The Preacher of Masculine Selfishness

Jordan Peterson (Part 1)

/ by Rok Plavčak

Jordan Peterson, a Canadian clinical psychologist whose lectures, speeches and discussion on various cultural issues attract millions of YouTube views, is currently the most infamous member of the ‘intellectual dark web’. A formerly publicly unknown psychologist who has, overnight, become notorious, is now joined by myriad of dedicated fans, patrons and web commentators, who proclaim him a prophet, a genius, a hero, a saint and a titan. The most courageous fighter against political correctness, fearless defender of freedom of speech and ‘the most influential public intellectual in the Western world’. Although some of the labels are obviously pretentious, Peterson is surely way too influential in shaping public opinion to be easily dismissed. Many speak of personal miracles and of how Peterson saved their lives, by handing them a ladder of salvation to climb out of their fathomless morass of nihilism and of existential despair. They refer to his 40 rules, which he has conveniently trimmed to the apostolic number 12 in his new best-seller.


12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos is being marketed as a psychological self-help manual, but beyond the advertising, Peterson is openly flirting with philosophical, historical, political and religious themes. The rules are meant for anyone ‘whose soul […] eternally hungers for the heroism of genuine Being’. But the ravenous souls that are implicitly addressed and have recognized themselves as such are men who feel lonely, disappointed or betrayed in love, misunderstood, unaccepted, socially dislocated, belittled and constantly rejected by women who are simply more successful than they are. Yet they cannot figure out why they are confused, lost in the chaos of the modern world, merely wandering about without a real goal in life and without a father figure.


This empty space is now filled by the psychologist Peterson as he, with the deep voice of the Father, commands his sons to take responsibility for themselves, step by step. To clean their room, get rid of bad company, stand up straight, speak the truth, set goals and listen to life wisdom similar to what we adults are used to hearing from our fathers or ‘father figures’. However, this function could just as well be performed by our mothers, grandmothers, sisters, friends or teachers. But Peterson is ‘a preacher more than a teacher’ and is, above all, highly conservative.


Even a quick look at the authors of the ideas on which he depends clearly reveals a framework of ideas that seems to show a conservative and reactionary worldview. Among the works and authors that have affected his Weltanschauung, we can, next the Bible, find Milton's Paradise Lost, Goethe's Faust, Dante's Inferno, and works by Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Eliade and Jung. While the first three authors consolidated the medieval Christian myth of the fight between good Christians and the evil heretics, the last three thinkers, consciously or not, contributed to the mythical corpus of Nazism or fascism. Peterson, who somewhat preposterously claims that a ‘dream placed [him] at the centre of Being itself’, awakens the myth of the battle of chaos and order, which’, despite his attempt to soften it with a Taoistic dialectics of toleration for opposites, clearly grows into a struggle between the Good and the Evil.


How feminism destroys the social order

Women represent chaos to Peterson: ‘Chaos is mater, origin, source, mother’, is ‘the eternal feminine’, is ‘Woman as Nature’; and vice versa, chaos is a ‘crushing force of sexual selection, when a man is ‘turned down for a date’, as his marriage falls apart, when he loses a job. Chaos is the unknown. Order is the opposite, the known. Order is God the Father, the eternal Judge, ledger-keeper and dispenser of rewards and punishments’. This is expressed in a biblical exegesis: ‘Paradise serving as habitable order and the serpent playing the role of chaos’. Peterson pushes women into an ungrateful role in this pristine binary system, and he (as God did) draws down on them through cursing a damned life: ‘Women have been making men self-conscious since the beginning of time...primarily by rejecting them – but they are also doing it by shaming them if men do not take responsibility’. Woman, this miserable allegory of chaos, is ‘mother grizzly, all compassion to her cubs, who marks you as potential predator and tears you to pieces’.


Peterson bases his fiction on the problematic Jungian theory of archetypes, in which the archetypes that appear in ancient myths, stories and holy scriptures supposedly tell us something essential about the development of humanity or more precisely, about the collective unconscious, which according to this theory, is hereditary and is shared by all members of the species Homo sapiens. Archetypes supposedly reveal human nature itself. Since, historically, chaos was often associated with the feminine (Tiamat, Pandora), order, on the other hand, was connected with the masculine. A Jungian believes that this is because men are, as personalities, more inclined towards order, while women are seen as more chaotic, unpredictable and unknown. But why did the ancient societies connect the feminine with chaos and order with masculinity? Peterson does not ask himself for whom women constitute more of a mystery than man, for whom they appear as more unpredictable. Obviously, this holds true for men in patriarchal society where a patriarchal mentality has been dominant. In a society where men are kings, it is obvious that myth will mostly express a patriarchal understanding of the world. (The first ideas of equality between men and women occur in the West only in Ancient Greece and are thoroughly explicated in the period of the late Enlightenment).


