Discourse in the Culture Wars and the Hunger for Catharsis

This is just the fucking worst.

Imagine a self-help book written by the Darth Maul of tenured campus bad boys, an act of trahison des clercs so severe that it calls into question the entire five-thousand-year academic project—a book that seeks to make accessible to a general audience a mélange of mysticism, philosophy, psychology and dietary recommendations, assembled into a package so intellectually low-cal that it would be hilarious were it not basically a to-do list for a generation of tiki torch-wielding neo-Klansmen.

So begins Richard Poplak’s review of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life in The Johannesburg Review of Books. Poplak is far from alone in his excoriating take on Peterson. Houman Barekat declares Peterson to be a ‘a prancing messiah-cum-surrogate-dad for gormless dimwits everywhere’ in the LA Review of Books, concluding his review with the paragraph:

Admittedly it’s not always easy to distinguish between a harmless retro eccentric and a peddler of poisonous and potentially murderous ideas. So let’s take stock: Masculinist persecution myth? Check. Repeated appeals to Darwinism to justify social hierarchies? Check. A left-wing conspiracy to take over the culture? Check. Romanticization of suffering? Check. Neurotic angst about “chaos”? Check. Like many of his sort, Peterson sees himself as a defender of the best traditions of Western civilization and the Enlightenment. But there is an old adage: if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, chances are it’s a duck.

Tabatha Southey claims that Peterson is ‘the stupid man’s smart person.’ ‘He’s full of shit,’ Harrison Fluss maintains. In Nathan Robinson’s estimation, ‘Jordan Peterson is an intellectual fraud who uses a lot of words to say almost nothing.’ Many other such reviews could be referenced.

The responses to Peterson’s work have been alarming. This isn’t because of the existence of strong disagreement with him: vigorous disagreement with a thinker as vocal and eccentric as Peterson is only to be expected and is also necessary for stress-testing his ideas, many of which are weak and in need of correction or rejection. Rather, it is because of the character of it. So many of Peterson’s critics have been so wild in the swings and misses of their criticisms, have betrayed so remarkable a degree of venom in their writing, have so consistently resorted to ad hominems, have dismissed rather than sought to persuade those attracted to him, and have shown a great eagerness to discredit Peterson entirely and exorcize him from respectable discourse. These hostile reviews have unsurprisingly been spread with immense glee on social media.

When journals of literary review publish pieces as foaming with vitriol as Poplak or Barekat’s, there is good reason to question where the reaction is coming from. It is rare enough for a review to begin with ‘This is just the fucking worst.’ It is even rarer to read such a review of a book that has received high praise from a great many thoughtful, intelligent, and moderate people. Someone like Scott Alexander is not the sort of person one would expect to be receptive to a crypto-Nazi agenda. Something doesn’t compute. Likewise, one wouldn’t expect a person without any academic credibility—a mere ‘stupid man’s smart person’—to have held a teaching position at Harvard and currently to occupy a professorate at a university ranked in the top twenty in the world in his field.

The possibility that Peterson is merely wrong on some things doesn’t seem to be entertained. He must be radically pathologized, dismissed as someone without any academic credibility, characterized as evil and hateful, and his message treated as worse than utterly worthless. Yet a few years back, through the very same left-wing sites that are now sharing these hostile takedowns, I encountered various appreciative links to Peterson’s work (like this one on Metafilter), before he ever became a prominent public figure. However, as soon as Peterson started publicly challenging certain sacred cows of the progressive left, he was declared to be an evil and worthless figure, frequently by people who manifestly lack a basic level of comprehension of his project.

I find this a depressing indication of the current state of discourse. And Peterson himself is far from being without fault here. His own characterizations of ‘cultural Marxism’ are quite distorted and tendentious, even if they are not altogether without a genuine referent. He has been quite uncharitable in many of his attacks upon opposing viewpoints and has not done much to dispel a culture war mentality, especially in his engagements on Twitter.

There has been a rapid hardening of prejudices, a closing off from others, and a recoiling from anything tainted by association with our opponents. The sort of histrionics and hysterics that we are seeing from many on the left in responding to Jordan Peterson is merely one expression of a problem that is afflicting us all. When the register of a journal of literary review precipitously plummets to the inclusion of an f-bomb in a single-sentence opening paragraph, one is witnessing the rapid collapse of discourse into reactivity.

The highly emotive language of many of these reviews and the wide and gleeful sharing of them are further manifestations of our reactivity in the current environment. People are so caught up in the fraught interpersonal ideological tensions of our discursive climate that they are increasingly searching for catharsis over analysis. They desire things that will relieve the psychological tensions that they feel so keenly. Consequently, they produce or pounce upon anything that will enable them to drive out, at least in rhetorical effigy, the persons or parties by whom they feel threatened. There is something in their system and they need to purge it out.

I see a great deal of this on Twitter and have also been mindful of the unruly passions that are excited in me in that context. So many of the people I see, from a range of different backgrounds, are on edge, tense, or like cornered animals on Twitter. They appear to feel themselves to be operating in a sort of war mode, even though they often hate it. They probably desire peace, but believe that is to be found through driving out the other side, whatever that side might be. All of their pent-up tension cries out for catharsis, which is pursued through rhetorical attacks upon opponents, lots of sarcasm, mockery, and dismissive humour, communal outrage, and other such means.

I am persuaded that Twitter and social media more generally are themselves a key dimension of our problem here. Social media produces a situation of undifferentiation, where we are all too close to each other, a situation ripe for the sort of ‘mimetic crises’ René Girard discussed. Scott Alexander remarks upon the dynamics of tribalism, observing that ‘outgroups’ are created by ‘proximity plus small differences.’ One of the problems with social media is that it radically increases our proximity to each other, and our sense of being threatened by each other and the differences that we have from each other: social media intensifies our exposure to outgroups. The result is a ratcheting up of all our tensions and an increasing preoccupation with fighting against other people. As our awareness of and exposure to the outgroup increases, we will grow increasingly reactive and incapable of reasonable discourse. As I’ve pointed out in the past, the supposed ‘echo chambers’ that people complain about are the result, not of less exposure to opposing viewpoints, but of more: they are what result from our reaction against the felt proximity of opposing viewpoints. And the polarizing effect is one that is occurring on all sides.

