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.


  • Piece of magic? You spelled disengenuous piece of shit wrong. But that’s what I’d expect from a sniveling cocksucking liberal soy boy.

    • Statement One: The left, he believes, refuses to admit that men might be in charge because they are better at it.

      Statement Two:“The people who hold that our culture is an oppressive patriarchy, they don’t want to admit that the current hierarchy might be predicated on competence,”

      Shapiro: Peterson is not saying statement one (presumably because statements one and two are not equivalent)

      Remski: Shapiro is claiming Peterson is not currently saying Statement 2 and therefore it doesn’t matter because Peterson is an ongoing concept, not a person.

  • Yeah…Shapiro is correct. Because it appears men have historically risen to the top of the competence hierarchies you find to be of power doesnt mean theyre there by virtue of being male and that is all. Its quite possible and seems to be the case that on the extreme ends of people who reach the top they all share the same traits, traits found most commonly in men. Thats not to say some women cant have those same traits, but theyre found most commonly in men. So we have a higher distribution of men. To just disregard that and claim its only because theyre men and people of the highest competence should be thrown out and replaced with less competent people is not going to lead to a better outcome. If int he future women fill those distributions then more power to them. We all want the most competent people doing the most difficult things. Youre being disingenuous in how youre representing this, not Peterson and youre losing this argument to level headed people.

  • Many of us who have spent 2 years or more consuming Dr. Peterson’s content are to our surprise, far more educated on the subject than the “Johnny come lately” journalists and academics who have spent very little time with his work and yet have formed robust opinions that are way to often just wrong. So we can dispense with many negative articles about him as simply being untrue. Not because we believe it to be untrue but because we know it is untrue.

    The very fact we’ve spent so much time with his work and his longwinded elaborations, in multihour lectures and spent many hours over many months discussing, critiquing and understanding his positions, that weak or uninformed arguments about him are glaringly obvious as well as efforts to smear or mislead us. We’ve been arguing back and forth about Peterson with well educated people with legitimate critiques for years while most of his critics today were not even aware of him. A lot of us are simply bewildered at the articles about him by people who claim to have done their research because the message those journalists walk away with simply doesn’t jive with what we know to be true. I will concede that those of us who have been around a while aren’t easy to convince, that is because there is a lot of solid bedrock underpinning our beliefs, that we didn’t come by easily so were unlikely to lose them easily.

    Contrary to your thinking we come from many walks of life and beliefs. I myself am (for the lack of a better term) a black male who has benefitted from his message and continue to do so.

    • You’re missing an obvious Catch 22, Ron. To spend as much time studying Peterson as you have, a person would have to be enough like him to even stomach his obvious prejudices. So, according to your expressed ideology, only people who like him would be truly capable of critiquing him and that does go along with what our beloved Matthew is saying. I’m joking with the “beloved.” He’s okay, but I can only take so much of him either. I will assume the same is true for you, so, according to your way of thinking, we have to recuse ourselves from critiquing Matthew. Right?

  • Interesting article. So, I’ve been reasoning against anti-Peterson people for upwards of a year, they appear to shut down immediately. “Emotional labour” etc. So it’s a bit ironic this article makes the opposite claim in the title.

    It is understandable how people can be so ignorant to Peterson as this article exemplifies. Every criticism of him tends to focus on feeding anger and bias-confirmation, and head off with a click-bait title. Although, lots of disgusting clickbait titles also capitalize on pro-Peterson sentiments. As someone who advocates for education of Peterson and his research and science, I find the conservative click-bait people equally unpalatable. So there is low-capacity of openness, a high degree of false thinking on both sides.

    I predict anti-Peterson sentiment will eventually wane when more people get better at managing their anger. The angry, low-thinking (high-feeling) anti-Peterson people trigger the angry, low-thinking (high-feeling) pro-Peterson people, and in turn they trigger the anti-Peterson individuals. Vicious circle.

    You’re continuing the circle, continuing the animosity and resentment.

  • No, no, no. It’s not about the difference between what he “said” and what his followers think he’s “saying.” When you take a single line out of a speech that is hours long, and provide your own context instead of the context that it was spoken in, you can easily mislead your readers as to what someone meant. It’s that simple. People’s words are taken of context all the time. The only thing to do in this situation is to provide context and commentary. Diving into the deeper meaning of words and providing context is something intelligent people do. To suggest otherwise is idiotic.

  • This whole article is built on a flawed critique of the difference between “said” and “saying” when Peterson fans interact with others.

    The logic of the critique is that interactions go this way-

    JBP Critic: *Quotes Peterson directly and in context*
    JBP Fan: “That’s not what he’s saying”

    Whereas even in your own example, what’s really going on is-

    JBP Critic: *gives bad summary of forthcoming quote* *Quotes Peterson directly but without context*
    JBP Fan: (referring to the bad summary, not the quote) “That’s not what he’s saying”

    The problem with the vast majority of critical articles about Peterson is not that they fail to capture Peterson’s words so much as they always manage to interpret them completely uncharitably.

