Does politics have to be everywhere, all the time? On Jordan B. Peterson

The Intellectual We Deserve: Jordan Peterson’s popularity is the sign of a deeply impoverished political and intellectual landscape” has been making the rounds for good reason: it’s an intellectually engaged, non-stupid takedown of Peterson. But while you should read it, you should also read it skeptically (or at least contextually). Take this:

A more important reason why Peterson is “misinterpreted” is that he is so consistently vague and vacillating that it’s impossible to tell what he is “actually saying.” People can have such angry arguments about Peterson, seeing him as everything from a fascist apologist to an Enlightenment liberal, because his vacuous words are a kind of Rorschach test onto which countless interpretations can be projected.

I hate to engage in “whataboutism,” but if you’re going to boot intellectuals who write nonsense, at least half of humanities professors are out—and maybe more. People can have long (and literally endless) arguments about what “literary theory” is “actually saying” because most of its content is itself vacuous enough to be “a kind of Rorschach test.” Peterson is responding in part to that kind of intellectual environment. An uncharitable reading may find that he produces vacuous nonsense in part because that sells.

A more charitable reading, however, may find that in human affairs, apparent opposites may be true, depending on context. There are sometimes obvious points from everyday life: it’s good to be kind, unless kindness becomes a weakness. Or is it good to be hard, not kind, because the world is a tough place? Many aphorisms contradict other aphorisms because human life is messy and often paradoxical. So people giving “life advice,” or whatever one may call it, tend to suffer the same problems.

You may notice that religious texts are wildly popular but not internally consistent. There seems to be something in the human psyche that responds to attractive stories more than consistency and verifiability.


[Peterson] is popular partly because academia and the left have failed spectacularly at helping make the world intelligible to ordinary people, and giving them a clear and compelling political vision.

Makes sense to me. When much of academia has abrogated any effort to find meaning in the larger world or impart somewhat serious ideas about what it means to be and to exist in society, apart from particular political theories, we shouldn’t be surprised when someone eventually comes along and attracts followers from those adrift.

In other words, Robinson has a compelling theory about what makes Peterson popular, but he doesn’t have a compelling theory about how the humanities in academia might rejoin planet earth (thought he notes, correctly, that “the left and academia actually bear a decent share of blame [. . .] academics have been cloistered and unhelpful, and the left has failed to offer people a coherent political alternative”).

Too many academics on the left also see their mission as advocacy first and learner or impartial judge second. That creates a lot of unhappiness and alienation in classrooms and universities. We see problems with victimology that have only recently started being addressed. Peterson tells people not to be victims; identifying as a victim is often bad even for people who are genuine victims. There much more to be said about these issues, but they’ll have to be saved for some other essay—or browse around Heterodox Academy.


Sociologist C. Wright Mills, in critically examining “grand theorists” in his field who used verbosity to cover for a lack of profundity, pointed out that people respond positively to this kind of writing because they see it as “a wondrous maze, fascinating precisely because of its often splendid lack of intelligibility.” But, Mills said, such writers are “so rigidly confined to such high levels of abstraction that the ‘typologies’ they make up—and the work they do to make them up—seem more often an arid game of Concepts than an effort to define systematically—which is to say, in a clear and orderly way, the problems at hand, and to guide our efforts to solve them.”

Try reading Jung. He’s “a wondrous maze” and often unintelligible—and certainly not falsifiable. Yet people like and respond to him, and he’s inspired many artists, in part because he’s saying things that may be true—or may be true in some circumstances. Again, literary theorists do something similar. Michel Foucault is particularly guilty of nonsense (why people love his History of Sexuality, which contains little history and virtually no citations, is beyond me). In grad school a professor assigned Luce Irigaray’s book Sexes and Genealogies, a book that makes both Foucault and Peterson seem lucid and specific by comparison.

Until Robinson’s essay I’d not heard of C. Wright Mills, but I wish I’d heard of him back in grad school; in that atmosphere, where many dumb ideas feel so important because the stakes are so low, he would’ve been revelatory. He may help explain what’s wrong in many corners of what’s supposed to be the world of ideas.

Oddly, the Twitter account Real Peer Review has done much of the work aggregating the worst offenders in published humanities nonsense (a long time ago I started collecting examples of nonsense in peer review but gave up because there was so much of it and pointing out nonsense seemed to have no effect on the larger world).

the Peterson way is not just futile because it’s pointless, it’s futile because ultimately, you can’t escape politics. Our lives are conditioned by economic and political systems, like it or not [. . .]

It’s true, I suppose, in some sense, that you can’t escape politics, but must all of life be about politics, everywhere, all the time? I hope not. One hears that “the personal is the political,” which is both irritating and wrong. Sometimes the personal is just personal. Or political dimensions may be present but very small and unimportant, like relativity acting on objects moving at classical speeds. The politicizing of everyday life may be part of what drives searching people towards Peterson.

Sometimes people want to live outside the often-dreary shadow of politics, but, some aspects of social media make that harder. I’ve observed to friends that, the more I see of someone on Facebook, the less I tend to like them (maybe the same is true of others who know me via Facebook). Maybe social media also means that the things that could be easily ignored in a face-to-face context, or just not known, get highlighted in an unfortunate and extremely visible way. Social media seems to heighten our mimetic instincts in not-good ways.

We seem to want to sort ourselves into political teams more readily than we used to, and we seem more likely to cut off relationships due to slights or beliefs that wouldn’t have been visible to us previously. In some sense we can’t escape politics, but many if not most of us feel that political is not our most defining characteristic.

I’m happy to read Peterson as a symptom and a response, but the important question then becomes, “To what? Of what?” There are a lot of possible answers, some of which Robinson engages—which is great! But most of Peterson’s critics don’t seem to want to engage the question, let alone the answer.

The rest of us are back to the war of art. Which has to first of all be good, rather than agreeing with whatever today’s social pieties may be.

One response

  1. Pingback: Links: Sci-fi and the future, the future of clothing, the scientific paper, the disappearing doctor, and more! « The Story's Story

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