Jordan Peterson makes for an interesting Rorsach test. You can tell a lot about a person’s gut instincts by how deeply and quickly they adore/dismiss his ideas.
He has more than his fair share of the critics on all sides of the aisle: far-left, far-right and far-center. He also has a large base of supporters who adore him as a secular messiah figure who might singlehandedly turn the tide of radical progressivism.
Both sides are understandable on paper but tell us a lot about the character of his fans. His most desperate fans clearly haven’t been raised with the emotional health necessary for them to properly function well within society. They treat his basic self-help with the adoration of a father figure. It says a lot about his supporters that they praise someone who merely intellectualizes basic concepts of self-care and meaningful living.
His critics frequently have ulterior motives. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to criticize Dr. Peterson but his most aggressive critics clearly dislike the effect his ideas are having on politics. LGBT+ activists fear his “anti-trans” stances and consider him dangerous. Post-modernists and Marxists dislike him dismissing their movements as dangerous. Far-rightists and fundamentalist Christians also despise his “hypocrisies” and soft-pedaling on issues they care about.
As valid as many of these criticisms are, Dr. Peterson is a man who is easy to let your biases bounce off of. So it should say something that in Vox Day’s Jordanetics, he starts rambling about “Jewish nepotism” only five minutes into the audiobook…
As the man says, “Me thinks the lady doth protest too much.”
I haven’t spent much time with Vox’s (aka Theodore Beale)’s work. I have friends who deeply respect his work as a blogger, a publisher, an author and activist but I haven’t touched it enough to get a grasp on his ideology. I’ve been meaning to read his books like The Irrational Atheist and SJWs Always Lie for a while now but I haven’t gotten around to getting copies. People I generally trust tell me they’re good books.
His reputation precedes him though. Vox was also a prominent voice in #GamerGate, is an accomplished author with dozens of books under his belt and was a writer for WorldNetDaily in the early 2000s alongside Pat Buchanan, Ann Coulter and Ben Shapiro (the latter of whom he considers a weak minded sellout and a stooge).
Wikipedia (the most trusted of all sources) lists him as an “American far-right activist, writer, musician, publisher and video game designer… a white supremacist, a misogynist and part of the alt-right.” As far as I can tell, he denies all the labels listed above and simply identifies as a “Christian nationalist.” There are enough disconcerting out-of-context quotes floating around from him (see the aforementioned rant on the “Jewish Question”) that one might have suspicions.
In 2018, he wrote his book on Dr. Jordan Peterson. Peterson’s reputation also likely precedes him. The book was one of the first biographies to appear in print following his intense success in 2016. It appeared just nine months after his NYTs best selling book 12 Rules for Life and is largely structured as a point-for-point debunking of all of Peterson’s ideas.
On its face, Jordanetics is an immensely challenging book to write about. I don’t find it necessarily challenging to read. Most of Vox Day’s points are on par with the normal complaints people tend to lay at Dr. Peterson’s feet. I even agree with a handful of them.
The problem is that it’s a rhetorical labyrinth of presuppositions, indignant rage and petulant ideological nitpicking. Challenging Jordanetics in its entirety would take an essay longer than I’m willing to write. I could start an entire podcast itemizing the ways that it dances around Jordan Peterson’s ideas. For every honest point leveled at Peterson’s ideas, Vox lobbs accusations and mud-slings Peterson so frequently and virulently that it becomes frustrating to read.
Let’s start by itemizing a handful of the book’s criticisms:
Take one of the most famous critiques of Jordan Peterson: He can’t decide whether he literally thinks that Christ was resurrected or not.
That’s a huge deal for Christians and Atheists alike and would likely color his entire ideological project if he took on the baggage of belief or disbelief. Most people want Peterson ON THEIR SIDE as a rhetorical bulwark. Peterson has never let himself play into that game. He’s deftly defied answering the question. The closest he came was in an hour long lecture in Australia where he parsed through his skepticism and reluctance to take a side on the question. He doesn’t really answer the question here either.
