Why Jordan Peterson is Wrong (an open letter)
I write this as a friend. Jordan Peterson, you’ve said that we all need friends who will tell us when we are wrong; that’s one of the many ways in which I believe that you are right. But you’re also wrong, and you’re wrong in some very subtle and interesting ways. My advice to you (if you read this) is “read Steve Hassan’s writings on mind control cults and how to achieve freedom”; but nobody accepts advice unless you demonstrate an understanding of the problem. My diagnosis is that the relevant problem is the ‘paradox of Nietzsche’, a label that I’ve invented for something that seems to happen to a lot of intelligent people who become fascinated by a problem.
The paradox of Nietzsche
Nietzsche was a very intelligent man, whose profound writings include this:
He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.
Nietzsche spent a long time gazing into the abyss, and it spent a long time gazing into him. Wikipedia agrees that he suffered from mental illness before he died at 56, and notes that there is some disagreement as to whether Nietzsche’s worldview contributed to his decline and death. You believe (and I agree) that worldviews can kill people; that a toxic worldview is a poison that can wipe out hundreds of millions of people.
Nietzsche was right about the dangers of exploring evil, but being right did not save him from the gaze of the abyss. You’re is right about the mechanisms that create totalitarian regimes, but being right is not enough to save you from facilitating totalitarianism.
The Buddhists note that if you’ve been shot with a poisoned arrow, it is pointless to ask who shot the arrow. The answer to your problem is to take the arrow out. In opposing totalitarianism, it is pointless to ask who is turning us against each other; the productive course is to turn people towards each other. You’re wrong because you’re lining suspects up against the wall and saying “They shot the arrow.”
The answer to the problem of people trying to burn books is not to burn the books which say “We should burn books.” The answer to the problem of people campaigning for academics to be silenced is not to conduct a campaign that attempts to silence academics. Doing so by ‘cutting them off at the source’ and discouraging students from their classes is add a layer of abstraction to the flawed solution — what is called for is a genuinely different approach.
Why you’re a powerful and seductive speaker
You’re an accomplished clinical psychologist and university lecturer who has fought many battles against mental illness and won. Your insights into post-traumatic stress disorder are among the most powerful healing messages that I’ve ever seen, and have affected me a great deal. You’re a war hero, who has stared this problem in the face countless times, and a great many people owe you their lives.
What do we want in a leader? We want someone who knows what our problems are, cares about us as people, and is committed to doing the right thing. I am firmly convinced that you know more about my worst problems than I do, that you care about people like me, and that you are committed to doing the right thing.
I don’t disagree about the problem
I’ve spent more than a little time in the company of highly intelligent young men who have left-wing ideals, and I find it incredibly difficult to watch them destroying themselves. I listen to them talk about how they see the world, and I think “What a horrible worldview, how could that lead to anything but depression and self-destruction?” I think about my own history of depression and self-destruction, and how I needed to change my worldview in order to (literally) save my own life, and I desperately want these guys to change course.
Would the world be a better place if these people had never been infected with this horrible thought-virus? Almost certainly; they deserve better than to be torturing themselves continuously. I deserved better, too. As I take up arms against mental suffering, I look at you and see a hero. A hero who is in danger.
The falling-off place
Nobody will be surprised that my postmodernist friends were appalled and disgusted to learn that I was paying serious attention to one of their most popular critics. They looked and recoiled, but struggled to articulate what they had seen. It was as if I were standing on the edge of an invisible cliff that they didn’t know how to warn me about, other than by saying “Get away from there!”
Foolishly, I persisted in exploring. Now, I think I can see what they see. They don’t see a war hero. They see someone who is obsessed with eliminating a disease from society, who is charismatic, and whose words are being used to justify dividing society into groups. Someone who is proposing an automatic and convenient label to identify people who are saying the wrong things. With my technical skills and contacts, I could take that a step further: augmented reality technology could project a star onto the breast of anyone who has used postmodernist buzzwords. I could intensify the colour based on how heavily they did it, too. But I won’t.
Now that I see the shape that is emerging from the fog, I can see that there is indeed a falling-off place. I won’t name it, because this is the internet, and I don’t want to lose. I, for one, will not automate the process of identifying victims for atrocities.
Steve Hassan’s heroic journey
I learned a lot from Steve Hassan’s book, Combating Cult Mind Control, which details the ways in which mind control cults take over their victims. As it turns out, so did the mind control cults, who issued copies to senior members, saying “This is what you need to do.”
When Steve found out what had happened with his book, he resolved to find a new weapon to fight against the cults. One which would not make them stronger, which would not feed the cycle of oppression. His ‘Freedom of Mind’ initiative details non-coercive ways to help people get out of cults. The critical thing is to maintain relationships with people who are in the grip of a cult’s influence. If you genuinely have a better life to offer outside the cult than in it, then they’ll get curious, and they’ll start to want to leave.
We all know how many social workers it takes to change a lightbulb. It’s good friends who influence you to want something better.
I think you’ve identified the disease. I think that it’s a disease caused by flawed efforts to save society from itself. I think that your proposed cure suffers the same flaw, and when the mob has picked up enough energy, they will be beyond your control.
I know that you know what happens when you pave a road with good intentions. I know that you know the dangers relevant to a good king. I believe that you are a good king. The people who are unreservedly taking up your message are hungry, and they’re looking at ‘the elites’ and they are laughing. I fear the stampede. I fear that when it comes, you will be preoccupied saving innocents who deserved better. I fear that the shadowy forces who are showering you with attention will not help you when you find yourself on the wrong side of the falling-off place.
The road you are on has already been mapped. There is at least one other alternative. The number of viable alternative perspectives might not be infinite, but I’m convinced that it is not exhausted.
Please abandon your efforts to identify and exclude the Other. Please continue your efforts to promote and revive the good king. There’s no need to hunt down and kill the bad king; all we have to do is refrain from saving him, and the hyenas will do the rest.
UPDATE: You might be interested in my follow-up essay “Why Jordan Peterson and his critics are both wrong”. I’m also pleased to acknowledge that the project this essay complains about (to automatically identify postmodernists) is reported to have been cancelled.