A careless comparison meant to skewer Jordan Peterson is backfiring in a big way.
The psychology professor expressed astonishment when Twitter followers alerted him to obvious parallels between him and the Red Skull, the supervillain in Marvel Comics’ Captain America franchise.
In the comic’s latest edition, published March 31, the masked evildoer leads men astray through online lectures. One panel shows the Red Skull promoting “10 rules for life” and references “chaos and order,” apparent allusions to Peterson’s bestseller “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos” and its sequel, “Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life.”
Writer and social commentator Ta-Nehisi Coates, whom Marvel hired in 2015 to write the Black Panther comics, is the current Captain America series’ author. While Coates hasn’t acknowledged Peterson as the inspiration for Cap’s nemesis, the similarities are too on-the-nose to be mere coincidence.
Coates’ Red Skull is an information-age pied piper for disaffected young men whose mind-warping viral videos convert a legion of disciples ready to wreak havoc upon his command. That’s not a far cry from the bad-faith critiques of Peterson’s work that persist despite thorough debunkings.
Writing for online magazine Slate’s Brow Beat culture blog, Matthew Dessem describes Peterson as “a self-help guru to the alt-right.” In fact, Peterson is a steadfast opponent of that movement, who eschews the identity politics of the far right and the woke left with equal vigor and aplomb.
“I think the whole group identity thing is seriously pathological,” Peterson said during an August 2017 question-and-answer exchange.
Progressives bristle when he traces intersectionality to its inevitable conclusion: The process of differentiating people by their disadvantages and privileges can only be repeated so many times before you reach the irreducible number of one.
Regarding the individual as the ultimate minority may be anathema to the modern left, but it also obliterates collectivist canards on the right wing’s outer fringes. The Southern Poverty Law Center says alt-right adherents “embrace white ethnonationalism as a fundamental value.” That’s incompatible with Peterson’s appeals to personal responsibility.
Pundits who caricature Peterson as a gateway drug to white supremacy only beclown themselves, and Coates jumps into this trap with both feet, suggesting the self-help author – or his supposed comic book alter ego – is assembling an army of like-minded sycophants. In reality, Peterson addresses a diverse amalgam of readers and viewers who don’t march to the same drumbeat.
Hot takes on the Captain America kerfuffle were similarly sloppy. A Daily Mail article reported that Peterson was “angry” to learn of the resemblance, while entertainment website Uproxx said he was downright “pissed.” “Red Skull, thin skin,” tech blog Boing Boing crowed.
While Peterson’s initial tweets expressed surprise at the discovery, he’s clearly bemused rather than upset. Instead of objecting to the idea of Coates casting him as a villain whose Marvel origin story is “head of Nazi terrorist activities” trained by Hitler himself, Peterson took ownership of the character and promptly put him through reform school.
In memes shared on his Twitter page, the Red Skull now parrots Peterson’s philosophy of self-improvement. “If you cling desperately to an ideology, or wallow in nihilism, try telling the truth,” one reads.
The contrast between exaggerated comic book imagery of a red-faced, glowering menace and practical advice for leading a fulfilling life underscores the absurdity of painting Peterson as a malign influence better than a sober YouTube lecture or an exhaustive written rebuttal ever could. If Coates meant to make the professor a cautionary tale, Peterson turned the tables with pitch-perfect parody.
Twitter followers are in on the joke, too. One imagined Peterson as Lobsterman, a reference to the first chapter in “12 Rules” that compares humans’ and lobsters’ physical response to defeat, noting that the mood-regulating hormone serotonin affects dominance hierarchies in both species.
Peterson embraced the lobster motif, tweeting an illustration of a red-and-black shield featuring a stylized six-legged crustacean fit for display on a caped crusader’s chest.
Coates overlooked the downside to writing a rival into a timeless tale, rendering him immortal in a narrative sense. A villain can always become a hero; redemption arcs, after all, are as much a comic book trope as the heel turn.