In this article, we critically reflect on the role of Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson as a public intellectual in the face of information overload. We argue that some caution is warranted by reflecting on the limits and shortcoming of the figure of the public intellectual as a liberal ideal. In today’s online and offline public spheres, marked by the attention economy as well as a general crisis of expertise, the public intellectual is by no means exempt from ulterior motives in filtering information for the general public. In fact, we argue with reference to his writings and public performances, in the case of Peterson, the intellectual comes to function as a creator of powerful filter bubbles instead of furthering democracy.
Jordan Peterson: Public Intellectual in the Time of Overload
In an interview for Diggit Magazine titled “Public intellectuals and the public sphere” (2018), professor of cultural studies Odile Heynders explains the need for, and function of, public intellectuals in today’s online public spheres. According to her, they are needed to filter out information in times of overload and, based on this, trigger discussion between diverging points of view. They know how to employ fiction to open up the debate. A public intellectual, she explains here, is an educated person with some cultural authority, who can assist and guide the public in forming an informed opinion on societal matters. (S)he is present in the media and offers an in-depth perspective on current affairs. Public intellectuals are able to intervene in socio-political debates, especially when they are not afraid to voice a committed, provocative, or even compromised standpoint.
In her book Writers as Public Intellectuals (2016), Heynders cites Jürgen Habermas, who characterizes intellectuals by their “avant-gardistic instinct for relevances.” This instinct entails, amongst other elements, a “sense for what is lacking and ‘could be otherwise’” and a “modicum of the courage required for polarizing, provoking and pamphleteering” (Habermas 2009, 55). Public intellectuals possess critical knowledge and ideas, inspire discussions, and provide “alternative scenarios in regard to topics of political, social and ethical nature” (Heynders 2016, 3). In this way, Heynders argues, the public intellectual can perform as mediator, informing a non-expert audience and stimulating them to participate in the public debate.
Especially in times of information overload, we agree with Heynders that we are in need of people with the ability to filter true from false information. People who are able to establish the difference between fact and fiction, truth and rumors, or data and knowledge. It has been argued that we currently live in the ‘post-truth age,’ where technology has diminished the status of truth (Viner 2016). Indeed, in the digital age, it is easier than ever to publish false information, which is quickly shared and taken as true. Falsehoods and facts spread the same way—as evidenced by the current rise of alt-right media and the popularity of clickbait articles. Too often, virality gets valued over truth, and form over content.
According to Edward Said in Representations of the Intellectual, the public intellectual has "a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion to, as well as for, a public; ... confronts orthodoxy and dogma, representing people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug ... on the basis of universal principles," like justice and freedom (1994, 11-12). Said sees the public role of the intellectual as outsider, amateur, and disturber of the status quo (p. x), who is committed to democracy and universal human rights.
How do public intellectuals know how to filter out an abundance of information, and can they teach us to do it ourselves (teach a man to fish...)?
However, this last characteristic is under pressure in the present media landscape. We should note that stressing the need for public intellectuals today automatically invokes questions as to the readiness of readers and viewers to pay attention to them. Further, it requires media literacy, and understanding how digital ecologies format content. After all, we live in an attention economy, where the popularity of voices is measured and quantified in clicks and likes, and we face the commercialization and personalization of political discussion in the public sphere.
Of course, public intellectuals are by no mean exempt from this situation: after all, they enter the public debate through the whole specter of available media, they vie for our attention, and have to sell books and generate views with their videos. Heynders' book foregrounds these matters by emphasizing theatrical media performance. It is a useful frame to analyze how intellectuals operate within a media system.
The current situation in the US and Europe, which can be described as a crisis of expertise, lends even more urgency to this question about the ulterior motives of public intellectuals. In Europe and the US, trust in the media has been steadily eroding for years. Academics, traditional news outlets, and bureaucratic news sources alike are faced with an erosion of trust from the public.
