A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog post titled, Jordan Peterson on the Utility of Horror. I expected some pushback, and I got it.
“Fuck that dude all the way.” Wrote one person. “He is a transphobic piece of trash that uses big words to make himself look smarter than he is.” Another response read, “Jordan Peterson a well known con, I guess what I see on the internet is true and The Satanic Temple [my church] isn’t divorced from bigots. Sad to see it.”
The most interesting exchange I had was in response to a tweet I made in which I linked the post and wrote, “in which I try to find common ground with Jordan Peterson.”
One person responded, “why?” “Because I find it a challenging and helpful exercise,” I responded. The person wrote back, “Challenging perhaps, still unsure of helpful though. More futile or poisonous is my assumption.”
That last bit has stayed with me: reading Jordan Peterson and trying to engage sincerely with his work is “futile or poisonous.” Is it futile or poisonous to engage with, and even learn from, controversial and problematic figures?
Note: I have re-worked the wording of these exchanges to protect the identities of everyone involved. They didn’t ask to be written about, so the courteous thing to do is make them unsearchable. Please don’t try to find these people or bully them.
There is nothing easy about what I’m going to explore in this post. I want to acknowledge this up front, because everything that follows is an extreme and necessary sport. Like any sport, injury is possible, and perhaps some people shouldn’t practice it at all, but it is the sport that I engage in.
I believe that engaging with challenging literature is important, beneficial, and is the mark of an erudite and resilient mind. Literature – all literature, even when it’s written by our heroes – is brutally challenging and morally ambiguous, because it is produced by human beings. I’ve already explored the benefits of reading challenging literature, and I won’t beat that horse here. I want to go deeper: seriously engaging, and even quoting, controversial figures like Jordan Peterson is an expression of my Satanic faith.
As a Satanist, I value knowledge, truth, resilience, and intellectual integrity. In the same way the Yogi religiously values having a nimble body, I value having a nimble mind. My Satan blasphemes social taboos, trespasses cultural boundaries, and demands evidence. My Satan understands that truth is true no matter who says it. As such, I engage in the practice of learning from demons – from people who are justly or unjustly demonized.
Willingness to learn from demons is a prerequisite for intellectual integrity*, because there is no earnest learning without the practice of good faith. Good faith is the assumption that our interlocuter, no matter how disagreeable we might find them, means what they say and might have some piece of knowledge that we don’t. It is to entertain the terrifying notion that we might be wrong, and they might be right.
However, this does not negate the fact that ideas have consequences, and the ideas of an author might also be utterly destructive and evil when manifested. Engaging with that darkness is valuable, too. Looking into the blackness of an evil ideology is a practice that fortifies you into a wiser human or terrifies and defeats you. I have experienced both and become better for it.
Above all, my Satanism blasphemes the infantile purity that rejects the pursuit of knowledge. There is no safety in reading, and no security in learning. Learning has frequently broken me – it has cost me my faith, my community, and sometimes my sleep and mental health. But it has also liberated me and made me a stronger, better person. The pursuit of safety and avoiding all toxins at all costs means starving the intellect and living with a stultified and brittle mind.
None of this means that you should engage in all types of problematic literature. We all have our limits, and I have nothing but respect for someone who tells me they simply cannot engage with a certain subject or figure. Boundaries don’t make you weak, they make you wise. I know enough about ex-gay therapy from first-hand experience, and I don’t need to delve into the literature on the topic. Doing so would simply open old wounds.
I also take no offense to people practicing boundaries with my own work. If some topic I cover is triggering to you, you are completely within your right to avoid it.
What alarms me is the tyrannical, small-minded impulse that others shouldn’t engage with problematic literature and that if they do, they are morally suspect. I reject that kind of puritanical nonsense.
I therefore learn a great deal from people who I find distasteful. Sam Harris has taught me more about consciousness and meditation than any other teacher, and yet I think his promotion of Charles Murray and the Bell Curve is horrific and racist. I’ve learned from many in-person demonic teachers, too: yoga gurus and master craftsmen who were geniuses, and yet tragically broken in mind and spirit.
I have no qualms quoting Jordan Peterson when I think he is profoundly right about something. I’m capable of holding multiple realities at once, and I gently encourage my audience to do the same: Jordan Peterson is a challenging figure who’s unleashed a lot of damage in the world, and he is frequently correct. I can learn from the truth he tells and absorb it into my worldview, and I can come to know my enemy so that I can create a more progressive, equal, and compassionate world.
I talk to a great many people who are frightened to discuss their influences. They have learned valuable lessons from a corrupt teacher, a fringe scientist, a wayward guru. The mature person knows that truth is true no matter who says it, and that absorbing the wisdom of a challenging teacher is not to endorse that teacher as a whole.
But the internet is childish and doesn’t know that. The internet seems to see every individual as either Hitler or Jesus. As Jon Ronson wrote in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, “with social media, we’ve created a stage for constant artificial high drama. Every day a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain.”
And so, people stay quiet about their complex intellectual journeys. I think that’s a tragic, broken game, and I refuse to play it.
I hold myself to high intellectual standards because my Satanism demands it of me. There’s no delicate way to say this, so I’m just going to say it: I deliberately craft my work and online spaces to be challenging. My podcast is called “Sacred Tension” for a reason. I think the mature, adult, and Satanic thing is to engage with challenging material – from Dostoyevsky to bell hooks and Jordan Peterson – in good faith. If this troubles you – if you can’t help but feel that I am morally suspect for this practice – I might not be the content creator for you.
*Should we practice good faith towards everyone? No, of course not. If we have sufficient evidence that someone is a bad actor, we can dismiss them.
But that’s just me. What do you think? Please leave a comment below and share your thoughts. I love hearing back from my audience.
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