Monday, January 29, 2018

a few extra thoughts on the Peterson interview and ways of reacting to it and to Peterson's presentation

The Peterson interview has gone viral and there area any number of fairly simple explanations for that.  When a journalist reveals themselves to be so adversarial, incompetent and biased in an interview conducted in front of a camera the botched attempt at gotcha journalism would sprout wings and take off, just on general principle.

This was something that was so obvious across the entire spectrum it was worth discussing.

My first introduction to Jordan B. Peterson, a University of Toronto clinical psychologist, came by way of an interview that began trending on social media last week. Peterson was pressed by the British journalist Cathy Newman to explain several of his controversial views. But what struck me, far more than any position he took, was the method his interviewer employed. It was the most prominent, striking example I’ve seen yet of an unfortunate trend in modern communication.
First, a person says something. Then, another person restates what they purportedly said so as to make it seem as if their view is as offensive, hostile, or absurd.

Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and various Fox News hosts all feature and reward this rhetorical technique. And the Peterson interview has so many moments of this kind that each successive example calls attention to itself until the attentive viewer can’t help but wonder what drives the interviewer to keep inflating the nature of Peterson’s claims, instead of addressing what he actually said.

Friedersdorf describes himself as a civil libertarian which, to many folks on the left might as well be either right or alt-right.

For someone who doesn't identify as any kind of right who, all the same, regards the recent Peterson interview as an example of how miserable the quality of certain things passed off as journalism have become:

My politics are very different from Jordan Peterson’s, but like many people I was engrossed by his recent interview with Channel 4’s Cathy Newman (the interview can also be found here). In my case, at least, it was less because of what was said than because of the nature of the encounter.
If comments under the interview suggest anything, the video went viral chiefly because the right believe it shows their man – Peterson – intellectually crushing a so-called “hard-left feminist” like Newman. In fact, it proves nothing of the sort – more the misogyny of some of Peterson’s fans.
Here is an ideological duel between a sophisticated brand of the libertarian right and a corporate – aka faux – left-liberalism, represented by Newman. The pair, in their commitment to an aggressive individualism within a neoliberal system, have far more in common with each other than they do with a real left. I suspect Peterson would have struggled considerably more to justify his positions had he come up against someone like Noam Chomsky rather than Newman.

Nonetheless, the interview revealed something deeply troubling about what passes today for a news interview, and about the role of journalists. Here were two people talking at each other. This was mostly shadow play, rarely moving beyond shallow ideological posturing.

That is the standard format for news interviews, and one of the main reasons why the news in western democracies is so unenlightening.

Peterson, one should remember, had no choice about the nature of the gladiatorial contest presented to him in Channel 4’s studio, and manages it as well as could be expected in the circumstances.
More importantly, at least from the audience’s point of view, he succeeds – much as does Glenn Greenwald in similar interviews – in stripping away the artifice and exposing the nature of the stitch-up that is the rationale for an interview like this. For once, this was not a wasted half-hour of airtime.
Both Peterson and Greenwald are clever and skilful enough interviewees to refuse to be dragged onto a field of battle that has been designed to mock them and their kinds of politics.
Then there's John Halle's riff:
A useful piece by the always excellent Jonathan Cook shows how the alt-right icon Jordon Peterson was able to make mincemeat of a typically clueless British channel 4 interviewer in much the same way that Glenn Greenwald does: by exposing the bankruptcy of the premises of corporate media which all on air personalities reflexively accept. Channel 4’s response to their humiliation was to retrospectively “no platform” Peterson by disappearing the clip from their site.

Interestingly, this mirrors the approach which much of the Marxist/authoritarian left here is pursuing with Peterson: those giving him a platform are shunned and marginalized, an apparent social media fatwa having been declared on those engaging with him. The reason is likely the same as that of Channel 4. Those who would have to confront him lack the intellectual capacity to address his arguments and they know it. Doing so does not require that much beyond the ability to deploy basic logic and a minimal knowledge of the facts: as Cook notes, Chomsky would easily dispense with Peterson’s more outrageous claims but so would many other lesser profile leftists (e.g. Norman Finkelstein and Nathan Robinson).

