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Jordan Peterson is a popular Canadian personality psychologist who has made quite a name for himself by preaching against the use of pronouns, arguing that they violate freedom of speech. In a CBC interview, he uses his spotlight moment to say “I don’t believe that other people have the right to determine what language I use” and that pronouns are “artificial constructions of people I regard as radical ideologues whose viewpoint I do not share.” These hefty accusations definitely initiated a wider public discourse, and Peterson was at the center of it all. But with a bit of cross-examination, it becomes evident that Peterson hasn’t done his research. 

On June 15, 2017, Bill C-16, which ensures that transgender or gender-diverse Canadians have fundamental human rights, including protection from hate crimes, was passed. Nowhere in the entire bill does it suggest that pronoun misuse is a federal crime or a hate crime. In fact, there are no specific mentions of pronouns in the bill at all. The Canadian Bar Association explicitly stated that the “debate has turned to whether the amendments will force individuals to embrace concepts, even use pronouns, which they find objectionable. This is a misunderstanding of human rights and hate crimes legislation.” Overall, this showcases an important motif in Peterson’s flimsy intellectual career: grand misrepresentations, a conflation of distinct concepts and banal reductionism.

So, how did an individual such as Peterson become an international best-selling author? Arguably, his most famous work, “12 Rules for Life,” is a self-help journey that outlines crude laws that one must abide by. The rules include: “Stand up straight with your shoulders back,” “pet a cat when you encounter one in the street” and my favorite, “set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.” Peterson’s expressive and somewhat playful rules are supposed to envelop subtleties and nuanced observations about the human psyche. Analytically speaking, however, they offer little for those who are seeking some idiosyncratic metamorphosis. These watered-down Nietzschean aphorisms are Peterson’s way of spewing uninspired and underwhelming philosophy.

Slavoj Zizek, a contemporary Slovenian philosopher, has commented on the last rule I presented by asking a common-sense question: What if the disorder in your house is caused by society? Initially, this may seem like somewhat of a naive question. It’s insightful, however, because it hints at Peterson’s grander overtone of sacrificing social change in favor of personal transformation. It’s the “me versus the world” mindset that appeals to so many insecure young males, offering a Darwinist gateway to reaffirming the systemic patriarchy and resenting societal development. In simpler terms, it’s a bunch of intellectual gymnastics that preserve an ideology resembling insightful self-independency and personal freedom. 

Unfortunately, the reality of the matter is that self-transformation does not manifest through these broad, modern-day Shakespearian adages. It’s a complex and intricate process that requires an understanding of the social context one finds themselves in because personal renovation has a lot of comorbidity with societal awareness. Instead of acknowledging that, Peterson exploits the angst, malleability and identity crises of his audience to deliver an ideology that feels like a survivor’s guide when, in reality, it’s a bunch of self-victimizing regurgitated nonsense. Andrew Howard, a sophomore at Michigan State University, weighed in on this: “At first, Peterson appealed to me. But after watching a couple of his videos, I felt that he wasn’t expressing anything comprehensible.”

At the same time, it’s important to consider that Peterson presents the groundbreaking works of Jung, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky in an accessible and intriguing way. He breaks down some of the most enticing yet impenetrable works in philosophy, literature and psychoanalysis on free media, such as YouTube. Peterson does himself a real disservice in the eyes of serious contemporary thinkers, however, by embedding a twisted conspiratory agenda focused on fending off the imminent takeover of postmodern neo-Marxists. This obsessive and paranoid outlook on postmodernism and neo-Marxism is odd when we consider that Peterson prepared for a talk on communism by reading the “Communist Manifesto,” a pamphlet that used to be handed out to workers on their way home. This is a minor part of communist literature, so is it not a tad pretentious to debate a topic as complex as Marxism with such minimal readings of primary material?

Sometimes, the poetic reactionary’s alarmism is not just perpetuated by his lack of mild research, but also by his blatant misconceptions. For instance, he attributes the resurrection of Marxism to the French philosopher, Michel Foucault. However, very early on in his career, Foucault overtly denounced Marxism.

Rather than lecturing on actual oppression around the world, Peterson rambles on about the totalitarian left’s rise. Usually, he expresses a general truism and then overextends it to other concepts. This leads to some pretty misinformed and loosely connected information, which can be seen especially when he’s critiquing Marxism.

Here’s how it goes: Peterson will reaffirm some inevitable tragic quality of the human condition and then go on to postulate a series of naturalistic fallacies that make it impossible for Marxism to ever become a reality. Then, he’ll loosely survey some historical events, usually about the demise and catastrophic effects of communist regimes. He’ll finish with traditionalist, meritocratic alpha-male advice for his audience. 

From a non-Western perspective, however, Peterson’s reductive and disconnected lectures seem to miss comparable tragedies committed by the Western authoritarian control of under-resourced countries. Without ever probing genuine imperialist and colonial structures, Peterson focuses on such a narrow slice of capitalism that it’s genuinely challenging to take him seriously.

Ultimately, Peterson’s appeal showcases a symptom of a more cryptic sickness at hand — the West’s lack of comprehensible critical thought. In a brilliant essay, Nathan Robinson from Current Affairs probes the essence of Peterson’s work. Cleverly, Robinson qualifies a common tactic that Peterson employs whenever he’s speaking or writing: the utilization of abstractions and vague semantics to verbalize seemingly profound concepts. So, instead of just saying that society provides an individual with the ability to gain a sense of self-independence, Peterson will say “the group provides the protective structure—conditional meaning and behavioral pattern—that enables the individual to cast off the dependence of childhood, to make the transition from the maternal to the social, patriarchal world” (taken from his “Maps of Meaning”). By formulating convoluted and non-falsifiable affirmations about life, Peterson can conveniently overcast any serious dissection and instead resort to the that’s-not-what-I-meant scapegoat. 

Moreover, Robinson points out the shoddy net of references that Peterson often relies on in his surface-leveled arguments. Through quite a simple (and hilarious) act, Robinson types out one of Peterson’s lectures just to show how disconnected it is. It emphasizes a larger point, which is that if someone’s talking about a bunch of stuff and connecting them in a general and shallow manner, they’re most likely not talking about anything at all.

Robinson holistically encapsulates Peterson’s work by stating that “the harder people have to work to figure out what you’re saying, the more accomplished they’ll feel when they figure it out, and the more sophisticated you will appear. Everybody wins.” It’s precisely this performative and elitist linguistic roller coaster that gives one the illusion of having come across creative ideas.

Ammar Ahmad is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at ammarz@umich.edu.