In a recent piece in The Stranger, staff writer Katie Herzog makes the claim that the political left has been actively misinterpreting Canadian Psychologist and self help guru Jordan Peterson. Examining the response to Peterson’s recent speaking engagement in Durham, where large groups of left and liberal activists rallied to protest his attendance, Herzog claims that the left has gone too far. By interpreting his views as racist or misogynistic, according to Herzog, his fans are being actively pushed to the right. This is not just contrarian concern trolling, but gives cover to the most dangerous ideas of the cultural and political right.
The fundamental truth of Peterson’s worldview is that it characterizes social domination and traditional hierarchies as natural law, not historical creations or social conditions. Through a bit of rhetoric, Peterson ends up doing is flipping the ideals of the enlightenment and modernity, eschewing evidence for a traditionalist perspective that rejects collective experience and struggle. Peterson turns the quest for knowledge and challenging of the status quo into an adoration of existing conditions and an apprehension towards any social progress. This is undoubtedly reactionary and right wing.
In a world of oppression and crushing hierarchy, Peterson’s tireless protection of the status quo inherently results in homophobia, sexism, and racism. So, perhaps maybe we should forgive leftists who call him racist or view him as a bigot, even if this is technically not what he is saying? Relying on hyper literalist readings of figures like Jordan Peterson without extrapolating where his ideas lead is not just useless, but counter productive to justice and intellectual curiosity.
No, he is not Richard Spencer, as Herzog points out in her piece. What figures like Peterson are doing is repackaging pseudoscience and reactionary politics in the guise of self-help. It’s a potent formula, especially as we are surrounded by a failing economic system built on funneling wealth to the top. People are hurting in numerous ways and in our era of atomization and nanopolitics, that loneliness can easily be channeled towards dangerous ideologies. It’s laughable, to claim as Herzog does, that criticizing the claims made by Peterson will only lead his followers to the right. Peterson’s words are what is pushing people to the right. If you are turned into a fascist because a POC called your favorite Canadian YouTuber right wing, one cannot help but think that those ideological leanings were there in the first place.
Let’s examine the perspective of another psychologist, James Hillman, a Jungian of significantly greater intellectual achievement than Peterson. Hillman, an American who served as the head of the Jung center in Zurich, was a prophetic voice on the challenges of psychology in an era of massive social, political, and economic inequality. According to Hillman, the domination and violence of the status quo was creating problems that could not be solved through individual processes of psychoanalytic introspection. The widespread feelings of loneliness and depression were rooted in social and political systems that require social and political solutions.
Who knows though, maybe I am mischaracterizing Peterson. In a review of Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life”, Nathan J Robinson highlighted how Peterson has a habit of being vague and and employing doublespeak around the topics of politics and culture, in direct contradiction to his 10th rule: “be precise in your speech”. These vacillating takes allow Peterson to activate the reactionaries in his audience, whilst obfuscating his perspective to get liberals like Herzog to defend him. It’s the same double game played by the alt-right “free speech” warriors just dressed in a slightly different suit.
We should not expect Herzog to know who James Hillman is, or to have an explicitly Marxist reading on society in order to be considered “on the left”. However, its a real shame when those who claim to be on the left buy into right wing talking points and aid in the obfuscation of reality that the right preys on. There is no need to accept faulty premises just to appease some figurative center.