By Grant Maxwell
It seems to be no accident that Jordan Peterson is having his moment as perhaps the most-discussed North American intellectual during the Trump era. He’s certainly more sophisticated than Trump, couching misogyny and bigotry in academic language, using various psychological and philosophical theories as cover, making them sound reasonable in his calm, Canadian way. But he seems to be expressing a subtler valence of the same regressive world view.
A psychology professor at the University of Toronto, Peterson first entered broad public awareness in September of 2016 when he spoke out against a recently passed Canadian law that protects “gender identity and expression” against hate propaganda and discrimination, which Peterson claimed was a violation of free speech. Peterson appeals mostly to young men who feel that something has gone wrong with our culture. I think they’re right in a very limited sense, which I’ll explain below.
Peterson’s work is complex, and addressing it comprehensively would be far beyond the scope of this piece, but what is clear is that he consistently misuses profound ideas, especially those of C.G. Jung, to justify his misogyny. The primary problem with Peterson’s interpretation of Jung is that he conceives the archetypes too literally, especially as they relate to gender. He’s not alone in this misinterpretation, and if this was the extent of the trouble, it would be merely an issue for scholarly debate and correction. But the larger problem is that he uses this misreading of Jung as essentializing gender roles to rationalize a pernicious sexism masquerading as a defense of free speech and common sense. This message, framed as psychological theory and supported by questionable data, is resonating with many young men, providing an easy answer to a crisis of historical proportions. His response is to reject feminism and postmodernism (or at least his caricature of these movements), and essentially return to traditional gender roles, which Peterson argues are more biologically intrinsic than socially conditioned.
He evidently wants to return to unquestioned patriarchy by paradoxically claiming that “the idea that women were oppressed throughout history is an appalling theory.” This is an insidious sleight-of-hand in which, by denying that patriarchal oppression ever existed, men can continue to ignore what many women have been saying for centuries, from Mary Wollstonecraft and Simone de Beauvoir to Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Kate Manne. Furthermore, Peterson has advised his followers to completely avoid the disciplines of sociology, anthropology, English, women’s studies, and ethnic and racial studies, a startlingly broad swath of the academy that he sees as “corrupted” by the supposed evils of feminism, postmodernism, and neo-Marxism. Peterson’s work invites a much more extensive critique than I have the space (or inclination) to offer here, and there have been numerous excellent critical pieces (including this recent article in The Guardian), but what’s more interesting to me is the question of why so many young men are drawn to his work, specifically what need his pseudo-intellectual misogyny fills for these men, some of whom I’ve found to be otherwise quite intelligent and reasonable in one-on-one interactions.
The men who are attracted to Peterson’s ideas seem to have a profound sense that their dominant role in society is coming to an end, and that feminist postmodernism is the primary agent of this loss of privileged status. This grievance is not news to anyone who pays attention to politics, as it is this very sense of loss of an imagined golden age that largely seems to have motivated Trump voters. But the deeper register of this insight is that postmodernism has, in fact, constituted a kind of death–a death of the modern–and an end of the certainty and privilege that men–especially straight white men–have experienced in the era currently coming to a close. My suggestion, drawing on theorists like Hegel, William James, Henri Bergson, Jung, and Alfred North Whitehead, is that postmodernity is not merely the “closure” of an epoch with no opening in sight, as Jacques Derrida would have it, but a transitional moment between world views, a deconstruction of modern assumptions in order to clear space for the emergence of a novel mode of relation. But as with any such “phase transition,” whether on the scale of revolutions in science or politics, or in breakthroughs or conversion experiences in individual psychology, the relatively stable system must reach a point of crisis so extreme that a fundamental reorganization of that system is required if it hopes to continue existing as a vital process.
