Jordan Peterson & the Toxic Ideology of Identity Politics
In October 2019, the alternative Seattle newspaper The Stranger reported that radical leftists had been working to block showings of a controversial new film. One church near Portland was planning to show the film until it received a message warning that "several community organizations are planning to shut down your showing of the . . . film." The message claimed that the movie promoted fascism, and it concluded with a threat of violence:
[W]e cannot allow fascism to continue to rise and will not tolerate its presence in our city, whether it is on the streets or on the waterfront or in a church. . . . As much as we joke about it, we really don't want to have to bring out the guillotine to fix society.
Since then, the self-appointed guardians of public virtue have continued to work themselves into paroxysms of rage over this particular film and its supposed promotion of fascism.
What was the incendiary movie that drew such outrage from the Left? Was it a neo-Nazi recruitment film? Or perhaps a Holocaust-denying propaganda movie?
Neither. The rage occurred over The Rise of Jordan Peterson, a documentary about the Canadian academic and psychologist of that name.
The Film & Its Subject
In 2015, filmmakers Patricia Marcoccia and Maziar Ghaderi began work on the Peterson documentary innocuously enough, originally intending it to be an artsy portrayal of the professor's friendship with indigenous artist Charles Joseph. But a year and a half into the project, Dr. Peterson was propelled into the limelight when he outspokenly opposed Bill C-16. This was a piece of legislation introduced in Canada with the purpose of amending the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code to prohibit discrimination against "gender identity or expression." Peterson reasonably feared that the bill (which passed into law in 2017) could be used to compel certain kinds of speech, including a growing set of so-called non-binary pronouns. He was also concerned that the new legislation could use hate crimes laws to prosecute those who refused to comply with the new speech codes.
Rather than abandon their film project, Marcoccia and Ghaderi continued to follow the professor around with a camera, but adapted their documentary to incorporate the new developments. The film's final title, The Rise of Jordan Peterson, reflects its changed focus on showing how a somewhat obscure professor found himself at the forefront of the culture wars.
In one sense, the Left's moral outrage over the film was not surprising. Dr. Peterson's refusal to use what he has termed "government compelled speech" has made him a polarizing figure. The professor's insistence that a society that enforces speech codes is a society drifting towards totalitarianism led to accusations by leftists that he was "transphobic." The filmmakers, who describe themselves as "left-of-center," did not take sides in this controversy but quoted Peterson's fans and critics alike. Nevertheless, in showing Dr. Peterson to be a thoughtful and complex intellectual, the film does not help the case of those who would like to dismiss the professor as a mindless ideologue and bigot.
Still, there remained an element in the Left's reaction to the film that was, frankly, baffling. The charge that the film promotes fascism is bizarre when we consider that Dr. Peterson has devoted much of his academic career to understanding and exposing the psychological coordinates behind fascism and other totalitarian ideologies. To say that he is a fascist makes about as much sense as calling Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn a communist, or labeling Karl Marx a capitalist.
Let's take a closer look at Peterson's work on fascism.
While teaching and researching at Harvard in the nineties, Dr. Peterson studied the psychological mechanisms whereby ideology, belief-inspired violence, and political extremism take hold of the popular imagination. He particularly sought to understand how people's belief systems can motivate them to commit atrocities. His research, which drew on Carl Jung's work and explored the deep substructures of human belief, was elucidated in his 1999 magnum opus, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief.
In the preface to Maps of Meaning, Peterson reveals that, as a university student, he abandoned the Christian tradition in which he had been raised and embraced socialism. But things changed, he writes, when he read George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier:
The book finally undermined me—not only my socialist ideology, but my faith in ideological stances themselves. . . . It was not socialist ideology that posed the problem, then, but ideology as such. Ideology divided the world up simplistically into those who thought and acted properly, and those who did not. . . . My faith in ideology departed when I began to see that ideological identification itself posed a profound and mysterious problem.
The rejection of ideology was a turning point for Peterson, leading him on the intellectual journey that eventually resulted in his scholarly work on the psychology of authoritarianism.
Since Maps of Meaning, Dr. Peterson has continued to write prolifically, having authored or co-authored over a hundred scientific papers. These papers have advanced new research in social psychology, clinical neuropsychology, addiction, industrial and organizational psychology, gender studies, the psychology of personality, and many other sub-disciplines. He has also worked extensively with businesses, using psychological insights to enhance sales and hiring practices. While engaging in this broad range of work, he continued trying to understand the dark chapters of the twentieth century, including the Nazi Holocaust.
