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Jordan Peterson Is Fascinating and Dangerous
How I lost faith in my favorite intellectual.
Jordan Peterson is a controversial and intriguing character who deserves a considerable amount of time to be understood and to grasp the depth of his thinking. For those who usually subscribe to progressivism, it can be challenging to get over the unpopular conservatives views he holds, and the tone of his voice – not to mention the very uncomfortable moment when reading the chapter of Maps of Meaning that exhaustly recounts one of his dreams involving sexual intercourse with his grandmother. Regardless of all this, he remains among the most influential intellectuals in Western countries, and one of the main reasons that might explain his ascension as a mainstream public figure was the media coverage of his protest at the University of Toronto in 2016, where he stood up against the mandatory use of gender-neutral pronouns claiming that they would be an infringement on freedom of speech – and that violating this principle was fundamentally incompatible with a functioning society. It is important to mention that most academic institutions were already on the verge of dominant liberal representation, while only a few professors were willing to be part of the opposition. Two years later, he published his second book: 12 Rules for Life – which has sold over 5 million times – and introduced me as part of his audience. Since then, I've regularly listened to the content he produces on various platforms and has even developed a sense of trust toward him, as a result of creating positive associations that portrayed him as a self-aware, cautious, and emotionally honest individual. Moreover, perceiving him as a marginalized intellectual reinforced my assumption that he played a beneficial role in politically balancing academia.
While I had trouble placing him in the political landscape as I was unable accurately capture his political persona in a single definition – maybe a mixture of conservative, libertarian, and traditional ideals would best describe the Peterson package – in which I found interesting the criticism he made on a certain form of feminism, which views patriarchy as primarily responsible for gender inequality – a claim that he considers unfounded in light of recent technological achievements that have allowed women to be more autonomous and, consequently, overcome the biological constraints that prevented their ascendancy in most hierarchical structures that are “supposedly” naturally driven by competence rather than power. And beyond the pathological blaming of society as responsible for any undesirable outcome, Jordan Peterson appealed to reconsider the role of individual responsibility – a statement that resonated with me, and brought out my admiration for his rhetorical abilities, especially the way he can finely manipulate abstract concepts, and link them together metaphorically and poetically. And because of being highly knowledgeable, he was, in most situations, full of ammunition to rebut any arguments against him, presenting a variety of rational explanations elegantly and convincingly – placing him beyond the reach of most of his opponents, as demonstrated by the number of debates he conquered, including the GQ interview with Helen Lewis, which I consider to be one of the highlights of his performance.
The more I listened to him, the more I became alienated from his person, and the more I felt tempted to emulate “The Peterson's 101 Rhetorical Playbook” – a set of principles to follow in developing influencing skills, and disseminating viewpoints without leaving space for refutation. Inside, it states that: when arguing, the most important thing is to rely on abstract concepts, as much as possible to conceal underlying motives, prevent disclosure, and reduce the chance of ending up cornered; when reasoning, apply a skewed sense of logic through metaphorical statements in a tautological way, to create meaningful statements that resonate with those who are politically aligned but further confuse the other side; appeal to science, and always have a few controversial and cherry-picked studies to render facts more persuasive and bulletproof when it's highly unlikely that anyone will spend the same amount of time finding counter-arguments. It took me a few rounds to become adept enough to smoothly navigate conversations, where I had the sensation of learning a mental martial art – based on the premise of being the most prepared for an unexpected fight. In almost any debate, winning an argument is thrilling, and for that reason, it quickly produces a strong incentive to be the most convincing person in the room, a reaction I became aware of after reflecting on a few arguments I had, where I was acting, in the same way, I'd play a competitive game – it was fun, rewarding, and success came without much effort. Except that, unlike other related fields, the learning curve of persuasive communication is remarkably fast, and eventually, the majority of untrained people will be discouraged from inferring with you, and therefore, it will slowly undermine the main purpose of debating.
