Jordan Peterson’s re-heated obscurantism

Nathan Robinson has written about the obscurantism of Jordan Peterson, and I’m not even the first to blog about it. Pankaj Mishra has been deconstructing Peterson’s mysticism here, while Kelefa Sanneh’s critique is here. After months of hysterical fanboy cheer-leading, it seems like this is the week everyone finally starts having a go at Jordan. It’s becoming almost repetitive. But perhaps that’s appropriate; after all, when it comes to matters Petersonian, it’s never long before you get that old-wine-in-new-bottles sensation. So let’s just pile aboard the bandwagon.

Let’s reheat that take-out junk food one more time (and strangle some metaphors while we’re at it).

Jordan Peterson is not the first pseudo-intellectual to make big bucks out of textually contorted trivia. He is not the first to go viral with quick-fix self-help bunkum. He is definitely not the first to marshal near-incomprehensible verbiage in the enterprise of charismatic intellectual persuasion.

And he is far from the first pale, stale, male academic to prescribe person-level attitude-change as the solution to the world’s social problems.

He is just the latest in a long line of charismatic obscurantists, the likes of whom we have seen a thousand times before.

Obscurantism has been deployed by smooth operators for centuries. It involves saying stuff in such a way that you can appear to be saying it but not actually saying it at all because the way you said it ensures that what you said is not exactly what people thought you said when you said it.

You see? You don’t even need long words.

Obscurantism is easy when you know how.

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But long words certainly help. Here is one example of Petersonian spin, from his first book Maps of Meaning, which Robinson cites in his article:

Meaning is manifestation of the divine individual adaptive path.

In this explanation Peterson uses words that are relatively obscure to describe a different word that is relatively frequent. I mean that literally. We can check it using the available word-frequency data stored at https://www.wordfrequency.info/.

First, consider the word being defined:

  • meaning is ranked as the 1,617th most commonly used word in English.

Now consider the words Peterson uses in his ‘explanation’:

  • manifestation: Ranked 6,686th most common word in English
  • divine: Ranked 4,091st most common word in English
  • adaptive: Ranked 8,426th most common word in English

This is obscurantism in its most literal form: take a word that everyone understands to begin with, and then use unnecessarily obscure language to tell people what it really means.

As Robinson points out, the reader must work hard to follow what is going on. If he (and, in Peterson’s case, it usually is a ‘he’) succeeds in getting through it all, then bravo! One can celebrate the very achievement of having navigated such complexity unscathed.

Such pseudo-intellectual writing is successful precisely because it flatters readers by making them feel smart, even when what is spoken of is actually quite banal.

* * *

But it is Peterson’s latest bestseller — 12 Rules For Life: An Antidode To Chaos — that has grabbed all the attention. Its contents are often just as dense as the more scholarly Maps of Meaning, and the material is no less derivative, hackneyed, and (hypercomplexity notwithstanding) all too familiar. Its clichés are as old as the hills; its smart-alecky aphorisms just déjà-vu all over again. As per pop psychology as a whole — even the stuff with mammoth Flesch-Kincaid scores — 12 Rules is little more than an assemblage of long-winded, long-on-the-record scholarly observations, typically first elaborated upon by other authors years previously. It is a blended concoction, not a single-malt.

Obscurantist work usually irritates the hell out of experts while enjoying immense appeal among readers who know little about the subject matter. When you have never encountered it before, a cliché can look like a profundity. Trope-laden scribblings can acquire Biblical levels of insightfulness when readers are unable to recognise just how tediously derivative they are.

Let us count the ways.

 

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1. Peterson’s use of the self-help genre — in which a guru transmits his supposedly intellectual wisdoms in the form of practical life advice — is as clichéd as it is clumsy.

Here’s a hint: Peterson reduces his advice down to twelve principles. You might even consider them twelve steps. From Normal Vincent Peale to BuzzFeed, this, to say the least, is not exactly an original format.