Keep in mind, Dr. Peterson is a student of the American Pragmatists school. He only believes in an idea so long as it’s capable of getting practical results (see his book recommendation: The Metaphysical Club).
Vox takes this common criticism and rides it into a subsequent criticism of Petersons statement that he thinks “Priests are liars”. As Vox says, how can a man honestly judge other people’s sincerity when he can’t sincerely answer a simple question?
There’s a simple answer to the question: Peterson thinks that the burden of declaring yourself as a believer is untruthful because he doesn’t believe any one but Christ was fundamentally capable of living our Christian virtues fully and honestly. In essence, a person who claims to be a Christian and sins is not a true believer in some sense. This is a point he borrows from Nietzsche. Peterson is wrong theologically (see St. Peter for an example) but his point is still comprehensible.
Let’s look at another popular criticism that Vox traffics in: “What good is cleaning your room when the Goths are currently in the process of sacking Rome?”
This is a popular criticism from both the far-left and far-right side of the spectrum. It’s not hard to see why and Vox does a good job laying out the argument. If we’re already so late in the game that the battle is lost, what good is there in spiritual solipsism? Maybe society needs radicals to recognize the broken state of the world and to rise up against it!
There’s a fair answer to this question too: Peterson isn’t starting from the presupposition that society is immediately doomed and overrun by barbarians. He thinks we can retrain citizens from the ground up to becoming virtuous individuals without the need for radical collective revolution. Ideally, society wouldn’t need to worry about barbarians if people are virtuous enough to deal with their problems before they accumulate.
One might infer why the politically far-right Vox might object to an army of disenfranchised emotionally unwell young men (the revolutionary class) might prefer to seek self-help as an alternative to radical political ideologies…
Vox goes farther by claiming/implying that Dr. Peterson is, despite his Doctorate and years of work as a student of human psychology, a completely ignorant fool who misquotes every book he claims to be an expert on. Vox’s claims include that Peterson had never read the Bible, completely misquotes Mein Kampf and barely bothered to study the Communist Manifesto before he started mouthing off about how bad communism is.
Some of this is easily disprovable with even a mild understanding of Peterson’s work. Peterson was raised in a nominally religious household and wrote his first book on the psychological implications of mythological archetypes. Even if he hadn’t read the Bible cover to cover, he clearly had a passing familiarity with the most of the major world religions. He’s also never claimed to be an Orthodox Christian and his lecture series on the Psychology of the Bible is widely regarded by Christians and Atheists for its insightful analysis. For a first time reader, Dr. Peterson seems to know what he’s talking about!
In regards to his ignorance of anti-authoritarianism, Peterson has claimed to study the nature of totalitarianism for decades. If you look at most of his book recommendations, Peterson’s work on anti-totalitarianism has seemingly focused on the effects of totalitarianism more than the ideology. The books he recommends like Ordinary Men and Solzhenitsyn are focused on the psychology of how average people caught within the gears of oppression become monsters (or not). Maybe he is ignorant so far as he doesn’t understand the full breath of ideological thought but he is enlightened on aspects of authoritarianism.
These are just a handful of Vox’s points and they reflect the attitude by which he approaches Dr. Peterson’s work in it’s entirety. Once he’s established his straw man, he proceeds to set him on fire! The duration of the book’s remaining runtime is spent systematically digging through each of Jordan’s chapters in 12 Rules for Life and fastidiously reading negative motivations and anti-Christian philosophies into their subtext.
For as much as Vox likes to criticize Peterson’s rhetorical agnosticism and looseness with definitions, there’s an insincerity to these criticisms. As becomes clear, He’s not interested in taking the intended meaning behind these statements seriously. He’s just picking targets he can systematically dissect. He takes Jordan’s ideas at face value and try’s to string his own understanding between these ideas.
