he already narrates his career and biography as if he were a hero. If I might be indulged in just one more block quote, again from his extensive personal website:
Raised and toughened in the frigid wastelands of Northern Alberta, Jordan Peterson has flown a hammer-head roll in a carbon-fiber stuntplane, piloted a mahogany racing sailboat around Alcatraz Island, explored an Arizona meteorite crater with a group of astronauts, built a Native American Long-House on the upper floor of his Toronto home, and been inducted into the coastal Pacific Kwakwaka’wakw tribe.
This is how he wants to be seen: he is Captain Nemo; he is L. Ron Hubbard if anything L. Ron Hubbard said about himself was true; he is Dr. Quest; he is John Galt. And because he is these things, or because he works very hard at appearing like them, he is what the alt-right wants and needs right now.
Working from the most superficial to the most substantial reasons this public image is attractive to the media personalities of the movement: Peterson’s official title as a clinical psychologist, first, dovetails wonderfully with the alt-right’s rhetoric about ‘irrational,’ ‘crazed,’ ‘deranged,’ or plain ‘idiotic’ members of the progressive left. The alt-right subscribes heavily to the stylistic dressings of strength, vitality, health, etc. which usually mark conservative arguments and writing; Peterson’s official position as a member of the therapeutic community means that discussions of him and his work slide into the alt-right’s usual rhetorical devices like a hand into a well-tailored glove.
Take the title of the video which began this article, for instance: “PhD gives up trying to reason with SJWs.” The implication is clear: Peterson isn’t addressed by name but by academic title, and he isn’t in discussion with SJWs so much as he’s trying to explain something to them — something which they are failing to understand.
Titles aside, the second big reason Peterson is attractive to the movement is the heroic bearing I’ve been going on about for the past five or so minutes. Most of the alt-right’s most visible figureheads enjoy viewing themselves as modern Burkes and de Maistres; aloof, conversant in the classical wisdom the modern world has disastrously cast aside, writing and speaking with clarity and venom about the various dooms the progressive movements of the world are calling down on themselves and their countrymen. They are the speakers of Hard Truths; the dismantlers of Comfortable Illusions. This is an enjoyable position to occupy — the writer is, himself, of the same cloistered-away, theorizing species — but it’s wanting a certain blaze, a certain publicity. It’s one thing to be an intelligent polemicist, but it’s another thing entirely to fulfill that role Buckley outlined for the conservative: standing athwart history and yelling “Stop!” even when the people don’t want you.
Peterson seems to these people to be occupying this position, though, and in this case he also just happens to be yelling “Stop!” in front of a lot of TV cameras and smartphones and doing so in a way which I think a lot of my fellow Ivory Tower dwellers must find exciting:
Hands held behind his back, pacing professorially, yelling to the crowd about the irreplaceable flame that is free-speech. To someone whose life is lived between Youtube upload pages and visits to their Google Adsense account, this is a vision of intellectualism that must be exhilarating, to say the least.
And so he is lionized. Peterson is quick becoming one of the alt-right’s most cherished darlings, not just because he is in line with their views on this particular topic and is articulate in his defense of them, but because he’s a kind of role model: because his videos are, again, inspirational videos at heart. A lot of the alt-righters like to think of themselves as the gadflys of and rebels against what they think is a leftist conspiracy, and so conjure up for themselves images of them shouting against the storm, taking a stand, using the ultimately invincible tool of logic to defend what’s right. Except whatever storms they face take the form of Youtube comments and response videos; their principled stand tends to be delivered as a blog post; and their wielding of the tools of logic usually reduces to misplaced smugness.
Although Peterson’s arguments aren’t exactly made out of invincible logic — this is, perhaps, an issue for another essay — the storm he’s experiencing is in his real life, and his very public stand has the all of the engrossing trappings of a movie or a play. He likes it this way, it seems, and has worked to frame it as such; and he has now an audience who will indefatigably watch and praise each act as it unfolds.
They clap because they think he is doing it the way it should be done; they clap because when they see Peterson in heated debate with leftist students — sleeves rolled up, exasperation and righteousness playing out in equal measure across his Howard Roark face, — they can imagine that they empathize, that they’ve been there. Peterson is valuable to the would-be cartographer of our current culture and politics because Peterson represents a handy model of how a lot of frustrated young men would like to be seen, in the arena of public discourse today. They too want to bring reason crashing down on the heads of ‘SJWs,’ they too want to take to the public square in the name of free speech and press, to perform a hammer-head roll in a carbon-fiber stuntplane, to be inducted into the coastal Pacific Kwakwaka’wakw tribe.
Jordan Peterson makes motivational videos.
The author’s own overblown self-help writing:
A commencement essay for select members of the class of 2018, from Maria Keegan’s own “The Opposite of Loneliness”medium.com
Addendum: This article underwent a substantial revision on March 25th, 2017. The original text of the article should be viewable at this pastebin, and can also be made available by request.