But as Angela Nagel points out, much of the left, while congratulating itself on its command of Hegelian dialectic and cult stud “theory”, is incapable of holding its own when its core assumptions are interrogated. And so they flee from the challenge, insuring that Peterson’s frat house Nietzscheanism will continue to gain an increasingly solid footing in popular culture.
This might be because within the left and right domains respectively we've had generations of reinforcing propaganda to the point where neither side in Anglo-American political thought is capable of confronting articulate arguments that side-step those assumptions the respective sides believes are necessary for orthodoxy and orthopraxy.  I am, admittedly, at a pretty bleak and cynical spot in what I think about American political thought and what often passes for journalism.  It's not that convictions or even bias all by itself is the problem, but that the ideal is that even with the convictions you have you don't let them so cloud your powers of observation you can't see what's in front of you.  The way Halle put it in another blog post was that the left was so busy fixating on its self-identifiable purity codes it's never stopped to bother doing something as simple as running for and keeping elected office. Given the way things have been playing out here in Seattle I would not suggest anyone regard what's happened up here as counting for much toward that end, but I digress.
And then, of course, there are Christians who could weigh in on Peterson and what Christians generally and pastors more specifically could learn from Peterson.
Take excerpts from this cyber mash note, for instance, from Alastair Roberts:
We live in a society that is cluttered with airy words, with glib evasions, with facile answers, with bullshitting, with self-serving lies, with obliging falsehoods, and with dishonest and careless construals of the world that merely serve to further our partisan agendas (‘truth’ merely becoming something that allows us to ‘destroy’ or ‘wipe the floor with’ our opponents in the culture). In such a context, a man committed to and burdened with the weight of truth and who speaks accordingly will grab people’s attention.
Peterson is, for a great many young men in particular, the father they never had. [emphasis added] He is someone prepared to speak into their situation with a compassionate authority. His authority is not an attempt to control them or to secure his own power over them, but functions to direct them towards life. He isn’t wagging his finger at them, but is helping lost young people to find their way. People instinctively respond to such authority. Such a fatherly authority is rare in our society, but many people are longing for it. This is the sort of authority that pastors can exemplify and by which they can give life and health to the lives committed to their care.
Peterson’s deep concern for the well-being of young men is transparently obvious. Where hardly anyone else seems to care for them, and they are constantly pathologized and stifled by the ascendant orthodoxies of the culture, Peterson is drawn out in compassion towards them. He observes that such young men in particular have been starved of compassion, encouragement, and support. There is a hunger there that the Church should be addressing.

However, Peterson’s compassion is not the flaccid empathy that pervades in our culture. He does not render young men a new victimhood class, feeding them a narrative of rights and ressentiment. Rather, he seeks to encourage struggling young people—to give them courage. He tells them that their effort matters; their rising to their full stature is something that the world needs. He helps them to establish their own agency and to find meaning in their labour.

