Jordan Peterson
Jordan Peterson speaks on postmodernism (Illustration by Matthew Many, Middlesex County College)
College /// Culture x
Jordan Peterson

The famed Canadian psychologist is a veritable academic rock star, but does he really have any idea what he’s talking about?

The thing about Jordan Peterson is that I get it. After nearly half a century of postmodern irony, cynicism and moral relativism, the world is worn and weary.

There is a refugee crisis, the worst of its kind since the Second World War: How do you plan on morally relativizing that? The planet is suffering under the duress of climate change: Is questioning the validity of science really what it is necessary?

So I see why people turn to Peterson, a warrior of universal values and moral rectitude. You are responsible for yourself, he says, loud and proud, and in a world that’s only growing more precarious each and every day, there is a comfort to be had in believing that it’s every man for himself.

But the fact of the matter is that Peterson has, at best, only an impoverished understanding of the philosophical movement against which he rages: postmodernism.

Postmodernism was a theoretical movement that was borne out of French Continental schools of philosophy. Boiled down to its basics, postmodernism argues against a teleological perspective of history — that is, it does not believe that progress is a given or even necessarily a good thing.

Postmodernist theorists deconstructed morality and claimed that the relation between “good” and “bad” has always been relative, and that individuals have had their subjectivity imposed upon them by the societies they inhabit.

There is, of course, much more to postmodernism than what I have crudely outlined — and that’s kind of the point. Postmodernism is a multifaceted, multidimensional movement that is, by design, hard to pin down. 

Peterson, however, has no qualms about doing so in broad, clumsy strokes. His main targets are the French philosophers Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, whom he reductively criticizes as Marxists.

Yes, Derrida and Foucault were involved with some Marxist activities, but the theories they espoused were often incompatible with the views of Marxism: Postmodernism, after all, is suspicious of grand metanarratives like those championed by Marxists.  

What’s more, Derrida was not really a political actor and his theories were not as ideologically inspired as Peterson believes they are (Derrida was a semiotician, a philosopher of language and communication, whose main idea was that what a word means to one person will not necessarily mean the same thing to another).

It seems, then, that Peterson uses “postmodern” as an intellectual fudge to simply call and subsequently disregard people for being “Marxists.”

His accusations of Marxism in universities are not restricted to postmodernists: he has gone after ethnic studies departments, English departments, women’s studies departments and more for being “culturally Marxist,” a dubious term that has been used by members of the alt-right as a more dressed-up, negatively charged word for “multicultural.”  

It is no secret that Peterson is critical, if not hostile to, identity politics. But if he had bothered to truly engage with postmodernism, he might have found that most postmodernists are against identity politics, too.

After all, another founding principle of postmodernism is that identities are unstable, so to believe that one holds an undeniable, incontrovertible identity is laughable. Peterson, however, does not have an interest in parsing these fault lines. He is fiercely committed to his own slipshod vision of what postmodernists are like.  

And this brings up a very crucial point: Jordan Peterson is not a philosopher. He is a psychologist who is marginally interested in philosophy, but passes himself off as a sort of intellectual Übermensch who has been sent down from above to introduce the world to the Enlightenment virtues Reason and Logic once more.

Unfortunately, Peterson has only a tenuous grasp on the values of the Enlightenment as well. What Peterson is interested in is reinstating a Judeo-Christian ethic in the world, in addition to a redoubled emphasis on masculinity.

Men, he argues, have become too “soft” and must learn to be men again; in doing so, he promulgates regressive gender stereotypes and even goes so far as to claim compassion is a vice. I think there is something to be said about turning to religion for guidance. There are lessons about becoming a better human being one can glean from all sorts of systems of belief.

But Jordan Peterson’s radical individualism will not save us. The world is increasingly connected; whether through globalization or the internet, people are collaborating and cooperating at rates previously unimaginable. Gender roles are shifting, sexual roles have revolutionized and people, in general, would like to ease race relations.  

Peterson’s insistence that it’s every man for himself, that white Christian theology will rescue us from the depths of postmodern despair, thus feel tragically dissonant, juvenilely edgy.

Pankaj Mishra, at the end of a smartly constructed critique of Peterson’s specious intellectual origins well worth your time, puts it better than I ever can: “It is no exaggeration to say that we are in the midst of a similar intellectual and moral breakdown, one that seems to presage a great calamity. Peterson calls it, correctly, ‘psychological and social dissolution.’ But he is a disturbing symptom of the malaise to which he promises a cure.” 

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