We should not pretend otherwise: it is not a coincidence that the recent upsurge in popularity of the Toronto-based clinical psychologist Jordan B. Peterson comes at a time of tremendous existential pressure for masculine identity. Despite having been excoriated in the liberal press as a political reactionary who betrays an unprofessional academic status with his Cold War inflected western chauvinism and belief in rightist conspiracy theories such as ‘cultural Marxism’, a growing demographic of alienated, disillusioned, and frustrated younger men are, regardless, still turning to and finding hope in Peterson’s ideas.
‘[Peterson] claims that concepts like patriarchy and other forms of structural oppression, are treacherous illusions, and that he can prove this with science.’
A widening trend of young men and students in particular are finding assurance in a revivified paternalism, with its promises of an empowering self-mastery through a restored pride in masculine agency. So rather than dismiss Peterson’s influence as a symptom of the ‘toxic masculinity’ stereotype, we should ask why a generation of coming-of-age men feel dispirited and left behind by social justice rhetoric, and what an anxious masculine identity tells us about an age of accelerating cultural complexity, economic instability as well as technological enhancement.
Briefly, for those who are unaware of Jordan Peterson, his book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (a mixture of self-help and pop-psychology, driven by a Christian theological affirmation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s will to power) reached number 1 on the Amazon best-seller list. Peterson is adored by his fans for his ‘common sense’ and hard scientific form of argumentation, but this approach is often coloured by a bitter outrage at the threat posed to the West’s liberal foundations by ‘identity politics obsessed leftists’ (this explains the support he has received not only from the libertarian wing of the alt-right, but also by centrist ‘classical liberals’). He has been described as a ‘rock star academic’ as well as a ‘secular prophet who, in an era of lobotomised conformism, thinks out of the box’ according to Melanie Phillips of The Times.
Peterson’s publicity benefitted greatly from a Channel 4 interview with Cathy Newman, which on Youtube has reached over seven million views at the time of writing. Throughout the discussion he repeated many of the anti-feminist and anti-postmodern arguments that have already made him famous online: the gender pay gap is largely determined by factors other than sex discrimination (i.e. can also be attributed to socio-sexual dimorphism, organic market constitutions and career choices); historical structures of hierarchy are not social constructions as posited by postmodernist theory, and evidence of similar patterns of neuronal serotonin to humans in lobsters helps to prove the biological necessity of hierarchical social arrangements; a postmodern/neo-Marxist cult mentality has transformed our academic institutions into ‘indoctrination factories’ (the irony being that he has been photographed sarcastically waving a flag bearing the infamous Pepe the Frog symbol, an icon which exemplifies postmodern cynicism and the increasingly decentred status of nationalist ideology in an age of online meme-posting). Rather than critically engage with his ideas, most of Newman’s responses simplified and parodied his views to discredit his position, and the contrast which developed in Peterson’s veneer of sober and resourceful pragmatism shaped a clear winner for the viewers.
One would think much of the left-wing criticism of Peterson would avoid Newman’s tactic of brash, ineffectual antagonism, but even they still manage to overlook the sensitive conditions behind Peterson’s influence. Though I do share the legitimate concerns about Peterson’s ideas that Dorian Lynskey of The Guardian and Tabatha Southey of the Canadian magazine Macleans express, such as his bizarre and often outright neo-McCarthyist claims of white privilege being a ‘Marxist lie’ or that the idea of women being oppressed throughout history is ‘an appalling theory’ (as well as his not-very-free-speech-friendly plan to set up a website where students can have their upcoming modules rated by AI, built to sniff out traces of a ‘postmodern cult course’). But their criticism often ends there, as if restating what Peterson has said but with a slightly baffled expression will persuade his supporters, as this excerpt from Lynskey’s article testifies:
‘Rather than promoting blatant bigotry, like the far right, [Peterson] claims that concepts fundamental to social-justice movements, such as the existence of patriarchy and other forms of structural oppression, are treacherous illusions, and that he can prove this with science. Hence: ‘The idea that women were oppressed throughout history is an appalling theory’. Islamophobia is ‘a word created by fascists and used by cowards to manipulate morons’. White privilege is ‘a Marxist lie’. Believing that gender identity is subjective is ‘as bad as claiming that the world is flat’. Unsurprisingly, he was an early supporter of James Damore, the engineer fired by Google for his memo Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber.’
‘left-wing criticism of peterson often manages to overlook the sensitive conditions behind his influence.’