As a critical mass of society is now psychologically operating on a war footing in many of their online interactions, the war isn’t merely a perception, but is increasingly a reality that is being fuelled by that perception. The growing insanity of both the left and the right is produced and exacerbated by this, each side feeding off the increased craziness and aggressiveness of the other. What was once a cultural struggle with clearly determined fronts has become a vast cultural civil war, which has exceeded all bounds and is rushing into every dimension of our lives.

As all of this relates to Jordan Peterson, this is profoundly regrettable. Peterson is an immensely charismatic individual and, as such, is in danger of producing a cult-like movement if there are not reasonable and charitable critics to engage with him and his ideas. And when one reads various of the left-wing criticisms of Peterson, one can generally see some genuine criticisms present within the extensive quantity of dross. Unfortunately, due to our climate of discourse, these valid criticisms will merely harden Peterson’s critics in their prejudices and inattentiveness to Peterson and will not seriously be considered by any but the most unreactive of Peterson’s followers. Rather than receptive and illuminating conversation, we all merely become more bigoted.

A point I’ve repeatedly returned to over the last few years is that we don’t face the world as detached thinkers, but as engaged moral selves. As such, we must regulate our emotional and structural relation to reality in its wholeness and particularity if we are to think about it clearly and effectively. This requires approaching thinking as something that is founded in virtues and well-ordered practices and societies, rather than merely in brain power. We need patience, self-control, forgiveness and forgiven-ness, graciousness, courage, trust, hope, faith to overcome fear and anxiety, humility, etc., etc. We also must recognize the ways in which our thinking is embedded in environments, structures, and practices, which can be dysfunctional and require closer self-regulation and structural reformation, if we are to function well within them. Thinking becomes a far more challenging activity, requiring deep engagement with and attention to problems in our hearts and our relations, mindful navigation of our institutions and media, and constructive and reconstructive engagement.

If our relationship to opposing ideological viewpoints is so charged with interpersonal and social tensions, we will find it almost impossible to think well about those issues. Rather than responsibly pursuing understanding, we will be seeking catharsis. ‘Responsibility’ denotes the possession of the capacity to respond, rather than just instinctively react—a surprisingly rare virtue! Without it, we will always be searching in some measure for a way to vent our spleen or to drive the threatening viewpoint away from us, instead of engaging with it carefully, charitably, and attentively.

Healthy engagement requires careful management and channelling of our emotions, ensuring that we are not driven by dysfunctional reactivity, but that we have the sort of well-ordered loves, selves, and societies that enable us to respond, rather than merely react. What this looks like will vary for different people. For most people, it probably requires radically paring down social media presence and activity. It almost certainly requires practicing solitude, or at least significantly cutting down on the intensity of one’s social exposure, spending more time in obscurer social contexts. For all of us, it requires the practice of those disciplines that will cultivate strong and virtuous character in us, so that we will be less at the mercy of our environments.

I return to these issues with some frequency, mostly because I am convinced that, unless we take them seriously and address the root problems as a matter of urgency, enmity and contempt will become a settled and stubborn feature of our cultural life.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Culture, Ethics, On the web, Society. Bookmark the permalink.

108 Responses to Discourse in the Culture Wars and the Hunger for Catharsis

  1. Pingback: Sad Compatibilism by Alan Jacobs | Leadingchurch.com

  2. PaulVK says:

    Outstanding! Thank you.

  3. Jennifer Mugrage says:

    Three things:


    Dennis Prager has also compared the current culture war to a civil war, but from a very different perspective.

    “Engaging with [an opposing viewpoint] carefully, charitably, and attentively” is SOMETIMES possible, but in the environment you describe above, usually not. You try to do so, and you just get called some variety of bigot.

    • It seems to me that, if any progress is to be made, it must be multilateral, with sensible people from all sides coming together to forge new contexts and patterns of discourse, recognizing that all of us are compromised by the existing one.

      • Linda says:

        It seems to me, if progress is to be made, people from your intellectual niche will have to decide they are not superior to the rest of us https://youtu.be/C3fy0RYpU8Q

      • John says:

        I’d love the see some examples of his “idea, many of which are weak and in need of correction or rejection”

      • Take his work in the interpretation of Scripture, for instance. I have a PhD in Theology and I can assure you that many of his readings of Scripture would be strongly rejected by people within the discipline, whatever their theological convictions or lack thereof. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t worthy of serious engagement or that there is no merit to them, but they are in ‘need of correction or rejection.’

      • tw2017 says:

        It would be much more helpful to me to understand your point, Alastair, if instead of telling about how “many of his readings of Scripture would be strongly rejected,” you just quoted one specific reading, and explained why it is strongly rejected.

      • Bob says:

        True and reasonable, but alas at this juncture only a theoretical construct, not something that can receive wide practice.

      • Marko says:

        Alastair, this example with the Scripture is so bad. You’ve mentioned your PhD in theology…so I’m writing one as well, in Rome. But with PhD you are more prone to critic. You know that he is approaching the Bible not as a biblical scholar but as a psychologist from jungian school. So, he’s not trying to interpret the Bible in the sense of the history of Salvation, but he is looking for the archetipe of our common human experience, knowledge, discoveries of truth about the world and ourselves, and written in this Book. And he tells that in his first lecture. That this is only one approach to the Bible. And this approach can be and is of great help to believers and not believes to appreciate the Bible more. Even when we will not agree with him in everything, or just details or in lot. We will approach with the healthy dose of cautiousness not to take it as a holistic understanding of the Bible and take it as it is: one approach. Was it you that mentione multirateral approach to the themes? 🙂 So, his approach should not be dismissed, not even corrected by us, but implemented, taken as a method of finding some truths in the Bible. Not to mention that his approach is much much more closer to the truth about Bible than many interpretations of the some biblical scholars that you and I have read during our studies.
        P.S. sorry for my English, never lived abroad

    • Linda says:

      Spot on!

