Having briefly discussed a lecture by Jordan Peterson on Foucault, we can now look at the way that talk functions as an attempt to silence, or annihilate Foucault or anyone who might mention Foucault. Whether or not this lecture is absolutely representative of Peterson’s techniques is irrelevant. The techniques are present and apparently used effectively.
I suspect the reason these techniques are not immediately visible is that similar techniques are used across right wing discourse to suppress thinking, and people are so used to them that they become invisible. The main aim of the technique is to create a boundary between the in-group (us people who follow Jordan Peterson or the right in politics) and an outgroup of post-modernists and leftists. The in-group are good, and the out-group are bad. You need only listen to the in-group and despise the out-group. The out-group have nothing whatever worth listening to. President Trump is a master of this technique as well, although I’m not claiming his methods to achieve this are exactly the same as Peterson’s.
Technique 1: Accusations of moral turpitude and evil in the out-group. These accusations are unspecified, but severe. Perhaps the vagueness about the accusations inflates the possible evil, as it is absolutely unclear in the way the best monsters first appear as vague shadows, troubling hints or violent movements in the dark – things we had best not know. In this case, the aim of the lecture seems to be to keep the ingroup from curiosity, familiarity or discussion. Let’s keep ‘the others’ vague and messy
Technique 2: Accusations of incompetence and impracticality. Foucault is held to be an example of a person whose mendacity and stupidity would bring any structured organisation to its knees. This is, perhaps, why we have to be lectured later on that competence is vital to modern society. Something which might otherwise appear obvious. If we learn about these people in the out-group, or become contaminated by them, we too might destroy the hierarchy we belong to and are accepted by; we will certainly be rejected by our current in-group.
Technique 3: Guilt by association. Foucault is a Marxist (whether he was or wasn’t), he is thus responsible for mass-death, or for ignoring mass death. This man is clearly, at best, a hypocrite, but most likely evil. We don’t even really need to bother to find out what he, or Marx thought, as people who claimed to be Marxists were evil. Clearly Foucault is no better. You don’t really need to understand this person or the out-group in general, and everyone who says you do is simply a fellow traveller. By the same argument, clearly, every Christian is Torquemada.
Technique 4: Suppression of the out-groups ethical concerns. Peterson suppresses any audience awareness of the moral concerns of Foucault and other post-modernists, again to make it seem the out-group is composed of evil people. As they have no morals, again they can be dismissed.
Technique 5: Refutation by name-calling Peterson refutes by abuse, and establishes his ethics and authority by slander – which is disappointing as he has interesting remarks on ethics elsewhere, but here post-modernism becomes deployed as a category of abuse. “You postmodernist, you”. There are things people cannot discuss or defend without a high probability of reflexive abuse from those influenced by the authority of Peterson. He acts as an authoritative exemplar, for others to follow, of argument by abuse. The outgroup are only worthy of abuse. This helps separate the groups, generate mutual fury, and helps to prevent any real discussion occurring.
Technique 6: confusing the differences and making a mess. Peterson messes different thinkers together, saying different idea-sets are the same. This act turns his audience’s awareness of “post-modernism,” as a category, into an incoherent mush, which does not make any sense. This reinforces the idea that anything he can classify as ‘post-modern’ is not worth investigating, engaging with, or discussing. Any people categorized as belonging to the post-modern out-group must be equally incoherent.
Technique 7: Lack of references and isolation. Peterson gives no references to texts by Foucault or anyone he is criticising. This helps to keep people away from the texts, by making it hard to find them or read them, and within his framework. They are much less likely to go and even look at something sympathetic to Foucault, or which tries to explain his ideas. They won’t come out of the lecture with a curiosity which might lead to questioning. They will, most likely, stay within the hierarchy and hear the teacher, obeying his authority by default and lack of knowledge, and of were to go to check the teacher’s teaching.
All these steps hide and justify Jordan Peterson’s essential step which is not to expound or criticise Foucault in any detail. Foucault is clearly so messy, evil and incompetent, that making an effort to engage with his ideas would be a waste of time. It might even be corrupting in itself. Its dirty and filthy, lets avoid it like we might bypass a dead and decaying rat on the street.
