Jordan Peterson and other public intellectuals

David Brooks writes,

In his videos, he analyzes classic and biblical texts, he eviscerates identity politics and political correctness and, most important, he delivers stern fatherly lectures to young men on how to be honorable, upright and self-disciplined — how to grow up and take responsibility for their own lives.

I have a few reasons for being less than fully bought into Peterson.

1. He is a spellbinding speaker but his first book, Maps of Meaning, was turgid. There is something disconcerting about the fact that his ideas seem to come across better in a format that allows for less editorial polishing. I noted this in December of 2016, when the Peterson tsunami was just forming.

2. Some of his ideas are mystical and sound really strange.

3. He gains some of his stature by attacking post-modernists who are intellectual weak, at least in the way that he presents them. For me, it is more impressive to take on stronger opponents than weaker ones.

He may now be over-rated by his fans on the right. But he is badly, badly, under-rated by smug leftists whose ability to understand opposing viewpoints pales in comparison with his.

Using the three-axes model, I put Peterson firmly in the conservative camp. He sees civilization as fragile and precious, and he is animated by the civilization vs. barbarism axis.

Rather than propose a list of public intellectuals that I think are influential, or important, or prominent, let me just list a few public intellectuals that I admire and trust, in the sense that I think that they really try to be careful to honor opposing viewpoints and try to avoid committing intellectual swindles.

–Jeffrey Friedman. Does he even count as a public intellectual? He is an intellectual, all right, but his writing is often steeped in academic jargon, and he is not a familiar figure, even to the highly-educated portion of the public. His journal, Critical Review, has pieces written by top minds, and yet his own contributions often tower over theirs.

–Steven Pinker. You can get a better education in the humanities by reading The Blank Slate than by taking any freshman humanities course at any university, I would bet.

–Tyler Cowen. Tyler has an unmatched ability to offer ideas that are surprising and original. He takes risks, sort of like an intellectual venture capitalist, if you will. Some of these start-ups don’t make it, but he picks enough winners to more than make up for the failures.

Friedman, Pinker, and Cowen all stand out for being non-tribal or even counter-tribal. They challenge and annoy their most likely allies, rather than offering a steady diet of reinforcement and comfort.

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75 Responses to Jordan Peterson and other public intellectuals

  1. Richard Evans says:

    3) He attacks post-modernists because they need attacking as they are a threat to our democracy. This isn’t some “game” he’s playing, there is a real threat to our free speech and the rights that make living in the West vastly superior to anywhere else at any time in history

    As for the “three-axes” model, it exists to provide an ad hominem attack via categorisation for those on the left who don’t want to engage in actual argument e.g. “Peterson is a Conservative and we all know Conservatives are against abortion etc etc”

    • Gary Lowe says:

      “He attacks post-modernists because they need attacking as they are a threat to our democracy. ”

      Prove it.

      • GJ says:

        Several examples come to mind, perhaps starting with the pro-terrorist anti-US sentiment expressed by the post-modernist and Marxist intellectuals in reaction to 9-11.

        • Boonton says:

          So ‘threat to democracy’ means that there is at least one person you can find with enough Googling who expresses ideas that if everyone went along with would ultimately damage democracy?

          I mean on the right there are more than a few who theorize that rule by the right kind of ‘philosopher king’ type person is better than democracy. Are they too a ‘threat to democracy’? Of course I’m sure you could find if you search hard enough eccentric types who push other offbeat theories. For example, I’m sure there are at least a few pure monarchists still around.

  2. Liam says:

    I’ve never really understood the massive amounts of hype behind Peterson. Almost every interview he does seems to go viral and when I watch it, I fail to see the appeal. My guess is that he seems to give anti-political correctness an intellectual face. He sort of reminds me of Christopher Hitchens in that regard.

    • Tom G says:

      Right, he’s the single best anti-PC intellectual with over 100 hrs on YouTube.

      If you can’t name somebody better, than your understanding of Peterson fails to realize that the massive “hype” is the huge number of less coherent anti-PC folk looking for a leader.

      There’s a HUGE number of us “normals” (Kurt Schlichter, Townhall, humor conservative) who like and hype Peterson because there seem none better with the anti-PC message.

  3. Thales says:

    You go to war with the army you have, Dr. Kling.

    • Marc says:

      Touche! Perfect. And a war is precisely where it’s at… lets hope there’s at least some headway to a solution before there’s an economic crash and we have a civil war…

  4. collin says:

    smug leftists

    That is kinda funny because I can’t stand his smug speaking voice and in interviews always seems to talk down to person doing the interview or in general most people in society. (Note this could be a self-selection as his most famous interviews are with feminist with an agenda so bickering is likely to happen.) At times he seems to be a mix of William Buckley and Tony Robbins. (I rather listen to Tony Robbins to be honest.)

  5. Jeremy, Alabama says:

    You may be right about his ideas come over better spoken than written. I think this is because there are often no words for the ideas he wants to express (in requirements management, we call this “gropeware”).

    It reminds me a bit of the English translation of Spengler, who uses long compound words for each civilizational/cultural aspect he writes about. There is one or more of these in every sentence in “Decline of the West”, and for each one I have to pause and deliberately construct the meaning in my head. This makes it hard work and I suspect it makes more immediate sense to a German speaker.

  6. Butler T. Reynolds says:

    He’s obviously a smart guy and he has some interesting things to say. Yet, I’m not sure I completely buy in to his brilliance.

    I’ve watched a hand full of his videos over the past year. While watching one of his lectures, it seems fascinating at the time, but when it’s over I’m not really sure that I can say what I got out of it. I can’t really summarize what he just talked about.

    If you were ask me what Peterson is all about, I’d stumble around incomprehensibly.

    Even though his subject matter is different, by comparison watch a video of Milton Friedman. He’s an equally fascinating speaker, but when the video is over you can summarize what he said and, most likely, he’s rearranged or at least seriously challenged how you think about the topic.

    For me, I categorize Peterson as Narcotic Intellectualism. Enjoyable to listen to, but ultimately not very nourishing. I find Camille Paglia to be the same.

    Of course, I accept that my impression may be due to my lack of intellectual depth.

    Despite not finding him quite so enthralling, I think that his courage to point out the dangers of the Marxist left is important.