    In the example in your article, the summariser takes a wild leap and calls Peterson’s words a justification for “men being in charge” – and those aren’t Peterson’s words at all – that’s an imposition on the part of the interpreter. Of course Peterson would readily admit that more men tend to be in charge, but it’s not exclusively men, and he doesn’t ever advocate for that. He never, ever says that only men should ever be in charge – which is important, because there are people who genuinely do say that, but perhaps more importantly he’s said things which directly contradict that, for example the fact that in his work as a psychologist he’s helped women to be more assertive and to compete with men – something he wouldn’t do if this was an issue for him.

    The point here is that this isn’t a matter of ignoring the words that Peterson said – it’s a matter of being familiar with more than just a single sentence at a time, and being able to interpret any one sentence Peterson says in light of other things he’s said – as broadly as possible, not just interpreting all the “bad” things he’s said and using all the other “bad” things for context. You could argue that Peterson should be “more precise”, but it’s somewhat disingenuous to use this as a justification for putting words in his mouth. Personally I don’t 100% get on with Peterson’s “teaching style” – I’d much prefer him to teach in a more structured manner rather than go on for 2 or 3 hours at a time, retreading old ground much of the time, bringing up new points when they come to mind. It makes it difficult to remember where exactly he said certain things, and completely offputting to wade through his videos in search of a single quote. But that doesn’t justify interpreting snippets of Peterson’s words in a way that not only adds sinister meaning to those words, but does so despite the fact that even watching through his various interviews would give you enough statements by Peterson to directly contradict your uncharitable interpretation.

    It’s not about the critic violating some feeling of what it is I think Peterson represents – it’s the fact that most of his critics are hopelessly bad at taking his comments in context and interpreting them fairly. And I make that ciriticism despite the fact that I’m not a huge fan of Peterson’s twitter feed (IMO he spends a bit too long getting angry at his own hit pieces and would do well to better demonstrate the rule “assume that the person talking to you knows something – no matter how little – that you don’t), and I also think he could do with better understanding postmodernism/marxism rather than just referring to “postmodern neomarxists” all the time. Oh yeah, and I was completely against his stupid idea to implement an AI algorithm to identify “postmodern neomarxist courses” on a kind of blacklist website. I agree with those criticisms completely, but I still find that the vast majority of critical articles that are levelled at Peterson are based on uncharitable interpretations, which is what I for one really mean if I use the phrase “that’s not what he’s saying”.

  • …”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…”

    So incredibly well said, thank you!

  • I think a lot of what you are saying here applies equally well to Sam Harris and his followers. I stopped trying to have a rational discussion with a Harris devotee I know after I realized you cannot criticize someone’s beloved in any way and expect to get a fair hearing. Now that you’ve specifically pointed it out, I realize for the first time the quasi-religious nature of the feeling state you allude to. I had just chalked up my colleague’s lack of objectivity regarding Harris to neurosis, trauma or the fact that he isn’t the brightest bulb on the tree. I now see that there is religious devotion toward these charismatic men as well, which makes sense given how obsessed with them personally the followers are. There is no one more irrational than a religious zealot.

  • Pretty heady stuff coming from what amounts to being certified Yogic Flyer. Consider that Jordan Peterson has done more to alleviate the hard problems associated with neo liberalism and climate change than Matthew Remski has ever managed through his millions of hours of meditation, poetry, activism, and hanging out at ashrams. At first I thought that his guy and his site were a put on, but that is not the case. He is for real and has really made my day. Also, I think that he should footnote Alix as a credible reference. Cheers and thanks for being you, somebody that just cannot be made up.

  • You come across as someone who is scared. Scared of the unexpected uprising of ideas. Scared of the intellectual maturity of the opponent that you have been mongering for years and now finally stand in front of in the ring.

  • Having recently encountered messages by “Peterson fans”, and found a link to this article, just wanted to add some thoughts:

    Prioritizing honesty and humility in discussion with others with agendas and reputations to build, won’t work as often as one would like who is espousing the honesty. Indeed, “reasoning” with “Jordan Peterson Fans” can’t work when the “reasoning” is arrogant, self-deceitful. That’s why this blog article fails in my eyes.
    – Contemplating that privilege “constitute stolen goods”.
    – Claiming “the emotion he is asking you to participate in is proprietary to one particular group…. Privilege — white, male, educated”. Excuse me?

    But, for this writing, far from being decent, more as being a work of volatility to get shares, sure, I get it. The comments have some filth, and some decency. But the responses by author, and follow-up addition of an image shows some agenda, reputation, self-inflation to satisfy. But, the last bit above, seeing the last comment by author in late 2018: the bullshit idea that Jordan Peterson is giving legitimacy to the alt-right, and tagging this article with alt-right? WTF is that all about? He’s as much despised by the white supremacists (perhaps more-so) than he is by the screamers in the extreme progressive movements.

    I actually gain some mild respect for the character of that annoying “fan” in the comic at the end, if such a character was faced with the author of this blog. Although personally I feel very aligned with the person on the left in the comic who wants to discuss things; it’s not at all reasonable to equate the spirit of the article above with the person in the left in the comic.

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