Why Jordan Peterson is wrong
29 oktober 2023 | Sid Lukkassen
Picture by Gage Skidmore
The famous Canadian psychologist, Jordan B. Peterson, gave a speech in Amsterdam on 25 October, attended by thousands of visitors. He received overwhelming applause when he spoke out against ‘woke’ and characterised the World Economic Forum as a technocratic death cult. He called out the moral hypocrisy and arrogance which hide behind the ‘white guilt’ in the slavery and reparations discourse. He then encouraged the listeners to take up an active role as informed and locally connected citizens.
Still, I think he was wrong. And I will tell you why.
The presentation started out with his wife: she described her fight against cancer and how it morally transformed her. It is a relevant observation, as this positions the married couple as characters in a gripping story which Peterson’s followers can identify with. We move from the realm of exchanging academic ideas to the realm of following two heroes throughout their journey.
This indicates that Peterson is poised to move beyond academia and counselling sessions for good, and is preparing himself to build the future of his career upon his popularity with the general public. This shift, in turn, cannot be understood separate from the increasingly totalitarian nature of the regimes in the West and their left-leaning ideology. I describe this shift because it should cause everyone to ask, “But if Iwant to stand against woke, against cancel culture, against the World Economic Forum, and I do not possess a mass following, then how will I ever sustain myself financially in a world where pretty much all money making is now directly or indirectly tied to the hegemony of the virtue signallers?”
It is an important question because it reveals that resisting the woke-technocracy, and resisting the hegemony of the virtue signallers, is not a question of being a diligent responsible citizen – of being conscientious on an individual level, as Peterson presents the situation. His reaction to this corrupt and increasingly despotic world is, in its core, evangelical. His is an ethic of individual elevation through inner confrontation, atonement and redemption.
But what we are dealing with here, is not a quest for individual liberation. What we are dealing with, is a question of collective political power. A power currently bolstered by the unholy alliance between Wall Street and Silicon Valley, used by the left-leaning elites against the based and patriotic Western citizens who crave self-determination and self-governance. What we have to do is to create the space for socio-economic development outside of the hegemony of the virtue signallers. From this space we can then constitute political power.
But Peterson does not address this. He does espouse an ethic of personal betterment, which will amount to nothing as long as the current regime remains intact, and as long as this socio-economic development is not put at the centre of the countervailing power that we are developing. We have to take back control of the steering wheel. As is, this vessel we call Western civilization is on track for a full force collision with an iceberg.
Simply put, it is not a dilemma which can be solved on an individual level. Any story which suggests otherwise is false hope and misdirection. This is not to say that no good things can be drawn from Peterson’s speech or that it is not well-intended. It just becomes irrelevant if one looks at the big picture. Do you yant to be a responsible dad? Sure. But what is the point of such a lofty aspiration, if you have live with your parents well into your forties because finding housing is impossible due to nitrogen policies and an overflow of immigrants? If you cannot save money due to inflation and taxation, and if you therefore lose all hope of ever becoming a property owner? If you cannot take the risk of settling down with a woman because the government incentivises divorce and forces men to pay for the fallout?
These are fundamental questions of ‘how to organize a civilization’. To be acted on, they require collectivized political power. They cannot be answered with an ethic of individual elevation. Because in the end, the individual will just be crushed - unless you are one of the few lucky ones.
And all of this, thus far, is just a brief outline of why his ideas will not work, even if they are inspiring and encouraging on an individual level. Maybe Peterson’s ethic can help to rebuild civilisation from the ashes, once the Titanic that is the Western culture has finally sunk. But even this I doubt, because the current level of our interaction with technology changes how humans relate to knowledge and information in such a drastic and fundamental way, that it essentially changes what humans are.
None of this is addressed or answered by his evangelical proselytizing.
This I was told literally by my ex-girlfriend: “Sid, we cannot marry, because if we do, you are made financially responsible for the children from my previous relationship. And you will have to pay to support them even if we divorce.” Of course, one can pretend that the government and the laws surrounding our union do not exist. Peterson might say that, if you are truly a person of responsibility and integrity, you should follow your heart. Considerations of money and legal responsibility should never even enter into it. How very noble. Still, these ‘noble ’ yet naïve men are the ones who get nailed financially by the entrapments of their previous relationships.