    • Boonton says:

      Courage to point out the dangers of the Marxist left? Are you sure? For example, what exactly is the risk that you will go to jail or even be fined for mistakenly calling a transwoman ‘he’ instead of ‘she’? Can you find me three names of such victims in the last 6 months? I bet I can find you 3 people killed in domestic terrorism….or struck by lightening. Yet you wouldn’t call the lightening rod salesman brave, even though he objectively has done more measurable good.

      • Alan B says:

        Hi Boonton,

        I think that there probably needs to be some context in this debate because I assume Butler was talking about Peterson’s circumstances. Canada has a very different regime of free speech; it also approaches and defines hate crimes differently than other countries. Last summer, the Canadian government enacted new anti-discrimination laws to protect trans people/LGBT people broadly. The main concern that people had with the ordinance is that it did seem to trim free speech rights in certain ways. Although I am not a Canadian citizen, my understanding is that it actually does create penalties for calling a trans person the wrong pronoun. I’m not sure if it’s a hard rule (i.e., any instance of misgendering is punishable), but it certainly opens up that possibility (for more on the law see this:

        My take on Peterson is that he lives in a society that is much more repressive of political speech/more committed to equality, and that shapes his views on opposing the cultural-political status quo. In that respect, I think it is fair to say that he’s putting himself out there. At the same time, that doesn’t really have much bearing on American society. Additionally, I think the other worry that Peterson has is that a refusal to toe the line on left-wing politics in the classroom is tantamount to denying one’s self tenure, etc. I think you did bring up good points, assuming you’re talking about the American context. But I also think that Peterson has a point given that Canada is a very different society than the US.

        • Boonton says:

          So since the bill passed you can point me to a single person convicted of calling bad pronoun use? The link you posted indicated the bill was passed over a year ago. Canadians are nice people but are you going to tell me there’s not been on instance of an alt-right clown type who enjoys calling transmen ‘she’ or transwomen ‘he’? Article you cited didn’t say anything about pronouns but covered transpeople in discrimination law (granted pronoun use may be an element of a discrimination case but that’s not the same thing as a law on pronoun use) and hate speech appears to be linked to an underlying criminal act and not simply a free floating prohibition on speech.

          My take, Peterson’s crusade against this law must be judged in terms of actual data. If you can’t produce the oppression he claimed it enacted, that makes his arguments questionable….not ‘brave’.

          I also suspect Peterson’s schtick is essentially trying to be a male version of Oprah. (Don’t laugh, I understand one of his ’12 rules’ includes ‘clean up your room’.). Here’s the gameplan he’s following: Push reading lists of ‘great books’. They are free and give fans a sense of smug intellectualism whether or not they actually read them. Get into strawman debates, cultivate a sense of self-righteousness among fans and easy wins. Finally produce a stream of new material for fan consumption. Monetarize every step of this along the way.

          Is this a bad thing in itself? No, this is more or less how all celebrity culture works these days. But with great celebrity as an intellectual comes great obligation to actually produce great ideas and so far I see a lot of people who want to assign him greatness but then tell us why it isn’t important that he have unique and interesting ideas that (most important) they can actually list and defend.

        • Gareth Morley says:

          All Canadian provinces have an anti-discrimination law, more or less similar to the Civil Rights Act. The federal government does as well, but its reach is limited to the federal public sector, the military and interprovincial transportation and communication industries. As with the Civil Rights Act, they list prohibited grounds of discrimination: sex, race, national origin, religion, etc. Since the 1990s, they have all included sexual orientation. Recently, the major jurisdictions have added “gender identity and gender expression”, so that it is against the law to discriminate in employment, providing services, etc. based on someone being transgendered. That is the law Peterson is objecting to.

          It is true that Canada does not interpret its free expression provisions in its constitution as robustly as the First Amendment is interpreted, and hate speech is criminalized. But it is not actually true that anyone has ever been prosecuted for refusing to use preferred pronouns with transgendered people. Even though Holocaust denial, for example, can be prosecuted, there are actually very few examples.

          Peterson has tenure, as do any number of other conservative academics in Canada. When I was at the University of Toronto, the majority of the political theory faculty were Straussians. Yes, there are examples of leftist stupidity on Canadian campuses, including a Communications TA at a minor university who was disciplined for showing a video of Peterson debating with someone about transgender pronouns. But

          • Boonton says:

            The ‘criminalizing pronoun’ thing seems to me to be like saying self-defense and ‘stand your ground’ laws mean you can shoot a 12 year old who comes to your door selling girl scout cookies.

            In theory someone could mount a defense that they felt threatened and while they were mistaken, they were legally justified in shooting. In reality such a case would hopefully be very difficult.

            I suspect if you had someone who did not incite violence against others, did not advocate illegal acts, did not discriminate in terms of employment or promotions but felt as a matter of principle he must say ‘he’ rather than ‘she’ when referring to a transwoman it would probably be equally as hard for this law to be used against him.

            Let me just add here libertarians have a habit of missing the reality of how laws actually work. I think some of them fall into the trap of thinking of them too much like computer code. Hence you get cranks such as ‘sovereign citizens’ who imagine certain magical combinations of words can grant one immunity from laws.

            Reality is laws are more like cooking, there’s the recipe but also the practice. Here I would have asked if I were debating or interviewing Peterson how this law could be so restrictive when it seems like it already applies to groups other than LGBT. For example, since it applies to religious groups has a Christian ever been convicted of hate speech for asserting that Mormons are not ‘true Christians’? Or a rabbi for saying “Jews for Jesus” aren’t really Jews?

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            Reality is laws are more like cooking, there’s the recipe but also the practice.

            Amen! And that’s the problem. It is entirely possible for somebody in an agency to decide that, say, using the wrong pronoun is covered by the law and bring an action against the person who did it. There follows an investigation which consumes a fair amount of the complained-against’s time and money. As the legal saying goes, “sometimes the process is the punishment.”

            Perhaps the complained-against even settles, admitting wrong-doing in order to end the process.

          • Boonton says:

            so as I pointed out since the law already was on the books and covered religion, race and gender there was no reason to oppose extending it to LGBT people. If you think the law could be read in a way to permit prosecuting people using ‘wrong pronouns’, then you also think the law could be read to charge people for saying Mormons aren’t Christians. If this is the *real* concern rather than oppose the LGBT addition while maintaining the law for everyone else Peterson should support fixing the law.