This crisis of expertise is evidenced by ongoing attacks against Humanities scholarship, such as the recent hoax on so-called ‘grievance studies’ (2018). Three collaborators fabricated twenty “bat-shit insane” papers and submitted these to cultural studies journals like Gender, Place and Culture and Sex Roles. Four of the papers were published, another three accepted for publication. These had titles like “An Ethnography of Breastaurant Masculinity: Themes of Objectification, Sexual Conquest, Male Control and Masculine Toughness in a Sexually Objectifying Restaurant” (Baldwin 2018), and topics like the role of gender in cases of ‘dog rape’ in Portland (Wilson 2018).
The authors parodied what they call grievance studies, those disciplines that identify power imbalances in society and analyze them from the point of view of the marginalized. Their point is that such journals are wont to approve any work, however absurd, that agrees with their political preconceptions. Faced with a crisis of expertise, this goes to show, education is not always enough to warrant authority and inspire trust.
As Humanities scholars, we currently have to grapple with ‘post-truth’ sentiments and reliance on algorithms to filter out information for us on the one hand, and the said crisis of expertise and erosion of authority of once-trusted sources of information on the other. In the face of these issues, questions that must be asked regarding the functioning of public intellectuals include: how are the media performances of public intellectuals perceived by the public? How do we know we can trust them, what is their agenda? Are they always acting just for the sake of truth or knowledge (and what does this mean)? Could they have ulterior motivations, e.g. economic or political ones? How do we know they are not misrepresenting the selected information, or even just plain wrong? What is the value of an informed opinion, and why is one viewpoint worth more than another? How do public intellectuals know how to filter out an abundance of information, and can they teach us to do it ourselves (as in: teach a man to fish, etc.)?
The World’s Most Influential Intellectual
These questions become pressing in the case of Jordan B. Peterson. Peterson is a Canadian professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, and a practicing clinical psychologist specializing in abnormal, social, and personality psychology. He has taken a particular interest in the psychology of religious and ideological belief, and the assessment and improvement of personality and performance. Starting out as a undergraduate student at the University of Alberta and moving on to McGill University as a graduate student to pursue a PhD in Clinical Psychology, he made a career working at Harvard’s department of psychology from 1993 to 1998 and (co-)writing over twenty academic papers.
In 1999, he published his first book, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, which examines several academic fields in order to characterize the structure of systems of beliefs and myths, and their role in the creation of meaning and the regulation of emotion. At that time, the book barely sold over a hundred copies. However, when it was released as an audiobook 2018 it quickly became a bestseller. Peterson’s second book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos was published in 2018 and promoted with a world tour that generated a great deal of attention. The book is a bestseller in Canada, the US, and UK.
After a long and steady, yet unremarkable, career as an academic, Peterson attained stardom and status as a public intellectual in 2016, when he created a series of YouTube videos criticizing political correctness and going against Bill C-16. This bill added gender expression and gender identity to the Canadian Human Rights Act as protected grounds, which he considered an example of compelled speech. In these videos, Peterson explained why he refused to be forced by law to use the preferred gender pronouns for the students and faculty members.
This created an enormous media hype with people from both sides of the political spectrum writing fierce critiques of his views. However it also resulted in many public letters of support. Many of these early supporters came from the male-dominated message boards of 4chan and Reddit, leading some to associate Peterson with the alt-right; a connection that he has always disavowed by pointing to their diverging views on identity politics.
Peterson expressed worries about the future of his academic career as a result of his critique of Bill C-16, however soon donations to his Patreon, a crowd funding platform where he regularly uploaded free academic lectures , exceeded his salary. These donations are estimated at $85,000 per month. His Youtube channel had 1.9 million subscribers and 92.5 million as of 23 March 2019 (Socialblade 2019). He has over 300.000 Twitter followers. Web platform Reddit has a subreddit about him and another one, Maps of Memeing, is exclusively devoted to Peterson memes, like a screenshot from the Channel 4 interview with Cathy Newman where the latter continuously paraphrased the former wrongly by putting words in his mouth; and fan art, for instance an icon depicting him as the ‘Patron Saint of Sorting Yourself Out’.
