Accompanying Podcast: Jordan Peterson & the Shadow of God
Part One: When Paracosms Collide
Watching your heroic (or anti-heroic) journey from obscurity to world fame (and infamy), even if sometimes with only half an eye, has been quite the rollercoaster ride. I have gone from unequivocal admiration and identification, to growing suspicion and skepticism, to irritation, distrust and outright hostility, and gradually back to now-heavily-qualified admiration, and more cautiously calibrated identification.
Now I am in a place of—let’s call it—informed ambivalence, I think I am ready to articulate some order out of the perceptual chaos you have wrought upon my soul. I do this in the hope, of course, that you will be ready to receive it. When a hurricane is of this scale and ferocity, the only sensible direction is towards the center. Meeting you there would, I think, be the optimal outcome of what follows.
1. The Necessity for Tolerating Ambiguity
“In the late 1970s, Robert Silvey, an audience researcher at the BBC, started using the word ‘paracosm’ to describe the private worlds that children create. . . . But paracosms are not unique to children. . . . What defines a paracosm is its specificity of detail.”
—T. M. Luhrmann, “Worlds Apart”
There is a saying attributed to Freud, possibly apocryphally: “neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity.” If so, then Jordan Peterson has become a cultural lightning rod for a collective neurosis.
This applies especially to his critics, but also to his staunchest defenders, whether we choose to call them fans, followers or, as Peterson himself prefers, fellow entrepreneurs.
On one side of the cultural divide, we have those (so far mostly among the Left) who consider Peterson an intellectual huckster and/or fascist demagogue. On the other side (including Left and Right) are those who see him as an intellectual giant and a modern-day hero, a kind of secular savior. Depending who you ask, Peterson is both an evil patriarch and a benevolent father.
Throughout Peterson’s rapid ascension, the most recurring theme has been the misunderstanding and misrepresentation, often seemingly willful, of Peterson’s position. When a communication failure is this persistent and profound, it’s fair to say it cannot be laid entirely at the door of those that misunderstand.
Is communication what we think we’re saying or what those we are saying it to are hearing? The mature approach is surely to take a little responsibility when people misunderstand us. A truly balanced look at the “So you’re saying . . .” phenomenon of Peterson-baiting and media scapegoating—without which, let’s admit, he would never have gained such media prominence so rapidly—means assigning responsibility to both sides of the “dialogue.”
The non-neurotic approach to new data requires ambivalence about our own opinions. This is based in the logical certainty that, whenever we start to think we are getting everything right, we are invariably wrong.
A Sacrificial Scapegoat?
Peterson at his best is in the role of the court jester who disrupts the royal decree, even at the risk of his own head. He could even turn out to be the sacrificial scapegoat (cf. Rene Girard) summoned by the zeitgeist, allowing for reconciliation of irreconcilable differences. So we might want to proceed with caution before casting judgment.
In Peterson’s Maps of Meaning lectures, he synthesizes his knowledge as a clinical and evolutionary psychologist with some neuroscience, combines it with a structural analysis of the power of storytelling, and applies it as a lens through which to look at the problems of living in the world.
It is hard not to be impressed by such an enterprise, except maybe by ignoring it altogether, which is what most of Peterson’s critics seem to have done.
Why exactly is the idea of Peterson as an intellectual powerhouse so unthinkable to so many people? The answer appears to be, primarily, that he has too many ideologically unsound opinions. To these people’s minds, Peterson has to be a phony, because the alternative is that their own ideological positions are wrong.
With his impetuous arguments and unfamiliar maps of meaning, Peterson is insisting that elements previously rendered irrelevant by the dominant leftist narrative are, in fact, relevant. This is equivalent to introducing chaos into a lot of people’s painstakingly assembled “paracosms.”
Lucifer’s 12 Commandments
On the other hand, in making the shift from evolutionary psychologist mapping social behavior to moral philosopher—concretized by the release of his best-selling 12 Rules for Life: Antidotes for Chaos—I think Peterson has overreached himself intellectually, and in other ways too.
He is gauche in more ways than one, and it shows up much more starkly in his writing than in his speaking. His gift for the latter is prodigious, and so it is hardly any surprise if his literary skill falls short of his spoken eloquence. The Logos does not possess a Pen of Light.
