I’m new to this party. Like most of the internet, I was completely unaware of Jordan Peterson until the now-infamous Cathy Newman interview. Like much of the internet, I voraciously consumed his interviews with Joe Rogan and others immediately afterwards and followed the fallout.
Joe Rogan #1006 with Peterson and Bret Weinstein was transformational to me, not in the content it presented, but rather in its articulation of the content. Like some of the internet, I was blown away at how clearly and defensibly he articulated points I have been trying to make to friends, family members, and social media connections for the past few years about the left, the right, the hyper-factionalization of modern political thought, the dangers of identity politics, how the alt-right is merely a mirror of the social justice left in both their groupthink philosophy and approach, and how the only peaceful way forward is to abandon the politics of group power and embrace the politics of liberty and individual responsibility.
I will admit to not delving one iota (yet) into the body of his online material, which I understand to be largely in the “self-help” arena, mostly because I maintain a conscious and willful allergy to anything “self-help” related. In my mind, when you seek others for self-help, it is no longer self-help. But I voraciously acknowledge that mental, physical, and spiritual guidance is an extremely valuable tool for most people in the world, and I commend Peterson for filling this role when, by all appearances, that role is increasingly vacant.
Although I was well down this intellectual path before discovering Peterson, he has filled certain gaps in my thinking with facts and academic architecture of which I was previously unaware. For instance, the deep philosophical connection between post-modernism and Marxism never really occurred to me before he threw it out there. In retrospect, it should have been obvious, it’s just nothing I ever thoughtfully considered, and that connection explains certain nasty personal relations that happened between myself and other intellectuals in the past year. If only I’d known.
But I think he’s missing some stuff.
In truth, he’s pretty new to this social media neo-Marxist upwelling, and he admits this up front, so his explanations of it trend towards his own experiences and presumptions. He, probably rightfully, seems to think that the overwhelming dominance of the social justice left in modern universities represents a Pareto Principle in action: where colleges leaned left in the 1960s, the left begat more left, and now they are so left of center that they are teaching toxic Marxism to students under everything but name. And fine, that’s probably true. And he seems to think that part of the neo-Marxist upwelling is a revolt against the public perceptions of the 2008 bank bailout, which was completely crooked and showed the country that in our system it’s often better to buy influence in Washington than it is to act ethically in business. And fine, that’s almost certainly true. But there is more going on here that I don’t think he’s seeing. There is more to this than echo chambers and bad adaptations of contemporary philosophy. There are real, structural things in play that are exacerbating the rise of identity politics, outside the realm of raw intellectual discourse.
1. The Magic Printing Press
Washington, DC is a city built around a magic printing press, that literally prints money. That’s an oversimplification, but honestly not by much, since we abandoned any kind of hard monetary standard. It does not print value, but it does print money. And capitalists seeking a return on investment could not possibly dream of a better return than to control a magic printing press that literally prints money.
Now Peterson, Weinstein, and others would certainly characterize this as “bad capitalism,” and I think almost everyone would agree if it was framed in those terms. But the facts on the ground are that this money printing engine exists, and control over it is tremendously rewarding. Far more rewarding than inventing the next mouse trap or developing ways to streamline the mass production of old mouse traps. I suspect he hasn’t spent too much time thinking about this because he’s Canadian, and the Canadian magic printing press isn’t nearly as powerful.
2. Marketing is Mind Control
If Americans have one edge on the rest of the planet, as a people, it’s marketing.
We mercilessly apply base level psychology to manipulate the masses into wanting to buy ever more stuff. It is pervasive, refined, and malicious, and traces its roots back to early, deep connections between Wall Street, Sigmund Freud, and (no kidding) the Central Intelligence Agency. The techniques are taught in every degreed advertising program in universities in America, and the history of its development, and its connection to politics, are outlined most plainly to muggles in an Adam Curtis documentary called The Century Of The Self, which should honestly be required viewing for anyone thinking critically about the pickle the West currently has itself in.
3. The Money to Votes Pipeline
I speak frankly and conversationally with intelligent people who run campaigns in the Democratic Party. People for whom it is literally their job to convert money into signals, and signals into votes, and votes into 51% majorities at the behest of the people who donated the money. These conversations are honestly the best and most enlightening ones I have with anyone who adopts a party identifier in these times, because the people who do this as a job don’t drink the Kool-aid out of some psychological need, or out of social pressure, and they can’t properly do their job if they’re too high on Kool-aid. Don’t get me wrong, they drink it, but they think about drinking it, and they’re actually a lot more open-minded about switching the flavor packets of Kool-aid around if they think it can get them to that 51%.
