For quite some time I have been bothered by Jordan Peterson without knowing quite why. I watch his videos and find myself nodding my head in agreement with some things he says, then shaking it in disagreement and disbelief at others. What exactly was happening here?
I was somewhat hesitant to write about Dr. Peterson, as my sphere of acquaintances has a very divided opinion on him, some praising and others vilifying him, and I wanted to avoid needlessly offending either camp. Also, it is easy for any criticism of Dr. Peterson to be dismissed as a 'leftist attack' on him, and thus undercut any valid critique one might make. Finally, Dr. Peterson has admittedly been the object of extremist 'leftist attacks', such as the unprofessional interview by Cathy Newman and the unethical silencing he was subject to at Queen's University. These unprofessional attacks are counter-productive, prevent dialogue, and only reinforce the feelings of persecution that justify the rhetoric of Dr. Peterson's vocal right wing supporters.
Recently, I happened upon a YouTube video of Dr. Peterson being interviewed on FOX News about the Parkland shooting (February 14, 2018) and his assessment of the shooter which I feel offers a chance to objectively assess Dr. Peterson's publicly presented discourses, ie the values or beliefs he expresses in his language. The video can be seen HERE)
Listening to the interview, it struck me that the reason for my confused reaction to Dr. Peterson's talks is that there are two Jordan Petersons on display, and they are entirely contradictory.
First, there is the clinical psychologist, Dr. Peterson, who says entirely reasonable things about the psychology or pathology of mass shooters in a measured and emotionless tone, and who shows patience even when the interviewer attempts to interrupt him (see 1:30). When asked why shooters commit their crimes, Dr. Peterson replies,
"Because they're nihilistic and desperate. I think life can make you that way unless you have a purpose, and a... destiny let's say. There's no shortage of suffering and malevolence in life and it's easy for people to become embittered by that. And if they don't see a way out, a way forward, they get angry about it and turn against life itself. And they make a display of their hatred for being by massacring the innocent. That's what's happening."
For anyone who has read literature on serial killers, such as Elliot Layton's (2003) Hunting Humans, Dr. Peterson's measured tone here is representative of the clinical psychologist when dealing with aberrant psychology. Dr. Peterson continues, "It's also kind of a psychological epidemic. You know, these people keep track of each other, and there's a competitive element to it." Once again, this observation is entirely in keeping with clinical psychology, and a rational conclusion regarding the wave of mass shootings in the US.
However, there is also the ideologue Jordan Peterson (or JP to his followers), who takes over discussion and says entirely ideological (ie reactionary, emotionally charged, and partisan) things about the world in general and its state of affairs, emphasizing key words in a stronger tone. After the above clinical comment on the 'competitive element' to mass shootings, JP adds, "And the fact that the media INSISTS upon publicizing the names of these shooters is not helpful. Because part of what drives them is motivation for notoriety. Because notoriety is better than being ignored." JP's emphasis on the word 'insist' (1:40) is noteworthy because 1) it is the first word he has stressed in the exchange, and thus indicative of his valuation of it, 2) as a verb it places the focus on the agency or responsibility of the subject, in this case the media, and 3) it is not followed by reference to any other possible agency in gun violence, such as the NRA or gun companies who equally 'insist' on the right to bear arms, the unacceptability of background checks or other regulation, and the impossibility of change in America's supposedly constitutionally-enshrined gun culture. In terms of Dr. Peterson's diagnosis of the shooter's pathology, this marks an ideological schism in his thought, one that prevents him from making an entirely rational and balanced diagnosis of the shooting or the pathology of the shooter.
The rest of the interview continues in this way, with Dr. Peterson starting a logical assessment, and JP making discursive additions to this. For example, Dr. Peterson answers the question "What mistakes do you think we are making as a society to produce an ever-increasing number of young men like this?" (which he notes is "A good question") by repeating his initial assertion on the lack of direction in life, even re-using the word 'malevolence', thus priming his audience to agree with him. However, JP continues, "and we need to take these sorts of philosophical and even religious issues seriously. But we don't." Adding 'religion' to discussion of a case that, so far as media reports show, seems to lack to any religious dimension, shows a clear ideological bent, specifically the appeal to conservative values of FOX News in the face of the de-centering and disorienting postmodern world in which we live. Carlson takes up this discourse, leading to the following exchange:
TC: Do you think we're taking them less seriously then we used to?
JP: Yes, definitely. I think that we talked in the past... we spoke much more about responsibility and... responsibility in particular, but also purpose and maturity, and we valued those things highly, we confuse them with TYRANNY and TOXIC masculinity, for example."