Why do I insert this personal story? Because I want to invite the reader to understand the disgust and estrangement that my generation often experiences.
Peterson announced his new book: We who wrestle with God. The book is about the biblical story of Job, which Peterson has analysed in spectacular detail. Job was a hard-working and wealthy man, a true believer with a good heart. One day, God and Satan got into a discussion, whether Job would stay truly faithful if all good things were taken away from him. “God found this challenge interesting”, Peterson said, and so Job was tested. A raging storm destroyed his house and property, killed his servants and his children. Then disease killed his livestock, and Job himself got afflicted by terrible illnesses which disfigured him.
After all this, Job was mocked by his friends who, according to Peterson, told him that the nature of the universe is fundamentally harmonious and orderly. And that if bad things happen to Job, this must somehow prove that Job is morally corrupt and thus deserves it. Job’s impulse to question that reasoning, was in turn interpreted as Job rejecting the good nature of the cosmos, as superimposing his own judgment over it; a self-important and overconfident attitude, which thus warranted all the misery that came over him, in the first place.
This point was really laid out quite excellently by Peterson, who then moved on to an example taken from The Brothers Karamazov of a four-year-old girl who was horribly mistreated by her parents and froze to death. The cosmos apparently condones this. Can we now truly believe that creation – and, by extension, God – is good?
Peterson then launched a tirade against atheism that permeated the rest of his speech. He started this rant by saying that a natural scientist cannot look beyond the Big Bang, as beyond that point the laws of physics break down. He said that one might as well speak about a ‘miracle’ to explain the start of our universe, in the theological sense, because the logic used would amount to the same.
This is sophistry, as it concerns two different approaches to existence. In natural philosophy, one still seeks for causal patterns, connections of cause and effect, according to the scientific method, even if the answers are unsatisfying and inconclusive. Theology abandons this search and falls back upon presuming a Cosmic Creator to which one submits in a religious act of will.
Such sophistry shocks us into taking a pause and turning around – maybe applying some psychology to the great psychologist himself. Could it be that Peterson bashes atheism because his own wife is sick, which makes him angry at this mortal existence? It is possible that this suffering leads to an internal conflict which he represses by forcing himself to believe in God with even more zeal and vigour. Hence bringing in the Job mythology. But does it actually make sense?
Peterson returns to the essence of Job’s story: a person has done everything right and still gets punished. Putting it in harsher, clearer terms: God grants Satan permission to rape you. In Job’s case, not despite him having a good heart but because he has a good heart. What does this teach us about the nature of existence?
Two choices remain, Peterson infers from this biblical story. When you truly suffer, either you agree that the cosmos is inherently good, in which case your suffering is justified and you damn yourself. Or, alternatively, you conclude that existence is not good at all, but rather chaotic and absurd or even malignant. Then, instead of morally condemning yourself, you condemn existence, which also means condemning yourself because you are part of existence. Anyone who truly suffers sooner or later comes to this crossroads. Hence Peterson calls his new book: We who wrestle with God.
Job answers this ordeal by not rejecting himself – he does not buy into the thought that he must be evil and corrupt and somehow unworthy. Job does not relapse into thinking that he must be ashamed of everything that happened to him. For better or worse, Job seems to embrace a stoic attitude.
Peterson emphasises that anyone can learn from this, religious or not. But if this is his point – and if the moral of Job’s story indeed speaks for itself, as some universal lesson to mankind – then how is it necessary to keep launching such biting outbursts against atheism? The pressing question remains – not addressed by Peterson – why would one want to follow this God to begin with? This vengeful, distant God, from the Old Testament, who tests and torments even his most loving subjects – can this God truly be called ‘good’? Does His nature not justify human emancipation from the Creator-created relationship (Selbstbehauptung), in the first place?
