Why do people find Jordan Peterson so convincing? Because the left doesn't have its own house in order

The Canadian clinical psychologist and university professor has become hugely popular for his 'anti-PC' views and is beloved of many on the alt-right. He's appealing for a number of reasons, most of them connected to the left-wing people he opposes

Slavoj Zizek
Tuesday 13 February 2018 17:20 GMT
Jordan Peterson leaves Cathy Newman speechless in debate on transgender rights

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


The wide popularity of Jordan Peterson, a once-obscure Canadian clinical psychologist and university professor who has become beloved of the alt-right, is a proof that the liberal-conservative “silent majority” finally found its voice. Peterson, who has said that the idea of white privilege is a "Marxist lie" and theorised that "radical feminists" don't speak out about human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia because of "their unconscious wish for brutal male domination", is fast becoming a mainstream commentator.

His advantages over the previous anti-LGBT+ star Milo Yiannopoulos are obvious. Yiannopoulos was witty, fast-talking, full of jokes and sarcasms, and openly gay – he resembled, in many features, the culture he was attacking. Peterson is his opposite: he combines a “common sense” approach and (the appearance of) cold scientific argumentation with a bitter rage at a threat to the liberal basics of our societies – his stance is: “Enough is enough! I cannot stand it anymore!”

It is easy to discern the cracks in his advocacy of cold facts against “political correctness”: not only is he often relying on unverified theories, but the big problem is the paranoiac construct which he uses to interpret what he sees as facts. "Facts are facts," he likes to say, before going on to say that "the idea that women were oppressed throughout history is an appalling theory" and that to conceive of gender as a social construct is "as bad as claiming the world is flat".

Jacques Lacan wrote that, even if what a jealous husband claims about his wife (that she sleeps around with other men) is all true, his jealousy is still pathological: the pathological element is the husband's need for jealousy as the only way to retain his dignity, identity even. Along the same lines, one could say that, even if most of the Nazi claims about the Jews were true (they exploit Germans, they seduce German girls, and so on) – which they are not, of course – their anti-Semitism would still be (and was) a pathological phenomenon because it repressed the true reason why the Nazis needed anti-Semitism in order to sustain their ideological position. In the Nazi vision, their society is an organic whole of harmonious collaboration, so an external intruder is needed to account for divisions and antagonisms.

The same holds for how, today, the anti-immigrant populists deal with the “problem” of the refugees: they approach it in the atmosphere of fear, of the incoming struggle against the “Islamification” of Europe, and they get caught in a series of obvious absurdities. For them, refugees who flee terror are equalised with the terrorists they are escaping from, oblivious to the obvious fact that, while there are probably among the refugees also terrorists, rapists, criminals and so on, the large majority are desperate people looking for a better life.

In other words, the cause of problems which are immanent to today's global capitalism is projected onto an external intruder. Anti-immigrant racism and sexism is not dangerous because it lies; it is at its most dangerous when its lie is presented in the form of a (partial) factual truth.

Unfortunately, the liberal, left-wing reaction to anti-immigrant populism is no better. Populism and leftie “political correctness” practice the two complementary forms of lying which follow the classic distinction between hysteria and obsessional neurosis: a hysteric tells the truth in the guise of a lie (what it says is literally not true, but the lie expresses in a false form an authentic complaint), while what an obsessional neurotic claims is literally true, but it is a truth which serves a lie.

Populists and PC liberals resort to both strategies. First, they both resort to factual lies when they serve what populists perceive as the higher truth of their cause. Religious fundamentalists advocate “lying for Jesus” – say, in order to prevent the “horrible crime of abortion”, one is allowed to propagate false scientific “truths” about the lives of foetuses and the medical dangers of abortion; in order to support breast-feeding, one is allowed to present as a scientific fact that abstention from breast-feeding causes breast cancer, and so on.

Common anti-immigrant populists shamelessly circulate non-verified stories about rapes and other crimes of the refugees in order to give credibility to their “insight” that refugees pose a threat to our way of life. All too often, PC liberals proceed in a similar way: they pass in silence over actual differences in the “ways of life” between refugees and Europeans since mentioning them may be seen to promote Eurocentrism. Recall the Rotherham sex abuse scandal, where the race of the perpetrators was downplayed in case anything in the case could be interpreted as racist.

The opposite strategy – that of lying in the guise of truth – is also widely practiced on both poles. If anti-immigrant populists not only propagate factual lies but also cunningly use bits of factual truth with the aura of veracity to their racist lie, PC partisans also practice this “lying with truth”: in its fight against racism and sexism, it mostly quotes crucial facts, but it often gives them a wrong twist. The populist protest displaces onto the external enemy the authentic frustration and sense of loss, while the PC left uses its true points (detecting sexism and racism in language and so on) to reassert its moral superiority and thus prevent true social change.

And this is why Peterson’s outbursts have such an effect. His crazy conspiracy theory about LGBT+ rights and #MeToo as the final offshoots of the Marxist project to destroy the West is, of course, ridiculous. It is totally blind for the inner antagonisms and inconsistencies of the liberal project itself: the tension between liberals who are ready to condone racist and sexist jokes on account of the freedom of speech and the PC regulators who want to censor them as an obstacle to the freedom and dignity of the victims of such jokes has nothing to do with the authentic left.

Peterson addresses what many of us feel goes wrong in the PC universe of obsessive regulation – the problem with him does not reside in his theories but in the partial truths that sustain them. If the left is not able to address these limitations of its own project, it is fighting a lost battle.

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