Until yesterday, I had entirely avoided entering into the fray around Canadian Psychologist Jordan Peterson, nor had I really subjected myself to much of his online content. He speaks about hot-button topics that I don’t always feel inclined — or qualified — to comment on. I know a lot of people have already put him through the shredder, probably more articulately than I can.
I also generally try to avoid the ‘left/right’ polarity as much as possible. I don’t see it as truly relevant political terminology anymore, and it’s so charged and polarized that I think ultimately this terminology is going to have to be discarded if political progress is going to be made. With regards to Peterson, there are people I respect who can’t stand the guy. And there are people I respect who find his ideas interesting. I was content to simply be neutral on the topic, and I did that mostly by avoiding him.
Until yesterday, when I saw a clip of him speaking about the Indian goddess Kālī.
It gave me pause, because one thing that people on all sides of the opinions-on-Jordan-Peterson spectrum can usually agree on — even if they don’t agree with his conclusions — is that if nothing else he is well-studied and smart.
I may not feel it’s my place to enter into a debate about his position on the use of trans pronouns and whether or not that should be legislated. However, I do feel qualified to take a position on what he has to say about Kālī. I’ve studied her for many years, I’ve read her relevant texts, I’ve been to her major and minor temples across the Indian subcontinent, I have had dialogues with temple priests and householders, and conducted podcast interviews with PhDs who’ve written entire books on her.
And there’s no getting around the fact that 99% of what Jordan Peterson said about Kālī — in two lectures — was wrong. And I mean just plain wrong, from a factual perspective.
I’ll explain how in just a moment, but what inspired me to look a little deeper into Jordan Peterson after this was not so much that he was wrong, it was that while he was in the process of being wrong he was conveying, through voice and gesture, an absolute certainty that he was right. Like for him the permutations of the goddess Kālī were child’s play and anyone within earshot should be wowed by his knowledge of obscure Indian goddesses. It’s nice I guess to have a captive audience of mostly 18-year-olds. Raise your voice, wear a tie, and make a few bold gestures, and suddenly whatever you say is right.
Well if the guy was capable of exuding such certainty when speaking about something that he had no idea about, how did that translate into other areas of his work, I wondered? How did this type of myopia color a worldview that he presents — often and vigorously — as absolute truth with that type of professorial certainty that shuts down question or dissent.
Let’s start with Kālī. You know her, right? The mother goddess with the protruding tongue, wreathed in heads, wearing a skirt of limbs? The swallower of time, she is sometimes called. For Tantric practitioners she is the absolute reality itself, that force which transcends life and death, space and time, the supreme consciousness. Her form challenges her devotees to see all of this wheel of life and death, all of it, even the uncomfortable stuff, as sacred. She is adored by millions of people. In Kerala, her rituals involve trance-mediumship, dance, and music. For those in Bengal, she is right at the center of their spiritual and material life. They see her intimately, as a mother who is always present, both fierce and tender at once.
I’m going to talk about her a lot more in future episodes of this podcast, so I’m not going to go into too much detail now.
First of all, Peterson doesn’t know how to pronounce her name. He calls her Callie, which rhymes with Sally. In this day and age, if you’re going to be a Western professor purporting to expound the mysteries of a goddess who is actively worshipped by millions of people, who is studied by academics, who is sung to by devotees, who is written about by scholars, you should probably start by knowing how to say her name.
In one lecture, he compares an eight-legged version of her to a “spider” a fairy-tale vision of evil as she “traps the unwary.”
She dwells in a “web of fire,” he says, and represents the “sum total of all fears.” Which sounds like a great Jungian interpretation, until you realize that it bears no resemblance to how Kālī is actually viewed or described in India.
Kālī is all about “how to deal with threat,” Peterson goes on, about humans “trying to come to terms with the category of all awful things.”
And yet, the Bengali poet Ramprasad sang hymns of love to her, and the saint Ramakrishna would go into ecstatic trance merely at the mention of her name. How can this be? When devotees sing to her, she is called “the oceanic nectar of compassion” and “full of grace,” “whose mercy is without end,” the “vessel of mercy” herself.
Yet for Peterson, she’s an “embodied representation of the category of frightening things. Some poor artist was thinking of ‘how do I represent destruction…’” he surmises, when speaking of her origins.
The central image that Peterson references in both of his lectures is not a standard vision of Kālī at all. It is a Tantric statue, perhaps even Buddhist, almost definitely Nepali or Tibetan (it is difficult to see in the video). Yet Peterson skips the entire foundational introduction to Tantric iconography and the fact that Tantra is a major world religious tradition and that its challenging iconography is a vehicle through which the individual meditator can access certain states of consciousness and files the whole thing under one moniker — fear.
