On Reddit, you can find a forum for “ex-lobsters,” former fans of Canadian psychology professor Jordan Peterson who have become disillusioned by him. Many of them still admire Peterson in certain ways, but have realized that he is not quite what they thought he was. The discussions are worth browsing, because they show how people can become entranced by the peddlers of bad ideas, and how they can change their minds and develop more sensible and healthy worldviews. I find them encouraging, because their testimonials reaffirm my conviction that if leftists can articulate a clear and compelling vision, one that gives people fulfillment and hope, we can create a more humane world.
Jordan Peterson is a bestselling author known primarily for his self-help advice (young men should clean their rooms and learn from lobsters) and his criticism of left-wing social justice politics. He is also, in my opinion, a shallow and toxic thinker. As I have written at length, he uses confident sophistry to create the illusion of depth. Why, then, would people—mostly young men—be attracted to him? In the New York Review of Books, Pankaj Mishra said that Peterson’s “fascist mysticism” appealed to “reactionary white men” with a “spiritual hunger,” those “looking desperately for maps of meaning in a world they found opaque and uncontrollable.” Among the ex-lobsters of Reddit, at least, the “looking desperately” aspect is far more salient than the “reactionary” aspect. Many suggest that they were adrift and uncertain, and Peterson’s world of seemingly sound advice and thoughtful explanations was a welcome reprieve. Here is an insightful first-person account (I’m going to quote at length because it’s worth it):
I discovered Jordan Peterson not long after I left a very stressful job due to cracking under pressure. I developed depression and anxiety to the point where I couldn’t get in my car without having a panic attack… I became a recluse. I went days, maybe even sometimes weeks without leaving the house besides going to the gym. I’d spend nearly all my days online, bingeing YouTube, reddit, etc…. It was probably the Joe Rogan podcast when I first discovered Peterson and I was hooked by his supposed intellect… As someone who was in a very unhappy place, those videos provided me with entertainment, but also a complex over gaining “profound knowledge” that the stupid masses didn’t know. The online rabbithole was a distraction from the mess that was my own life…. I eventually stopped listening [to] Peterson once I realised he was, essentially, a Christian traditionalist who has an obsession with IQ – something that’s always a telltale sign of a right-wing crackpot. I’ve literally never met anyone in real life who cares about IQ scores. No employers, no friends of mine could tell you theirs, nobody… I also found Peterson had no real answers to the biggest issues facing humanity. Climate change, mass job automation in the coming decades, dealing with racial tensions in multicultural, post-industrious towns….I realised I was already doing a lot of the stuff he preached… I was already conscious about keeping a good posture. I am naturally quite an orderly person who likes his environment to be tidy. But my life was still a mess. Peterson offers simple solutions to very complex, multifaceted problems. The advice to his young male audience is “man up and take responsibility” but there are so many things that are out of our control as individuals. Look at our extortionate housing market, the cost of living is going up, the precarious gig economy. It’s hard being “responsible” when most young people simply cannot afford any assets to have responsibility over.
There’s a lot here. The writer wasn’t a reactionary, but they were in a deeply unhappy place. In fact, the ex-lobsters often talk about having come across Peterson during a period of depression:
- Heavily depressed and dealing with severe anxiety to where I could hardly leave the house. So you browse through youtube and see this guy everywhere and I go ‘let’s see what he has to say’… You think ‘Yes this is what I needed to hear, a father figure dishing out some truths, this is good for me.’
- I was going through a really rough time when I discovered Peterson’s videos.
- Like some others that were JP fans, I’ve had an on and off struggle with depression and anxiety for a long time. I was in a pretty dark place and I felt I had no control over my life. I also saw those “Questions for men” and “Questions for white people” videos that Buzzfeed came out with. I started to get angry. I thought to myself: “Where is my privilege? If women and gays are so oppressed, why can’t I catch a break?”