I have a strong feeling that the fans of Peterson’s work, the real audience the author should be targeting, will not find this line of argument convincing. This roll-call of soundbites from the past is marginally successful in its attempt to expose Peterson’s paranoiac conservatism, but it just preaches to the converted, while making too little an effort to consider the conditions that have set up Peterson’s rise and why his audience is continuing to grow.
Lynskey’s article was ultimately ridiculed by Peterson himself on Twitter though, so it had an impact of a kind on the professor and his followers. But worse still is that this kind of hostile and patronising writing (Southey describes Peterson in the title of her article as ‘the stupid man’s smart person’) also becomes complicit in the divisive terms of the debate set by the new-right of a ‘progressives vs traditionalists’ ‘Culture War’, where Peterson’s supporters are apparently just a collective category of ignorant, regressive automatons. It is precisely this atmosphere of passive disengagement but also of a certain kind of left-academic arrogance that has to end, since it only speaks past Peterson’s audience and benefits the right’s current fantasy image of logic-based rationality and public commitment.
This is why I want to make a plea directly to those who are currently finding comfort and purpose in Peterson’s ideas, and hopefully disclose for them some of the causes behind their intimate and existential anxieties in contemporary life. I’m also writing this from personal experience, because I also briefly felt the same anxiety and unease born out of my gender identity. Like many others, I am coming-of-age at a time where many men feel inadequate, disheartened and emotionally conflicted in the modern world where their gender is undergoing a process of radical social metamorphosis. It should be expected therefore that Peterson’s nostalgic proposition for a firm, unyielding ‘masculinisation of culture’ becomes an attractive one for so many. All of this was until I saw that what I was feeling shouldn’t be a mourning for something lost; it’s a mature and productive growing pain for something new. I want to show sympathy towards why this demographic of young men find Peterson convincing, while also making his followers reconsider his paternalist ideology and recognise that this fictional masculine identity was the cause of their resentment, not their timely salvation.
In an interview with BBC Radio 5 live, Jordan Peterson discussed the lack of a positive identity and the purposeless despair that makes up the plight of young men in current society, moving on to say, while choking back tears: ‘Yeah, see now it did it to me again. Look, last night I was at this talk I gave and about 1000 people came, and about 500 of them stayed afterwards and most of them are young men, and one of them after another comes up to me and shakes my hand and they say ‘Look, I’ve been listening to what you’ve been saying for six months and its changed my life, I was depressed, I was addicted to drugs, my relationships weren’t working … I was hopeless … and I’ve started working hard on myself and its really working and I would just like to thank you!’ It’s just a catastrophe that [encouraging words] are so rare in their lives and they’re desperate for a conversation on responsibility and noble being …”
‘I want to show sympathy to this demographic … while making his followers reconsider that this fictional masculine identity was the cause of their resentment, not their timely salvation.’
Peterson explains that much of the source of this alienation and resentment comes from a dominant trend in feminism and social justice rhetoric which: ‘[tells young men] that they’re patriarchal oppressors and denizens of rape culture and tyrants in-waiting and we fail to discriminate between their competence and their tyranny, and its awful, so destructive and so sad… it makes me sad, deeply…’ I have to disagree with Peterson here in that as far as I know, other than the deep recesses of man-hating tumblr feminism, there is very little evidence to support the idea that today’s feminist or progressive movements broadly hold men as an entire category responsible for their archetypal lust for patriarchal tyranny. But it is also true (and must be said) that many young men do still feel that this is all that social justice offers to them: a perplexing gap between their frequently dysfunctional social or emotional circumstances, and what they see as their unfair classification and unnecessary burden of guilt as the privileged and predatory gender. This can have deeply alienating consequences for male adolescents who, growing up in a time of compulsive regulation over their behaviour by PC standards, cannot express themselves without having their sincere concerns compared to the manic macho-nationalism of alt-right MRA’s, neo-reactionaries and #Gamergate.
Peterson’s intervention comes at a time of profound masculine identity crisis, where the archaic notion of the male social role as the economic providers is being overturned by an increasingly active female demographic in the workforce. Furthermore, linked with the quickening displacement of their traditional roles in society, is Peterson’s appeal to the male anxieties over intimacy and sexual rapport in the modern age where even interpersonal relations between men and women are dramatically changing.
