Wednesday 18 September 2019

Rules to live by from a grumpy old man

The Canadian writer and psychologist Jordan Peterson is either the world's most important or dangerous academic, depending on your point of view. Ian O'Doherty considers the evidence

Backlash: Controversial thinker Jordan Peterson
Backlash: Controversial thinker Jordan Peterson

He has been described as "the philosopher of fake news".

Another commentator called him "dangerous". He is, apparently, the man who provides the intellectual framework for the ideology of the alt-right. He has also, inevitably, been denounced as a "fascist", a "misogynist" a "transphobe" (more of that anon), a "prophet for profit" and perhaps most memorably, a "smart guy for stupid people".

On the other hand, US academic Camille Paglia has lauded him as "the most influential and important Canadian thinker since Marshall McLuhan", and the American economist Tyler Cowen regards him as the "most important public intellectual in the Western world".

That Jordan Peterson could become the world's most dangerous/important academic (delete according to taste) is a surprising development, and one which seems to have surprised him most of all.

A relatively nondescript 55-year-old Canadian academic, this professor of psychology at the University of Toronto has managed to become perhaps the most controversial thinker since Richard Dawkins and his new book, a relatively readable but hardly life-changing self-help tome called 12 Rules For Life has replaced Michael Wolff's gleefully trashy anti-Trump screed, Fire and Fury, at the top of non-fiction charts.

That both of those books should jostle for top spot in the publishing world is, funnily enough, more an indication of the society which consumed them than a comment on the respective merits of each effort.

Wolff's Fire and Fury is an entertaining mess, but a mess nonetheless. Still, that didn't stop it being optioned by an American TV company for a future series - the fact that people still aren't sure whether that show will be played straight or presented as a farcical sitcom won't come as a surprise to anyone who has read it. Frankly, half the chapters read like the first draft of an episode of Veep.

World is a tough place

Peterson is not so concerned with TV work and he doesn't need to be - he has become the first YouTube star it is acceptable to like.

He boasts 703,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel and his Twitter account has attracted similar numbers of followers. He has broken all records with his hour-long lectures on how young people, particularly men, need to step up and accept that the world is a tough place and they have a responsibility to take responsibility, as it were.

The combination of his own 'classic liberal' stance alongside other ruminations on critical theory, evolutionary biology and a fierce rejection of identity politics has proved enticing to his followers, but it was Peterson's refusal to accede to a controversial new piece of human rights legislation in Canada which really propelled him into the mainstream.

Under Bill C-16, an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act, people are legally obliged to refer to others according to their own, preferred pronoun and Peterson's refusal to do so has made him an unwitting lightning rod for the culture wars currently waging throughout the West.

Stressing that he would be happy to refer to any student by their preferred pronoun if they asked him to, he also made the inflammatory remark that he refused to be forced, upon threat of prosecution, to: "use words I hate, like the trendy and artificially constructed words 'zhe' and 'zher'.

These words are at the vanguard of a post-modern, radical leftist ideology that I detest and which is, in my professional opinion, frighteningly similar to the Marxist doctrines that killed at least 100 million in the 20th Century."

The pronoun wars over the correct way to address transgendered people have become particularly fraught and increasingly stupid in Canada and the US, and have managed to gain politician traction there in a way which simply hasn't happened here - yet.

But while it is understandable if most people roll their eyes and turn the page whenever they see some embittered radical academic go completely rogue and start fulminating against cultural Marxism and the so called 'Frankfurt school' of revolutionary leftist thinking, Peterson is no spittle-flecked mad man.

Anyone who saw his now infamous interview on Channel 4 News with Cathy Newman would have witnessed a calm and measured individual easily batting away Newman's misrepresentations of what he had said in the past.

That interview proved a turning point for a variety of reasons - people were able to see that he wasn't the devil incarnate and is certainly no Trump-lite, alt-right firebrand.

It also showed, in Newman's line of questioning, how little his critics either knew nor care what he says - they're more concerned about the kind of people he says it to.

This was seen vividly in the aftermath of that Newman interview.

Channel 4 was quick to claim that she had been hounded with death threats and abuse, and Peterson himself called on people to leave her alone, arguing that he enjoyed the exchange and was eager to have another.

But even the broadcaster's initial claims of a sinister and orchestrated campaign of harassment and intimidation of its presenter began to appear shaky when metrics were used to discover that he had actually received more abuse than Newman, on a roughly 3:1 basis.

Peterson is, essentially, a grumpy old man who sees a younger generation being led astray by the perils of an emotion-driven life and a bogus focus on group identity rather than one of stoical logic and a sense of individual responsibility and achievement.

Perhaps the strangest aspect of the Peterson controversy is that much of what he says in 12 Rules is not particularly controversial at all, but mere, old-fashioned common sense, and the fact that he slips into self-help mode so often means that this is not a manifesto like Mein Kampf (as has been claimed) but a manual for self improvement, with all the pitfalls that come with such publications. Most notably, there is some remarkably clunky prose.

It's always foolish to accept anyone's word on face value and one imagines that he was being slightly disingenuous when he admitted last year that "in a sensible world, I would have got my 15 minutes of fame by now. In a sense, I am surfing a giant wave right now and this could all come crashing down".

He may have been surprised to become such a breakout success, but he has expertly exploited it.

Perhaps the key in that statement was the phrase "in a sensible world," - he makes it quite clear that he believes we don't live in a sensible world, but he is certainly proof that in times of turmoil, even being a moderate can be seen as an extremist position.

12 Rules won't change your life, but then again, no book can.

But he has rather adroitly reminded people that there is more than one ideology out there, and the vicious backlash and contempt he has received is proof that offending the right people is always the right thing to do.

12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos is out now

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