Jordan Peterson and the rise of the cargo cult intellectual

When banal life advice comes from your mum, it’s nagging. When it comes from a renegade professor with a Patreon, it’s worth $80,000 a month.

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Stop arguing on Twitter with people who’ve reviewed your book for just a minute, Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Do your shirt up, Bernard-Henri Lévy. Put that new leather jacket regretfully back in your wardrobe, Yanis Varoufakis. There’s a new public intellectual in town.

His name is Jordan Peterson, and although he might look like a Canadian psychology professor with a YouTube channel and a questionable obsession with lobsters, he is in fact one of the most important thinkers of our age. How do I know this? Because the first line of his Wikipedia page says so: “Jordan Bernt Peterson is a Canadian clinical psychologist and public intellectual.” (For comparison: “Albert Einstein was a German-born theoretical physicist.”)

Peterson is the author of a best-selling book called 12 Rules for Life, and the owner of a crowdfunding page which brings in $80,000 per month. He is everywhere: his latest big appearance was in a New York Times profile on 18 May, where we learned that he has a “hyper-realistic painting of two nude women with swords” in his bedroom, along with a bedspread which is “an attempt to portray in image what music means”. (And I thought going to university with a Harry Potter duvet cover was making a cool, ironic statement about my personality.) One of his followers was quoted as saying that since reading Peterson’s work, he had begun to grow as a person. “The changes in his life include starting to clean his room,” the newspaper reported.

This is the Peterson brand: interweaving a story of dragons and witches, and masculine order and feminine chaos, around some crushingly banal life advice about trying to be a good person, wash behind your ears, and maybe a slick of deodorant once in a while wouldn’t go amiss, eh? If he was a woman, writing for women, we would see him for what he is: a mash-up of Cosmo tips and My First Book of Myths. But because he’s writing for sad young white men – and their problems are, you know, real problems, not like anorexia or rape or sexual harassment at work – he’s a public intellectual. Plus, as plenty of onlookers have noticed, it’s the ultimate triumph of capitalism: when it comes from your mum, it’s nagging. When it comes from a renegade professor with a Patreon, it’s worth $80,000 a month.

Still, what’s the harm? I’ve spent hours reading Reddit forums full of young men who are furious at the world, but also vulnerably, sweetly worried that they don’t know how to talk to girls and they are somehow failing at being men. Isn’t it nice they have a role model, someone to tell them to stand up straight and believe in themselves?

Unfortunately, this was an argument that could have been plausibly made about the Jordan Peterson of a few months ago. It’s not one that can be made of the Jordan Peterson of today. As a friend – a geneticist – said to me recently: “It’s ironic. He’s evolved into a bellend in front of our eyes: the selection pressure being attention.”

In the latest NYT profile, Peterson muses on “forced monogamy” as an answer to killings by “incels” – men who are involuntarily celibate. “No one cares about the men who fail,” he says. Peterson, for his part, doesn’t seem to care about how women might feel about the prospect of being shackled for life to the kind of loser who would shoot up a school, selflessly taking the bins out on Wednesday nights when it’s not even your turn on pain of otherwise being responsible for a murder spree. (Peterson’s favoured response to criticism is to insist he has been misrepresented: on his blog, the alarming phrase “enforced monogamy” and the even more alarming link with incels, was “clarified” into the bland conservative truism that society should promote marriage.)

Peterson is one of a group of thinkers nicknamed the “intellectual dark web”, who claim they are challenging the suffocating liberal orthodoxy of college campuses and the media. While I have some sympathy – students can be tedious know-alls, but that’s sort of the point of them – they are extremely sloppy at differentiating between genuine threats to free speech and people merely disagreeing with dumb things that they say. This allows them to dress up a great deal of banality and flat-out wrongness as brave taboo-breaking. They think they are latter-day Galileos, when they’re closer to present-day phone-in hosts with PhDs. (Give Nigel Farage an evening course in Ovid or evolutionary psychology, he’d be right in there, is what I’m saying.)

What fascinates me about cargo cult intellectuals is what their success says about the rest of us. First, that the kind of people who would sneer at horoscopes are clearly not immune to seeking some certainty in a frightening, overwhelming world, as long as it’s packaged in a sufficiently pompous way. Don’t say: “Libras struggle to make new friends.” Do say: “Look for your inspiration to the victorious lobster, with its 350 million years of practical wisdom. Stand up straight, with your shoulders back.”

My own favourite philosopher, Terry Pratchett, has a wonderful character in his comic novel Maskerade: Enrico Basilica, the opera singer. Born Henry Slugg, he quickly realised that he would never get on with a name like that; his curse is to spend the rest of his life being fed complicated pasta recipes by well-meaning cooks.

Just as we like our superstar tenors to be huge and Italian, there’s an appetite for public intellectuals who look like our cultural template for cleverness and authority: well-spoken, preferably white, preferably male. They should be eloquent but undemanding: their audiences want to feel clever without actually having to slog through a textbook. They should offer certainty and answers where real science often only offers doubt and scepticism.

Oh, and one more thing: they should take themselves extremely seriously – something, of course, which truly intelligent people rarely do.

Helen Lewis is associate editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and is writing a history of feminism for Jonathan Cape

This article appears in the 23 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Age of the strongman