Liam Cruivie | 20 June 2018
What are the limits of Jordan Peterson? Improve the conditions of the debate and we might actually find out.
Photo credit: Adam Jacobs. Wikimedia Commons
In April of this year, in an interview with America’s NBC News that was editorially savaged for a hit-piece (see for yourselves), Professor Jordan Peterson was asked about the precise nature of his “fanbase”. Taking issue with the premise, he responded:
Whether or not what I have are fans is debatable. Rockstars have fans. I’m not a performance artist, I don’t have fans. I have people listening carefully to what I’m saying.
For a long time, this was hard for me to credit. Following closely Peterson’s ascent to something like mainstream respectability, there’s no doubt to me that the one charge which may be plucked from the deluge of dishonest smear is that, for some time, Peterson enjoyed the support of a demographically specific fanbase, often availed of little besides a tenuous understanding of his thinking. Less clear, however, was the extent to which his actual message had anything to do with this.
To a fair minded yet uninitiated observer, discussion of Peterson that engages only in dispelling the veritable party-line of abuse resembles very closely warm support, and this can border on the hagiographic. Though lamentable, this seems only because a Peterson “supporter” is never discussing, say, to what extent his touted “psychological substrate” aligns with Jung’s collective unconscious, but is instead answering tiresome charges of transphobia or ill-defined connections to an ill-defined alt-right. These are charges that, being so dishonest and disgraceful, must be met with the kind of forceful rebuttal which can resemble fanboy-ism. There are, I believe, limits to Jordan Peterson, but for a long time they were not worth discussing; for a long time, it was only worthwhile heaping scorn upon the sultans of smear. It now strikes me that we may be coming to the end of this circus, and with that possibly the end of the Peterson “fanboy” phenomenon. This is of course welcome; Peterson is the type of intellectual force that must be appraised soberly – it is in the interest of his supporters and detractors alike to do this.
A little over two months ago, writing about Peterson’s unlikely ascent, I noticed that criticisms made at the beginning of his public career exhibited an acutely atrophic potency as time went on. Accordingly, the diminishing returns afforded detractors in labelling Peterson a “transphobe” relegated that epithet to obsolescence within a few months; that he is an academic charlatan, an extreme right winger, or an idol of the ill-defined “alt-right” similarly fell away by virtue of nothing more than the exposure which simply allowed the man to explain himself. Such smears rely on the ignorance of the audience: for them to stick, Peterson has to be a shadowy figure, an aberration erupted from the fringes who must be dispatched - post-haste - from whence he sprang. Accordingly, every second of mainstream exposure – screen time of Peterson expressing himself – is fatal for the dishonourable amongst his detractors. But vitally, it is never
fatal for the honourable.
When I last wrote about Peterson, it was his chummy interview with Russell Brand which I saw as indication of his increasing mainstream acceptance; now it is in his partnership with Stephen Fry at a prestigious Munk debate that I discern perhaps the final victory in the attrition against those who will not raise the calibre of their argument above smears. The extreme left, we all know, cannot countenance Peterson for a second, but when Stephen Fry (verbally dazzling denizen of the marvellously moderate and respectably reasonable left) is on your side, one may suddenly identify who really constitutes “the fringe”: It isn’t Peterson, a man who has on several occasions delineated the function of the left and the need for its existence.
Around about the same time as the Munk debate with Fry, Peterson appeared on The Wright Stuff, which is to say, middle-brow British daytime telly. Herein we were afforded a neat display of how the old charges just don’t stick anymore. For one thing, it is certainly worth considering how an alleged hero of Pepe-sporting Nazi trolls from the darkest corners of the internet is suddenly on daytime TV, but the real clincher came in his soft grilling at the hands of fellow guest and leader of the Women’s Equality Party, Sophie Walker. Walker, an extremist with pretty much nothing left to her besides the old charges, asked Peterson:
Why do you think that it is that so much of what you say is so very popular with the alt-right?