I can have frank strategic conversations with these people in a way that I could never have with a “talking points parrot.”
There are identical people within the Republican Party apparatus, of course, whose job is also to literally convert money into votes. Winning elections is a business, just like any other business. And the business is marketing. And marketing is psychological manipulation. How good your product is, compared to the other product, has almost no effect on the marketing game. And this game is being played at a very high level, with tremendous amounts of money, to gain control of the magic printing press. The special election in my district in suburban Atlanta spent almost double what the entire UK general election spent in 2015, for a single seat in the House of Representatives.
4. Identity Politics is a Marketing Tool
If you’re going to sell Dodge Ram pickup trucks, the best conversion of your marketing money into purchases is to “target your market.” If the marketing director of Dodge were to buy pickup truck advertisements on MSNBC instead of Fox News, he would be surreptitiously sacked, and rightly so. So, Fox News chases the Dodge Ram money by showing us news that Dodge Ram buyers want to watch, and MSNBC shows news that appeals to prospective Saab station wagon buyers. The media outlets cultivate these groups for profit. It allows them to better sell their product to their actual consumer, which is not the viewer, it’s the ad buyer.
You might think this sort of thing would go away as we move away from TV and toward social media and internet content, but the facts on the ground are the exact opposite. The decisions driving marketing based group cultivation are no longer being made in the boardroom, which was bad enough, they’re now being made by algorithms buried deep in the beating heart of Google, YouTube, and Facebook, and the magnitude of group factionalization is amplified.
In this way, capitalism, which is good, when blended with marketing, which is perhaps ethically questionable, is literally an engine for exacerbating the adoption of group identities. And application of these methods to politics, via this money to votes pipeline, is an engine for identity politics. It fuels the fire. How much of the 2016 election night coverage was about what percentage of which demographic went to each candidate? Quite a bit. It was almost literally all they talked about with exit poll analysis.
Which brings me full circle. The people in both parties whose job is to buy the votes, want people to identify as groups, because that’s how they target them.
5. Language is Thought
Peterson is missing something deeper going on with cognition itself, because he’s stuck in the middle and he’s too busy in his daily routine to take a step back and look at what’s going on.
When I first saw the Newman interview, my first impression was not that she was trying to play some kind of “gotcha” game. I truly felt like Peterson was saying words, and she was hearing different words than he was saying. Repeatedly saying, “but that’s not what I said” could be a bellwether that someone is willfully misinterpreting you, I’d agree. But not necessarily so. I think there is a very real possibility that she literally didn’t process the language itself, the words, in the way they were intended to be processed.
In Peterson’s follow-up interview with Geenstijl, he did a bit of dry psychoanalysis of Newman and still missed this possibility. He hit closer to the mark towards the end of Joe Rogan #1070, when he mentioned that insiders at BBC Channel 4 told him people at the station thought the interview went well from Newman’s perspective. This is another indicator that not just Newman, but other people at Channel 4 literally heard different words than what Peterson was saying.
I ran into these same phenomena discussing the Newman interview with friends and family, and tremendously more-so discussing the James Damore memo, where over and over I could watch two intelligent people I respect read the same words and gather completely different meanings from those words. I explored this. Narrowing my sample entirely to women, the two women I knew who were trained and practicing engineers understood completely what Damore was trying to say, and the ones who were of any other field adopted the same interpretation carpeted in the left media. Same words, different meaning conveyed by the words.
So, there is something deeper going on here. It is not merely a battle of ideologies, it is a battle of the architecture of thought itself. The very way people think, and these are smart people, is being tainted by this perpetual barrage of identity politics marketing. It is deeply Orwellian, and I’ll admit, I’m terrified at this realization.
Peterson and Weinstein’s conclusion to Joe Rogan #1006 is that the way to combat this effect is free speech. And yes, on the front lines, absolutely. But I’m increasingly of the opinion that the problem is much deeper than even they may realize, and the bloody end-game of tribalism may at this point be completely unavoidable, systematically speaking.
Brett and Jordan are in the pilot house of this ship trying to wrest the tiller away from the identity politics captains and avoid the iceberg, but I’m not sure they fully grasp the inertia of the boat, and the people like me, below decks, should maybe keep an eye on the lifeboats.
* Courtney Camp is an engineer and avid boater. This is Courtney’s fifth article for Being Libertarian.