The initiatory ordeals characteristic of many primal cultures, which mediate the transition of the individual from adolescence to adulthood, provide a structure for the inevitable suffering that can lead to the psychological death of the relatively undifferentiated youthful self. Out of this death emerges a more mature consciousness which, in Jungian terms, is less identified with ego. Extending this process to the collective domain, privileged white men can perhaps be considered as having constituted something like the egoic center of our cultural consciousness in modern North America and Europe. As philosopher Richard Tarnas and psychologist James Hollis (both of whom I would offer as much better Jungian alternatives to Peterson) have suggested, we may be undergoing a collective initiatory ordeal in which the adolescence of Western culture characteristic of modernity is dying and being subsumed in the emergence of a more mature, compassionate, and sustainable cultural mode. But lacking initiatory rites, the main streams of our culture do not offer a narrative container that renders intelligible the suffering which generally accompanies the transition from adolescence to adulthood, not on the level of the individual initiate, and certainly not for the culture at large. In this light, Trump and Peterson are not merely regressive, though they certainly are that; they’re primary manifestations of the ego’s instinct to cling to its habitual structures, to protect itself against the chaotic, unconscious forces, “the ocean of the dark things,” as Jung puts it, upon which the ego floats, and through the encounter with which the self is transformed. As Jung understood, this unconscious other has historically been constructed as the “feminine,” literalized in the oppression and othering of women by men. This oppression, of course, has caused great suffering for women, but also for men who have been taught to repress their relational, emotional, and intuitive capacities, and to project these qualities onto women, a lack of self-knowledge that causes many men to experience profound anger, sadness, and isolation, often driving them into traditional modes of patriarchal masculinity.
What we seem to be witnessing in this moment, exemplified in different inflections by Trump and Peterson, is the final death of the modern, and the last clinging gasp of patriarchy (the origins of which can be traced much earlier than modernity) before the emergence into a novel relational mode. Two centuries ago, Hegel heralded the inception of this novel dispensation as “a birth-time and a period of transition to a new era.” This relational mode, I contend, seeks dialectically to reconcile modern modes of thought based largely on reductionist materialism and the differentiation of logical, rational capacities (roughly correlated with the Aristotelian material and efficient causation almost exclusively privileged in modern science) with affective, intuitive, and somatic epistemologies generally more highly developed in premodern and primal world views (often correlated with Aristotelian formal and final causation). As Alfred North Whitehead wrote in 1938, “the current philosophic doctrines, mostly derived from Hume, are defective by reason of their neglect of bodily reference,” specifically the felt reality of forms and purposes so pervasive in earlier eras, which have often been repressed and marginalized in the last several centuries in the West. These causal modes were recognized by Jung as deeply connected with the unconscious shadow, the body, and the archetypal “feminine.”
These are large, complex ideas, whose application can be extended beyond the vitally important issue of gender to address many of our most fundamental beliefs and modes of relation to the world and to one another. But for present purposes, it must suffice to say that the modern construction of masculinity has defined itself through opposition to the other–not only to women, but also to other ways of relating to gender and sexuality, to other cultures, and even to other epistemologies and modes of causation. Postmodernism and feminism have, in broad strokes, been largely constituted in the project of deconstructing and problematizing these privileging oppositions. This deconstruction is an essential project that has temporarily left most of us without a stable cultural narrative on which to base our identities, and that has produced an immensely disorienting moment of transition stretching across several generations. But this deconstruction also seems to have been the precondition for the emergence of a mode of thought that seeks to reconcile these oppositions by holding them in compassionate, though often tense relation, an incipient process that we currently seem to be witnessing in the #MeToo movement, which has emerged as a countervalent corrective to the regressive movement exemplified by Peterson and Trump.
The profound shadow of modernity is coming to light in these apparently opposite movements, which both ultimately seem to be manifestations of the same deeper impulse toward the healing of the wounds of modernity and patriarchy through the emergence into collective consciousness of the misogyny and bigotry that have formed the unconscious complement to the triumphant, archetypally “masculine” ascent of discovery, exploration, and conquest explicit in modernity’s heroic, egoic narrative. By collectively becoming aware of our shadow, we are effectively exorcizing our cultural demons, creating a precondition for the integration of profound oppositions that have resided at the heart of a schizophrenic modernity.
Of course, it is possible that the forces of regressive masculinity will again literalize the symbolic death of the modern in totalitarianism or nuclear war. And it must be acknowledged that many of us–especially the most vulnerable–are currently suffering in a myriad of ways. However, I think it is more likely, given that we have largely integrated the pain of those collective traumas, that this regressive moment will be relatively brief, and we will soon see a progressive wave of compassion, justice, sustainability, and even kindness in reaction to the Trump-Peterson era. I suspect this regressive movement will be viewed by history as the final death rattle of the older mode of relation, making way for the emergence of a qualitatively novel historical era. As Whitehead writes, “new epochs emerge with comparative suddenness,” and the tragic regression we’re currently enduring may ultimately be understood as the factor that finally propelled us into a novel mode of relation.
Grant Maxwell is the author of The Dynamics of Transformation: Tracing an Emerging World View and How Does It Feel?: Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Philosophy of Rock and Roll. He is an editor at Persistent Press and the Archai journal, and he lives in Nashville with his wife and two sons.