January 24, 2018

THE rIGHT IS THE lEFT:

What's So Dangerous About Jordan Peterson? (Tom Bartlett, Jan. 17th, 2018, The Chronicle of Higher Education)

Figuring out what to make of Jordan Peterson's rise requires first rewinding a few decades. Peterson grew up in the tiny town of Fairview, Alberta, where the high temperature stays well below freezing in the winter months and where the closest city, Edmonton, is a five-hour drive away. It's a place where a teenage Peterson and his buddies drank too much, built bonfires, and cruised around the endless countryside.

Peterson attended the University of Alberta, earning degrees in psychology and political science before going on to get his doctorate in clinical psychology at McGill University. A fellow graduate student, Peter Finn, now a professor of psychology at Indiana University at Bloomington, remembers Peterson as quick-witted and confident. "He was an enjoyable person who liked to be different and thought highly of himself," Finn says. "I thought, Who the hell is he?"

Peterson's early research examined how alcoholism runs in families. When he wasn't conducting studies on the genetic predisposition for addictive behavior, he was plugging away on a side project that would become his manifesto: Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief. He worked on that manuscript, he says, three hours a day for 15 years, rewriting it scores of times. It was not the sort of book that a psychological researcher following the well-trod path to academic success would take on. It does not zero in on a phenomenon or stake out unclaimed ground in a subfield. Instead the book is a sweeping attempt at making sense of man's inhumanity to man, the purpose of existence, and the significance of the divine. Peterson leaps from Wittgenstein to Northrop Frye to Grimm's Fairy Tales, then on to Hannah Arendt, B.F. Skinner, and Dante. The book is shot through with theories of religion ("God" appears several hundred times in the text) and informed by Carl Jung's archetypal view of the collective unconscious, an influence that's still evident in Peterson's work.

Maps of Meaning offers clues to the strongly held political stances that have turned Peterson into a controversial philosopher-pundit. In college, he writes, he espoused socialism almost by default. He tried to emulate the movement's leaders, dutifully attending meetings, absorbing their slogans and repeating their arguments. Over time, though, he found that he didn't respect his fellow activists, who struck him as perpetually aggrieved and suspiciously underemployed. "They had no career, frequently, and no family, no completed education -- nothing but ideology," he writes. He also discovered that he often didn't believe the things he was enthusiastically spouting. "Despite my verbal facility, I was not real," he writes. "I found this painful to admit." He also became obsessed with the looming prospect of nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States. He fell into a depression, suffered "apocalyptic dreams" several nights a week, and fought against "vaguely suicidal thoughts."

Carl Jung rode to the rescue. Peterson read a passage from one of Jung's essays about the importance of understanding "these fantastic images that rise up so strange and threatening before the mind's eye." According to Jung, the way you understand them is by framing your personal struggles in terms of ancient stories, embracing the "power of myth," as Joseph Campbell, another Jung disciple, put it. That epiphany made the bad dreams go away, and Peterson embarked on what has become a lifelong project of grappling with the strange and threatening images in his and other people's minds.

He continued writing Maps of Meaning after he was hired as an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University, using the book-in-progress (at one point titled "The Gods of War") as a text for his classes. In 1995, Peterson was profiled in The Harvard Crimson, an article that reads like an award introduction. One undergraduate told the newspaper that Peterson was "teaching beyond the level of anyone else," and that even "philosophy students go to him for advice." A graduate student from back then, Shelley Carson, who now teaches at Harvard and writes about creativity, recalled that Peterson had "something akin to a cult following" in his Harvard days. "Taking a course from him was like taking psychedelic drugs without the drugs," Carson says. "I remember students crying on the last day of class because they wouldn't get to hear him anymore."

Eventually, in 1999, Maps of Meaning was published -- his magnum opus, the central preoccupation of his life to that point -- and no one cared.

Or nearly no one. The chairman of the psychology department at Harvard at the time, Sheldon White, was impressed, calling it a "brilliant enlargement of our understanding of human motivation." A few others chimed in with praise, but the response was mostly crickets. It sold fewer than 500 copies in hardcover. "I don't think people had any idea what to make of the book, and I still think they don't," Peterson says. "No one has attempted to critique it seriously."

