My youngest son has gone through some kind of transformation over the last year. Previously hidden in his bedroom hunched in front of a screen all night, railing against the injustices of the world (not unlike his father), he now strides fresh faced into his adult life, upright with shoulders back…and rails against the left. Initial relief and gratitude at this metamorphosis changed to a terror once my son started to argue against Marxism and social justice. Had my son become a young tory? And so I set about trying to understand how he had come about this new map of the world. While not discounting the many influences his new environment at college and being away from home has afforded him, one name kept coming up – Jordan B Peterson.
A Canadian Clinical Psychologist, deep thinker and YouTube broadcaster, Peterson is becoming a household name having started to appear in mainstream media: like the recent Channel 4 interview with Cathy Newman that has gone viral. His reasoned, articulate and respectful responses deconstruct the paucity of Newman’s argument in a clash that illustrates only too painfully the wretched shallowness of the media analysis of current issues. But his impact through his lectures and talks on YouTube has already been felt by millions of young people, and especially young men, like my son.
Peterson problematizes the liberationist progressive left by pulling on a range of empirical evidence from diverse fields to show how hardwired we are to behave in certain ‘traditional’ ways and that liberation lies not in realigning the whole of society and our legal system to accommodate those who transgress those ways but by a Jungian appeal to the ‘logos’ or a meaning enfolded in our universal consciousness that we are born to embody.
His style is earnest and sincere and has an intense urgency behind it which is in stark contrast with the vacuous and vain preening of the right; the robotic technocracy of the middle and the hurt self-righteous and shaming shtick of much of the left. There is also a rigour and grit that quickly separates him from the pompous serenity sound-bite culture of online gurus promising happiness if we only let go and live in the present. Happiness, he says, should not be the aim of life – striving towards meaningful goals is what makes life worth living. Clearly, this is manna from heaven for the lost souls emasculated by a distorted feminism, persecuted for being privileged and yearning for an authority figure in whom they can trust.
Intellectually, he draws on the light that modern psychology reveals about our behavior and history to articulate a convincing argument for a return to the values of post-war psychologists who had seen with their own eyes the depth of the abyss to which we can descend. His bet noir is the emperor’s clothes of the French intellectuals that followed (Foucault, Lacan, Derrida) and the post-structuralism on which modern identity politics is built. His conservatism, therefore, is to default to Maslow’s self-actualization, Jung’s embracing our shadow and Frankel’s appeal to the higher self: indeed, to the Western Classical canon not as sites of patriarchal white power but as fundamental drives articulated through stories of transcendence.
That he is being pilloried as an apologist for the alt-right and championed by Breitbart is possibly the greatest threat to his credibility and an obfuscation of the clarity and significance of his challenge to progressive politics. There is no one I have encountered yet that has a better chance of bridging the great divide in our society between the regressive, xenophobic isolationists and those like myself, who believe in the possibility of a world as described by John Lennon’s ‘Imagine.’
This conversation with Camille Paglia – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v-hIVnmUdXM show two great thinkers who retrace their steps back to the 60’s and the original impulse which was to transcend identity and access universal consciousness, not to spend all our energy empowering our petty differences and arguing over who is the most oppressed. They contend that it serves and therefore is perpetuated by careerists in academia wallowing in their own obscurantist elitism and that certainly is how it appears to me, in relation to experimental theatre and the arts in general. I remember delivering a paper at a conference on the future of theatre some years back and finding that I didn’t understand any of the other contributors: not a word.
I think we need to embrace Peterson for helping us define better the problems we need to overcome and the wrong thinking behind how the entrenched Marxist liberationists are trying to solve them. Xenophobia, for instance, is natural if the place where we are looking from is not pure awareness. Trying to combat it with laws and human rights alone will not work because it takes away our responsibility to find that place ourselves and to construct a society organically from this place of wholeness. Which is what I am trying to do with the manifesto for ‘Reciprocal Well-being.’ Likewise, the environment and expectation in which we have always functioned is hierarchical and impels the exploitation of that environment and each other so any alteration of this means a shift that is not merely cultural but also in consciousness.
Where I don’t agree with Peterson is that the solution is in the old stories, in religion and traditional meanings. I think he has not accounted for the spectacularly unique moment in which humanity finds itself: one where the urgency of transcendence and an awareness of the implications of not doing so now encompass the world. The only reset button now is the one over which Donald Trump’s stubby little finger hovers.
In his repugnance of the primacy of the word over the object it describes he has identified that we are using the wrong tools for social change. Thought is part of the problem, not the solution. For him the archetypes transcend or rather substantiate thought but for me when we dispense with all stories we become the ‘logos’, flowing in each moment. Humans have journeyed through individuation and like the Prodigal Son, have found it incomplete. We are no longer content to be the created and know in our deepest part that the only place left is to dissolve into the creator. Not through critical thinking or Christian values but through complete surrender to this mysterious unknowing. But I do believe that it is through the honest ‘dia-logos’ in which Peterson is immersed that such revelation can occur and unite our families and communities.