PETERSON’S “BIG THINK”
so yeah, hi, and welcome to peak hellworld—and today i’ll be looking at some of that sweet jordan peterson lobster-juice, sucking it up though my brain-straw. jordan peterson is a man with a beard whose youtube videos come up in conjunction with “feminist gets owned” videos, and the videogame street fighter videos. he’s also, at some point in the recent past, been a number one selling author on amazon, and pewdiepie has reviewed his book, with something like three and a half million views.
loving culture right now.
i saw a video of his, recently, accidentally, via The Big Think (i do not subscribe to that channel). it was called:
Jordan Peterson: the fatal flaw in leftist American politics.
now, obviously, i was triggered and got owned, because i am a snowflake, so i took it upon myself to actually consider his arguments, and ask; what?
here is my preliminary conclusion, and i think it’s a fair shake: no.
so, here it is, as i understand it.
1. SEMI-TL;DR: PETERSON’S POSITION, DISTILLED
postmodernists, in the 1960s, because they had no narrative, and reject narratives, fell into marxism, which is “dissonant” because the two are epistemologically incompatible, i.e., it does not follow that (a) marxists claim a grand narrative; (b) postmodernists reject narratives; (c) postmodernists can be marxists.
and thus, according to peterson, this falling into marxism, without due consideration for ‘coherence’, by intellectuals, caused them to become active, and start protesting — and marxism is a ‘discredited economic theory’. that is, these intellectuals, in the barren wasteland of post-modernism, had to fall to marxism, which in turn forced them to the streets, to reject hierarchies, etc.
and thus, this activism, in the 1960s, etc, the student movement, martin luther king, is founded on some kind of fundamental dissonance, irrationality, because marxism is “widely discredited”, and the intellectuals who fell into activism were incoherent postmodernists, anyway.
and the slam dunk: this is “the fatal flaw in leftist american politics”; this is pervasive on the left. all leftist activists are, so it is implied, postmodern marxists… and so the left is fundamentally irrational, or something.
so “egalitarian marxism” (his words) caused activism; postmodernists fell into marxism; postmodernists are the activist student movement—therefore the left is a poopoohead.
final peterson formulation:
- 1. marxists claim a grand narrative
- 2. postmodernists reject narratives
- 3. postmodernists became marxists (1960s)
- 4. the left is marxist postmodernist
- 5. marxism causes activism
- 6. the left is marxist postmodern activists
- 7. the movement is ultimately incoherent (in line with postmodernism)
- 8. the left is cognitive dissonance
- 9. the left is dangerous, in no position to make normative claims
uhh how did i, we get there? let’s turn to the man himself:
2. PEAK HELLWORLD, COMMENCE; CONSIDERING HIS OPENING CLAIMS
“it’s been obvious to me for some time, that for some reason, the fundamental claim of postmodernism is something like an infinite number of interpretations, and no canonical overarching narrative. ok. but the problem with that is: ‘ok? … now what?”
so here, peterson’s argument is going to go that postmodernism is no good because he does not like the implications of its thesis (“now what?”). in peak rationality land, this is a big nono because it is the equivalent of saying “i don’t like the implications of your idea, so therefore it is wrong”. dickie dawkins might have something to say about these kind of arguments. and though ‘repugnant conclusions’ have their place, usually they are reserved for very obvious bad moral outcomes (i.e. a normative proposition that we should all die).
further, i imagine that, given the radical thesis, the content of postmodernism, as a field of endeavour, is—literally—discussing the “now what?”. that discussion could be bullshit, but, again, that is not really of relevance to peterson’s main conflation without evidence— namely, that activists from the 1960s are dissonant postmodern marxists.
let’s try again, with something else, that i’ve invented:
“it’s been obvious to me for some time, that for some reason, the fundamental claim of marx is something like capitalism is bad. ok. but the problem with that is: ‘ok? … now what?’
