Professor provides antidote to nihilism and identity politics
Jordan Peterson’s stoical world view challenges tribalism of cultural Marxism
It reflects how polarised our age has become that Jordan B Peterson, a Canadian professor of psychology, has become both a cultural rock star and an object of intense hate.
For Camille Paglia, the contrarian social historian, he is “the most important and influential Canadian thinker since Marshall McLuhan”. (I would give the philosopher Charles Taylor that prize.)
Canadian columnist Tabatha Southey dismissed Peterson as “the stupid man’s smart person” in a snarky article where she lampoons “his long, rambling pseudo-academic takes on common self-help advice and his weird fixation on Disney movies”.
Peterson came to public attention when he opposed a Canadian law that added gender expression and identity to anti-discrimination law. He objected to the law being used to force people to use pronouns such as “ze” and “zher”.
However, he also said that if a student approached him and asked him to use different pronouns, he would do so. Peterson’s battle is with an overweening state, and oppressive political correctness.
He has become a hero, particularly for young men, and for North American Christians. He also has a following among the alt-right, though Peterson’s defenders point out that one cannot choose one’s supporters.
On the surface, his popularity is inexplicable. His YouTube videos are often more than two hours long and get hundreds of thousands of views of views. The most popular, Biblical Series I: Introduction to the Idea of God, is more than 2½ hours long and has been viewed more than 1½ million times. Peterson is open about suffering from depression. He is a Carl Jung devotee and he assumes a familiarity with figures such as Dostoevsky and Orwell.
He derides positive thinking because he believes life is tragic and believes we should try to find meaning by incremental small changes.
For Peterson, the Judeo-Christian tradition is a vast, symbolic repository of culture, with a key message about how to live a moral life
Peterson’s lifetime as a clinical psychologist was obvious, as he patiently rebutted the caricature of his views again and again.
The interview spawned a thousand memes. A typical one has Peterson saying: “I had bacon and eggs for breakfast.” Newman responds: “So you’re saying kill all vegans?”
Of course, the interview was not that bad, just an example of an interviewing style where the interviewer sees himself or herself as a protagonist debating with a person who holds dubious views, rather than someone helping the viewer to learn what the interviewee actually thinks.
Newman used the phrase “so what you are saying” or something similar 26 times and at no time did her summary accurately reflect what Peterson was saying.
You would think he would be happy. But he is not. He believes that the interview is just another symptom of dangerous polarisation in society, one that could very easily tip over into violence.
He wants to meet Newman on camera again to really talk and listen to each other.
From reading and watching him, I think there are a number of keys to Peterson’s thought processes.
First, he is a psychologist, focused on how individuals can live meaningful lives. His emphasis on individualism is at odd with this era of identity politics, which often manifests as tribalistic condemnation of those who hold heretical views.
Second, he is a Jungian psychologist. He sees the world in mythological and archetypal terms, so when he says that masculine energy manifests as order, and feminine energy as chaos, he claims he is not being sexist or misogynistic. Order can degenerate into totalitarianism, while without chaos there is no creativity or growth. However, the description is inexplicable to those unfamiliar with Jung.
Third, the extremism of the 20th century which saw totalitarian regimes murder countless millions fills him with visceral horror.
He feels that we all potentially have a Nazi camp guard within us, and unless we look at that dark, shadow side (there’s Jung again), human beings are capable of similar atrocities again.
Fourth, there is little in his metaphysical world view that would trouble an open-minded agnostic. He is not a churchgoer, and said recently he needs three more years of study before he could state whether he believes in Christ’s resurrection.
For Peterson, the Judeo-Christian tradition is a vast, symbolic repository of culture, with a key message about how to live a moral life. It is about incremental improvement, not about openness to transcendental grace. In Peterson’s world, you save yourself.
What is the root of his popularity? He is offering something other than ironic, hipsterish nihilism with a side order of avocado toast.
Whether you agree with his conclusions or not (and I often don’t), he is patently someone who has sincerely and deeply thought about the deeper questions.
He also has tremendous courage, risking being fired from his university for his views long before he knew he would become a YouTube sensation.
Young men in particular are responding to his injunction to grow up, to take responsibility, to become competent. That cannot be bad.