In 2018, economist Tyler Cowen named Peterson “the world’s most influential intellectual”; echoed by David Brooks of The New York Times who called him “the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now” (2018). The Guardian writes that he is “fast becoming the closest that academia has to a rock star” (2018).
When we relate the case of Peterson to Heynders’ conceptual framework, we see that first, he is undoubtedly well-educated and is respected within academia. He held a position at Harvard, and his academic papers in psychology have been cited over 6800 times according to his researchgate page.
Further, it is clearly part of Peterson’s modus operandi to make critical statements and voice “provocative ideas expressed in cultural practices providing imaginary scenarios,” as Heynders’ definition goes (2016, 6). As noted, his critical comments on Bill C-16 almost single-handedly account for his worldwide fame today. He is not afraid to voice polarizing standpoints, for instance on cultural practices such as (gay) marriage, religion or political correctness.
His provocative, counter-mainstream value becomes clear in the YouTube videos his fans upload, with titles like “Jordan Peterson calmly DISMANTLES feminism in front of two feminists” (2018); “Angry Jordan Peterson TRIGGERS French Journalist” (2018), and “Jordan Peterson Debunks White Privilege” (2017). Peterson further provides his viewers with imaginary, alternative scenarios. These include negative examples, for instance when he asks his audience to imagine what the world will be like "when universities are finally, fully taken over by left-wing academics" (2017) or “when individualism has lost all its value and meaning” (2018).
It is impossible to ignore Peterson’s (hyper-)visibility in the public debate. Today more than before, the public intellectual functions in a mediatized context which intensifies or diminishes his or her position (2016, 5). Heynders characterizes the public intellectual as a mediator between a non-expert audience and topics of public interest: someone who provokes and titillates, but also unites and builds bridges. Public intellectuals need to popularize their ideas to a certain extent in order to render them accessible and attractive to the public.
Peterson does exactly that. By uploading videos of his psychology lectures on YouTube, appearing on podcasts from The Joe Rogan Experience to Pangburn, and television programs from BBC News to Channel 4 News, he intervenes in public debates on global issues. By speaking in understandable language about both Dostoevsky and the perils and perks of smoking weed, Peterson is able to draw huge audiences to lecture rooms that are normally half-empty. In this respect, he is comparable to Thierry Baudet with his preference for high-canonical metaphors. He uses 'accessible' language while strategically showing off his education.
Last, we see that Peterson can indeed be said to filter an overload of information on complicated subjects for his audience. He has been called the “stupid man’s smart person” (2018). Selectively choosing particular topics, frames of reference, and opponents in debates, Peterson informs his non-expert audience on topics as diverse as intelligence tests, personality research, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Egyptian mythology. In doing so, he helps them form an informed opinion on all sorts of (societal) matters.
Misinformation and Not-Reading
Of course, Peterson does not stand alone: his visibility and popularity is not solely 'his' achievement but results in interaction with others, as is true for everyone. Where Said defined the public intellectual as a defender of democracy, it should be noted that the Peterson hype partly results from the impact of digitalization of the public sphere. An increasing replacement of human editors by algorithms reshapes the public domain as well as the relation between the fields of politics, academia, and media.
Peterson’s messages are resonating very well in this neoliberal public sphere. Whereas in the early days of the internet it was thought to have potential for reviving the public sphere (and thus enhancing democracy), the internet curtails this potential by infusing political debates with new information, creating inequality in information access, fragmenting political discourse, and tending to adapt to the political status quo (Papacharissi 2002).