    • Steve Hurlburt says:

      Prager calls leftists bigots, and worse, all the time. “Everybody / loves to see / justice done / on somebody else”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=itXqzssniG8

  4. Esther says:

    The Nathan Robinson piece actually included some fair points, even pointing out where other responses had failed to rise above cruel ad hominems, but then he himself devolved into spite and underhanded tactics (like printing a lecture transcript as wall of text with arbitrary italics and no filler left out).

  5. Esther says:

    I will say though, while Peterson is blunt and very forthright, very masculine in his mode of speech, I don’t find him to be uncharitable. I reserve that for something several notches below what I’ve seen from him thus far. His biggest Twitter-tantrum came in response to the guy who appeared to call his friend a “noble savage,” and that was his anger rising to defend the dignity of his friend, not for himself. I can easily forgive that and even find it endearing.

    • Yes, I can forgive that too. However, rather too much of Peterson’s Twitter output is caught up in antagonisms with opponents. He himself has admitted to having a temper, which can come out in that forum. Even though his behaviour there may be forgivable, it really isn’t him at his best and most composed.

      • Bar Gerhard says:

        Alastair Roberts You are providing JBP’s talking points as evidence for him not being without fault, in other words he asks for it as ‘he started it’. Not the same thing: he is attacked with hatred adhominem to ‘destroy’ hom for his theories and models: the pathology is I agree in the responses: the ideologically posessed virus in the journo-zombies.

      • Esther says:

        Not his most composed, no. I don’t find it unattractive, however. 🙂

      • Esther says:

        The main concern I have with his Twitter back-and-forths is simply that it seems to be occupying time he could spend more profitably–researching, say, or reading about the resurrection. The energy he pours into these interactions doesn’t seem worth the returns.

      • Yes, Twitter is positively ghastly as a timesink.

      • Esther says:

        (Sorry, meant to say the returns they yield aren’t worth the energy spent on them.)

      • MJ says:

        As you (and Macluhan) astutely point out, the medium is transforming the message. The instantaneously cathartic, global megaphone of Twitter is perhaps the last place for reasoned argument. Pankaj Mishra’s treatment in NYRB was easy to read as incendiary, even if unintended, with its allusions to a common cause with fascism, but JBP forgivable outrage seemed projected. The specific reference was not to his friend, but to the crude yet common shorthand (typically attributed to Rousseau) for Romantic idealization of primitive man. The “line” crossed appeared to be in JBP’s late night Twitter mode mind, for which he should (as we all should) be forgiven. But you’ve captured what should not be forgotten. The medium so effectively weaponized by one person in particular (it amplifies his default method) is clearly generating far more heat than enlightenment.

        I later came across Mishra’s review of Ta-Nahisi Coates’ “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy”, a thoughtful grieving for the loss of Obama. As a JBP defender, I was curious to see how this s….p… (as Peterson angrily Twittered) would view a book by a writer from a presumably kindred camp. Fully expecting wordy praise, his analysis struck me as deeply probing and compassionate (not unlike Peterson’s best lectures): https://www.lrb.co.uk/v40/n04/pankaj-mishra/why-do-white-people-like-what-i-write. His 2017 book “The Age of Anger: A History of the Present” explores some terrain often covered by Peterson, at times with similar laments and alarms, e.g. loss of meaning, blindness of ideologies. But he identifies plausible causes for the rise in tribalism (e.g., Girard’s mimetic resentment, neoliberal economics) routinely ignored in the current of Free Speech = Good, Post-Modernism = Evil discourses.

        Re-reading Mishra’s review of “12 Rules” after more fully understanding from where he’s coming reveals more nuance and prior value commitment, if not excusing its often withering tone and accusatory argumentation. In any case, as unlikely as he is to be able, Jordan should assume Pankaj (and perhaps a few other critics) knows something he needs to know. And for that, a Twitter cleanse may be useful.

        (Thank you for this essay, the most thoughtful, broad, and helpful critique I’ve yet seen!)

      • Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I agree.

    • Keitho says:

      I find his use of anger to be quite calculated and so rather effective. Another way of looking at it is that his anger is generally appropriate. I find that encouraging.

      • Linda says:

        Agreed… effective, appropriate and encouraging. Jordan B. Peterson is courageously doing great work!

      • I don’t believe that his anger is generally inappropriate. However, whether it is effective or not really depends upon what he is trying to achieve by it.

        I have a number of concerns here. For instance, many of the people that he is angry with are simply unworthy of engagement and far better off ignored. By engaging with them he gives them a credibility that they don’t deserve. A further concern that I have is that his anger has a polarizing effect, driving sides further apart when I would like to see him function as the calm and non-reactive voice of reason that wins over the moderates and shows up just how ridiculous his extremist opponents are. The Newman interview was so powerful at winning people over in large measure because he kept his cool and didn’t lose his temper, even though anger might have been justified. He looked like the grown-up in the room.

        Anger, even when justified, closes down conversations and makes persuasion unlikely. But we desperately need people to make new conversations possible. Calmness and non-reactivity are crucial for this. Without them, we just increase the polarization.

        Furthermore, when so much of our discourse occurs in contexts where we are in direct combative engagement with another side, we will easily become preoccupied with antagonism, rather than creation. Peterson is at his best in his creative and positive work, when he is articulating a positive vision of his own, rather than attacking critics. I’d like to see him maximize this sort of work and be defined more by what he is for rather than by what he is against. We badly need more people like that.

      • Keitho says:

        The few times I have seen him react with anger it looked calculated. It seems that he recognises when a sharp retort will be effective when used towards someone who hasn’t understood just how pointless their tack is.

        My take is that JP does not lose his temper but simply uses the appearance of doing so to advance the debate more effectively. It is just one more arrow in his quiver of public discourse rather than a character flaw. Perhaps I am kidding myself but that is how it appears to me, and I find it refreshing and intellectually satisfying.

      • Peterson has remarked upon his temptation to impulsive responding on Twitter, so I don’t think that it is entirely calculated.

