Writing as someone who shares the bodily privilege of Peterson, I can’t suppress the visceral clues. I feel all the prickles of those in the latter camp. I but feel them from a “been there, done that” perspective.
Here, I’ll own my part in those sensations, and use them as a springboard for speculation. This may sound close to ad hominem. Hopefully I’ll avoid that by staying rooted in my own experience as someone who has also tried to be at the centre of attention by presenting many of the same tics I see Peterson use. Guys like us are all trained in the same school, you see.
I confess: I adopted the Peterson-body while reading from my poetry and novels back in the 1990s, as a classical music vocalist, while teaching yoga or meditation, and while proselytizing for the two cults that I was in.
In small ways these tics still emerge interpersonally when I feel threatened or I need to convince or triumph.
In and of themselves the affects are not evil, and I never had a conscious thought of wanting to manipulate people. And yet I built them into a choreography of persuasion that sharpened and expanded as it seemed to work.
Now I see these affects might sometimes work because they gobble up social real estate. I look at this very carefully, and try to invent ways of disrupting it. But I still feel them creep up, especially when I’m on a tense phone call.
Here’s what watching Peterson makes me remember about my own public-speaking body, back before I started to tone it down:
It felt exhilarating to speak freely and without stop.
It felt private, yet spotlighted at the same time, as though everyone should be forced to see the brilliance of my otherwise lonely internal life.
There was a thrill in beginning a sentence the ending of which I could not see, but felt the eyes on me draw it out. If the content strayed from the ordained topic, and no one seemed to complain, so much the better. This signalled that the listeners were there for me and not the content.
I could feel attention pouring into me, filling up the space where the words had flowed out. This happened without me actually connecting with the people who gave that attention. It was a perfect economy of simultaneous extroversion and introversion, without any mediation of contact or intimacy.
I used repetitive motions with my hands to not only keep myself in rhythm, but to conduct a somatic rhythm into the room that would obviate the stutters that occur through true dialogue. The motions were like martial arts gestures.
When someone asked a question I could sense how difficult it was for them to break into that flow. Instead of thinking about how I could make it easier for them, I waited for the bit of content upon which I could seize and re-enter my flow, feeling that that would relieve both of us.
I think that before I realized I was doing these things, to embody what I thought of as the comfort of mastery, while never thinking about who that mastery might be over, I could well have been in that camp that ignores Peterson’s intellectual fraud. It feels so good to love what he does with his body, and to identify with it.
Peterson has mastered the muscular ballet of inflated masculine intellectualism. He embodies the wish of otherwise liberal men who feel that speech is the only sanctioned public violence left to them.
He can be pipsqueaky but imperious. He can whine on stage and still be seen as commanding. He can express pain and fragility as an emperor of confidence. He can have his lobster and eat it too.
When Peterson quipped to Camille Paglia that men are disadvantaged in debate against women because social taboos prevent men from hitting women, he’s showing ignorance of more than civics. He’s showing that he doesn’t realize that his privilege plus his affect are already hitting women, trans people, or the scholars in humanities departments he wants to dox.
Peterson and I learned how not to hit people. That doesn’t make us non-violent.
I haven’t punched anyone since I was 12. I learned how to sublimate punches into sentences, and so did he. I believe that many of the young men who love what Peterson does with this body — “There he is! There! He! Is!” — love him because his affect validates that sublimation within their own bodies.
Peterson’s body tells them it’s okay to strike out from an avoidant bubble of self-fascination. It says that you can be as wimpy and whiney as you really feel inside, and yet still dominate. His body tells them that their own endless internal monologue of grievance is noble, smart, productive, and should be monetized.
"The next morning, Poonja knocked on the door of our room at about eleven a.m. He was unusually tall with strong features and intense dark eyes. As soon as Andrew introduced us, Poonja pointed at him, looked at me, and announced, "He is my son!" (Tarlo's italics)
"We all sat down and chatted a bit. Poonja treated me with such extreme deference that I had to continually control the impulse to look behind to see if he was addressing someone else. It made me uncomfortable, yet I was flattered by the attention. When he left, Andrew asked me what I thought.
"He has a lot of charisma, " I said "and he seems a very powerful man but we were together for only half an hour. I don't know him."
"Believe it or not, Poonja and I might be the only two people in the whole world doing the work we're doing" Andrew said.
This was so dumfounding I couldnt react to it. The only two? The pretension of it all sounded quite mad. Still I have to admit, part of me wanted to believe it, crazy as it seemed.
"In the evening, we went to Poonja's daughter for dinner. She and her family lived above their photography shop in a dingy apartment....The meal had to have required considerable labor. It consisted of numerous courses, each more exquisite than the last. After she'd served us, Poonja's daughter, a plain looking, shabbily dressed woman, sat at another table at the other end of the room as if she were a servant and not on an equal footing with us. The rest of the family was out of sight.
Andrew had informed me that Poonja's daughter had been enlightened by Ramana Maharshi years before.
We ate in silence.
"You say she's enlightened?" I asked Andrew later.
"Yes, I told you."
"But she acts like a maid. And she works like a dog, as far as I can see."
"She doesn't mind. It's her life. She accepts it."
(Luna Tarlo thought) "I didn't say anything. I didn't know what to say. I was aghast at my once tenderhearted son saying that it was all right for Poonja's daughter to live like that.
"After lunch we crossed the bridge over the river and found (Poonja) dressed in a white kurta and pajama, sitting cross legged on a cot in a long narrow room. I was surprised to see that he was sharing his room with a pretty, blond chic Belgian woman and her child, a girl of thirteen. The girl, perhaps bored with what was going on, was sitting on her mattress on the floor reading Gone with the Wind in French. I was told the Belgian lady had been enlightened by Poonja and was there to thank him. ...much later I found out that the Belgian woman's daughter had been fathered by Poonja."
(Poonja) considered Andrew ready to start a revolution amongst the young right then and there after just two and a half weeks of instruction. I'd never heard anything of like it.
How could you take on the huge responsibility of altering people's minds with so little training? I was puzzled by Poonja. Where did he get his authority? He was not part of a tradition that educated teachers. He claimed, simply, to have been enlightened by Ramana Maharshi.
(Maharshi, I was to find out later, had never authorized anyone's enlightenment or sanctioned anyone to teach in his name."
"Julie...telephoned Professor Moorty. In the course of a long conversation, Andrew Cohen was mentioned. Julie told professor Moorty that Andrew was a guru in the lineage of Ramana Maharshi and Professor Moorty interrupted her to say ---and this had surprised Julie--that Ramana Maharshi had no official disciples and no official lineage!"
"A lot of what Poonja said about Andrew was true, that he could not tolerate being criticized, that his disciples were afraid of him and that Andrew's notion of communal sangha life was for sheep. But the fact was, Poonja couldn't stand being criticized either. And he had shown himself to be a hypocrite. For example, I heard that he told a former student of Andrew's, now called Gangaji, and presently operating successfully out of Hawaii, that he had been waiting for her, too, all his life, and as he'd said, after teaching Andrew, he was ready to die! (She subsequently became Poonja's replacement for Andrew.
"When I met Poonja for the first time in India, he was a man in his seventies who, after many years as a guru, had surprisingly few disciples. I think he was hungry for fame, and when he met Andrew, he must have seen a golden opportunity to broadcast his name in America by inflaming this young person's impressionable mind with ideas of 'starting a revolution amongst the young.' Then, when Andrew proved to be unsuitable, it took him no time at all to find a replacement from amongst Andrew's disaffected followers. And his strategy worked. He is now regarded in America as one of India's foremost gurus!