From this experience, I took away a few interesting points: living under the delusion that defending my opinions should be a quest to triumph over people, was likely to be determined by a latent expression of insecurity – it also made me wonder if Jordan Peterson was not himself, motivated by a similar reason? The impression of being in proximity to a mass of radicalized people was largely due to being virtually over-exposed by the same kinds of information. By nurturing the desire to become a righteous person, you mold yourself into an echo chamber, and potentially trigger the “too far gone syndrome” – the act of locking yourself into a narrative that usually becomes too complex for others, resulting in no one being willing to invest the amount of energy needed to pull you out of your insanity. Realizing that these patterns were sensibly related to my most-listened-to intellectual drastically changed the nature of my interpretation of his tales.
It is quite common for Jordan Peterson to introduce himself as a clinical psychologist, but what he means by saying this is that he is a scientifically credible person. The underlying message is clear, it's a strong deterrent to challenge him in his area of expertise, and allows him to redundantly introduce his favorites and hand-picked studies that are usually phrased pseudo-objectively. Among them, figures the famous: “men prefer working with things and women prefer working with people'' – a meta-analysis that concludes that men are generally more prone to prefer STEM fields because they tend to be more interested in objects than women – one of his favorite cards to criticize any established affirmative action policy that does not fit his political agenda. It becomes problematic when he instrumentalizes this study to imply that the gender gap is mainly caused by genetics rather than something socially constructed – an interpretation that remains primarily subjective since the study does not mention anything regarding this aspect. Similarly, he often cites the “Gender-equality paradox”: a finding that gender differences in occupational choice are greater in more egalitarian and developed countries. Simply, this correlation says a little about why and how the paradox acts as evidence of intrinsic gender differences. These studies are not fraudulent, but they are far from widely accepted and, on their own, are largely insufficient to be considered serious evidence. Meanwhile, there have been a significant number of recent discoveries about the impact of genetics on societal outcomes, while many authors provide more clear and neutral explanations – The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality by Kathryn Paige Harden is an excellent introduction. Perhaps one of his most perilous attempts has been to criticize the objectivity of scientific studies related to climate change as inevitably biased by the number of limited parameters that could never be entirely measured – this is fundamentally true but ironically, he is much less cautious when it comes to gender studies. And beyond the questionable veracity of his projections, he tends to exaggerate the importance of his facts, and the people around him, by repeatedly qualifying them with hyperbolic adjectives, whereas the same strategy is inversely applied to his opponents by minimizing and devaluing their arguments. This deceptive strategy produces a contrasting effect that makes the speaker appear more rational than he is, and someone who exploits these methods of communication might plausibly not be acting in good faith, or compassionately, yet it is difficult to avoid distorting the facts, or exacerbating certain traits when dealing with adversaries who are strongly ideologically divergent.
On the other hand, I tried to balance my view of Jordan Peterson by listening to political commentators that I'm not familiar with, and the most recurrent criticism they offered was to describe him as someone dangerously influencing his masculine audience in a misleading way – this argument makes a lot of sense, as I can envision how this could manifest itself after having peeled back enough layers of his narrative. However, I believe he's far from the sole example, as in general, most people are unwilling, or do not have enough time to provide the appropriate effort to overcome the subtlety of what they are consuming. And if Jordan Peterson never existed, how could anyone predict that his audience would benefit more from someone else? Additionally, it's difficult to prove that most of his followers are politically aligned with him, as I wouldn't be surprised if many of them only know him from his self-help books or lectures. I have personally had several conversations about him with a good number of people that knew him to a greater or lesser extent, and so far I have not encountered any indoctrinated fanatics – the misconception of the radicalized masses.
After all, Jordan Peterson is certainly a free thinker, whom I still hold in high regard, presumably for being courageous enough to endure an overwhelming amount of criticism, potentially jeopardizing his career, and publicly exposing a large amount of educational content that I have benefited from. Nevertheless, I can hardly consider him a reasonable person anymore, as I no longer believe he is motivated by a genuine desire to enlighten his audience when he presents his antagonists as an impending threat by overstating them as extremists and instead acts as a polarizing force – blatantly contributing to deepening an already existing rift rather than facilitating a mutual understanding between the two sides. Jordan Peterson established himself as a consummate intellectual because no one else looks like him or comes close. He set his own rules and played by them, mastered every aspect in a relentless effort to become unteachable, and regrettably achieved a position that ineluctably sealed his character in an ivory tower.