Moreover, his step-by-step guide to better living often betrays the life-is-better-experienced-as-a-struggle mentality that characterized the original self-help guides written in the nineteenth century. Forget any ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul‘; expect instead a prescription of ‘Application and Perseverance‘.

For Peterson, the modern world is moving in a wrong direction. Consider this very literal appeal to conservatism:

In the West, we have been withdrawing from our tradition-, religion- and even nation-centred cultures, partly to decrease the danger of group conflict. But we are increasingly falling prey to the desperation of meaninglessness, and that is no improvement at all.

(As a piece of scholarship, such a statement represents exceptionally weak argumentation. If the first sentence is the premise — notably one unbothered by any evidence — then the second sentence is simply a non sequitur.)

Or you want a warning against increasing diversity? Don’t worry, Jordan’s got you covered:

Our society faces the increasing call to deconstruct its stabilizing traditions to include smaller and smaller numbers of people who do not or will not fit into the categories upon which even our perceptions are based. This is not a good thing.

(Note here how “our” instinctive perceptions are held to be more valuable than any deconstruction of tradition. Such cant is the exact opposite of progressive liberalism.)

Self-help is not a science. Rather, it is a genre focused on telling people that what they are doing is wrong, a template for imposing a partisan worldview on a straying populace. It is rarely erudite or progressive.

Consider the very first of Peterson’s twelve rules:

Rule #1: Stand Up Straight With Your Shoulders Back.

Such advice harks back to an age-old physiognomic view that character and mentality are rooted in physical robustness. You might anticipate that Peterson refers to posture metaphorically, but actually he means it as a bio-mechanical reality (this is, after all, the notorious chapter that misexplains the evolution of lobsters).

Watch here as he gracelessly drops the s-bomb, implying there exists a proven neurochemical basis for his kinesiological guidance:

So, attend carefully to your posture. Quit drooping and hunching around…Walk tall and gaze forthrightly ahead…Encourage the serotonin to flow plentifully through the neural pathways desperate for its calming influence.

In psychology, this kind of stuff comes in many forms, most of it suspicious. It closely resembles the notion of “power posing“, a claim that standing like a superhero will lower your cortisol and, by extension, improve your life chances.

The mumbo-jumbo around power posing is now thoroughly discredited (the original research, based on a sample of just 42 participants, was serially debunked by subsequent studies of many hundreds), making it one of the highest-profile controversies in psychology’s ongoing reproducibility crisis. How strange it is that Peterson seems not to have heard.

 

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Some cutting-edge thinkers (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

2. Peterson, while paradigmatically promiscuous, is at heart an old-fashioned psychoanalytic theorist.

He’s a Freud guy. Or rather, he is Jungian, which perhaps is more problematic.

How should I put this? Psychoanalysis is not rocket science. In fact, it’s not any kind of science. Psychology, however, is a science. So psychoanalysis, while often classed as a type of psychology, is…well…it’s controversial, is what it is.

Peterson’s frame of reference speaks to the unoriginality of his teachings. His worldview is shaped by psychoanalytic theories that were fashionable sixty years ago.

As if to illustrate, Peterson provides reading lists on his personal website for fans to consult. Under the heading Clinical Psychology and Personality he lists 8 books for 2017 and 15 books for 2016. Tellingly, virtually all of them are psychoanalytically based. Virtually none is less than six decades old. But psychology is a research science in which, each year, 150,000 formal publications are produced in scholarly journals alone. To recommend a reading list dominated by the musings of mid-century Freudians is, well, noticeably selective.

This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the readings Peterson recommended were robust and reliable. I mean, I am sure there are many excellent algebra textbooks that are fifty years old.

However, psychoanalysis hasn’t aged so well. It is now considered unscientific and unreliable by just about everyone except psychoanalysts themselves. It is a fringe and — we must say — anachronistic subdiscipline, a type of hermeneutics rather than a science, a field that represents the interests of an esoteric clique of contrarian academics and therapists.

