4994 stories
·
6 followers

Laurie Penny vs. Jordan Peterson

1 Share

I’ve sniped at Jordan Peterson a few times. I’ve tended to focus on just a few of his overtly and demonstrably wrong claims, because I don’t want to study the long-winded stream of garbage that he spews out on the internet — the very last thing I want to do with my life is become a Jordan Peterson authority. He is simply not worth it, a property that works in his favor, because no one with any sense wants to dwell for long in his mansion of madness, so only his True Believers immerse themselves in his toxic verbosity. Nathan Robinson did a great job with an overview, but all I’ve done is laughed at a few fragments of obvious absurdity.

But now to the list of people who’ve really looked at the big picture of Jordan Peterson’s career, we can add the fabulous Laurie Penny. She goes right to the heart of the Peterson oeuvre.

Over the past 12 months, and especially since the publication of his internationally-bestselling self-help book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Peterson’s work has been dissected, discussed, and debated on talk shows and in reputable publications across the same Western civilizations whose decline he diagnoses in a manner more lucrative than lucid. Few have led with the obvious fact that neither the man nor the message make coherent sense. 12 Rules disproves, by its very success, one of its central tenets: the idea that we live in anything resembling a meritocracy. The book is messy as hell. It is full of insipid platitudes, trite homilies, and self-regarding detours delivered with the assurance of a man who fully expects to see his childhood finger paintings in a museum someday. At best, he sounds like someone who wandered off into the Desert of the Real without a sunhat. There is, in short, absolutely no way this would be taken remotely seriously if anyone who wasn’t a white guy had written it.

I have to disagree mildly with that last bit, and mention Deepak Chopra and Camille Paglia as counter-examples…but perhaps counter-examples that prove the rule. You can write popular, successful word salad as a non-white-man as long as it doesn’t threaten the dominance of white men. But otherwise, yes — it’s badly written hash of the sort that, once upon a time, skeptics would have scornfully ripped to shreds and spat upon the tatters (now, unfortunately, skeptics line up to pay money to hear the Great Man speak).

Peterson’s anxious army of acolytes would claim that if you don’t understand his work it’s not necessarily because you’re an idiot, but because you haven’t read every single word in every comment thread and watched every single grainy video of Peterson pontificating about lobsters. Because what you really need to consider — and here’s the chorus that repeats — is the context.

Oh god yes. As I said, I’ve only touched on a few things, like his claim that modern lobster behavior is somehow relevant and evolutionarily related to human behavior, or his claim that ancient Chinese scholars somehow knew something about the biochemical structure of deoxyribonucleic acid and portrayed it in metaphors of divinity, but all I hear from Peterson bros is two words: “strawman” and “context”. It doesn’t matter that I quote him literally or include a video, I’m misinterpreting him, and if I would only listen to 50 hours of his YouTube videos, I would see that he’s right.

No. I do check out the immediate context of the controversial statement, and they don’t help him at all. But Penny points out that there is an even bigger context that explains, but does not justify his popularity.

Yes, absolutely. Context is vital. But what is the context that actually matters here?

* * *

The context is despair. The context is cultural civil war. The context is two thousand years of violent religious patriarchy, five centuries of brutal capitalist biopolitics, and a decade of punishing austerity that has left a great many young men quaking in the ruins of their own promised glory, drowning in unmet expectations. The context is a profoundly impoverished intellectual and political climate where the feeling of truth is more meaningful than truth itself. That’s the context in which Peterson’s ascendency was as predictable as it is humiliating for anyone clinging on to the idea that there might be a few drops left at the bottom of the barrel of moderate conservative thought. Outside that context, it would make no sense.

So the context is that Peterson has forged an identity that appeals deeply to losers, people who are resentful about lost opportunities and loss of status. They’ve tumbled down the hierarchy that Peterson loves so much. The really bad news is that he’s tapping into a huge and growing group, and yeah, society should do something to restore dignity to everyone. The even worse news is that Peterson’s philosophy is all about trashing cooperative group behavior and feeding the self-destructive resentment even more. But he and his followers don’t see that. They are all true believers.