We seem not to get any further here. Instead I propose a different exit strategy from the two terrible ‘solutions’ that Peterson suggested. From my willpower, I postulate, I impose an alternative to this corrupt world. I will into existence a future which is better than the probable perdition which lies before us, and I drive towards it with full force.
You may think that this statement is rather grandiose, but you will see that it is not. It will become obvious if we consider what Peterson actually said, when he described how Job did not conclude that existence is evil, even if evil things happened to him. “Job said: the fact that I suffer does not make my intelligence so strong that I can judge the nature of existence in its totality.”
At this crucial point, Peterson can only maintain his position if Job reduces himself and the power of his judgment to relativity. Because if Job fully trusted the power of his judgment then he would inevitably conclude that existence is not good. Therefore, postponing that judgment is the best thing to do. It is, however, inconsistent – given that Job was allowed to trust his judgment and his intellect when he came to conclusions about his own moral dispositions. So it is better to take a consistent route and to rely on the power of your own intellect and will.
Peterson does not take this route. He instead resorts to unconvincing statements to bolster his position at the crossroads. For instance, he says that someone who acts in a morally questionable way to obtain a life of luxury and status will not enjoy it nearly as much as anyone who has worked honestly for what he owns. This statement immediately dissolves when it encounters Islam, which is a culture of conquerors who feel no guilt or shame in draining the peoples they rule over, and actively enjoy the practice. Also, in Job’s story, God Himself says that He will make Job as unhappy as possible. From this it follows inexorably that the crime lords and master tyrants are happier and better off than Job – this makes the statement both pointless and irrelevant.
He then states that if you acknowledge the evil nature of existence, then another hell will open up beneath you, which goes even deeper than the suffering you already experience. And that this consequence gives you a practical and compelling reason to believe in the goodness of existence, even if that belief runs counter to your intuition. This is akin to some ridiculous ‘Pascal’s wager’ argument. You have to overrule your rational faculties in order to believe something that you cannot in good conscience believe, instead of relying on the rational faculties and conscience that were supposedly given to us for good reasons.
And even if it would be somehow more practical to believe that the cosmos is inherently good when you know it is not – that has nothing to do with truth seeking or rigorous academic integrity. It is simply moving the goalposts.
After this, our psychologist gave the example of a friend who experienced an “Auschwitz level childhood”. That friend has become a good person, even though he had every reason to be bitter and angry. With this, Peterson wants to indicate that it is a gigantic task to make people carry the burden of the evil of existence, but that it is possible in principle. But this is completely different from making the leap from atheism to theism, and then living according to a morality based on assumptions of what an afterlife would be like. One could argue that Peterson’s goal is not to convert us. But apparently that is his goal, since he rails against atheism because of its supposed societal consequences.
It is high time to argue for the total opposite of how Peterson interprets Job’s story. It is a totally natural and healthy response – and a life-affirming response – to declare about all the games that God and Satan play with Job: “To hell with your humble gratitude – I deserve more than this and I want more than this!” To hell with: “Be grateful in spite of your suffering.” It is in our nature to reject suffering and to overcome it! And as long as we are still acting in accordance to that nature, it proves that we are healthy, functioning, life-embracing organisms. It is in our nature to reject an existence that forces us to suffer. It is exactly this rejection which has driven all of human progress, for better or for worse, because it is who we are.
The identity of the human being is the suffering animal who seeks to escape its own suffering, and perpetually rebels against its own suffering. We are at our strongest, our best, when we rebel against an environment that forces suffering upon us. We dream beyond the limits set upon us by nature, and our innovative, ambitious minds drive us there. This thirst for elevation is what Job’s fateful, passive suffering cannot inspire or even touch upon.
Therefore, I am forced to rewrite this story and give it a different ending. The universe is chaos at its fundamental level – it is absurdity and estrangement. This is evidenced by the fact that the atoms which comprise existence drift ever further apart in a yawning void. And even when you stand in the heart of a forest, and listen to the sounds that calm the soul, then realize that every dewdrop is a battlefield, where microorganisms are locked in mortal combat.
