Posts Tagged ‘Jordan Peterson’

Can’t remember how I first learned the term conversion hysteria (a/k/a conversion disorder a/k/a functional neurologic symptom disorder) but it was early in adulthood. The meaning is loose and subject to interpretation, typically focusing more on symptoms presented than triggers or causes. My lay understanding is that conversion hysteria occurs when either an individual or group works themselves into a lather over some subject and loses psychological mooring. I had my own experience with it when younger and full of raging hormones but later got myself under control. I also began to recognize that numerous historical events bore strong enough resemblance to categorize them as instances of group conversion hysteria. In recent years, clinical psychologist Mattias Desmet’s description of mass formation psychosis fits the same pattern, which is elaborated by him more formally. Some reports refer to Desmet’s description as “discredited.” I decline to referee the debate.

Two historical events where people lost their minds in response to severe disruption of social norms are the Salem witch trials and the Weimar/Nazi era in Germany. Two further, more recent episodes are Trump Derangement Syndrome in the U.S. and the Covid Cult worldwide, neither of which are over. The latter features governments and petty bureaucrats everywhere misapplying authoritarian force to establish biosecurity regimes over what turns out to have been a hypochondriac response to a bad flu virus (and yes, it was pretty bad) along with a maniacal power grab. What all episodes share is the perception — real or imagined — of some sort of virulent infection that triggers fear-laden desperation to purge the scourge at literally any cost, including destroying the host. The viral metaphor applies whether the agent is literally a virus alien to the physical body or merely an idea (meme) alien to the social body.

Let me acknowledge (as suggested here) Jordan Peterson’s comments in his appearance on The Joe Rogan Experience that such events resemble social contagion that come and go in waves. However, those waves are not like the regular, established intervals of the tides or daylight/nighttime. Rather, they’re more like rogue waves or tsunamis that break across segments of a culture unpredictably. Peterson’s primary example was the very thing that brought him to prominence: Canadian legislation requiring that teachers use students’ preferred pronouns. While initially part of a broad social movement in support of transgender students in Canada and elsewhere, the issue has since become foundational to Woke ideology. Peterson said to Rogan that by pushing the matter into the mainstream (rather than it being at issue for a tiny fraction of students), Canadian legislators were quite literally opening the floodgates to a wave of confusion among youths already wrestling with identity. I can’t recall if Peterson said as much at the time (2017?) or is projecting onto the past.


All-Purpose Guru

Posted: February 25, 2023 in Debate
Tags: , , ,

The backblog here at The Spiral Staircase has many examples of my crabbing about Jordan Peterson’s irritating remarks, behaviors, and rhetorical style. He has parlayed his fame (and infamy — no such thing as bad press) into blanket punditry, a sort of all-purpose guru for those prone to hero worship. His two legitimate areas of expertise are human psychology and interpretation of cultural stories and symbols, especially Christian ones. But when he holds forth on biology, Marxism, economics, politics, or the climate emergency, I’m far more skeptical about his claims and assertions delivered overconfidently as facts. Instead, I seek understanding from experts on those topics.

Peterson’s most recent appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience, as usual, careened all over the topic map with Peterson in high didactic mode. He so overwhelmed Rogan with the familiar Gish gallop that Rogan was reduced to interjecting a few gestures of incredulity and exasperation (whoa, omigod, geez, wow, sheesh) while trying to absorb everything. The obvious next question after each brief pause prompting Peterson to launch into yet another soliloquy — a question I’ve learned to loathe — was “what can we do to fix this?” Seeking solutions is natural enough, but as I understand both historical and modern problems that exist at the societal level (to say nothing of indelible aspects of human nature), solutions are exceedingly difficult to identify and implement if indeed they exist at all. Yet there always seems to be a Man with a Plan (or product), typically an entrepreneur or politician. (I never possess confidence enough to propose grand solutions; problems that consume my thought are of such scale they appear intractable.) So of course Peterson, the all-purpose guru, steps up to the plate to swing at the ball, teasing Rogan (and podcast listeners) with transformational plans he can’t disclose fully just yet. While I continue to believe Peterson is earnest in his endeavors, I can’t help noticing he uses the techniques of a conman.