Discussing Peterson’s influence, Peter Hitchens suggests: ‘I think this is mainly because young men cannot work out how to behave correctly towards modern young women. These young women’s minds have been trained to mistrust masculinity. But in their hearts they still despise feeble, feminised men. The outcome is that men are trapped in a minefield, in the midst of a quicksand. Whether you stand still or move, it will destroy you.’ Of course, there are problems with Hitchens’ exclusively male perspective which generalises feminine desire. But it does speak to a widespread masculine insecurity with the disappearing societal cues that used to mark how to respect women.
‘Peterson’s intervention comes at a time of profound masculine identity crisis.’
In the Channel 4 interview, Jordan Peterson appeared to highlight this seismic economic change in gender relations when he asserted: ‘The market is dominated by women. They make 80% of the consumer decisions.’ According to Forbes, this figure is accurate and global spending by women is predicted to reach $18 trillion later this year in a market that seems to be responding overwhelmingly to female demand. Now from the ‘classical liberal’ perspective, this would prove women do ‘dominate’ the market, since the market is simply the numerical reflection of people’s lived experience, with autonomous individuals pursuing and acting on their own rational self-interest. As a result of this natural interplay, women appear to have taken over the consumer decisions of the marketplace.
But Peterson does not seem to consider how far identity is shaped by market forces, and not the other way around. Far from autonomous self-determination, commercial culture and advertising use a subtle set of rhetorical and visual strategies to persuade people to buy their product (consumption in effect becoming a form of self-expression, a social phenomenon at the very core of neoliberal ideology), setting the consumers into that desired demographic of identity. One could just as easily say, therefore, that women as the 80% of consumer decision makers are more subservient to the market, not masters of it.
‘Peterson laments that the parts of western culture and history which are worth keeping … are being erased by a relativist strain in our cultural institutions.’
I anticipate that the conclusion I have just drawn of market domination would be widely mocked by Peterson and his supporters as another symptom of a toxic postmodern/neo-Marxist dogma, refusing to accept that ‘distinctions might be drawn between things for reasons other than that of raw power.’ If I may digress for a moment, I think it is important to uncover a little more about who and what Peterson holds responsible for the existential turmoil of modern life, and why he misperceives the conditions of possibility for male anxiety today. As Peterson continues in 12 Rules for Life, the spectre of Jacques Derrida (the ‘leader of the postmodernists’) has entrenched such an ideological grip on western academic life that students have effectively been brainwashed to believe that scientific facts and immutable sexual differences are just power games, oppressive paradigms of knowledge.
As a result, Peterson laments that the parts of western culture and history which are worth keeping (civil liberties, freedom of speech, economic freedom and so on) are being erased by a relativist strain in our cultural institutions hell-bent on rooting out the fictional ‘pathological patriarchy’ in everything it sees: ‘… science is just another game of power, for Derrida and his post-modern Marxist acolytes, making claims to benefit those at the pinnacle of the scientific world. There are no facts … All definitions of skill and consequence are merely made up by those who benefit from them, exclude others and to benefit personally and selfishly.’
‘Postmodernism is not a spree of ‘anything-goes’ moral relativism.’
I find Peterson’s misleading and tiresomely clichéd idea of what postmodernism means rather strange (I go more into detail on the cultural Marxist conspiracy theory here, particularly over the commonly held but false equation of postmodernism = relativism) since so many of the French intellectuals associated with postmodernism (Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze) owe so much of their metaphysical insight to one of Peterson’s great influences, Friedrich Nietzsche. To paraphrase the 19th century philosopher: ‘There are no facts. Only interpretations.’ Nietzsche’s dismantling of the ontological pre-assumptions of Enlightenment modernity was a precocious form of deconstructionism. Rather than something alien to the castle walls of the western philosophical tradition that Peterson is furiously defending, thinkers of postmodernism draw heavily on rational discourse and canonical thinkers to inform their sceptical attitudes towards elements of western culture. It is not a spree of ‘anything-goes’ moral relativism. Either he is sincerely unaware of the crucial histories behind postmodern thought, or he just doesn’t understand it. In our contemporary social climate of widespread anxiety, a theory like postmodernism makes an easy scapegoat for why modern experience has become disoriented and fraught with uncertainty.
This leads to my main concern about Peterson’s influence: he places far too much emphasis on identity politics hysteria (which doesn’t tell us much about the material, source conditions of male resentment) and ends up frequently overlooking financial turmoil as well as enduring capitalist belief-systems that have historically pressured and influenced the anxieties of men, producing fixed expectations of their gender identity.
Our innermost dreams, desires and identities can be moved and affected by the supposedly abstract and remote domain of market forces and ideological frameworks. Let me give an example. Suicide continues to be amongst the biggest killers of men in the western world, the male rate being three times higher than women in both the US and the UK according to Additional Facts About Suicide and the suicide research group Samaritans, with the age demographic between 15 and 34 steadily increasing in the US since the financial meltdown of 2008. Claire Wyllie, head of policy and research at Samaritans, has suggested that men: ‘… grow up expecting by the time they reach mid-life they’ll have a wife who will look after them and a job for life in a male industry … In reality they may find that they reach middle age in a very different position. Society has this masculine ideal that people are expecting to live up to. Lots of that has to do with being a breadwinner. When men don’t live up to that it can be quite devastating for them.’
Wyllie stresses that the male suicide rate has been ‘tracking the economic climate’, and that financial turbulence and paternal expectations of men should be seen as an interlinked issue. When hopes of success, entitled by virtue of their gender’s ‘natural’ competitive instinct, are unrealised by erratic market fluctuations, this can be fatally damaging for masculine identity as well as their mental health as a result.
‘under capitalism, our innermost dreams, desires and identities can be moved by the abstract domain of market forces.’
The very nature of capitalism, through its sheer productive dynamism as well as its capacity to generate tremendous inequality and instability at the same time, means that so many unemployed, young and predominantly white men will see their childhood promise of a financially stable family life disappear, through no fault of their own. It wasn’t the Frankfurt School, or the French postmodernists, or the Women’s Institute that stole your freedoms, your agency or your will. The only realistic culprit is the system that regulates our lives and sways our emotional and material experience of the world: capitalism.
Though I am by no means suggesting that Peterson’s supporters are an alt-right vanguard (Peterson strikes me as a centrist liberal), one can certainly note how these circumstances of economic uncertainty have given rise to the cynical, hyper-masculinist and anti-feminist online reaction on the extreme ends of the alienated male condition in the form of the alt-right. This extreme reaction, either in the form of white nationalism or Edgy YouTube Anti-Feminist Scepticism™, provides comfort to many of these frustrated outcasts in their safe, web-based imaginariums.
Peterson does not seem to appreciate the in-built contradictions and inconsistencies that make neoliberalism so harmful for mental life within the constraints of gender identity, and in turn he standardises these ‘intrinsic’ antagonisms of gender as one with wage and career rivalry. These incessant conflicts are apparently internal to our nature, as he tells his audience of predominantly young men to ‘revivify order’ in a ‘universe of chaos and suffering’, both of which are built into the structure of life.
Though I have some sympathy to the idea of alienation being an unavoidable feature of human life, (and I agree with Peterson that we should still take responsibility for our own lives rather than completely drown our identities in resentful victimhood) Peterson still shows little concern over how an economic climate can impact mental health. The problem shouldn’t simply be reduced to personal responsibility, of ‘standing up straight with your shoulders back’ at an inherently unjust universe. To advocate for a paternalist ethos of masculine competitive drives which might rescue the market from social justice caveats will just perpetuate a sensitive and agonising condition for so many men.
At the heart of Peterson’s project is an anxiety over the acceleration of modernity, with the pluralisation of identities and evisceration of social standards emerging from what is a ‘fluid’, decentred global network. Not to mention as well the growing interest corporations are showing for ‘post-human’ technologies, from mind-machine interfaces to bio-genetic innovations, that may prove to not only trouble the distinction between human and non-human, but even between male and female identity. This is the nostalgic conservatism in Peterson’s philosophy, and I do genuinely think he believes he is doing the right thing, bringing men back from the brink of a chaotic, changing social system with the promise of a renewed masculine agency. We should not also be surprised 12 Rules for Life has sold so well: it is a symptom of a crisis of anxious masculinity, a crisis that cannot be ignored. Peterson may be getting young men away from far-right internet echo-chambers, but what he is offering was the cause of these young men’s pain in the first place, not the solution.
Hi greatly enjoyed your article and agree with the points you make. As an older man (73) I have lived through many changes of role and still welcome growth and change.
What Peterson, who freely quotes Jung, neglects is Jung’s idea of animus and anima and the stages of their development in both men and women. Peterson relies on only the lower stages of both to define gender roles.
In my opinion, young men would be better served reading the work of David Deida and Martin Ucik who both celebrate the feminine and masculine in whichever way it is embodied and recognise the evolving roles of both men and women. Best wishes. Tony