People notice when others care about them and respond to them. However, far too often our empathy has left people weak and has allowed the weakness and dysfunctionality of wounded and stunted people to set the terms for the rest of society. Peterson represents a different approach: the compassionate authority of mature and wise persons can shepherd weak and lost persons towards strength, healthy selfhood, and meaning. Pastors can learn much from this.
That Peterson gets described as the father some young men never had might be more carefully reformulated--we could say that some young men perceive Peterson as the kind of father figure they felt they did not have, either because they did not have such a male role model at all or because the male role models they did have failed to live up to the ideal they see in someone like Peterson.  That's not merely a semantic distinction, of course, and it gets to my skepticism about these sorts of mas notes from Christians.
It's one thing to concede that you may have had a father who was ethically dubious at best or who was a loving but still all-too-human man, it's another thing to propose that a mediated-by-social-media persona is performatively compelling enough of an archetype to ill the lacuna that may exist in your soul because your dad wasn't as good a dad to you as you hoped he would have been.  A surrogate father needs to be a father not just a symbol and yet it can seem that what makes Peterson useful is his role as a symbol.  It's not even necessarily about whether he can meaningfully be a father figure to young men, I suppose he can be that like any other media-mediated figure.  It's just that it seems that this is still some variation of celebrity.  Celebrity and parenthood are not the same.  You can be hurt by, upset with, or even resent your parents. 
It's not that the aims Peterson has are necessarily bad ones or ones that a Christian might altogether disagree with, it's that after twenty odd years this particular script seems too easy to anticipate coming from a select strata of Anglo-American Christian social conservatives. 
As I noted briefly in an earlier post, these kinds of things Roberts expresses concern about were essentially all those things that Mark Driscoll and the other co-founders of Mars Hill Fellowship/Mars Hill Church were also concerned about.  Roberts may want to bear in mind, and I write this as someone who still lives in Seattle, that his whole approach will be pretty quickly christened alt-right regardless of how winsomely he phrases things.  I had a commenter comment about how it seemed like I was poisoning the well.  That's not exactly my aim, but I've seen how progressive and mainstream liberal press coverage translate what someone like Peterson is saying.  The most salient part of the Newman/Peterson pseudo-journalistic fiasco is that Newman gave us all a chance to see how journalists in mainstream "center" contexts attempt to present someone like Peterson. 
But, since Roberts took the trouble to write as he did, it's also not difficult to see how strains of Anglo-American socially conservative Christians lionize Peterson as if he were one of Arthur's knights. 
I'll admit to being jaded and cynical about this stuff.  People who take Doug Wilson seriously after his plagiarism situation with A Justice Primer or the way he handled a couple of cases in his scene make it hard for me to take him seriously. I still don't think his theory of "revenge of the beta males" regarding Mark Driscoll makes much sense apart from Wilson's own set of fixations.  I'm inclined to think that Mark Driscoll was completely sincere while also being susceptible to grandstanding and visions of grandeur; he managed to settle on believing in the sort of Jesus whose aims and interests usefully underwrote his own pre-existing ambitions and anxieties.   This is not to say, by any stretch of the imagination, that I don't think Mark Driscoll cannot be regarded as a believer.  While there is life there is hope, so there's time to repent. 
There are things that some men who turn out to be lightning rods want and hat they want is not necessarily the issue, it's the branding apparatus that I've developed concerns about. 
There's also a practical consideration, which is that even among the man-o-sphere there have been objections that there's such a thing as a Gospel for Alpha Males.  Peterson no doubt has a healthier variation of it but it doesn't mean it isn't a way to understand what he's getting at.  Talking about how we have a need for powerful men is still just that.  No one in a role like Peterson's is able to ultimately play the role of a surrogate father.  To imagine such a thing is possible is to impute to mass and social media and a classroom experience what these modes of experience cannot necessarily confer to young men with proverbial father wounds. 
Either these new modes of social media and mass media are shallow and unable to foment and reinforce meaningful human contact or they are but we need to redefine what we mean by that and be careful about how we define terms. 
I'm literally not buying it, not because there couldn't be any useful points in the whole thing, but because paying money to hear someone like Peterson isn't the same as paying the rent of bills on time.  It's possible to pass the threshold of functional adulthood without becoming "powerful". 
And in connection to Mere O writers more generally the tendency for these guys is to filter their understanding of growing up toward marriage.  It palls after a year or two and begins to seem positively flaccid and anodyne after a decade.  St. Paul did somehow conclude that it was better for the unmarried to remain as he was, without wishing to lay any binding decree on anyone on that matter.  Many Anglo-American social conservative Christian types nonetheless have a predictable track record of talking about how unless the Lord has called you to some life-threatening missions work overseas getting Bibles to non-white people ... you really should stop resisting God's will for your life to be married.
It's getting to a point where sometimes I think Anglo-American socially conservative Christians venerate Hera alongside Jesus.  Not so long ago I spent time with friends who had a wedding anniversary and it was great to spend time with them.  I'm also uncle to ... quite a number of nieces and nephews.  Not against marriage and family at all ... but I have grown skeptical about the veneration they've gotten. 
When Jesus said that no one has left house or spouse or children for the sake of Him would fail to gain many more in this life and the life to come of, there's an active element to that--to follow Jesus can involve leaving the kinds of family attachments that Anglo-American social conservative Christianity would tell us to embrace and ... also certain sorts of blue state religion that insist that all these amenities and vital relationships that should be accessible to anyone because love is love--following Jesus can mean you are called to give all of that sort of thing up. 
When I was younger I got the impression, and was told in direct and indirect ways, that the Social Gospel was a liberal mainline kind of thing that didn't correspond to true religion.  Now that I'm a few decades older and middle-aged there's another kind of Social Gospel, there's a red state and a blue state version of this thing.  I'm of the understanding that following Jesus and His teaching can mean that at some point you have to repudiate both of these Social Gospels for different reasons. 
The Newman/Peterson interview was an illuminating case study in incompetently executed gotcha journalism, but from the swath of things I've quoted above I don't think Christians need to be so gushing in their praise of Peterson.  Maybe in every era we need a wheel to be reinvented or rediscovered.  I get that, but having seen the last twenty odd years of what was once Mars Hill the kinds of men who make the points Peterson has been described as making are easy to find, they make a point of seeking a public platform, no matter how rare or brave some other men may say it is that these sorts of men do so.   A guy like Roberts may just be too young and naïve to know better.  I was young and idealistic about guys speaking boldly about how men should be responsible and I ended up at Mars Hill.  It can seem promising at fist and go downhill slowly and inexorably without you noticing it.
It isn't even necessarily the fault of a Driscoll or a Peterson that a personality cult forms around them, even if it is their fault how they choose to respond to such a cult. 


Jeff said...

