If that is not already the name for some random French-Canadian indie rock band, then that is a shame. Anyway, onto the actual content.
Note: I’ve been trying to suss out what I would say in this piece for quite a while. Though it may look like I’m jumping on the bandwagon of anti-Jordan Peterson content–and, in a way, I am–just know that this post has been sitting in my archives, revised and edited and added to for nearly four months at this point. I simply required a few other hot takes to help me organize my own thoughts, and it just so happens that those hot takes are comin’ at ya now.
You have TJ Kirk who was prompted into writing a book on the subject of disagreeing with Peterson. Hugo and Jake from the Bible Reloaded have discussed Peterson’s questionable track record with transgender pronouns and Bill C16. Matt Dillahunty had a debate with Peterson about religion. And, most interestingly, one of Peterson’s colleagues recently wrote a lengthy article detailing why he thinks Peterson is falling into a dangerous position with his popularity.
Now, I don’t agree with every point made in every one of these examples. Do you trust that I can generally agree with something without finding it 100% perfect? Good.
Those above examples tackle the Jordan Peterson issue from multiple viewpoints. I highly recommend all of them. As you may remember, I do have some fondness for Peterson. I think he was the public figure who best elucidated why the commentary surrounding the American presidential election was such an ethically reprehensible shit show. I still think that. I think his academic work on the rise of authortarianism is very interesting. I don’t absolutely hate the guy. Part of the issue is that his rabid fanboys think I do because I don’t see every single word that falls out of the man’s face as a gospel Truth of the highest order. Had he remained a fringe figure well-like by certain circles on YouTube, I doubt I’d have much of a problem with him. But his shining star has burned bright enough to wear holes through the facade of intellectual excellence he’s been selling.
I am an atheist who did not take very kindly to Peterson pulling the 2004 Christian apologist move of saying, “Atheists who don’t run around acting like psychopaths are actually just Christians, they’re just stupid and confused so they won’t admit it.” I’m also technically a nihilist, so I don’t think his fears of nihilism are founded on much besides cherry-picked philosophical navel gazing. And though the “We already use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun in this one linguistic context totally unrelated to the context you are asking us to use it in now, so checkmate!” argument is stupid as fuck, there is something to be said for flexible language use and the practical purpose of pronouns that Jordan Peterson seems not to want to address.
That’s been talked about, though. For my part, I’m going to point out something that I haven’t seen many people touch on: Peterson’s intellectual influences that he quotes all the time and pulls examples from all the time and espouses the validity of all the time . . . are kind of stupid. And by that, I mean Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud are hacks.
Jordan Peterson confuses me very, very much in this regard. He’s a clinical psychologist who, from what I can see, does generally good work and conducts acceptable and scientifically valid research. His seeming obsession with Freud and Carl Jung as two of the frequently-referenced pillars for his sociopolitical beliefs, then, is the most paradoxical thing I’ve come across in quite some time. I’m not going to pretend to be some expert on the subject, but I do know quite a lot about both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Hopefully, after going into their work more, you can see why it baffles me so much to see a modern-day clinical psychologist quoting Freud and Jung like they’re authorities on anything, let alone men whose advice is warranting of building an entirely new conception of Truth around.
Being important and interesting historical figures in the field is not the same thing as being legitimate sources to choose from in regards to psychological or philosophical argumentation. Peterson is an intelligent man, and he’s very good at making what he says sound intelligent even when it’s really not; and his constant invoking of Freudian and Jungian theories just comes across to me as a smart person taking advantage of the fact that most people don’t know enough about the topics he’s discussing to realize he’s making no sense and quoting people who no one takes seriously outside of philosophical circles.
I want to make that very, very fucking clear, because Peterson never has: Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung are not guys you go to for psychology. Their ideas are seen as very interesting philosophical frameworks. As an anecdote: I’ve done most of my readings from Carl Jung under the context of studying classical mythology. I studied Freud in psychology courses as a Significant Figure (TM), not as someone who was right about things. Peterson using his authority to lift his pet-thinkers up as psychological figures to people who don’t know any better annoys me to no end.
Let’s start with Sigmund Freud. He’s a very important guy. He is the founder of psychoanalysis, ie, trying to address mental and behavioral problems through dialogue between therapist and patient that uncovers the psychological underpinnings of one’s actions. For some context, before Freud came along with his (genuinely revolutionary for the time) idea that maybe having conversations about mental states would help mental health, people were still doing things like determining someone’s psychological traits by looking at skull shape.
Freud is one of those founding figures of psychology who–like many founding figures in many fields–was in the right ballpark . . . but not much else. The very generalized, very basic ideas that he pioneered are correct, but acting like he was in any way accurate beyond that point is getting into “Intentionally Misleading” territory. The main issue with most of Freud’s more detailed theories is that they are conveniently unfalisfiable.
