I had largely ignored Jordan Peterson over the past few months as he oddly became a favourite of the alt-right. From my cursory glance, it seemed little more than an academic spruiking a book with a bit of outrage marketing built around a cliched anti-‘PC’/anti-college leftism. Complain about the kids-these-days or act as if student politics was some new phenomenon and it seems somebody somewhere will give you a platform. Say something snotty about pronouns and people even further to the right will declare you are a hero.
It was only more recently that the guy caught my interest (as I already mentioned here) when I learnt that the book he was selling was a self-help book. Now I don’t have a good hypothesis about self-help books and I particularly don’t have well-formed ideas about specifically ‘positive thinking’ but I have a sense of a shape of a thing. I have a metaphorical wall of notes and photographs joined by red twine at which I point both vaguely and manically and say ‘You see? Huh? You see?’
It all fits together into a thing.
What’s on this metaphorical wall:
- Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche 15 October 1844 – 25 August 1900)
- Norman Vincent Peale (May 31, 1898 – December 24, 1993) author of The Power of Positive Thinking
- Richard Nixon (a friend of Peale)
- Donald Trump (who attended Peale’s church)…
- …The Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan
- Scott Adams and Scott Adams’s earlier business related Dilbert themed self-help books
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
- Alt-right arse Mike Cernovich
- Ayn Rand
- L Ron Hubbard
- And Jordan Peterson
And the thing the wall is trying to illustrate is a manifold set of ideas that vary from the useful and positive to the overtly fascist – a mix of people genuinely trying to help other people with well-meaning advice through to the modern resurgence of far-right ideologues in current politics.
I don’t have a well-formed critique here. Indeed, I’m going to be making some half-baked assertions and comparisons. What I haven’t been able to do previously is to find a way to start.
Then I got a copy of Jordan Peterson’s recent book and a way in became clear.
I don’t know how many posts this will take but fair warning – it might be many or they may just fizzle out.
Peterson’s book ’12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos’ is not a good book and it genuinely is not worth reading – it is barely worth hate reading. It rambles, it wanders off topic but not in an entertaining or funny way. Some of it is just a cranky guy sounding older than his years complaining about noisy children in fancy restaurants. Some of it is half-baked cultural criticism and some of it is bad Jungian/Freudian stuff.
There is no point talking about Peterson’s “views” as if there is a coherent ideology there. To some extent that is by design, as the whole book has an anti-ideology theme. Pick a revealing sentence and somewhere else there is a sentence that says the opposite. Pick a generalisation he makes and elsewhere he will demand nuance or shades on the same topic.
You can pick your way through Peterson’s 12 rules and ignore particular things and find the book to be largely liberal and maybe even useful. Alternatively, you can pick on the more problematic elements and see something quite nasty. But my aim is not to make a claim about what Jordan Peterson *really* means – as far as I can tell he means all of the books just as sincerely all the way through. It is a set of unfiltered ideas. If Peterson remains in the public eye and carries on with the punditry, some of those ideas will become more prevalent and others will fade but there’s no knowing which will be which.
I will be looking for certain ideas though – ideas that fit into the general shape of the ‘thing’ I describe above. The purpose is not to discredit Peterson’s book or even Peterson but to identify what that far-right finds appealing in the book and how it fits into this weird manifold of ideas that appears to be a precursor to 21st-century American-style fascism.