Then he says one accurate thing. That there is in fact ritual sacrifice that takes place in honor of Kālī.
He goes on to talk about sacrifice, in a pre-Joseph Campbell colonial-era anthropologist kind of way. He speaks of the human realization that we could bargain with the future, which he extols as a “major development” for human beings, but in doing so he also wittingly or unwittingly categorizes sacrifice and ritual — and all things Kālī — squarely in the realm of the primitive. The implication being that yes, that was a step along the way (what “way?”) but we’ve grown a lot since then.
People “sacrifice to what [they’re] afraid of in hopes that good things may happen,” he says. This skips, of course, the centuries of high meditative texts to Kālī, the vision of her as twelve vibrational aspects of consciousness, each of which can be accessed and refined over time, it skips the entire corpus of devotional literature to her. It skips all this in favor of a particular vision, which is central to Peterson’s worldview. A neat polarized version of reality in which the old trope of male/light/order and female/dark/chaos is actually — in his mind — hardwired into human behavior and therefore male societal dominance is a natural expression of male “competence.”
Kālī, of course, smashes this vision in half. She is order itself. She “dwells within the order” and is “at home in the yantra”. She is not evil, she “destroys evil.” Yet Peterson’s descriptions ignore all this and sound a lot like the accounts of British colonists who first encountered Kālī in 18th century Bengal.
The fact that Peterson, like many early anthropologists, is incapable of seeing ritual as anything beyond “transaction” because he comes from a culture that centers transaction above all else is indicative of the core problem with Peterson’s worldview. It’s late capitalist thinking, presented as hard human truth.
Material transaction — “I’ll give the gods this corn if they make it rain”— is one small aspect of ritual, but it is not in any way the only or most important aspect. One could say it’s possibly the least interesting aspect of ritual, and for those who actually understand ritual and its permutations, this is a western dumbing down that has far more to do with the detached scientists that were viewing the ritual than the ritual itself in context.
For example, the gaining of a transcendent state of consciousness — in which the practitioner is privy to intuitive vision — is far more interesting and important. That ritual could actually be advanced technology for propelling human beings into the trance state so that they can see reality more clearly eludes most anthropologists because to understand this one would have to understand why a society would want to center the trance state. We’re not a society that values meditative states. We’re a society that values material transaction.
This is just one example — the inability to see outside of the prism of modern western capitalist culture leads Peterson to make vast assumptions about human nature and present them as static, in the process ignoring history.
What Peterson presents as inherent to the human being — male dominance and a success hierarchy based on who’s better at making money — is not in fact inherent at all and is a symptom of modern culture. Every good anthropologist should know this. While I agree with him that hierarchies present naturally within social structures, and that hierarchy is not inherently a bad word, what and who those hierarchies center is not in fact written in stone. Many of the agricultural empires that have come to dominate the world over the past several thousand years have indeed centered men, conquest, and stuff, with women falling unfortunately under the category of property. This centering of material domination as the primary human purpose has also led human beings to the verge of environmental collapse within just 1% of our history.
This calls into question Peterson’s entire vision of competence. To buy that men are in charge of the world today because they’re inherently competent you have to buy that the current global culture reflects anything akin to competence. To call a society that has no idea what to do with its own trash and that hasn’t even factored its own environment into the equation for success ‘competent’ is, shall we say, inaccurate. Stand four of the world’s top leaders in a row — Trump, Putin, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong Un — and I guarantee the first word that comes to mind is not ‘competence.’ So no, Jordan, the top of the hierarchy is not dominated by the ‘competent.’ The Mongols raped their way to the top of the hierarchy, and so did countless others before and after them.
I’m not going to use the P word. I agree with Peterson that the word ‘patriarchy’ is vastly overused by the left and has strayed far beyond its actual definition to somehow encompass ‘all bad things.’ But it is difficult to argue against the fact that the culture of conquest and material accumulation at all costs has led human beings into a very serious situation, and therefore when forging a vision for what defines human success we may want to look more at what actually lasts than what has gotten us into the mess we’re currently in.
Not all societies have centered male forcefulness and material accumulation. I have said before on this podcast that it is more and more important for us to remember that there are other models of human behavior and to look at societies that have centered very different things than us. Or, as I heard a Czech Member of Parliament once eloquently express, there is nothing inherent to the human experience or makeup that dictates that late-stage capitalism is the only vision of how we can be.
Australian Aboriginal culture has lasted for 60,000 years (15 times longer than large-scale human civilization and 2,000 times longer than the United States) and centers, as Ethnobotanist Wade Davis reports, accessing the dreamtime and preserving rather than changing the surrounding environment. The San people of the Kalahari similarly center the trance state, in which they access n/um — the vital lifeforce which is used in intricate and effective healing ritual. The San have lived mostly uninterrupted for 50,000 years. One could easily say that — given the timeframe — these peoples’ measurements of societal success are ultimately more relevant than ours.