  6. Michael says:

    I thought the review of Peterson’s book on Mere Orthodoxy was pretty fair: critical, but well-supported from the text and without any signs of contempt or ad hominem dismissal. See https://mereorthodoxy.com/book-review-12-rules-life-jordan-peterson/

    • Hi Michael, I just read the review you linked above and I agree with your comments on it. I need to reflect more on the mereorthodoxy article, but I will mention here one aspect of it about which I have some reservations.I am not convinced that Peterson is appealing to pride in rule 2 , ‘Respect yourself and see your full potential’. I think he is offering encouragement to people who feel inadequate, and he wants to help people to lift themselves out of the snare of feeling resentment towards others by building themselves up incrementally.On this subject I found Peterson’s short Big Think video interesting. I wish I could post a link to this video, but I haven’t worked out how to do that – sorry! I agree that building oneself up is about self-help and not about dependency on God, but I am not convinced that the need for self-respect is rooted in pride.

      • Michael says:

        Hi Christine,

        You may be right, and please let me know if you find the video. Part of my frustration with these discussions is that both critics and supporters of Peterson – including academics – rarely provide precise citations or quotes from Peterson’s writing, making it impossible to form independent judgments without wading through his oeuvre.

      • Peterson isn’t the easiest person to understand from piecemeal quotations. Either you need to find some trustworthy interpreter of him, or you must dive in deeply yourself.

    • I really was fairly unimpressed with that review. While it didn’t have contempt or ad hominems, it didn’t represent Peterson very accurately.

      • Bar Gerhard says:

        Maybe because there is not so much to critique when it comes to 12 Rules, everybody who wants to be seen a somebody, wants to say something about it yet saying something interesting is too hard Hence the grandstanding, blah blah and senseless idiotic . A success is always attacked. Too many obvious reasons of the mediocre screaming as the green monster is rendering them psycho.

      • Michael says:

        Is there a particular comment or critique you believe was an unfair interpretation of the quotations provided?

      • I thought most of the quotations were fairly uncharitably interpreted.

    • Hi Michael, Thank you for your comment. I’m not good at posting links here, but you will find the Big Think video if you Google : Jordan Peterson – improve your life and quit resenting. Personally, I get a better understanding of Peterson from watching and listening to him on videos than I do from trying to read his writing!

  7. I was interested to see a similar idea to this piece in Ribbonfarm, where Venkatesh posited that we are in a state of “culture war,” whether we like it or not. It was interesting to me to see someone so seemingly removed from Christian culture feeling like that is indeed what is happening.

    As I read his piece and looked at the map he drew, I thought of an analogy with “barbarism” more than total war. The advent of universal communications tech has, among other things, let people bypass the old centralizing institutions of communication and ideation (universities, major presses, major media), and made it possible to find smaller ideological communities – “tribes” – who affirm the narrow set of views we already hold, AND use a tone / voice most like the one we naturally have. It seems more like the ideological equivalent of Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire, with the questions now being, “to what extent will I tolerate the views / tone / representatives of that tribe?” and “What is the balance of rights for ‘us’ and rights for ‘them’ we should seek?” Have you seen / thought about that parallel elsewhere?

    Also, I think it’s in “Heretics” somewhere, but Chesterton writes about how a local club started as a place to force men to socialize with people unlike them, but became (in the city) a place for people to avoid people unlike them. I don’t have a further thought on that, but it’s so interesting to see how many dynamics in early-20th-century England are playing out similarly in the 21st-century West generally. I read Orthodoxy maybe a decade ago and Heretics just a few years back, and I was shocked at how relevant it felt to today.

    • In certain respects the Internet, and social media more particularly, does create a situation increasingly more akin to a Hobbesian bellum omnium contra omnes than to a war with clearly defined sides.

      • This is more like post-Roman barbarism, then – especially since, at the risk of straining the analogy, many of the current institutions are still fairly powerful and worth “conquering” for one’s own tribe: e.g., the real and attempted ideological purges of The Atlantic and NYT (and Fox News), etc.

        I’m sure the challenge is different in England than in America, but what do you think about seeking a new equilibrium based on how Kuyper helped order the Netherlands, a “pillarised” set of institutions owned by different political bodies? It seems like, if we could establish a baseline set of agreed-upon rights, that might be a more moderate social arrangement than the winner-takes-all feeling we have now.

      • I’m not sure how workable something like that would be in the Digital Age.

  8. otherthingshzle says:

    “So many of Peterson’s critics have been so wild in the swings and misses of their criticisms, have betrayed so remarkable a degree of venom in their writing, have so consistently resorted to ad hominems, have dismissed rather than sought to persuade those attracted to him, and have shown a great eagerness to discredit Peterson entirely and exorcize him from respectable discourse”

    There’s nothing surprising to me about this. Many of his “critics” are simply extremists, akin to religious zealots – and will reliably behave as such. They’re rarely capable of critical examination of the ideas involved, and they avoid trying.

    This is the time we live in. We have to recognise that fact. It’s the new extremism we have to fight, irrespective of whether we agree with Peterson’s stuff about Jung – he’s about the only person these days who can make that stuff sound slightly respectable, but I myself take it with a pinch of salt

    Maybe it’s difficult to fight the social-media-progressive-keyboard-warriors (I refuse to call them SJWs) without a credo of our own, and figureheads of our own. That is why Jordan Peterson is so popular.

  9. geppetsi says:

    I’m glad you brought up the “danger of producing a cult-like movement” behind Peterson, if anything is going to be the demise of the man it’s his own following and his avoidance to acknowledge their herd like mentality which supposedly he and the greats he refers to are not fond of. I feel like his own work and those greats are now circus acts at the hand of his mass, just like the mass before them.

    Nietzsche and Jung didn’t want their work to be adopted by the general public and for good reason. Although, one good thing which comes out of this work being popularized is that it may get it into the hands of those few who can actually appreciate and do something with it, walking straight past Peterson instead of continuing to gawk up at him.

    Also like your criticism of social media uses and reactively charged responses, I think if the real issues which deserve to be critiqued were being acknowledged there wouldn’t be wiggle room for baseless reactionary attacks.