In fairness, however, the podcast did include one valuable insight, which was probably tangential but then quickly taken up and developed on the spot by Peterson. That, too, is a familiar Peterson approach: exploring ideas not really intended for discussion (squirrel!). However, that’s how conversations run, so my drawing attention to that diversion is not really a criticism. Indeed, because the insight (waves of social contagion) was worthwhile, it will form the basic of a later blog post.

I continue against my better judgment listening in fits and starts to Jordan Peterson on YouTube. No doubt he’s prolific, influential, interesting, infuriating, and by all accounts, earnest. I often come away frustrated, recognizing how I’ve been fed an extended line of BS in some sort of confidence game run by an overconfident intellectual bully. Because he’s the host inviting others onto his own platform, at least of late, everyone is very polite and disagreement — if it occurs — is quite tame, which allows Peterson to elide corrections smoothly. (Live conversation runs that way: piling on top of what was already said displaces and obscures ideas because memory is limited and the most recent utterance typically assumes primacy.) I avoid some topics on Peterson’s webcasts because they’re simply too far outside his expertise to be worthwhile, which he openly admits then stomps right in anyway. For example, Peterson has a series with the caption “Climategate” (putting the conclusion before the discussion, or is that biasing his audience?). Episode 329 (which I do not embed) is titled “The Models Are OK, the Predictions Are Wrong.” His guest is Dr. Judith Curry. I should have avoided this one, too. In the course of the 1.5-hour episode, Peterson repeatedly offers a characterization of some aspect of the climate emergency, to which Dr. Curry responds “I wouldn’t describe it quite that way.” Better characterizations may follow, but that’s neither the tone nor the takeaway.

One of Peterson’s contentions is that, if indeed humans inhabit and treat the surface of the planet problematically, the best way to address the problem is to raise out of poverty those billions of people still struggling to survive. Then they, too, will be ontologically secure and positioned to start caring more about the environment. Sure, just like all those secure, multimillionaire CEOs care while running corporations that extract resources and pollute. (Incidentally, someone in a recent DarkHorse Podcast Q&A asked if Peterson’s hypothetical solution makes any sense. Disappointingly, and perhaps because DarkHorse hosts are chummy with Peterson, they said it depends on how the solution is implemented, which I take to mean that the stars must align and everyone start rowing in unison. Yeah, right.) Peterson follows up his climate solution with the indignant question “Who are we to deny those struggling to raise themselves out of poverty their chance?” Which brings me round to the title of this multipart blog.

Survival is by no means an idle notion but poses a struggle everywhere, even in the affluent West. Just ask the burgeoning homeless population or those laboring frantically to keep mortgages or rent paid so they don’t also become homeless (unhoused is the new euphemism, fooling exactly no one). Even a casual look history reveals that competition among peoples and nations to survive and prosper has wildly uneven and shifting results. Some “succeed” earlier than others or not at all and winners may in time lose their preeminence. Never has there been an all-men-are-brothers approach to competition, though temporary alliances may form. Someone (us, not them) or something (profit, not unspoilt nature) is inevitably privileged. In this context, Peterson’s “Who are we to …?” question is a non sequitur, though it may pull on heartstrings because of quite recent embrace of the idea of equity. A glib answer might be that “we are we, not them,” so of course “we” get available spoils before anyone else. Doesn’t the leader of a pack of wolves eat first? Isn’t that dynamic repeated throughout nature? Aren’t humans embedded in nature just like all other species? Don’t we privilege human life above, say, food animals we farm for sustenance? (We eat them, they rarely eat us until we die and microbes — but nothing else — consume us. Or we give ourselves up to flames, denying even the microbes. We’re selfish that way.) It’s also why the rare individual who gives away all his or her money to charity and winds up penniless is regarded as mental. For nearly all of us, it’s always me (or my progeny) first. Another way to put this that Peterson should understand is that hierarchies exist in nature. Hierarchy and privilege are impossible to disentangle, and attempts to redistribute equitably borne out of ideology tend to devolve into tyranny.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I heard another webcast where the interviewer (Nate Hagens I believe) asked his guest what do you value (i.e., privilege) above all other things? (The word all invites an unbalanced reply.) The extended answer rather took me aback. The guest values life in all its profundity yet declined to privilege human life. In the context of the webcast, which was about the climate emergency and anticipated human die-off and/or extinction, that answer sorta made sense. Should humans survive, even if we eventually sacrifice everything else (our current operational strategy)? Or do we leave the Earth to hardier competitors such as cockroaches and rats? Most people (humans) would unhesitatingly choose us over them as, well, um, always. It’s a strange hypothetical to ponder. Taken to its extreme, if one doesn’t privilege one life form over another, then what’s the problem with criminals, scavengers, and parasites winning the battle for survival? Or more colorfully, why not give zombies and vampires their bite at the apple? They may be undead but their basic strategy for propagation is undoubtedly a winning one.

