Degeneration and Growth
I have tried to understand the Jordan Peterson phenomenon, I really have, but I have generally found no great new depth of insight there. He was plucked from relative obscurity into celebrity because people were looking for an anti-woke intellectual, and because he resisted wokeness in the name of fairly standard conservative ideas which confirmed the prior ideological commitments of a wide audience on the right
A blog post from former supporter David Fuller, who produced an early, influential documentary on Peterson, describes his appeal.
The excesses of post modernity had been storing up a backlash of traditional values, and most importantly for me, I had seen how the secular, rationalist assumptions of the new atheist worldview had been a narrow and deadening influence on the culture, and here was a man who was fueled by a deep appreciation of religion and mythology, the return of the archetypal and the deep mythos of the culture.
He credits Peterson with “shifting the argument from a default 'new atheist' rejection of anything to do with religion or spirituality to a new appreciation for the evolved truths of religion.” Like I said: standard issue conservatism, but with a much more intellectual gloss on it than usual.
But by Fuller’s reckoning, Peterson has been subverted by a process known as audience capture.
My view is that there were always multiple different Petersons cohabiting at the same time, the thoughtful scholar and the academic alongside the reactive political culture warrior. I was definitely selective in seeing the best version of him. Over time the latter became more and more rewarded and prominent until it became the dominant persona. How and why that has happened, to Peterson and to many other public intellectuals, is one of the major problems of our social media age….
He is now little more than a boilerplate conservative commentator, stoking the culture war dynamic for those already deeply embroiled in the conflict.
In addition to audience capture, Peterson is also becoming subject to the Law of the Instrument: If all you have is the culture war, then it had better explain absolutely everything. Hence Peterson’s long, rambling, and deeply ignorant new commentary about Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Let’s skip over the ignorance, including his confident pronouncement that everyone else’s understanding of Ukraine is shallow while he renders the Holodomor—the catastrophic artificial famine imposed on Ukraine by the Soviets—as “Holomodor.” (The comments section on this video is a bloodbath of Peterson’s former fans calling out his factual and moral failings.)
The central passage that gained most people’s attention is this one (by way of Cathy Young), in which he reduces Russia’s war against Ukraine to just another skirmish in our domestic culture wars.