Interpreting Jordan Peterson and his connections to conservative ideas

    In the Spring of 1994, Thomas Risse-Kappen tried to understand the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union by introducing a new approach to International Relations theories. He suggested that theorists should “take the role of ideas – knowledge, values, and strategic concepts – seriously. Ideas intervene between material power-related factors on the one hand and state interests and preferences on the other”. Risse-Kappen stressed that ideas are powerful political assets since they can be one of the causes for the end of a 60-year-old structure. Therefore, they are not propagated as a natural phenomenon. He pointed out that, behind ideas, there are agents who create them and spread them even across borders and inside authoritarian regimes.

By Gabriel Fonteles

    This essay intends to understand how a particular agent can spread or empower specific ideas using the internet as a tool. The context surrounding this research is discourses that galvanize conservative ideas and their explicit or latent support for US president Donald Trump. In this case, a particular individual comes to attention, the Canadian professor Jordan Peterson. Although not positioning himself as a political figure, Peterson has become a reference for people who share conservative ideals, especially when it comes to mortality, feminism, racism, and individualism. It is interesting to notice that his authority seems to stem from his academic background. People would appeal to this to validate the positions that they defend in discussions.

    Albeit this research does not aim for an International Relations topic, Risse-Kappen’s thoughts about how ideas are intrinsically engaged in power-related factors are the central concept that inspires and guides the questions raised here. The initial queries that come up are: How is Jordan Peterson connected to a broader structure of conservative discourses? What are the things he is talking about? How is he addressing them? Those are simple questions, but help us to design the exploratory approach proposed here.

Distant Reading and Context

    This research will use data about Peterson’s political discourse. We will use his Twitter account to create the database. Once the information is set, we will use AntConc as the primary tool to look for words with explicit political content. This tool will be helpful to find the words, count them and see in which context they appear. A primary list of words have been defined to start the search: “feminism”, “Marxism”, “liberalism”, “liberal”, “liberals”, “conservative”, “conservatives”, “democrat”, “democrats”, “republican”, “republicans”, “minority”, “minorities”, “left”, “right”, and “privilege”. We chose those words as a starting point since they are common themes in political discussions and debates on the Internet. However, this list might be broadened as we go deeper in understanding Peterson’s discourse.

    The process of looking for the most common terms is a first distant reading approach. Along with it, we will count how many times Jordan Peterson uses those words in his tweets and see their proportion in the context of his discourse. Interesting insights can come from this. On the one hand, if Peterson’s tweets are majorly related to explicit political ideas, we can hypothesize that he is not a “non-political agent” as he seems to be. On the other hand, however, if those words are not common words in this discourse, Peterson might not be an agent, but rather an “object” being cherry-picked by other people to validate their ideas. Both reasonings, however, are still based on the notion of his authority as a professor. The primary hypothesis for this study is that, although Peterson will not discuss mostly politics, his tweets about the topic will be assertive, which might be important for those who want to validate their political ideas.

    After visualizing word counts and proportions, we will look for word collocations and see in which contexts those words appear. AntConc is a powerful tool for doing so. This type of reading will allow us to understand how Peterson addresses political subjects and if there is a pattern in it. Also, we might figure out the most common arguments in his political discussions. It is essential to discern Peterson’s political motifs to understand how they are connected to his knowledge and authority. When talking about “Politics,” people can address government economic choices, foreign policy, public policies, social movements, and opinions related to political individuals, for example. It is highly possible that as a psychologist, Peterson will choose to discuss themes about morality, and their connections to politics. If that is true, feminism, abortion, drugs, and the social movements that debate them will also appear in his tweets. Looking for word collocations will not only show us how Peterson addresses the subjects but also can broaden the word list discussed above.

The data

Now, we need to learn about how Jordan Peterson is. He is a clinical psychologist and a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. He focus on religious and ideological belief and personality psychology, aiming to assessment and improvement of personal performance. He has written two books: “Maps of meaning” and “Twelve rules for life – an antidote to chaos”. The first one was published in 1999, the second, in 2017.

Although being a intellectual and a writher, Peterson appears more and more frequently in web pages related to fake news. One good example is a 2018, April, post made by Alex Jones in his page, where one can read: “The awakening: Kanye West caught watching influential Jordan Peterson video”( This means that what he is saying is going beyond the academia realm and is reaching curious spaces on internet.

We collected 3236 tweets.  Applying the tools to visualize his texts as a whole, we could organize them in topics that showed us how his political vocabulary is integrated and connected.

Words listed above (such as “feminism”, “feminist”, “liberalism”, “liberal”, “liberals”, “conservative” and “conservatives”) usually appear together. This shows us that Peterson has concerns abut those topics and is willing to express his thoughts about them.

