The political narrative regarding Jordan Peterson now appears set in stone – he is an ideological warrior of the right.
Fans and detractors alike seem to agree on this much. The only residual dispute, still capable of generating enough friction to power a small town, is whether this political identity renders him a messiah or a Führer. This, much like knowledge of the universe, depends entirely on one’s point of observation.
To those on the left, Peterson is the leader of a dangerous political cult of angry, sexist, transphobic, racist young men descending, like the hordes of Genghis Khan, upon the civilized world intent on rape and pillage. To those on the right, he is a martyr in the advanced stages of beatification and the savior of a lost generation in a fading civilization.
The truth? His political philosophy is more enigmatic than either his acolytes or despisers care to acknowledge, or perhaps can see. Peterson’s actual political philosophy is rather obscure, at least to those who believe a political philosophy worth the name must consist of more than an opinion on the pronoun ze. There are three reasons for resisting the caricature of Peterson’s politics in either its hagiographic or demonizing registers.
First, there is his consistent reticence and circumspection regarding the contours of his political philosophy. Second, there are the distorting effects of his ubiquitous media appearances, which tend to reflect the political preoccupations of interviewers who set the terms of discussion. Thirdly, there is the ideological predilections of his legion of followers who use his image, content, and words in ways which to do not necessarily reflect his actual political thought.
To be clear, I do not contend that Peterson is a misunderstood radical progressive at heart. I simply advance the modest thesis that his political philosophy, which evidence suggests does sit at some latitudinal distance to the right of the conventional, if increasingly ill-defined, political spectrum, is more complex than prevailing caricatures suggest. In pursuit of this thesis, I will adopt an unfashionably agnostic perspective as to the relative merits of his political ideas and their social impact. Those with a penchant for Peterson hagiography, or demonography, can consult the abundant content available in both categories.
The idea that Peterson is at all reticent and circumspect with regard to his political views will strike some (perhaps many) as hopelessly naïve. This is a man, after all, who shot to public prominence on the back of his opposition to the mandated usage (as he saw it) of gender pronouns. I do not deny that his stance in relation to this particular issue situates him securely in the company of those who proudly identify themselves as conservative.
But this issue, which Peterson has consistently construed as a question of “compelled speech” rather than an issue of gender per se, does not amount to a political philosophy. Nor can it be deemed deterministic of a political philosophy. In fact, it is not even predictive of a right-wing political disposition, as the internecine conflict raging on the left between feminist luminaries of yesteryear, like Germaine Greer, and trans-activists abundantly testifies.
It is true that Peterson’s heretical view that the weight of empirical research attests that men and women exhibit statistically significant differences (at the margins) in preferences, particularly with respect to occupation, though not in respect of cognitive ability and other competencies, makes him a pillar of the patriarchy in the eyes of the feminist movement. But again, this rather nuanced position of Peterson’s does not entail a political philosophy per se.
In fact, it is not even clear that Peterson regards this issue as political at all. Unlike the pronoun/compelled speech protest, which was undeniably political in nature, the evidence suggests that Peterson regards the question of gender preferences as a purely empirical matter. To that end, he consistently ties his views on the differential preferences of the sexes to the relevant academic literature. One may contest his interpretation of that literature, but it is clear that he is making a factual case, not an ideological case, at least as far as he is concerned. His sometimes impatient and cantankerous interactions with journalists on this question probably has more to do with irritation that the facts, as he understands them, are being contested by individuals not versed in the literature.
That is not to deny that Peterson’s views on this topic do in fact constitute a genuine threat to feminist dogma, at least in its twenty-first century incarnation. Nor is it to deny that some on the right have politicized his statements by making puerile video montages on YouTube entitled “Jordan Peterson destroys feminists”. But these are political construals of what is an informed, if controversial, position.
As with the issue of pronouns above, which comes up ad nauseum in media interviews with Peterson, he is incessantly drawn on the issue of the equality of the sexes, most (in)famously in his viral and much-memeified “so you’re saying” interview with Channel 4 News presenter Cathy Newman. But do the questions of journalists accurately reflect Peterson’s own political preoccupations? Or, rather, do they simply reflect the fact that the currency of the media in the age of digital disruption is controversy? What journalist possesses either the time or desire to delve into the finer points of Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, a “dense” book by Peterson’s own account, when there is a clickable story of sexism and transphobia in the offing?
I do not deny that Peterson’s stated position on gender pronouns and his reading of the literature on male-female preferences makes him a controversial figure in the eyes of the mainstream media and fodder for ideologues who while away their time shouting at each other on social media. I do, however, question how much of Peterson’s actual political philosophy can be gleaned from these isolated issues, particularly when they are amplified by the media’s lust for controversy and then drowned out by the ideological white noise that invariably follows.
Then there are oft-expressed views which seem to confound the easy caricature of Peterson as right-wing ideologue. Take his well-known, but much-maligned, position on social hierarchies (thanks to a certain analogy involving lobsters). He regards social hierarchies as both necessary and unavoidable wherever humans cohabit and collaborate.
This is the basis for his opposition to equality of outcome in favor of equality of opportunity, and his attendant hostility to communism in both theory and practice. Yet he has repeatedly noted in more extensive and sympathetic interviews, with the likes of Joe Rogan (where he at his most revealing), that social hierarchies, while necessary and unavoidable, invariably create winners and losers, thus necessitating some remedial action in order to address the injustices that can result.
This view, which probably gets much closer to the heart of his political philosophy than gender pronouns, is something of a departure from the hyper-individualism that reigns supreme amongst libertarianism and what passes for conservatism these days. But then there is this extraordinary revelation, again oft-stated but negligibly reported: as a consequence of the injustices and inequality that hierarchies can create, society needs both the left and the right to provide the creative tension necessary to keep social hierarchies in balance. This notion is pure heresy for most conservatives.