It is a niche affair that many psychologists feel is not psychology at all. For Peterson to produce a list called Clinical Psychology and overload it with psychoanalysis is a bit like compiling a list called Classical Music and restricting it to recordings of spoken-word beat poetry — some might say that’s music; but most actual musicians will say it isn’t really.

It raises an interesting question: from his position on the margins of one of the world’s most productive research sciences, what does Peterson really think about the mainstream psychology under whose banner he opportunistically parades?

 

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3. While pitched as dispassionately objective, Peterson’s arguments are consistently paternalistic, if not misogynistic.

I guess this isn’t surprising, given the aforementioned psychoanalytic leanings. I mean, a set of theories grounded in such notions as “penis envy” is unlikely to equip anyone to comprehend femininity all that well.

The thrust of 12 Rules is that there is order and there is chaos. Order is masculine, chaos feminine:

Order, the known, appears symbolically associated with masculinity…This is perhaps because the primary hierarchical structure of human society is masculine, as it is among most animals…It is because men are and throughout history have been the builders of towns and cities…Order is God the Father, the eternal Judge, ledger-keeper and dispenser of rewards and punishments. Order is the peacetime army of policemen and soldiers. It’s the political culture, the corporate environment, and the system.

And…

Chaos–the unknown–is symbolically associated with the feminine…In its positive guise, chaos is possibility itself, the source of ideas, the mysterious realm of gestation and birth. As a negative force, it’s the impenetrable darkness of a cave and the accident by the side of the road. It’s the mother grizzly, all compassion to her cubs, who marks you as potential predator and tears you to pieces.

So, basically, men dispense justice while women tear you to pieces because, you know, babies (that “mysterious realm of gestation and birth” [mysterious to men, presumably]).

In the book and in subsequent media interviews, Peterson has been at pains to point out — albeit far from forthrightly — than he believes both order and chaos are worthwhile.

As Robinson puts it:

…Peterson will angrily insist that you have misunderstood his theory: order is symbiotic with chaos, not superior to it! (“Order is not enough.”) The feminine is necessary as well, because chaos is associated with “possibility itself, the source of ideas…”

But the subtitle of 12 Rules is “An Antidote to Chaos”. So, if chaos is good, why does it require an antidote?

If anything, the subtitle suggests that life would be better if we could just ‘cure’ ourselves of feminine thought-styles. (A thirteenth rule for life? Be less like a woman.)

I’m not saying Peterson is a misogynist. However, I am willing to bet that Peterson’s shtick is music to the ears of misogynists the world over.

 

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4. Peterson’s prescription — attitude-change as antidote — amounts to old-fashioned sink-or-swim conservatism.

The risk in any “self-help” advice is that you will transmit an implicit negative message to your reader. Individual choice as empowerment is double-edged; from another angle it begins to resemble victim-blaming. When you tell someone it is possible to help themselves, you lump them with the responsibility for doing so, for managing their own quality of life. You tell them: Self-help is within your grasp; if your life is shitty, you only have yourself to blame.

In recent years, the entire “positive psychology” movement has been critiqued along these lines, excoriated by, among others, Barbara Ehrenreich.

The point is that some people’s misery might lie beyond what they are able to rectify. Victims of discrimination, abuse, or exploitation; people born into inter-generational poverty; those let down by uncaring, inefficient, and faceless social systems — their unhappiness requires more than just a pull-your-self-together message advising them to stand up straight with their shoulders back.

To wit, Rule #6:

Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.

There you have it. Don’t complain about global injustice unless you yourself have achieved perfection.

Self-help books are popular for many reasons. Telling the poor and powerless to help themselves always goes down well the rich and powerful. It saves us time, money, and guilt. Peterson’s 12 Rules is very much of this ilk.

 

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5. Peterson’s appeals to science often amount to old-fashioned pseudoscience

12 Rules is certainly written as though it has a scientific grounding. It is replete with jargon, mentions of research, numbers, statistics, diagrams, citations — you know, sciency stuff. It’s all in there.

But the rigour is not as it might be.