Peterson is playing a role, but he’s not a grifter. On the contrary, his hallucinogenic body of work suggests that he has been liberally sampling his own product. He believes what he’s saying, and in this intellectual climate that sort of authenticity carries weight, even if what you’re actually saying is a paranoid mess of evolutionary psychology, horrified homophobic superstition, and religious mysticism.

Many of Peterson’s fans reassure themselves that there’s a seam of genius here buried beyond their reach, that there’s so much damn context that even a true believer can only ever see it all through a glass, darkly. Those demands for context are a cop-out: rummage around on Reddit for ten minutes and you can find enough evidence to garnish any crank’s crockpot.

But this has always been the problem: the truly damaging prophets aren’t the ones running an open con, but the ones who are absolutely confident that they bear the truth. This has been the case throughout history, that there are people so certain of their beliefs that they’ll send men off to their deaths in war, or even march straight to their own martyrdom. It doesn’t justify it or make it less contemptible to say that the prophet truly believes deep in his heart everything that he says. Intent isn’t magic, as all the kids say.

It explains his success…

Peterson has worked out the secret to monetizing his own persecution complex: If your audience is angry and lonely and you tell them that’s justifiable, you can take that muddle of meaning, blend it, and serve it through a candy-colored straw to those who are prepared to swallow anything and call it a juice cleanse. You can go quite far in the gig economy of modern entrepreneurial proto-fascism by talking to young men as if their feelings matter.

…but his motives don’t excuse the end result.

Writing in the LA Times, Cathy Young says that “for all his flaws, Peterson is tapping into a very real frustration,” and that even if they don’t like what he has to say, feminists should pay attention to Peterson’s fans and engage with their feelings.

The problem is that we already are. Constantly. Angry white male entitlement is the elevator music of our age. Speaking personally, as a feminist-identified person on the internet, my Twitter mentions are full of practically nothing else. I’ve spent far too much of my one life trying to listen and understand and offer suggestions in good faith, before concluding that it’s not actually my job to manage the hurt feelings of men who are prepared to mortgage the entire future of the species to buy back their misplaced pride. It never was. That’s not what feminism is about.

There are plenty of reasons why society treats the pain of young white men as a public concern. A great many of us learned from an early age that bad things happen when white men have hurt feelings. Children of color learn, often painfully, the importance of making the white people around them feel comfortable. Little girls are taught not to “provoke” their male peers into attacking or harassing them. This can get confusing for white boys, bless their hearts: when everyone else treats your hurt feelings as immovable facts that have to be managed by those around you, some confusion is understandable. That’s how we got to a position where male pain is intolerable, but everyone else’s pain is par for the course. I’m throwing truth-bombs, but you’re crying victim. Fuck your feelings, but make gentle, empathetic love to mine.

The old guard is falling. We can understand why they’re unhappy about it, but it shouldn’t imply that we ought to prop them up. You better believe that I think white men have an earned place in the culture — we just have to learn that it is not automatically the top spot, and that all the Proud Boys and neo-Nazis actively damage the status we should earn. We also don’t accomplish anything by scurrying backwards to embrace bad ideas that we think help our cause. Bad ideas like evolutionary psychology.

How do you launder a bad idea to send it back to market? You bundle it up with some slightly better-sounding ones and repackage the whole deal as dazzling insight. Right now, the rhetoric of evolutionary psychology is a popular detergent, as it has been for the last two centuries. The enduring notion that civilization is merely an extension of men’s biological urge to battle it out for sexual access to the highest-quality women, that reproductive, racial, and economic injustice are both natural and morally just, is nothing new.

Anything goes for Peterson fans. They’re desperate. They’ll grab at anything they think will restore their supremacy, and Peterson’s secret is that he can serve any old garbage that will reinforce that nonsense, and they’ll gobble it up.

The people buying what Peterson has to sell are not doing so out of stupidity, or even ignorance. Plenty of information exists about, say, the limits of comparison between the complex lives of human beings and the simple ones of giant sea insects. Gently explaining that they’ve been sold a lot of horseshit does no good. “Tell the truth,” their guru exhorts them, “or at least don’t lie.” But what good does that do when you’ve been given license to experience your most embittered suspicions as cosmic wisdom, and liberty to define your own truth from a drop-down menu of superstition and conspiracy?

So what can we do?

