On 28 June, a gunman shot dead five employees at the offices of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland. The shooter, 38-year-old Jarrod Ramos, had held a grudge against the newspaper since its reporting in 2011 of a criminal case against him. (Ramos was convicted of sustainedly harassing a woman who successfully sought multiple restraining orders against him.)
Two days before the rampage, alt-right figure Milo Yiannopoulos had texted a journalist at the US news website Observer that he ‘[couldn’t] wait for the vigilante squads to start gunning journalists down on sight.’ According to Yiannopoulos, the text was a joke, although he did not waste the opportunity to further denounce the media, writing in a Facebook post the day after the shooting that:
You’re about to see a raft of news stories claiming that I am responsible for inspiring the deaths of journalists. The bodies are barely cold and left-wing journalists are already exploiting these deaths to score political points against me. It’s disgusting. I regret nothing I said, though of course like any normal person I am saddened to hear of needless death.
It’s unclear if Ramos saw Yiannopoulos’ ‘joke’ before carrying out his pre-planned attack. Certainly, Ramos did not need the encouragement, his Twitter page having long been awash with violence-laced tweets targeted at the Capital Gazette and its staff. Yet whether or not Ramos knew of Yiannopoulos’ text prior to his rampage, both seem symptomatic of an atmosphere in the United States that has become increasingly hostile to journalists and their capacity – some might say responsibility – to pass not-always-favourable comment on matters of the day.
Donald Trump routinely fulminates against reporters – ‘liars’ and ‘enemies of the people’ – and ‘failing’ news media organisations. The billionaire tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, stung by criticism of his Tesla electric car company, wants to create a crowd-sourced ‘media credibility rating site’ called Pravda (a presumably tongue-in-cheek reference to the official newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the name of which means ‘truth’ in Russian). In a Twitter-based fit of pique, during which he was accused of invoking a well-known anti-Semitic canard, Musk wrote: ‘The holier-than-thou hypocrisy of big media companies who lay claim to the truth, but publish only enough to sugarcoat the lie, is why the public no longer respects them.’ (Ironically, Musk later wrote a tweet, since deleted, in which he praised a fake news site for its ‘excellent’ reporting, linking to the Wikipedia page on ‘critical thinking’). A tranche of figures associated with the so-called ‘Intellectual Dark Web’, including Steven Pinker and Eric Weinstein, came out in support of Musk.
In a 1955 speech later published in his book of essays Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, Albert Camus famously observed that: ‘A free press can of course be good or bad, but, most certainly, without freedom it will never be anything but bad.’ In condemning the press virtually wholesale, and conflating any adverse commentary with ‘fake news’, the likes of Trump, Musk, and Yiannopoulos are singing from the same songbook as the demagogues who, in Camus’ time, viewed a free press not as an indispensible constraint on power and privilege but a dangerous impediment to their consolidation. And while intolerance of criticism seems to be a generalised feature of the age of social media, when it has never been easier to confirm our own biases and shut out the voices of those with whom we disagree, it is mainly on the right that the denigration of the media is being weaponised – ironically, the same side of politics that makes so much hay out of debates about free speech.
Which brings me to Jordan Peterson, the once-obscure University of Toronto psychology professor who shot to public notice – and a central role in both the culture wars, and the alt-right movement – in 2016 in the wake of his opposition to proposed protections for gender expression in the Canadian Human Rights Act. The publication this year of the self-help bestseller 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos has completed Peterson’s unlikely rise; he is now widely feted as one of the most significant public intellectuals in the world.
Among Peterson’s fans – at least eighty per cent of whom, by Peterson’s own account, are men – it has become a shibboleth that the media’s treatment of him has been unfair, dominated by ‘hit pieces’ and inaccurate clickbait. A fractious interview with Cathy Newman on Britain’s Channel 4, which has been viewed more than ten million times on YouTube, was taken by many of Peterson’s supporters as proof that he can’t get a fair hearing in the mainstream media (following the interview, Newman was bombarded with so much abuse, much of it vilely misogynistic, that Channel 4 called in security experts). We are told that it is this kind of journalism that gave us Trump and will return him to office in 2020, and that is driving people to the right.
But while Newman’s interview undoubtedly generated more heat than light, betraying the limitations of TV news and current affairs’ increasingly combative model of journalism, the truth is that much of the reporting on Peterson answers to precisely the same thoughtfulness his fans detect in his work and demand from his critics. Take, for example, this Current Affairs piece, or this one in the New York Review of Books. Excoriating, yes, but sloppy or unethical? Hardly. They are cogent and legitimate critiques of a highly influential author whose ideas (to the extent that they are distinguishable from nonsense, a problem to which I will return shortly) warrant close scrutiny, not least of all because of their popularity in the misogynistic, alt-right-associated ‘manosphere’.
To be sure, Peterson is no clownish firebrand in the vein of Yiannopoulos. Rather, he is urbane and respectable, emblematic of what British writer Olivia Laing has called ‘the endless malice of the polite right’. It is this, I think, that goes a long way to explaining the mass appeal of his writings and lectures: ‘just crazy enough’, in Jon Ronson’s phrase, to ensure media interest, but sufficiently intellectual-sounding to attract an audience for whom a brazen bigot like Yiannopoulos would be on the nose. For all those fan-made YouTube clips in which Peterson ‘destroys’ various interlocutors, in interviews he sounds, above all, reasonable. ‘I’m just laying out the empirical evidence,’ Peterson says to Newman at one point during their interview. It’s a rhetorical strategy shared by many stars of the New Atheist and alt-right firmaments: dressing up old-fashioned prejudice as civilised discourse while seeming to disavow ideology altogether.
