From an intriguing public figure who could discuss social issues with enviable articulacy and was a guru of public debate to an angry, resentful and frustrated fighter in the culture war. That is the central theme in the recent critique of Jordan Peterson’s development as a public figure, written by David Fuller on the Rebel Wisdom Substack. Fuller’s main point is that Peterson has changed. For the worse.
Although the writer does a fair job of giving Peterson credit for positively influencing many young men’s lives and articulating truths of great value, he concludes that Peterson has a problem. He is not at peace with himself, the writer argues. Even more. Peterson is failing to stay true to his own pieces of advice about humility in a discussion, about being open to new findings and the truth of the other. Fuller is right at some points but is also naive and missing the point.
Change in the status and mission
Mr Fuller discerns important tendencies in Peterson’s late appearances, such as the dangerous self-referential thought circles. The writer concludes with a remark by one of Peterson’s true friends (at least in my eyes), Jonathan Pageau, that “fans are not friends” and that Jordan might have to acknowledge this more consciously. While some of Fuller’s conclusions might be accurate and worth considering, he does not pay sufficient attention to the legitimate and predictable transformation in Peterson’s status in the public discourse. Although controversial, the professor used to act as a public intellectual, a YouTube star, and a master of words. Now he is a political figure. Of course, he still engages as a public intellectual and a debater, but at the same time, he is also openly an activist, a “lay political leader”. This change has certain consequences and explains changes in Peterson’s attitudes.
Fuller’s bourgeois utopia
There’s a sense in Fuller’s writing that we live in somewhat normal times, where acting moderately and calmly is the ultimate criterion of reasonability and credibility. He plaintively cries about Peterson’s lost intellectual freshness and appeal: “Where is that figure from 2017!” The answer is more than obvious: “Where is 2017?”
I believe that Peterson is one of the last naïve orators that still consider a medium of words to be at least somehow valuable and senseful. Peterson’s escapades are a sign of his sincere belief in dialogue. If he is so eager and irate, spewing words like a mad prophet, it is not because the others would be more restrained and moderate but because they have already given up. They are already – “sharpening their swords”. And if they are by chance not that radical, they are at least determined not to engage in this Habermasian “rational public discussion” circus anymore. The West is de facto split.
Loner in the meadows
Fuller fails to notice that so many “petersons” out there no longer believe in the meaningfulness of dialogue. There’s the fast-growing movement on the dissident Right, not to mention the progressive, ever more queer mainstream gang. In that light, Peterson is the last of the old guard. The last idealist.
“Peterson’s latest interventions are the best approximation of what a sincere and logically coherent dialogue in an ever more polarized society sounds like. Yes, you are right. It doesn’t sound very calm.”
Peterson is a loner not because he would fall into a spiral of pathological narcissistic self-aggrandizement. He is a loner because he fails to notice that nobody is around the table anymore. Peterson is the last, although more and more desperate, democrat. He is the last remaining diplomat, executor of the medium of language, before both sides’ diplomatic attaches return on their horses to their camp only to tell about the inevitability of “war”. Put less figuratively, they are telling their followers about the certainty of the “impossibility of any comprehensible usage of the medium of language”.
It is naive to assume that we do not live on the very edges of what used to be our common social intelligibility. We may be below the minimum of semantic cohesion that enables us to communicate with each other. And yet, Mr Fuller would like everybody to stay calm as if the Corona thing, the LGBTIQ+ thing, the Ukraine thing and the You name it thing are just another news headline in the soulless history of late capitalism. They are not just random crises in the indifferent End-of-History era. On the contrary, each of these mega-stories points to a specific, crucial and deep division in interpreting what it means to be – alive, free and political, respectively.
I believe all this is due to some disillusionment on Peterson’s side. The disillusionment about how his brilliant rhetoric skills, his world-best mastering of the medium of language and of the debate form might do. It is due to abandoning the optimistic belief that after he exposes the hypocrisies and internal inconsistencies of the liberal orthodoxy, they will start to rot in the plain sight of the public forum.
This is not to say that he accomplished nothing. On the contrary, Peterson’s interventions prolonged the acceptability of certain dissident political stances. But the progressive political-cultural-media wrecker is not a very friendly machine, so even Peterson’s rhetorical pirouettes had not sufficed. And once such a diplomatic endeavour of dialogue failed – once Peterson was banned from the parliament, i.e. Twitter – attitudes of a more dynamic character are a relatively predictable, expected and acceptable consequence.
Peterson’s sometimes distressful and aggressive interventions are not necessarily (just) a sign of his personal and psychological challenges, as Mr Fuller suggests. Instead, we might read them as a politically relevant message about one Westerner’s attempt to comprehend the central premises of his cultural community’s main streams of thought. They might signify that our society’s main ideas do not form a comprehensive, inter-connected, coherent and senseful intellectual system. Could we say they demonstrate the end of the era of even minimal theological and philosophical consensus in our culture?
Jordan Peterson’s restlessness is all too obvious and telling. For was it not precisely Peterson who years ago reaffirmed the already vanishing belief that speaking in public forums still makes sense? His unwillingness to continue to play the game of the sublime bourgeois political debates is thus a good indicator of the incapacity for dialogue in modern western societies. – His distress is symptomatic.
Peterson in front of Either/Or
On some level, Peterson reminds me of me. I’ve watched several of his videos, where he discusses the topic of Christianity with his religious friends and where it is obvious that Peterson, much like Dostoevsky’s figures, dwells in excruciating doubt. Or, like Kierkegaard’s “Either/Or”. Peterson is a paradigmatic Westerner. We are watching his Christian saga so attentively because we believe that much depends on his “decision”. He has led his agnostic and atheistic audience to the edge of the abyss as far as nobody before. There, however, awaits another step. Currently, he tries to bridge the unbridgeable. Maybe he just has to decide.