This blog has never been obliged to observe every passing holiday or comment on celebrity deaths or public events via press release, public statement, command performance, ritual oversharing, or other characterization more closely associated with institutions and public figures who cannot keep from thrusting themselves wantonly onto the public despite having nothing of value to say. The chattering class maintains noise levels handily, so no need to add my voice to that cacophonous chorus. To wit, the recent Thanksgiving holiday prompts each of us every year to take stock anew and identify some area(s) of contentedness and gratitude, which can be challenging considering many Americans feel abandoned, betrayed, or worse as human history and civilization lurch despotically toward their end states. However, one overheard statement of gratitude this year made a strong impression on me, and as is my wont, I couldn’t help but to connect a variety of disparate ideas. Let me digress, starting with music.

Decades ago, the London Philharmonic under Jorge Mester recorded a collection of fanfares commissioned during WWII. American composers represented include (in no particular order) Henry Cowell, Howard Hanson, Roy Harris, Morton Gould, Leonard Bernstein, Virgil Thomson, and Walter Piston. None of their respective fanfares has entered the standard repertoire. However, the sole composer whose stirring fanfare has become legitimate and instantly recognizable Americana is Aaron Copland. His fanfare celebrates no famous figure or fighting force but rather the common man. Copland’s choice to valorize the common man was a masterstroke and the music possesses appealing directness and simplicity that are unexpectedly difficult to capture in music. Far more, um, common is elaborate, noisy, surface detail that fails to please the ear nearly so well as Copland’s stately fanfare. Indeed, the album is called Twenty Fanfares for the Common Man even though that title only applies to Copland’s entry.

The holiday comment that stuck with me was a son’s gratitude for the enduring example set by his father, a common man. Whether one is disposed to embrace or repudiate the patriarchy, there can be no doubt that a father’s role within a family and community is unique. (So, too, is the mother’s. Relax, it’s not a competition; both are important and necessary.) The father-protector and father-knows-best phase of early childhood is echoed in the humorous observation that a dog sees its master as a god. Sadly, the my-dad-can-beat-up-your-dad taunt lives on, transmuted in … superhero flicks. As most of us enter adulthood, coming to terms with the shortcomings of one or both parents (nobody’s perfect …) is part of the maturation process: establishing one’s own life and identity independent yet somehow continuous from those of one’s parents. So it’s not unusual to find young men in particular striking out on their own, distancing from and disapproving of their fathers (sometimes sharply) but later circling back to reflect and reconcile. How many of us can honestly express unalloyed admiration for our fathers and their character examples? I suspect frustration when feet of clay are revealed is more typical.


After a hiatus due to health issues, Jordan Peterson has reappeared in the public sphere. Good for him. I find him one of the most stimulating public intellectuals to appear thus far into the 21st century, though several others (unnamed) spring to mind who have a stronger claims on my attention. Yet I’m wary of Peterson as an effective evaluator of every development coughed up for public consideration. It’s simply not necessary or warranted for him to opine recklessly about every last damn thing. (Other podcasters are doing the same, and although I don’t want to instruct anyone to stay in their lane, I also recognize that Joe “Talkity-Talk” Blow’s hot take or rehash on this, that, and every other thing really isn’t worth my time.) With the inordinate volume of text in his books, video on his YouTube channel (classroom lectures, podcasts, interviews) and as a guest on others’ podcasts, and third-party writing about him (like mine), it’s inevitable that Peterson will run afoul of far better analysis than he himself can bring to bear. However, he declares his opinions forcefully and with overbearing confidence then decamps to obfuscation and reframing whenever someone pushes back effectively (which isn’t often, at least when in direct communication). With exasperation, I observe that he’s basically up to his old rhetorical tricks.