Peterson as a public intellectual is not an unproblematic case, but also not atypical: he is, like most of the cases that Heyders analyzes, ambivalent and provocative. As such, he points us to the limits of any overly optimistic trust in such media figures to filter our information for us. Instead of (only) opening up new perspectives or broadening horizons, his discourse is instrumental in determining what information his (in many cases young) followers should and should not receive, and what alternative scenarios are appropriate for them. This is not uncommon: one could argue this also holds true for figures like Noam Chomsky and Richard Dawkins.
The problem is that Peterson himself is not always well informed about the matters he informs his readers on. He has a tendency to focus on particular studies while ignoring others. His book recommendations, readings of (scientific) literature and his assessment and strategic use of information can be limited, one-sided, and at times incorrect. According to clinical psychologist Jan Derksen (2019), his 12 Rules for Life are not firmly anchored in scientific insights from clinical psychology, and his sources from biology are often outdated. Burston (2018) remarks that his treatment of Sigmund Freud and Carl Rogers is superficial at best.
We shortly illustrate Peterson’s manner of (mis)reading and strategic usage of (scientific) literature by evoking two exemplary arguments that run throughout his lectures and texts: the first is his argument against postmodernism, and the second his case for the indestructibility of hierarchies. We show how these lines of reasoning are predicated upon each other and together serve to legitimize his project.
Postmodernist and Neo-Marxist Dominance
We start by assessing his critique of postmodernism, which Peterson loosely uses as an umbrella term for a wide range of trends in French philosophy, including neo-Marxism, structuralism, post‐structuralism, and deconstruction (Klein 2018). In a lecture uploaded titled “Why you have to fight postmodernism,” he warns his viewers that postmodernism is
a much more well-developed and pervasive, pernicious, nihilistic, intellectually attractive doctrine than has yet come to public realization. It absolutely dominates the Humanities and increasingly the social sciences. (2017)
He claims that “the postmodernists completely reject the structure of western civilization”. Exemplary in this regard is his reading of his number one strawman, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who he deems the “main trickster of postmodernism.” Derrida’s take on Western society as phallogocentric and patriarchal “does not have a shred of gratitude,” and is “pathological to the core”. We argue that this paraphrase is not only inaccurate, but that it reflects a lack of reading altogether.
Peterson’s reading of postmodernist thinkers is flawed, or rather, his critiques are not grounded in any kind of reading
Remarkably, there are no references to Derrida’s works of in any of Peterson’s writings or lectures. He occasionally references Stephen Hicks’ Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, yet this book does not offer an adequate account of postmodernism, as Hicks likewise puts his version of postmodernism in the service of a specific political agenda. Derrida, as readers of his works will know, by no means propagates an oppositional stance to either society or democracy (as evidenced by his notion of ‘democracy to come,’ Derrida 2005; 2006; 2010). Indeed, one only need to read the prefaces of Derrida’s texts to find many heartfelt expressions of gratitude (Derrida 1999; 2001a; 2008).
In Twelve Rules for Life, Peterson writes that “although there are a myriad ways to interact with—even to perceive—even a small number of objects, that does not mean that all interpretations are equally valid” (312). Derrida, according to Peterson, believed that “everything is interpretation”:
It is almost impossible to over-estimate the nihilistic and destructive nature of [Derrida’s] philosophy. It puts the act of categorization itself in doubt. It negates the idea that distinctions might be drawn between things for any reasons other than that of raw power. ... science is just another game of power, for Derrida and his post-modern Marxist acolytes, making claims to benefit those at the pinnacle of the scientific world. There are no facts. (311)
Again, it is illuminating to revisit Derrida’s writings on these points. During his life, he was often accused of disregarding science and arguing for an extreme form of relativism. In a paper called “Sokal and Bricmont Aren't Serious”, Derrida replies to the claim that he defends a relativist position: "As for the “relevativism” they are supposed to be worried about - well, even if this word has a rigorous philosophical meaning, there's not a trace of it in my writing. Nor of a critique of Reason or Enlightenment. On the contrary” (2005, 71). Later, in a reply to a question from professor Penelope Deutscher, he added to this assertion: “It is often the case that people would like to oppose this period of deconstruction to the Enlightenment. No, I am for the Enlightenment, I’m for progress, I’m a ‘progressist’. I think the law is perfectible and we can improve the law” (Derrida 2001). In sum, Peterson’s reading of postmodernist thinkers is flawed, or rather, his critiques are not grounded in any kind of reading, and he overestimates the dominance of the collection of intellectual currents he calls postmodernism.