(i don’t mean to defend postmodernism, here.)
regardless, from my cursory understanding, and as something of a “marxist”—as in, as richard wolff argues of claiming to be a marxist, a person who is critical of capitalism, and has some awareness that it is perhaps a grand structure of oppression—postmodernism seems likely potentially a crock, because a) i have not really taken the time to look at it or understand it, and b) chomsky has dunked on it hard enough to really put me off exploring it, and c) we should be wary to write off what it is to “know the facts”; this presumes that c) is an accurate characterisation of postmodernism. i recognise i am not fully qualified to make authoritative claims here with regards to postmodernism, but i don’t need to to disagree with peterson about postmodernism to refute his claims. again: i have not studied postmodernism, to any extent where i might be qualified to dunk on it in the manner that peterson does. though i doubt he has either.
anyway, what peterson first presents is a statement that he doesn’t like the implications of postmodernism, and because of those implications, it is wrong.
n o t – a n – a r g u m e n t – s i r
3. CONFLATING 1960s CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE WITH MARXISM, WITH POSTMODERNISM
“no narrative; no value structure that’s canonical or overarching… so what the hell you gonna do with yourself? how are you going to orient yourself in the world? well the postmodernists have no answer to that. so what happens is they default without any real attempt to grapple with the cognitive dissonance… they default… they default to — kinda, this… this loose egalitarianism… egalitarian marxism. and … if … if they were concerned with coherence that would be a problem but since they’re not concerned with coherence it doesn’t seem to be a problem but. — the force that’s driving the activism is mostly the marxism rather than the postmodernism, it’s more like an intellectual gloss to hide the fact that a discredited economic theory is being used to — what? — fuel an educational movement and produce activists. so…”
just by way of direct refutation let me present two pieces of evidence:
- literally, here is noam chomsky doing a “marxist” critique of postmodernism.
- literally, here is noam chomsky protesting in 1967.
and how to orient oneself?
i mean, to pose one question, that is perhaps “postmodern”, “gramscian”, “marxist”, in character, or “whatever-the-academics-would-like-to-call-it”: should we consider the material circumstance of the interpretation and construction of history, accounting for any inherent bias in that might from from our conventional narratives? that non-literate persons generally don’t keep written records, could there be a systemic bias here, when we turn to the record, when we turn to our books?
of course, chomsky, on the left, would say, as we see it, the hegemonic narrative is warped (perhaps by capital); you have to actively “resist it”, and build your own “narrative” using the facts, in their proper context. “take a look at the facts”, or “i think if you take a look at the facts”, or “go and look for yourself”, “look at each case on its individual merits”, must be the most “brokenly uttered” chomskyisms to date. pay attention; educate; become a part of society, take personal moral responsibility, etc. these claims that libertarian anarchists, whatever, make, are not so different from peterson’s individualist claims (“tidy your room, lobster”), except that, ultimately, the individual who becomes informed, properly informed, i imagine to chomsky, leftists, is able to understand their position in the wheel of power, and resist and understand its implications for personal autonomy, self-actualisation, oppression—literally, marx describes this as “revolutionary practice”:
The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society.
The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood as revolutionary practice.
(Marx (1845) cited in Balibar  (2017), p. 16)
yes: ‘it is essential to educate the educator himself’, this is ‘revolutionary practice’.
radical, but not stupid; sensible, not dissonant.
can we see in what sense these ideas might begin to threaten power?
4. THE STATUS QUO: RADICAL CENTRISM
why it is easy to be a centrist is that you (think you) have no skin in the game, and no access to capital ‘T’ and ‘F’, ‘the facts’; you have no filter, history through which to process, and certainly the truth is evasive; you are, liberals, peterson’s postmodernist. the russians say one thing, the americans say the other, what is truth anyway—they both insist on different versions? back to work. what is history? that new call of duty black ops where you assassinate fidel castro’s double is good: videogames rule.
within this is a kind of credulity that “both sides” in any dispute are of equal power and agree that it is good for people to have stuff, and be happy — yes, a gentlemen’s agreement can be reached between the powerful, who have the capital to pay to maintain and enhance the status quo, that is their power, and the weak, who need that capital to live.
and the outcome will be better for all, if we take the powerful and the weak, and synthesize their conflicting desires; this necessarily ignores the vast differential in population and power between the powerful and the weak. from the lens of centrism, we, the politically engaged on the left and right, just disagree as to achieve progressive ends, and society is getting better —we all want what’s best. and, thus, if you listen to both sides and synthesise the middle ground, without seeking out the information, for yourself, that is objectivity.
so, the tories think the best way to make everybody have a better life is to cut social spending and bomb syria; and labour thinks the best way for everybody to have a better life is to increase social spending and not bomb syria. surely it is reasonable that the answer is somewhere in the middle?