We cannot continue to take Jordan Peterson seriously as a scholar and still respect the Western philosophical tradition in the morning. Jordan Peterson is a very silly man. He is also a very serious warning about how our intellectual culture has been downgraded. Engaging in any serious political conversation with him can only debase both our conversation and our politics. There is much to be gained, though, by seeing him clearly for what he is: the yammering sidewalk mystic of our age, the canary twittering madly to alert us to the imminent collapse of political coherence, with all that is solid melting into airtime.

Are you planning to debate Peterson, as his fans so often tell me to do? Don’t. I make the same recommendation to anyone planning to debate creationists — we’ve been doing it for decades, and all it does is reinforce their sense of entitlement and their belief that they should be taken seriously. You should know this by now, because creationists, like Peterson, love debate and beg to be invited into them. Stand apart. Tear into their arguments. Point out where they’re wrong. But don’t dignify these frauds with one-on-one engagements.

That’s the third most common taunt I get from Petersonions. 1: “Strawman!” 2: “Context!” 3: “Debate him!”. All are bogus.

Read the whole story
smallfrogge
23 minutes ago
reply
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Share this story
Delete

Eighth Grade

1 Share

Thumb eight grade 2

13-year-old Kayla (Elsie Fisher) hosts a Youtube series called "Kayla's Korner" where she gives advice to an imagined audience of her peers. She picks topics like "Being Yourself" and "Putting Yourself Out There" and stumbles her way through a pep-talk peppered with "like" and glances at her notes. A glimpse of the subscriber count shows that Kayla's Korner hasn't exactly taken off. "Eighth Grade," the extraordinarily assured feature film debut by writer-director and standup comedian Bo Burnham, starts out with one of these videos and it is so touchingly real, so embarrassingly true to life, you might swear it was improvised, or found footage. But it's not. This is Elsie Fisher, a 13-year-old actress herself, amazingly in touch with what it's like to be in the stage of life she's actually in. Kayla airbrushes out her acne, and swoops on heavy eyeliner. When you see what her life is actually like the Kayla's Korner videos take on an almost tragic significance. But it's strangely hopeful too. This is a young girl trying to understand what she is going through, and she does so by positioning herself as an expert and a helper to others. 

Kayla lives at home with her dad (Josh Hamilton). There's no mother in the picture (why isn't explained until near the end). Her dad struggles to keep a connection with his adolescent daughter, who seems hell bent on shutting him out. The dad's attempts at conversation ("Are you excited about high school?" "You're such a cool kid, those videos you do? They're amazing.") mortify her. Kayla doesn't have any friends, and harbors a gigantic crush on the sleepy-eyed uber-confident Aiden (Luke Prael), swooning whenever she looks at him. She also stares longingly at Kennedy, the Queen Bee of middle school (Catherine Oliviere). 

Bo Burnham knows that of all the terrors in this world, there is nothing quite as terrifying as being a shy 8th grader, attending a birthday party for the most popular kid in school. Filmed like a moment from "Amityville Horror," Kayla stands at the sliding glass doors in her lime-green one-piece bathing suit, shoulders hunched, arms dangling down, staring out at the playful shenanigans of her classmates, all of whom display the social ease utterly unattainable to an outsider like Kayla. Burnham pulls the camera back slowly, as the electronic music (composed by Anna Meredith) blots out all other sound, with Kayla hovering in the background, a ghostly figure seen through glass. "Eighth Grade" is full of stylistic flourishes like this. A flourish can be empty, a flourish can keep the audience comfortably "above" the action onscreen. But Burnham knows what he's doing. Every moment is life-or-death when you're 13. These flourishes identify us so strongly with Kayla that every social scenario is pierced with emotional peril. 

There's all kinds of sublimated "commentary" in "Eighth Grade" about what it's like to be a teenager today: constant internet use, scrolling through the carefully curated Instagram feeds of classmates, the societal pressure to seem "okay" and "fabulous" all the time. When a teenager feels pressure to "perform" her life on Instagram or Snapchat, it changes the game in subtle ways that probably aren't even understood yet. But Burnham keeps the touch light and humorous. He doesn't lecture from a podium. There's an overhead shot of a school assembly, showing hundreds of kids sitting there clutching their phones in their hands. In a chilling sequence, the kids are put through a lockdown drill, where they have to hide under the desks from a hypothetical shooter. They all crouch there, waiting for it to be over, faces lit up by the glow of their phones. But Burnham stays down on the ground with the kids, he's in the thick of it. If social media can keep us disconnected from one another, it can also connect us. After a day "shadowing" a kindly high-school student named Olivia (Emily Robinson), Kayla gets up the courage to call Olivia and thank her, and Olivia is thrilled in her new role as mentor and friend. She even invites Kayla to come hang out at the mall. 