Technique 8: Ignore any common faults or failings; blame them on one side alone . Peterson might make reference to a common fault like “science denial” but he only references the denial on the one “side” to condemn that side alone. He also does not explain the differences, between the two forms of “denial”. Some post-modernists could assert that there is always a social and historical aspect to scientific practice which influences what can be tested, theorised or accepted as true. Others might show how science has been embedded in social power structures and relations and been influenced by that embedding. To me, such ideas seem almost truisms. How would we be able to make knowledge outside of social processes with total objectivity? This does not happen, or is difficult to ensure, but we might be able to become more or less involved in those processes. We can become aware of some of these ‘unconscious’ processes which guide our thought and possibly weaken some of them. Possibly that idea is threatening to his deliberate, or accidental, construction of in-groups and out-groups, and embedding his audience in them.
Technique 9: Relentless negativity. There is apparently nothing interesting or good in Foucault or any thinker who can be classified as post-modernist at all. This is almost certainly improbable for any group of thinkers. Even under Stalin and Hitler, with terrifying punishments for thinking ‘wrong thoughts’ there were still some interesting thinkers. For example Vygotsky, Bakhtin, & Bukharin under Stalin and Junger, Heidegger & Schmitt under Hitler. However, the technique helps silence Foucault and other post-modernists, they are simply made not worth listening to.
Technique 10: Refutation by unpleasant consequences. Part of the relentless negativity, is the repeated use of the argument that if some set of propositions (which apparently never need to be given precisely), appear to have unpleasant consequences, or disrupt our common sense, then they must be wrong. If thinking reveals possible unpleasant consequences, then perhaps we should deal with those consequences?
Technique 11: Avoidance of unpleasant consequences. This follows on from the previous technique. There is no sense that we might have to face up to the unpleasant consequences, we just avoid them by denying the possibility. This reinforces many kinds of right wing denial – not only of climate change or ecological destruction, but of the finitude of humanity on this planet, the effects of coal burning and pollution, the possibility that great tech will not arrive in time, the growth of plutocracy and the failure of ‘free markets’ to deliver liberty, good government, and unbounded good results for all. Through this technique, we can all live by asserting good things will happen if we don’t question the real hierarchies we belong to and the beliefs they encourage.
Technique 12: Always imply our hierarchies are good and necessary. Defending existing Western capitalist hierarchies seems to be important to Peterson. Hence, while many things can be good and bad, there is no sense in which the in-group’s hierarchies can be both good and bad. The implication is that because hierarchy might be necessary for the in-group’s functioning, the hierarchy is good and only questioned by evil and incoherent people in the bad out-group.
Technique 13: Our Good, is unchallengeable, because its Good. Finally, he implies that the outgroup can attack what the ingroup holds to be true and good, and thus should be ignored as this proves they are evil. For example, the out-group may attack Western Civilisation, or capitalism. But there is no attempt to understand why they might think like that. He can just be stunned by these propositions, as they are so obviously stupid. This is yet another example of the idiocy of these thinkers and another implicit explanation of why we should not even bother to find out what they say. We should just stay with our common sense and allow our teacher to tell us what we know to be truth.
Technique 14: Bold assertion. Peterson expresses no humility, or even doubt that he understands what he is talking about absolutely perfectly, even if he does not expound the thought he is supposed to be criticising. I presume if he were to mention that Foucault and Derrida can be difficult thinkers, this would be considered a fault in them, and further evidence they had nothing to say, presumably like Kant and other difficult thinkers have nothing to say. He cannot admit difficulty, because he aims at intellectual authority and, perhaps, admitting difficulty might suggest he is not superior. Personally, I prefer clear thinkers, but that does not mean I understand all difficult thinkers easily or completely. As I said, I’m not sure I always follow Peterson’s thinking, and I know he is more complex than is coming over in this lecture, but we are dealing with this lecture (which appears to be an excerpt from a longer lecture), and whether or not it is typical we can still learn from it.
His main message to his audience seems to be that “you guys already know Foucault is rubbish, I’m just about to confirm that for you.” He appears to perform a process of letting his audience think they are thinking, rather than encourage them to engage in actual thinking or discussion with other people who might disagree with them. Indeed, he appears to be saying, “such discussion is absolutely fruitless; stay here with me in our superiority and you will understand.” He creates the conditions of self-satisfaction and refusal to engage with others, other than through name-calling and dismissal. This is a form of silencing those put into the out-group category.
I suspect that the out-group is unbounded, there are no limits as to what can be placed there and messed together, while the in-group is pretty demarcated and cut off from the real world. One problem with this, is that all groups have interactions and permeations with their outgroups, and even with processes and things that are not recognized as in or out group. As a result, attempts to limit the cross-over, and make firm categories, are basically destructive of our ability to perceive reality. This is not a good habit to acquire.
If this analysis is correct, then Peterson appears to mesh well with the normal processes and techniques of right wing media and debate.