“You do X now because Y happened when you were a kid, and you just don’t remember,” or “You do X because you subconsciously want to do Y, and it’s so subconsious that not even you know it.” There’s not much you can do with either of those statements, and that’s what Freud-style psychoanlaysis is. If that seems familiar, it’s because Jordan Peterson uses the same method of unfalsifiable psychoanalysis in his own speeches and claims constantly.
Look no further than his “Feminists who defend Islam are secretly yearning to be brutally dominated by a man.” comment. That’s a very nice example because it also ties perfectly into Freud’s insistence that most anxieties, neuroses, and eccentricities can be tracked back to sexual repression or being stunted during a (totally not accurate to actual human development) stage of psycho-sexual development as a child.
Peterson also takes very generously from Freud’s penis envy idea — that “young girls experience anxiety upon realization that they do not have a penis . . . that is a defining moment in the development of their female sexuality and gender identity.” While that may have been an accurate depiction of the 19th century aristocratic woman’s plight of living in a genuinely patriarchal society that meant her lack of a dick limited her social mobility, it’s been rightfully criticized as a not-at-all-accurate depiction of generalized female psychological development. Peterson’s own views on the importance of well-defined gender roles/societal responsibilities and the ultimate societal harms of androgyny/less defined gendered behavior (up to and including trans people and their pronouns) fits well within the boundaries set up by Freud; Children learn to not only notice the differences between the sexes but see similarity to the other sex as something anxiety inducing. A boy’s realization that girl’s genitals are different is referred to as “castration anxiety” for crying out loud.
If you want more examples of Peterson ripping off Freud’s technique of ascribing motivations where he logically cannot know them, I will gladly send them to you.
Then there’s Carl Jung and his most frequently referenced theory about collective unconscious. AKA the reason Jordan Peterson thinks that everyone with morals is religious and that art cannot exist without religion. To put it very simply: the collective unconscious refers to psychological structures or ideas that are shared among all people (with the more wishy washy point that they have a collective meaning and understanding cross-culturally and between individuals, not just a collective undefined presence in our psyche. Not all Jungian subscribers believe this.). More contentious still is the idea that those structures are ones we as humanity find extremely significant in informing our moral frameworks. That, I believe, is what Peterson is arguing for. This is one of the topics that he’s notoriously vague and word salad-y about.
The key word here is Archetype. A universal symbol that we all have some inherent understanding and connection to the symbolism of. People have used to to explain why most known religions oftentimes have the same character archetypes and stories (the Savior, the Wise Man, the Great Mother, the Great Flood, etc.).
I don’t think I have to go into why this isn’t scientific. This is philosophy if we’ve ever seen it. And there’s nothing wrong with that, except for the fact that Peterson uses it as fuel for his social commentary on psychological issues. I don’t even get how. He models a huge chunk of his rhetoric after Freud, who was a proponent of the idea that everyone’s unconscious mind and anxiety had some very individualized work put into it; but in the same breath he’ll mention Jung, whose entire shtick was that everyone’s unconscious mind is tapped into this collective where we all get our understanding of human morals and where deviation from those collective archetypal ideas is what causes anxiety. I’m not saying you can’t like both, Jordan, but you have to be better at explaining it, because right now I’m at an utter loss for how you can hold these two theories of where anxiety comes from at once.
That discrepancy doesn’t even touch upon his tendency to use the collective conscious to uplift socially traditionalist Christianity as the inexplicable go-to for social order and moral rightness. This confuses me because Jung makes it clear that religions are not the source of these moral archetypes, just a very salient expression of them that happen to hold the social zeitgeist. Peterson himself shows this very clearly with the high regard in which he holds the Pinocchio story and the archetypes found within it. Apparently, Jordan Peterson can find Pinocchio to be morally informative and beautiful, but if an atheist says they get their morals from somewhere other than a religion, they’re just lying or misinformed. Now, if he explained that as “Oh, the moral lessons you like come from the same collective unconscious as religious parables that teach similar moral lessons,” he’d at least be consistent. But he has yet to explicate it that way.
He also seems to have missed Jung’s point about religions not being the only expression of the collective unconscious and that religious stories having those archetypes does not therefore mean that those archetypes are owned by religion or are religious in nature, inherently. This is where I assume his comments about us not having any art without religion come from. I assume. The Blue Fairy from Pinocchio being like an angel does not mean Pinocchio was really a Christian story this whole time. It just means that angels and the Blue Fairy are separate expressions of the same archetype, one in a religion and one in a fairy tale. That’s the entire point of the collective unconscious as an idea, to show that these values exist within humanity universally.
And Jordan Peterson has somehow managed to obsess over that and yet turn it into the utter antithesis of what it initially was at the same time. He’s somehow managed to take an already questionable philosophical idea that tried to level the playing field for all stories, religious or otherwise, and turn it into a pitch about how the religion he likes the most should be the one we all look to for moral guidance. What?!
I’m getting worked up. I’m done. Read the article I linked to. It’s really interesting. Good night.