  10. Alex Lambert says:

    Agree with your points about the current level of discourse.

    However, the bigger picture is more important here. Peterson represents a forceful and unapologetic return to the truth, at a time when most can see and feel that the “PC culture” and all its tendrils (feminism, marxism, etc.) is causing society to disintegrate. What used to be easily dismissed as crackpot warnings, is now plain for everyone to see.

    Peterson champions truth, he is fearless, and he can do something which few of us can – effectively dissect the web of BS with which the Left presents its positions. He does this by dealing with issues at their absolute rock-bottom layer – individual psychology and the sub-structures of human (western) society.

    The critics you described have no interest in debating his ideas – largely because they have no intellectual foundation for their own. Their interest is solely on tearing down the man himself. Fortunately for all of us, including his critics, they are failing miserably.

    • Yes, a great many of Peterson’s critics are discrediting themselves by their attempts to tear Peterson down, rather than respond to him. However, Peterson is most effective at winning people over when he just calmly pursues his own positive project, answering the hostile critics he has to answer non-reactively, ignoring all those who are unworthy of engagement, and seeking out reasonable interlocutors who can sharpen him through challenging conversations. If we become fixated with our most vicious critics, we will waste time in fruitless fighting when we could be building something new.

      • geppetsi says:

        Pursuing his own ideas and projects plus my own ability to recognize what he was getting at when it comes to his psyche/myth work is what grabbed my attention in the first place. Wish that would stay his main focus. For instance his recent talk with Scott Barry Kaufman was the best piece of content I’ve seen from Peterson all year, including most of 2017.

      • Yes, I’d love to see more of this sort of thing.

    • otherthingshzle says:

      “Peterson represents a forceful and unapologetic return to the truth”

      I think you’re onto something. I doubt Peterson is right about everything, obviously. IQ is terrible science (yes it is!), and Jung gives us an interesting way to look at human life, but you couldn’t call his ideas science, I don’t think.

      But I have this suspicion that there’s a 1984-style consensus – or maybe “tendency” is the better word – among progressives media types and politicians, that we should accept that black is white in so many areas – many of them relating to gender. He’s at least returning us to a more sensible path…

    • geppetsi says:

      “Largely because they have no intellectual foundation for their own.”

      Unfortunately this is not just a problem for his critics but his own following too.

    • Joshua says:

      Alex –

      Peterson champions truth,

      I have listened to quite a bit of Peterson. I don’t agree that he is a champion of “truth” but someone who forcefully advocates for his opinions (often about what is “true.”)

      In what basis do you determine that what he champions is “truth” as opposed to opinion?

  11. Alastair, I just realised that I became so engrossed in reading your article and the responses to it (and posting a couple of comments of my own) that I didn’t thank you for your comprehensiye and thoughtful piece.
    I have just done the same on twitter – I got so engrossed in reading the comments about Jordan Peterson’s link to your article, that I temporarily forgot to ‘like’ it. I’ve ‘liked it now, along with the 340+ others who have ‘liked’ it since it went on twitter about an hour ago.
    This is getting even more interesting 🙂

  12. Brian Cole says:

    This article sums up my view. I disagree with Peterson on a number of things but I feel that he is a extremely valuable thought catalyst who should be listened to if for no other reason than to inspire the reader or listener to ponder his subjects in ways they otherwise would not and to go deeper than they otherwise would. He has a gift. He can increase your IQ even if he is only conjuring up a disagreement that you have with him that you wouldn’t otherwise have considered. He words are interactive. The drawback is in his followers who do not have the equipment to take such a deep dive. They can take some pretty absolute, extreme, and unhelpful positions away from his words if they don’t know how to interact with them. I wish he would do more to mitigate that.

  13. victorcypert says:

    I am firmly entrenched on the left, yet find I agree with roughly 70% of what Peterson has to say.

    Far from being some alt-right guru, the man is quite insightful and is actually fighting for the open range of ideas–the vast prairie of discourse and reason.

    The new-left frightens me gravely. I never imagined an authoritarian left emerging in the west, yet here it is–and it embraces anti-intellectualism with a fervor that should alarm everyone.

    • We need more people who can be friendly critics of Peterson or appreciative listeners who are not completely on board. In a context of polarized bandwagons, it is encouraging to see that such people still exist.

  14. Frank Tisdale says:

    “”In Nathan Robinson’s estimation””

    Its worth noting that Nathan Robinson is a kid from Florida, who 1) has never had an actual job in the real world, having spent his entire life in college so far, 2) whose only for-profit writing have been “socialist childrens books”, and 3) who maintains a fake-British accent and dresses like a low-rent Willy Wonka.

    No, really:

    Anytime anyone mentions his name, i find myself wondering: do you realize who you’re citing?

    And if not, why should i take your citation of anyone else, ever, seriously?

    • Frank Tisdale says:

      p.s. – i did not intend this as a ding on the author of this piece, which i found thoughtful and interesting.

      My reaction was to the way Peterson’s most-vocal critics are often cited in social-media, as tho they were themselves ‘authoritative voices’ on the issue, rather than the obvious crank-nobodies that some of them (like NJR) are.

      Many – certainly not all, but many – are themselves hardly in any position to throw stones about intellectual-credibility.

      NJR is just the case-study in this absurd inversion of credentialism: where B-grade university-fringe-types who’ve never done anything noteworthy in their lives declare a respected academic like Peterson beneath their contempt. As tho we’re all supposed to take their word for it, for some reason.

    • Having spent a fair amount of my life in the world of academia, it doesn’t entirely surprise me that many academics hate Peterson with a passion. While they might want to believe it is because his ideas are misguided and yet the masses are lapping them up, I am pretty certain that this is only a small part of the explanation. The real reason is deep ressentiment.

      Academics are relatively low paid, with insecure employment, and a precarious status in the cultural elite. To maintain their position, they need to be rigid observers and enforcers of the values of the cultural elite class. Yet they constantly see people outside of academic greatly out-earning them and enjoying success when they are just scraping by in the desperate world of the academy, where their inflated sense of their importance is stifled by a demoralizing system.

