Intellectual Populism – The Chameleon of Truth

TORONTO, ON – DECEMBER 6 – Profile of Dr. Jordan Peterson. The U of T prof at the centre of a media storm because of his public declaration that he will not use pronouns, such as “they,” to recognize non-binary genders. (Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

By: Nadiya Alexandra

The rise of political populism has been seen across Europe, the United States, and Canada (amongst others). While far-right populist movements have taken centre stage the term ‘populism’ is migrating to realms beyond politics. In an article by the New York Review of books, Jordan B. Peterson (a professor at the University of Toronto) was branded an ‘intellectual populist.’

Unable to find what the term ‘intellectual populism’ means, I try to frame a definition drawing on elements of political populism and Jordan B. Peterson’s teachings. The elements of populism that I will use to structure intellectual populism are a sense of crisis; identifying the ‘other’ that is the enemy; speaking on behalf of ordinary people and standing in opposition to the corrupt elite; offering clear solutions to complex societal problems; and the added benefit of charismatic leadership.

Sense of Crisis

Reaching into history to start our definition, Robert Paxton defined one of the “mobilizing passions” of fascism as the “sense of overwhelming crisis.” It appears that populism follows in the same vein. The rise of populism has been attributed to several crises, including the economic crisis, ‘refugee crisis’, and globalization. Peterson classifies the crisis of our society as “a loss of faith in old verities.” This includes (in the West), withdrawing from our traditions, religion, and nation-centered culture. Peterson seems to have identified a potent crisis, as he has gained a massive following.

The ‘Other’

Also voiced by Paxton was the element of believing that ‘one’s group is a victim.’ Again, while this was a key factor in defining fascism, it also applies in defining populism. In the populist response to the ‘refugee crisis’, the ‘other’ has been identified as Muslims. Peterson has identified ‘social justice warriors’ (which he also calls ‘postmodern neo-Marxists’) as the corrupt other that ‘we’ need to worry about. These social justice warriors, according to Peterson, are responsible for our crisis and loss of faith in old verities.

Speaking on Behalf of Ordinary People

Although academics have trouble defining populism, it appears there is consensus on two core ideas: populism speaks on behalf of ordinary people; and these people stand in opposition of the elite who block the achievement of popular political goals. Peterson claims to speak for the protection of his students and particularly men. Peterson speaks for these ‘ordinary people’ against the ‘corrupt elite’, which he defines as the faculties of women’s studies, sociology, anthropology, English literature, and the faulty of education. Peterson identifies (inherently corrupt) feminists as waging an assault on masculinity. In 2017, Peterson said public appearances and videos that “he wants to lower the enrollment in courses that have been “corrupted” or that lead students to become “social justice warriors.” Peterson was planning on building a website that would rank courses and professors that were likely to turn students into, heaven-forbid, ‘social justice warriors.’

Offering Clear Solutions to Complex Societal Problems

In her 2017 article on hybrid populist movements, Ina Schmidt highlights a key element of populism: it “often offers seemingly clear and easy solutions for political problems within a society.” In Peterson’s popular book 12 Rules of Life: an Antidote to Chaos, he offers constructive advice, but it comes “with some dubious traditionalist baggage.” Peterson wrote that “healthy women” want men who “outclass” them in intelligence, dominance and status. It seems the clear solution that Peterson is presenting is a return to more ‘traditional’ times when men were men and women were housewives.

Charismatic Leaders

Paxton also cites charismatic leaders as key elements of fascism, again, this applies to populist leaders also. Viktor Orbán, Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump are prime examples of right-wing populist charismatic leaders who have the power to mobilise the people. Undeniably, Peterson is an effective public speaker. No doubt his ‘charisma’ has added to his rise in popularity and to his following (despite the questionable ideals he preaches).

Peterson has amassed a huge following, besides being a professor of Psychology at UofT, he is a YouTube Star (2.38 million subscribers), his public talks sell out, and his 12 Rules of Life book sold millions of copies worldwide. While some of his teachings seem backward and disturbing, he appears to have tapped into a real frustration: even decades after the feminist revolution in the 1960s, “we have yet to figure out new rules for partnership between men and women.” Drawing on the parallels between political populism and Jordan Peterson, a case can be made for defining intellectual populism.

What is most worrying is that Peterson’s ‘truth’ has resonated with many people. Peterson has been a proud proponent of the freedom of speech, but the outcome of this democratic value has been questionable. Why have so many people bought into this truth? Why have so many people bought into the truth of right-wing political populists? One answer could be that the pragmatism and fluidity of populism allows it to adjust to its environment. In this case, Peterson’s truth and intellectual populism has become the hope for “young men perplexed by cultural upheaval.”

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