Stand up straight with the lobsters

Helen Lewis has some characteristically amusing observations on Kermit Peterson:

This is the Peterson brand: interweaving a story of dragons and witches, and masculine order and feminine chaos, around some crushingly banal life advice about trying to be a good person, wash behind your ears, and maybe a slick of deodorant once in a while wouldn’t go amiss, eh? If he was a woman, writing for women, we would see him for what he is: a mash-up of Cosmo tips and My First Book of Myths. But because he’s writing for sad young white men – and their problems are, you know, real problems, not like anorexia or rape or sexual harassment at work – he’s a public intellectual. Plus, as plenty of onlookers have noticed, it’s the ultimate triumph of capitalism: when it comes from your mum, it’s nagging. When it comes from a renegade professor with a Patreon, it’s worth $80,000 a month.

A male renegade professor with a Patreon. The male part is crucial. If a woman says it it’s just your mum again. Helen knows that of course, she just forgot to say it.

But isn’t he just giving harmless to good advice to fretful young men? Is that such a bad thing?

Unfortunately, this was an argument that could have been plausibly made about the Jordan Peterson of a few months ago. It’s not one that can be made of the Jordan Peterson of today. As a friend – a geneticist – said to me recently: “It’s ironic. He’s evolved into a bellend in front of our eyes: the selection pressure being attention.”

His fans are that kind of guy, so they’re pulling him in their direction. Short version: assholery / bellendery sells.

Peterson is one of a group of thinkers nicknamed the “intellectual dark web”, who claim they are challenging the suffocating liberal orthodoxy of college campuses and the media. While I have some sympathy – students can be tedious know-alls, but that’s sort of the point of them – they are extremely sloppy at differentiating between genuine threats to free speech and people merely disagreeing with dumb things that they say. This allows them to dress up a great deal of banality and flat-out wrongness as brave taboo-breaking. They think they are latter-day Galileos, when they’re closer to present-day phone-in hosts with PhDs. (Give Nigel Farage an evening course in Ovid or evolutionary psychology, he’d be right in there, is what I’m saying.)

Quite. The most baffling thing about Peterson is why the dudes are so smitten with him.

Just as we like our superstar tenors to be huge and Italian, there’s an appetite for public intellectuals who look like our cultural template for cleverness and authority: well-spoken, preferably white, preferably male. They should be eloquent but undemanding: their audiences want to feel clever without actually having to slog through a textbook. They should offer certainty and answers where real science often only offers doubt and scepticism.

Oh, and one more thing: they should take themselves extremely seriously – something, of course, which truly intelligent people rarely do.

I suspect Peterson is not clever enough to be funny.

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