Peterson addresses the legitimate question of the mental health problems that, in spheres of activities of radical feminism, are experienced by males on American, Canadian and British campuses. Since young men, being male, are seen as ‘privileged beneficiaries of the patriarchy, their accomplishments are considered unearned. As possible adherents of rape culture, they’re sexually suspect. Their ambitions make them plunderers of the planet. They’re not welcome’. Of course, it makes sense to address relevant criticism of the theory of radical feminism, which sees the genesis of all social injustices in the all-encompassing patriarchy or even more radical aspects such as SCUM Manifesto that incites towards the ‘elimination of the male sex’. But Peterson, in his rejection of the feminist efforts, goes so far as to simply deny that society has ever been organized patriarchally, and what is worse, not only that this holds true for the present but that there has never in history of mankind been any ‘oppression of the patriarchy’. With a pretentious swipe by ‘a pen of light’, the author of the self-help manual dismisses centuries of feminist theory and immeasurable volumes of sociological, historical, anthropological and other scientific studies and evidence, all of which clearly and beyond any reasonable doubt, document the existence of patriarchal structures and relationships, remnants of which we can still see in our modern society.


Instead, the author generously offers ‘an alternative theory’, claiming that ‘so-called oppression of the patriarchy was instead an imperfect collective attempt by men and women, stretching over millennia, to free each other from privation, disease, and drudgery’. Do not worry, the great theoretician supports his ‘alternative theory’, together with a new-age exegesis of ancient myths and biblical stories, as he conjures up an anecdote about an Indian inventor of cheap tampons. Peterson seems to believe that the sole fact that a man once did something good for women is some kind of proof that patriarchal oppression does not exist at all. If we naively adopt the belief – a bizarre one for the modern humanities and social sciences, but not for his readers – that patriarchal oppression does not exist in any form whatsoever, we soon come to the conclusion that all efforts towards the equality of women are irrelevant, harmful if not outright pernicious.


Detrimental for men, of course, also for women, but mostly for men – for the rejected, uncertain, disgraced, sexually frustrated and misogynistic men, the so-called incels (involuntary celibates) who in their murder rampages brutally exert revenge on the female sex, on God and on the ‘Being itself’. To stop such violence of men upon women (and Being) and to ensure order, the Canadian psychologist proposes ‘enforced monogamy’, not caring much about the basic human right to consensual choice of sexual partner and the fact that monogamy does not prevent violence against women. Peterson, with his anti-feminist efforts, places himself in the widespread ‘men's (rights) movement’, which came about as a ‘backlash to feminism’. A similar (Jungian) strategy can be found among the mythopoetic men's movement, which in search of inner manhood, was founded by Robert Bly (Iron John: A Book About Men, 1990) and Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette (King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine, 1990).


Bly, being immeasurably more poetically sensitive, regrets that the modern man has discovered and accepted his ‘feminine side’ to become ‘more thoughtful, more gentle. But by this process, he has not become more free’. Moore and Gillette forewarn of a ‘crisis in masculine identity of vast proportions’ in the form of ‘gender confusion’ that prevents us from ‘point[ing] to anything like either a masculine or a feminine essence’. But if this fraction, together with Bly, is merely grumbling over a modern ‘soft male’, who is not interested in harming the earth or starting wars, still, as the author of Iron John stresses, he ‘does not seek to turn men against women, nor to return men to the domineering mode that has led to repression of women and their values for centuries’. Peterson’s diagnosis – denying repression of women by men ever existed – is much more ominous: ‘if men are pushed too hard to feminize, they will become more and more interested in a harsh, fascist political ideology’.


Peterson thus blames social maladaptation and many psychological problems among love- and sex-starved men on the achievements of feminism; he is a Custodian of the Patriarchy. His antidote for chaos is a deadly poison for women.


Nature without culture

The first major problem with Peterson’s argument that the presupposition that mythical archetypes represent unchanging properties of human nature is that any historical fact can be made into an unchangeable property of human nature: slavery, cannibalism, tribal warfare, slaughter of the vanquished, patricide, infanticide, physical and sexual abuse of children and incest – each of these were at one time an everyday social reality for our ancestors, whose myths reflect this to a great measure. Uranus raped Gaia every night, inseminated her with children and hatefully locked them up in her entrails, until his son Cronos stood up to him; Cronos then castrated the father and with a liberated sister Rhea started a new breed. Cronos, no less cruel than his father, ate all his children except Zeus, who with the help of his mother, managed to escape. Zeus tricked his father Cronos and ripped his stomach apart, then saved his brothers and sisters. With his sister Hera, he sired the Olympians, and after a series of superhuman wars with the primeval monstrous forces of chaos (titanomachy, gigantomachy and typhonomachy), he ordered the ‘cosmos’, which literally means ‘that which is ordered’. And these are merely the beginnings of the world.