The writers were sad, alone, lacking meaning. And Jordan Peterson doesn’t just offer meaning, he offers maps of meaning. He has an answer for everything. He’s highly credentialed and seemingly profound. It can be hard to understand what he’s actually saying, which to an insecure person makes him appear a genius rather than a crank. If you’re not confident in yourself, when you hear someone saying something inscrutable, you don’t think “He is extremely poor at communicating his ideas clearly,” you think “He is so much wiser than dumb, inarticulate me, and I should spend more time listening to him so that I can comprehend his ideas.” (Charlatans can easily play on people’s uncertainty about their own intelligence.)
I find the first writer’s explanation of their disillusionment fascinating. They saw that Peterson didn’t really have solutions to anything. This is common among the ex-lobsters. When Peterson’s self-help advice is boiled down to its real-world meaning, it is pretty run-of-the-mill stuff: Take control of your life, put your house in order. When he goes beyond cliches, much of what he says becomes questionable or incoherent. (I won’t rehash my previous 10,000 word dissection of his writings.) Here’s a teenager talking about the process of turning away:
Every time he’d say something that I didn’t agree with (usually about politics since I’ve always been a left-leaning person), I’d find some way to rationalise to myself why he was right. I told myself everything he says must be right since he always says how “careful” he is with his words, so surely he has evidence to back up all of his claims. I’m just an 18 year old STEM student, who am I to dispute his claims about religion, politics, etc.? … [But] I realised that there was nothing special about his advice, I had deeper problems that weren’t going to go away (initially I had hoped that they would, since JBP’s advice was so DEEP and MEANINGFUL). I started to look at some of the ridiculous things he says objectively and realised he’s a bit of a lunatic when it comes to many topics. I also started to actually listen to opposing points of view, instead of just dismissing every critic as someone who “just doesn’t get” JBP’s ideas, and if they actually listened to him, they’d definitely love him.
Here, one of the posters who was initially attracted to Peterson because they didn’t like being told they had “white privilege” when they were depressed and unemployed talks about how they were shaken awake:
I realised what sort of insidious views I had been pandering to in my slow and fortunately brief descent into chaos. I realised that I’ve been staunchly in favour of equality for women, protection for minorities and the oppressed, workers’ rights, transgender rights etc, for good reasons, my whole life, and that the paranoid worldview JBP was advancing was utterly opposed to all those things at heart. I rewatched a lot of his stuff with a more critical eye and I couldn’t believe it. My kook / BS detector finally started working again and I could see so clearly the pseudointellectual techniques he uses to dazzle his vulnerable and disaffected target audience whilst spoonfeeding them harmful and regressive propaganda mixed with actual lies.
These testimonials show us something both troubling and hopeful. It’s concerning, of course, that the depressed can be preyed on in this way, and convinced that social justice feminists are the cause of their suffering. But one encouraging sign is that these men seem like they just needed to discover Chomsky rather than Peterson. If the left could reach these people, who are sincere, decent, and sad, then they wouldn’t become entranced by Peterson’s ideas.
I’d like to send a message, then, to those who like Peterson, or those young men who think Ben Shapiro is a “cool kids’ philosopher,” or those who find Sam Harris profound: You are missing out on the real world of ideas. You are accepting a shallow substitute for the real thing, and it is a dead end. These men do not have solutions. They have pseudo-solutions. If you are depressed, if you are alone, if your job sucks and you aren’t sure where your life is going, what you need is not the shallow bromides of 12 Rules for Life. You need to come and join the left.
There is a misconception, pushed by people like Shapiro and Peterson, that “the left” consists of a very particular strain of “social justice” thinking that traffics in making white people, especially men, feel ashamed all the time. This is what one of the above ex-lobsters said: He thought he was being told he had White Privilege when he was at his lowest point, and that made him incredibly angry. It is a mistake, however, to identify this as “the left.” First, many of us are stalwart defenders of social justice, and believe that white men have been responsible for a lot of horrific crimes and amassed an undue share of power, yet do not believe that individuals need to feel ashamed of themselves. You did not make the world you were born into, you should not feel personally responsible for that which was beyond your control. What you are responsible for is trying to recognize and rectify injustice. I have never felt like I am a bad person for being a white man, but I have certainly felt an obligation to try to fight against race and gender inequality.
