This is not a review. We all know by now that I can’t — or perhaps, won’t — write actual reviews. I pre-ordered The Rise and Fall of Jordan Peterson weeks ago (for whatever reason I thought it would be a good idea to order a hard copy, which makes no sense to me presently), and immediately watched it.
We live in a day and age where you lose friends over admiration of this man, which says more about the cultural atmosphere than Jordan Peterson himself. I’ve read his books, watched a few (though not many) of his YouTube lectures and read quite a few of his articles. The documentary is pretty fairly filmed: there’s a somewhat fair balance between his fans and detractors. Quite a lot of it is focused on his trans verbiage stuff in Canada, which is essentially what made him mainstream-level famous.
I don’t care much about this particular event (with the trans crowd): more than anything else, he embodies qualities I find highly valuable and increasingly rare, namely curiosity and defiance. Not the kind of moral righteousness megaphone yammering defiance… but a real unwillingness to buy into ignorance or intellectual laziness because it’s an unsavory way to live. I was entertained by the inside of his house, as we seem to also share an affinity for USSR-period literature and art (I noticed a copy of Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine on his shelf, along with countless other books I’ve read over the years). I imagine to him (and certainly to me), an obsession with authoritarianism is a lesson in how not to live, how not to be, a reminder to not be rolled over upon at any cost. By the way, this post is mostly about me. I know, you’re shocked.
As I spend another early Alaskan winter gorging on stories of the gulag; Srebrenica and other large-scale atrocities (reading roundup to come within the next week or two), I’ve been reflecting on how I got here, to where I am in my life, and why. The explanation is truly absurd in its simplicity.
The year(s) were the early 90s. Enter young me, in elementary school, bored out of my gourd and reading well above my grade level. There were 38 kids in my class by the time I graduated from high school: I would say at least 1/3 of my classmates were special ed/remedial, half rarely bothered to show up for class. Fewer than 5 kids were what I would call “high achievers.” I can’t remember a single time in grades 1-12 I had to harness more than 25% of my brainpower, even during my AP Calculus exam, which I passed despite teaching it to myself because we watched Lord of the Rings during our 2-person classes. Unsurprisingly, my classmate failed. Not her fault: Tolkein is just a bad calculus teacher.
I would have fully hated public school altogether if I hadn’t mastered the art of finding any sort of random thing interesting at all times, and had a handful of teachers who, even in my early years, took pity on me and allowed me to (a) blow things up (b) create hydroponic vegetable gardens (c) order dead animals from mail order catalogs. It could have been worse. And, what I did have time to do as a kid was read. I read everything, and even shitty public schools have OK libraries. There’s almost nothing else to do in the Catskills that’s not outside, especially when you’re a 12 year old girl.
In the early 90s, I read Lord of the Flies. I read Animal Farm and 1984. These three books stuck with me my entire life. Brave New World, later on, as well. They are so central to my life, character and personality that I even cited them recently in a letter to my local newspaper. I’ve noticed as I’ve watched my siblings grow up that there’s a strong defiant streak in my family in general (I attribute this mostly to our Slavic genes), which has conveniently been combined with a deep revulsion for groupthink and the so-called wisdom of crowds. Our grandparents were acutely aware of what they were running from when their parents arrived in the US from what is now Ukraine. I’ve long been obsessed with what their pre-America world looked like, and what happened after they left (they would not talk about it, and stopped speaking anything but English when my father was a kid): they missed WWI by 1 year: the formation of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic by 6. They then missed the Holodomor, which likely killed everyone else that didn’t die in the former two events. By the time my father was born in 1949, anyone who hadn’t starved 15 years earlier had been steamrolled by the Red Army, the Nazis, then another famine, forced deportations…just another day in Eastern Europe, amirite?
Back to Lord of the Flies… reading a bunch of books as a young kid in rural New York is one thing… to really drive home the theme — the mental weakness of humans — you really need a catalyst: some kind of event that shows you, even better if in real-time, that these ideas are much more than a series of dystopian nightmares. What else happened in the 90s, at the very time young Jessica was horrified, reading about those snot-nose British kids turning on each other in Lord of the Flies? Cue the Bosnian War, people! There is no better example of people who frequently were neighbors, whose children grew up together, whose fathers had fought together in the same army, only to murder each other in cold blood while the world looked on. That this happened among people who were racially, ethnically, culturally near-identical murdered each other was an outrageous achievement in propaganda, and it had happened countless times before, and will happen again over and over in the future (probably not as interestingly as this particular war, as it was the restoration of individuality post-Tito that really revved up the ethnic strife).
But really, how did this happen? How did Milošević so effectively blast this idea out to people? How did Stalin and Hitler make all that totalitarian magic happen? And, perhaps more importantly, why did people fall for it time and time again? Didn’t anyone say “man, this is pretty messed up…” — and why didn’t more?
What Orwell, Huxley and William Golding wrote about is as authentic as it gets, and it’s this unbelievable cognitive and intellectual laziness that has truly horrified me my entire life. Whether it’s a result of this or completely independent, I have always seemed to lack this intense desire to cooperate with everyone around me to feel like people like me. I have always ranked very low on people-pleasing, especially when it comes to people who are not “my people.” Some people would say this makes me a jerk. Others would say this makes me a libertarian. I say, who cares, pretending to agree with people is no way to live.
While there were other factors at play, I majored in whatever “the science of getting people to believe your probably dumb ideas” is at college (this is called Mass Communication Theory); my independent research projects focused on it; it has been an underlying feature of my job and career: simply put, persuasion. In recent years, I’ve become fascinated by behavioral economics, and lately, our very polarized political environment, and a tale as old as time: people saying whatever the popular thing is to say, and believing whatever is trendy, and not bothering to really consider much of anything because social ties mean more than truth or logic or discourse.
I have always wanted to know what’s real, and what’s true, and to repeatedly separate logic from emotion, which people increasingly fail to do. There’s a sequence in The Rise and Fall where Peterson is talking about high heels at work and it is so unbelievably obvious that people can no longer separate emotionally charged concepts like sexual harassment and feminism and sexism from what is actually happening. Over the past half-decade or so I have felt more and more like I live in the Twilight Zone in the modern world, and Peterson’s refusal to submit to ridiculous ideas is probably more inspiring than it should be, if for no other reason than people are excessively sheepy these days. Further, it’s this quest for actual truth despite the consequences that creates the only kind of authenticity that seems worth anything.
Wrapping this up now. All in all, Peterson is a fascinating person. The documentary is great. He and Quillette, for me, are oases in an endless desert of stupidity and laziness these days. Perhaps it was always the way it is now… some of my friends would say as much: that people have not actually changed, for better or worse. And maybe 20 years after my first Orwellian nightmares and Srebrenica’s genocide, I haven’t either.