Peterson’s sin is no small one, then; within his own mythical context, it is the Luciferian sin of worshiping the products and prowess of his own intellect. No wonder if it has evoked a corresponding corrective response from his environment. Because, for all the slanted nature and sloppy journalism of the hit pieces, there is to be found a kernel of truth.
Peterson should know this better than anyone, since he literally wrote a rule about it: rule number 9: “Always assume people might know something you don’t.”
2. The Logos Speaks
“When group members cannot interact with outsiders, they are less likely to think independently. Especially if there is an autocratic leader, there is less opportunity for dissent, and the group becomes dependent on his or her moral authority. Slowly, a view of the world that seems askew to others can settle into place.”
—T. M. Luhrmann, “Worlds Apart”
Peterson stepped out of his classroom onto the world stage in the week following his public YouTube announcement of 27 September 2016, “Fear and the Law.” In the video, Peterson stated that he would not concede to the injunction of Bill C-16, legally compelling him to use specific gender pronouns when addressing transgender persons (the ones who wished to be referred to by said gender pronouns).
This led to on-campus protests that generated national interest in Peterson. This might be seen as the first “Jordan Peterson moment,” but in my opinion this is not quite accurate. The real Peterson moment came, in my opinion, a month later during The Agenda interview with Steve Paikin, the moment in which Peterson said: “If they fine me I won’t pay it; if they put me in jail I’ll go on a hunger strike. I’m not doing this and that’s that!”
It’s a historical moment because Peterson wasn’t just speaking to his webcam but to the world, including people present in the room trying to pressure him into compliance. Accordingly, he manifested all the steely conviction we have been culturally conditioned (by Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, and Tom Hanks movies) to associate with the solar masculine hero.
It was clear he meant every word, and more—at least with hindsight—even that some part of Peterson relished the opportunity to take such a stand. By doing so, he imbued not just that moment but—as it turned out, potentially at least—the rest of his life with archetypal meaning.
The Logos had spoken, and the word of the Aeon was No.
Logos as Hate Criminal
Emotionally stirring and genuinely remarkable (for a mainstream media program at least) as this moment was, it was simultaneously superseded, or at least matched, in sheer jaw-dropping improbability by the opposition, who, from day one (on this same program) appeared either incapable or willfully defiant of seeing any difference between Peterson’s refusing to have his speech legally controlled, and Peterson’s expressing disdain for transgender people (which he has never done).
It went further, of course, insofar as, on this first public discussion (and the protests that preceded it), Peterson’s detractors insisted his refusal to comply with Bill C-16 constituted ipso facto transphobia, was tantamount to hate crime and, in the words of one of his opponents, indistinguishable from physical violence.
Peterson says (paraphrasing): “I won’t be compelled by law to use words I don’t choose to use, period, regardless of the rationale behind the injunction, and here’s why.”
The response he gets is, “We don’t care about your reasons. The purpose of this injunction is to protect an endangered minority from prejudice, hatred, and violence, and by refusing to conform, you are guilty of prejudice, hatred and violence against the people this bill is designed to protect.”
It’s easy to see how, from inception on, there was so little room for a real dialogue to happen.
Both Peterson’s argument and that of his opponents depend on the context in which they are made. Peterson’s underlying context is that of the Logos, the divine imperative to articulate order from chaos; in profane terms, it is the sanctity of freedom of speech.
His opponents’ underlying context is more local and is specific to a single group (though by implication to all so-called “minorities”). Certain people feel unsafe, persecuted, misunderstood, and threatened by society as a whole, and so they need laws to protect them in order to feel safe. This need must be granted, regardless of whether the new laws undermine previously existing laws, or social agreements, which were put in place to protect a larger collective.
Peterson’s argument is, by definition, more grounded in a traditional understanding of morals, law, social cohesion and individual responsibility. But because of the lateness of the hour, the liminality of the times, and the desperation of certain people’s plight, it is almost impossible for many people to make this concession.
In fact, the very traditional basis on which it rests is seen as what undermines it. The recognition that some patriarchal values have allowed for—even advocated—the oppression of minorities had—by 2016—mutated into a belief that all patriarchal values are ipso facto oppressive.
Immunity to Rationality
It is possible—without becoming a postmodernist—to contemplate the idea that these people are not entirely delusional—and that, even if they are, there may be underlying reasons for their delusion, reasons which Peterson, from his relatively safe position within the social hierarchy, failed to address at that crucial moment.