However, this kind of political discussion is not quantitative significant among all his tweets. Therefore, we need to read those words and understand how he work with them.

Close Reading and Duality

    The distant reading gave us proper context to understand that Peterson’s political tweets are articulated as a discourse based on opinions about certain ideas. Now, we want to look for dualities and oppositions in this discourse. That is, how does he frame and describe what is different from his positions, or as we might say, “the other” in his perspective. Since it is not a critical assessment, the idea is not to see how deep or complex his understanding of “the other,” but to look for adjectives and how they express his axiological evaluations about it. This process can be condensed in a more specific question that, when answered, will contribute to explain the questions raised in the first place: “how does Jordan Peterson see those who are different from him?”

    Answering this question will also give us insight into the construction of his identity and authority. In a reflexive logic, if Peterson describes the other a certain way, he is at the same time portraying himself as the opposite of it. If the other is not him, therefore the way he describes it shouldn’t be applied to him or his discourse. By doing this, he is not only building an “other,” but also a “self.” It is expected that Peterson’s descriptions might be in a superficial manner since tweets do not allow large texts. However, this method is essential to understand Peterson’s universe of notions and agents. Two steps are important to achieve proper results: 1- to look directly for adjectives that qualify the words of the list above; 2- to search for nouns that refer to the other with intrinsic qualifiers in them.

    Other essential pieces of information that must be harvested for the analysis are the hyperlinks that Peterson might add to his tweets. The URLs published by him alongside his comments add value to his semantics. They might show not only what influences him, but also sentiments that a distant reading would not be able to capture, such as irony, for example.

    The close reading approach is a fundamental tool to consider Peterson’s discourse in his own words and within his context. The process is not enough to answer the questions about how his ideas float on the internet. However, by learning about what Peterson is saying and how he is addressing to it, we can better understand affinities between his discourse and conservative ideals. The mentioned affinities are essential to conceive in a qualitative way of how he is connected to the previously drawn network. As a result, using the close reading approach, we will see how he relates to that particular context and how he creates identities.

At first sight, it seems that Peterson has neutral opinions about political debates. We can find tweets where he says: “Do you have the personality of a liberal (high in openness and low in conscientiousness) or a conservative (low in openness and high in conscientiousness)?” This particular tweet is displayed here because of the potentiality of its interpretations. We can find two interesting things about it: 1- it applies Peterson’s knowledge in personality psychology; 2- it poses him as someone who is not directly attached to neither both personalities, since he is able to observe them equally. The professor also retweets texts about him, that contains these kinds of ideas: “Jordan Peterson’s Lessons For Business Leaders: You Need Both Liberals And Conservatives”, is a text written by Bill Conerly and published in Peterson’s Tweeter account. Tweets like these creates an image of neutrality or at least contributes to a creation of a myth surrounding this idea.

However, our questions revolve around dualities in Peterson’s words. When looking for it, we can find texts that step a side from the neutral approach towards politics. In one post, Peterson says: “We are confusing a whole generation of children — sacrificing them on the altar of postmodern neoMarxism”. A tweet like this shows us the opposition between Peterson and a possible “other”. This happens because he is the one who denounces a bad thing that is happening in society, according to his thinking. He takes a step forward and name it as “postmodern neoMarxism”. The question now is how will he describe what we can call “the other”?

In another tweet, Peterson writes: “The bloody federals liberals are left of the NDP. More stupidity of the ’50 percent of the cabinet must be women’ genital-competence sort. @JustinTrudeau you are a virtue-signaling ideological puppet.” The message reinforces the idea of an opposition between Peterson and “liberals”. The use of words that degrades the other makes it clear: “bloody”, “stupidity”, and “puppet” makes the idea clear. We can go deeper and see that the words “stupidity” and “puppet” are important for the duality. Since the other is “stupid” and a “puppet”, this means that the one who says it, Peterson, is not stupid nor a puppet. To understand these messages is to understand the construction of a “self” and an “other”.

The idea of the other as constructed by Peterson, however, is not precise. General impressions form an image towards the political left-wing discourse. Words such as “liberals”, “left”, “postmodernism” and “Marxism” constitutes this not well defined object. Since it is not clear what is Peterson referring to when he talks about “the other”, we need to understand to see what he says when approaching what could be the political opposition to it, or, as we might say, a right-wing discourse. By looking for tweets related to it, we can see that the professor rarely addresses with the same adjectives that he uses towards the “left”. One interesting thing to see is that, when Peterson addresses the “right” with bad words, many times he does the same in the same tweeter about the “left”. This reinforces the “neutral” image and, at the same time, balances or dissolves the intensity of his criticism about the “right”.