From Prometheus to Philomela, from Europa to Apollo, we find evidence of the cruelest traits of human nature. But it does not follow from this that the traits are unchangeable, that they cannot be sublimated, or that we should accept them as a natural given. If millennia ago, rape and infanticide were normal (as is the case in many animal species and some primates), these are today seen as deviant from the norm. Modern anthropological sciences ascribe the cause behind the change and pacification of humanity to human culture. Socio-political organization of life, especially in the form of the modern state which has a monopoly on the use of violence, has limited the use of violence for individuals, since it excludes – even from the gene pool – excessively aggressive individuals. A scientific study by the evolutionary psychologist José María Gómez et al. thus concludes that ‘culture can modulate the phylogenetically inherited lethal violence in humans’.


Peterson does not adequately understand the role and meaning of culture in the development of humanity and individuals, since he is arguing from some sort of ‘freshman’ biological Darwinism: ‘We’re pack animals, beasts of burden’, he writes with grave solemnity and finishes up with a dubious parable about a lobster, the ‘dominant male, with his upright and confident posture, who not only gets the prime real estate and easiest access to the best hunting grounds, but who also gets all the girls. It is exponentially more worthwhile to be successful if you are a lobster and male’. As Peterson advises, ‘Look for your inspiration to the victorious lobster, with its 350 million years of practical wisdom. Stand up straight, with your shoulders back’, he is, of course, not merely aiming at posture, since this is not by itself enough to conquer for ourselves the ‘the prime real estate’ in the human world.


Ants and capitalism

In the 70s, myrmecologist Edward O. Wilson (Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, 1975) argued that man and the human community can most easily be understood in the same way we treat other animal species, ‘as though we were zoologists from another planet completing a catalogue of social species on Earth’, thus, biologistically. The discipline that he created is called sociobiology, which in its basic and adapted variations teaches that all of human behaviour is entirely, or at least to the utmost degree, biologically, or more narrowly speaking, genetically (Richard Dawkins – The Selfish Gene 1976) predetermined and a consequence of natural selection. Nowadays, sociobiology is widely criticized, since it fully neglects the role of culture and learning, while inappropriately interpreting the entire spectrum of behavioural traits and properties as the consequence of biological adaptation; moreover, it is based on unproven speculative hypotheses. In particular, it is the reductionist sociobiological theories that biologize the human being by uncritically comparing him with his distant relatives, namely animal species (as Wilson does with ants), that have been conclusively disproven, and dismissed as outdated and unscientific. Peterson, without being aware of the ‘theoretical disarray’, of the discipline he is mimicking, overconfidently sets out to convince us that man is by nature dominant: ‘people like power, just like lobsters like power’. With certainty, we may conclude that the author is promoting vain ideas from outdated sociobiology and ungrounded assumptions about human nature.


The fact that the lobster is dominant is absolutely irrelevant for understanding humans. Peterson is strongly biased in his search for analogies in the animal kingdom, since he completely ignores the mutualistic and cooperative forms of life that are characteristic of human communities. This objection to social Darwinism has justifiably already been voiced by Kropotkin (Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, 1902), and the same objection is strengthened by anthropological sciences, and can be levelled at Peterson. In an influential study Egalitarian Behaviour and Reverse Dominance Hierarchy cultural anthropologist Christopher Boehm concludes that ‘simple foragers, complex hunter-gatherers, people living in tribal segmentary systems, and people living in what I have called incipient chiefdoms would appear to exhibit a strong set of egalitarian values that express an active distaste for too much hierarchy and actively take steps to avoid being seriously dominated’. There are, as was observed by Machiavelli, two opposites forces that constitute the organization of society, there are ‘the nobles [who] wish to rule and oppress the people’ and the ‘people [who] do not wish to be ruled or oppressed by the nobles’. Rooting for lobster means siding with the oppressor.


Humankind has survived and thrived precisely because of cooperation between our individual ancestors which was enabled by emergence of compassion. If Peterson had chosen to investigate, instead of the regular chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes), whose aggressive and dominant behavior he evokes to strengthen his argument for the hierarchy of dominance, our closest relative the bonobo (Pan paniscus), his narrative would crumble rapidly, since bonobos are much less inclined than chimpanzees towards aggression and dominance; their society is much more egalitarian and matriarchal.


