A ‘Dear John’ Letter to an Unlikely Role Model
Disclaimer: This is not a fully cited essay, this is a rambly blog. No, I do not have the energy to debate you. I’m tired bro.
Jordan Peterson: clinical psychologist, best-selling author, self-help guru, slayer of snowflakes, dom of debate, master of memes and Prime Patriarch of the Lobster Cult.
If you don’t know who he is, I guess you’ve missed out on this particular discourse and I can’t say that I’m sorry for you. I’m fucking happy for you – delighted, really. Honestly, you’re not missing out.
In case you haven’t heard of him, here’s a Wikipedia paraphrase: Jordan Peterson is a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, specialising in the psychology of personality with a particular interest in Jungian psychoanalytic theory and a penchant for biological essentialism. He’s a Christian conservative who gained notoriety by critiquing a proposed bill passed by the Parliament of Canada to introduce gender identity expression as a prohibited ground of discrimination. After he started ‘blowing up’ he distilled his high theoretical work Maps of Meaning into a chart-topping self-help book called Twelve Rules for Life. Peterson’s talent lies not in the content of his work: his self-help advice is nothing special, the theories he talks about have been done to death by writers such as Joseph Campbell, and the personality quiz he developed is just an extension of ‘the big five’ and can be described as a horoscope for people who like to feel scientific. I’m not here to go through his arguments and debunk them, better people have done that already. Peterson’s talent lies in his ability to create parasocial relationships. Like any self-help guru, he tends to attract the emotionally vulnerable, who by virtue of their admiration sometimes turn into fans who advocate for him, as one would for any charismatic pseudo cult leader. That’s what makes him so dangerous.
Peterson knows his target market, and he knows how to speak with them and mobilise them. He knew how to speak to me.
You might know me as an incredibly online feminist, non-binary trans person and academic, but I wasn’t always like this mate. I was Peterson’s demographic. I was vulnerable, and Lobster Daddy appealed to my particular issues. I know it’s not the done thing to admit to this kind of ideological faux pas, but the thing is, Lobster Daddy spoke to me when I was feeling incredibly lost. Although I have now disowned father, I wouldn’t take back finding him, because he told me a lot of what I needed to hear. The self-help aspect of his rhetoric helped me, even though it was mixed in with some incredible bullshit.
So why did Jordan Peterson’s ‘teachings’ resonate with me so much?
Like a lot of his followers, I was butt hurt. I had a shitty time at University and had no fucking idea who I was supposed to be. I had zero confidence in myself or my work… I was incredibly lost and a bit angry about my undergraduate experience. I got into Warwick Uni, which is a fantastic place to learn, but I went from doing a pretty simplistic English Lang/Lit A-Level at school straight into a course about postmodernism. Like. What the fuck? They skipped straight past modernism to postmodernist deconstruction, and maybe I’m remembering wrong, but I don’t remember them giving one fucking iota of context. It was a bit much. Starting university with a lecture on postmodernism felt like being handed an anvil whilst walking a tightrope.
Like, I get it, learning is good. Understanding structures of power and oppression is invaluable, and I know I occupy a position of privilege, but I’m older and a tiny bit wiser now. I’m still learning. Back then I wasn’t ready! I had no idea what the hell was going on in my own life, let alone with everything else. I thought I was going to learn about some nice books and shit, not about how fucked-up everything is and how life has no meaning! Perhaps it’s common sense that this is all part of growing-up, but as a first gen student living away from home for the first time with an undiagnosed mental health condition and repressed trauma, I didn’t know how to handle it. I took the tools of deconstruction, used them to take my whole fucking life and identity apart and didn’t know how to put them back together. I learned new things about class, gender and mental health and when these massive concepts are viewed as purely academic, as analytical frameworks, the impact of this learning tends to be forgotten. Add this kind of rapid, hardcore knowledge acquisition to a traumatized, mentally ill student living away from home for the first time, and you have a recipe for nihilism. I wasn’t the only one; the course I was on had a high drop-out rate. I’m not saying it was the university’s fault – there are obviously personal factors involved with each drop-out – I’m just saying that higher education, in the state that it’s in, is fairly new – as are the types of students it’s catering to. The transitions between levels of education are not great. We were not prepared. This is why I work for LEADS and have worked with the Widening Participation Programme at the University of Glasgow – I want to help explain higher education to students who don’t know what they’re signing up for.
I didn’t have access to advice like that. I went through hell during my undergrad, somehow managed to scrape a first, and it just didn’t feel worth it. I was disillusioned and dissatisfied. University – what a load of bullshit.
That’s how he got me.
See, Jordan Peterson is a weirdly anti-intellectual intellectual, who knows how to translate sometimes complicated ideas into a digestible format – but not all of these ideas are accurate. Actually, he gets a load of stuff wrong. He conflates postmodernism and Marxism in a way which is inaccurate, but felt REMARKABLY like how I had been taught at University. The courses I took weren’t put into context so often the separate ideas they were teaching us about amalgamated, turning my already depressed brain into nihilism soup. It didn’t help that during my undergrad I was experiencing the worst of my dissociative amnesia and short term memory loss. (Tbh the paranoia didn’t help either 😬.)