He had considered using Maps of Meaning as the basis for his application for tenure at Harvard. When that moment came, though, he found he wasn't emotionally up to the task. "My mood at the time wasn't of sufficient stability to feel that I was in the position to make the strongest case for myself, unfortunately," he says. He received an offer from the University of Toronto, and he took it. By then he was married with two small kids, and the prospect of steady academic employment was attractive. Peterson moved back to Canada.

In the years since then, he's become a popular professor at the university. Typical comments on RateMyProfessors.com include "life-changing" and "he blew my mind" and "he is my spirit animal." He ran a private clinical-psychology practice, consulted for law firms, and developed his self-authoring website, which is based on ideas from psychologists like James Pennebaker and Gary Latham on the benefits of goal-setting and the therapeutic value of writing about emotion. He also offered occasional commentary on public television in Ontario, sometimes while wearing a fedora.

He continued to research topics like religion, creativity, and the effect of personality on political orientation. But he is not widely known as an expert on any of those topics, nor is he considered the pioneer of a game-changing concept. He hasn't frequently published in top journals. That may be, in part, because he is an old-fashioned generalist, more interested in understanding the connective tissue between seemingly disparate ideas than in tilling a small patch of disciplinary soil. Still, it seemed to some who knew him then that the promising professor who wowed them at Harvard in the 1990s had fallen off the map.

In the video that made Jordan Peterson famous, he can be seen sparring with a handful of transgender students about the use of pronouns. He is nattily attired in a white dress shirt with rolled-up sleeves and dark red suspenders. Several supporters, all of them male, stand behind Peterson, amplifying his points. A transgender student accuses Peterson of being their enemy for refusing to use gender-neutral pronouns. "I don't believe using your pronouns will do you any good in the long run," he says. "I believe it's quite the contrary." When another student asks what gives him the authority to determine which pronouns he uses when referring to someone else, Peterson spins to face that person.

"Why do I have the authority to determine what I say?" Peterson replies, his voice brimming with outrage, his fingers pressed to his own chest. "What kind of question is that?" [...]

Some of what Peterson says isn't discernibly different from the messages of conservative firebrands like Ben Shapiro or the liberal-baiting troublemaker Milo Yiannopoulos, both former Breitbart pundits. Like Shapiro, Peterson argues that the left is transforming the next generation into victims and whiners. Like Yiannopoulos, Peterson argues that the patriarchy is a boogeyman. But when he's been lumped in with what's come to be called the alt-right, as happens fairly regularly, Peterson has pushed back, calling it "seriously wrong." The erstwhile socialist considers himself a classic British liberal, and he has castigated the far right for engaging in the "pathology of racial pride."

Peterson's route to notoriety mirrors that of other professors like Nicholas Christakis and Bret Weinstein. In the fall of 2015, Christakis, a sociologist at Yale University, was encircled by students upset about an email his wife had sent questioning the need for Halloween-costume guidelines. Last spring Weinstein, then a biologist at Evergreen State College (he has since resigned), confronted a group of students furious that he had objected to a planned Day of Absence in which white professors and students were encouraged to leave campus. In both cases, those clashes were captured on video and widely shared online. In both cases, the professors were largely lauded as voices of reason, while the students were mostly mocked as overly sensitive and out of control.

Peterson has used his unexpected notoriety to express dissatisfaction with the state of the university in Canada and the United States. He believes that the humanities and the social sciences in particular have become corrupted -- a term he employs with relish -- by left-wing ideology, and that they are failing to adequately educate students. He lays much of the blame at the feet of the late Jacques Derrida and his disciples for replacing, as he sees it, a search for truth and meaning with grousing about identity and power structures.