As slippery of Dr. Peterson’s ideas can be, Peterson doesn’t attach himself to idea sets in the way Vox does. Peterson is interrogating ideas as he talks through them. Peterson comes to bonkers conclusions at times but approaches/distances/backs his ideas as he sees necessary. Vox doesn’t give him any credit and merely assumes that his sins are evidence of malice (intended or otherwise).
This ultimately says more about Vox’s presumptions than Peterson’s. His accusations build up to a crescendo of rage. Once he has finished dissecting the 12 Rules, he lays out his final condemnations and claims that Peterson is a power hungry demagogue who is entirely out for himself. Outside of the book, he’s even gone as far as to claim that Peterson is controlled opposion by “globalist” interests to stop the rise of right-wing nationalism.
Vox seems to assume anyone who calls for “protecting the status quo” and “calming down radical rhetoric” is rhetorically proximate to “advancing the cause of globalism”. To this end, he references the young Jordan Peterson‘s flirtation with the Canadian socialist party as an example of his attachment to globalism (by all accounts Dr. Peterson abandoned partisan politics decades ago and doesn’t identify as a socialist anymore).
The only way you’d come to the conclusion that he’s still a closet socialist/globalist now is if you play out Dr. Peterson’s entire life and assume he’s an unchanging ball of mentally unwell nerves and twitchy impulses that’s incapable of growth, maturity or changing one’s mind. Subsequently, the collection of cherry picked quotes and biographical details chart out a VERY bleak story
Vox doesn’t lay out the arguments in Peterson’s favor charitably. He could easily talk with a level headed Peterson advocates like Paul VanderKlay, Ron Dart or Jonathan Pageau but picks the dumbest possible targets for elimination. He spends entire chapters arguing with Youtube comments…
Vox spends the duration of one of the early chapters transcribing Youtube comments as evidence that Peterson’s fans are all reactionary cultists. This my friends is called “poisoning the well.”
I could assassinate anyone’s character by collecting the dumbest tweets surrounding the mindless cult of personality of ANY Celebrity, philosopher or politician: Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Etc. Vox Day himself has a small cult of personality. Does he want to be judged morally by his dumbest fans?
Again, though, none of this is to say that the book doesn’t lay out some sincere criticisms of the man that I share.
Is Dr. Peterson narcissistic? Sure.
He’s too willing to accept the Christ-figure status his fans adorn him with at times and he’s eager to focus conversations on his role on the story. Just try reading his prologue to Gulag Archepolego.
Is he under-equipped to discuss some issues? Sure.
Watch Jordan’s debate with Slavoj Zizek. He’s not up to date on modern Marxist literature. He’s shown up to numerous debates under-prepared.
Does he have a cult of personality? Absolutely.
His fans can be INTENSE.
All that said, Vox’s presuposition’s about Jordan are coming from some sort of standpoint that Jordan is something bigger than what he actually is. Vox seems to think Jordan Peterson is UNIQUELY dangerous. I can’t see why he would write a biography on THIS ONE MAN as opposed to anyone else. It’s hard to square such a claim that Dr. Peterson is a modern anti-Christ with what ends up on the page. Vox has admitted in the past that he genuinely hates Jordan Peterson and you can tell that from how that book approaches the character of Peterson. The venom is palpable.
On the reverse side, Peterson has been rather forthcoming about most of his ideological faults. It’s clear that 12 Rules for Life is partly influenced by problems he has personally experienced. He has admitted he is depressive and self destructive.
Vox parades these talking points as though he’s discovered the Rosetta Stone for understanding what Dr. Peterson is ACTUALLY saying. In Vox’s read, there seems to be no end to the depths of Peterson’s evils.
Is 12 Rules for Life revealing about some of Dr. Peterson’s understated faults and failures? Absolutely.