It's truly unfortunate that your first introduction to Peterson was this interview. He's been doing great work in Canada for a number of years. Working on the front lines in that country against statist tyranny. I'd urge you to watch some of his lectures or some of the confrontations he's had to deal with from screaming and hysterical protesters.

Interesting that Cook mentions Chomsky. I'm sorry, but Chomsky is and always has been a poor debater. But it's interesting because Chomsky is himself a libertarian (albeit a socialist) but made his name known for linguistics. Much as Peterson has become famous for resisting the fascist turn. His opposition to Bill C-16 was very much out of his desire to speak what he saw as the truth in the face of power. In this, he very much aligns with Chomsky.

But come on, the second piece goes ridiculous. Peterson is not an alt-right hero. I monitor alt-right blogs. The interview was of course mentioned but Peterson himself is not alt-right nor is he particularly loved in that circle. And so what if he is? Many people who are not alt-right value him and respect him. It would be like condemning Obama because the Black Panther party supported him. Nothing but an ad hominem attack.

And then the third piece is another hit - so apparently it's wrong to appeal to young men. Except he doesn't do so. He makes his appeal to everyone.

You've done good work in the past. Don't throw it all away in your hatred - because that's really what is coming across here. Every little good has to be qualified for fear that there might arise another Driscoll. And so you accentuate any little negative you can find.

That's not healthy. And that's not Christ-like.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

a few brief thoughts:

past the Friedersdorf piece the other pieces were interesting demonstrations of how pervasive the gotcha approach to journalism and commentary is across the spectrum. It's possible to demonstrate it even while observing it

Jaded is not exactly the same thing as hatred.

Matthew said...

I agree wih Jeff’s first sentence.

If you go to youtube and search “jocko podcast jordan peterson” I think you’ll find this alt-right label isn’t accurate. They’ve been attracted to some portion of his teaching, but they are the anti-type of the human Peterson hopes our society will produce. They’re insolent, dumb babies.

Anyhow, I’ve read a portion of Maps of Meaning and I’m nearly halfway through his newest work. One of the things that separates him from Driscoll et al is the lack of authoritarianism. Driscoll could wield the Bible at people who disagreed. Peterson will shrug and say, “Well, ok. If you don’t want it, you don’t have to take it.” He’s not a great reader of the Bible, but I’ve found his biblical illustrations helpful. And he’s not even a Christian in any meaningful way.

Jeff said...

"Jaded is not the same thing as hatred"

I suggest that you're unnecessarily splitting hairs. When the well of discussion is poisoned because of how jaded one person has become, that can foster distrust and hatred. The charitable reading of your blog post leaves the distinct impression that you consider Peterson to be little more than another mini-Driscoll. Again - when all you have is a hammer......

When all you have left is your jaded outlook on life - everything looks negative and it casts a pall on even the positive.

Anyhow, do with it what you will.

chris e said...

And Peterson being alt-right or not is kind of incidental to the point of the article quote anyway, so not sure why that would be the hill one chose to argue on.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Matthew, the lack of authoritarianism is definitely the most salient difference.

Here I'm less mulling over that than the effusiveness of some who find Peterson's content praiseworthy. Driscoll didn't start off authoritarian, he started off authoritative. But since Peterson's an academic and has vastly more systems of accountability he's never likely to become quite so full of himself as the other guy.

Even the most carefully laid out blogging ends up reading as a first draft on the internet, and this was more draft-form than would be usual. As I was trying to articulate in the post, the nature of how Christian fans praise Peterson on the topic of manliness still does seem like comparable praise for Driscoll twenty years ago. Whether or not Friedersdorf or Cook or Halle "get" Peterson isn't necessarily the observation here. They could all be wrong about Peterson, but meanwhile, the pervasiveness of a set of rhetorical flourishes on the internet is easy enough to see.

My concern is less with the subject Peterson himself than with a certain kind of fan reaction. The slippery part as I see things isn't the Peterson side of things at all, rather it's more on ... to be pointed about it, the Alastair Roberts side. If the internet has made words ephemeral and relationships fuzzier precisely what special dispensation Peterson has that makes him in some sense exempt might be grist for a Roberts post. Maybe he's just too young and inexperienced to fully appreciate how completely not-new this stuff is. It's not like Chaplain Evers wasn't advocating for a clean manly evangelical approach to Christianity a century ago, for instance. There's a point at which the crisis of an absence of healthy male role models is a real problem and there's a point at which it can be good for a cottage industry to say this is the problem. It's not that there's no, so to speak, market for this kind of thing, it is necessary in every generation to urge people to be the most responsible grown-ups they can be. But just as evangelicals have had plenty of books about sex and marriage it's also possible to see just how reliably there have been books urging young men to be responsible young men. The older I get the less sure I am that there's "that" much more to be added on top of the wisdom literature in Scripture itself.