Second, to the extent that there are some people on the political left who might believe in the kind of shaming people find off-putting, this does not mean that “the left” believes this. Conservatives try to caricature the left, but when you actually get to know real-world leftists, you’ll find that we’re mostly very reasonable. Millennial socialists are empathetic people who are sickened by systemic unfairness. We get angry about the fact that after the deaths of Eric Garner and his amazing daughter Erica Garner, the right has nothing to say except “Why won’t you talk about black-on-black crime?” We bristle every time we read about another diabetic doing a GoFundMe for their insulin. We want to puke when we see desperate migrants dying as they try to pursue a better life, or Palestinian teens being shot in cold blood by snipers, or Yemeni children starving to death. Yes, we’re bleeding hearts. What of it? There are things in this world that ought to make your heart bleed.
But I think there’s a misconception—people think that “the left” only empathizes selectively, and is therefore merely trying to “signal virtue.” We care about women’s rights but have no sympathy for men sent to war, or about Palestinian victims but not Kurdish ones. This might be true of some leftists, but not the kind I identify with. Most of us are pretty consistent. We don’t like oppression and injustice no matter where it’s found, and I’m very disturbed by the generations of men who have been sent to die in needless wars.
We also care about you. Depression and anxiety are widespread among young people today, and it’s not because they haven’t bothered to stand up straight and clean their rooms. It’s because we live in a scary, lonely world, one where support networks have eroded and people in our generation face increasingly precarious futures.
Nobody on the right has any answers for this. If you don’t believe me, ask them. They don’t have solutions for climate change. They just either deny it or pretend it won’t be so bad. They don’t have solutions for health care—they have no plausible plan for making it so an ambulance ride costs less than $1000. They don’t care if your boss treats you like shit, or you get laid off and lose your insurance, or you can’t afford your rent. They’re not thinking about how to make it so you can afford an education and decent housing, or how to rebuild community bonds. The right are the ones that traffic in “shame”—everything is your fault if you fail. If you suffer, it’s probably because you deserved it. Should have worked harder. On the left, we don’t buy that crap. We know that when problems affect millions of people, it’s not helpful to simply blame their individual defects. We’ve got to work together and help each other out. In some ways, the left is quite Christian: Love thy neighbor.
Leftists have a reputation for being pessimistic, humorless, guilt-trippers. It’s weird, because that’s not what my friends are like at all. In fact, conservatism seems to me like a philosophy of hopelessness, whereas my leftist friends are kind, neighborly idealists who believe the human species can do better.
I realize the Democratic Party has been an embarrassment. In fact, in my original essay on Jordan Peterson, I called him “the intellectual we deserve” because I think his popularity comes in part from the failure of the left to articulate our ideas compellingly. But if you’re tempted by Peterson, or by Quillette’s social justice bashing, or Steven Pinker’s radical centrism, I’d beg you not to buy into the caricatures before you give left ideas a chance. In The Current Affairs Rules for Life, I’ve shown how people on the right consistently distort what leftists are saying in order to make us appear unreasonable and irrational. We’re not afraid of argument or debate. We’re generally just ignored.
Leftism offers a humane and nourishing view of the world. It sees us all as neighbors whose job is to look out for one another. It rejects the idea that it’s okay to screw over other people and enrich yourself. We don’t just criticize stuff, we practice joyful living—we dance at Mardi Gras, go macabre at Halloween, and treat each other with warmth and empathy. We hate abuses of power, assault, and victimization. But we’re builders rather than just complainers, we’re people who see the possibility of a beautiful future and are completely fucking enraged that such an amazing planet can be despoiled and squandered by selfish imbeciles like Donald Trump. We refuse to accept that this is the best we can do, and we don’t think you should settle for less than you’re worth. Read our ideas and see for yourself,
Do not listen to the lies, whether it’s from conservatives talking about “SJWs” or neoliberal pundits condemning “BernieBros.” If you are feeling sad and hopeless, you need a community of good people who care about you. You won’t find that community in the bitter world of right-wing YouTube. You’ll find it in a labor union, or at a Democratic Socialists of America meeting. Don’t allow yourself to be tricked by hucksters who don’t actually care about what happens to you.. Then come and join the left. Experience the joys of solidarity. A better world is possible.
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