Jordan Peterson plus minus

Because my introduction to Jordan Peterson was the Cathy Newman interview, I was predisposed to like him anyway. Since that interview, I’ve watched dozens of his videos or videos in which he’s featured, and concluded there are things he says that I like or agree with, and things he says I don’t agree with.

More than anything I appreciate him as someone who stands up to political correctness and postmodernism in a way that is articulate yet so careful that it’s been very hard for anyone to take his words out of context and smear him successfully. He also walks a very fine line where civility and assertiveness meet.

I like Peterson’s stated aim of deradicalizing people and bringing them toward the center, and his implicit aim of encouraging people to thoughtfully question their own assumptions as well as the default messaging they take for granted around them.

His parenting tips support both my experience and instincts, and align with the advice I’ve gotten from other people I know who’ve raised amazing kids. At times this advice has been reassuring or plain handy.

I’m fascinated by his discussion of totalitarian regimes, Solzhenitsyn and so forth, and how it relates to everyday people’s capacity for evil. I think the idea that almost all of us are capable of being Nazi prison guards or of scalding our children in anger is an important and sobering thing to understand, but a priceless thing to learn from and push against once it’s understood.

I don’t know much about clinical, experimental, or developmental psychology, but since those are his areas of professional specialty I’m inclined to trust what he says about them, most of which I find very interesting.

And I just like the guy. We have extremely similar taste in art. We both have personal histories that include rough adolescences and dangerous situations in our 20s, and we’re both philosophically inclined. Plus, I’m a lover of unique accents, and his is super endearing. I’m sure a lot of this is just a function of my having watched so many hours of his videos: he starts to feel like a friend after a while. That’s pretty common phenomenon, but I might as well mention it.

That out of the way, there are some things Peterson says or has said that I have a problem with. Before I get into that, I think it’s funny that Joe Rogan (I think it was he…or was it Russell Brand?) once compared Peterson to Werner Herzog, because that’s one of the first mental comparisons I made too. And I can’t quite put my finger on why Peterson and Herzog seem cut from the same cloth, but they do. But to the point, there’s something vaguely silly to me about Herzog (maybe his dramatic way of talking about everything?), that I detect in Peterson as well.

The first time I really knew I had spotted Peterson saying something I disagreed with, it was in his Vice interview. (Vice released an aggressively edited 9-minute version and then later a longer version which I can’t find a link to.) My thoughts about that interview are summed up well in Bret Weinstein’s discussion about it on Joe Rogan’s podcast. Specifically, Peterson said that he thinks women who wear makeup or high heels to work and then expect not to be harassed are hypocrites. By doing so he overlooked many other factors besides self-sexualization that might influence women to do that. Besides, signaling of all kinds, including sexual signaling, is a more ubiquitous thing than how Peterson seemed to be framing it in that interview.

I also thought Peterson was unfair in his characterization of his interviewer, Jay Kang, when he spoke about the interview afterwards. Kang struck me as coming in good faith, he listened carefully to Peterson even if he didn’t always seem to understand at first, and he genuinely seemed to be trying to get to mutual understanding. He also asked questions that were genuinely challenging. Peterson just kind of casually lumped Kang in with Cathy Newman. “More leftwing press out to get me” kind of thing.

When I first was exposed to Peterson talking about myths and symbolism, I thought it was somewhat interesting but not particularly useful. I’m sure I’ll never watch Pinocchio or The Lion King the same way again, but I’m not really convinced Peterson isn’t just seeing what he wants to see in them.

I might be wrong about this because I’ve only seen a bunch of clips and not the full 90+ minute videos, but in the case of God and the Bible I think Peterson may inadvertently be doing a disservice to Judeo-Christian religion. What his analysis amounts to is pointing out the mythological universality of its sacred texts, which is to effectively equate them with a few choice Disney movies and the imagery of Illuminati conspiracy theories.