It is true that the transgender activists appear immune to rational discussion or logical arguments. It is also true that some of them have branded Peterson (and later Lindsay Shepherd, for showing a video of Peterson in her class!) as a “transphobe” due to an incapacity to distinguish between a rejection of a crazy law and a rejection of the rationale behind a crazy law (and make no mistake, lots of crazy behaviors have a seemingly rational basis for them).
But when people behave this irrationally, this belligerently and forcefully, when they are this intolerant of anything but total compliance with their will, when narcissistic self-importance has successfully disguised itself as social conscience and virtue and by doing so brought about an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code, clearly, it is time to reevaluate the situation.
3. One Paracosm to Rule Them
“When we argue about politics, we may think we are arguing over facts and propositions. But in many ways we argue because we live in different paracosmic worlds, facilitated these days by the intensely detailed imaginings of talk radio and cable news.”
—T. M. Luhrmann, “Worlds Apart”
Peterson is a psychologist with decades of experience working with clients, including victims of trauma. He is therefore familiar with how profound domestic and social traumas frequently lead to neurotic behaviors.
One descriptor that seems to apply here to Peterson’s most vociferous opponents is “weak central coherence,” a term coined to understand autism that is loosely described as a limited ability to understand context or see “the big picture” (like children who take refuge inside a paracosm, perhaps).
I think the term can be usefully extended to more neurotypical cases, however, and has special relevance to Peterson’s model about the need to articulate order out of chaos. Weak central coherence essentially indicates a fragile ego or unstable sense of self, which in turn both comes from and exacerbates a lack of agreement between one’s subjective inner experience and that of the world at large.
Infant Narcissist Syndrome
A person with weak central coherence may feel threatened by the smallest infraction upon their sense of internal order, i.e., their beliefs about themselves and the world. Such people badly need the world to conform to their own beliefs systems, down to the smallest detail.
This need possesses them, not regardless of how foreign, unprecedented, or unformed their beliefs are, but in direct proportion to that.
In other words, the less of a coherent sense of self we have (about our gender or whatever), and the less the world supports us in our attempt to secure coherence, the more threatened we feel by the world (by other people’s thoughts and behaviors), and the more we need to impose our will onto that chaos, to articulate habitable order from it, even if this means turning relatively habitable order into intolerable chaos for everyone else.
Essentially this is how infants behave: when they feel unsafe and their needs are not being met, they cry up a storm (as often from rage as from anguish), disrupting the environment they feel oppressed by—because it isn’t meeting their needs—forcing it to re-order itself around them. Their private paracosm cannot adapt to the larger social arrangement, so the latter must be made to conform to their paracosm.
Patterns of Trauma
These are factors Peterson must surely be aware of, factors he needs to factor into his engagement with the opposition, so to speak. Yet so far, from what I have seen, he hasn’t really done so.
It’s possible he simply dare not go there, because suggesting that transgender activists (or anyone really, unless it is angry white men) are driven by infantile patterns of trauma—at all—even though we all are to some degree, is to risk further charges of hate-speech, or at least condescension.
I don’t know if this is really the case, but if it is, it is deeply ironic—maybe tragic—that we should be socially obliged to see certain minorities as present victims of a patriarchal system of oppression, while being forbidden from seeing them as past victims of familial oppression.
A Metaphysical Determinant of Gender
To return to the subject at hand, however, Peterson has mostly skirted the edges of addressing the “paracosm” which the terms of Bill C-16 (the ones he refused to be compelled to speak) were designed to uphold.
The transgender activists’ position (one of them) requires the reduction of biological sex to no more than a social construct, and yet (or so it seems to me) such a position can only be argued via the most disingenuous sort of sophistry (either that or willed delusion), because to argue that biological reality is only a social construct is to argue that all reality—including Nature at large—is a social construct; this takes humanism to solipsistic extremes.
All this apparent insanity absolutely depends on a metaphysical determinant of gender that’s powerful enough to trump biological sex entirely.
The closest we get to that is a kind of neurological sophistry that essentially turns the brain into a scientistic version of the soul, i.e., something that exists and functions independently of the body. (Scientism refers to an excessive belief in the powers of science to solve problems that borders on superstition. More about it here.)
This would certainly be a radical new “paracosm” in which to understand the human experience, and reality itself: at least as radical as establishing the existence of a soul that outlasts the life of the body. But the grafting of “brain-gender” onto the idea of an indwelling soul-self may be closer to the role-playing games of children or LARPers (Live Action Role Play).