In a wide-ranging discussion on The Joe Rogan Experience from January 2022 (found exclusively on Spotify for anyone somehow unaware of Rogan’s influence in the public sphere), the thing that most irked me was Peterson’s take on the climate emergency. He described climate as too complex, with too many variable and unknowns, to embody in scientific models over extended periods of time. Seems to me Peterson has that entirely backwards. Weather (and extreme weather events) on the short term can’t be predicted too accurately, so daily/weekly/monthly forecasts give wide ranges of, say, cloud cover, temperature, and precipitation. But over substantial time (let’s start with a few decades, which is still a blink in geological time), trends and boundaries reveal themselves pretty reliably, which is why disturbances — such as burning enough fossil fuels to alter the chemical composition of the planet’s atmosphere — that upset the climate steady-state known as Garden Earth are not merely cause for serious concern but harbingers of doom. And then, as others often do, Peterson reframed the climate emergency largely in terms of economics (same thing happened with the pandemic, though not by Peterson so far as I know), suggesting that the problem is characterized by inefficiencies and grass-roots policy that would be magically different if more people were raised out of poverty and could advocate for solutions rather than simply struggle to survive. Dude apparently hasn’t grasped that wealth in the modern world is an outgrowth of the very thing — fossil fuels — that is the root of the problem. Further, industrial civilization is a heat engine that binds us to a warming trend. That’s a thermodynamic principle flatly immune to half-baked economic theories and ecological advocacy. Peterson also gives no indication of ever having acknowledged Jevons Paradox.

So let me state somewhat emphatically: the climate emergency is in fact an existential crisis on several fronts (e.g., resource depletion and scarcity, ecological despoliation, extreme weather events, and loss of habitat, all resulting in civilizational collapse). The rate of species extinction — before human population has begun to collapse in earnest, 8 Billion Day looms near — is several orders of magnitude greater than historical examples. Humans are unlikely to survive to the end of the century even if we refrain from blowing ourselves up over pointless geopolitical squabbles. I’ll defer to Peterson in his area of expertise: personality inventories. I’ll also grant him space to explore myth and symbolism in Western culture. But speaking on climate, he sounds like an ignoramus — the dangerous sort who leads others astray. And when challenged by someone armed with knowledge of governing principles, grasp of detail, and thus analysis superior to what he can muster (such as when debating Richard Wolff about Marxism), Peterson frequently resorts to a series of motte-and-bailey assertions that confound inexpert interlocutors. “Well, that depends on what you mean by ….” His retreat to faux safety is sometimes so astonishingly complete that he resorts to questioning the foundation of reality: “Why the sun? Why this sky? Why these stars? Why not something else completely?” Also, Peterson’s penchant for pointing out that the future is contingent and unknown despite, for instance, all indicators positively screaming to stop destroying our own habitat, as though no predictions or models can be made that have more than a whisper of accuracy in future outcomes, is mere rhetoric to forestall losing an argument.

As I’ve asserted repeatedly, sufficiency is the crucible on which all decisions are formed because earnest information gathering cannot persist interminably. Tipping points (ecological ones, sure, but more importantly, psychological ones) actually exist, where one must act despite incomplete knowledge and unclear prognosis. Accordingly, every decision is on some level a leap into the unknown and/or an act of faith. That doesn’t mean every decision is a wild, reckless foray based on nothing. Rather, when the propitious moment arrives (if one has the wherewithal to recognize it), one has to go with what one’s got, knowing that mistakes will be made and corrections will be needed.

Peterson’s improvisational speaking style is both impressive and inscrutable. I’m sometimes reminded of Marshall McLuhan, whose purported Asperger’s Syndrome (low-grade autism, perhaps, I’m unsure) awarded him unique insights into the emerging field of media theory that were not easily distilled in speech. Greta Thunberg is another more recent public figure whose cognitive character allows her to recognize rather acutely how human institutions have completely botched the job of keeping industrial civilization from consuming itself. Indeed, people from many diverse backgrounds, not hemmed in by the rigid dictates of politics, economics, and science, intuit through diverse ways of knowing (e.g., kinesthetic, aesthetic, artistic, religious, psychedelic) what I’ve written about repeatedly under the title “Life Out of Balance.” I’ve begun to understand Peterson as a mystic overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of existence but simultaneously horrified by unspeakably awful evils humans perpetrate on each other. Glimpses of both (and humor, a bit unexpectedly) often provoke cracks in his voice, sniffles, and tears as he speaks, clearly choking back emotions to keep his composure. Peterson’s essential message (if I can be so bold), like other mystics, is aspirational, transcendental, and charismatic. Such messages are impossible to express fully and are frankly ill-suited to 21st-century Western culture. That we’re severely out of balance, unable to regain an upright and righteous orientation, is plain to nearly everyone not already lost in the thrall of mass media and social media, but so long as the dominant culture remains preoccupied with wealth, consumption, celebrity, geopolitical violence, spectacle, and trash entertainment, I can’t envision any sort of return to piety and self-restraint. Plus, we can’t outrun the climate emergency bearing down on us.