So what are Peterson’s ideas, and why should we be concerned about their popularity? Insofar as it can be précised, his sprawling, 600-page first book Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (1999) purported to explore how various universal myths and archetypes, developed over the course of human history, can guide people in making meaning and provide moral frameworks for societies. But, rather like Colin Wilson’s The Outsider (1956) – a similarly esoteric book of grand theory that, in its day, found a cult following not unlike Peterson’s – Maps of Meaning defies easy summarisation. In large part it is quasi-religious gobbledygook, ‘fascinating,’ as the sociologist C. Wright Mills has described the work of other grand theorists, ‘precisely because of its often splendid lack of intelligibility’. It is the kind of writing that seems, with its veneer of profundity, to redound on the reader’s inability to understand complex ideas, rather than on the author’s failure, wilful or otherwise, to plainly state what they mean. The beauty of this arrangement is the way it lends unlimited plausible deniability to Peterson’s claims, often so ambiguous that any criticism can be countered with the accusation that they have been misinterpreted. (Almost every defence of Peterson I’ve read runs along these lines – you just don’t understand! – without ever clarifying exactly what it is his critics are failing to comprehend.)
This obscurantism is a hallmark, too, of 12 Rules for Life, which repackages Maps of Meaning’s key message – how the post-Christian West’s crisis of meaning can be remedied by the study of ancient myths and archetypes – for a general audience. By almost any accepted definition, 12 Rules for Life is, to invoke Peterson’s fondness for redundant capitalisation, a Bad Book. Where it is not obscure, it is blindingly obvious (it’s remarkable how much of this supposedly revelatory book boils down to something like the old parental homily about taking responsibility for yourself). Where Peterson’s claims are not unfalsifiable, they are often wrong (he misquotes Adorno, and misunderstands Orwell – not a writer known for his opacity) or just eccentric. Is it really ‘the primary duty of parents to make their children socially desirable?’ Is eating breakfast really a cure for anxiety? (Peterson’s reference for this nugget is a 50-year-old study!)
The rules themselves, fleshed out in prose that lurches from the pedantic to the folksy (sometimes in the space of a single page), resemble for the most part the kind of inoffensive cant with which Instagram accounts are filled: ‘treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping’; ‘tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie’; ‘compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today’. Others are next to meaningless, for example Rule 7: ‘Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).’ When? Under what circumstances? Aren’t most people’s lives necessarily full of expedient actions, even supposing Peterson’s dichotomy holds?
More troublingly, far from reflecting the post-ideological figure Peterson likes to present himself as, the book is a testament to its author’s decidedly reactionary politics. Take, for instance, the gender essentialism that runs through 12 Rules for Life like a vein of rock. For Peterson, male and female are ‘natural categories’ that describe certain immutable qualities. Archetypally and symbolically, culture, consciousness, and order are all masculine while chaos and the unknown are feminine. The dominance of men over women is not reducible to a ‘disposable, malleable, arbitrary cultural artefact’ like patriarchy, but is ‘permanent’ and ‘real’, stretching back into ancient history. Drawing on evolutionary psychology and the (largely discredited) ideas of one of his intellectual heroes, Carl Jung, all of this is presented as naked fact, rooted in the unassailable truths of nature and mythology. It is for other commentators to dwell in ‘politically motivated interpretations’; Peterson is only ever ‘merely descriptive’.
In truth, there is little daylight between the alt-right’s veneration of a certain kind of hyper-masculinity – with all its talk of emasculated ‘cucks’ and ‘soy boys’ – and Peterson’s fascistic preoccupation with weakness and strength (he has said elsewhere that ‘there’s nothing more dangerous than a weak man’). In Peterson’s pseudoscientific worldview, men who are ‘naïve and harmless’, ‘losers’, and ‘useless bastards’ should look to the dominance hierarchies of lobsters for inspiration (a naturalistic fallacy of the kind Peterson often makes). For Peterson – a man apparently frustrated by the social taboo on hitting women with whom he disagrees – all conversations between men (at least those who are worthy of respect) are freighted with violence. That such authoritarian nonsense – all too easily lining up with the vicious bigotry of the online right – should now pass for wisdom says much about the moment we are in.
In The Politics of Myth (1999), Robert Ellwood observed that ‘the profoundest flaw of mythological thinking’ is ‘a tendency to think in generic terms of peoples, races, religions, or parties.’ It is not hard to see how such thinking connects with the increasingly illiberal nature of contemporary global politics, which has seen the rise of far-right parties in Europe and of xenophobic populism throughout the West. The frightening thing is we have been here before. As Pankaj Mishra has written:
deskbound pedants and fantasists helped bring about, in Thomas Mann’s words in 1936, an extensive “moral devastation” with their “worship of the unconscious”—that “knows no values, no good or evil, no morality.” Nothing less than the foundations for knowledge and ethics, politics and science, collapsed, ultimately triggering the cataclysms of the twentieth century: two world wars, totalitarian regimes, and the Holocaust. It is no exaggeration to say that we are in the midst of a similar intellectual and moral breakdown, one that seems to presage a great calamity. Peterson calls it, correctly, “psychological and social dissolution.” But he is a disturbing symptom of the malaise to which he promises a cure.
As a good student of archetypes, Peterson would no doubt be aware the false hero is a stock character in fairy tales. Often appearing near a story’s denouement, the character’s claims to being the true hero are usually tested and found to be false. If the villain is to be defeated, the false hero is to be exposed. As more and more disaffected young men look to charismatic figures like Peterson to vindicate their bitterness and sense of entitlement in the face of the increasing visibility of women and other minorities, unmasking such charlatans may prove the only guarantee of a happy ending.
Image: Jordan Peterson