Since the 2015 general election 18.6 per cent of all donations to the [Tory] party – totalling £8.4m – have come from hedge funds or people associated, while 6.5 per cent or £2.9m have come from investment bankers and the finance sector in general.
Another 7.9 per cent of the party’s funding or £3.6m comes from property magnates, with a further chunk coming from fossil fuel companies.
The analysis comes after Electoral Commission figures show the Tories raised ten times as much money as Labour from large donations over £7,500 in the most recent reporting campaign period.
Labour takes most of its large donations from trade unions. The party also says it has raised large amounts of money from small donations averaging about £20, though smaller donations under £500 are not registered with the Electoral Commission.
consider black panther, that new movie, that finally has been marketed as having black people in it. when critics insist that a film has been unnecessarily politicised, and it’s just a dumb movie, what they are doing in and of itself is making a political statement; they are enacting some kind of power to move a discussion somewhere else. it is a political move in itself to insist that something cannot be about politics. meanwhile, elsewhere, those who laud the movie for being at the forefront of black rights, and insist it is political, in its wondrous depiction of the fictional wakanda, in africa, continue to fail to acknowledge, or even know about, the harms of american imperialism on, you know, the real africa. AFRICOM, do you know about it? no, but that black panther movie rules; finally black people are free!
and so the left argues that, perhaps, the very structure of facts, whatever, as they fit into contemporary hegemony, society, as presented to you by capital, could serve power in some way, in some bias, about which we are totally “unaware”, in that we are generally uncritical of their presentation as individuals, of enlightenment empiricism—and that capital is more powerful than not capital in late stage capitalism.
traditionally, we consider facts and science, ultimately, an ultimate objectivity, to which we can appeal to for exactly the truth, and within this claim we dismiss any bias inherent in the presentation of those facts. so, we can shut down a conversation by insisting that “we need to have an honest conversation about the facts”. but, within that, we can also say “we need an honest conversation about the honest conversation about the facts”. this is what is called being self-aware; and it is radical postmodern egalitarian marxism, i imagine, to peterson.
in the 20th and 19th century, a completely uncontroversial scientific opinion would have been something in line with eugenics, you know, the usual contemptible stuff about how phrenology proved that x person should do y thing.
now, we look at those positions, in history, and think them absurd, wrong, disgusting, or whatever (again, here notice my own presumption that this is the case, i write at a time when roughly only five percent of donald trump supporters disapprove of his presidency, and they all seem to be writing for centrist publications, or on sam harris’ podcast); the science was actually very wrong on those points. that does not mean the data collected was not scientifically produced, and that the opinions drawn from those data were not scientific. and within the remits of their objectivity, they certainly did fit, to those people.
though, certainly, we think ourselves now as much more intelligent than those people, one hundred years ago, or whatever — now we have phones! we could never make the same mistakes! climate change is going away!
so, i think what i’m asking for us to do is consider the term objectivity, and its immutability to the historical record. there has to be something conjoined in to these two ‘objects of the discourse’:
1) objective empirical evidence proves things.
2) the circumstances of that evidence’s production.
in what way these two are separable, seems to be the dividing line at the moment.
so the left presents a normative proposition: that we should at least question the way in which facts are structured and presented to us, in that, generally, thus far, we have ignored, in the west, in marx’s words, ‘educating the educator’ of their position within the “objective” hierarchy—this is perhaps the radical left that peterson is against; he, the right, says: these are the facts, as unregulated capital should present them, or as we dictate them to be, and that is freedom; the hierarchy is a material inevitability, and to hegemony we must submit; the hierarchy is a materially inevitable order. the left wants to question in what ways this submitting to hierarchy is really the best way to go forward.
and i do not disagree that inequality and hierarchy, at this moment in history, give life its “purpose”. indeed it does, in some way; it defines who we are, and who we fight, and the limits of our capacity to act. the inequality that surrounds us defined the limits of the circumstances existing already, as transferred from the past. our ability to self-actualise is directly tied to inequality and hierarchy; in the words of peterson — ok? … now what?
“At the present time , a significant challenge comes from the intellectuals and related groups who assert their disgust with the corruption, materialism, and inefficiency of democracy and with the subservience of democratic government to “monopoly capitalism.” The development of an “adversary culture” among intellectuals has affected students, scholars, and the media. Intellectuals are, as Schumpeter put it, “people who wield the power of the spoken and the written word, and one of the touches that distinguish them from other people who do the same is the absence of direct responsibility for practical affairs.”