Jordan Peterson

Jordan Peterson

jordan peterson in honolulu

The crowd was a little scary: one guy walked in wearing a kilt! In downtown Honolulu! Where we wear Aloha shirts (which you may mistakenly call “Hawaiian shirts”)! It was also a lovefest - one woman yelled out “We love you Jordan!” To which he replied “So far the feeling is mutual.” Peterson seems more or less reasonable, but I’m increasingly disturbed by who he allows himself to be surrounded by - right wing demagogues. The uber-conservative radio talk show host who introduced Peterson framed what he saw as new battlelines in the left-right debate: Ben Shapiro on the Right and Sam Harris (best known as an atheist rather than a progressive) on the Left. This begs the question: where does that leave the religious left? But that’s a question I’ll address in another article. 

Peterson has been coy, though not entirely coy, on the topic of religion. On the one hand, he’s said he acts “as if” there is a God. On the other hand, he’s been memed for saying that he believes in the miraculous - and it’s really miraculous!

The New Yorker ran an article entitled “Jordan Peterson is having a moment - just ignore him” - but I think we do so at our own peril. Peterson has tapped into a vein in American society that has something to do with combating the culture of entitlement, and yet somehow it is precisely this fact of male (and to a lesser extent, white) entitlement that he denies, pointing to studies of inherent gender differences. Peterson would counter such an accusation by pointing to his hardscrabble upbringing in an unglamorous town in Western Canada.

Peterson spoke in Honolulu on the day before Thanksgiving and his primary message was that gratitude is an act of courage. This was his way of avoiding the platitudes that are usually brought out in late November about how we should all count our blessings, and I thought he did so effectively. Peterson is no doubt a gifted orator - he spoke eloquently for ninety minutes without notes. His second book 12 Rules for Life is another matter. In this middle-brow self help book, the writing (in contrast to his speaking, and if it can be called writing at all), is simply abominable. He actually has a smiley face emoticon in Chapter One! (This, from Random House Canada?) The book jacket touts Peterson as the world’s leading public intellectual. This title was taken seriously enough for his debate challenge to be accepted by Slavoj Zizek, possibly the actual world’s leading intellectual.

My brief take on the “debate of the century:” I initially thought that Peterson was completely out of his depth against an actual Hegelian philosopher, and I was not alone in this view. But I also knew that he would still probably “win,” just as Sam Harris, similarly outgunned by Peterson, seems to have won their debate. The argument Peterson was trying to make with Harris, based as it was on mythological themes, was just too difficult to make in a debate setting. Similarly, in the Peterson-Zizek debate, Zizek seemed stumped precisely by all the different directions he could have taken his argument. His notorious spasmodic reactions, which play so well on YouTube, do not do as well in debate. But there was no clear winner of the debate of the century. Both intellectuals seemed to shift their line of questioning from Capitalism vs. Communism to “what is happiness?” and “is it even desirable?” Zizek said no, an argument he’s made in the past, and Peterson amended his definition from happiness to “not abject misery.” Despite The New Yorker admonition, Peterson is an intellectual to watch - and listen to, but not to read.