It may also be what happens when an ideology possesses us and we can no longer distinguish beliefs from the one who holds them. Ambiguity then becomes not merely intolerable but is perceived as an act of war.
The End of the Humanities
Where Peterson’s stance against the encroachment of personal paracosms into established social reality becomes of supreme social relevance, I think, is as follows: the positing of a self, or Self, wholly independent of biology, unidentifiable by any known means of objective observation that can only be posited by giving ontological certainty to subjective testimony, amounts, roughly, to the abolishment of the traditional disciplines of science, mathematics, and law, for starters, and probably all the other disciplines too, if given enough time to wreak its havoc upon them.
In Petersonian terms, it is akin to the articulation of a chaos that promises to eventually render social order entirely uninhabitable. This is surely as valid a concern for human beings to give voice to as is possible to imagine.
At the very least, it is worth having a dialogue about.
The weaker our sense of internal central coherence, the more fragile our sense of self, the less we are able to articulate the chaos of our subjective experience into the order of social expression and potential solution.
This makes us ripe receptacles—but also vehicles—for the imposition of a scientistic or quasi-religious pseudo-order onto (our own) internal chaos.
As a result of accepting this “program,” a minority such as the transgender activists get to have their subjective experience reified and rendered “sovereign,” but only insofar as it can be made useful to the furthering of illegitimate scientistic social programs of order-imposition, a.k.a. tyranny.
In the process, these people naturally become advocates of a scientistic tyranny agenda. They become foot soldiers in an ideological gulf war.
The Dangers of Reification
In some sense however, even if to a much lesser degree, Peterson is doing something similar, or at least risks doing so.
He is reifying people’s subjective experience via his maps of meaning, and while many people have testified to the benefits of this, it may be too soon to put our total trust in subjective testimonials.
If there is one person we can be absolutely sure is benefitting from Peterson’s project, it is Peterson himself (so far at least), which is what lays him open for lazy accusations of hucksterism. Cui bono is not only a necessary question of political analysis but also of psychology.
This element—the snake in the garden—becomes especially problematic as Peterson’s status expands outward and his influence is gradually but unavoidably uncoupled from the questions of personal integrity or the utility of whatever he is actually saying.
When the Medium Transcends the Message & the Mechanism of Cult Creation
High-status figures gain social influence by dint of the authority granted them within the social hierarchies; their influence tends to augment exponentially because the media gives more and more attention to people who have already captured our attention (because it sells).
As this process unfolds, what’s being said becomes less important than who is saying it. When the medium transcends his message, there is every chance he will end up betraying it.
Lucifer created his own mind-space to both worship and lord it over; this is the basic mechanism of cult creation.
To make things even worse, as Peterson’s status rises, he has less and less incentive to listen to the people who don’t agree with him. Faced with such a vast and unceasing influx of information, swept up by a media hurricane centering around himself, who wouldn’t focus on positive feedback over negative, if only as a way to escape a perceptual meltdown? Who wouldn’t put all his stock in the information that validates and reinforces his worldview? It is completely human for Peterson to do this. It is also the surest way for him to come off the rails.
 “Basically it’s not correct that there is such a thing as biological sex. I’m an historian of medicine. I can unpack that for you at great length, if you want, but in the interests of time, I won’t. That’s a popular misconception.” Dr. Nicholas Matte, on The Agenda, Oct 26 2016. Failing this (non-)argument, what’s left is the necessity of positing an unknown quantity (not just a quality) extant in human beings that determines sex independently of biology. The subjective testimony of a non-biological self in question determines for itself a sex that cannot be verified externally (i.e., by anyone else), ever, because it contradicts all external forms of evidence and renders them immaterial. In doing so, it obliges the external world (i.e., everyone else) not merely to tolerate the subject’s self-identification (as a curious, possibly harmless quirk of personality), but to affirm it utterly as reality. This requires that everyone else banish, not only their own subjective perception of a particular person’s biology, but all of their previous experience and knowledge—their “common sense”—about biological sex in general, including their own. “Cis-gender”—the belief that I am a man, i.e., the sex which corresponds with my biological make up—becomes the subjective position, with an implied quality of delusion, at least potentially. It becomes a symptom of my own patriarchal self-oppression. The transgender person’s sense of being a different gender self in the wrong body, in contrast, becomes objectively true precisely because there is no empirical evidence to back it up.