Even so, Jordanetics primarily ends up being just an attempt at character assassination and it functions by stringing together anecdotes, character flaws and moments of intellectual failures to intermittedly claim that Dr. Peterson is both a hapless idiot and a satanic heretic attempting to corrupt the minds of the youth. He connects the dots of Peterson’s statements and sins alongside the excesses of his fans and spins a vast yarn of conspiracies to reveal the dark underbelly of the man’s philosophy.
If you don’t believe me, just take a look at a FEW of the people that Vox Day goes out of his way to compare Jordan Peterson too: George Soros, Allister Crowley (the satanist) Yeats (the Occultist) and Milton’s Lucifer in Paradise Lost serve as a handful of his throwaway comparison (although to be fair, he doesn’t bother to compare him to Hitler like a leftist would, he just claims Person misquoted him…).
The book describes Dr. Peterson as everything from a charlatan, to a chronic liar, a mentally ill depressive, a Pathological narcissistic, a egotist with a messiah complex, a cult leader, a globalist, a closet socialist, an occultist and a satanist in with Miltonian intentions to take over the world.
As someone who has followed Dr. Peterson for the past four years, I can attest that only a FEW of those things are true!
If you want to criticize Dr. Peterson, there is plenty of room to do it. Vox takes it a step farther and all but calls him every name in the book besides a “plagerist” and “Nazi”.
Look, there’s plenty of weird things about Jordan Peterson. He collects Soviet artwork. He reads weird philosophy books. He hangs out with weird people on the internet. He’s had his fair share of low moments and failures. He’s prone to lapsing under pressure. He’s an open atheist who doesn’t approach the Bible reverently. He also has a deeply chaotic personal life and serious problems in his family and personal physical and emotional health.
That said, all of these things are what make Jordan’s work interesting. That THIS MAN could become a profound proponent of Christianity is interesting. That he struggles with pain and loss and yet built himself to this is interesting. That thousands of people attest to the value of his work is interesting.
If I had to describe Peterson’s metaphorical role in society, I would say that Dr. Peterson is the logical endpoint of modernism. He’s the wart on the face of the enlightenment. He’s screaming out in adolescent despair that something is rotten in the state of Denmark. There is a reason lost young men attach to his work…
At the same time, he’s a knot of contradictions and failed rationalizations. He knows he needs some metaphorical framework to view the world but he can accept the consequences that come with that realization. He’s Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade staring down at the gorge and knowing that the only way forward is to take the leap of faith. Unfortunately, he’s too afraid he will fall…
At the same time, thousands of young men read his work and come to the opposite conclusion as Peterson. There are an unknown number of people who read his work and watched his lectures who then found the confidence to step in church for the first time in their levels. Most people are walking away from his work taking away good moral lessons.
Jordan Peterson’s own story is tragic. His story is marred by his own weakness and hubris. In that sense, he is like anybody else. He’s a man. He’s a weak and frail man who has been cast into one of the most insane public speaking positions in the world. The sword of Damocles has hung over his head for half a decade now and that has only made his problems worse.
It’s a sin to treat him like the second coming of Christ. It should also be considered a sin to treat him as some uniquely sociopathic and destructive anti-Christ. A charitable reading on Jordan would come to the realization that he is a man in need of prayer. It says something then that Vox Day clearly loathes Dr. Peterson enough to write a book like this.
That Jordenetics has spread as a popular critique of Jordan Peterson is not surprising. His meteoric rise, religiously devoted fans and labyrinthian rhetoric make his work intermittedly tedious and overrated. There are plenty of reasons to want to critique Dr. Peterson and his ideas or to merely wish to avoid his cult of personality.
(I’ve avoided Jim Proser’s bootlicking biography Savage Messiah for those same reasons)
That a book like this has its fans makes sense to me. I just don’t think there’s that much to offer here as a sincere polemic if you’re already familiar with Dr. Peterson. In that, Jordenetics is a failure. A polemic that teaches you more about the weakness of the author than it’s subject can’t be describe as anything else.