I wrote a Medium piece on Jordan Peterson about 1 year after he started getting notoriety (in February 2018). It was the republished in an edited and truncated form on international policy digest here, which actually lost some of the context and tried to make it more negative. I am reposting my full updated version below, just to bring my blog up to date; but this is a bit dated. Some views have changed, and in my opinion Peterson has morphed several times over the past 2 years, especially when you watch his older, more normal footage (as I did ie watching his entire 2016 Lecture series The Maps of Meaning on Youtube.) Overall he’s been a nice gateway into some pressing issues. Some of the points in the article may have dated themselves a bit already, but I do hope it brings up a few points of interest.
Updated Version of Article (last edited June 2018).
Title: The Jordan Peterson Effect
In the first year or so following the arrival of Jordan Peterson on the media scene (until roughly January 2018), most journalistic attempts at discussing him were poorly written and ill-informed, it was pretty evident that the journalists were regurgitating second-hand accounts or summaries or short YouTube clips. However, in the past 6–7 months, this has changed, partially as a function of the increased media attention (FT Lunch), but also the publication of Peterson’s book and media interviews which attained viral status.
There has been a lot written on Peterson, and this is not meant to be a review of his books or ideas. Rather, just as food for thought, here is a list of a few of Peterson’s views which I feel are underdeveloped or even misleading, and want to flag for others to consider:
1) All social systems equally lead to extreme inequality aka the power of the Pareto distribution
Of course all social systems lead to some degree of inequality (economically, but also in terms of political power, etc). However, Peterson’s reliance on the law of Pareto distribution is too crudely employed, and used to rationalize societal outcomes that in fact are malleable.
The ideas underlying persistent, non-linear distributions across natural and societal phenomena are powerful and richly explanatory. They deserve much more nuanced application than Peterson gives them.
Furthermore, what is to be said of the radically different institutional setups of continental Europe compared with the North Atlantic economies, or Japan? See David’s Soskice’s Varieties of Capitalism; or look into the protective policies underlying the successful development of economies throughout history. Economic prosperity, innovation and citizen well-being can be delivered through a variety of pathways.
How can we explain the changing inequality distributions seen even within countries over the past 50 years? Trade policy, financialization, immigration, technological change have all played significant roles in shaping the societal outcomes we are now observing; they also feedback on one another in unpredictable ways. From which vantage point can we take a snapshot of the system and then match it up to a Pareto distribution?
One gets the strong feeling that Peterson over-simplifies economic issues.In a recent podcast he basically said that micro-maximizing individuals will lead to the best macro (societal/economic) outcome in all cases. This is highly disputable in many situations, both from a complexity/systems/science/emergent phenomenon perspective and from various strands of economic literature (ie aggregate demand effects, the need macro-prudential financial regulation, collective action issues, and sub-optimal game theoretic outcomes). He’s also loose with mathematics sometimes: with statements like “all North Americans are in the top 1% (of income) globally”, in order to attack the positions of ‘privileged’ college students (see the most recent Dave Rubin conversation). I hope you immediately see some mathematical issues with that statement.
2) All left-leaning positions are a result of post-modern, neo-Marxist thought.
I question whether Peterson actually thinks this, or just blurts it out once he gets on a roll. He often says something akin to “left-wing parties true role is representing the working-class”, but at the same time riles against basically anything left-leaning as he sees it. This ignores other strands of “left analysis” (something which one would have encountered, as I did for example at the U of Toronto in the mid-2000s, and probably would have at any mainstream university’s Pol-Sci department): some degree of perceived morality about class/race and societal mobility, and an anti-US military-industrial-complex kind of thinking; those more closely associate with thinkers like Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, combined with a criticism and understanding of what led to the financial crisis of 2007–2009? These beliefs or views are not the result of the post-modern gender studies identity politics that Peterson riles against. I have not heard Peterson once engage with those types of ideas or criticisms.
3) All left-leaning positions will deterministically lead to the Gulag
OK, this is a partial exaggeration of Peterson’s view, but there is some truth in it. I can somewhat understand where he is coming from, but Canada will not become the USSR or Nazi Germany. Timothy Snyder might call this naive, but it’s just not gonna fly. The Daily Show’s mockery of communist Sweden delivers a hilarious parody of this view. There is also a deeper theoretical point here, because it asserts a kind of determinism about future societal developments (a strikingly Marxist idea).
4) We should strive for analysis and change primarily at the individual level, not societal
The message of taking personal responsibility has truly been lost (or muted) in the modern world, and it is probably the most appealing part of Peterson’s message, especially to young people. I fully agree with the idea that one needs to be careful in enacting societal changes with unpredictable consequences. An understanding of complexity theory and dynamic systems shows us the potential ill effects of disrupting the variables of a fragile system. However, combined with Peterson’s belief that life is suffering and painful, this individual-level focus lends itself to a radically conservative position: seemingly no societal issue can or should be changed. One wonders the abolition of slavery or the advancement of labour and civil rights could have ever been rationalized while adhering to Peterson’s position on this. How does one even decide what aspects of society to try to change using his lens?
5) Ideas matter (*thanks to EconTalk’s Russ Roberts of the EconTalk podcast for this reminder)
John Maynard Keynes, in The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, John Maynard Keynes famously worried that, “Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back, ”that “even the most practical man of affairs is usually in the thrall of the ideas of some long-dead economist.”
Today many of these important issues have found a way to bring this idea back to mainstream discussion, and that’s a good thing. Jordan Peterson is at least partially responsible for these ideas back on the table for public discussion, especially among younger generations; which is largely a good thing.
NB: see a discussion from Medium.com that ensued here: https://medium.com/@andidarmawangsa/some-thoughts-21a9f599c1e1