At the risk of being a Jordan Peterson to your Cathy Newman, if you think there's no meaningful difference between jaded and hatred there's probably not much I could say that would change your mind. As you put it a couple of times, when all you have is a hammer ...

Jeff said...

>> "At the risk of being a Jordan Peterson to your Cathy Newman"

That would be an inaccurate description since you are clearly channeling Newman. Simply put, you are (intenionally?) putting words in my mouth. I clearly did NOT say there's no meaningful difference between jaded and hatred. I said that you are splitting hairs by trying to make a distinction between jaded and hatred - where there is effectively none.

How can I state this more clearly? Judge yourself by your actions - they are not one of being jaded. Your words speak of one who cares not that you are tearing down and slandering for no good reason whatsoever. That is hatred. And that is not of Christ.

But whatever, you have your blog and I've foolishly spent more time on this than I should have.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

"I clearly did NOT say there's no meaningful difference between jaded and hatred. I said that you are splitting hairs by trying to make a distinction between jaded and hatred - where there is effectively none."

So you've said that you didn't say there's no meaningful difference between jaded and hatred but that you are saying, by way of saying I'm splitting hairs trying to make a distinction between jaded and hatred, that there is effectively no distinction to be made.

Which means, in print, you have now officially said there's no distinction to be made between what you call hatred and what I have described as jaded when it is you applying the possibility of distinction to what I've written. That seems like splitting hairs to me.

I never said Peterson was going to be a mini-Driscoll. What I have been saying is that the praise which some Christians lavish upon Peterson seems out of proportion to a message that has been a staple in Christian and Jewish thought since the inception of the Hebrew wisdom literature in terms of a message Christians can agree with. We live in an era in which more and more content reflecting the wealth of Christian reflection and education is available in the public domain now than ever before and yet we get a regular cycle of people excited about someone who has something to sell. The Christian manliness subculture and cottage industry having a use for Peterson in a way that seems too "been there, done that" is not the same thing as saying that reading Peterson would be actively harmful.

But then there's the Jung side, and as that goes Peterson wouldn't even bee the hundredth person to use Jung's ideas to promote the idea that men should embrace a heroic journey of discovering how to engage the crisis of contemporary existence. Campbell did that as far back as 1949 in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. What did that catalyze? That's the point at which I don't get why someone like Alastair would praise a Jordan Peterson because we all know (don't we?) that Jung through Campbell catalyzed Star Wars and Star Wars is considered to keep people from growing up. Yet somehow, magically?, Peterson as the mediator of Jung's ideas will inspire people to grow up?

If the anima that motivates Peterson is Jungian ideas then the precisely why Jungian ideals will inspire growing up in one case but emphatically not the other simply because the suit is tailored differently doesn't seem clear to me. It's at that point that Christian praise for a Peterson seems odd if, when surveying the influence of Jung on Western culture in other contexts it's led to the cultural artifacts that some Christians believe ultimately keep people from growing up. If that's the cumulative influence Jung exerts then why would we take seriously a proposal that Peterson's admonition to grow up, leveraging Jungian ideals, can succeed? If Jung by way of Campbell begot Star Wars why would Jung by way of Peterson beget grown-ups?

What we could be getting in both cases is a purgative emotional experience people buy into because it helps them feel better about facing the world they live in, and while I don't deny there can be adaptive value to that it's not necessarily the same thing as giving a young man who is in danger of losing his way a job.

I've never said the problem is really with Peterson so much as with the Christian subculture that is eager to embrace or promote his ideas because on one point of social observation the two have a convergence point. A Marxist like Cornelius Cardew could agree with a conservative Presbyterian that John Cage espoused ideas in his music that a man cannot live by in the real world as a man, but that hardly means that Cardew and Schaeffer would have agreed on the virtues of Mao.

Anonymous said...

Peterson's "authenticity" and his communication skills (including compassionate listening), combined with him catching a convenient wave of notoriety, has lifted him into the limelight. For a time. He may have staying power as other intellectuals have had; or his popularity may wane. It is really hard (impossible?) to tell what will happen to some name or other before it happens.

Now, theologically speaking Peterson is a Gnostic. There's no two ways about it, if an earlier (to the CH4) interview he gave to a different BBC (male) personality is in any way an accurate reflection of his core ideas (I believe the interview was given in Canada, at home, and it was friendly). Christian naïveté about how well JP's thought meshes with many of their principles needs some critical distance that I just don't think is common enough.