      Then Jordan Peterson comes along. Peterson has the tenured position they are aspiring to, yet he freely opposes the class values that they must uphold so rigorously to get by. Despite having a tenured position, Peterson also makes oodles of money from online supporters, speaking engagements, and book sales. He is not beholden to the powers that they feel so stifled by. He has a immense and appreciative public audience, while the wider public doesn’t care much about their work. He alerts them to their own common pettiness and irrelevance in ways that unsettle them and lead them to react to escape the self-knowledge.

      It is important to spare a thought for them here. Their hostility to Peterson probably arises from their own vulnerability, social and economic precariousness, and the ways that the academic system abuses them, not just from a frustrated pomposity.

      • Joshua says:

        Alastair –

        Their hostility to Peterson probably arises from their own vulnerability, social and economic precariousness, and the ways that the academic system abuses them,…

        Building in thst logic, what do you think explains Peterson’s overt hostility, that he expressed so freely, so often, and in such general and stereotyping ways? Do you draw a categorical difference if the hostility is broadly expressed as opposed to towards an individual? Also, what do you think explains the hostility associated with Peterson, as evidenced in this comment thread from some of his supporters. Do you think he has any accountability for such?

        I think that attributing motives, and the mechanisms behind others’ emotions, can be a very truly business – one that requires a very high bar of evidence. You seemed to suggest anecdotal evidence, such as thst which you have gathered, as sufficient to reach a conclusion. Am i wrong about that?

  15. Michael says:

    While I appreciate this sort of reasonable critique, it does not acknowledge the elephant in the room. The elephant in this case, is the one sidedness of the dismissal tactics referenced here. The truth is, those on the right think those on the left are wrong. Those on the Left however, think those on the right are bad/evil.

    • I don’t think that is entirely true. There are no shortage of people on the right who think that people on the left are evil.

      • Valentine says:

        I’m mostly weighing in here to thank you for your contribution, Alastair — I’ve been bothered by many of the things you point out for the two decades I’ve both known JBP and also worked as a critical social scientist: the failures of curiosity on both sides have struck me as increasingly as part of the crisis that both the Peterson followers and critics are worked up about. I think an observation that may be helpful here is that the aspersions cast about people’s “evil” or moral failings has significantly to do with differences in understanding about what makes oppression in the world. And I don’t think we’ve demonstrated that any of our understandings are complete enough (or our interventions effective enough) to be able to afford vitriolic dismissal. However, while the form of individualism you explicate as a core misunderstood part of JBP’s canon is interesting, I find it consistently excruciating how thoroughly the history (and renewal) of colonial and economic power relations is missing. The clip on creativity that Linda posted yesterday sums it up well: Jordan says that the thing that will resolve the conflict between the elites and the working classes is more humility — and while I agree with that being desirable, it completely sidesteps the extractive relationship. And this continued project of explaining the world without structural power relations (even if the neomarxist canon dedicated to explicating these has cultural problems itself) is part of what sets people off so badly — because political economy and moral economy ARE important, and erasure of their analyses has so often been done by those complicit with exploiters. I’m not sure what makes Jordan so unable or unwilling to incorporate more of this perspective — people have been likening him to Piketty in popularity, and I’d love to see them in conversation.

      • Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Valentine.

        I have mixed feelings about the criticisms you raise, criticisms which I share to some extent. I don’t believe that Peterson simply dismisses structural factors, but he does radically de-emphasize them. If Peterson were treated as if he were providing a comprehensive explanatory account of people’s agency or lack of it, this de-emphasis would be a huge problem. However, Peterson’s concern is less with explaining why our difficulties and problems exist, but in teaching what we ought to do in response to them. Here the de-emphasizing of structural and external factors really is important, as it is in attending to and developing our own agency that existential strength is to be found. From this we can then recognize and address the structural factors, without merely using them as excuses for our own lack of agency, which many have a tendency to do.

        However, this approach, salutary as it can be for people who might otherwise be trapped in the hypoagency of victimhood, is a necessary but by no means sufficient response to our issues in society. It needs to be complemented by a more structural account and corresponding action addressing and rectifying damaging and destructive structures in society.

      • Michael says:

        Really? Name them. One of your critiques here in the comments noted your lack of specificity. Here you go again.

      • I would suggest that you put the words ‘evil leftists’ into a search on Google, Twitter, and Youtube and see what comes up. I can assure you that there will be no shortage of hits. Naming specific persons would suggest that this were merely about a few individual bad players, rather than about a more common phenomenon.

      • Joshua says:

        Alastair –

        I don’t think that is entirely true.

        Entirely” true? Was that use of “entirely” just some socio-pragmatic syntax, or should its use be interpreted to mean you think it is somewhat true?

    • Joshua says:

      Micheal –

      The truth is, those on the right think those on the left are wrong. Those on the Left however, think those on the right are bad/evil

      What is the evidence upon which you are determining this fundamental imbalance on the right vs. the left?

  16. “If our relationship to opposing ideological viewpoints is so charged with interpersonal and social tensions, we will find it almost impossible to think well about those issues.”

    Ideology allows intellectually lazy people to operate in the political sphere without having to actually think about issues at all.

  17. Gideon Moss says:

    Thank you for writing this. I too am distressed by the lack of charity and good will in the current discourse. In an environment that seems to be characterised by hypocrisy, malice and willful blindness, Jordan Peterson, in my opinion, deserves recognition for the fact that he is sincere, values honest enquiry and so clearly tries to address the deep moral issues that face any thinking person and he does this with intellectual honesty.

    It disappoints me that whatever differences people may have with his views and style, they so often fail to recognise or value someone who so evidently acts with integrity and in good faith.

  18. Jim says:

    The article was frustrating. Most of us hovering anywhere near the center of political life immediately dismiss the kinds of critics presented at the beginning of this article. What made the article frustrating was the authors consistent and ‘easy’ dismissal of Peterson’s thought. Rarely are examples cited. I think I saw “cultural Marxism” referenced but even then it was slightly outside the context of his critique that Peterson is wrong somehow in his social commentary. You get the sense (from the erudite style) that the author could offer some kind of intellectual rebuttal to his generic complaint but none is forthcoming. This is the kind of tease that drags you to the end of an article only to leave you frustrated by the murky implication that rebutting Peterson would be some easy task.

