What does the return of Jordan Peterson to the public stage portend? Is it yet another sign of the end-times, or an affirmation of the old truth that a travelling quack should be able to rip off the same town twice?
Peterson, the global scourge of woke through his bestseller 12 Rules of Life ended up, readers may recall, in a coma in Russia having sought miracle medical treatment for pill addiction. Now he appears to have sorted himself out. Again.
Will he be greeted with warmth and welcome by his old friends on the right as he barnstorms around the world once more? For yes, Jordan Peterson has a new book coming out in March, the unironically titled Beyond Order: 12 More Rules of Life. The original 12 Rules of Life, a mass-market book which mixed a variety of vaguely “mindful”/cognitive-behavioural self-help with more portentous reflections on culture, meaning, war and genocide, was a fantastic best-seller, moving five million copies.
Peterson, a psychology professor in Canada, had hitherto been ensconced in the academy, having authored a big theory-of-everything book Maps of Meaning in 1999. 12 Rules For Life has some useful stuff in it but its wild success was largely due to its taking aim at the progressive movement of recent years — in particular the accusations that oppression by race and gender was composed of multiple layers of privilege and micro-aggression in everyday life, such being enjoyed by whites and white males especially.
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The justice of pointing out this oppression was overlaid with a degree of gotcha stuff — self-appointed race and gender leaders from middle-class elites making careers off “oppression capital”; trauma as a way of being is generalised; woundedness; brokenness becomes a source of life-meaning.
Peterson’s rejigged lessons from cognitive behavioural therapy, Jung and other sources became popular as a curative to the debilitation of the oppression/trauma/victim model of self.
What started as an author tour gathered pace and became a movement. Its followers were largely young white kids, who felt as squeezed and crushed by life as many others but didn’t have a narrative of oppression to fit it into to — and who were accused of being the oppressors themselves by an identity politics making political capital from division.
The traditional left had largely yielded to identity politics, its leaders taking a share of the political cut. Peterson filled the vacuum created. Kids loved its appeal to a stern self-scrutiny — “stand up straight”; “make your bed in the morning”; “don’t be a victim”; “there’s no such thing as addiction”. His supporters, seen at Peterson events, had an ecstatic, giggly effervescence much like Christian megachurch attendees, the joy of release, of a straightforward answer, and the finding of a tribe.
The political right jumped on the bandwagon, holding up Peterson as a champion against wokeness and victimhood, tying personal autonomy to the Western heritage. True, Peterson could come off a little obsessive at times, for someone who counselled reflectiveness and self-scrutiny.
Some coverage hooked on his diet: he ate only beef, a diet proposed by his (untrained) daughter in a response to an alleged autoimmune condition. Well, fine, it’s a known treatment. He carried shrink-wrapped cold steaks in his pocket for emergencies. Well, uh, OK.
These tics appeared in the numerous interviews Peterson did about self-responsibility. Then the interviews stopped.
And then, nearly two years ago, Peterson vanished.
When he reappeared, the extraordinary, bizarre tale of his travels was revealed to the world. The apostle of self-reliance and no excuses had been addicted to (or physically dependant upon, depending who you asked) benzodiazepines for years, their initial take up for anxiety stemming from the same shadowy autoimmune condition. Thereafter, the account sounds like a National Lampoon cruel humour piece.
When he could not shake the addiction, his daughter took him to an ICU in Russia, where he was diagnosed with pneumonia (possibly from mineral malnutrition), lost motor function and then after another move got COVID-19 in Belgrade.
The root cause of Peterson’s addiction is no joke — trauma brought on by his wife’s cancer diagnosis. But, erm, yeah, the preaching stoicism and self-reliance round the world while popping bennies to deal with a life event (among other matters) is a hell of a thing. How can he show his face again, with this level of implicit deceit and absurdity?
Presumably he will turn it into the very thing he has criticised, the confessional personal journey. The new book is being published by Penguin so the establishment seems along for the ride.
Will the political right come back for the second round, or is their effusive support of Peterson going to be another embarrassing chapter of rightolatry? Janet Albrechtsen praised Peterson for his words of wisdom, and his ability to infuriate the left, Andrew Bolt called him a superstar of the right, and, as we noted last year, Caroline Overington published 15 pieces on him in a two-year period.
Peterson was in a long line of the right’s fallen heroes, from Lord Monckton, the climate denier turned Obama birther truther, to Milo Yiannopoulos, the cool conservative turned man-boy love “advocate”, to the “daddy” Donald Trump himself.
The right falls for one after the other because their politics is a cult of the imaginary. They are afflicted by something that Peterson himself identifies — the slippage of meaning in modern life and the false path of going to war in the name of a single simple truth to restore it.
But their latching onto Peterson took that habit to a meta-level. They followed a guru who re-appeared like a classic ’70s EST-biorhythms crackpot — advocating sober realism, acceptance, and meaning over happiness — while at the same time projecting his manifold neuroses onto the world and running after instant cures.
Peterson’s best move would have been to retreat to the cloister and have a bit of a think for a while. Or forever.
Instead, by coming around again he ensures that his tale is not one of caution but of absurdity. One suspects he has done his dash with troubled and diffident youth, but will the right line up again for more snake-oil?
Their favoured brand is a very strong addiction…