To which Peterson curtly replied:
It isn’t. And you don’t have any evidence for that at all, any more than you have any evidence that alt-right people watch this show.
At this point, host Matthew Wright (himself scarcely an intellectual welterweight, who earlier needed explaining what STEM students were) butted in with, of all things, a reference The Daily Stormer, the white nationalist news site named after the infamously salacious Nazi tabloid. What I am certain that no fair-minded observer could have failed to notice in this exchange was the whiff of desperation to what, by this point, was a cringe-worthy throwback to Peterson’s difficult birth as a popular intellectual. Peterson might have swiftly dispatched the outrageous slander (or “shut her ass down”, as Walker’s supporters might have expressed it) but, by this stage, he didn’t have to. By the time of the airing of the interview, he was long impervious to the alt-right charges, and they came off as a total aberration. What could be done once with arrogant ease now requires a serious brass neck. (Not that such eye-watering crap doesn’t still come in battalions - see this disgraceful article which not only tries earnestly to make Peterson out as an anti-semite, but in an earlier version placed him beside Hitler in the lead image!)
I celebrate Peterson’s ascent now as I celebrated it before, but then I am also acutely aware that the verb “celebrate” is still the most appropriate one. That I am using “celebrate” makes it clear to see where the charges of fanboy-ism come from. The aim then - surely - must be to stop celebrating and start criticising, start discussing, and start assessing. This is naturally hard to do when Peterson still catches flak of the kind thoughtlessly sprayed across The Wright Stuff studio, and so its relative decline is welcome. Happily, I now predict that, on account of this decline, we will observe – indeed already have observed – a complimenting decline in the prominence of the irritating fanboys that are such an embarrassing cartoon of themselves.
So where does this leave us?
Well, it brings us to the point where we can start discussing The Limits of Jordan Peterson. If before Peterson was bluntly evil to his enemies, it followed that he must necessarily have been saintly to his supporters. We speak of limits then because, if we can no longer smear him, we can no longer venerate him – we must bring him down from that flimsy pedestal that was only ever a reaction to astonishing barrage of smear that he was hit with. We can’t have it both ways; Peterson is terribly important (who can deny that?) but he surely has limits – limits made all the more prominent by his eminence.
I hope now to see measured criticisms from naturally antagonistic parties. There are still shockingly few – this from a Lacanian scholar and this from the editor of Current Affairs may still have a malicious agenda clearer than day, but they testify to the improving conditions of the debate. The first article attempts to meet Peterson on the field of psychology (although a disciple of Lacan accusing anyone of “psychobabble” is rich) and the second, for all its cheerful race baiting and strained ad hominem prologue, essentially concedes the left-liberal smear campaign (post Cathy Newman, this has become rather unavoidable). Most significantly, neither article hurls abuse at him in the manner of earlier days; “transphobe” and “alt-right” are epithets mercifully absent. I don’t doubt that these authors have been forced to this point – and would much rather just write Peterson off as a bigot – but the rosily salient point is that the discourse is improving, and Peterson supporters can now, in good faith, meet these criticisms head-on without fear of themselves being labelled a transphobic white identitarian. I know for a fact that there is an intellectually honest but currently silent mass of people who combine a dislike of both Jordan Peterson, and the ridiculous charges that are made against him. And why shouldn’t we have a wide ranging and nuanced discourse on this man? He’s hardly of the sandwich-board street corner mob; he’s on the stage - and people are turning out to listen in droves.
The call for a more civilised appraisal of a major figure is just that – more civilised. And I will never tire of stressing just why people who dislike Peterson should adopt such civility. He’s not going away, so why bury the more incisive criticisms beneath baseless slander that relies on reader ignorance? That ignorance is decreasing and that kind of criticism will never win out. “Transphobe!” catches attention more than anything that may actually unsettle his position of popular appeal, but it will no longer convince.