Tyler Cowen has called Jordan Peterson, “the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now”. If so, why had I never heard of the guy?
My introduction to Peterson came through Facebook messenger. A Canadian friend asked me what I thought of him. So, I Googled the University of Toronto clinical psychology professor and read a few articles. Then I asked a Facebook group full of smart people what they thought of Peterson.
I had 205 responses within an hour. The first respondents told me Peterson (or, JP as many of them called him) was a know-it-all who strays far beyond his area of expertise. The results, one person said, were “cringe”.
Before long, I was getting a different kind of message from a younger demographic. Sure, Peterson isn’t much of a theologian, they said, but some of his practical advice, especially his 2018 book “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos,” was personally helpful.
So, if all these people had such strong opinions about Peterson, I asked myself, how had he sailed under my radar?
A passion for order
A lot of it has to do with the ideological segregation that is such a feature of the contemporary world. The public intellectuals we encounter, whether in books, magazine articles, podcasts or on social media, tend to quote one another. Because I am passionate about racial justice, women’s rights and LBGTQ justice, I rarely encounter voices on the other side of the ideological fence. I believe that the dominant narratives of western civilization have been too white, too male, and too straight for too long.
Jordan Peterson begs to differ. Well, not exactly. Peterson never begs. He struts, he broods, he exhorts, he gesticulates. He believes in strength, assertiveness and decisive action. Which accounts for the first question to enter my mind: is Jordan Peterson the Canadian Trump?
He also believes in order. And he hates post-modernism, which he sees as a clever reassertion of a failed Marxist agenda. To hear Pederson tell it, western civilization works, albeit in a rough-and-ready fashion. Marxism doesn’t. By insisting that everyone has to be equal we have created a generation of dependent whiners.
By denying the profound biological differences between men and women, we have created an existential crisis for men. We have blamed the male of the species for everything evil. And when you do that, he says, you can expect a backlash. “If men are pushed too hard to feminize,” he says, “they will become more and more interested in harsh, fascist political ideology.”
A critique of political correctness
It has been estimated that Peterson’s audience is 80% male. He has become the darling of the radical right. It all started in 2016 when he spoke out against a C-16, a piece of Canadian legislation designed to expand the Bill of Rights to include “gender identity and gender expression.”
Peterson took this to mean that he was expected to use gender pronouns like “them” and “ze” (which he described as being “arbitrary” and “made up”. It’s one thing, he explained, to be told what you aren’t allowed to say; being told what you must say, is something else altogether.
Peterson is particularly good at making precise distinctions, an ability that often flummoxes interviewers. His 2018 interview with Cathy Newman on Britain’s Channel 4 in 2018 has been viewed 33 million times. Newman asked him why he thought he had the right to offend transgender persons by refusing to use their preferred pronouns. After a long moment of painful silence, Peterson asked her why Newman thought she had the right to offend him by asking tough questions. His point was that, life is tough and people need to be resilient. If journalists refused to ask tough questions, they would be letting down the public. If young people think they can introduce arbitrary pronouns into public discourse without pushback, they must be made to face reality. Tucker Carlson crowed in delight.
But unlike Trump, who is loathed and ridiculed outside the safe confines of his fan base, Peterson often receives warm receptions in academic settings. His 2018 appearance at Cambridge University was a triumph and he will be back in late November of 2021. True, his university appearances almost always engender angry protests, but that just enhances his reputation as a fearless truthteller.
A defense of all things masculine
His positive reception in Britain, Australia and the United States suggests that the backlash against “political correctness” runs deep. Peterson’s views are controversial. He is convinced that men and women differ, biologically and psychologically, in profound ways. Women tend to be likeable, he says, a trait which correlates negatively with success.
In fact, says, Peterson, the feminine spirit has traditionally been associated, symbolically at least, with chaos. The masculine spirit, by contrast, is a symbol of order. He gets that from Carl Jung, possibly his greatest influence. Men succeed, he says, because, by-and-large, they possess the innate traits that make for success. Women, on the whole, do not.
Men, in his view, are attracted to jobs that emphasize the material world; women like work that is more personal. This explains why, he says, the vast majority of nurses are women while most engineers are men. Most women, he has said, would be most happy if they just stayed home and cared for children.
Even his harshest critics admit that some of the advice he offers young men is timely. He tells them to clean up their rooms, get their affairs in order, tell the truth and to stop blaming other people (especially women) for their problems. Life is hard, he tells them. Suffering, lots of it, comes with the territory. In order to succeed, you’ve got to be strong, assertive and dominant. If you are striking out with women, he says, it’s probably because you are too nice, too deferential, too accommodating. Women like men who know how to take care of business.
Not everyone agrees with this device; but it is conventional. More to the point, it’s the sort of thing you aren’t likely to hear from liberal intellectuals. We don’t want to tell anyone how to think, behave or feel. We see that as none of our business. Peterson disagrees. It is his business. His success is largely a function of the firm, even ferocious conviction with which he speaks.
Nostalgia for a lost world
When you listen to Peterson in conversation with friendly academics, women rarely enter the picture. He speaks of the men (never the women) who have shaped western civilization. All his primary influences are men: Jung, Piaget, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Solzhenitsyn and Orwell. They are also all dead, Peterson rarely quotes anyone who has made a major contribution to the intellectual world in the past fifty years.
