Jordan Petersonitis: Intellectual and emotional discomfort caused by the perceived need to reach an informed view on the significance of Jordan Peterson’s cultural contribution, but being unable to, despite considerable effort.
****This is a truncated version of what was previously on this page because the full paper is now published at https://integral-review.org/an-epistemic-thunderstorm-what-we-learned-and-failed-to-learn-from-jordan-petersons-rise-to-fame/ ***
Jordan B. Peterson is easily misunderstood. He is a clinical psychologist and Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto but is now known as a forceful cultural commentator who emphasizes the value, depth, and dignity of individual responsibility in an embattled manner, as if civilization is at stake. His magnum opus is not the current self-help bestseller, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, but a much deeper inquiry into myths and archetypes, Maps of Meaning, published two decades earlier.[i] Peterson’s online academic lectures derive from this earlier textbook and are where his intellectual quality is most evident; these videos are viewed in their millions by his fans but mostly ignored by his critics (Peterson, 2018a).[ii] Peterson’s news interviews, public debates, online discussions, and social media comments on the other hand typically relate to identity and ideology and are often much less judicious, though they attract widespread attention. He is possibly the best known public intellectual of the time, though some argue that his fame is symptomatic of a global intellectual crisis rather than a product of the quality of his thought (Robinson, 2018).[iii]
Reaching a settled view on Peterson’s contribution is difficult because it manifests in so many ways. While he has built an impressive academic career respecting data and nuance, he is often undiscerning in his political diatribes. Critics of any aspect of Peterson’s work tend to be typecast by his fans using their icon’s favored dramatic terms and tenor. They are often assumed to be LEFTIST NEOMARXIST POSTMODERNIST FEMINIST SOCIAL JUSTICE WARRIORS who think only of GROUP IDENTITY, abdicate INDIVIDUAL RESPONSIBILITY, and know nothing of BEING — Peterson’s favored term for human existence. The online Peterson phenomenon is powerful because it is built on academic prestige, fueled by personal charisma, and driven by oppositional identities.
On January 16, 2018 I spent three hours with Jordan. We had a civil but charged hour-long discussion at the Royal Society of Arts in London. I arranged additional shorter interviews for my organization Perspectiva, which, like Peterson, seeks to increase awareness of the relationship between psychological and spiritual sensibility and societal challenges. That evening, thinking the day had gone well, I made the mistake of reading the RSA Video YouTube comments where I am “the host” but verbally flogged like an insubordinate outcast. The conversation has now been viewed over 200,000 times — modest by Peterson’s standards — but there have also been several spin-offs on Conservative online platforms viewed in their millions, including vintage clickbait titles like “Leftist Host SNAPS at Peterson — Instantly Regrets it!”. I have been approached by strangers at the hairdressers, the gym, the library, and in the playground of my son’s school, who recognize me from the Peterson video. The encounter, including preparation and reflection, gave me an appreciation for Peterson’s quality and intensity, the vituperative loyalty of his fans, and the atmosphere of allergy and infatuation that surrounds his work (RSA, 2018).[iv] It also gave me acute Jordanpetersonitis.
Complex noun. Also, abbr.: “Petersonitis”
1. Intellectual and emotional discomfort caused by the perceived need to reach an informed view on the significance of Jordan Peterson’s cultural contribution, but being unable to, despite considerable effort.
Petersonitis is not a casual slur, but a serious joke to recognize the cultural indigestion caused by Peterson, and an attempt to redirect the public conversation. We are probably past “peak Peterson” but we must go beyond describing Peterson’s work or even offering a conventional critique — because the Internet is saturated with both. Petersonitis serves to investigate a confounding experience that may contain the seeds of cultural maturation. Recognizing the pressure to pick sides is ultimately much more important than the complex public character of Peterson himself, which is best illustrated through the Peterson phenomenon:
• Mesmerized intellectual excitement at the spectacle of passionate thinking, laced with confusion at what exactly is being said.
• Moral dumbfounding, arising from the intuition that Peterson is wrong in important ways even when his reasoning is persuasive.
• Emotional exhaustion caused by too many hours expecting answers from an anguished face on a computer screen.
***The abstract for the full paper is copied below. Integral Review is an online, open access, peer-reviewed journal publishing a transdisciplinary and transcultural range of works that, taken as a whole, model integral ways of perceiving, thinking, researching, and serving the world we live in.****
The cultural pressure to endorse or reject public intellectuals wholesale can be problematic, perpetuating groupthink and diminishing scope for intellectual growth, societal maturation, and political imagination. On encountering public figures who appear to be both right and wrong, sometimes simultaneously, perhaps dangerously, there is scope to be more creative and less reactive in our response. In the illustrative case of Jordan Peterson, commentators often oriented their analysis within a conceptually moribund political spectrum; e.g. Peterson is “alt-right” attacking “the radical left.” Social media echo chambers lead some to read that Peterson’s “fanboys” were “misogynist trolls” while others heard that his critics were “virtue signaling snowflakes”. The tendency of print and broadcast media to seek a defining angle diminishes rather than distills complexity; for instance, Peterson’s fame was associated with a perceived crisis in masculinity, but that was not the whole story. “Petersonitis” is introduced here as a serious joke to describe the intellectual and emotional discomfort that arose from the author’s attempt to seek a fuller understanding of complex characters in a divisive political culture. In a response to Peterson’s book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, twelve relatively dispassionate perspectives on his contribution are offered as an antidote to the language of allergy and infatuation that surrounded his rise to fame. Peterson is described here as symptomatic, multiphrenic, theatrical, solipsistic, sacralizing, hypervigilant, monocular, ideological, Manichean, Piagetian, masculine, and prismatic. First person language is used to reflect the author’s experience of Petersonitis, after having been drawn to Peterson’s online video lectures, debating with him in a public forum, and gradually clarifying the nature of the limitations in his outlook and approach. It is hoped that the paper will help readers recognize, recover from, and ultimately transcend Petersonitis, and to appreciate the much wider application of the idea.