The close reading approach to Jordan Peterson’s tweets is important to learn about the complexity and subtlety of his messages. Those characteristics are the ones that give his discourse the power of reaching so far from academia to obscures websites on the internet. Also, as we can see, it is precisely this subtlety that explains why his discourse is preferred in the conservative realm of the internet as at the same time he is surrounded by a neutral idea.

A Second Distant Reading

    Once a first contact was established with the corpus by distant reading, and a step further was taken deeper into understanding it by close reading, it is time for a second distant view of the corpus. This means that after learning about Peterson’s tweets contents, they should be interpreted inside their context again. This is important because close reading can alter distance reading evaluations.

    This time, new tools come into play. We will export Hyphe generated network to Gephi. This application applies statistical and probabilistic interpretations about networks and helps us to visualize them. Using Gephi, we will look for three notions that are meaningful for a network interpretation: “authority,” “hub,” and “receiver.”

    The idea of authority is based on the way or via the information flows. It is related to the edges of a network. The more information flows through an edge, the higher is its authority. A hub is a node that creates and stores data. A receiver is a node that receives content.

    Jordan Peterson’s network should present his webpage as the central hub. However, we will visualize which are the most important and robust edges (authority) and, also the leading collectors of Peterson’s information and thoughts (receivers).

Horizons and Reflexivity

    Considering Peter Jordan’s tweets as a corpus to be interpreted, we might also reflect upon ourselves as interpreters within a context of duality: in one end, Jordan’s tweets, in the other, the interpreter. The hermeneutical notion of “horizon,” introduced by Gadamer, invites us to become self-aware of our own historical, social and cultural framework. Therefore, our interests in proposing research such as this one come to light so that we can reflect upon ourselves.  The process of reflexivity composes the second moment of broader understanding since it is a step beyond the initial object to be examined. This means that the knowledge produces by the proposed discussion is not just about a particular object, but also about us as the observer and our context.

    Our horizon embeds the curiosity about Peterson’s discourse because of academic interests and personal worldviews. The academic interest is composed by the concern to learn about how ideas float in times of digital and instant connectivity. Also to see how academic authority can be an instrument for validating and spreading them. The academic interest is born from the notion that social networks have political impacts and information and communication between its nodes or agents are the fuel that helps them reach their goals. As for personal worldviews, Jordan Peterson represents an interesting person that congregates both strangeness and familiarity to us. As a researcher and a professor, it is interesting to see how one alike can influence discourses and social network interactions and political goals. On the other hand, Peterson seems to present political views that differ from our beliefs. To understand Peterson’s tweets, in consequence, is a challenge for the interpreter.

    The challenge occurs because certain prejudices and assumptions need to be confronted in the best interest of the research. If the interpreter is held back by his established worldviews, Peterson’s words would be quickly discarded as useless or as missing value. The prejudices and assumptions are shaped substantially by the logic of opposition between right and left political views and the growing distance and tension between them. This polarity almost automatically frames our thoughts towards different opinions in an extreme and radical distinction of “right” and “wrong,” “good” and “bad.”  Citing a Brazilian musician, Caetano Veloso, “Narcissus finds ugly everything that is not a mirror.” As the interpreter’s position seems to be most times opposite to Peterson’s reasoning, the challenge, therefore, is to overcome a way of thinking that contains itself solely and doesn’t take into account different points of view – especially conservative ones. Understanding this might help to establish a beneficial dialogue between different worldviews.

Conclusions and further questions

Some interesting dualities have emerged when deconstructing Peterson’s discourse on Tweeter. One of them is the opposition between an implicit “self” that emerges from the texts in opposition to an “other” that is not well defined, but it is often cited. It is important for Peterson’s discourse not to be accurate about the self and the other because, by doing so, he creates spaces for interpretations that can be favorable to him. Words that contain potential axiological value help to guide those favorable interpretations. Therefore, a second opposition can be seen: neutrality and rationalism (related to the “self”) versus stupidity and confusion (related to the “other”). If both objects are not precisely defined by Peterson, ate least they are categorized in a certain positive/negative manner. A third opposition, however, emerges and is more definitive. It is an antinomy between Jordan Peterson himself versus Justin Trudeau. This relation appears when the professor addresses directly to the Canadian Prime Minister. The tension that arises from it is important to create a new value the Peterson persona: someone who is courageous enough to challenge a powerful person.

However, Peterson’s discourse is not only formed by dualities and oppositions. The subtlety embedded in it shows us that his seemed neutrality if actually a lean towards a conservative approach.

Those conclusions are not definitive. They need further studies and thoughts. Some new questions arise from them: which other discourses are similar to Peterson’s tweets? Are there more intellectuals like him that speak in the same manner, with the same dualities? How do they connect to each other? Are the subject similar? Are there citations?

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