That is partly surprising. Like Trump, Peterson is regularly critical of the mainstream media. His contempt for the humanities departments of major universities is boundless. It isn’t easy to construct an orderly society. It is frighteningly easy for a society to slide into violent chaos. For much of Western history, he argues, Christianity restrained the human tendency toward barbarism. Following Nietzsche, he sees God’s death in the 19th century as a tragedy. For two thousand years, he believes, Christian dogma had provided an organizing core for Western civilization. Deprived of faith, we turned to ideology, Marxism in particular. Like Solzhenitsyn, Peterson sees Soviet Communism as the logical consequence of Marxist ideology.
Peterson sees postmodern philosophy as a Marxist sneak attack. The goal is to undermine the values that have undergirded Western culture. The world is divided into oppressors and the oppressed; victimizers and their victims.
His critics see this assessment as childishly simplistic, but Peterson believes it with all his heart. His sincerity is another factor distinguishing the clinical psychologist from Trump. Where Trump has no operating philosophy save personal interest; you can find hundreds of hours of Peterson lectures on YouTube. While Trump lies habitually; Peterson is determined to tell the truth as he sees it. Both men are driven by immense egos, to be sure, but Peterson is aware of his darker motivations and strives to keep them in check.
We have seen that Peterson rarely mentions women unless he is critiquing feminism. To hear his long-winded summaries of Western history you’d never imagine that American wealth was built on the backs of African slaves. He is blind to Jim Crow segregation. He displays little empathy for the LGBTQ community. Peterson isn’t big on empathy, generally speaking. He sees compassion as a feminine trait, and thus largely irrelevant to the hard work of civilization building. When he lashes out at “identity politics” he gives the impression that African Americans, women and LGBTQ folk would be better off if they ignored group identity as soldiered on as individuals.
The individual is everything in Peterson’s eyes. Each human soul is precious and worthy of deep respect. Government exists to protect individual rights, period.
Peterson gets most of his religious ideas from Jung. The human species is incurably religious, he believes, and we must ask why this is. Religions, in his view, are compendiums of ancient, hard-won wisdom. The stories of Genesis aren’t historical narratives, they are archetypal myths which must be taken seriously, if not literally. Christianity should therefore be respected and approached with reverence even by atheists and agnostics.
It is in this limited sense that Peterson identifies as Christian. Does he believe in God? Not in the conventional sense. But he believes he has much to learn from biblical narratives and, for the past several years, he has been churning out an ever-flowing stream of Jungian interpretations of biblical texts.
Peterson fancies himself a biblical scholar. Having found the key to the mystery of life, he is free to pluck little gems of biblical text, innocent of context, and interpret them as he sees fit. Take Matthew 13:12, for example: “For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” Peterson takes this as an endorsement of capitalism. Read in context, the passage refers to “the secrets of the kingdom of heaven,” in other words, the sort of teaching expounded in the Sermon on the Mount. Peterson is no worse in this regard than many popular American preachers, but genuine biblical scholars, not surprisingly, are appalled by his ham-handed exegesis.
Peterson speaks of Christ as an archetype, but studiously ignores the teaching of Jesus. He applauds the Catholic church for venerating a crucified Christ because, he says, this reminds us that intense suffering lies at the heart of life. When we consider that everything Jesus says is diametrically opposed to Peterson’s philosophy, his disinterest in Jesus as a religious teacher should come as no surprise.
Oddly, Peterson’s understanding of religion is distinctly postmodern. He views Christianity as a carefully wrought construction that provides social cohesion and moral consensus. He never says it is true I a metaphysical sense. It just works. More or less. And is thus worth preserving.
The last Renaissance Man?
Needless to say, most theologians and biblical scholars regard Peterson as a rank amateur who makes rookie errors every time he opens his mouth. Trained historians find his historical analysis laughable. Ethicists are horrified by his unwillingness to engage with the horrors of colonization, patriarchal and economic oppression, and enslavement. Feminists castigate Peterson for what they see as his casual misogyny and, as you would expect, leading voices from the LGBTQ community accuse him of hate speech.
In fact, the only discipline in which Peterson is taken seriously appears to be clinical psychology, a field in which he has published hardly at all in the past decade. So, why is he still being lauded as the most successful public intellectual on the planet? Why, for instance, did he receive a standing ovation at Cambridge Union?
Human knowledge has been exploding for generations, and the pace of expansion has been growing exponentially. Scholars find it virtually impossible to read everything in their area of competence. Which explains why Peterson’s Renaissance Man pretensions fall flat with subject matter experts. But the highly specialized nature of human inquiry creates a demand for someone who understands enough about science, psychology, biology, statistics, sociology, history, philosophy, religion and politics to produce a theory of everything.
That person’s name is Jordan Peterson. So what if his theory of everything can be torn to shreds by subject matter experts? Who’s gonna know?
The true reason for Peterson’s popularity
Peterson is often asked if it bothers him that considerable overlap exists between his fan base and Trumps. His answer is that he doesn’t have a fan base because, (a) he isn’t an entertainer, and (b) his thought is too complex to interest idiots and ideologues.
But maybe Peterson’s appeal has little to do with the details of his analysis. What if his popularity is largely driven by his opposition to political correctness, feminism, “radical liberals” and the agenda of the postmodern academy? What if he is celebrated because he is more useful than intelligible. What if his followers are primarily attracted to what he hates? What if the force of his contempt is the big draw? If this is true, and I fear it is, then Pederson may be the Canadian Trump after all.