"I had never before met a person, born Christian and of my generation," commented psychiatrist and author Norman Doidge, "who was so utterly tormented by what happened to the Jews in Europe."
In an attempt to inoculate people against totalitarianism, Peterson has given many interviews and lectures about the psychology of fascism and communism. Many of these talks are available on YouTube and have helped countless young people divert from both right-wing and left-wing extremism.
In teaching about fascism, Dr. Peterson is always careful to emphasize how easy it is for ordinary people to be radicalized. "One of the things he would always say in his classes," said Patricia Marcoccia, director of The Rise of Jordan Peterson,
is that it's important to realize that if we were in Nazi Germany at the time of the Holocaust, 95 percent of us would have joined. You may think you're a good person, but the reality is, in that situation, the majority of us would have been Nazis. He takes that really seriously. It's consumed him from an early age and he's seeing it in places where other people haven't been attuned to it.
Against Identity Politics
Government-compelled speech and modern identity politics are two areas where Dr. Peterson perceives fascist tendencies.
In identity politics, a person's particular group becomes paramount for that person, such that his group identity forms the lens through which he views political issues or makes policy decisions. Identity politics draws heavily on certain variants of postmodernism, which sees all of us trapped in micro-narratives that define us and prevent intelligible interactions across our ideological divides. Postmodern society thus becomes reduced to a battleground between competing groups, which are locked in a zero-sum conflict for power.
Identity politics has become increasingly dominant on the political left ever since Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937), and later the Frankfurt School, reinterpreted Marxism to be about power and culture instead of economics and class struggle. The resulting "social Marxism" no longer divides society into economic classes (i.e., the proletariat and the bourgeoisie), but instead divides society into various identity groups based on race, gender, sexuality, religion, and so forth.1
A mixture of identity politics, postmodernism, and social Marxism now dominates the humanities departments of most universities. The result is that the study of history, religion, literature, culture, and art has become mere fodder for ideology and politicization. In the United States, identity politics has largely been limited to the political left, although it has been rising among right-wingers since around 2015.
Dr. Peterson's outspoken stance against identity politics has made him anathema to identitarians on both sides of the political spectrum, while bringing intellectual refreshment to tens of thousands of college students and other young people. It has given the latter a new way to approach history, myth, psychology, literature, and art, by enabling them to take these disciplines on their own terms instead of as proxies for ideological conflict.
In his lectures, Dr. Peterson doesn't actually spend a lot of time attacking identity politics per se; he simply proceeds to discuss the humanities and social sciences in a way that ignores the conventional ideological interpretations. Whereas a typical postmodern professor would look at the humanities through the lens of group conflict, Peterson draws on a wide range of sources, such as Carl Jung, Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, the Bible, folktales, and myths, to discuss their various facets.
In August 2018, writer and social critic Caitlin Flanagan published a piece in The Atlantic about why Peterson has become so popular among her liberal son and his peers. The reason, she concluded, is that Peterson has enabled the younger generation to approach the liberal arts in a way that is both refreshing and subversive:
The boys graduated from high school and went off to colleges where they were exposed to the kind of policed discourse that dominates American campuses. They did not make waves; they did not confront the students who were raging about cultural appropriation and violent speech; in fact, they forged close friendships with many of them. They studied and wrote essays and—in their dorm rooms, on the bus to away games, while they were working out—began listening to more and more podcasts and lectures by this man, Jordan Peterson.
The young men voted for Hillary, they called home in shock when Trump won, they talked about flipping the House, and they followed Peterson to other podcasts—to Sam Harris and Dave Rubin and Joe Rogan. What they were getting from these lectures and discussions, often lengthy and often on arcane subjects, was perhaps the only sustained argument against identity politics they had heard in their lives.
That might seem like a small thing, but it's not. With identity politics off the table, it was possible to talk about all kinds of things—religion, philosophy, history, myth—in a different way. They could have a direct experience with ideas, not one mediated by ideology. All of these young people, without quite realizing it, were joining a huge group of American college students who were pursuing a parallel curriculum, right under the noses of the people who were delivering their official educations.
Flanagan went on to explain that it was not until the publication of Dr. Peterson's 12 Rules for Life in 2018 that the postmodern establishment began to take a close look at the Toronto professor. Since then, all sorts of bizarre accusations have been made against him, from the charge of fascism to the oft-repeated falsehood that he favors government-arranged marriages.
