Here’s what Jordan Peterson and Noam Chomsky think of each other:
Actually, they strongly disagree in almost every way.
As a right-leaning psychologist who argues in defense of capitalism and a left-socialist who believes capitalism is evil, you would think that it’s obvious why they disagree.
But Peterson and Chomsky’s clash actually goes a lot deeper than that.
Here’s why Peterson and Chomsky are arch enemies ideologically, but why they also overlap in a number of surprising ways.
What does Noam Chomsky think of Jordan Peterson?
Chomsky is not very fond of Peterson’s views and has dismissed them in the past.
Chomsky has rejected the idea that he has similarities with Peterson, stating that Peterson isn’t a real intellectual.
For those who want to know more of how he views Peterson, Chomsky has recommended that people read Nathan J. Robinson’s article “the Intellectual We Deserve.” Robinson’s article argues that Peterson is a fraud who spews garden variety truisms disguised as deep insights.
Digging deeper, however, we find that Chomsky actively dislikes Peterson’s views.
In this interview, Chomsky tears apart Peterson’s advice to young people not to attend mainstream universities due to their leftist bias.
“For Peterson ‘the left’ is anybody to the left of Attila the Hun. In fact, universities are dominated by the right. He’s so far on the right that it looks like the left to him.
But does it make sense to tell students not to go to universities? It’s crazy.”
Two things are clear about Chomsky’s views of Peterson:
Firstly, he considers Peterson to be a poser and outrage merchant not worthy of extended comment;
Secondly, he believes that Peterson is amplifying and promoting views which actively harm human flourishing, political freedom and critical thought.
In other words: the chances that Noam Chomsky has a copy of 12 Rules for Life sitting on his nightstand are vanishingly low.
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What does Peterson think of Chomsky?
Jordan Peterson has not directly voiced an opinion on the work or influence of Noam Chomsky.
Nonetheless, we can see that he regards people such as Chomsky as generally harmful.
For one thing, Peterson has routinely voiced a monolithic view of “the left” that seems to encompass everyone who’s not a “classical liberal” or centrist.
Peterson sees today’s left as more or less a giant culture-destroying machine that wants to undermine authority regardless of its legitimacy and tear down the institutions and principles society formerly followed with no thought to what comes next.
Although he’s been fond of terms like cultural Marxism and postmodernism, it’s not entirely clear that Peterson himself grasps the nuances of Chomsky’s thought or Chomsky’s own position and rivalries on the left.
What is evident, however, is that Peterson sees the left writ large in a simple way: a refusal to grow up.
As such, in Peterson’s view, most leftist intellectuals including even those who are undeniably brilliant, are – on a social and psychological level – more or less overgrown babies.
However, it’s worth pointing out here that Peterson has made other comments which seem to subtly back positions taken by Chomsky, including on the need to lessen economic inequality.
Writing for MerionWest, Néstor de Buen notes that:
“In one of his lectures, Jordan Peterson makes the case for why conservatives should be interested in reducing inequality, even if their instincts are usually against redistribution. His central claim is that income disparity is detrimental to social cohesion.”
The basic clash is the following…
Peterson believes that hierarchy is natural and makes sense.
He believes that in society, a top-down system is often a reflection of a fair and logical power dynamic and is mainly based on competence.
Peterson takes great issue with some on the left who equate hierarchy and authority with injustice, calling this a “deeply pernicious” view.
Chomsky takes issue with arguments like those of Peterson that praise strong work ethic and individualism, saying such beliefs are just a smokescreen for perpetuating unjust economic systems.
As you can see, this is a strong difference in their views.
Capitalism vs. Socialism
Peterson is broadly supportive of capitalism and says that despite its faults, our modern world was created by capitalism. He believes that critiques of it come largely from ungrateful dolts who aren’t living in reality.
Chomsky believes that hierarchy is often the result of oppressive systems and agendas. He considers modern capitalist economic systems to mostly be designed to bilk working people of labor and rob them of their free will.
While Chomsky agrees with natural reality in the sense that human beings contain numerous innate characteristics, including the ability to learn and speak a language and fit into ideologies and group systems, he takes issue with the idea that our modern system is natural or inevitable.