            But again your view of how law works is faulty. Laws are not detailed and maddeningly specific lists of things leaving no room for context or situational reading by the judge. For example, consider a crime like ‘disturbing the peace’ which is on the books almost everywhere but if you really pushed it could be morphed into highly selective and discriminatory enforcement. One solution might be to try to replace it with a law running thousands of pages trying to list every type of valid disturbing the peace infraction. The American system’s solution, though, is to put in place sensible judges who read the law in the context we understand it to mean. Hence the judge knows that someone charged with booming their radio at 2AM on the quiet street is a valid charge but someone wearing ‘loud clothes’ charged by a cop who deems himself a bit of a fashion police is outside the context of the law.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            So we agree. Laws can be interpreted in more or less sweeping ways. We hope that we “put in place sensible judges who read the law in the context we understand it to mean.” But that doesn’t always happen. And much of “the process” occurs before there is any trial. The agencies which investigate and bring charges are often staffed by people who are zealous in trying to push the law in their preferred direction.

            The right wing media is full of stories of agencies not being “sensible.” Today I ran into an oldie; students at Ithaca College wanted to build a replica of Thoreau’s cabin but were told they had to put in a sprinkler system.

            (And to add a little history, laws like “disturbing the peace” were indeed used as weapons against blacks in the white supremacist South. And, yes, judges went along.)

          • Boonton says:

            That’s all well and good but Peterson’s argument was not with the law, was not with judges taking laws in a poor context, it was with inclusion of transpeople in an existing law that prohibited discrimination by religion, gender, and race.

            I think Peterson took a simplistic reading of the law and ran with it for fame and fortune.

          • Boonton says:

            “But it is not actually true that anyone has ever been prosecuted for refusing to use preferred pronouns with transgendered people. Even though Holocaust denial, for example, can be prosecuted, there are actually very few examples.”

            The law is a discrimination law that as amended to include transpeople. It was never a law about pronouns (hint neither English nor French have pronouns based on one’s race or religion). Might pronoun use be *part* of a discrimination case? Sure. It doesn’t follow from that, though, that the law enshrined a principle that poor use of pronouns was an automatic violation of it.

    • William Bromberg says:

      Part of the problem is that the videos of him on-line are now a mix of snippets from his longer lectures, interviews (usually again only snippets), and other piece-meal “best of” videos. His full length lectures taken from his psych classes are much more coherent but not many people have multiple hours to watch a psych class. His ideas are not particularly novel and frankly are easily picked out if you listen to a whole piece instead of snippets (in my opinion).

      Some of those ideas that speak to me are:
      1. The destruction of freedom of speech, particularly the initiation of forced speech rather than “merely” censorship, is a significant step totalitarianism no matter the purported motive. He believes that this technique is one of postmodernist constructivism that eliminates the idea of “truth” in order to posit that all human culture is merely the strong oppressing the weak.

      2. Individual rights are the ultimate protection of a minority and intersectionality is the further fragmenting of identity politics that has the result of oppression and creates it’s own far-right resistance (which is also evil).

      3. There is biologic and evolutional reality which has to be taken into account when you think about human relationships.

      4. The tenets of religious law are a generally culturally tested set of rules that can help people lead a flourishing life. These rules evolved over millennia and cultures that embraced them generally did better than those that didn’t. Not all religious laws fall into this group as some are instances of locality/time specific ones or truly as expressions of oppression and the test of a “good” rule is one that can be shown by sociologic research to generally result in better outcomes for the individual, their family, and society. He claims that this is a empirically testable hypothesis.

      I recommend a viewing of both his interviews on the “Joe Rogan” podcast for a deep introduction — but be warned they are both over 2 hours long.

      • Boonton says:

        I think that’s a fair summary of his ‘ideas’ and ultimately that’s about it. None of these appear to be all that novel in terms of insights and none of them appear to be all that ‘brave’.

        Quibble: “Individual rights are the ultimate protection of a minority and intersectionality is the further fragmenting of identity politics that has the result of oppression”

        My understanding of ‘intersectionality’ is the recognition that the coarse grained groups a Marxist orientated theorist might talk about (poor, workers, rich, white, black, etc.) ignore the fact that inside any large group will be subgroups (gay blacks, strict Baptist blacks who abhor anything other than traditional sexuality, etc.) In other words that sounds exactly like the ‘individualism’ the critic wants recognized because ultimately if you keep going finer and finer in your distinctions you end up with groups of one individual each.

        The ‘oppression’ angle seems a bit absurd. From political or economic theory can someone coherently explain how an ideology gets more powerful by subdividing itself? This sounds like the alt-right delusion that whites are now victims of racism more than blacks. Think about all historical oppression, when has subdivision ever been a trait? Did Hitler divide Germans into Austrians, Bravarians, Prussians etc. or did he insist all Germans were united as a Greater Germany? Did Stalin subdivide the USSR into smaller and smaller groups or did he do the opposite? Did the slave trade justify itself by dividing the world into a lot of different races or did they adopt a more coarse grained theory that a generic group called ‘whites’ could enslave an equally generic groups called ‘blacks’?

        To the degree that ‘intersectionality’ is pushed by people who are oppressive, it would actually generate less oppression as any attempt to actually push oppression is more likely to get bogged down in endless wangling over secondary issues from smaller and smaller subdivisions.

      • Boonton says:

        “He believes that this technique is one of postmodernist constructivism that eliminates the idea of “truth” in order to posit that all human culture is merely the strong oppressing the weak.”

        I kind of recall the first podcast he did with Sam Harris ended up going nowhere because Sam couldn’t get his mind around Peterson’s idea that truth was anything that was compatible with survival so there was no meaningful difference between a fact and fantasy. I kind of suspect he doesn’t quite realize just how many postmodern ideas he actually accepts without even realizing.

  7. Handle says:

    There is pent-up demand which creates a niche for someone who seems to speak intelligently and confidently (and indeed, bravely and from direct experience of being at the receiving end) about the current pathological social and political manifestations of progressive ideology. There just isn’t much competition for a variety of reasons.

    So the exact content of his theories or character of his personality is almost irrelevant, since the hungry fan base of people who are harmed or upset by what is going on is already established. Indeed, not just pent-up demand for such intellectual leadership, but pent-up demand by more reasonable public intellectuals for a focal point for which they can provide bandwagon support in their efforts to moderate the current excesses and trend towards increased polarization.

    I’m not much impressed by Peterson’s lectures or books, but I’ll give the man one thing, he is great at maintaining his frame, not backing down, and never letting some interviewer get away with putting words in his mouth.

