Don’t be a follower of Jordan Peterson, be a thinker for Jordan Peterson
Jordan Peterson, either you love him or hate him. As an admirer of Peterson myself, I’ve hanged on every word he said. But this doesn’t prevent me from looking with a critical eye. Because I think Jordan Peterson needs more constructive criticism.
Unless you have lived under a rock, you’ve noticed the Internet phenomenon Jordan B. Peterson (if not, I would check his videos on YouTube or this documentary about him). Jordan B. Peterson is a clinical psychologist at University of Toronto who became famous for three videos on gender-neutral pronouns and postmodernism in October 2016. Today, he’s much more than an one-issue guy, that he’s become a public intellectual with a broad range of interests: cultural criticism, existential philosophy, evolutionary-psychological Biblical hermeneutics and Jungian psychology. His lecture series on the psychological significance of the Biblical stories, his personality courses and courses about his book Maps of Meaning have attracted well over a million views.
His ideas have been so persuasive and his personality is so charismatic, that he has created his own fan club, a cult even around his persona (although cult is a strong word, guru might be better). I’m an admirer of Peterson’s work (and I do not use the word admire lightly) but I would not go so far that I lose all critical thinking. The problem is that a person like Jordan Peterson (unintentionally) polarises: there are his fans who will vociferously defend him and there are people who loathe him, willing to do anything to destroy him. There is virtually no middle ground.
It is ironic that he has created what he despises: a group of ideologically-possessed people who are simply repeating every word Peterson says. I think I can illustrate it with one of his vids. When I heard this question and Peterson’s answer, I couldn’t think but to apply it to Peterson himself: to what degree are his fans mere mirrors, spokepersons or possessed puppets of his ideas? Of course, some people did internalise his ideas, got transformed and are really passionate about it. But an even greater danger lurks here: to what degree are those born-again Petersonians their original selves? You cannot transcend the puppet stage if you don’t have any original thoughts of your own.
This is most harmful for Peterson himself. When you’re locked up in a room full of mirrors and you ask: “Magic mirror on the wall – who’s the fairest one of all?“, the answer that you want is not you. Otherwise you’ll be like Narcissus, falling in love with your own reflection, freezing you on the spot and holding you back from developing. Peterson knows this and he has an inner circle of friends who check and balance him.
Will this be enough, I wonder? It is important that even though you can admire Peterson, to stay critical of his ideas and give constructive feedback. Otherwise you do him a great disservice.
So I start this blog with his criticism of postmodernism. I think Peterson is really hammering down the Left with arguments (and attracts so much spite because of it) and because he does it with so much fortitude, the Left is unable to defend themselves adequately. They simply try to attack Peterson’s character, as they seem to lack arguments (or because they do not believe in the validity of logical dialogue). This poses dangers, because it may diminish Peterson’s alertness.
Peterson’s story of postmodernism has flaws. This became apparent in for instance the deconstruction of the Lindsay Shepherd Affair video. At roughly 18:00, Dr. David Haskell drops the word “critical theory” and Peterson gives him the opportunity to explain it but fails to elaborate further on it. He just moves on while you would think: “Hey, that’s interesting, let’s go deeper into it.”
Why is that? It’s because “critical theory”, as part of the Frankfurter Schule, does not fall within Peterson’s narrative of “let’s blame the French postmodern intellectuals of all campus ills“. Worse than that, he totally disregards the contribution of critical theory to Neo-Marxism, making his critique so far inaccurate, incomplete at best.
Fear to be called conspiracy theorist?
Jordan Peterson might do this for a reason. A large part of the critical theory criticism is centered around Cultural Marxism. He might not want to be associated with these “Cultural Marxist conspiracists” (although that’s just an umbrella term to delegitimize all critique on the critical theory). He knows the leftist sharks are waiting for him to say something stupid and tear him apart. Associating him with such conspiracists would be just that.
However, already the critique of postmodernism is getting more and more brushed aside by the left as simply conspiracy thinking (which seems in a twist that it hurts them and that the left indeed is so deeply entrenched into postmodern power play thinking, they straw man their opponents). So Peterson shouldn’t be bothered by such critics because they are playing a whole different game here (the “how can I discredit my opponent without any intellectual effort” game). The truth and nothing but the truth, that’s all that matters. If that means touching the subject of critical theory, then so be it.
Before he does that, he needs to extend his understanding of Neo-Marxism. For me, Neo-Marxism (or Cultural Marxism, those two are used interchangeably) is the umbrella term applying to all thinking of the 20th century that moved away from classical, materialistic Marxist thinking and rather focused on more culturalistic, institutional Marxist thinking i.e. from socio-economics to socio-cultural. This happened in several waves.
First wave Neo-Marxism
The first wave of Neo-Marxist thinkers would be Antonio Gramsci and Franz Boas in the 30’s and 50’s. Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci developed the theory of cultural hegemony. According to him, the proletarian revolution didn’t happen because the Marxist theory is wrong (that would be the logical conclusion of the non-ideologically possessed) but because the masses where indoctrinated by bourgeois culture. He suggested institutional infiltration, so proletarians intellectuals would occupy a position of power and change the system from within (sounds familiar, does it not?). The phrase “the long march through the institutions” is however not attributable to Gramsci himself but to Rudi Dutschlke, spokesperson of the German ’68 student movement who was heavily influenced by Gramsci.
