This discussion by Nathan Robinson of Current Affairs is a must read. Like usual, I think Nathan’s exactly right.
But first, a little personal digression. None of this is about statistics or data science at all, so if you’re here for that, feel free to tune out.
This past year has been a personal & professional whirlwind for me. Over its course, I broke up with my long-term girlfriend, sold/donated nearly everything I owned, moved to Brooklyn to work for CARTO while finishing my dissertation, got back with my girlfriend long distance from Brooklyn, applied to (and got) a tenure-track job in the UK, then finished my dissertation, moved to the UK, defended my dissertation, and returned here to try and stop my head from spinning. I felt at once extremely interested & capable at making friends, but finding myself completely at a loss for words & motivation. I lost 80 pounds through an intense workout regimen and a fundamental rethink about my relationship with myself and my lifestyle. I went to a lot of socialist events, concerts, comedy shows, and read a ton of new books. In this period, I spent long stretches feeling at that weird critical point at the junction of intense anxiety, extreme excitement, and laconic depression.
Somewhere in that time while building another life in Brooklyn, I stumbled on Jordan Peterson’s series of strange academic but also personal self help life advice on Youtube. Much like when I found myself in the very first 4chan thread precipitating Gamergate, I could tell that his self-help jargon mixed with his politics would probably break the internet. Since podcasts reflect the death of oppositional journalism (hell, look how uncomfortable people have been with the mild disagreement between David Cross & Felix Biederman on the relevance of criticizing Louis Farrakhan’s antisemitism last week’s Chapo), I could tell that his style of rambling, energetic truth-feeling statements would resonate with others as they were with me.
It’s an interesting thing when someone with reprehensible politics says something that really resonates with you. It’s uncomfortable… awkward even. You feel insecure about who you can mention this to, and how you have to qualify your statements to avoid seeming like you’re endorsing the individual and not just this one specific idea. Part of me is over this frisson, given some time and personal thinking about how political polarization totalizes all aspects of our identity, but now the internet’s fixation on JP brings it up again.
So, what grabbed me about that material initially?
Honestly, I’d never been receptive to the simple statement:
doing small things that build your capacity helps you feel like a competent human being.
I knew this, in that I understood what I did on days I felt good about myself, my life, & my career. In high school, I’d learned that, for me, keeping short but actionable mantras in my head helped me focus on things that mattered, rather than allowing myself to spall out into the fissures of irrelevant detail. I’d known that keeping an anti-todo list helped me feel at once like I was doing enough and avoid extreme levels of overwork.
I’d heard this advice often in a very limited academic sense, as both my first advisor, the advisor I finished under, and the two books I read about doing a PhD suggested that the key to success was to:
make time to write a small bit every day
but it just didn’t click with me that this is a more general strategy for success, partially because I find myself afflicted with the more general postmodern condition: skepticism of grander narratives. Not even in the counseling I had gotten for anxiety towards the end of my dissertation had this advice (which was very obviously given to me) been received.
I’m not sure what made this realization click with me coming from Peterson… other than that his effusiveness, obscurantism, and exceptional enthusiasm was never how I’d received this advice before. But, I was so taken, I’ll be honest… I sent this out to my brothers suggesting it fostered the mindset that helped me reconstruct my self and my life.
So, when Nathan’s piece discusses how often Peterson’s statements in debates are clearly sophistic, this was never the context in which I found him energizing. Nathan’s right, of course (as usual). But, more critically to me, his understanding of Peterson more accurately hears the ideological tone of his ascent: Peterson mixes both an incredibly conventional conservative atomistic theory of individuals—no more than a heady duty-driven Algerism—in with real, actionable, banal advice that can be helpful or true. The fact that Petersonians can then listen to an entirely conventional message with regressive political undertones and come out of it feeling grateful to Peterson for fixing their life… this provides a very strong emotional charge to the political content. The politics must be “right” because they “worked” (for a very restricted definition of “worked”).
Of course, as soon as the politics become broader than something that is measured by this very local idea of success, people like myself, with political convictions and preexisting ethical committments, jump ship. But, I’m willing to bet most of Peterson’s followers do not have this preexisting exposure, and so find this Darwinian epistemology useful. The proof is in the pudding, their room is now clean, and they don’t have to mess with Kierkegaard nor Kant. Then, they continue to justify (or fail to reject) really shitty beliefs because of the fixation on their purely material consequences, without questioning their context and the grounds on which these consequences arise.
Of course, from here, others wonder where the leftist version of this kind of supportive/declaratory politics is… reading Zizek or watching Manufacturing of Consent surely does not provide the kinds of specific personal actionable insights about, say, what solidarity, class consciousness, or mutual support really means. I’ve been marginally involved these past weeks in one of the largest industrial actions I’ve ever seen. Though as a ``foreigner” whose entire existence in the UK is predicated on my work visa and I could not really strike in full, I wonder how this idea of group-solidarity can be reconciled with the fact that some problems do have personal asystematic components that can be solved through judicious application of consistent but directed effort. Generally, is it even appropriate for there to be a left thinker who fills this gap on how one person might live well, which assumes or accepts the system as deeply flawed and unjust? Is there something about deontological ethics that cannot be grounded in the left?
I don’t know… I believe it’s possible, but I wonder. Regardless, I’m sure Peterson’s got a nice racket while it lasts, and a nice tenure package lined up with Prager U.