Jordan Peterson: Transcending Tribalism

Prof. Ron Dart, Department of Political Science, University of the Fraser Valley

The culture wars (and the issues that so dominate both tribes) that have so divided the left from the right, liberals from the conservatives has meant minimally thoughtful thinkers find it difficult to salute before either tribe. There can be no doubt that Jordan Peterson has offended the leftist progressive liberals and when such an orthodox tribe is challenged, they tend to caricature or demonize those who refuse to salute at their flagpole. Many have been the detractors from within such a clan that have responded to Peterson in such a predictable way. Those who only think in either-or Manichean categories falsely assume, therefore, that Peterson must be an apologist for variations of the Alt-Right, right or some variation of conservatism. Is he, though? Peterson has been more than candid about his concerns about variations of the Alt-Right and conservatism. 

Those who take the time to read, in some depth and detail, Peterson’s earliest tome, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (1999), cannot but realize that his creative thinking transcends the rather simplistic categories of left and right. The fact some within the right, delighted by Peterson’s criticisms of the liberal left, assume Peterson is a cheerleader for their ideological perspective, are often disappointed when Peterson dares to question them also. There can be no doubt the publication of Peterson’s recently published and best selling book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (2017), has had an ample supply of boosters and knockers but those who reduce Peterson’s thinking to such an entry level book fail to see that it is only a portal into a much more nuanced vision that transcends left-right categories.  It is significant that Peterson’s recent dialogue of sorts in Toronto with Zizek raised the legitimate question of “which antidote to chaos?” 

The fact that Peterson did his BA in political science, with a focused interest in totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, means he has a certain suspicion of group think whether from the left or right—his turn to psychology had much to do with an attempt to answer a simple question: why do people uncritically assimilate into herd thinking and how is it possible for individuals to be both free from such tendencies and meaningfully individuate? But, such individuation can become narcissistic or authentic—what are the criteria for the latter and dangers of the former?  It is in the answer to such questions that Peterson probes, again and again, the role of myth, archetypes and the significance of substantive structures of meaning and our all too human journey.   

The fact that Peterson, as a scientist of the soul, is willing to question an approach to psychology that is shot through with the ideology of secularism means his more mythic approach to the relationship between the sacred-secular yet once again transcends more reductionistic approaches to the larger life issues. Peterson’s approach to the Bible and other sacred texts tends to offend both the more simplistic literalists and reactionary secularists—needless to say, both tribes turn on him (many with a vengeance, others in a more thoughtful way and manner). But, there can be no doubt Peterson is in the business of deconstructing dated categories and his ample use of such worthies as Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard and Jung (to mention only a few) serve him well and wisely.         

The first task of any thoughtful person is to engage in the process of trying to understand those we differ with, agree yet disagree with or agree with (and why we do so). Sadly so, many either dismiss or embrace Peterson without truly understanding him. It is not very liberal of a liberal not to critique liberalism but many liberals do not do so—interestingly enough, Peterson dares to critique aspects of liberalism from within a certain classical liberal tradition—many liberal critics of Peterson fail to see this obvious reality. I might add, by way of conclusion, that Peterson is more of a portal than substantive thinker—those he points to are more worthy of meditative reads than Peterson, but for those with little or no background in intellectual history (memoricide an illness of sorts) Peterson is a gateway thinker and cultural icon.  

There are many sources that can be mined in entering through the Peterson portal—there are his ample scholarly articles on clinical psychology, books published, multiple interviews (some more worth the hearing than others), lectures on myth, fairy tales, Bible and other sacred texts, public debates and dialogues and his varied reflections on political leaders and movements (past and present).    

Peterson (whether we agree with him or not) reveals much about the state of our cultural ethos at the present time—our reactions to him tell us much about ourselves and our times, our unexamined prejudices and how we respond when threatened by an intruder to our tribe.

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