Canadian man-of-the-moment Dr Jordan Peterson is coming to Scotland. Like we don’t have enough on our plate.
I’ll spare you all the obligatory preface about him being either loved or loathed. I’ll skip the stuff about him being either a transphobic, misogynistic gateway drug to the alt-right or a modern-day messiah, sent to set our chaotic world back on its axis. By now, most of you know who Peterson is. To know him is to already have your opinion of him stubbornly hard-wired, rendering even the most careful attempt to persuade you otherwise utterly futile.
I first stumbled across Peterson on YouTube a while back. He was addressing some students outside the university where he works as a professor. In his speech, the clinical psychologist and professor of psychology condemned political correctness and the Canadian government’s Bill C-16, due to what he regarded as its incursion into free speech. The legislation proposed to add “gender identity or expression” as a prohibited ground of discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act. Peterson interpreted the law as potentially being able to prosecute him for refusing to use a trans person’s preferred gender pronoun. The video went viral and Peterson quickly became a lightning-rod for various overlapping, online subcultures, on both the left and right.
By the time I got to Peterson, I was already suffering from the online equivalent of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, having naively launched a social media project where I attempted to learn more about ‘identity politics’, and where it intersected with the working class. Every few days, I would take a topic like ‘trigger warnings’, ‘safe spaces’ or ‘toxic masculinity’ and riff off the back of it in a vlog. The idea was to generate responses and criticisms that would then feed into a growing awareness of the various perspectives in play.
It went well, which is to say I almost had a complete nervous breakdown by the time the project was over. I underestimated the variable of social media, which until that point I had regarded only as a megaphone, rather than a broad diversity of interlocking public-squares, into which my words were spoken, before being interpreted subjectively and then reframed for yet more people.
At one point, so bruised and bitter I was due to online clashes with other lefties, I stood on the very cliff-edge of renouncing the beliefs that had defined my politics for most of my life. I wanted a crash-course in the politics of identity and that is exactly what I got. But while ‘call-out’ culture has its undeniable uses, there is also a tremendous deal of collateral damage that may follow – whether you are being called-out or leading the charge.
That collateral damage takes many forms, one being the many otherwise left-leaning people, turning their backs on the notion of social justice altogether, because the discussion on social media feels so impossible to traverse. Enter Dr Peterson, a man you could argue has benefitted most from the mass millennial exodus from the left. I stumbled across him at the precise moment when I was most vulnerable as a sober man.
Then again, I’m a sucker for anyone who talks well. For me, words are like music; my ears perk up whenever I hear a delicious turn-of-phrase. It often doesn’t matter what the person is saying or whether I agree or not: if they say it well, I’ll grant them a temporary lease of my fleeting attention span. There’s a groove, rhythm and harmony to how some people express a viewpoint that I both appreciate and find irresistible and once I tune into their frequency, well, it’s a bit like getting into a book.
I believe many become attracted to Peterson, initially, because they run into problems online like I did. That, for many, is the catalyst; a need to find a reason why things suddenly seem so fraught and challenging. Engaging with his ideas – even just to understand what you’re arguing against – is not necessarily bad or dangerous, but when you come to regard him as the sole antidote to the chaos we are experiencing, it might be time to re-curate your algorithm.
Peterson’s views, ostensibly rooted in biological determinism – which coincidentally align with his Christian conservative impulses – are not dangerous in and of themselves but, like all ideas, can become so when they are weaponised by those of a more zealous persuasion, such as those who use phrases like “feminism is cancer”. It’s when I became aware of people like this, wearing the veil of non-conformist, devil-may-care, provocateurs, that I realised why some on the left reacted to my work at the time, with such anxiety and scorn. I had to find a way through this warzone and back to the left, where I belonged.
The attraction of Peterson (and figures like him) is the enticing fluidity of the conversation; the many lenses through which the issues of the day can be viewed; the distinct freedom people feel when navigating complex and potentially contentious matters intuitively. There’s a freedom, novelty and even some fun in looking at reality from a new vantage point. But Peterson is not part of the alt-right, as many of my comrades appear to think; he is an extension of a rudderless Western liberalism, which selects for individuals and viewpoints which, at their core, stand in defence of the status-quo, while appearing radical or subversive.
Peterson emerges from the same rudderless liberalism that not only tolerates Nigel Farage, but also promotes him. A liberalism that practically catapulted Trump into the White House by, on one hand, giving him more airtime than anyone else (because it was lucrative to do so) while, on the other, failing to understand (nevermind address) the quantum mechanics of the socially corrosive anger and resentment that define the current political moment. A moment in which too many find themselves so aggrieved at the status-quo, they’re willing to risk democracy itself just to land a blow on the ‘system’ they believe is rigged against them.
I believe Jordan Peterson’s legacy will be the fact the left rose to the challenge he and people of his ilk presented. It’s not necessarily about engaging with his ideas, which are not as profound as they first appear, but about paying closer attention to how people interpret and discuss ideas, generally, in the social media age. It’s in this new landscape, defined by diversity of viewpoint and experience, that we must begin articulating a clear, left-wing vision of how we could make this world a better place for everyone.