    • Tom G says:

      Right! (like my other reply above, but better).

      Altho it’s 3 things at the end.

      And I’d a fourth, he almost always has a simple anecdote story to go with his theory. And a fifth, a sincere sounding delivery with wide dynamics.

      So listen to him … in a comfy chair! or at least with some soft cushions.

    • Alrenous says:

      Folk like Peterson because he risked a sacrifice but wasn’t forced to actually sacrifice it.
      Ironically, he has Cathedral preselection, being a former Harvard employee and current UofT employee, which is apparently very important to the wider public.

    • Boonton says:

      “There is pent-up demand which creates a niche for someone who seems to speak intelligently and confidently ….”

      “…So the exact content of his theories or character of his personality is almost irrelevant, since the hungry fan base of people who are harmed or upset by what is going on is already established.”

      Here’s an intellectual bubble. Imagine we were talking about vaccines:

      “There’s a pent up demand for an alternative to the vaccine industry… the exact content or theories of anti-vaccine advocates are almost irrelevant”….

      Or we’re back in 1980 talking about PCs

      “There’s a demand for an alternative to big mainframe computers, so the exact content of the personal computer maker is irrelevant”….

      Errr no, if there’s a demand to counter something or provide an alternative then the exact content becomes even more important and vital. If the pilot has a heart attack, it matters quite a bit if the passenger whose about to man the cockpit knows how to fly a plane or not.

      When the exact content doesn’t matter is when the person doing the ‘demanding’ is childish and immature. “Junior thinks mommy and daddy are stupid, so he doesn’t know how he would run things if he was in charge, he just wants to be”.

      • Handle says:

        “Errr no, if there’s a demand to counter something or provide an alternative then the exact content becomes even more important and vital.”

        Nope, quite the contrary. The examples you use are concrete, objective, and empirical. You can’t post-modern your way into an effective vaccine.

        But Peterson’s celebrity is at least in part a phenomenon manifested from processes of mass social psychology, and when it comes to the need to coordinate the formation of political coalitions around focal point figures and ideas, literally almost anything will do, so long as it fulfills the function of providing signals of the right affiliations and loyalties.

  8. Dain says:

    Friedman is great. Had lunch with him the other day in fact. Lucky for me he has a stint in West Coast academia for the time being.

    A libertarian-ish gadfly like Friedman is doing something very different from Peterson. It’s a bit hedgehog vs. fox but also ivory tower vs. street fighter. For the latter it isn’t so much Peterson’s commitment to big T truth that’s and rigor that’s appealing but the fact that he has the right enemies.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      I’m not sure where I first read it (maybe here) but it seems to capture a good deal of the truth, “The left hates markets, and the right hates the left.”

      • Handle says:

        That’s Bryan Caplan’s theory of right and left, and boy is he out to lunch on that one. Certainly most leftists would not agree, and, as an example, the contemporary left is extremely preoccupied with culture war issues, which really have nothing to do with love or hate of markets.

        • Dain says:

          Indeed. It’s as if Caplan is forever stuck in 1998. Or even 2008. He doesn’t want to admit (nor do I) that sinking all one’s intellectual energy into political economy and classical liberal philosophy – or fusion attempts like “liberaltarianism” – has been a waste of time.

          Caplan wants to talk about markets. His opposition wants to talk about why white guys like him want to talk about markets.

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          Handle, thanks for the source of the quotation. I completely agree that the contemporary American left makes a big deal of cultural issues. But listen carefully and “the market” or “markets” are part of the system of white/male etc. supremacy, an arena in which white privilege is exercised. To get rid of that oppression requires ever-increasing limits on markets.

          The fact that “Certainly most leftists would not agree” that they hate markets is hardly dispositive. I’m sure Harvey Weinstein would not agree that he hates women.

          • Handle says:

            Of course it’s common for people both to be consciously disingenuous and/or self-deceptive about their real motivations, but what a typical leftist or progressive would say is that what they care about is equality and fairness, and that they don’t object to markets per se, but only to the extent that those markets, if left unregulated, tend to create a lot of unjust inequalities and exploitative abuses.

            So, if we’re going to play the game of “ideological distillation” and reduce political movements to as small a set of possible of first principles or intellectual axioms (which is very much a fool’s errand, but that’s Caplan’s game, so let’s play it), then we have a contest here between “equality” and “anti-market”.

            As I said above, and as has been pointed out to Caplan on numerous occasions by others, the anti-market theory doesn’t tell us why leftists support things like gay-marriage. It needs some kind of tweak or epicycle to account for things like that.

            On the other hand, the equality theory accounts for both culture war matters and anti-market sentiments, and corresponds to the way leftists describe and conceive of themselves, and without any need for some additional variable or corrective factor.

            Furthermore, when it comes to cultural matters, it simply doesn’t make any historical sense to say that the socially conservative or traditionalist right supports the positions it does because they are “anti-left.” Almost by definition conservatives and traditionalists are merely continuing to support the continuation of the way things have been for a long time – including plenty of regulations and restrictions of free-markets, whereas it is usually the leftists who are “anti-status-quo”, arguing that the current state of affairs is socially unjust, and taking the initiative to propose and implement corrective reforms.

            So, under his game’s own rules, Occam’s razor clearly militates in favor of ditching the “anti-market” theory of leftism in favor of an “pro-equality” theory of leftism.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            I completely agree that the statement is not a definition of right and left. As you say, it is a fool’s errand to try to define two monolithic opposites called Right and Left. Such well-defined monoliths don’t exist. Rather, as I said, I think it “capture[s] a good deal of the truth.”

            Some leftists may well say “that they don’t object to markets per se, but only to the extent that those markets, if left unregulated, tend to create a lot of unjust inequalities and exploitative abuses.” But in general, I think they FEEL that all present markets exhibit such injustice, that it is as common as stink is to s**t. And as hard to remove. Though we must always keep trying.

            And logically, since money matters in markets, if inequality is unjust, markets are inherently unjust unless there is strict equality in income.

            I think talk about inequality can make a rough marker for “left.” But there is talk and there is talk. I think inequality to the left is like inequality to the medieval Catholic Church. Of course, we are all equal in the sight of God. But … priests and cardinals deserve unequal treatment in this life because they are doing such important things. Mohammedans, pagans, anyone who does not accept the truth of the Church Holy and Apostolic, should not be treated equally. Should be treated as inferior and deserving the bad they get.