This practice of misreading becomes problematic when Peterson bases his political views on his wrongful assessment of postmodernist thought. A large part of his discourse is dependent upon this strawman-antagonist. By convincing his audience that the postmodernists and neo-marxists have invaded the university, the government and the public sphere, Peterson is able to push his conservative (or conservative revolutionary) political agenda. After all, when anarchism and relativism dominate and chaos reigns, a call for order is justified; he then proceeds to restore order. To draw political consequences from such misreadings comes dangerously close to a conspiracy theory, as Slavoj Zizek pointed out in The Guardian (2018).
Consider the Lobster
In order to fully grasp how this proposal for order is then rhetorically set up to answer Peterson’s self-construed problem of the dangerous dominance of postmodern influence, we highlight a second example of his specific manner of reading and interpretation: the famous ‘Lobster Argument’ from 12 Rules for Life. In the first chapter, titled “Stand up with your shoulders straight,” he describes the neurological makeup of lobsters, their behavior in fights and the forms of hierarchy in their social milieu. He compares the neurological configuration of lobsters with that of humans, to try to account for human hierarchies. This argument has been critiqued on grounds of misrepresentation of the scientific literature. However, there is another problem with Peterson’s argument which we will now examine in more detail: he argues against positions that no one seems to be taking.
Peterson forges an analogy between lobsters, wrens, and humans on account of their obsession with status and social position. Wrens also “inhabit a dominance hierarchy” and “the williest, strongest, healthiest and most fortunate birds” occupy the better territory, “attract high-quality mates” and will be less likely to sicken and die in times of disease and scarcity (2018, 3). He then goes on to argue that the same principle applies to human societies, where the poor have relatively lower life expectancy and quality of life: “When the aristocracy catches a cold, as it is said, the working class dies of pneumonia” (4). As lobsters have been in existence for over 350 million years, this suggests that
dominance hierarchies have been an essentially permanent feature of the environment to which all complex life has adapted. A third of a billion years ago, brains and nervous systems were comparatively simple. Nonetheless, they already had the structure and neurochemistry necessary to process information about status and society. (11)
Simply put, the argument is that (1) hierarchies exist, (2) they have good reasons to exist and (3) they will exist. Every attempt and hope to abolish hierarchies is vain. These are views that not many would disagree with, which makes the argument somewhat vacuous.
Then why go through all this trouble to forge an extensive analogy between humans and lobsters, only to arrive at commonplace conclusions? Linked to the postmodernism strawman, this allows him to found his own political agenda. Hierarchies are natural and unavoidable, which explains why we need conservatives to step up in times of chaos, change, and relativism. In light of the chaotic world dominated by radical anarchists, “post-modernists” and “neo-marxists” sketched by Peterson, the reader is nudged to believe that Western society is endangered by chaotic and anarchist forces, and thus in dire need of new ordering principles. On the basis of this set-up, he then offers his readers and listeners his own, surprisingly simple, proposals for order: “Be precise in your speech” (259); “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world” (147); or “Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street” (355).
Human Filter Bubbles & Gatekeepers
We fully concur with Heynders as to the need for educated figures who help us come to an informed opinion. However, the case of Peterson as the “most important public intellectual” of the present moment points us to some of the limits and shortcomings of the public intellectual as a liberal ideal. In critically examining and questioning topics, studies, and currents of thinking, public intellectuals not only imagine alternative scenarios and bring them to the public’s attention, as Heynders has it. They also eliminate other perspectives and alternative scenarios from our (imaginative) worldview. We have seen this in the case of Peterson, who selectively reads and interprets, and ignores studies that offer counter-evidence to his statements. If we follow Habermas' and Heynders’ definition, this is precisely what a public intellectual does.