Once again, Dr. Peterson starts the response but JP finishes it with stressed keywords ('tyranny' and 'toxic') that have clear discursive purpose. 'Tyranny' is a common buzzword used against gun regulation in US political discourse, although it is not so clear in which sense JP is using it here, or against whom he is applying it. This lack of clarity is symptomatic of JP's speech patterns, and it is easy to see how this ambiguity could be co-opted by Alt-Right viewers of FOX News. Moreover, stressing 'toxic' and not masculinity implies that JP is OK with masculinity in toto, but refutes the assumption that it can turn 'toxic'. In terms of clinical psychology, this ideological dismissal of toxic masculinity seems to be out of step with Dr. Peterson's own field. Kupers (2005) has examined the effect of toxic masculinity in prisons, and since Dr. Peterson himself has done work in prisons and later in the interview cites male tendencies towards violence as a factor in their increased rates of incarceration, his refutation of toxic masculinity as a factor in violent gun crime is suspiciously unprofessional. Another psychologist, Veissiere (2018), offers a more nuanced interpretation of toxic masculinity and how society needs to perceive it, including its opposite toxic femininity, which offers more promise of utility than JP's ideological condemnation of the term.
In addition to being at odds with his own profession, JP's appeal to ideology is worrying because it shows how out of step he is with a compassionate response to tragedy. First, his derision of toxic masculinity in this interview is strange, as the Parkland shooting has not been especially linked to masculinity, unlike the 2014 Isla Vista shootings where the killer stated his intent to 'punish women'. In Parkland, men were as much targets as women, and thus the shooting could be seen as more like Columbine. A clinical psychologist would thus be expected to approach Parkland from a multifaceted pathological angle, but decrying toxic masculinity is thus misplaced and possibly a smokescreen to push JP's own agenda. In a case where 17 people are dead and Dr. Peterson has been called to media to comment as an expert, this is a terrible indulgence in the ideological right-wing soapbox.
As the interview progresses, the gap between Dr. Peterson and JP seems to narrow. When asked about greater violence among young men, he replies, "there's a very powerful biological component to that, despite what the postmodern social constructionists have to say about it. But they've got their head firmly buried in the sand so..." Here then we have a new entity, which I will simply call Peterson, who starts clinical statements but ends with off-topic ideological attacks on his imagined enemies. Peterson seems to be forgetting that the fathers of modern psychology, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, were considered both very much 'postmodern constructionists' at the time they were active. His digression also implies that he cares much less about discussing the supposed topic of the interview, the Parkland shooting, then pushing his own agenda.
Finally, when Carlson asks how we should be thinking more on how to raise boys as they are more likely to commit crimes, Peterson replies,
"Uh yeah, I think we should be thinking about that. I mean, the book I published here, this Twelve Rules for Life, is a meditation on exactly that. I've been lecturing online about the idea that responsibility is what gives life meaning and that meaning is the antidote to the sort of nihilism and aggression and resentment that might otherwise be produced."
This is the moment when Dr. Peterson and JP become one, when he pitches both his book and the video series that has increased his fame. To turn an interview about the death of 17 people into the opportunity to push one's writing and talks seems to me to be highly unprofessional in both a clinical psychologist and public figure, and marks Peterson's abandonment of any professional ethic. If there is one thing that Dr. Peterson and the ideologue JP seem to agree on, it is not to let an opportunity for self-promotion go to waste.
Finally, Carlson brings back the concept of toxic masculinity as an ideological football to play with, and asks Peterson to explain what it means. Peterson doubles down on his ideological detours, stating,
"Well, it is an attempt to smear the idea of masculinity by confusing masculine competence with tyranny. And it's part of the underlying idea that our culture is a corrupt, tyrannical patriarchy that was run by men for the advantage of men, which is a very pathological way of looking at the world, but a very common one."
Peterson's definition of toxic masculinity is a denial of the oppression and inequality in the male-dominated traditional society he and conservatives at FOX News idolize. Unintentionally, his reference to 'masculine competence' in the context of a mass shooting could also be read as praise of violence, and so allying itself with NRA downplaying of the tragedy. Either way, it is thus a populist appeal to his listeners, but more significantly, it is also at odds with the clinical psychological definition of the term, which Kupers (2005) describes as "the constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia, and wanton violence. Toxic masculinity also includes a strong measure of the male proclivities that lead to resistance in psychotherapy" (714). Peterson's response instead references back to the key word 'tyranny' he introduced at the start of the interview, and thus he has primed both Carlson and his listener's ears for agreement by repetition, also know as the 'illusory truth' or 'Barnum effect', a clear rhetorical strategy. As a clinical psychologist with knowledge of how to persuade people, this is a highly unethical use of Peterson's rhetorical powers.