Returning to the subject of this post, I asserted that the modern era frustrates a deep, human yearning for meaning. As a result, the Medieval Period, and to a lesser degree, life on the highroad, became narrative fixations. Had I time to investigate further, I would read C.S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image (1964), but my reading list is already overfull. Nonetheless, I found an executive summary of how Lewis describes the Medieval approach to history and education:

Medieval historians varied in that some of them were more scientific, but most historians tried to create a “picture of the past.” This “picture” was not necessarily based in fact and was meant more to entertain curiosity than to seriously inform. Educated people in medieval times, however, had a high standard for education composed of The Seven Liberal Arts of grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy.

In the last chapter, Lewis summarizes the influence of the Medieval Model. In general, the model was widely accepted, meaning that most people of the time conformed to the same way of thinking. The model, he reiterates, satisfied imagination and curiosity, but was not necessarily accurate or factual, specifically when analyzed by modern thinkers.

Aside. Regular readers of The Spiral Staircase may also recognize how consciousness informs this blog post. Historical psychology offers a glimpse into worldviews of bygone eras, with the Medieval Period perhaps being the easiest to excavate contemplate due to proximity. Few storytellers (cinema or literature) attempt to depict what the world was truly like in the past (best as we can know) but instead resort to an ahistorical modern gloss on how men and women thought and behaved. One notable exception may be the 1986 film The Name of the Rose, which depicts the emerging rational mind in stark conflict with the cloistered Medieval mind. Sword-and-sandal epics set in ancient Rome and Greece get things even worse.


A paradoxical strength/weakness of reason is its inherent disposition toward self-refutation. It’s a bold move when undertaken with genuine interest in getting things right. Typically, as evidence piles up, consensus forms that’s tantamount to proof unless some startling new counter-evidence appears. Of course, intransigent deniers exist and convincing refutations do appear periodically, but accounts of two hotly contested topics (from among many) — evolution and climate change — are well established notwithstanding counterclaims completely disproportionate in their ferocity to the evidence. For rationalists, whatever doubts remain must be addressed and accommodated even if disproof is highly unlikely.

This becomes troublesome almost immediately. So much new information is produced in the modern world that, because I am duty-bound to consider it, my head spins. I simply can’t deal with it all. Inevitably, when I think I’ve put a topic to rest and conclude I don’t have to think too much more about it, some argument-du-jour hits the shit pile and I am forced to stop and reconsider. It’s less disorienting when facts are clear, but when interpretive, I find my head all too easily spun by the latest, greatest claims of some charming, articulate speaker able to cobble together evidence lying outside of my expertise.

Take for instance Steven Pinker. He speaks in an authoritative style and has academic credentials that dispose me to trust his work. His new book is Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018). Still, Pinker is an optimist, whereas I’m a doomer. Even though I subscribe to Enlightenment values (for better or worse, my mind is bent that way), I can’t escape a mountain of evidence that we’ve made such a mess of things that reason, science, humanism, and progress are hardly panaceas capable of saving us from ourselves. Yet Pinker argues that we’ve never had it so good and the future looks even brighter. I won’t take apart Pinker’s arguments; it’s already been done by Jeremy Lent, who concludes that Pinker’s ideas are fatally flawed. Lent has the expertise, data, and graphs to demonstrate it. Calling Pinker a charlatan would be unfair, but his appreciation of the state of the world stands in high contrast with mine. Who ya gonna believe?

Books and articles like Pinker’s appear all the time, and in their aftermath, so, too, do takedowns. That’s the marketplace of ideas battling it out, which is ideally meant to sharpen thinking, but with the current epistemological crises under way (I’ve blogged about it for years), the actual result is dividing people into factions, destabilizing established institutions, and causing no small amount of bewilderment in the public as to what and whom to believe. Some participants in the exchange of ideas take a sober, evidential approach; others lower themselves to snark and revel in character assassination without bothering to make reasoned arguments. The latter are often called a hit pieces (a special province of the legacy media, it seems), since hefty swipes and straw-man arguments tend to be commonplace. I’m a sucker for the former style but have to admit that the latter can also hit its mark. However, both tire me to the point of wanting to bury my head.


