Why Reasoning with Jordan Peterson Fans Can’t Work, Or: Privilege is a Feeling State

Why Reasoning with Jordan Peterson Fans Can't Work, Or: Privilege is a Feeling State

So Nellie Bowles wrote this piece of magic.

Then former Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro stayed up all night and sweated out this response.

My post here will avoid the content weeds to zero in on a single syntax transition that Shapiro made, and that somehow made it through editing. The indented graf is Bowles. The second sentence is a direct quote from Peterson. The second graf is Shapiro.

Read how the highlight connects them.

Slow down if you have to.

One more time, isolated:

Bowles: “[Peterson direct quote]” he said.

Shapiro: This is not what Peterson is saying. 

This freaked me out. I talked it through with my partner Alix to get clearer on it. Here’s what we explored together:

It never matters what Peterson said.

It matters what he’s saying.

As in: generally, and all the time. And most specifically (speaking as a Peterson devotee): right now, in my head, as my internal homunculus of reassurance.
According to Shapiro’s brain fart, glorious here in black and white, Peterson isn’t a thinker who must commit to recorded words and take responsibility for them. He is a presence to be lived with, ingested, felt, harmonized with. He is wisdom incarnate. You must form a relationship with him to receive his light.
This is why, you non-believers, you have to keep listening to him — to get what he’s saying. Right now. Never mind what he wrote in the National Post, or said to Camille Paglia. To really understand Peterson you have to watch another YouTube video, or go to an event. It’s all in the present tense. Go ahead — tune in, he’s still talking. He’s always still talking. For someone so apparently preoccupied with history, he is seen as living entirely in the present tense. He’s always available for you to be with him. He’s Daddy internet.
Alix pointed out that when Peterson is quoted by a critic, his supporters don’t respond with a contrasting quote. This the clearest evidence that they are answering with an appeal to relationship. What’s at stake for them is not the data but that their feeling of being in relationship with Peterson is being ignored.
It’s true. They respond with a feeling-based generalized summary that is unfalsifiable. That generalized summary always dodges the specific political implications of the original quote. The implications of the original — usually that someone should shut up, that someone should become more orderly — are dodged because they don’t accord with the expansive, warm, father’s-embrace feeling with which the follower is entranced.
“That’s not what he means” stands in for “when I’m in his presence I don’t feel the consequences of his statements.”
Further, it means: “Don’t take this feeling away from me.”

The critic of Peterson is pointing to a data point. The facts of Bill C16. The meaninglessness of the lobster analogy. That postmodernism doesn’t mean what he says it means. That “Cultural Marxism” isn’t a thing. That the subaltern is.

The supporter, by contrast, is asking you to participate in an emotion.

So  why is Peterson so polarizing? Because the emotion he is asking you to participate in is proprietary to one particular group.

Privilege — white, male, educated — is an embodied feeling-state for those who have it. It doesn’t need to be justified by facts, it’s simply how things are. It is so pervasive it does not rise to conscious awareness, except as a vague expansive sense of entitlement over space.

It’s unconsciously natural for privilege to rubberneck. It’s unconsciously natural to manspread, interrupt, order drinks with a raised finger, hold court about things beyond your training or your responsibility to your peers.

Expansive is the key word here. The feeling is one of boundarylessness. Perhaps it’s the somatic drive behind capitalism.

These somatics of privilege only become more sharply sensible (and then, constitute territory to be defended) when the facts of structural power are spoken aloud by a previously silenced voice. It can be bell hooks on patriarchy, Judith Butler on gender, or Ta’Nehisi Coates on the case for reparations. It can be anything that is too true to have been heard before.

When jagged facts slam into entitled feelings, the ability of privilege to breathe so freely, to speak without interruption, to pace on the stage for hours in self-absorption are all challenged. Privilege is offered limits and marked with shame.

Somebody, suddenly, is asking the feeler of privilege whether it really is so natural, whether it is merited, whether it might constitute stolen goods. Somebody is asking you to be accountable for the space you have taken on that stage, in that university, over all those pages. Somebody is showing you what your words mean to those beyond the sphere of your comfort and order.

For the first time in you can’t remember how long, you feel doubt. So what do you do? You say, as loudly as you can, that your freedom of speech is being taken away. You say it, unopposed, over and over again.

What does this all suggest? It means that all you noble friends suffering through hours of PetersonTube to prove he’s intellectually corrupt with think pieces (like this one) as long as his supporters produce won’t get anywhere.

The argumentation of his supporters does not aspire to clarity. It exists to exercise and enhance a feeling-state. You think you’re arguing with someone, but really they’re doing masturbatory cardio. It feels so good for them.

Somehow that feeling-state must be met, accounted for, and exchanged for one that does not depend, like capitalism, on endless expansion in order for the person who feels it to believe they exist.



I’ve got to follow up at some point with an exploration of how the privilege feeling-state intersects with sensations of shame and inadequacy. Here it is in meme form:


via @_davidmadden_ on Twitter, responding to Seth Abramson’s excellent thread: https://twitter.com/SethAbramson/status/997980968886644736



I’ll just stick this in here, in response to a number of the comments below.

Trance States and Choked Voices: Brief Notes on Charisma and Toxic Masculinity

Trance States and Choked Voices: Brief Notes on Charisma and Toxic Masculinity

Duff McDuffee pointed this out to me first on a Facebook thread. When Alex Jones — Infowars conspiracy theorist and hawker of survivalist protein powders — gets on a roll, the content of what he says is secondary to the state he embodies. He’s not communicating something to be understood, but rather broadcasting a trance state.

The content supports the transmission of this state only to the extent that it helps defamiliarize whatever hold on consensus reality he and his audience have. Yes, he is talking about aliens here, but this only underlines the alienating experience of a body that needs to transcend its pain and confusion.

You can watch a bit of the following with the sound on to get a sense of this intersection of content and somatics. But then you can mute it and just watch what he does with his body. Or: what his body does with him.

Gazing off to the right and up. Conjuring the completeness of his vision by caressing an invisible sphere in front of him face, as though the sphere were his face, perfected. Leaning with his eyes into the vastness or the void before him. The conspiracy theories seem rooted in the conspiracy of his being bodily possessed.

And — maybe the most important detail McDuffee pointed out: when Rogan interrupts the freestyle in any way, Jones’ primary goal is not to answer the question, let alone hear it. His goal is to maintain the self-enclosed-but-extroverted trance state. He needs to get back on that train as soon as possible, perhaps because it’s where he feels most at home, most protected.

A comparison to Trump here isn’t lazy: when we ask why he can’t stick to the teleprompter, something similar might be happening. Reading from the teleprompter, like taking in Rogan’s question, would stop the trance train.

Reading the teleprompter would be like being distracted from masturbating, which may tell us something about the adolescent anxiety informing it all, not to mention the overwhelming intersection between alt-right spaces and porn.

Other things that interrupt masturbating? Oh, you know — evidence, citations. Those little facts of external reality that call us into responsibility, that tell us our pleasure is not the only thing that exists.

Jordan Peterson rides a similar train, only in first class, and tenured. This modestly-titled clip is typical of his in-person somatic strategy, marked by constant repetition: pacing, hand gestures, head-tilts, the pretence of making eye contact. Again: try watching for a minute with the sound muted.

Back in June I went to one of his public lectures. It was sold out: 500 people, $30 each. $15K gross on a regular Tuesday night. Crowd was 90% white. Lots of buzz cuts, ball caps and sun glasses amongst the men, who made up maybe 70% of the crowd. Amongst the 20% of the crowd who were over 40, the vast majority were men. Going for a pee was like being at an NHL hockey game in 1978.

As Peterson strode onto the stage, the guy beside me yelled out over the applause, “There he is, there he is!”

The lecture was a stream of folksy megalomania: one long off-book, beyond-scope-of-practice-for-clinical-psychology digression after another of his alt-right sweet spots. He held out for 107 minutes before substantially addressing the published topic for a 2-hour event — The Tower of Babel (appropriately), and The Flood. And the actual substance he got to seemed designed to avoid distracting anyone from the mystery of himself. A key slide cited a banal remark from Mircea Eliade on the ubiquity of flood narratives (1:47:59). No citation provided. 

It was like he wasn’t even trying to conceal the fact that he’s not interested in the content.

Why should he? Nobody was there for the content, advertised or otherwise. They were there to commune with Peterson’s body, his performance of radical bravery, his fragility and grievances. Their adoring gaze on him was only broken by thrilled shudders elicited by phrases like “cultural marxism”.

Okay, full disclosure:

I know what this stream of loghorreic bliss feels like. Both of the cults I was in in my late 20s / early 30s were led by men whose social and somatic power hinged on being able to flip into these states at will.

In both organizations, I progressed far enough up the hierarchy to be invited to give sermons to entry-level members. The content was spiritual revelation, and I was to mimic the guru.

Before it felt terribly wrong — which was pretty quick — it was exhilarating. The format was “dharma talk”, or “satsang”. The premise was that I had something deeply subjective yet universally applicable to share. I could feel myself “filled with the spirit” of the guru. No other resources were needed. I opened my mouth, and something “inspired” poured out, fast. I created a wall of sound around myself that gave some kind of relief. I felt as though I was within a ring, but also rising above myself.

I’d had experience with this before, albeit “secular”. As a young poet and novelist, I would give readings from my work around town. (That was “social media” in those days.) I remember feeling that the microphone was like a gun-shield, and that if my text could fire out and overwhelm the room, my brilliance would be clear to everyone. My presentation style was loud and fast. I inflated myself with every inhalation.

It wasn’t unique. Many of the men I worked with and loved nurtured a similar affect. One of them, the now-famous Christian Bök, was then famous for reading his language poems so loud and fast that he literally foamed at the mouth. But Bök was self-consciously performing a kind of mania, mimicking the machine-like virality of language itself. Most of the rest us were just trying to emote, without receiving anything. As with punk rock, I think it was very hard for us to find the line between catharsis and aggression.

I haven’t lost my taste for holding forth, though it has declined to the extent I own my general shame. And to the extent that writing helps me sublimate an impulse I believe flows out of a deep wound. When I lecture now, I feel distinctly inadequate, and I try to respect and treasure this rather than overcome it.

I emailed a friend and veteran psychologist about the phenomenon of speed and overwhelm in speech. She wrote back:

In psycho-traumatology the concept of “pressurised talk” is considered symptomatic of a cry for help that went unanswered. It’s a new addition to the fight-flight-freeze-submit roster. And it’s helped me sit with many traumatized people who fill their hours with a wall of words. Simple, ongoing listening, with facial & gestural attunement (rather than the frustration, disbelief or boredom that this defence is unconsciously intended to re-create) slowly works its wonders. It seems that it is dangerous for them to allow a pause or moment of reflection. “Going inside” means losing your constant, necessary vigilance against the world.

I talked about Peterson with another friend. He remarked that Peterson sounds like he’s trying to speak while someone is throttling his neck.

I hear it too. He’s always running out of time. Why? Because things are always so bad, culture is always dying, the world is always ending. Patriarchy always holds the apocalypse over our heads like some fantasy of ultimate violence: wait till your father gets home.

Peterson’s fans have pointed out that he sounds like Kermit the Frog, which lets them fantasize about his archetypal resonance with Pepe the Frog.

Again, it’s not about data, or content. It’s about free association, rhythm, dream states, and the passions unleashed by all three. Which is why it makes sense that another alt-right babble-mouth Mike Cernovich compares himself to a DJ:

I would say that I pay more attention to what DJs do and how DJs manage their gigs and their fan base than anybody in traditional media. 

Alex Jones has the same throttled, pressurized voice. So does Tony Robbins, though he powers through it. So did the late great B.K.S. Iyengar. So does Michael Roach. So does Trump, though in a less obvious way: you can hear all of his vowels bottlenecking through jaw tension.

This might be a weak correlation. Jones’ voice also sounds soaked in bourbon, while Robbins lives with acromegaly. And of course vocal strain or awkwardness does not imply traumatized charisma.

My gut telling me there’s something more going on with these guys might be more of the same self-centred speech, but I’ll risk it:

Yes, they speak through the feeling of being choked, of having to overcome attackers. They also speak through the strain of the pubescent boy’s voice. as it breaks into a dangerous vision of manhood they feel it’s better to dominate than change.



Complaints and Confessions of a (Liberal White Male) Jordan Peterson Fan

Complaints and Confessions of a (Liberal White Male) Jordan Peterson Fan


1. I just love this photo of Jordan Peterson. It shows him in his natural element, shining in the darkness of the age. Look at that stairwell slanting upwards behind him, to parts unknown. I love that indigenous pole-thingy in the margin. It’s so primal and raw. Just look into those eyes — I’m sure you’ll feel what I feel.

2. I could be Jordan Peterson. A few different turns of the screw is all. I have always read a lot and been deeply confident in my multidimensional understanding of the big picture, and I’m not afraid to talk about it. The feminists call it mansplaining. Whatever. That’s what it takes to get that tenure, that oak-paneled office. I would have my cleaned and pressed shirts delivered there. I don’t need all that stuff of course, but I’m worth it. Continue reading “Complaints and Confessions of a (Liberal White Male) Jordan Peterson Fan”