Now I will bring you to a scene from the movie: Batman versus Superman. In this story, Batman addresses Superman, he says: “Your parents taught you that you are special and that you have an important purpose to fulfil. My parents died in a random street robbery. They took their last breaths on the curb and taught me something else. Namely that the universe is chaotic and meaningless unless you imprint that meaning upon existence with your own power.” With other words: the universe does not make sense unless you force it to.
With this attitude, we are moving away from the archetypical ‘good guys’. In terms of a card game such as Magic the Gathering, we are moving from colours such as green (harmonious equilibrium) and white (order), towards colours such as black, where the direction of existence has to be willed into reality through the conscious ambition of the individual. This also moves us closer to an honest and truthful relationship with our thrownness (Geworfenheit). Our thrownness amidst a cosmic, abyssal void dotted with the fleeing revelations of a meandering sentience.
Returning to my initial critique, Peterson rejects an open rebellion against the World Economic Forum but he has no answer to the situation. He talks about taking responsibility as a parent and citizen, but the space to manifest that responsibility has already been colonised by the woke-tyranny.
He basically wants everyone to keep working from a sense of responsibility, to keep ploughing on, feeding a beast that will ultimately consume our bodies and souls. Read about this in Tolstoy’s famous letter to the liberals:
“This government – with the legislation and the entire state apparatus in its power (the army, the administration, the church, the schools and the police) – knows very well what endangers it. She will never allow those who submit to her and act under her authority to do anything that undermines her authority. Yet sensible and distinguished people will be tempted to join this government. They hope to do something good somewhere – as a form of small resistance.
In time they will accept that you can be part of a local government that has been stripped of all power; that as a master or professor you may teach what you do not consider necessary yourself, but what the government instructs you to do. The making of these compromises by enlightened and honest people causes them, step by step, to withdraw from the demands of conscience. Until they are completely dependent on the government. They get rewards and salaries for it. And while they believe they are advancing liberal ideas, they have become lowly servants and supporters of the very order they sought to oppose.”
Tolstoy means that criticism of the regime and attempts to change the regime from within, result in unwanted confirmation and strengthening of the regime. This insight invokes absolute desperation – it makes all the more sense now to adopt an attitude of digging in and using our lives to create obstacles to the system. So that those who take away your freedom and prevent the development of your talents, will not enjoy their power and wealth. If the individual perishes in this process, then one gives up a life that cannot come to fruition under this system. Very little is lost, all things considered, and the person at least goes out with honour.
Simply put, those liberals who continue doing work which sustains the regime make things worse, not better. Peterson’s evangelist-style rhetoric ignores cancel culture and social credit, and for my generation, following his ideas will end in watching Netflix in an apartment which is too small to ever raise a family. We already know that there will not be enough care personnel around to support us when we are old and frail. At the same time, the forces that push against us making children ourselves are just too vast. It is pretty much already too late for that, anyway. Especially for the women of my age – and for the younger women, well. They are naturally inclined to follow the consensus, to seek the predictable safety of government jobs, and are already lost to woke.
As a man between 30 and 40, I am better off just using the twenty years of vitality that I have left, and owning my own free time, as opposed to slaving away for a government that will just tax 40 to 50 percent of my work to pay off debts that can never be paid anyway. Jordan Peterson, screw your call for ‘responsibility’ – because if I were truly a responsible citizen, the one sensible thing for me to do, would be to rebel openly against this soul-crushing regime.
Peterson says that woke will be stopped if the common people speak out against it. The truth is that the voice of the common people is not part of the institutional narrative. Further, speaking from my experience as an academic, city councillor and EU policy advisor, that voice is actively kept out of institutional discussions. This is effectively guaranteed by use of sophisticated politically programmed algorithms and through subsidized and ideologically coordinated incrowd networks. These incrowd networks are usually inner circle cliques coagulated around cultural Marxist dogma.
To conclude: the battle must be waged on the level of a politically, collectively organised resistance and not on the level of individual accommodation. Even if we end up with individual accommodation in practice, the previous sentence still contains the truthful answer.
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Read the review of his book here: Book review: Be Abyssal | Forum for Democracy International (fvdinternational.com)