We are separated from lobsters not only by hundreds of millions of years of biological evolution (the time estimate for the divergence of phyla chordate and arthropod is approximately 1000 million years) that has given human species an unique brain, an opulent mental world and cognitive capabilities that do not exist anywhere else in the animal kingdom, but also by 50,000 years of what anthropology calls ‘cultural evolution’. Even if we accept that people are instinctive and naturally inclined to create dominant hierarchies, it does not in any way follow that what we are doing is morally right or that we should be doing it, or that we cannot resist ‘barbaric instincts’. Culture (we are using ‘culture’ in the anthropological sense) and the evolved human brain are beneficial for us as a species and as individuals, by enabling us to transcend our natural potentials, and with their help we can devise a way of life that does not fall for, what Peterson calls the ‘brutal principle of unequal distribution’. This made up ‘law’ that supposedly ‘applies ... anywhere that creative production is required’ and proves that it is ‘winner-take-all in the lobster world, just as it is in human societies’, serves the author for justification that it is natural and necessary – and consequently the only right thing to do – that the ‘top 1 percent have as much loot as the bottom 50 percent – and […] the richest eighty-five people have as much as the bottom three and a half billion’. This makes his work a direct apologism of capitalism and its horrors, such as are lived out daily by the ‘lower percent’ of humanity.


For Peterson, who has been greatly influenced by Nietzsche's hatred of socialism and his scathing rebuff of compassion (a provocative subtitle in Peterson’s book is called ‘Compassion as a Vice’) it can be said, the same as György Lukács ingeniously said for Nietzsche’s justification of the idea that endless competition for power is the fundamental metaphysical principle of the world, that this is merely ‘mythologizing of capitalist competition’. That we live in a society functioning on the principle of ruthless competition between individuals (capitalism) does not mean that alternative modes of organization are impossible; last but not least, anthropological insights show historical cases of real, existing alternatives, as it is shown by David Graeber in his Fragments of an anarchist anthropology (2004). It is also worth mentioning that the use of nature as a guide for our moral and political action – which is a favourite tactic of religious apologists, from the theological dawn onward – is an argumentative fallacy called naturalistic fallacy. If we replace lobsters with ants, we could, in a similar way, argue for a matriarchal monarchy.


The great hierarch

Peterson claims that nature is ‘is not a static selector’, but that ‘the ever-present dominance hierarchy’ is ‘a near-eternal aspect of the environment’. At the same time, he is aware that ‘[t]he bottom of the dominance hierarchy is a terrible, dangerous place’ and that those at the bottom are sickly, become ill, suffer more and die sooner than those at the top of the hierarchy. Since this hierarchic system for him is a natural ‘given’ and practically unchangeable, since he reduces culture to nature (‘There is little more natural than culture’), his advice to a young adolescent is that he should stop seeking injustices in nature/culture and should, with a hardened skin (‘Toughen Up, You Weasel’), rise up the social hierarchy: ‘You step forward to take your place in the dominance hierarchy, and occupy your territory’.


But, according to the big picture, if we follow this advice of Peterson consistently, what are its implications? A problem occurs, a paradox so to speak, since everyone that takes his space in the hierarchy of dominance, necessarily takes up the space and territory of someone else. If you are the last in the hierarchically ordered group and rise from the last place to the penultimate place, you have pushed the one below you into the last spot. You have improved your position but worsened that of another, who will, following Peterson's advice, try to do the same, and this will go on ad infinitum. But the more people who follow Peterson's suggestion, each trying to ‘live properly’ – competition, egoism and climbing the social ladder under the ‘hierarchy of dominance’–, the closer we will be to the creation of a horrible ‘natural state’, a merciless war of all against all, where human life will become, in the words of the famous Thomas Hobbes, ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’. Peterson's introductory promise ‘[i]f we each live properly, we will collectively flourish’, is at best vacuous and at worst insidious, for the community and the individual himself.


Jordan Peterson has not brought this frenzied individualism to its paroxysm, which we could say for Ayn Rand and other wretched right libertarians (propertarians) who are inspired by Murray Rothbard, a proponent of the idea that we should sell our own children as goods on the free market. Peterson is also not the only conservative who opposes the emancipation of women, by denying the existence of patriarchal exploitation. This charismatic persona has promulgated something much more ominous, more devious: he is the prophet of a ‘political myth’ that the famished masses readily embrace. He dreams a great narrative about the latent, looming demise of the west, but he tragically misses the real origin of the spiritual deprivation that is eating away the human soul. He sees the root cause of the illness that he is determined to cure in a place where it does not exist, and in the very place where the horizon of real change and solutions could appear, he is extinguishing the fire with kerosene.


Fake prophecies, political mythopoetics and the dangers of their enterprise are among the issues we will address in the next essay.

Rok Plavčak

(1985) is a critic, essayist and writer. His main areas of interest are intellectual history, philosophy, literary theory and social sciences. He has written esssays, reviews and articles for Slovenian literary and cultural magazines, such as Literatura, AirBeletrina, Apokalipsa, Borec, Razpotja, Revija 2000, Tribuna and for scientific journal Časopis za kritiko znanosti, domišljijo in novo antropologijo (Journal for the Criticism of Science, Imagination, and New Anthropology). He lives and writes in Maribor.