Franz Boas was a pioneer of anthropology who popularized the term cultural relativism, as a counterweight for the Eurocentric visions of contemporary anthropology. Franz Boas was also the first academic activist, using cultural relativism as a tool of cultural critique. Boas influenced other known scholars, such as anthropologist Margaret Mead (an important person in the sexual revolution) and linguist Edward Sapir (who along with his student Benjamin Lee Whorf developed the concept of linguistic relativity, the notion that perception of reality is shaped by language). Recent research suggests that Boas was in fact a Gramscian-Marxist.
Second wave Neo-Marxism
In the second wave of Neo-Marxism, from the 50’s to the 70’s, the Frankfurter Schule and the French postmodernists developed their theories. The Frankfurter Schule (German sociologists Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, and Erich Fromm) introduced the concept of critical theory. Many have been fooled by the adjective “critical”, believing that it is synonymous with critical thinking. It is not. The Marxist sociologists of the Frankfurter Schule meant actually social critique, departing entirely from the notion that sociology should be merely descriptive. For them, sociologists should also make normative claims, normative claims that are critical of capitalism. Critical theory further enforced the Gramscian notion of “it’s all about culture, stupid!”.
For postmodernism, I refer to this excellent piece on Areo Magazine for an introduction. Postmodernists (mainly Jean-François Lyotard, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucalt) developed the concepts of metanarrative, social constructs and discourse analysis. They viewed the interpretation of text and dialogue as dependent on power relations (echoing the Gramscian theory of cultural hegemony). Social constructionism, the notion that social reality is nothing but a collection of taken-as-fact concepts between social agents (“social constructs”), quickly became the lens through which everything is looked at. Deconstruction is thus the total dissection of those social constructs as arbitrary and the result of socialisation and power. Ever since, it is bon ton in sociology to wave with ill-defined jargon gibberish as social constructs, discourses and institutions.
Third wave Neo-Marxism
In the third wave of Neo-Marxism, from the 80’s into the 00’s, important developments were gender feminism and queer theory (by Judith Butler for example) and intersectionality and critical race theory (by people like Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw). These two began to formulate concretely who was oppressed (black, women) and who was the oppressor (white, men). It would be the beginning of identity politics and [group] studies. During the 90’s, the social sciences and humanities had become more and more left-leaning, research shows.
Ever since, the Neo-Marxists are at a dead end. They haven’t produced any new “theories” of any significance. It seems they are mostly using the established tools (critical theory and social constructionism) to subvert society. They are more busy consolidating themselves in administrations. With success, apparently.
Fourth wave Neo-Marxism?
Are we currently experiencing the fourth wave of Neo-Marxism, where administrators enforce the Neo-Marxist ideas? Some evidence suggests this, for instant Bill C-16 and other similar censorship laws in Europe (since 1 January 2018, a new law in Germany is into effect that urges social media to remove offensive posts, the first victim of the law is a German parliamentarian).
However, it is quite far-fetched to state that these administrators and legislators are all Neo-Marxists or even are aware of Neo-Marxist thought. They are as much a product of their social environment as you and me. How many people know which ideologues influenced their professors and advisers? Neo-Marxist thinking has been creeping upwards ever since its inception and it did so under the veil of diversity and social justice. This endless chain of influences, cultural transmission and ideology, has totally eliminated any form of conscious actors. There is no big conspiracy, just a large number of unconscious processes of selection, conformity, self-censorship, piety contests and herd-mentality on all levels of society. Even social justice warriors don’t realise the origin of their activism, just that they feel it is morally sanctioned.
Jordan Peterson emphasizes that we’re paying not enough attention, and that we’d better wake up before we are in a totalitarian nightmare. We must re-identify the roots of this Neo-Marxist ideology. However, we can not do that if we’re simply focusing on one aspect of Neo-Marxism (postmodernism), as Jordan Peterson does.
Ironically it were the Neo-Marxists themselves who have given us the tools to challenge them (cultural hegemony, critical theory, discourse analysis and social constructionism). Unlike the Neo-Marxists, we will not abuse these tools to subvert society but to correctly identify nefarious ideologies and cultural influences, uncover them and destroy them.
I recommend Jordan Peterson to talk with Sid Lukkassen or Wim Van Rooy – both are also speaking at the event of the Dutch Lion organisation Peterson will attend on the 19th of January in Rijswijk, the Netherlands. I believe they are the best experts of Neo-Marxism/Cultural Marxism of The Netherlands and Flanders.
Meer over het Nederlandse Leeuw-event vindt u hier.
PS: Er zouden klachten zijn gekomen over mijn behandeling van Franz Boas. Critici wijzen erop dat Boas in 1942 overleden is op 84-jarige leeftijd en de Gevangenisgeschriften van Gramsci pas in jaren ’50 zijn gepubliceerd, voor het eerst in het Engels in 1970. Zij concluderen dat Boas niet kon beïnvloed geweest zijn door Gramsci. Ik wijs de critici op de bron die ik in mijn essay heb vermeld. Een aantal quotes: “In the course of a thorough study of Boas’ correspondence, the author concludes that there is clear evidence that Boas was an effective convert to Gramscian Marxism and one of its most successful exponents. (…) Famous Boasian students included Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Ashley Montagu, Kenneth Clarke, and Alfred Kroeber (the rapporteur who drafted the academically absurd UNESCO 1950 Statement on Race). By awarding doctoral degrees to these and other students who absorbed his views, Boas was able to pursue a Gramscian strategy of infiltrating and capturing culture-forming institutions as a base for eventual political transformation.“