YouTube ratings magnet Jordan Peterson had a sit-down with Susan Blackmore to discuss/debate the question, “Do We Need God to Make Sense of Life?” The conversation is lightly moderated by Justin Brierley and is part of a weekly radio broadcast called Unbelievable? (a/k/a The Big Conversation, “the flagship apologetics and theology discussion show on Premier Christian Radio in the UK”). One might wonder why evangelicals are so eager to pit believers and atheists against each other. I suppose earnest questioning of one’s faith is preferable to proselytizing, though both undoubtedly occur. The full episode (47 min.) is embedded below: (more…)

Back in the 1980s when inexpensive news programs proliferated, all wanting to emulate 60 Minutes or 20/20, I recall plenty having no problem working the public into a lather over some crime or injustice. A typical framing trick was to juxtapose two unrelated facts with the intent that the viewer leap to an unwarranted conclusion. Here’s an example I just made up: “On Tuesday, Jane went to her plastic surgeon for a standard liposuction procedure. By Friday, Jane was dead.” Well, what killed Jane? The obvious inference, by virtue of juxtaposition, is the procedure. Turns out it was an entirely unrelated traffic accident. The crap news program could legitimately claim that it never said the procedure killed Jane, yet it led the credulous public to believe so. Author Thomas Sowell resorts to that same sort of nonsense in his books: a habit of misdirection when arguing his point. I initially sought out his writing for balance, as everyone needs others capable of articulating competing ideas to avoid the echo chamber of one’s own mind (or indeed the chorus of the converted). Sowell failed to keep me as a reader.

It’s not always so easy to recognize cheap rhetorical tricks. They appear in movies all the time, but then, one is presumably there to be emotionally manipulated affected by the story, so a healthy suspension of disbelief goes a long way to enhance one’s enjoyment. Numerous fanboy sites (typically videos posted to YouTube) offer reviews and analysis that point out failures of logic, plotting, and continuity, as well as character inconsistency and embedded political propaganda messaging, but I’ve always thought that taking movies too seriously misses the point of cheap entertainment. Considering the powerful influence cinematic storytelling has over attitudes and beliefs, perhaps I’m being too cavalier about it.

When it comes to serious debate, however, I’m not nearly so charitable. The favored 5-minute news debate where 3 or 4 floating heads spew their rehearsed talking point, often talking over each other in a mad grab for air time, accomplishes nothing. Formal, long-form debates in a theater in front of an audience offer better engagement if participants can stay within proper debate rules and etiquette. Political debates during campaign season fail on that account regularly, with more spewing of rehearsed talking points mixed with gratuitous swipes at opponents. Typically, both sides claim victory in the aftermath and nothing is resolved, since that’s not really the objective. (Some opine that government, being essentially nonstop campaigning, suffers a similar fate: nothing is resolved because that’s not the true objective anymore.)

I was intrigued to learn recently of the semi-annual Munk Debates, named after their benefactors, that purport to be formal debates with time limits, moderation, and integrity. I had never heard of them before they booked Jordan Peterson alongside Michael Eric Dyson, Michelle Goldberg, and Stephen Fry. Like Donald Trump did for TV and print news, Peterson has turned into a 1-man ratings bonanza for YouTube and attracts viewers to anything in which he participates, which is quite a lot. The proposition the four debaters were provided was this: Be it resolved, what you call political correctness, I call progress … Problem is, that’s not really what was debated most of the time. Instead, Dyson diverted the debate to identity politics, specifically, racism and so-called white privilege. Goldberg mostly attacked Peterson regarding his opinions outside of the debate, Peterson defended himself against repeated personal attacks by Goldberg and Dyson, and Fry stayed relatively true to the intended topic. Lots of analysis and opinion appeared on YouTube almost immediately after the debate, so wade in if that’s what interests you. I viewed some of it. A couple videos called Dyson a grievance merchant, which seems to me accurate.

