The recent GQ interview of Jordan Peterson by Helen Lewis is being called “Cathy Newman #2”, and had nearly 2 million views on YouTube only 6 days after being uploaded. It is just as tense, prickly and dramatic as the Cathy Newman interview, but more interesting because Lewis is better prepared and probes more intelligently and persistently. Also, one year on from Newman, Peterson is more steely and contemptuous of what he sees as the shallow, almost impertinent, liberals who interrogate him. There are several stand-out exchanges to rival the notorious “so what you’re saying is we’re all lobsters?” and “gotcha!” from Cathy Newman, which showcase Peterson’s combative intellectual self-confidence which has earned him much of his following. But Lewis also lands some blows, forcing Peterson into some interesting evasions. Nonetheless, most of the theatrical victories are Peterson’s and it is very evident that Peterson’s and Lewis’ intellectual engagement with life, politics and philosophy are on very different planes. Indeed, their intellectual paradigms are so distinct that it is impossible for a ‘conversation’ as such to really take place.
The difference in paradigms is best seen by asking the question: does Helen Lewis think that the references Peterson makes to Nietzsche, Dostoevsky and the Bible matter that much? To which the answer is: of course she doesn’t. Where Peterson sees the emergence of culture from pre-linguistic beginnings as an extraordinary, ongoing epic in which human consciousness is wrestling meaning, order and value from matter itself, Lewis skates comfortably on the surface of its current encrustation, breezily confident in the comprehending efficacy of her words.
Peterson’s overall aim is to articulate how engagement with cultural heritage needs to be much more earnest and sophisticated than ‘radical leftism’. This is not easy in our times, and Lewis represents a widely prevailing perspective that sees much of this heritage as ugly: colonialism, slavery, racism, sexism, homophobia, the authoritarianism of churches and associated conservatives, their sexual scandals, hypocrisy and their support for Fascism, plus a history of endless warfare makes ‘western culture’ a difficult story to defend. That western culture itself was most self-confident at the end of the 19th century, the high point of colonialism and on the threshold of the catastrophic 20th century, makes re-assertion of that confidence seem brave and potentially ridiculous.
But Peterson states forthrightly what his audiences instinctively feel, namely that modern western societies are ‘the best yet’ in human cultural history. Peterson insists that the Marxian ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’, which sets out to unravel the unjust power relations it sees inscribed at every turn, is nothing more than an alluringly simplistic and dangerous ‘ideological possession’. But Lewis counters that “it’s extremely smug to think that civilisation has peaked” and adds that his apocalyptic warnings over radical leftism seem an overblown reaction to green-haired student activism.
What Lewis draws attention to here is one of the major lacunae in Peterson’s argumentation, namely his failure to carefully differentiate between ‘radical leftism’ and reformist politics in general. Fundamental to Peterson’s paradigm is that the ‘Logos’ - humanity’s understanding of itself in language - is a dynamic and progressive object. It builds on itself, not to a utopia, but to an ever more conceptually rich understanding of the world and humanity’s place in it. Peterson’s avowed admiration for western culture is based precisely on the tenacity with which profound thinkers and courageous, principled people have forged order and meaning out of ‘chaos’. And while the Logos can develop in dark, strange ways - racism was, after all, a cultural construction of the colonial era, not inherited, and itself would spawn eugenicism - Peterson counts himself among the optimists for whom western culture is, on the whole, moving in a positive direction. The sharp ‘cultural turn’ of the 1960s which saw a burgeoning of new perspectives from people of ‘marginalised identities’ of colour, gender, sexuality etc. was an extraordinary effervescence of the Logos which changed it permanently and which is still playing out today. In much of his posture, Peterson seems to set himself against precisely what his paradigm suggests he should be supportive of. Lewis chides him on audience cheers he got when he mentioned micro-aggression, and Peterson surely would be among the last to deny their real effects on social norms. But free speech is critical to effervescence in the Logos and the difficult ground which Peterson treads, which he often portrays as simpler to navigate than it really is, is how outdated norms which have now transgressed into real incivility are socially repudiated without closing down effervescent speech, including comedy and satire. The answer lies somewhere in the restraint and good judgement of people in general, and public figures in particular, and Peterson does what he does because he is adamant that restraint is currently distinctly lacking in the academy and the media. Western culture’s ability to be self-critical is the guarantor of its ‘progress’, and this criticism can never be permitted to dampen the critical faculty itself, which is why freedom of expression is the highest of values, and ‘civility’ should not be enforced at its expense.