His critique is broadly consistent with that of Jonathan Haidt, the New York University psychology professor and founder of Heterodox Academy, an organization whose goal is to increase ideological diversity at universities. Peterson and Haidt met in 1994, when Haidt interviewed for a position at Harvard and Peterson was an assistant professor there. Haidt remembers Peterson as "one of the most memorable professors" he spoke with that day. They didn't keep in touch, but they met again recently when Haidt appeared on Peterson's podcast. "Socrates would be aghast at how few of us are willing to stand up for academic freedom if it risks arousing an angry mob," Haidt wrote via email. "Jordan Peterson is one of the few fearless professors."

He also has a booster in Camille Paglia. Paglia, a professor of humanities and media at the University of the Arts, and a prominent cultural critic whose views don't fit neatly in political categories, identifies as transgender, though she has also been skeptical of what she calls the current "transgender wave." Like Peterson, Paglia condemns postmodernism as a malevolent movement. While she hadn't heard of him until recently, Paglia regards Peterson as a long-lost scholarly brother and sees a link between Maps of Meaning and the provocative 1990 book that made her reputation, Sexual Personae. "It is truly stunning to me how Prof. Peterson pursued his own totally independent path of scholarship in another discipline and yet how our intellectual paths would eventually converge!" she wrote in an email. Paglia blurbed Peterson's new book, calling him the most important Canadian intellectual since Marshall McLuhan. [...]

His lectures are largely improvised. He writes out a bare-bones outline, but he's never sure exactly what he'll say or how long he'll talk (90 minutes? Two hours? More?). His audience likes the no-frills urgency, the sense that he's digging to the heart of impossibly complex conundrums, the feeling that they're observing a bona fide philosopher sweat out the truth under pressure. His frenetic, freewheeling approach is the antithesis of a rehearsed TED talk. He describes his method as a high-wire act. "It's always a tossup as to whether I'm going to pull off the lecture, because I'm still wrestling with the material. Because the lecture in the theater is a performance -- it's a theater, for God's sake," he says. "What I'm trying to do is to embody the process of thinking deeply on stage." He pauses for a moment, then amends that last statement: "It's not that I'm trying to do that. That's what I'm doing."

Not long ago, Peterson had his picture taken with a couple of fans who were holding a Pepe banner. One of them was also forming the "OK" sign with his fingers, probably a reference to the "It's OK to Be White" meme created on 4Chan, one of the more offensive and irreverent corners of the internet. Pepe is a smirking cartoon frog that was originally conceived as an innocent illustration but has been appropriated as a tongue-in-cheek icon by aggressively pro-Trump types.

Peterson thinks pointing to that photo as evidence of his sympathy for white supremacy is silly. "I've had my picture taken with twenty-five hundred people in the last year, maybe more," he says. Peterson, who has written a lot about religious iconography, finds the mythos around Pepe fascinating, noting how Pepe is worshiped by the fictional cult of Kek in the made-up country of Kekistan. "It's satire," he says. "A lot of these things are weird jokes." They're poking fun, he contends, at the oversensitivity of those who would condemn images of frogs or benign statements about the OK-ness of white people. And Peterson has put his own spin on the joke: In a recent video, he held up a Kermit the Frog puppet with a Hitler mustache as a way of acknowledging the criticism, and also, perhaps, of showing his younger followers he's down with the latest memes.

Asked whether he worries that his association with these symbols and slogans, which have been employed by a number of avowed white supremacists, could be misunderstood, Peterson waves off the concern. "I know for a fact that I've moved far more people into the center," he says. "People write and say, 'Look I've been really attracted by these far-right ideas, and your lectures helped me figure out why that was a bad idea.' That also happens with people on the far left."

But he repeats himself...  It is unsurprising that his alt-right fans don't get that his criticism of Left identitarianism, nihilism and embrace of chaos over order all applies to them as well.

The lectures are immensely enjoyable and thought-provoking and all tied together by a few really important conservative themes, the most basic being that our civilization depends on being able to reliably predict each other's behavior, which necessarily entails a common morality, which derives from the shared mythology (non-pejorative) of Judeo-Christianity.  One of the most entertaining things about them is that he's actually thinking as he speaks and one can see that he has not yet fully engaged with the implications of his own ideas.  But it seems likely he eventually will.

Here's a good one to start with:







Posted by at January 24, 2018 6:48 PM

  

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