Peterson concludes by elaborating on his definition in a way that clears up who he is really attacking - feminists, be they 'damaged' women or lost men 'trying to shirk responsibility'. He states,
"And if that description is accepted, it means that masculine energy, so to speak, whether it is manifested by women or by men, masculine every does nothing but prop up the tyranny of the patriarchy and so should not be fostered. And the only people who think that way are women whose relationships with men have been extraordinarily damaged or men who have no idea who they are or who are trying to shirk responsibility. The idea that masculinity in its essence is somehow toxic is an absolutely dreadful idea."
It must be noted that no one in the interview has attacked masculinity, toxic or otherwise. Peterson's digressive attack on toxic masculinity and defence of masculinity in general is a symptom of his own pathology, which is a blinding adherence to right-wing ideology and a form of split-personality wherein his ideological self compromises his professional judgment and ethics. If any responsibility is being shirked here, it is Peterson's own as professional psychologist and academic, who is supposedly interested in objectivity and truth.
In conclusion, I have found my analysis of Jordan Peterson's FOX interview disturbing on both a professional and personal level. Whereas Dr. Peterson was called to respond to a tragedy and provide suggestions for preventing ones like it, he has instead indulged in ideological posturing and advertising his wares. These are actions I expect in neither a professional academic or fellow human being.
To be fair, leftist critiques of patriarchy have left little room for espousing positive male values, and polarization of clinical terms like 'toxic masculinity' strip them of their usefulness and transform them into ideological lightening rods that stymy debate and understanding. This situation is at the root of Peterson's single-minded defence of masculinity, which doubtlessly reflects a similar struggle in the minds of his male followers. Yet as Veissiere (2018) notes, there is a more fruitful, less polarizing way to think about toxic masculinity. He states,
"The human mind is not well equipped to examine counterintuitive facts that violate our expectations. Our expectations are heavily modulated by cultural norms. These are norms we all know and obey, often without knowing that we know them. In a culture where one version of feminism has become an obligatory moral norm, pointing out that men fare much worse than women in many indicators of well-being is likely to be interpreted as "misogynist." Any talk of men’s issues is also likely to be read as a call for victimhood. In this version of the victimhood story, some men get to claim that women are the "real" oppressors. It is both interesting and alarming to note that competition for victim status is found on both sides of the gender equality debate."
If Jordan Peterson could engage issues of masculinity in more psychological terms as Veissiere does, I feel he could both help more the young males he purports to support, while refraining from unprofessional ideological attacks when called to do his duty as a public figure and clinical psychologist.
How do I now see Jordan Peterson now? To indulge in the narrative or mythic analysis that Jordan Peterson himself often uses, it is easy to see Jordan Peterson as a modern embodiment of Jekyll and Hyde. Just as Dr. Jekyll is a learned and compassionate man saddled with the brutish alter ego of Mr. Hyde, Dr. Peterson seems equally saddled with and morally compromised by the right-wing, patriarchal discourses of JP and the army of disenfranchised males that compromise his Alt-Right followers. Looking closely at Peterson's speech, I keenly feel the aptness of Robert Louis Stevenson's observation in Jekyll and Hyde: “With every day, and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and the intellectual, I thus drew steadily nearer to the truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two.” (116)
I have great respect for Dr. Peterson and his attempt to have people reflect on their own failings, how they sabotage themselves, and find a purpose in life. However, I feel great sadness that this positive dimension of his work is mitigated and even negated by the ideology he espouses and the right wing extremism it inspires. By couching ideological thinking in terms of the science of psychology, Peterson validates unbalanced and irrational thinking. This has the consequence of dividing people on ideological lines, and uniting people in extremist positions. As Robert Louis Stevenson also wrote in Jekyll and Hyde, “You start a question, and it's like starting a stone. You sit quietly on the top of a hill; and away the stone goes, starting others...” (15). Peterson has started stones of questioning and doubting others, which have been met with a cascade of both alt-right and extreme left protests. I only hope that he can at some point see the avalanche he is causing, and walk a more balanced path as both professional and person.
Based Jedi. (2018). "NEW: Jordan Peterson REACTS to Parkland Shooting with Tucker Carlson"
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qrC8_PnR6g4 [Uploaded Feb. 27, 2018].
Kupers, Terry. (2005). "Toxic Masculinity as a Barrier to Mental Health Treatment in Prison." Journal of Clinical Psychology. Vol. 61 (6). 713-724. DOI: 10.1002/jclp.20105
Leyton, Elliot. (2003). Hunting Humans: The rise of the modern multiple murderer. Carroll.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. (2012 edition). The Curious Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Project Gutenberg E-book.
Veissiere, Samuel. (2018). "The Real Problem With 'Toxic Masculinity': Why our culture needs strong and nuanced gender archetypes." Psychology Today.