There’s a lot not to like about Jordan Peterson. His critiques of gender quotas. His rise to infamy because of his stand against gender neutral pronouns. His suggestion that men are biologically programmed to assault women and that this can only be reigned in through marriage.
The problem is, he is a master of persuasion.
Even though Peterson has admitted “I choose my words very, very carefully”, there has not been enough attention on why this means he can get away with saying some pretty shocking things without widespread condemnation. Studying Peterson’s linguistic tactics reveals exactly how he seems to come across as reasonable, even when he is suggesting something heinous (e.g. that the gender pay gap is biologically determined). Peterson simply uses the oldest trick in the persuasion book: Aristotle’s ethos, pathos, and logos. Identifying these aspects of Peterson’s jargon is useful for revealing him for what he is: an “alt” right-wing crusader trying to convince the world his ideas are rational.
First, ethos. In Aristotle’s terms ethos refers to establishing one’s credibility, that is, expertise, authority, and character. That is why you will always see Peterson start off with a reference to his credentials. This opening of one of his blog posts (a rebuke to a mother’s letter about how she is glad to see Jordan Peterson fail because he is unduly influencing her teenage sons) illustrates how he does this:
In subtle ways, Peterson establishes his authority as a lecturer, author, and spokesperson you should trust. When this is questioned he makes sure his followers know about it:
Secondly, pathos. Pathos is all about appealing to emotional sensibilities of the audience. We see it in the blog post above when he draws the reader in with reference to “thoughtful and heartfelt and positive” feedback that he gets. This sits in contrast to the end of that same blog post, where he draws on “despair”, “sadness”, “cynicism”, and “malaise” to eventually implicitly suggest that women who worry about their teenage sons becoming men’s rights activists threaten “our entire culture”.
His inducement of pathos was most starkly on show during Peterson’s last visit to Australia when he notoriously “reduced himself to tears” talking about the state of the world:
The whole performance elicits the feeling that Peterson is just a regular guy who really cares, y’know (but also don’t forget, he is a Professor so he definitely knows better than you).
This finally brings us to logos, the crux of Peterson’s art of persuasion, and something that he has written a lot about. In general terms logos means using reason and logic. Historically, logos refers to the idea of a “principle of order“. Peterson’s particular logic involves appealing to pseudo-biological-science and vaguely Christian tenets about love, truth, and so on. Peterson’s dialogue both constructs and appeals to this “common sense” logic that underpins Western thinking. This is exemplified by his whole schtick, of defending “free speech” (not hate speech, “logic”) and his new book “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos” (i.e. rules and logic, not chaos). Here are these so-called rules:
None of these rules seem as heinous as say, suggesting that incels killing women is a reasonable response to women denying men sex. He presents a front of reasonable rationality, to obscure his radical conservative agenda.
Peterson has even been sneaky enough to cover his persuasion technique tracks by suggesting that the real problem is women/feminists/nagging mothers/hysterical hags (they’re all the same thing right?) just don’t believe in logic or dialogue:
They believe that logic is part of the process by which the patriarchal institutions of the West continue to dominate and to justify their dominance. They don’t believe in dialogue. The root word of dialogue is Logos. Again they don’t believe that people of good will can come to consensus through the exchange of ideas.
Peterson laments – if only we could all come to the table and break bread together we’d see that his logic is the true logic of the universe!
All of this – pointing out Peterson’s use of ethos, pathos, and logos – is just a fancy way of saying what Harrison Fluss has more eloquently said in Jacobin: “he’s full of shit”. But, this is also a dangerous, and frankly exhausting, rhetoric that those of us on the (amorphous) left are constantly having to battle with. This is the kind of rhetoric that means when right wing protestors killed a young woman in Charlottesville, the response is that there is violence “on both sides”.
Peterson represents nothing more than the “alt” right-wing agenda promoting traditional gender roles, men’s dominance over women, white supremacy, and the rejection of gender diversity that is unfolding across the world. Deconstructing Peterson’s persuasion tactics we can see what is really going on: smooth-talking and bad politics.