What concerns me more here are the cheap rhetorical tricks employed by Dyson — the only debater booed by the audience — that fundamentally derailed the proceedings. Dyson speaks with the fervor of a revivalist preacher, a familiar style that has been refined and coopted many times over to great effect. Whether deserved or not, it carries associations of great moral authority and momentous occasion. Unfortunately, if presented as a written transcript rather than a verbal rant, Dyson’s remarks are incoherent, unhinged, and ineffective except for their disruptive capacity. He reminded everyone of his blackness and his eloquence, the first of which needs no reminder, the second of which immediately backfired and called into question his own claim. Smart, eloquent people never tell you they’re smart and eloquent; the proof is in their behavior. Such boastful announcements tend to work against a person. Similarly, any remark that beings with “As a black/white/red/brown/blue man/woman/hybrid of _______ ethnicity/sexuality/identity …” calls in a host of associations that immediately invalidates the statement that follows as skewed and biased.

The two point-scoring bits of rhetoric Dyson levies with frequency, which probably form a comfort zone to which he instinctively retreats in all challenges, are his blackness (and by proxy his default victimhood) and historical oppression of blacks (e.g., slavery, Jim Crow laws, etc.). There are no other issues that concern him, as these two suffice to push everyone back on their heels. That’s why the debate failed to address political correctness effectively but instead revolved around identity politics. These issues are largely distinct, unless one debates the wisdom of switching out terminology cyclically, such as occurs even now with various racial epithets (directed to every race, not just blacks). That obvious tie-in, the use of euphemism and neologism to mask negative intent, was never raised. Nor were the twisted relations between free speech, hate speech, and approved speech codes (politically correct speech). Nope, the debate featured various personalities grandstanding on stage and using the opportunity to push and promote their personal brands, much like Trump has over the years. Worse, it was mostly about Michael Eric Dyson misbehaving. He never had my attention in the past; now I intend to avoid him at all costs.

Long again this time and a bit contentious. Sorry for trying your patience.

Having watched a few hundred Joe Rogan webcasts by now (previous blog on this topic here), I am pretty well acquainted with guests and ideas that cycle through periodically. This is not a criticism as I’m aware I recycle my own ideas here, which is more nearly thematic than simply repetitive. Among all the MMA folks and comedians, Rogan features people — mostly academics — who might be called thought leaders. A group of them has even been dubbed the “intellectual dark web.” I dunno who coined the phrase or established its membership, but the names might include, in no particular order, Jordan Peterson, Bret Weinstein, Eric Weinstein, Douglas Murray, Sam Harris, Jonathan Haidt, Gad Saad, Camille Paglia, Dave Ruben, Christina Hoff Sommers, and Lawrence Krauss. I doubt any of them would have been considered cool kids in high school, and it’s unclear whether they’re any cooler now that they’ve all achieved some level of Internet fame on top of other public exposure. Only a couple seem especially concerned with being thought cool now (names withheld), though the chase for clicks, views, likes, and Patreon support is fairly upfront. That they can usually sit down and have meaningful conversations without rancor (admirably facilitated by Joe Rogan up until one of his own oxen is gored, less admirably by Dave Ruben) about free speech, Postmodernism, social justice warriors, politics, or the latest meme means that the cliquishness of high school has relaxed considerably.

I’m pleased (I guess) that today’s public intellectuals have found an online medium to develop. Lots of imitators are out there putting up their own YouTube channels to proselytize their own opinions. However, I still prefer to get deeper understanding from books (and to a lesser degree, blogs and articles online), which are far better at delivering thoughtful analysis. The conversational style of the webcast is relentlessly up-to-date and entertaining enough but relies too heavily on charisma. And besides, so many of these folks are such fast talkers, often talking over each other to win imaginary debate points or just dominate the conversational space, that they frustrate and bewilder more than they communicate or convince.

Considering that the ongoing epistemological crisis I’ve been blogging about over time is central to the claims and arguments of these folks (though they never quite call it that), I want to focus on the infamous disagreement between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson on the question of what counts as truth. This conflict immediately put me in mind of C.P. Snow’s lecture The Two Cultures, referring to the sciences and the humanities and how their advocates and adherents frequently lack sufficient knowledge and understanding of the other’s culture. As a result, they talk or argue past each other. Lawrence Krauss provided a brief update almost a decade ago (long before he was revealed to be a creep — charged with sexual misconduct and brought low like so many men over the past year). Being a theoretical physicist, his preference is predictable: