In criticizing an irritating Peterson fan a while back, I made the following claim:
In this case, the problem is in trusting an argument which you cannot understand, without realizing that you don’t understand it. If asked to explain an idea, can you describe it without using vague adjectives like “deep” and “profound?” Can you outline the premises, the steps, and the conclusions of an argument without depending upon shifting definitions and abnormal interpretations of otherwise commonly understood terms?
Campbell’s thesis — that of the Monomyth, or “hero’s journey” — is complex, but the argument can actually be made. The same is true with Jung, at least so far as his theory of the collective unconscious is concerned. Same with Nietzsche and “slave morality,” and to some degree, the death of God.
Peterson’s worldview, so far as I can tell, cannot be made as an argument. It is a collection of name-drops, conflations, literary references, and metaphors, mixed up with some real psychological facts, and packaged in a peculiar, meandering manner of speaking. This leaves the listener with the feeling of depth and profundity.
But if you actually take the trouble and pick up a scalpel, peel back the skin and look at the insides, there’s nothing there.
Incidentally, this coincides with Milo Yiannopoulos’ criticism in his foreword to Vox’s book:
I’m a smart person. Really smart, actually, and very expensively educated! But half the time, I just can’t understand a bloody word Jordan Peterson says. And I’ve been thinking recently about why that could be. Ordinarily, I can listen to someone prattling on and quickly get to the heart of what they are trying to express. That’s one of the skills you pick up as a journalist: You learn to quickly identify the core of a problem, the essence of what’s being said. You learn to filter out the noise—and to identify bullshitters. But with Jordan Peterson, once I’ve filtered out the noise, I don’t find a lot left to work with.
So the question is, if we tried to summarize Jordan Peterson’s worldview in a way that was coherent and comprehensible, what would it look like?
Vox Day’s new book Jordanetics: A Journey into the Mind of Humanity’s Greatest Thinker is not just a criticism of the Canadian professor, theologian, philosopher, and psychiatrist. It is a connection of the dots, a filling in of the blanks left by the old professor in his meandering lectures and his compelling but somewhat confusing exhortations.
And the connections are not at all attractive.
Day claims that Peterson’s path is not transcendent, but that of balance — the path of the middle, and the mediocre. While each rule as presented in Peterson’s best-selling 12 Rules for Life — the chapter titles — are not merely defensible, but good (if simple) life advice, the expanations provided in the chapter often have very little to do with the ostensible rule, and even contradict their ordinarily understood meaning. For instance, Peterson’s 8th rule — “Tell the truth — or at least, don’t lie” — has an immediately-understood meaning among most people. However, that meaning is undercut by Peterson’s peculiar definition of truth, which is Darwinian and pragmatic, and can be approximately summarized as that which leads to survival. “Lying” is also redefined, from saying that which we know not to be true, to saying that which makes you feel like you’re falling apart.
Needless to say, these new definitions permit lying, and dramatically change the actual meaning of what was previously a clear and good piece of general advice.
Every rule in Peterson’s 12 new Commandments is provided with a coherent interpretation. As you can see, these interpretations are not particularly flattering, nor are they very attractive to most people:
- Stand up straight with your shoulders back.
Translation: Be mediocre.
- Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping. (Why won’t you just take your damn pills?)
Translation: God is the balance between Good and Evil.
- Make friends with people who want the best for you.
Translation: Leave the wounded behind to die.
- Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.
Translation: Your head is the only truly safe space.
- Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
Translation: Do not excel, because excellence endangers the balance.
- Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.
Translation: Inaction is always preferable to action.
- Pursue what is meaningful (Not what is expedient)
Translation: To reach Heaven above, you must descend into Hell below.
- Tell the truth–or, at least, don’t lie.
Translation: You can speak a new world into existence through your lies.
- Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.
Translation: Dominate the conversation and control the narrative by keeping your mouth shut.
- Be precise in your speech.
Translation: Transcend the material world and very carefully choose the words that will alter this reality.
- Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.
Translation: Heal the world by assimilating its evil.
- Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.
Translation: To lift the world out of Hell, you must be willing to accept its pain and suffering into yourself.
If it seems uncharitable to offer “translations” of an intellectual’s stated words, recall that Peterson has fundamentally changed some pretty generally-accepted definitions, including “truth,” “God,” “being,” “order,” and “chaos,” and these new definitions permeate all of the above rules. They literally cannot be understood properly (i.e., through Peterson’s own worldview) without a translation from Jordanetic language into common parlance. Rather, these translations represent an honest upholding of the obligation to charity, not its neglect, as Vox Day is offering the most coherent and internally consistent view of Peterson’s ideas that I have seen.
The fact that this view is not very attractive to most people is no more Vox Day’s fault than is the confusing language which made more coherent interpretations necessary.
Nor is it Vox Day’s fault that Jordan Peterson regularly misrepresents data, theology, history, and sourced articles. It is not his fault that Peterson turns around on people like Milo Yiannopoulos, Faith Goldy, or Brett Kavanaugh, backing down on his support for free speech when push actually comes to shove, and condemning people as hateful or bigoted when they point out a problem with his argument.
Ultimately, it is hard to pick out one of Vox Day’s translations from the 12 Rules and argue that it falsely represents Peterson’s worldview. Just a few examples: Peterson exemplifies rule 3 — leave the wounded behind to die — in his treatment of Milo Yiannopoulos and of Faith Goldy. He exemplifies rule 10 — transcend the material world and very carefully choose the words that will alter this reality — in his various alternative definitions, as well as in his now-infamous interview with Joe Rogan, claiming to have gone 25 days without sleep (presumably as an excuse for his poor performance on the Sam Harris podcast; he claimed the incident happened the day of the interview with Harris). And his fans repeatedly, consistently, incessantly exemplify rule 6 — inaction is always preferable to action — perhaps even more than the man himself does. You cannot find a video criticizing Dr. Peterson in which his fans have not descended and demanded to know the status of the critic’s room, as though it were relevant (and as though their own prophet had a clean room and a clean house, literally or metaphorically). Of course, such people won’t hesitate to criticize Vox Day’s book, regardless of the status of their own room or life, as their comments online clearly illustrate.
But that’s just a detail.
Vox Day can be a bit blunt in his characterizations of people whom he has come to strongly disagree with, and for people who are still on the fence about Dr. Peterson — or are still supporters and adherents — this may make the book an emotionally challenging one. But Peterson himself was fond of quoting Jung’s idea that “in filth, it shall be found.” If you believe that Vox Day is motivated by envy or hatred or fear, that the book is just garbage and not worth reading, consider if perhaps some truth may be hidden in this particular volume of filth. After all, might there be something Vox Day knows that you don’t?
And if you do read it and find it to be as bad as you thought, then by all means criticize it. Just be sure that before you do so, you set your life in perfect order first, that you don’t lie in your characterization, and that you choose your words very, very precisely… assuming, of course, that taking the time to criticize someone else’s criticism is meaningful. Because surely, no true Peterson fan would break all of these rules to defend the very man who wrote them…
…unless, of course, the rules mean something entirely different than what they say.