Sure, maybe there is something in the Bible that is in some way essential to the human condition and so it’s no surprise to see the same narrative patterns popping up everywhere, but then why is the Bible more authoritative than the Quran or the Bhagavad Gita? Peterson approaches religion like an atheist who sees it as a useful social tool, and that is somewhat distasteful to me, perhaps most of all because Peterson considers himself a believing Christian. I found Sam Harris’s critique of Peterson’s mythologism cogent even though I was inclined to be on Peterson’s side in their debate!

Finally, when I first heard about lobsters in the Newman interview, a thought crept up afterward: isn’t Peterson erroneously treating evolution as a single linear chain, where lobsters are primitive and humans are modern, thus causing the assumption that if lobsters and humans share a trait, it must be deeply embedded in humans?

I sort of filed that thought away and forgot about it, but it turns out there was something to it. A biology professor named PZ Myers has made a few videos debunking Peterson’s claim about lobsters indicating that our need for hierarchy is deeply entrenched just because lobsters and humans both experience a rise in serotonin when we get a rise in social status. Myers’ videos are worth watching, especially if you’ve never thought critically about what Peterson says about lobsters.

Peterson isn’t an evolutionary biologist, and I could forgive him for reading a paper outside his field and getting inspired by it to pose a novel idea in an area he is more comfortable in, but he puts a lot more scientific weight on this lobster argument than he can justify, and that shakes my confidence in him because now I’m wondering what other arguments he claims are scientifically well-grounded when in reality they are based on his own incorrect survey of fields way outside his area of expertise.

To make this a sandwich, I’ll say one last thing in defense of Peterson. Actually, it’s a defense against a criticism leveled at him by David Tabachnick, whose article on Peterson is, I think, actually not too bad. Tabachnick says the Peterson is one of many conservatives who top the best-seller lists and command (or could command) huge speaking fees while claiming to be persecuted by the radical Leftist PC crowd that’s infiltrated and taken over universities and the mainstream press.

But would Tabachnick only believe Peterson if he was writing from a prison cell? Peterson’s claims about political correctness and postmodernism are not at odds with the success he’s gotten by speaking up about it. In fact, Peterson consistently describes how he receives overwhelming support even from unexpected people (e.g. transsexuals), how a majority of people certainly share his views, and it seems like the only things Peterson has really been shaken by were the times administrative bodies came after his position and his status as a law-abiding Canadian. Even violent protesters at Peterson’s events don’t seem to rile him.

Tabachnick, who doesn’t seem like a slouch, has said he would be willing to debate Peterson. Given how few thoughtful criticisms have been made of Peterson, or at least any that are easy to find, I think such a debate could be a delight to watch.


One thought on “Jordan Peterson plus minus

  1. I can relate a lot to this post as I also was introduced to Jordan Peterson through the Cathy Newman interview (where he came off really well in my eyes) and since then for some reason can’t stop watching videos of him. I find him both endearing and irritating. The endearing aspect comes mainly, I think, from the fact that he’s clearly so sincere, such a straight-shooter and not afraid to speak what he feels (including admitting what he’s undecided on), that I can’t help but like and trust him on some level. Like you, I feel that after seeing so much footage of him and becoming so accustomed to his vocal inflections, he feels almost like a friend. But at the same time, I find him irritating because (1) I disagree with him on a number of things, and where I find his opinions wrong they seem frustratingly so; and (2) he seems to have somewhat of a persecution complex as almost a core part of who he is (ironic given his criticism of young SJ/identity-politics-inclined people, but with him it’s less a personal sense of persecution and more an impression of evil forces from the Left constantly out to destroy the values he holds dear). In particular, I’ve written things disagreeing with a lot of what he says about transgender issues here, here, and here.

    Altogether I find Dr. Peterson’s personality and point of view interesting enough to bring to the table and engage with (with the possible exception of his defenses of Christianity through eternal truth found in folklore or whatever, where he seems to be talking past the main points being made in the debate).

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