            There are lots of people who consider themselves left who do not believe in equality for those who don’t deserve it. Which can be almost anyone.

  9. Mike says:

    This guy is fascinating because like most other commenters:
    1. can’t regurgitate much of his message after watching him for an entire hour
    2. my gut reaction to this kind of feeling is that it is flim-flam, but usually i can point out where it’s happening – and i can’t do that with him
    3. the real impact is his composure (seems steadier than it may be because he starts at a “9” instead of ramping up to it) in the face of so many of the concepts/attitudes that are so shallow and simultaneously powerful right now.

    Maybe he’s the current version of the chinese student standing in front of the tanks in Tianemen Square. The bags of groceries that he’s holding aren’t an impressive weapon in and of themselves, but look – he’s stopping a column of tanks! Something else is going on here.

  10. Charles W. Abbott says:

    Peterson is good in brief youtube videos, and in speaking to a general audience. He is outstanding in his field–which is being a youtube-accessible thinker, not on the left, who is sensible and has something to say that is of value and useful.

    In terms of thinkers, one of the last previous great intellectuals (not on the left) was the late Robert Conquest. One of the greatest current living ones is Sir Roger Scruton. I would estimate that Conquest’s last two non-poetry books (_Dragons of expectation_ and _Reflections on a ravaged century_) will be of lasting value.

    Those two above are of different sorts. An historian and a philosopher.

    Pinker is spectacular, witty, and lacks malice in his writings. A good scholar and a excellent communicator.

    Thomas Sowell comes to mind offhand as a scholar worth reading. He has written about 30 books, and he also writes opinion columns (some of which are of lasting value for their rhetorical power).

    who else?

    P.S.: Last night I noticed Jordan Peterson explaining the Gulag Archipelago to a classroom full of undergraduates who perhaps had little or no knowledge of Stalinism, the Gulag, or Soviet communism. Is that part of his audience? People who haven’t heard of all kinds of things like that? Just possibly?

  11. Rojellio says:

    I find Peterson to be brilliant and one of the best defenders out there against the absurdities of post modern, neoMarxist, SJW, “progressivism” which has completely captured most of the intellectual left. Pinker is another great one. Milton F., too, but he may be a bit, umm, no longer living.

    I believe the mindsets and values and shared framings (what McCloskey refers to as rhetoric) is the foundation of society. The so-called progressive left has absolutely taken over academia, child education, the media, and the political bureaucracy and they are now fully infiltrating corporate America (Google). They are pro power, anti rationalism, anti experimentation, anti bottoms up voluntary interaction, and inti individual. I believe this framing is one of, if not the, major challenges facing humanity today.

    There is a new Scholasticism rising in society, and I believe it is the biggest threat to future liberal flourishing. We need a lot more Petersons, Pinkers, Haidts and Friedmans.

  12. Charles W. Abbott says:

    Offhand it seems to me that some scholars and “public intellectuals” actively seek to engage neutrals and opponents, and to change the thinking of those who disagree with them. They have a mission where part of their objective function seeks to maximize the number of people paying attention to them. They fight for attention and “mind share”–even from opponents and skeptics. Pinker is probably that way. So is Dennis Prager.

    Others are just out there doing their thing, and they tend to attract like-minded readers.

    Greg Cochrane at westhunter and Bruce Charlton at his various blogs strike me that way. Greg at his blog simply responds with “you’re wrong” in his comments.

    Since Charlton has started perhaps a dozen variously themed blogs since being fired from _medical hypotheses_ blog, this reminds me of a difference between Freud and the hypno-therapist Milton Erickson.

    Freud sought followers and cast out anyone who dis-agreed with him. I am told that Milton Erikson founded societies and then left them to found additional societies. This might be an exaggeration, but Wikipedia doesn’t refute that characterization of Erickson.

    Charlton has a horror of distraction. He does his mystical aphoristic thing and encourages people to disengage from debate with those who seek to waste our time.

  13. Tom G says:

    Arnold, you’re like most who “put Peterson firmly in the conservative camp”, but I think you’re missing his sensitiveness to the oppressed. Only the truly oppressed, like those in gulags, not the faux-victims of post-modernist nihilism living in more comfort & security than 99% of humans throughout history. Some of his rage comes from being angry at these pampered PC “victim claimers”, and their bullying and becoming oppressors themselves.

    Brooks describes how he tells boys to be strong (like Boy Scouts! … used to…), to grow up and to be men. Good Men. None of Friedman, Pinker, Cowen, … nor Kling, nor Miles Kimball, seems to be doing that. Thousands of men have written, publicly, that Peterson has helped them. Changing and improving the world, one man becoming better, at a time. By the thousands.

    The “Goodness” at the center of Peterson is probably part of the mystical part you think is weird.

    The USA, Canada, and the world needs more Good Men. Good religion has been sustainable primarily by providing religious reasons for men to be Good.

    Many think, and I’m beginning to, that preparing more men to be Good Men is the single “most important” thing needed to make a better civilization.

    • George says:

      I think this is exactly right.

      The typical Western intellectual adheres to a pluralist vision of the good life. When it comes to morality they never tell others what to think but instead encourage people and especially children to think for themselves. Ironically most of them behave much differently than the values they profess to maintain. For example they extol the virtues of multiculturalism while living in a monoculture or bubble as Charles Murray would say. They advocate for open borders from the safety of gated communities, downplay the importance of marriage while being monogamously married etc etc. But as we know nature abhors a void.

      Alasdair Maclntyre argues in “After Virtue” that the “enlightenment project” of creating a universal, context-free morality was doomed from the beginning. Cultures have shared values and rich traditions which invariably generate a framework in which people can value and evaluate each other. The human condition is that they WILL value and evaluate each other even if some portion of the population doesn’t want to make it explicit.

      I see JBP as the typical conservative who is standing up for what he believes in. He is putting forth a thesis knowing full well it’s imperfect but it’s better than simply criticizing others.

      The other reason why I think JBP is popular is because he was one of the first people to give a real prescription on beating back increasing polarization. He talks to the would be radicals the fence sitters who want to improve the world and think they have the right ideology. He wants them to look at themselves first and fix themselves before marching off to take on grand problems. This has become a popular internet meme “clean your room”. Only rather recently have others taken on the polarization issue for example Jonathan Haidt with his view point diversity initiative.

