After the burial-parties leave
And the baffled kites have fled;
The wise hyænas come out at eve
To take account of our dead.
How he died and why he died
Troubles them not a whit.
They snout the bushes and stones aside
And dig till they come to it.
They are only resolute they shall eat
That they and their mates may thrive,
And they know that the dead are safer meat
Than the weakest thing alive… Rudyard Kipling. The Hyaenas
Jordan Peterson is not quite yet a cadaver to be clawed at by the Hyaenas of social media. Rumours of his death have, in Twain’s now sadly rather weary phrase, been much exaggerated. But he has had a tough 12 months.
His travails include, but are not limited to:
- News that his wife has terminal cancer;
- Addiction to, and a “paradoxical reaction” to, Benzodiazepines, initially prescribed to calm anxiety and depression but subsequently making the symptoms much worse;
- A long period spent in Russia to avail himself of medical treatment that for some reason appears to have been unavailable in, say, Toronto, during which time he was put into a coma for his own safety;
- The discovery that this has all led to “significant neurological damage” and that while Peterson is said to be recovering, he is not yet out of the woods.
And as reports of his brush with death emerged, the Hyaenas came a sniffing anyway.
Of course, not all of the curs openly point and laugh. Commentary — and the internet was awash with it — was in places couched more in sorrow than in scorn; in the familiar, “while I take no pleasure in the suffering and travails of [another human being] it has to be said that [said human being] arguably brought this on himself by [angering the gods of chaos with his stern warnings about dissolute behaviour] and thus [one must admit the natural symmetry and poetic justice of it all…]”
A brusque and brutal “Ha-Ha!” of the Nelson Muntz variety, which was the subtext, would at least have the virtue of brevity.
Anyway, if you had been waiting for a chance to sink a blade into Peterson — as all the two-bit would-be Leftist Matadors were — the rumours of his helpless thrashings in the briars of pharmaceutical addiction was an opportunity just too delicious to decline.
“I’m sorry, you mean, the man who issued such stern warnings against the siren call of recreational drug abuse, of seeking refuge in their perfidious sanctuary, has himself become so weakened by recourse to prescription tranquilisers that he nearly forfeited his life? Oh, too, too sweet!” Who wouldn’t slaver at such news?
The video message about this from his daughter — whose own notorious prescription that one should eat only beef in order to overcome various auto-immune issues — only enhanced the piquancy of the moment. This was as close to the old “Motel phone bill of the tele-evangelist reveals a fondness for rent boys” story of yore as we were likely to get, from one following as painfully self-enforced a moral code as Peterson’s.
Why, you might ask, is he so hated, that people so actively and nakedly revel in his distress?
Peterson’s core proposition, as laid out in his 1999 work Maps of Meaning, was that there are two kinds of knowledge of the world — what it is and what we should do about it. His contention was that while science has proved an incomparable tool for expanding our understanding of the former, it was not equipped to satisfy our questions about the latter. These he suggested were perhaps better served by acquaintance with the world’s great mythical, religious and spiritual traditions. Some of these suggested answers were, inevitably, somewhat conservative in their remedies. This has been enough, in effect, to make him the Supreme Demon in the Pandemonium of Progress.
And, to be fair, anyone who has insisted on the value of ancient myth in understanding our superficially modern, hi-tech existence should not be surprised to find himself discussed in these terms, and the subsequent irony relished. Peterson had — to return to Kipling — set himself up as the Priest of the Gods of the Copybook Headings. That they should turn on him was high drama. And almost absurdly neat.
Peterson’s journey into Russia for medical treatment is further food for the mythically minded. Russia is for Peterson the cradle of Bolshevism, origin of the greatest tyranny to be visited upon Mankind in living memory. Plunging into this monster’s lair to seek his own redemption is pure Beowulf.
And surely Peterson rising from his induced coma is a little like the death and resurrection of the Hero, as described in Joseph Campbell’s mythological synthesis? Every hero, according to Campbell (a view endorsed by Peterson) has to die and be reborn before his quest is accomplished, his foe truly vanquished. The movies offer a thousand examples, from Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter, though my favourite has always been Baloo, briefly swiped into mortality by Shere Khan’s massive paw.
Jordan’s story arc has thus far been inescapably Christ-like, even if the Peterson Pieta is diminished by his body being metaphorically cradled in his daughter’s somewhat compromised arms, rather than those of his Mother, Beverley Ann.
Or, alternatively, he is just a bloke who got rich telling young men to tidy their rooms, yet couldn’t even keep his own House in order, or indeed his mental integrity, in the teeth of an imminent spousal bereavement, an adverse reaction to benzodiazepine and grotesque levels of public scrutiny. Ha ha!
So, while it is a little disappointing that so many for whom compassion is, if not to be cultivated, at least to be signalled, found it just too tempting to get stuck in — it’s not a surprise. A degree of rancour is inevitable in the battle of ideas, and Peterson’s insistence in the right of the Right to be right stirred more than most. But the publication this month of a new feminist history does I think offer a way to reconsider and even reconcile a little.
In a neat twist, it’s by Helen Lewis, who has history with Jordan Peterson. She conducted a well-publicised interview with him for GQ in 2018. And she also wrote about him in the New Statesman, describing the man who had, if not destroyed, then at least carefully dismantled C4’s Cathy Newman, as a “Cargo Cult Intellectual”, ie an empty outer shell, with no working machinery
But with her new book, Difficult Women, she makes the very worthwhile point that much of the progress made over the last two hundred years in women’s rights was won by troubled, flawed, even monstrous individuals. The uncomfortable truth is, according to Lewis, that pretty much every one of those great pioneers of that long march have been women whose company it would be hard for a modern feminist even to tolerate for very long, or whose wider views they could endorse.
It’s an observation worth reflecting on, and not just when it comes to feminism. It can, I think, be extrapolated to describe all those who make useful waves. They are all too often deeply unreasonable people. As George Bernard Shaw said, it is only those who are so afflicted, who don’t just accept the world as it is, and therefore change it.
And if it’s slack we accord our allies, it’s slack we must surely concede to our enemies, too.
Perhaps some of those who read Lewis’s book will conclude, reluctantly, that if you want to break the ice which is ever forming on the surface of society, you have to accept the kind of people who wield axes for what they are. Decide to wait, instead, for a man or woman without inconsistencies, without hypocrisies, without flaws, who is not human, and you will either wait for a very long time, or you endure sermons of a very thin gruel — a meal not even fit for Hyaenas.