One problem relates to citation over-reach. Often Peterson will make a firm claim, and then provide a citation to past research by way of corroboration. But when you go to the trouble of rooting out the work he cites, you discover that it doesn’t so clearly support the claim he has made.

For example, at one point he says:

Two-year-olds, statistically speaking, are the most violent of people.

But the citation offered is to a study of boys aged six to fifteen, which obviously cannot tell us anything statistical about two-year-old boys and girls.

Later he says:

Anger is one of the most common reasons for crying. Careful analysis of the musculature patterns of crying children has confirmed this.

But the paper cited for this claim does not say this. Rather, the researchers there point out that, in babies: anger is commonly associated with crying; i.e., it is rare for a baby to be angry and not to cry. However, this is not the same as: anger is the most common reason for crying; i.e., it is rare for a baby to cry and not be angry. In fact it is entirely different.

The study actually showed that babies cry as a result of many negative emotions. (If anything, the researchers focus on pain as an archetypally common cause. Also, their study was of babies, not ‘children’, nor indeed people in general.)

I’m all for presenting empirical evidence to support arguments. However, I particularly disapprove of writers who present citations that look like supporting evidence but actually are not. When students do it, I give them a D.

Displaying signifiers of scientific rigour that are in fact false flags is what homoeopaths do when they wear white coats or call themselves “Doctor”. It is the use of outward superficialities to convey an impression of science, when what lies beneath falls short of scientific standards. Pretending to be scientific when not actually being so is the very definition of pseudoscience.

 

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6. Peterson’s reliance on convoluted verbiage follows a long tradition of pseudo-intellectual obscurantism, from the likes of Foucault and Derrida and Lacan, right the way up to Deepak Chopra 

Here is Peterson’s Rule #10:

Be precise in your speech.

Er, Jordan? You ok hun?

Remember this?

Meaning is manifestation of the divine individual adaptive path.

Or how about this (as highlighted by Robinson)?

Law disciplines possibility, and allows the disciplined individual to bring his or her potentialities—those intrapsychic spirits—under voluntary control. The law allows for the application of such potentiality to the task of creative and courageous existence—allows spiritual water controlled flow into the valley of the shadow of death. 

I can’t help but get a feeling that Peterson could have found a more precise way of saying these things.

It is ironic that Peterson often rails against postmodernists, when in fact his own writing exhibits exactly the kind of meandering overblown verbiage for which postmodernists are so famously ridiculed. It is now twenty years since Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont made waves with their book Fashionable Nonsense, a warts-and-all take-down of postmodernist obscurantism in academia. Jordan Peterson is in danger of ensuring this fashion endures well into the 21st century.

It’s a zeal trap. All those long sentences just sound so profound; ergo, many readers feel they are profound. And with verbiage, it’s all about how readers feel.

So, when it looks like it might all be humdrum, readers will inevitably start to feel awkward. They face a difficult choice. Should they own up to gullibility and laugh at their own naivety? Or should they instead succumb to the weight of cognitive dissonance and start rationalizing like crazy? Human nature being what it is, it’s usually the latter.

No!” they cry. “The CRITICS are the ones who doesn’t understand. THEY are the ones who fail to get it! THEY are the ones who are wrong!

And right there you have the beginnings of a cult.

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The Emperor’s New Clothes by Vilhelm Pedersen (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

To Peterson’s acolytes, the Emperor is not naked after all. Rather, the Emperor has exquisite (albeit invisible) clothes, and we should all admire his wonderful outfit.

As it happens, Peterson has recently been posting a series of YouTube videos, in which he dissects stories from the Christian Bible to reveal their purportedly profound socio-psychological Jungian relevance.

But if you want a cautionary tale about how mythologised agents can live off the psychological frailty of their naive audiences, about how mass fervour can blind the gullible to the vacuousness of charismatic demagoguery, or about how the original sin of ordinary human vanity can underlie a zealous cycle of mutual reinforcement between a guru’s self-aggrandizement and his readers’ loyal sycophancy, then you don’t need to study the Bible.

You just need to Google ‘Jordan Peterson’.

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