A key point for Peterson is that of course history, as well as contemporary society, contains vast injustices, due to vagaries of e.g. cognitive and physical abilities, family background or birth order, as well as gender, skin colour, sexuality or nationality. Against radical leftists, he argues that while it is an alluring idea to think that these could all be corrected and “everyone receive their just deserts”, it is a conceptual and practical impossibility and any serious attempt to approximate to it would be so authoritarian as to destroy western culture and most likely end in a repeat of the Gulag.
What he sees as ‘identity politics’ is a deliberate political effort, bred out of the Marxist idea of class consciousness, to ‘mobilise’ a segment of the public into a collective political force to try to secure an overturning of its ‘de-privileging’. Peterson wants to draw a distinction between the deepening of perspectives in cultural conversation and the political activism that draws its strength from it. His real target is the elite activism that is emanating from the universities and the metropolitan media outlets which are currently so heavily influenced by it.
Fundamentally for Peterson, yes, there can be conversations about rectifying structural injustices and improving the civility of our discourse, including reformulating linguistic norms. But reformist politics doesn’t get an open chequebook to change whatever it likes. While, for example, inherited norms around gender owed much to a female reproductive biology without scientific palliatives and a violently macho intra-male competitive culture, any desire to reconstruct this into ‘male and female equality’, seizing meanwhile on each and every contraceptive technology and tool of socialisation, can never do away with the pull of intrinsic biological and existential differences, most obviously over child bearing, that are far from easy to dissect. Peterson’s target is the obsessive recklessness of a mindset so fixated on the ‘achievement of equality’ that it will quickly ramp up authoritarianism as it encounters resistance.
Peterson makes much of ‘competence hierarchies’ yet knows full well that historically most hierarchies have functioned principally via patronage, and have been competently functional at quite low levels of real promotion of talent. But he is not a ‘minimal change’ conservative by any means, and in endorsing current western culture he is quick to say that “nobody could disagree that equality of opportunity is a good thing.” But unravelling privilege is, and has always been, an immensely difficult task against vested interests. A dramatic highlight contra Lewis is when Peterson challenges her to give up her job to someone less privileged, which she, without a flicker of self-consciousness, says she has no intention of doing. It is a ‘quod erat demonstrandum’ of just how tough the fight against privilege needs to get if one is to be serious about it. And that leads to one of Peterson’s other powerful moments against Lewis, when he accuses her, as he has done of Cathy Newman, of not believing what she is saying. In a teeth-sucking jab, Peterson goes as far as to accuse Lewis of “not really being here”, that she has worked so little to reflect in her own mind what the things she espouses really entail, for her as much as for anyone else, that she is not worth conversing with, as every complexity that invites honest scrutiny will merely be met with a parroted ideological platitude. The discussion of women’s use of makeup is another such moment. For Peterson, makeup is so evidently part of the complex game of sexual attraction, in which men and women participate with pleasure, tension, and plenty of inequality certainly, but by no means principally in favour of one gender or another. Does Lewis really believe it is just about male oppression? He barely conceals his contempt for the emptiness of Lewis’ posturing, wherein she does nothing to try to integrate her ‘political’ thinking with her own lived experience. Lewis scores some hits on Peterson, for instance making him slide out from defending his claim that ‘feminising men makes them support fascism’ to saying that fascism’s simplicity is alluring for everyone. But her own-goals are more arresting, for instance suggesting Peterson was being inconsistent by not having multiple sexual partners despite his success, or that intra-sexual competition was a big topic in ‘social science’ which she was not qualified to comment on.
