Last year I had the pleasure of working with a group of underprivileged teenagers from Adelaide’s southern suburbs on a piece of devised theatre. Our starting theme was ‘heroes’, a topic broad enough to encompass early discussions about family members, sportspeople, Malala, and the kids from Stranger Things. We also talked about Heather Heyer, the anti-fascist protestor murdered in Charlottesville, Virginia, during a Unite the Right rally in 2017. Heyer didn’t make it into the final draft of the time-travelling play but one of her forbears did: Sophie Scholl, the anti-Nazi activist executed in Munich in 1943, at the age of 21.
None of the kids had heard of Scholl but it wasn’t necessary for me to spell out the congruities between the lives, and deaths, of these two young heroes, born more than sixty years apart. It was similarly unnecessary – at a time when the strengthening of the far right globally is as obvious to a fifteen year old as it is to me – to explain why making plays about such people might be an important thing to do.
For our structure, we initially looked to a tried and tested model: the Hero’s Journey, popularised by mythologist Joseph Campbell and the narrative bedrock of countless books and films. For reasons I won’t get into, I’d long wanted to include in a play a TED talk-style speech, and hit on the idea of a meta-explanation of the Hero’s Journey by a contemporary equivalent of Campbell.
But who to base this character on? I thought immediately of Jordan Peterson, a noted Campbell enthusiast, and together the group and I set about fashioning a character we ended up calling Jackson Jackson (in theatre, as in poetry, alliteration is almost never a good sign). In the final play, Jackson is interrupted in his talk by a female anti-fascist protestor who demands to know why he insists on using the masculine pronoun. Here’s how he responds:
You want to know why I keep saying man? Because women do not have a hero’s journey. At best, women – you – are the goal of the journey. The prize, if you will. At worst, you are the temptress. For the true hero to achieve transcendence he must, as Joseph Campbell told us, ‘press beyond the woman, surpass the temptations of her call, and soar to the immaculate ether beyond.’ Today you have illustrated that point as well as any story I can think of. And let me tell you something else. You can consider this a prophecy. Inside the collective is a beast and the beast uses its claws. If you wake the beast the result will be violence. Chaos. I’m sorry to say that these continual protests by radical leftists are going to wake the beast. A beast that you cannot conquer but that will conquer you.
Those last few lines, I freely admitted to the group, were not my own. I cribbed them, almost word for word, from a 2016 Jordan Peterson American radio interview about the Bill C-16 controversy (and, yes, Campbell really did say those things about women and the Hero’s Journey, too). As I discovered, only an almost verbatim quote would do to capture the inimitable blend of quasi-allegorical hyperbole, self-aggrandisement, and rhetorical violence that characterises many of Peterson’s pronouncements. Here’s another taste, referenced in the play, from Peterson’s 2017 interview with Camille Paglia:
When men are talking to each other in any serious manner, that underlying threat of physicality is always there, especially if it’s a real conversation. It keeps the thing civilized to some degree. If you’re talking to a man who wouldn’t fight with you under any circumstances whatsoever, then you’re talking to someone [for] whom you have absolutely no respect. But I can’t see any way … For example there’s a woman in Toronto who’s been organizing this movement, let’s say, against me and some other people who are going to do a free-speech event. And she managed to organize quite effectively, and she’s quite offensive, you might say. She compared us to Nazis, for example, publicly, using the Swastika, which wasn’t something I was all that fond of. But I’m defenceless against that kind of female insanity, because the techniques that I would use against a man who was employing those tactics are forbidden to me.
In the past, I’ve been accused by Peterson’s fans of – and I quote – ‘stealthily associating’ the man with violence. However, there really is no need to contrive to bracket Peterson and violence together, sneakily or otherwise. In print and in speech, he frequently sounds as though he condones physical violence. But you don’t even have to search as far as Peterson’s more overtly bull-headed statements to uncover the reactionaryism that is indivisible from his cosmology and that of the far right from which he insists on distancing himself.
Take, for example, his curious reading of the Simpsons’ Nelson Muntz, a schoolyard bully whom Peterson venerates for keeping the ‘soft’ kids in check. More seriously, there are Peterson’s strident appeals to traditional gender roles, which underpin his worldview just as surely as they have underpinned all of history’s fascist movements. As I wrote in an essay for this journal last year:
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… 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.
‘There was only one Nazism,’ wrote the novelist and semiotician Umberto Eco in a 1995 essay on what he called ‘Ur’ or ‘Eternal’ fascism, ‘[but] the fascist game can be played in many forms, and the name of the game does not change.’ Eco goes on to describe 14 ‘typical’ features of ur-fascism, the presence of any one of which is sufficient to allow fascism to thrive. As summarised by Jason Kottke, Eco’s principles of emergent fascism include:
- The cult of tradition. ‘One has only to look at the syllabus of every fascist movement to find the major traditionalist thinkers. The Nazi gnosis was nourished by traditionalist, syncretistic, occult elements.’
- The cult of action for action’s sake. ‘Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation.’
- Fear of difference. ‘The first appeal of a fascist movement or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.’
- Appeal to social frustration. ‘One of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.’
- Contempt for the weak. ‘Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology.’
- Machismo and weaponry. ‘Machismo implies both disdain for women and intolerance of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality.’
- Selective populism. ‘There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.’
- Ur-fascism speaks Newspeak. ‘All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.’
The extent to which Peterson’s Weltanschauung generally, and his bestselling self-help book 12 Rules for Life specifically, answers to Eco’s features of fascism is striking (and so too, we might add, to George Orwell’s working definition of fascism as ‘something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working-class.’). The list describes, in ways too numerous to flesh out here, Peterson’s syncretistic retooling of Christian and secular myth; his disdain for weakness and fetishisation of strength; his appeal among an economically and socially weakened middle class feeling besieged by a perceived rise in status of minority groups; even the strange folksy flavour of much of Peterson’s otherwise sophistic prose. It takes a special kind of myopia to link – as Peterson has repeatedly done – trans activism with the atrocities of the Soviet Union and Maoist China without being able to see the ways in which his worldview connects up with historical fascism and, indeed, the populist and far right movements of today where Peterson has found such support.
The teenagers I worked with last year would confound and perhaps frighten Jordan Peterson. They are comfortable with the fluidities of gender and sexuality that are not ideological constructs but reflections of their experience of the world. Growing up in Adelaide’s low socioeconomic southern suburbs, they are in their own way every bit as disenfranchised as the white, middle-class men who make up Peterson’s most vociferous fan base. But they do not look to regressive appeals to tradition, to machismo and social outgrouping, to guide them.
Rather, they understand, as Nathan J Robinson put it in an essay on Peterson, that ‘the genuinely “heroic” path in life is to band with others to pursue the social good, to find meaning in the collective human striving to better our condition.’ Not for them Peterson’s solipsistic insistence on personal over political change – ‘stand tall’, ‘clean your room’ and all the rest of it – which is where the nihilism that Peterson detects in what he calls ‘cultural Marxism’ truly lies.
For what, after all, does a true liberal have to fear from political change in an increasingly illiberal world?
This is the edited text of a speech given at a Campaign Against Racism and Fascism forum on Jordan Peterson on 12 February 2019, entitled ‘Jordan Peterson: Self-help guru or far-right philosopher king?’
Image: Jordan Peterson photographed by Gage Skidmore.