As proponents of a selective form of critical reading and ciphers of a culture marked by a profound doubt and skepticism towards authorities, such figures can inadvertently have an opposite effect, of misinforming the public.
Hence, we do not disagree with the idea that public intellectuals filter information for us; we argue that they might be a bit too successful in this regard, especially in an algorithmic public sphere. This is of course not to deny their imporance. On the contrary, as the Peterson example drives home: their influence should not be underestimated. Intellectuals like him function as gatekeepers and filter information for the lay audience, yet they do so with the risk of creating powerful filter bubbles. As proponents of a selective form of critical reading and ciphers of a culture marked by a profound doubt and skepticism towards authorities, such figures can inadvertently have an opposite effect, of misinforming the public. Intellectuals like Peterson have an impressive scope and breadth of knowledge in several fields, yet for the lay audience, it is almost impossible to determine the scope of these fields and check the facts. Based on the status and authority of the speaker, the audience is willing to take a leap of faith. The public intellectual is of course not a replacement for thinking and analyzing for yourself. Regardless, they definitely help sharpen the debate.
Baldwin, Richard. “An Ethnography of Breastaurant Masculinity: Themes of Objectification, Sexual Conquest, Male Control, and Masculine Toughness in a Sexually Objectifying Restaurant.” Sex Roles 79.1, 2018.
Burston, D. “It’s Hip to be Square! The Myths of Jordan Peterson." Psychotherapy and Politics International 17.1475, 2018. 1-11.
Derksen, Jan. “De twaalf geboden van klinisch psycholoog Jordan Peterson.” GZ - Psychologie 11.1, 2019. 35-36.
Derrida, Jacques. Acts of Religion. Ed. Gil Anidjar. Routledge, 2002.
Derrida, Jacques. Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas. Trans. Pascale-Anne Brault & Michael Naas. Stanford UP, 1999.
Derrida, Jacques. The Animal That Therefore I Am (More To Follow). Ed. Marie-Louis Mallet; Trans. David Wills. Fordham UP, 2008.
Derrida, Jacques. “A Discussion with Jacques Derrida.” Theory & Event 5(1), Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
Derrida, Jacques. The Politics of Friendship. Trans. George Collins. London: Verso, 2005.
Derrida, Jacques. Rogues: Two Essays of Reason. Trans. Pascale-Anne Brault & Michael Naas.. Stanford UP, 2003.
Derrida, Jacques. Spectres of Marx: The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. Routledge, 2006.
Derrida, Jacques. The Work of Mourning. Eds. Pascale-Anne Brault & Michael Naas. Univrsity of Chicago Press, 2001a.
Habermas, Jürgen. Europe, The Faltering Project. Trans. Ciaran Cronin. Cambridge: Polity, 2009.
Heynders, Odile. Writers as Public Intellectuals: Literature, Celebrity, Democracy. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.
Hicks, Stephen. Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault. Roscoe, IL: Ockham's Razor, 2004.
Klein, Daniel B. “On Jordan Peterson, Postmodernism, and PoMo-Bashing.” Society 55, 2018. 477–81.
Papacharissi, Zizi. “The Virtual Sphere. The Internet as a Public Sphere.” New Media and Society 4.1, 9-26.
Peterson, Jordan B. Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief. New York: Routledge, 2018.
Peterson, Jordan B. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. New York: Penguin Random House, 2018.
Said, Edward. Representations of the Intellectual. The 1993 Reith Lectures. New York: Vintage, 1994.
Wilson, Helen. "RETRACTED ARTICLE: Human reactions to rape culture and queer performativity at urban dog parks in Portland, Oregon." Gender, Place & Culture, 2018.