  19. Andrew says:

    You’re sounding a lot like Peterson himself. Seems you’re on the right track.

    • Gideon Moss says:

      That was my thought too: the most profound thing I’ve read in a while that wasn’t authored by JBP himself..

  20. Rondo says:

    “It is usually futile to try to talk facts and analysis to people who are enjoying a sense of moral superiority in their ignorance.”
    Thomas Sowell

  21. Pingback: My Writing on Jordan Peterson | Alastair's Adversaria

  22. Al says:

    I really enjoyed your thoughtful article and look forward to reading more of them in the future. I have a fourteen year-old son and we frequently have discussions about the effect of social media on people. Lately, we’ve been discussing how something you write on social media could end up being a life sentence in terms of future opportunities—career, relationships, memberships, etc. This fifty year-old dad’s advice to his fourteen year-old son: speak to people and listen to them.

  23. Reblogged this on thesequence and commented:
    Very grounded and intellectually refreshing article on how we could have more effective, objective, and fruitful discussions/debates, even when coming from two seemingly outrageously distant positions.

  24. Pingback: Discourse in the Culture Wars and the Hunger for Catharsis – Attacks on Petetson – Liberty Farmer

  25. Peter says:

    Excellent and balanced article. Thank you.

  26. Andrew Phillips says:

    I’m sorry but it didn’t sway me. I have been a sensible follower of Peterson years before he blew up, I’ve watched hours of his videos and am intellectually astute and academically trained enough to fully understand them and having said all of that I’m here to just make my voice heard that Jordan Peterson in saying that Nathan Robinson’s article — https://www.currentaffairs.org/2018/03/the-intellectual-we-deserve — was so satisfying to read and the death knell for Jordan in my opinion. I haven’t heard much of anything that really excites me about Peterson since I began watching his videos before he got famous. When he did become more popular I was excited to see that his ideas would receive a larger audience. 95% of the content he has put out is recycled from the past. Even the new book is just the same stuff. New ideas from Peterson are lacking, his politics and his pompous personality are what’s new, and they are just awful. Good luck to you all but take it from someone who had every interest in seeing JP do well and now is walking away with relief that I’m not gonna waste any more time with this guy and can move on thinking about and acting responsibly in life in much more intelligent and healthy ways. To me its clear, like your article shows, that the typical Jordan Peterson follower has no authentic individual voice but only has mastered he skills of deconstructing and defending JP and then regurgitating his arguments back again. This author has generated a whole articles worth of feeling intelligent and superior only by bathing in the gish gallop backwash of Peterson’s nonsensical verbosity. Folks, there’s more to life and I hope you figure that out sooner than later. Peace!

    • Andrew Phillips says:

      Reposting for typos as I thumbed that on my phone: I’m sorry but it didn’t sway me. I have been a sensible follower of Peterson years before he blew up. I’ve watched hours of his videos and am astute and academically trained enough to fully understand them and having said all of that I’m here to just make my voice heard in saying that Nathan Robinson’s article — https://www.currentaffairs.org/2018/03/the-intellectual-we-deserve — was so satisfying to read and the death knell for Peterson, in my opinion. I haven’t heard much of anything that really excites me about Peterson since I began watching his videos before he got famous. When he did become more popular I was excited to see that his ideas would receive a larger audience. 95% of the content he has put out since is recycled from the past. Even the new book is just the same stuff. New ideas from Peterson are lacking, his politics and his pompous personality are what’s new, and they are just awful. Good luck to you all but take it from someone who had every interest in seeing JP do well and now is walking away with relief that I’m not gonna waste any more time with this guy and can move on to thinking and acting responsibly in life in much more intelligent and healthy ways. To me its clear, like your article shows, that the typical Jordan Peterson follower has no authentic individual voice but only has mastered the skills of deconstructing and defending JP and then regurgitating his arguments back again. This author has generated a whole article’s worth of feeling intelligent and superior only by bathing in the gish gallop backwash of Peterson’s nonsensical verbosity. Folks, there’s more to life and I hope you figure that out sooner than later. Peace!

      • Random Angeleno says:

        You are missing the forest for the trees. What are the best ideas but those from the past? It isn’t as important that JBP is “recycled from the past”, to quote you, as it is that the ideas he puts forward be firmly put out there in the commons and debated there, that the messages he has for young men resonate with them as opposed to the disrespect they get from society, churches and yourself. Just opening young men’s minds to ideas “recycled from the past” may open some of those young men’s minds to Christianity as it should be seen, not the feminized version they (and I) are seeing now. That it is JBP doing that rather than someone more Christian grates on your nerves and on the nerves of some of his harshest critics.

      • Hi Andrew,
        I’m sorry you have recently become disappointed with Jordan Peterson, but do you really think this is a ‘death knell’ for him? We have yet to see what his long-term influence will be, and it is impossible to know what is in the hearts and minds of people who have yet to read his book, and people who will see him and hear him in person for the first time during the next two months, when he will visit thirty towns.

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  28. John says:

    Fair enough, I assumed incorrectly you were referencing his cultural arguments and not hids scriptural interpretations.

    • I think there are also a number of issues with his cultural arguments. However, I think he is courageously addressing a number of matters there that others are denying in cowardly or dishonest ways. While I think he really need sharpening criticism on a number of issues (such as his treatment of ‘cultural Marxism’ and the humanities), the use of such criticism to dismiss the important truths in what he is saying is something I really want to avoid.

      • John says:

        I’d be very interested in a critique of his stances on those issues but have yet to find anything substantial. Every attempt so far has been a combination of straw man and ad-hominem attacks. Thanks for responding and have a nice day.

      • Yes, there have been a lot of strawman and ad hominem attacks. However, if you ‘steelman’ a number of the critiques, you should discover challenges that have some genuine merit to them.