Darker moments threaten. An encounter with an older boy, who tries to force her to play Truth or Dare in the back of his car, highlights just how terrifyingly young she is. She has insanely passionate feelings for Aiden, but all the other stuff—wanting to do anything about those feelings—are not there for her yet. Her father trails along behind her, trying to give her space, but also worried about what might be going on. His concern makes him "hover," and Kayla is desperate to get away from him, but in a late scene, when she asks him if it makes him "sad" to have her as a daughter—his shock that she would feel that way about herself is heartbreaking. 

"Eighth Grade" is so grounded in the reality of middle school it almost operates like a horrible collective flashback. All of the kids in the cast are real middle-schoolers, not 20-somethings playing at adolescence. There's a vast difference between a 16-year-old and a 13-year-old, but this has—typically—been difficult for films to acknowledge or portray. The struggles of teenagers are woven into our cinematic history. But middle school kids? It's harder. 8th graders still have one foot in the sandbox. They are still children, but with bodies exploding into young adulthood, creating a miasma of self-loathing, hormonal surges, irritability ... When the parade of middle schoolers walk in single file into the high school for "shadow" day, the high school kids lining the hallways look like adults in comparison. 

Burnham knows how middle-schoolers really talk. They stumble, they repeat themselves, they try to sound older, but can't help reverting. They don't have a handle on social language yet. "I like your shirt ... I have a shirt too," Kayla says to Kennedy, who stares at Kayla with such dead eyes you can tell she can't wait to look at her phone again. When the Truth or Dare boy says something suggestive, the anxious confused Kayla murmurs to herself, "Okay," but what comes out is, "O-kee..." Fisher's actual age is one of the reasons "Eighth Grade" has such a sense of verisimilitude. Her smile is so rare that when it comes it almost cracks her face, but the joy is so enormous is threatens to push her into a panic attack. She is in the stage of becoming herself. Her dad's loving anxiety is the audience's. But "Eighth Grade", with all its emotional intensity, is not about "what happens." It's about what it feels like to be thirteen. Middle school sucks. Everybody knows that. It's a stage you have to go through. But while you're there, it feels like it goes on forever. Try telling a 13-year-old "This too shall pass." 

Bo Burnham, who got his start as a teenager making Youtube videos of his comedy routines, is only 27 years old. He respects where Kayla is at. He doesn't condescend to her, or to anyone else. "Eighth Grade" is an act of nervy humorous empathy.

Read the whole story
smallfrogge
1 day ago
reply
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Share this story
Delete

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal - Good

4 Shares


Click here to go see the bonus panel!

Hovertext:
Technically, cutting people into meat is an environmental win on two fronts.


Today's News:
Read the whole story
smallfrogge
1 day ago
reply
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Share this story
Delete

The Fastest Way Isn't Always The Most Fun At Goodwood

1 Share

Like a getaway scene in an old school Brit bank heist film, Grant Williams drives his 1959 Jaguar Mk1 sedan racer at full tilt and only half in control. It’s well known that drifting and sliding is rarely the fastest way to negotiate a circuit, but at Goodwood you’re rewarded for being memorable. If Grant had simply…

Read more...

Read the whole story
smallfrogge
1 day ago
reply
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Share this story
Delete

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal - Osteensibly

5 Shares


Click here to go see the bonus panel!

Hovertext:
I consider panel 3 an unappreciated Zen-like state.


Today's News:
Read the whole story
ameel
23 hours ago
reply
Melbourne, Australia
smallfrogge
2 days ago
reply
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Share this story
Delete

My life

1 Share

Wonder why I’ve come to despise debate? Because people who can’t logic their way through a T-maze they’ve run a hundred times before think your refusal to waste time with them is an endorsement.

Read the whole story
smallfrogge
3 days ago
reply
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Share this story
Delete
Next Page of Stories