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Big Thinker: Jordan Peterson

by Olivia Pirie-Griffiths
06 February 2019
BIG;
THINKER
Canadian Psychologist Jordan Peterson is controversial.

It’s exactly why he is so compelling. That sounds as though it’s coming from someone who appreciates ‘shock factor’ but an interest in Peterson doesn’t lie in gaudiness.

It lies in his dual capacity for patience and puerile brashness, in his unperturbed sense of reason and how it makes you rethink your own, and his genuine want to provide people, who mightn’t usually engage in philosophical thought, with a system for living well with ethics and intention. Whether he achieves this is up for debate.  
 
Until fairly recently, Peterson was out of the public eye, but he has quickly become a world famous thinker with a slew of modern day disciples. In redefining the practice of psychology by weaving it tightly with philosophy and spirituality, he is painting himself as an everyday person’s Alain de Botton (with some more gasp-worthy opinions). 

‘Don’t legislate linguistics’  


After refusing to adopt transgender pronouns at The University of Toronto in 2016, Peterson was hurled into a firestorm of criticism but didn’t budge. He instead responded by telling the BBC, “I’ve studied authoritarianism for a very long time – for 40 years – and [it is] started by people’s attempts to control the ideological and linguistic territory”.
 
A seemingly dramatic response for what people may see as a matter of fact issue. For Peterson, though, this was a matter of fact response to a dramatic issue. 
 
His problem didn’t lie with the students who’d requested the chosen pronoun. It lay with the attempt to enforce legislation that required the use of certain words. In an interview with CBC, Peterson stated: 

I’m against the use of legislation to determine what words myself and other people are required to utter … it’s a very dangerous precedent. It’s one thing to tell people what they can’t say … it’s a completely different thing to demand that people use certain words when they’re formulating their own ideas.

For him, this was a matter that evolved from a group of people’s innate needs to the point where it could have a tangible (or lingual) effect on human rights, and that he had a problem with. “Free speech is not just another value. It’s the foundation of Western civilization”, he says. 
 
Despite speaking with such efficacy, Peterson still managed to push things to a sticky place. After defining his problem with legislative restriction of free speech he continued to refuse to use students’ preferred pronouns. While a matter of simple social grace for many, Peterson instead drew a hard line: 
 

No. I don’t believe that other people have the right to determine what language I use, especially when it’s backed by punitive legislation … and when the words that are being required are the artificial constructions of people I regard as radical ideologues whose viewpoint I do not share.

Unthinking ideologies
 

This leads us to his position on modern ideologies. Peterson finds them deeply dangerous, calling them “parasites on an underlying religious sub-structure”. He is criticised for his often firm response to passionate people’s attempts to express their opinions. He says those opinions aren’t really theirs. As Carl Jung said, “people don’t have ideas, ideas have people”. 

Peterson’s online lecture ‘Biblical Series I: Introduction to the Idea of God’ published in mid 2017, describes how belief systems play a role in regulating psychological and social health, splitting belief systems of the past (religions) from belief systems we generally have today (ideologies). 
 
He refers to religions of the past as ‘dreamlike’ systems which allowed us to organise our thoughts and live lives with meaning. These structures were useful, but they didn’t allow for the freedom of thought we have now.

Despite gaining freedom, the ideologies that have replaced religions are riddled with instability. They are “crippled dreamlike structures” and failed attempts to maintain the virtues imbibed in religions.

Peterson argues, “the replacement of these underlying dreamlike structures with these rational but deeply incorrect representations of the world” is throwing us into catastrophe. Our rational intellects divorce from our beings and attach themselves to something external. We do not really think but instead act according to the unstable ideologies we have clung to. 

To this end, he states: 

It’s impossible for those on the radical left … to admit that anyone who opposes what they’re doing might be reasonable ... because that would mean that you could be reasonable and oppose the radical left, and that would imply that what the radical left was doing wasn’t reasonable! 

For Peterson the ability to think and speak freely is the end game. 

The more you hear Jordan Peterson, the more intrigued you become. He shocks, offends and inspires. He is a conversationalist who broaches all topics because he believes in the value and constructive importance of his (and our) freedom to explore them.

He is undoubtedly one of the most challenging and exciting thinkers in the world today.
 
Olivia Pirie-Griffiths is director of the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom.


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