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  32. Joshua says:

    Alastair –

    I enjoyed your article. Came across a link to it here:


    I will repost here part if my comments from the comment thread at that other site.

    First, I quite you from above:

    I find this a depressing indication of the current state of discourse. And Peterson himself is far from being without fault here. His own characterizations of ‘cultural Marxism’ are quite distorted and tendentious, even if they are not altogether without a genuine referent. He has been quite uncharitable in many of his attacks upon opposing viewpoints and has not done much to dispel a culture war mentality, especially in his engagements on Twitter.

    I think little progress can be made without accountability. Peterson and [Roger Pielke Jr.] are rather instructive examples, IMO, of how a lack of accountability fuels the fires of indignant responses to the potentially useful products of their analyses. That description above of Peterson’s mode of engagement seems very apt for [Roger Pielke Jr.’s] approach as well. I would think that, if only as a matter of chance, there would be more examples of participants in the science/science policy public discussion space who would stumble upon a more constructive engagement paradigm.

    I have to wonder if there isn’t something about the people who seek out these kinds of engagements that makes a more constructive form of exchange such a rare bird.

  33. Joshua says:

    Alastair –

    So after reading a bit more through the comment thread to your article (which, as I said above, I enjoyed) I noticed a rather hostile tone in a number of your readers’ comments (for example the comments of Alex, Michael, and otherthingshzl).

    Do you see such responses as problematic, and indeed part of the explanation for the problems you describe in the responses of Peterson’s critics?

    IMO, for a constructive form of dialog to take place, at least an initial presumption of good faith, and in fact probably a dedicated commitment to good faith, is a necessary precondition.

    As such, I think that the locus of the problem you describe in your article cannot be found in the responses to Peterson in themselves, but in the forum of exchange. Along those lines, I think that your focus on online exchanges and the impact of social media speaks to an important and problematic element, but they are, IMO, only part of a larger problem.

    I certainly don’t lay full responsibility for the problematic nature of the “Peterson discussion” at Peterson’s feet – but I do think that the nature of the comment thread here reveals a larger problematic dynamic, one for which Peterson shares some measure of responsibility. Until he acknowledges some of that responsibility, along the lines of some of what you wrote in your article, I sent little reason to expect anything different than what has transpired in response to Peterson. Seeing that Peterson is generally viewed as quite smart and insightful, one would have to assume that he would have anticipated such an easily predictable outcome. Unless he becomes more active in addressing the roots of the problem, in such a way that there is hope for improvement rather than just sameosameo, then I would have to assume that he is content with what is happening.


  34. Willard says:

    > Someone like Scott Alexander is not the sort of person one would expect to be receptive to a crypto-Nazi agenda.

    Scott Alexander is rather receptive to the Freedom Fighters‘ cause, and he’s not above using satire to criticize a standpoint that is alive and well and posting smug slogans on Facebook.

    You can’t blame reviewers from standing straight with their shoulders held back.

  35. Pam says:

    Not meant as a disparagement of the author: it occurs to me that this is somewhat of a new found concern directly related it seems to me with a groundswell of push back from conservatives, libertarians and even classical liberals to the state that the far left has brought us. I frankly am tired of being demonized while being condescended to by people who I believe are my intellectual and moral inferiors. And so game on…

    • Joshua says:

      … a groundswell of push back from conservatives, libertarians and even classical liberals to the state that the far left has brought us.

      So it seems that you identify Peterson as an important figure within an explicitly political context?

      Do you think that is a projection on your part? That actually, Peterson is primarily just a dispassionate intellectual, offering an academic analysis to help people understand better, “truth” and the nature of the world – but because of your political orientation you place his politically objective observations into your political framework?

      If not, then would it be realistic to have an expectations that reactions to Peterson’s should be substantially different, specifically less tribal – nature than any heavily political social analysis?

      That is, if course,, unless Peterson took steps to somehow engender nin-teibistic reactions.

      And one other question, if I might. When you look at the U.S., (I assume you’re not from the U. S.?), do you see a “state that the far left has brought”?

  36. Hi Alastair
    Very much enjoyed reading this – most helpful. I am very interested in the interplay between technology and tribalism, not least because of our context here in NZ

    Pre-Christianisation, the Maori iwi (tribes) operated on the concept of ‘Utu’ which was to do with loss or gain of ‘Mana’ (that is I suppose closest to standing/respect – but as always with older languages conveying a world of meaning deeply integrated into the fabric of existence). Although Utu had its positive side – gift for gift, blessing for blessing, it is best remembered for its very negative frequent outcomes

    Observations of early visitors to these parts (and this is born out in conversation with local contemporary Maori) were that the smallest slight – ‘my dad’s bigger than your dad’, or a chance unguarded comment which might be taken negatively – often escalated very rapidly into bloodshed.

    This swift escalation, for good or ill and the latter seems to predominate, seems to be a facet of Twitter as the best example. Of course it is not without good cause, deep within our inheritance as human beings, that the idea of Diplomacy – a highly developed set of checks and balances with planty of space and time for correcting misunderstandings, or the understanding that life was too serious a matter not to take the time to enter into dialogue with those with whom we had serious differences, (jaw-jaw better than war-war) – being reduced to Tweets, is highly alarming

    (Also, and this is wrt JP’s work, I just read Oliver Burkemann in The Guardian asking why on earth one was required to come down on one side or the other regarding whether JP was a ‘Good thing’, or a ‘Bad thing’. In all of this we seem to be losing sight of the deeply contradictory character of human nature which is ireducibly complex. As one mentor once said, ‘Often you tell me you don’t understand me, which is of course not entirely a bad thing, but the command is not that we understand one another, but that we love one another’ This in the cultural reversion to tribalism seems to be a lost perspective)

    Blessings on your work


    • Thanks for the interesting comment, Eric! I’m currently reading the recent book by Campbell and Manning on the movement from honour to dignity to victimhood culture, so there are some fascinating points of connection here.

  37. This is seriously one of the best things I have ever read on WordPress. I think I have a new blogger to add to my Top 5 list!

  38. Reblogged this on CrapPile and commented:
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