      • David H says:

        “He wants [young activists] to look at themselves first and fix themselves before marching off to take on grand problems.”

        I know that this “first clean your room” thing resonates with some people, but I think it’s Peterson at his weakest. If you’re arguing against relativists, you try to convince them that some things are just wrong, even if some Goebbels convinced people that they were right. There are many candidates for such universal values. One terrible candidate is: “Your room should be clean before you speak out against injustice.” Because Peterson says other smart things, I initially thought he meant it metaphorically – as in, a quirky way of saying “live up to your own principles in your own behavior, and then you’ll have more credibility when you criticize others.” But no, Peterson actually means that if your bed is unmade during the day, you’re messing up somehow in a moral sense. It’s just … weird.

        • George says:

          It’s weird because he doesn’t use the “fix yourself/clean your room” argument against cultural relativists. He primarily uses it to combat polarization. JB tells people to bring order to themselves before bringing order to the rest of the world through some ideology.

          His argument against the relativists is that society always selects for something. Since we humans are social creatures there will always be a hierarchy where an individual can take certain actions and be rewarded with prestige (or take other actions and be shamed). Against this social reward/punishment system not all values will be equally rewarded hence the relativists are wrong.

          It’s our responsibility as people to figure out what society rewards. JB argues against climbing the hierarchy through dominance. He argues that society rewards competent people the most. So he advises young people to become articulate, learn socially relevant skills, and through hard work master those skills and become indispensable.

          That’s my understanding of him anyway.

          • Boonton says:

            Who exactly are these ‘cultural relativists’ he is mounting this dynamic battle against? I mean it sounds like these hypothetical people are trying to assert we should avoid making any negative judgement against anyone because, I guess, all truth is relative or driven by hidden ‘power structures’ or whatnot.

            But then I guess he isn’t talking about progressive leftists because he also complains about freedom of speech and ideas etc. Clearly if he is upset that someone is telling him to shut up, that person is someone who doesn’t have a problem with making judgments and deeming some values more worthy than others.

      • djf says:

        “The typical Western intellectual adheres to a pluralist vision of the good life. When it comes to morality they never tell others what to think but instead encourage people and especially children to think for themselves.”

        This is 180 degrees wrong, as the reaction to Peterson shows. They are “pluralists” to a certain extent, but just watch their reaction if you say something that breaks their ground rules. Encouraging young people to flaunt sexual orientations formerly considered non-normative is not the same thing as encouraging thinking for oneself.

        • George says:

          It’s true the radicals have always been that way but the majority of intellectuals are not radical. The number of radicals are inflated since the crazies are the loudest and dumbest so they get the most air time on TV, twitter etc. The majority of the people at university, or policy wonks who can reasonably be counted as public intellectuals are pluralist though (and believe in multiculturalism). The problem as I see it is that the sane intellectuals don’t have the balls to call out their own crazy neighbors. They just give them a free pass. This is why universities appear more crazy today than in the 60s and 70s.

          My own theory is that the floodgates opened when universities became bloated due to administration requirements. Admin bureaucrats are close to the seats of power and can steer the ship. They are a centralized weak point and difficult to fire/beat back.

          • djf says:

            I think you’re confusing multiculturalism with openness to free debate and being willing to rationally consider challenges to conventional wisdom. Multiculturalism is not intellectually pluralistic, rather, it is, intellectually authoritarian, always looking to cut off debate. Go to a meeting of social science or humanities academics and say something critical of Islam, or suggest that maybe the West should limit immigration; see what happens. Let me know if I’m wrong.

            The open-mindedness you ascribe to academics might have been a good description of most of them 30 or 40 years ago. I doubt that it is now. Isaiah Berlin is dead. Post-modernism seems to have become dominant, among both adminstrators and faculty; Enlightenment values are passe. In Arnold’s terms, everything social and cultural is viewed in terms of an oppressor-oppressed axis. That’s what Peterson is fighting against.

  14. ThomasL says:

    I am very late to this Peterson hype. I had seen his name, but knew not a thing about him before yesterday, when I had a few YouTube interviews going in the background.

    I am not sure if that puts me in a better or worse position to critique, but I think approaching him as a public intellectual may just be the wrong end of the stick.

    The feel I got was more like a frontier folk hero, a Davy Crockett or Daniel Boone. The real Peterson is not so important by that approach, so long as he does not do or say something completely discrediting (interestingly, he mentions this as his own gnawing fear in one of the interviews).

    That is, he is the man that said “No” to the compelled speech codes. Everything else he does and says is not performed in the realm of the public intellectual–though he does say clever things, or more importantly, true things–it is grounded in that act of defiance.

    He is a kind of rebel leader, or almost mascot. Analyzing him as if he were a variation of William F Buckley, leaned back in his chair, piercingly and quietly, musing on the big issues is simply the wrong lens.

    The times are not quite as dramatic, but if you wish to try and analyze in the realm of a public intellectual, you’d be better served at look around the times of the Revolutionary War, when the public intellectuals did not only write, but also threw tea into the harbor.

    Do not read that wrongly, in that I am not forecasting anything like a revolution. What I mean is that Peterson seems to me to be taking this role not because of his intellect, but because of his *stand*, under some real threat of jail.

    Stands don’t have to take the form of tea parties and revolutions, they can take a Gandhi-like form of silence and hunger strikes.

    Or of no act at all except refusal, like the three Hebrew children refusing to bow down to the golden image of the king.

    My point is this “folk hero” way of looking at it is the proper direction from which to approach this. That is, he is lionized for what he did, not what he lectures about.

    The attention paid to the lectures and interviews and whatnot are mostly just ways of cheering.

  15. Marc says:

    @Thomas — I think you are on to something. One can be a bit of both though — a bit of an intellectual and a bit of a folk hero. Along those lines, it strikes me that Mike Rowe is actually a bit of both as well. While he is not in the academic game at all, he is extremely sharp and thinks things through. There is wisdom in him. Maybe we should think of a category of ‘Wise Communicators’? Was Mark Twain that, or was he an ‘Intellectual’? Does it matter?

    As for Steven Pinker. I love him and his writing, but I had an example of the Newspaper effect while reading him. He is clearly erudite about many things which I have glancing knowledge of, but when I read what he wrote about something I specialize in (music), I found his writing very badly flawed and even shallow. This gave me pause. Then again, as they say in Some Like it Hot, “nobody’s perfect . . . “

    • ThomasL says:

      I might mention the philosopher Edward Feser as a kind of “on the other hand” counterpoint to Pinker.