According to Chomsky, our modern capitalist nations are finely engineered propaganda machines supported by a corrupt mass media that exploit and wreck human solidarity, freedom and flourishing.
Collectivism vs. Individualism
Peterson strongly believes in individual responsibility and considers many problems of the modern West to be caused by people trying to shirk or “blame” their life problems on outside forces.
“You’re going to pay a price for every bloody thing you do and everything you don’t do. You don’t get to choose to not pay a price. You get to choose which poison you’re going to take. That’s it,” Peterson has said.
Chomsky, on the other hand, believes that individual freedom should be maximized and society should be organized according to anarchosyndicalist cooperatives. However, Chomsky does believe that systemic forces greatly harm our ability to flourish in life, and he believes this is on purpose in order to exploit us.
“I think it only makes sense to seek out and identify structures of authority, hierarchy, and domination in every aspect of life, and to challenge them; unless a justification for them can be given, they are illegitimate, and should be dismantled, to increase the scope of human freedom,” Chomsky has said.
Both believe modern society has weakened us
Peterson and Chomsky both believe that modern society has weakened us.
For Peterson this means we expect a life of ease and become thrown by the slightest problem, lashing out to blame others and stew in misery.
For Chomsky, this means we have been conditioned to accept a life of exploitation and groupthink that uses us as a pawn in socio-economic power games we have no say in.
However, in a certain way, Chomsky echoes Peterson (or vice versa) when he says that:
“All over the place, from the popular culture to the propaganda system, there is constant pressure to make people feel that they are helpless, that the only role they can have is to ratify decisions and to consume.”
While Peterson takes a similar view from the right, Chomsky takes this view from the left. In their own way, both are criticizing our present-day society and its emergent norms, there is no doubt about that.
Do they agree on postmodernism?
Philosophically, postmodernism is the belief that many of our daily realities are artificial constructions and that ideology – not nature – drives many of the key power systems around us.
Peterson and Chomsky have both been highly critical of postmodern philosophy, although for different reasons.
According to Peterson, the postmodern ideology and relativism are undermining the necessary institutions for society to function such as gender roles, traditional families, hard-working values and self-responsibility.
According to Chomsky, the postmodern ideology is just a way for fake activists to sound passionate and committed while playing word games and criticizing systems of power they have no intention or ability of actually changing.
In other words, Peterson sees postmodernism as a destructive force that’s ruining the virtues brought by Western civilization, while Chomsky sees postmodernism as a fraudulent ideology that traps budding leftists in word-policing echo chambers.
While they oppose postmodernism for very different reasons, it’s worth noting that both agree that postmodernism is basically an emotional soother created by Marxists who wanted to soften the blow of the failed economic and national communism of the USSR, China, Cambodia and so on.
Peterson routinely denounces postmodernist neo-Marxists as heartless frauds who pretend to care about the downtrodden while obliquely supporting the mass murders of the past century in totalitarian communist states, while Chomsky’s anarchic socialism is also strongly critical of authoritarian communism and strongly refutes the arguments and policies of Stalinism and Maoism.
Interestingly, Peterson has been accused of being a postmodern pseudo-conservative because of his vague statements on religion and “I act as if God exists,” while Chomsky is often lumped in with the postmodern left by those who don’t understand or care about these distinctions.
To be fair, it is not entirely clear whether Peterson lumps Chomsky in with this category or not.
Peterson vs. Chomsky: who wins?
It’s easy to think of Peterson as the right-wing version of Chomsky. In certain ways it’s true.
But at the end of the day, the disagreements and agreements between the two are more interesting for the debate they bring up than for deciding on a black-and-white verdict of right or wrong.
Both strongly support free speech (Peterson from the classical liberal right, Chomsky from the libertarian socialist left), oppose postmodernism for different reasons and believe that various human capacities and roles are innate;
However Chomsky and Peterson also strongly disagree about the role of power in society, ideal economic organizing principles and the purpose of life.
Whether you support Chomsky or Peterson – or neither – all those interested in these topics will find their ideas surrounding them to be of interest.
After all, as an architect’s blueprint comes before the building itself, ideas are the foundation of the world we live in.