I’d been out of uni for a little while when Peterson was suggested to me, and his explanation of POSTMODERN-NEO-MARXISM (the Cultural Marxism conspiracy lol) resonated with me. Finally, I thought, someone actually understands what a brain fuck higher education can be. Anything can look like a conspiracy when you don’t understand it. Maybe they WERE brainwashing me! (Oh the irony…)
When I found Peterson what I really needed was therapy. Accessing Peterson’s material is much easier than finding a therapist. Much of Peterson’s self-help spiel is actually functional advice, which probably stems from his background as a practicing clinical psychologist. There are certain frameworks (such as Jungian psychoanalysis) that may not hold-up to critical scrutiny, but work in clinical settings, for certain service users. His work in Maps of Meaning and many of his lectures point to there being an objective truth: his traditionalist values helped me feel grounded, he made me feel like life had meaning and that I had the power to navigate it. I listened to hour after hour of his lectures, and they gave me hope. At this time, I was also deep in the closet, clinging to the gender role I had assigned myself. His anti-feminist rhetoric validated my toxic femininity and his appeal to masculine values made my repressed dude bro heart sing.
I wanted to be a hero like the ones he spoke about, to make my mark on the world and speak my truth after years of hiding away and silencing myself. I wanted TO SLAY THE DRAGON OF CHAOS. Peterson inspired me to want more for myself, so I cleaned my damn room, went out and fucking got it! I started teaching, and I rediscovered my love for academic writing. I applied to Glasgow’s Fantasy MLitt and got a scholarship. I even wrote about Maps of Meaning in my first midterm essay (it was shit and my professor was confused – sorry Rob 😂).
It was during this return to higher education that things started to click into place for me. I gained a broader understanding of different schools of thought, I learned what the Frankfurt School was and about different types of psychoanalysis. I got broader exposure to different research areas, but more importantly, I was lucky enough to speak to the people doing this research. By chatting with my tutors, taking part in university life and conducting my own research, I realised that researchers are just people pursuing their different interests. Sometimes they participate in communities when their interests intersect, but largely they’re not very organised (no shade). Participating in higher education also made me realize that universities and their bureaucracy are WAY TOO dysfunctional to be doing some weird Cultural Marxist indoctrination scheme. No one has the fucking time. If you start to think conspiracy theories sound plausible, go and work at an institution and try submitting a pay-claim. That’ll learn you.
Being online helped too: I met more trans people, and followed wonderful researchers such as Dr Jeana Jorgensen whose sex positive, feminist tweets and blogs helped me realise just how wrong Peterson is about so many things. I also started watching video essays and this was EXTREMELY important. You see, when I began watching Peterson’s content, YouTube started suggesting more conservative content creators and led me down the path to the alt right. That was a fucking rabbit hole; Milo, Alex Jones, Joe Rogan and Paul Joseph Watson all popped up. Then, by some miracle YouTube steered me in the direction of creators such as Philosophy Tube and Contrapoints, which poked a hole in the algorithm tunnel and let the light shine in.
Jordan Peterson led me to some seriously dark and harmful places. I think the dangers of his teachings negate much of the good he is capable of doing.
People who defend Peterson sometimes talk about the functionality of his advice like I do, they say it’s a means to an end, it’s something that can help people – specifically, white, cis men. The thing is, his useful advice is like a trojan horse: you come for the self-help, and you end up with harmful, at times contradictory, rhetoric that further entrenches already hegemonic values under the guise of being revolutionary.
I was alerted to this problem by a minor interaction that made me realise that I needed to evaluate myself and step away from Lobster Daddy. I was chatting about Jordan Peterson with an acquaintance and began to point out the flaws in his arguments and this man had the AUDACITY to ask ME if I had seen any of Peterson’s work.
Why would he give a shit about my opinion or remember what I had to say? I was just a woman to him.
Bit of an insular wake-up call, but it was at that moment I realised that I had been listening to Jordan Peterson like a cis man would! That was how I could excuse his misogyny, because not only did I have internalized misogyny, I had also ignored the harmful messages about women because I felt like they didn’t apply to me!
Inside me were two genders and BOTH OF THEM WERE TOXIC!!!!
I realised that this man’s ‘teachings’ were perpetuating attitudes that could be actively harmful to me and people I care about. I wish I could say I was more community minded back then, but at that point I was very much alone and only just beginning to understand the struggles that marginalised communities face. I was also in the closet and denying my identity so fervently that I pushed any issues I really cared about far away. It hurt too much to face them back then.
I am still grateful that Jordan Peterson inspired me to live a more meaningful life and be true to myself, but the self I am true to represents so much of what he speaks against. Lobster Daddy, you helped me find myself and in finding myself I outgrew you.
Thank you to the lovely Lara for being my reader for this post! Please check out her YouTube channel Unraveling Thoughts which has some cool analyses of video games and movies!
Thank you also to the fabulous Dr. Jeana Jorgensen for sending me your blog posts: when I got to them, I realised I had already read them! You’re an excellent influence!