Fake News. Propaganda. Populism. Psy-Ops. Trump threatening journalists and tweeting nonsense about Canada being a threat to ‘national security’. Brexit and Bill C-16; Doug Ford winning the election in Ontario: What do they all have in common? Words, used in ways that confuse, make life more opaque, intensify magical thinking and foster ill-timed disagreements. Words matter a lot, but the way they are being bandied about in our so-called ‘public discourse’, you wouldn’t know it. As many wise people before me have argued, the minute we begin using words carelessly, over-use jargon, or simply distort the truth, culture becomes what we have today: a shit show.
It’s endangering our fragile democracies, shifting them into the hands of bombastic strongmen like Trump. He is a quasi-dictator, and seems very fond of real dictators, like Putin, Erdogan, Duterte and the rest. Ford might not be as extreme as Trump, but he is a populist who uses simple words to describe complex situations, just as Trump does. It’s a form of lying that we’re all getting used to.
Which is why I have become a somewhat reluctant fan of Jordan B Peterson, once a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Toronto, but since the release of his book, 12 Rules for Life An Antidote To Chaos, an author who pulls in hundreds of thousands of readers. His current book tour, covering some 50 cities, is mostly sold out and they had to add an extra date in Vancouver because of the demand. He is a superstar, someone both adored and vilified. If he gives a lecture at Queens University, it’s very likely that it will be disrupted by very angry young people who take exception to his stand on Bill C-16 also known as ‘the pronoun bill’, and what he calls ‘compelled speech, as seen here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MwdYpMS8s28
It is also very likely that hundreds of other young people will stand in line four hours, just to make sure that they get a seat. He has his finger on the pulse of our fearful time, and it gets him into trouble, again and again.
But I read his rules, and while I am not sure about some of them, the ones that stand out as wonderfully timely are these:
7. Tell the truth–or at least, do not lie.
8. Assume that the person you are listening to knows something you don’t.
9. Be precise in your speech.
If Kathleen Wynne had followed those rules, she might still be premier of the province instead of an utterly defeated politician whose party is no longer.
I think she became a victim of the current word wars, in which she sided with the experts and bureaucrats whose business it is to actually implement policies. They tend to talk in jargon that only they truly comprehend, and they do not, as a rule, talk to the public at all. Wynne listened to them, and she didn’t do a very good job of explaining what they were doing. Nor was she listening to her constituents. In other words, she broke two of the Peterson rules. She is, in many ways someone captured in the silos of expert opinion. I don’t know to what extent passing the transgender pronoun bill C-16, played a role in her defeat, but it got mixed in with high energy costs and other ills contributing to her downfall.
Bill C-16 is an amendment to Canada’s Human Rights Act, which extends its protections to fluid gender identity and also, gender-neutral pronouns. If this sounds rather obscure, it is. Except that when certain students insist on being addressed as ‘they’ by their professors, it now has the force of law behind it. And the only public intellectual who cried foul, at the risk of being censured by his university, was Jordan Peterson. Though already famous on campus, it was this that made him the bete noire of Canadian intellectual life.
He said he simply wasn’t going to do it, claiming that he was willing to be jailed for his refusal. Never mind that he would first have to refuse to pay the fine, and then go to jail; this is just nitpicking. He insisted that the government, to paraphrase Pierre Trudeau, has no business telling people how to talk. It’s never been done before, for good reason. It is a very bad law, badly written and based on a few people assuming the mantle of spokesperson for the LGBTQ community and ‘advising’ the government. Peterson said that he personally received over 40 letters from members of that (quite small) community, blaming this strange law for making their lives much more difficult than before. He refused to get sidetracked into arguments about gender issues though everyone certainly tried to pin the label of regressive sexist white male on him. It’s a pleasure to watch him follow the rule about being precise in speech.
So, imagine my disappointment when Peterson became quite angry during a couple of his public interviews and forums. He can get pretty heated, which in today’s public world is not acceptable unless you’re Trump, who can berate people at will. To get hot under the collar is not cool. Even old friends and supporters, like Bernard Schiff, the retired professor who aided and abetted Peterson’s early career at the U of T, now labels his old friend as ‘dangerous’. That word is very much in the forefront these days; it seems that everything has become ‘dangerous’, which is, in itself, quite dangerous because it is simply fearmongering. In the article in which Schiff decries his former colleague as a depressed social Darwinist with an agenda, it’s clear that it is Peterson’s unrestrained intellectual passion that has upset his academic mentor the most. He calls him ‘a preacher rather than a teacher’, which he well might be. Schiff describes how he called Peterson up re the transgender law and other matters, only to be interrupted and told that,
“You don’t understand. I am willing to lose everything, my home, my job etc., because I believe in this.”
He also talked about a prophetic dream, in which his wife, Tammy, realizes that ‘it’s five minutes to midnight’. The message is clear: we are drifting into Chaos. Peterson seems to be offering himself as the martyr, who will be sacrificed while telling ‘the truth’. This is a very ancient trope, and since Peterson writes a great deal about mysticism, the Bible, and Jung, you could argue, as Pankaj Mishra does, that Peterson has fallen into the very isms he lectures on.
Mishra, the author of The Age of Anger, wrote a brilliant exegesis of what’s ailing our culture by analyzing the history of romantic intellectual ‘isms’ via literature and art. He knows what he’s talking about, and I read him with pleasure.
Mysticism with a big M, including fascism, Jung, and all the Eastern religions became fashionable in Europe when two world wars stripped all meaning from life and sent intellectuals scurrying to archetypes and gurus and strongmen like Stalin. Peterson, says Mishra, is in fact, a mystic fascist without quite realizing it. He exhorts men to ‘be strong’, and says things like ‘Consciousness was always male’. But I believe he means this in a strictly symbolic way, and he is actually not saying that women have no consciousness, which was one interpretation. Peterson’s thought is not simple and much of it demands a rather sophisticated grasp of concepts. So he gets furious when his opposite wants to reduce his complex ideas to something everyone ‘gets’.
And that is the problem. Nothing, as Peterson points out, is simple, but too many people, frightened of Chaos, yearn for simple answers. The demagogues who pull them out of their demented hats are elected. Never mind that they make no sense, make things worse, indeed, create more Chaos.
No wonder Peterson gets angry. He is no saviour; he is human, all too human. But he is showing courage in confronting a flawed public discourse that breaks all the rules, especially the ones about language that Peterson thinks are important to our public well being.
At the very least, Peterson is willing to risk his neck for the greater good. Even if it is misguided, who among us can claim the same?
What he’s wrong about is that he can save us. I’m sure that he doesn’t actually believe that, as some claim. I’m sure he wrote that book so that we can all try to save ourselves, our immediate neighbours and family, as best we can. Peterson’s Rules are not a bad place to begin.
And while we’re gearing up for that, perhaps we should stop rehashing old ideologies and quit adoring glittering demagogues in the futile search for saviours. They exist only in imaginary utopias and bad language laws.
Read the book.