Peterson’s nuanced position on the creative tension that the left and right bring to social hierarchies probably reflects the fact that he understands politics through a primarily anthropological, rather than ideological, lens. This is to say that politics, for Peterson, appears to be a question of human evolutionary psychology and biology, i.e., the search for mechanisms that promote the survival and wellbeing of the species. This could explain some of his political idiosyncrasies which make it difficult to fit him comfortably within conventional political categories, and which distinguish him from the ideologues who use and abuse his name—people for whom ideas and identity are the principle drivers of politics.
If one looks past the noise and rancor generated by Peterson’s public statements and interactions, one will notice that he has neither outlined something we might venture to characterize as a political philosophy, nor revealed his hand on a host of touchstone ideological questions. It is noteworthy that he is reluctant to embrace the label “conservative”.
We can only speculate as to the reasons why Peterson has kept his powder dry on some of the most obvious ideological questions of our age. It could be a reticence to limit his audience. It might be that he does not have a settled position on some of these questions. It may simply be that he is not interested in every single political debate of our current age. He is, after all, a clinical psychologist. It is important to bear in mind that his bestselling book is called 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, not Peterson’s Republic. Instructively, the most viewed video on Peterson’s YouTube channel (3.9 million) is “Biblical Series I: Introduction to the idea of God.” If anything, Christianity seems to be of greater interest to Peterson than politics.
The fact is that Peterson does not pretend to be a political philosopher, nor a politician. His overriding concerns appear to be clinical. His public speaking tours, after all, are equal parts university lecture, sermon, and Tony Robins (without the hoopla). They do not resemble political rallies or campaign launches. Peterson’s ambition appears to be empowering individuals to live successful and meaningful lives in what he regards as a Hobbesian world in which darkness and chaos lurk around every corner.
It is distinctly possible that we are witness to a man undergoing political development in the public eye. There is no evidence that Peterson set out to start a political revolution. It was not the opposition of a little-known university professor to proposed legislative changes regarding the use of gender pronouns in Canada that propelled him into the political limelight. That distinction goes to a video posted on YouTube by third parties depicting his confrontation with a small group of trans-activists over the issue.
It is also easy to misconstrue the intention of Peterson’s bestselling 12 Rules for Life on the basis of its undeniable political impact. The book’s genesis, recounted by Peterson at great length, is rather prosaic. A literary agent who had seen Peterson on Canadian TV pitched a book to him: a guide on how to live well. Peterson had already posted several “rules for life” on Quora, a question-and-answer website, where they had been getting some traction. So he expanded and developed these into the 12 rules of the book’s title.
To some extent, the political enigma that is Jordan Peterson might simply be a function of the fact that this experienced clinical psychologist and accomplished academic is not an expert in political philosophy and has been thrust to the vanguard of fractious political debate without the benefit of a fully formed political philosophy.
The most revealing thing to emerge from Peterson’s debate with Slavoj Žižek was his unpreparedness to debate a genuine political philosopher of the left. Peterson came intent on exegeting the Communist Manifesto under the misaprehension that this might be relevant to a European neo-Marxist whose Marxism is shaped more by Hegel and Lacan than Marx. Žižek’s “Marxism” clearly confounded Peterson and is a warning against the perils of working with simplistic and outmoded political categories when it comes to twenty-first century political philosophers.
This is not to impugn Peterson’s intellect. He is a highly intelligent man capable of sophisticated intellectual discourse, as demonstrated by his thoughtful and probing conversation with transgender academic Camille Paglia (available on his YouTube channel). That discussion revealed Peterson’s impressive intellectual range and depth. But this is probably a product of the fact that Peterson stayed within the zone of his genuine expertise: psychology.
Peterson’s weakness, exposed by Žižek, in spite of a characteristically erratic performance by the latter, was that his views of the left seem largely informed by its most vociferous critics (Solzhenitsyn is a favorite) and the actions of its most infantile activists. This does not make Peterson’s criticisms of the left invalid. But it does leave him under-equipped to engage in critical dialogue with genuine intellectuals of the left.
There is no gainsaying the fact that Peterson has become a politically influential and controversial figure in his own right. And there is no abrogating the responsibility that comes with such influence. Indeed, debate rages unabated regarding what responsibility Peterson does or does not bear for the way his ideas, statements, and content are used by those who refract them through diverse ideological lenses.
This is a challenge for all public intellectuals with a following. It is particularly acute when your following is measured in the millions and one in 10,000 fans lining up for a photo with you slips in the image of pepe the frog in service of their own agenda. Nor is there any negating the possibility that Peterson might harbor political ambitions now or into the future. But separating myth from reality is a first integral step towards an objective understanding of the Peterson phenomenon, something in short supply. A dispassionate analysis of Peterson’s political thought and impact is only getting more difficult as Peterson, in no small twist of irony, becomes something of a twenty-first century political archetype at the hands of others.
There is a real risk that Peterson, if it is not already too late, will come to stand in the same relation as Calvin to Calvinism or Marx to Marxism. The difference, however, is that while it took generations for Calvinism and Marxism to bury the men who lent their names to these movements, the digital revolution has already enabled Petersonism to swallow Peterson whole.
The need for sober political analysts to separate Peterson’s political philosophy from the philosophy of Petersonism, in all its permutations and mutations, is pressing. If nothing else, sober analysis of Peterson’s political thought with all its ramifications will undoubtedly prove to be a fecund source of insight into our contemporary political culture and its beguiling currents of change.
Jonathan Cole is a Research Fellow of the Centre for Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University, Canberra, Australia. He is a contributing editor for The New Polis and author of Christian Political Theology in an Age of Discontent (Wipf & Stock, 2019).