A couple of weeks ago Rebel Wisdom published an article and Youtube video with constructive criticisms of Jordan Peterson. “The Peterson Paradox, or, It’s not enough to be right if people stop listening”.
I had no idea what the reaction would be — especially given that our Youtube audience in particular was built largely out of Peterson admirers, who found us via our two documentaries about him.
As Peterson himself says, “I write to know what I think”, and it was in writing the long Medium essay (in the end, around 6000 words) — and reading the comments and feedback it sparked — that I found clarity on his blind spots and see a deeper understanding of the questions he poses, and the reaction he has created.
In short, when I discovered Jordan Peterson’s thought around a year ago, I discovered something of a ‘theory of everything’ encapsulated in the Maps of Meaning and Bible lectures, where he took the deepest thought structures of western culture, such as the archetypal thinking of Carl Jung, and then mapped it onto neuroscience and evolutionary thinking.
He is holding something close to a complete synthesis — a full articulation of the knowledge that is communicated through symbolic forms such as art and mythology, and also embodied in our actions and interactions.
So the question of where this synthesis is correct, and where it is lacking, is of paramount importance. This is potentially a time of revolutionary intellectual synthesis, a time where we could see the split between science and religion healed after 500 years of division. It’s an epic project, and one that tens of thousands of people have become caught up in, and are watching closely.
Concerns and completion
It is hard to see Peterson clearly — the man and the message — because of the number of unfair, ad hominem and bad faith arguments that have been made against him by the media at large.
In short, there were three main concerns, and one point of potential synthesis that emerged from writing the essay.
- That he could frame his message in a way that reached people who were currently hung up on the politics or aesthetics — that he had been (willingly or not) enrolled onto one side in a culture war that he had the potential to help us transcend.
- That he could withdraw from some of the ‘firefighting’ with the media, where he was being dragged onto their turf and defending himself, rather than taking a wider and deeper perspective.
- That the wit and humour that was so powerfully in evidence during the iconic Cathy Newman interview on Channel 4 News was less and less to be seen, and it was a crucial asset in delivering his message.
The synthesis point that I reached through this was concluding that there was a kind of theological incompleteness in his perspective, and that this is what some of the media coverage was picking up — though badly articulated on their part. I discuss this point with psychologist Louise Mazanti at the end of the latest Rebel Wisdom Youtube film.
In putting this content out there, I learned a lot. Firstly that Peterson’s fans are not the ‘cult-like’ entity painted by some in the media. For a while I’ve felt that, by contrast, Peterson is largely a filter for freethinkers — for those that are able to look past the media coverage and to risk the disapproval of their friends, and make up their own minds from the source material.
I learned that my concerns were quite widely shared, even by his long-time admirers. And there were several good counter-arguments and feedback that helped me develop my thought further.
The negative comment that was made the most on the Youtube channel, was an accusation that we (Rebel Wisdom) were ‘betraying’ Peterson in some way by criticising him. The interesting thing about this is that this is exactly the root of the polarisation that we are seeing — and was the reason for making the podcast. In the past, being ejected from one’s tribe would have been fatal, so we have a deep, hard-wired tribalism, increasingly fuelled by social media and the downward spiral of the mainstream media, that fuels this tribalism, an ‘us and them’ mentality.
If we can’t evolve past it, then we are most likely doomed, as Eric and Bret Weinstein argue on the Dave Rubin show.
Another comment was that we were arguing for Peterson to ‘censor himself’. My perspective was not that he should censor himself, but that he could speak the truth more smartly — and use the massive power of his Youtube channel to distribute content that provided the context that was lacking in some of his media appearances. Create films that explain the deeper archetypal currents of what is going on, for example: how the mainstream media plays the role of the ‘devouring mother’ in archetypal terms. Provide slick, smart pieces that unpack the depth of thought in the Maps of Meaning of Bible lectures and apply them to the current cultural dynamics.
Peterson’s immense value is in the depth of his thought, something that is almost impossible for the mainstream media to understand or reflect.
The fact that his mainstream success came about through reframing his thought into a ‘self-help’ book allows people to dismiss him as a surface-level thinker. My strong sense is that he could — with smart production — produce content that provides the right context and framing to allow him to reach wider than the fan base he has at the moment.
I consider myself from the liberal left, and I’m dismayed at the number of people on the left that can’t get past the politics to see the depth of thought underneath it. I could even imagine a video that could be made called “A left-wing case for Jordan Peterson”.
One of the comments we got was that, given that 90% of the reactivity and unfairness was on the part of the media, that it was tantamount to ‘victim blaming’ to criticise Peterson for getting angry or reactive. To which I’d say two things — the former navy Seal and podcaster Jocko Willink talks about ‘Extreme Ownership’, behaving as if we have complete responsibility for anything that happens. This is empowering, to blame the media for misrepresenting you all the time is disempowering, accepting that we have the power to change that is empowering.
Also, if we’re stuck in an argument with someone who is being completely unreasonable and we can tell they are being unreasonable, we only have a few choices, one is to leave the argument, the other is to fight and the third is to work through the argument. Only the person in the argument who is able to see what the other isn’t, the person with the widest frame, has the potential to change the dynamic. It’s unfair, but unavoidable.
With Rebel Wisdom, we have tried to use the deeper archetypal perspective that Peterson has popularised, to unpack the cultural dynamics roiling below the chaos of the times, especially where this is fuelled by gender dynamics and the troubled relationship between men and women.
And it is with this in mind that I return to the possible synthesis I spoke about.
Part of what provoked us to raise the concerns we did was the New York Times article, ‘Jordan Peterson, Custodian of the Patriarchy’, because it felt like something of a watershed moment in crystallising impressions of him.
As his fans understand, there is some truth in the title, Peterson does defend ‘the patriarchy’, not in the conspiracy theory sense that it is often used by radical leftists, but in the sense that there is something extremely valuable about a society that is largely based on competence and has created the most wealth and highest living standards in history. He also agrees that ‘all societies have a tyrannical element’, but the diagnosis of our society as a ‘corrupt patriarchy’ is the result of only seeing the tyrannical element and not the benevolent, positive element.
Nearly everything else in the article took his own words and twisted them out of shape, but I think it was pointing to something real.
In that — I have concluded that Peterson is doing a vital, essential job in reviving the masculine power of the culture, “rescuing the father from the underworld” in the mythological framework.
But this is not the final resolution of the societal dynamics. The ‘divine masculine’ force that Peterson represents (and describes in the clip to the left) has to be matched by an equal (divine) feminine force.
Watch my interview with Louise Mazanti for more on this. What it means is that the feminine force in the world, that is learning that it has more power than ever before, through the (long-overdue) reckoning of the #metoo movement, also needs to come into responsibility to match the power.
And this has to happen soon — because we are still in the times of chaos, and it’s going to get much more chaotic before it gets better.