Peterson has quite self-consciously aligned himself with Camille Paglia, Douglas Murray and Bjorn Lomborg, and has put his head over the parapet in support of Tommy Robinson, which he does again in the interview with Lewis. These are leading voices against the liberal mainstream on feminism, multi-culturalism and environmentalism, and he has also said he is relaxed about Brexit - “I’d back Britain” - and has described Trump as not much outside the norm of American political leaders, and it is clear that Peterson sees himself as part of a coalition against academy-inspired elite liberalism across all the important current dimensions. He sees the zealous advocacy and militant self-identification with ‘social causes’ of many progressives as transparently, and contemptibly, self serving as well as misguided. Just as he confronts Lewis on her insincerity over her commitment to fight privilege and sexual objectification, he is dismissive of climate change alarmism that wants to push the costs of activist self-righteousness onto the poor and generations unborn. He also sees clearly that there are plenty in the academy, media and politics who are bent on destroying capitalism and much of the western cultural inheritance, and people need to wake up to the reality of that fact.
The stoical or existential perspective at the heart of Peterson’s thinking means that fundamentally for him no-one is really that privileged in ‘life’ - divorce, illness, not finding love, grief, depressive anomie - these can strike any of us and really are more important than materiality, and in material terms, in the West everyone is privileged. This doesn’t mean that Peterson is an old ‘status quo’ conservative - he understands that history moves forward, that injustices can be addressed, and he does not set out to defend any particular interest. But, crucially, not everything is going to work out just how today’s reformist leftists want it to. Two other stand-out moments in the interview with Lewis are her forthright assertions of the inviolability for her of abortion and easy divorce. Peterson gives a sharp corrective that unhappy or bored adults’ ‘right’ to divorce is usually deeply traumatic to children, whose ‘rights’ not to be traumatised might in some calculation be thought to be more important. And the dark complexity of abortion blanches at Lewis’ glib triumphalism. God forbid that one day Joe Rogan’s imagined ‘soul detector’ might prove the cusp at conception rather than 24 weeks. One wonders how contrite or ‘open to science’ Lewis would be then. Likewise, few people are ultimately, wholly, ‘victims’, and most of the work for any of us is in our own engagement with the conditions of our existence, our finding a sense of purpose, our relationships, our achievements in spite of ourselves. Again, Peterson is not an old ‘stay in your place’ conservative. Indeed, capitalism and modern western culture have opened up huge potential for personal self-realisation, and Peterson urges grasping opportunity with both hands. What he does not believe, and which he excoriates, is that ‘ethical social behaviour’ aimed towards the most moral possible collective politics should be the litmus test of virtue, and argues instead that obsession with it is shallow, and fundamentally evasive, and that for any individual there are other things that matter much more.
As Tim Rogers wrote in reviewing ‘12 Rules for Life’ in The American Conservative, Peterson shares much with the existential Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich. Amazingly, the introduction to Tillich’s seminal ‘The Courage to Be’ talks of how in the 1950s it was an “indispensable classic” and “no college reading list was complete without it”, and how Tillich was on the cover of Time magazine in 1959. Since then, of course, it has slipped beneath the cultural waves. As Peterson might say: ‘What the hell happened?’ Tillich’s book explores the anxiety of being, perhaps best summed up with “Man’s being is not only given to him, but also demanded of him. He is responsible for it; literally, he is required to answer, if he is asked, what he has made of himself.” That this taking-seriously of one’s life, this commitment to a sincere self-judgement, should have dropped so far off the map of our current culture is an extraordinary turn, something which Peterson recognises to be dramatic and potentially catastrophic, and has set himself to try to help reverse, and is something for which Lewis labelled him “a cargo cult intellectual” in a May 2018 article in the New Statesman. Perhaps the most dissonant moment in the interview with Lewis was her batting away as “a minor one” Peterson’s regret over not having been a better musician. Peterson has experienced how music communicates between consciousnesses in a way that far surpasses words, that the western canon of classical music, probably more than its literature, philosophy and visual arts, is the absolute apex of human achievement, and that to have appreciated this better would have greatly enhanced his, yes his, life, something which seems to pass Lewis by completely.
Peterson’s current fame rests perhaps more on his being a virtuoso performer at confronting leftist self-assurance than on appreciation of his intellectual arguments, and his theatrical flourishes against Helen Lewis will only add to his regard. He is extending the range of his targets, with environmental activism, gay parenting, and mulit-culturalism moving into his sights. His deep intellectual hinterland, plus his carefully considered argumentation and very deliberate choice of words, allied to his fearless and artful jabs, makes him a dangerous interrogator of the current liberal left, and a cheered paladin for those who intuitively sense it’s wrong-headedness and admire his tools and perspicacity in confronting it.
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