      In the Pinker context I am thinking particularly of the book, ‘Philosophy of Mind’, but his book ‘Scholastic Metaphysics’ would also be worth mentioning.

      Also the paper, ‘Hayek, Popper, and the Causal Theory of the Mind’ is worth mentioning, not only because of the philosophy of mind angle, and because it is freely available, but also to see a serious philosopher draw across disciplines a bit, and take thinkers like Hayek seriously.

  16. Aleksandar says:

    Peterson is not brilliant, but he stood up to the insanity of modern universities and said what needed to be said in a clear manner. Basically most of the young and old activists are equivalent to Red Guards and you should treat them as such and don’t give them an inch since the stubborn minority can really f–k it up for everyone.

    It’s a sad state that he’s only one of the brave few.

  17. Alrenous says:

    Peterson is Piagettian but he hasn’t noticed that this ontologically commits him to anarchism. Piaget was all about games played voluntarily. What is non-anarchic government except an involuntary game?

    The liberty-coercion axis may be modern in articulation, but, speaking of ontological commitments, you can do things like start with Plato’s Republic, repair it, and find the coercion axis plus the Piagettian take on it.

  18. Shantanu Jha says:

    Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate is essentially scientism.

    Maps of Meaning is indeed turgid, but at least it has the flavor of a good (though perhaps not great) mind wrestling with important subjects. Sometimes clarity, as in the case of Cicero, merely exemplifies a second rate but fluent and cunning mind.

    The fact that you consider mysticism strange, when variants of it have been so much at the core of scientific and philosophical development, itself marks you and your chosen intellectuals out as members of a certain, peculiarly modern tribe. But I do not think your tribal affiliation has much bearing on your quality as a thinker.

  19. Tuesday says:

    I disagree with your remark on picking weak intellectual opponents. They are intellectually weak, but that’s not the point at all; they are politically quite strong, and he is taking a serious risk by speaking out against them — especially in such a “progressive” country as Canada.

    As a student at [major university], I hear comparisons between Trump and the Nazis on a consistent basis. Nobody seems to mention that the really creepy thing the Nazis – and Communists – did on their way to absolute, genocidal power is that they enforced their ideologies on non-political academic disciplines. And which side does that today? Deutsche Physik and Lysenkoism, meet your successors:

    Peterson is doing more than almost anyone else to expose this.

    As for Peterson-the-thinker as opposed to Peterson-the-defier… given my political views, I should really like him. And I do, sort of, in an abstract way; but I can’t seem to listen to him for any serious length of time. It doesn’t click for me.

    [ThomasL has probably the best take on the Peterson phenomenon as a whole.]

  20. Dan Hanson says:

    The value of people like Peterson (and I would add Sam Harris to this observation) is that they do not identify as ‘right wing’, yet they are standing up to the left in many ways and helping to push the left back towards classical liberalism – at least in regards to free speech and a general respect for western values.

    We need people who want to reform their own political groups from the inside, as they are more likely to reach the hearts and minds of those on the left than, say, Sean Hannity or even Thomas Sowell and Milton Friedman.

  21. George says:

    My take on JBP is that he’s a cultural reactionary. He’s the inevitable opposition to helicopter parenting and the safety first culture most young men grew up in post 9/11. He gains a lot of respect by simply stating the obvious harshness of the world instead of the “all you need is love here’s a trophy for trying” attitude. He not only tells people the other side of the coin–the truth that the world is a tough place but then tells them how to succeed in it, and how to make the best of it. He’s helped a lot of people over the years through his self authoring program and by promoting a “fix yourself” attitude. He preaches a different type of help more of an agency enabling flavor instead of a protectionist type. I think his message resonate now more than ever since a lot of people aren’t told that they *should* be working hard, that they *should* save for the future/invest in themselves etc. For all intents and purposes he’s the Internet Father Figure that kids who’ve mostly been taught by the internet and grown up on it need.

    I think that the continuation of “safety first culture” is the activist SJW left since most of their claims are based on principles of harm taken into the deep end and Peterson in traditional conservative fashion is reacting against that extremism. Obviously I’m generalizing significantly but that’s one perspective on the phenom that is JBP.

  22. Gareth Morley says:

    The only thing I have heard of Peterson is his podcasts with Sam Harris. Peterson seemed to me like a cartoon version of a post-modernist. I have to admit I am biased against anyone who takes Carl Jung seriously. I also don’t see what the harm is in using pronouns transgender people prefer. They have a tough time, to be honest.

    No doubt he inspires horror in some very silly people. But I would like someone to explain why I should pay attention to him as an actual intellectual. Not a question for Pinker or Jeffrey Friedman, for that matter.

    • Tuesday says:

      As a vague ‘supporter’ of Peterson, I can attest: he’s not a great thinker, nor a great communicator. As I said above, I can’t really listen to him for long periods of time; whereas I can read (for example) Moldbug for hours without getting bored, despite quite substantial disagreements.

      Peterson sometimes appears to be a great thinker, because of what he represents (the forgotten common-sense of the past) and what he defies (the “progressive” ideological hegemony in academia); but this is mostly just strong character, which in today’s world sets him apart as a remarkable person.

      If you want a great thinker with ideas more-or-less in Peterson’s vein (as far as I understand) — go for C.S. Lewis. The Abolition of Man is an absolute classic; for easy digestion, some genius made the following video for the first (and best) chapter, Men without Chests:

      Alas, Lewis is dead and buried; his great species went extinct sometime in the 1960’s or 1970’s. Of the entire genus known as “conservatives”, the only survivors (at least, in the ecology of Western academia) were those which were small and could escape the notice of the new dominant “progressive” predators.

      Peterson is merely the biggest, best attempt of these critters to come out of their burrows and into the sunlight. Compared to those (like me) who remain sheltered in their dark little holes, he comes off as a mighty specimen. Compared to Lewis… well, I suppose we can’t fault the man for failing to be great. As things stand, we are lucky to have Peterson as he is.

      The “progressives” are moving into self-absorbed absurdity; it’s still possible, in my opinion, that a principled stand against them can check the slide into lunacy. Peterson is principled, and that might be enough.