A Constant Reminder
I'll be the first to admit that Dr. Peterson's antipathy to ideology can sometimes appear obsessive. 12 Rules for Life opens with an introduction by Norman Doidge, who tells about one of his visits to Peterson's home. Upon entering the house, Doidge was overwhelmed by all the Soviet art on the walls, including paintings of Lenin and other men who were lionized by the Soviets. Peterson had bought these images cheap following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
"The paintings were not there because Jordan had any totalitarian sympathies," Doidge is careful to clarify, "but because he wanted to remind himself of something he knew he and everyone would rather forget: that over a hundred million people were murdered in the name of utopia."
The art on the walls of Dr. Peterson's house, like his academic preoccupation with ideology, is his way of refusing to ignore a problem that many of us would like to forget: that when we surrender our critical thinking to ideologies, people die, sometimes in the millions.
But what exactly does Dr. Peterson mean by "ideology"? Doidge gives a concise definition, drawn from his conversations with Peterson:
Ideologies are simple ideas, disguised as science or philosophy, that purport to explain the complexity of the world and offer remedies that will perfect it. Ideologues are people who pretend they know how to "make the world a better place" before they've taken care of their own chaos within. . . . Ideologies are substitutes for true knowledge, and ideologues are always dangerous when they come to power, because a simple-minded I-know-it-all approach is no match for the complexity of existence.
Critic or Exponent?
So: is Dr. Jordan Peterson a great critic of fascism, or its greatest exponent? Many newspaper articles now take it for granted that he is the latter. These articles all tend to follow a similar track: quoting from each other, they offer long-winded warnings about the dangers of far-right ideology, peppered with their "concerns" about Dr. Peterson.
Sometimes these journalists paraphrase what they assume Peterson must be thinking, or they attribute thoughts to him that he has never expressed. One journalist, for instance, writing for The New York Review of Books, suggested that because Peterson shares a love of myth with the nineteenth-century German composer Richard Wagner, a notorious anti-Semite, that Peterson must therefore also be an anti-Semite. Another journalist, writing in the Pacific Standard, got especially creative: he directed attention to Peterson's "obsessive anti-communism" as evidence of the professor's latent fascist tendencies. To clinch his argument, the journalist pointed out that Hitler had also been anti-communist.
Peterson has received so much bad press that he has become taboo in many universities. In March 2019, Cambridge University rescinded an offer to grant him a visiting fellowship. In 2017, Inside Higher Education reported that Lindsay Shepherd, then a teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, was grilled by university authorities after she showed her communications class video of a debate on nontraditional pronouns in which Jordan Peterson was one of the participants. She was told that because she had remained neutral during the showing rather than aver to her students that Peterson's position was "transphobic," she had done the equivalent of refusing to take a stand against Hitler or other white supremacists.
The Real Fascists
Despite being subjected to McCarthy-like tactics, Dr. Peterson is not going away, as he has now gained too much grassroots support to be easily ignored. Academics with less momentum, however, are more vulnerable to such tactics and have genuine cause for alarm. After observing what the radical Left has done to Peterson, many are afraid to dissent openly from the fashionable status quo, lest they, too, be caricatured and vilified. Some are even afraid to quote Dr. Peterson for fear of suffering guilt by association and losing their positions. Some independent and art-house cinemas have refused to screen The Rise of Jordan Peterson for fear of suffering violent reprisals from leftist protestors.
Here we arrive at the true irony of condemning Peterson as a fascist. There is something more than a little Nazi-like about these intimidation and propaganda techniques, which are being used to shut down critical debate and to enforce rigid conformity to leftist ideology. Something similar happened in Germany in the 1930s, when good people were afraid to speak out in defense of the Jews for fear of provoking mob violence.
These neo-fascist techniques were aptly diagnosed back in 2006 by the British journalist Anthony Browne. In a little-known book about political correctness, titled The Retreat of Reason, Browne noted that "liberals of earlier generations accepted unorthodoxy as normal. Indeed the right to differ was a datum of classical liberalism." Today, by contrast, those who have succumbed to political correctness "do not give that right a high priority. It distresses their programmed minds. Those who do not conform should be ignored, silenced or vilified."
Perhaps it's time for the real fascists to stand up.
1. Jordan Peterson tells more of the history of social Marxism and identity politics in Chapter 11 of 12 Rules for Life (Random House Canada, 2018), and in an interview for The Epoch Times, which is available on YouTube under the title "Postmodernism and Cultural Marxism | Jordan B Peterson."
is the author of Saints and Scoundrels (Canon Press) and has a Ph.M. in history from King’s College, London. He is currently working on a Master’s in library science through the University of Oklahoma. He works as a freelance writer and researcher for a variety of publications and operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #52, Spring 2020 Copyright © 2020 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo52/fashionable-fascists