This isn’t to idealize hunter-gatherer culture, to attempt to ‘go back to how it was’ or to say — as some agenda-driven scholars have claimed — that the 300,000-year history of homo sapiens is a history of peace-loving matriarchs that were then crushed by the invading patriarchs. This is a view lacking evidence and nuance. It is rather to say that for the vast majority of human history, the accumulation of capital was not centered as the sole purpose of human existence. In many societies, there were other more transcendent and more intuitive success metrics.
So why are these other visions of human success important in the context of Jordan Peterson? Because Peterson’s entire vision of humanity is based on the success metrics of late-stage capitalism. Powerful men who dominate and rise in the hierarchy are ‘successful’ because of their ‘competence’.
His definition of Right and Left — in which Right is hierarchy and Left are those who are dispossessed by it — is driven by this limited vision. It’s a definition that is antiquated to say the least — Donald Trump was elected by the dispossessed, and they weren’t leftists. There are plenty on the political right who are dispossessed by the current order. And in fact, there are arguably more on the right who despise authority and big government and favor ‘rebellion’ than on the left. Meanwhile, there are plenty on the left who organize into “successful” hierarchies of their own.
So why would Peterson stick to such a limited vision? Because it fits into his narrative of Right/Male/Successful/Hierarchical vs Left/Female (or at least female driven)/Dispossessed/Chaotic. And he bends all things to fit his model.
So — artists have a hard time making money, he tells Russell Brand in an interview, because of their brains. Yeah, or — artists have a hard time not because of inherent brain chemistry, but because our society doesn’t center art. The artists of the Chauvet caves probably found themselves right at the center of society 35,000 years ago. The Vedic vision of the cosmos was that art, order and ritual were three organic aspects of one universal whole and artists (and visionaries) were right at the center of that. In our culture, anything that is not specifically intended for the generation of capital is not centered and therefore those who do not center their lives around generating capital are not ‘successful.’
But that is our culture, and the truth is that our culture is very young— what Peterson deems as inherent is in fact not inherent at all. There is nothing about human wiring that says that this is the only way.
I think there is value to having someone as intelligent as Peterson in on these types of conversations. I also think it is good to challenge the increasingly static vernacular that the left presumes the whole world should unquestioningly adopt, immediately. Therefore, if he were just a little different in focus, I could see having Jordan Peterson around as a really good thing.
You see, he positions himself as the guy who’s actually talking about these issues whereas — in his view — the left is just shutting down conversations. He’s willing to say what a lot of people are thinking but won’t say (Really? Laws around words?) If he were truly the bridge-builder he says he is, that could be a real positive.
But he’s not — and this is what Russell Brand picked up on when he labeled the ‘mischief’ he saw on display in Peterson. Peterson likes poking at the left, he likes painting the left as unsuccessful misfits. He likes bolstering the egos of his right-wing fan base. He likes tapping into certainty, and rightness, and maleness, and the perceived power that comes with all that.
And — probably of most relevance — he’s smart enough to know that there’s more money to be made in jabbing the left than in truly being a bridge builder. He’s making a (good) living taking the low hanging fruit that the extreme left offers him and spinning it into some kind of global crisis, when the real crisis is the very polarization that he — quite knowingly — promotes.
By the time I got to his ‘white privilege doesn’t exist’ talk — in which he engages the most insipid of academic tactics to bring the conversation entirely into the realm of theory rather than paying one drop of attention to 500 years of brutal history, he had completely lost me. He is married to a vision, and will bend worlds to promote it, but the vision isn’t based in reality. It’s based in politicized machismo.
Which brings us back to Kālī, who is also the unfathomable, that which has not been defined or written or is even perceivable. The passage of time that her very name invokes will see which ideas for human success last and which are crushed under her feet. The Petersons (and Schreis) will come and go, and how humans will shift and adapt to urgent necessities in environment and society remains to be seen. Many isms and modalities will doubtlessly be left aside along the way. Kālī is known as the one who “smashes opposites,” who destroys polarities. This, more than anything else may be what we need right now. My view is that left and right will come to be definitions of the past. My view is that there is a place for the artist, and the visionary, and for the dreamer, and for those dispossessed across the political spectrum to come together in shaping the future. Ultimately, the barometer for success that a divine mother like Kālī — mother nature herself — might appreciate, isn’t how ‘competent’ we were along capitalist lines, but how we were in relation to one another and to her — how well, in the end, did we love.