Where Peterson Went Wrong | Mark Seymour
Jordan Peterson exploded into the public sphere after he emerged as a right-wing intellectual opposing a law that would make it a criminal offense to misgender someone. Of course, this came at the perfect time- 2016 was a politically poisonous year where the American liberal left took some uncomfortable steps towards their goals. Deplatforming and the campus-turned-warzone were commonplace, and when the left oversteps their mark, so must the right. This is where Peterson comes in: as a classical liberal Canadian academic, Peterson found himself in the right place at the right time to provide the antithesis to this rambunctious left.
The image of a cool and collected father figure is exactly the opposite of what the left was portrayed as. Peterson’s function was to provide an alternative, and he did so- correctly -through appealing to traditional knowledge. This is clearly seen in his rules for life: we have always known these rules, so long as society has existed we’ve understood the lessons from these rules; the well-known idea that Peterson brings out often, to “Clean your room,” isn’t an original thought, we all know the home wisdom of keeping our internal world (“room”) in order so as to be better equipped to deal with the external world. By bringing this traditional knowledge back to the forefront of political discourse, he’s not an original thinker, but rather an archaeologist of ideas- his series of lectures on the Bible, which were one of the first series of lectures he did after he became famous, show this side of Peterson perfectly; the lectures are an excellent engagement of the stories of the Bible and how we might understand and interpret them for modern use with the help of Jungian psychology. This was Peterson at his best, where he served the function of familiar order.
With the way I’ve portrayed Peterson thus far, the title of the article might be perplexing. Although Peterson served a societal function of being a familiar order in a cacophony of chaos in the political landscape, he misunderstood the totality of his duty. This is to say he didn’t realise he was the personification of traditional knowledge and nothing more, and so when he transitioned from being this father figure of familiar order into being a right-wing intellectual, he was flying far too close to the sun. Much like how the left overstepped their mark, Peterson did so too. This is common in the history of ideas; extremities demand extremities, and Peterson’s reaction to this hyper-liberal left was to go after “Postmodern Marxists” (which, it should be understood, are the epitome of anti-traditional knowledge). Of course, “Postmodern Marxism” is a contradiction in terms, a Frankenstein’s monster concocted by Peterson. This blunder was pounced on by the left as anyone who is even vaguely familiar with Postmodernism or Marxism can see quite clearly that they contradict one another substantially. Where Postmodernism liquidates capitalist modernity, into an all-encompassing mesh, the Marxist seeks to disembowel it. The two theories cannot co-exist as Peterson supposes.
An unfortunate effect of Peterson’s transition from a bearer of traditional knowledge towards being a right-wing intellectual is that in attempting to move beyond his function of bringing traditional knowledge into the political discourse, he has let traditional knowledge be conflated with his right-wing intellectualism. When people mock Peterson for whatever reason this reflects negatively on the traditional knowledge he is based in. When Peterson went into rehab due to a clonazepam dependency, many of his critics harked back to his “Clean your room” rule, as obviously his room was in disarray. The important thing to understand here is that, regardless of whether or not Peterson’s room is clean, the idea that you should clean your room is still correct. For Peterson’s political project to work he should have brought this traditional knowledge back to the forefront, and then stepped back from the limelight, but instead he moved further into it by fashioning himself as a right-wing intellectual, and so forsook the traditional knowledge he was based in. Peterson’s disrespect of traditional knowledge – insofar as he allowed his own goals to overshadow this knowledge – is akin to a tree chopping off its roots to reach more sunlight.