      [As for Pinker, Harris, etc. – I respect them, but they are a different kind of animal. They also challenge the ‘progressive’ apex predators, and are also (usually) principled; but they have an added safety of being at least distant cousins to the denizens of the Diversity Offices.]

      • Shepherd Donaldson says:

        The salient aspect of Peterson is his years of work and study in clinical psychology. Few people today, whether intellectuals or not, have the deep experience studying psychopathology — including serial killers and other violent psychopaths — that Peterson possesses as second nature by now.

        His fusion of his understanding of the human psyche with his deep study of mental archetypes and belief systems makes him unique and far beyond the experience of most of his critics.

        Because of this, most of the comments here are singularly poorly written and beside the point when describing the actual man and his work. If you are not a student or the parent of a young child, you will probably never see a use for this kind of thinking and will certainly never be capable of understanding its depth.

  23. Stoic Knight says:

    Hi message is targeted at a general public level. He’s reaching those who finished high school and maybe had a course or two in college on such ideas but who might have thought the sociology they were forced to take was teaching things which are batshit crazy to regular trade life. Commentors here seem to be missing this point of view thing. His talks are not for you. They’re for the Joe Rogan audience. BTW, Rogan is vastly under-rated as a public intellectual. He has more influence than everyone I see bandied about in these discussions. Get out of the wonkdom IMO.

  24. Boonton says:

    I think there’s an interesting comparison to be made between Jordan Peterson and Oprah Winfrey.

    It’s scary to think but today many adults are too young to really remember Oprah’s origins. Back in the day the daytime talk show was dominated by Phil Donahue. His show was a bit of light ‘outrage porn’. He would have some provocative guest and his audience would be angry at them. For example, Madeline O’Hair, the atheist activist who got school prayer tossed out would be a frequent guest. KKKers’, nudists, homosexuals etc. were common.

    Later in the 80’s a slew of shows started competing along these lines. Oprah was one. But later on Oprah broke with the pack declaring she was going to reject doing ‘negative’ or ‘exploitative’ shows and focus on positive. Her decision was questioned at the time but over the long run she was proven right. Phil eventually retired and almost all of Oprah’s competition bit the dust with only Jerry Springer being a notable one who is still around (and his show is basically a staged freakshow, nothing like Phil’s old show which did try to be serious).

    Peterson it seems to me is following a similar model. He made a big stink about an anti-discrimination law. While in the big scheme of things I suspect he got the law wrong, it ultimately is of little grand importance. But unlike Oprah, he hasn’t quite realized that the ‘outrage porn’ track eventually sinks down a hole of having to be more and more ‘outragey’. Figures on the alt-right have already found this….start out complaining about having call call Caitlyn Jenner ‘she’ and you eventually end up trying to get clicks complaining that Jews control the media.

    Peterson seems to have not yet decided which route he will go. The Oprah route of ‘book clubs’ and useful but rather obvious advice/encouragement (“don’t be lazy, clean your room, get a job, don’t let haters keep you down”) or the Springer/Alex Jones Infowars mode of trolling for more and more outrage until you’re at the point of having to make things up.

    • RPLong says:

      Well, his podcast has interviews with artists and composers. It’s not all “outrage porn.”

      • Boonton says:

        Sounds like he hasn’t quite gone down one direction or the other yet. A consequence of going the Oprah direction is that he will become more and more mundane. But at least he will avoid falling down the hole of being a crank.

    • lemmy caution says:

      In 2003, Donahue had the highest rated show on MSNBC but opposed the coming Iraq war and was fired for being a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war.”

    • Pereours says:

      Well, if he got the law wrong, so did the University of Toronto administration, which twice wrote letters warning him of his breach of it. So did the lawyers who led the opposition to the parallel effort by Ontario’s Law Society (think our Bar Association). And so has Eugene Volokh, who’s written about the American Bar Association’s similar model rule.

      Peterson’s been quite clear, and no contrary evidence has been presented by anyone, that he consistently respects the desires of his transgender students. He is not “transphobic” but is inalterably opposed to compelled speech.

      • Boonton says:

        So the law’s been on the books for a year now, where’s the people victimized by compelled speech?

        Also the law was already in place covering race, religion, etc. so if the law ‘compelled speech’ the proper stance for a libertarian minded person would be to fix the law to avoid mandating ‘compelled speech’ while not opposing the addition of LGBT people.

  25. RPLong says:

    In today’s world, we get so caught up in saying who is brilliant and who is not. Peterson is a well-educated man advancing a set of interesting ideas. I wouldn’t call him “brilliant,” but it’s easy for me to say that his ideas are interesting and worth thinking about. Isn’t that good enough?

    A public intellectual doesn’t have be a ground-breaking genius. Peterson is only really saying things that Jung, Solzhenitsyn, and Nietzsche have said. That’s fine. He presents things in a novel way, using familiar stories to highlight timeless ideas. I see so many people bending over backwards to say, “You know, I’m pretty underwhelmed by all this Peterson stuff!” But when was the last time anyone felt compelled to say that about Malcolm Gladwell? Or Oprah? Or James Altucher?

    Sometimes it’s enough that someone gets people talking. You don’t have to find the face of god in every public intellectual who comes to town.

  26. Rick Jones says:

    I saw that when Peterson was asked point blank what pronoun he would use for a trans student in one of his classes, he replied, without much hesitation, that he would use the pronoun that the student preferred.
    We overlook that much of PC related speech policing is grounded in a bedrock conservative principle: the golden rule. Fundamentally, it is simply a matter of respect to use a form of address that the addressee prefers. Yes it’s confusing, amusing and irritating by turns but get over yourself! If after a number of times you insist on addressing me as Richard, after I’ve told you many times I prefer Rick, I think it’s fair to question what’s at play and if you can exhibit the basic good will which is the core of civil and productive discourse,
    I’ve read his Wikipedia page, looked at a number of his you tubes and what is most remarkable is his absolute certainty about a wide array of vaguely defined and confounded social phenomena. Certainly there are many on the left that show the same tendency and, in the spirit of viewpoint diversity, I’m rooting for him to maintain his voice, but not at the expense of basic politeness.
    Lastly, I walk away from many of his talks with the question “And this is science?”. Seems to me much of it (maybe this is true of social science in general) is what Feynman called Cargo Cult Science. Maintaining the form but not the rigor of real science. Merely ideology numbers.

  27. Larry says:

    I’d add Scott Alexander to the list of public intellectuals. SSC is amazing.

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