You know it’s a hit piece when a tenured professor at Canada’s top-ranked university is described as just another YouTube philosopher. But articles that constitute the burgeoning Jordan Peterson smear industry are written with an eagerness to lie that suggests that he is just an instance of a larger discursive destabilization.
Writing at Jacobin, Harrison Fluss couldn’t make it to the first paragraph in his article “Jordan Peterson’s Bullshit” without tipping his hand. The subheadline makes it clear that Fluss’s language is not that of mere intellectual dispute, but of a fight-response to ideas that threaten memetic hegemony:
Jordan Peterson’s thought is filled with pseudo-science, bad pop psychology, and deep irrationalism. In other words, he’s full of shit. [emphasis added]
These dysphemisms are so unspecific that they don’t evoke anything except ideological emergency. And emergency mode Fluss is in: within the first paragraph he’s already lying. He writes that, in Jordan Peterson’s interview on Channel 4 News, the psychologist’s ethos includes the “need for corporate hierarchy.” Peterson simply does not assert such a thing in the interview, making the lie bizarre in its obviousness. Is Fluss under the impression that readers wouldn’t pick up on this straightforward falsehood by just, you know, watching the video? How did that get past an editor?
Within a couple of paragraphs, it becomes clear that the inclusion of falsehood isn’t an oversight, but is instead essential to the article’s design. The author’s modus operandi is to use tactical pseudo-truths to police dissent. Accusations of racism, sexism and fascism — fascism! — against Peterson are invoked as being credible and common enough that they’re only disputed by his fans.
Peterson’s fans argue that he is not a fascist, just a classical liberal; not a racist, just someone who acknowledges “ethnic differences”; not a misogynist, just honest about the real differences between men and women.
Particularizing those who deny the charges as “fans,” this sentence implies an obviousness to the charges and a universality of those who agree with them. One would think the hyperlink for “fascist” would send one to some supporting facts, a citation convention to which Jacobin itself adheres. But it doesn’t. It navigates to an unrelated article titled “Capitalism and Nazism” about privatization in the 1930s. Jordan Peterson isn’t mentioned once.
The very same tactic was employed in the preceding paragraph, where Fluss references supposedly non-imaginary charges of Peterson having “membership in the alt-right.” In a similar way to the previous example, “alt-right” is displayed in hypertext, creating the impression that there is credibility to the idea that he carries some kind of card in his wallet. Not quite! The linked story has nothing to do with Dr. Peterson or anything related to him; it’s about fucking ethno-nationalism in Israel.
Lies of the more straightforward, less tiring variety reappear.
Like Nietzsche before him, Peterson sees the metaphysics of reason, as embodied in the Enlightenment project and modern socialism, leading inexorably toward relativistic nihilism.
One would expect the other side of that hyperlink to contain information supporting the idea that Peterson opposes “the Enlightenment project,” but you should know better by now. It’s an unrelated article about unrelated white nationalists who are embracing postmodernism. Jordan Peterson’s name, again, does not appear in that article once. And not only is there no evidence for their claim, there is evidence exactly refuting it that can be found with a cursory Google search. In an interview with Joe Rogan, Peterson said:
People don’t understand that postmodernism is a complete assault on two things. One, it’s an assault on the metaphysical substrate of our culture, and I would say that the metaphysical substrate looks something like a religious substrate. So it’s a direct assault on that. And the second thing it’s an assault on is everything that’s been established since the Enlightenment — rationality, empiricism, science. Everything. Clarity of mind, dialogue. The idea of the individual. It’s not only that it’s up for grabs. That’s not the thing. It’s to be destroyed. That’s the goal.
It’s hard to imagine Fluss or his editors being precisely this wrong by chance, and the rest of the piece follows this trajectory. Eleven of the 14 hyperlinks (79 percent) in the article link back to unrelated Jacobin stories, each giving the appearance of support for evidence-deprived claims.
I checked the seven other articles in Jacobin that were published between Fluss’s piece and the time of this writing. Thirty of the 202 hyperlinks point toward other Jacobin articles, or 15 percent. But this number isn’t even necessarily useful, and the ratio should be lower: even with regard to internal links, each of those seven pieces were constructed with integrity that was missing from Fluss’s spittle-flecked outburst. That’s probably because they weren’t written to neutralize a threat.
There are four other articles written by this man at Jacobin, three of which are accessible by non-subscribers. Those three contain seventy-two hyperlinks in the article bodies; only four of them (5.5 percent) link internally. These articles use hypertext citations in perfect adherence to convention: assertions are linked to reliable (often academic) sources that support exactly the sentence that they are embedded in, including the four ones linking to other Jacobin stories. What changed? Well, the purpose of “Jordan Peterson’s Bullshit” is to paint Peterson, a liberal, as an “alt-right” reactionary. Jacobin‘s dedication to this mission even extends to the article’s chosen URL:
Citations and non-sequiturs are indistinguishable in the Fluss piece in a way that separates it even from other Jacobin articles. Epistemic chaos for readers is the only predictable result. By being a notch less charitable we can call this epistemic terrorism — the introduction of confusion, uncertainty, and fear in the idea-space of the public, calculated for political gain.
Jordan Peterson has, of course, never been credibly accused of supporting “fascism,” but things would be much easier for left-wing intellectual hegemony if he were. So, why wouldn’t they pretend that he is? Who is going to stop them? This is a mistake in reasoning called privileging the question, and as Jacobin has demonstrated, it’s oftentimes a conscious strategy. Left Business Observer publisher Doug Henwood put it nicely:
There’s an old saying in the public opinion business: we can’t tell people what to think, but we can tell them what to think about.
Erroneous reasoning can be wielded as a weapon. That’s why, whatever your opinions are about the man otherwise, it’s natural to share Peterson’s concern about the foundations of reason being hollowed out by fanatics. Fluss’s article proved the point for us well enough. Anything that affirms ideology is neutral and obvious and natural. Anything that threatens it is worthy of unwinking suspicion. Only after neutralization and ritual humiliation of threats can suspicion be discharged.
It’s not useful to think of fanatics as bad people, or even as people who have been “affected” by discursive domination. They have a conscience, but its wiring has been hijacked so the “moral affront” response becomes synonymous with “threat to memetic hegemony”; epistemic terrorists, like literal terrorists, believe themselves to be defenders of sublime goodness and truth. Ideologues, to varying degrees, can’t exist outside of the structure of ideology because they are the ideology, being the meat that replicates it.
The sacred cows are few, much fewer than they would be if we had a Marxist hegemony instead of a slightly overlapping progressive one. But they are very sacred, and even a casual display of impiety triggers a memetic immune response. Fluss’s article is just one particularly fraudulent piece of the defensive propaganda formation that the media broke into to discredit Peterson. On gender, for example, their position is invulnerable to contradiction because contradiction is designated as not only immoral but “irrational” — which just means, you know, super immoral.
For all the bizarre but now-familiar attempts to smear him as “far-right,” Jordan Peterson is just a centrist liberal, with all the uninterestingness that that entails. But he’s a centrist liberal who has been demoralized by the officialization of polite falsehood enough to loudly speak what should be insipid truths. Platitudes like “Enlightenment values are worth preserving” and “science is true even if when produces discomforting results” now qualify as bomb-throwing.
Robert Mariani is an editor and co-founder of Jacobite. Follow him on Twitter.