Jordan Peterson isn’t really that interesting of a topic. His videos are popular, sure, but so are FailBlog’s. His book 12 Rules for Life is well-written and articulate, but it’s not The Abolition of Man. I completely understand why people scratch their heads at Peterson’s seeming omnipresence in journalism and online discourse. He’s not that big of a deal.
On the other hand, the interest in Peterson—both the fandom and the outrage—is interesting for what it reveals. There are deep fault lines in our contemporary understanding of foundational topics such as gender, parenting, the good life, and suffering. Many of these fault lines lay hidden beneath artificial structures, like HR-style conformity to speech codes and predictable partisan politics. The Peterson phenomenon is about these fault lines more than it’s about Peterson himself. The actual divide that I see is not really between people who like Peterson’s message and those who don’t, but those who are content with the lay of the fault lines and those who aren’t.
Christine Emba’s write-up from a Peterson event illustrates this point well. She describes the interest in Peterson’s message as “depressing,” classifying Peterson’s fans as belonging to the “disaffected-young man-Internet.” Though she expresses something like appreciation for Peterson’s self-improvement tomes and willingness to challenge cultural orthodoxies, she nonetheless sees his readers as confused (and probably over-privileged):
Peterson — or, rather, the men who flock to him — clearly need something to fight against (anti-free-speech snowflakes!), and something to fight for (their leader!). Why is that? The subtitle of Peterson’s book is “An Antidote to Chaos,” and many of his readers really do feel as though they’re living lives of fracture and disarray, left to twist in the wind by broken families, a fading economy and new social norms that seem to give succor to everyone except them.
The word “need” here is intentional, and it is used in much the same way that cognitive scientists describe religious people as “needing” to believe in pattern and transcendence. “Need to believe” is a formulation that suggests the beliefs line up more with agenda than reality. And what is that agenda? Well, to fight back against an emerging socioeconomic order that seems “to give succor to everyone except them.”
In other words, Peterson is selling bitterness and a persecution complex. And disaffected young men are buying it.
There’s some measure of truth here. Peterson has indeed been lionized by some males whose worldview is all about owning the libs and feminazis. There is undoubtedly some class and sexual resentment going on as well, a fact the online community of “incels” graphically illustrates. But as I’m sure Emba would agree, it’s hard for a 400 page book to perch atop Amazon’s bestselling nonfiction lists on the backs of incels and “redpill” truants alone. The fault lines pass through them, yes, but they didn’t start there.
I was surprised to realize after re-reading Emba’s piece that in talking about Peterson’s message and appeal, she never once mentions higher ed. I would argue it’s impossible to accurately understand why Peterson’s work is connecting with so many unless you consider, objectively if possible, the culture of American universities. Not only is the campus shoutdown culture a prominent topic in Peterson’s book, it is inseparable from his platform. He is, after all, a college professor, one whose basic social, political, and religious ideas are at intense conflict with the vast majority of his colleagues. You don’t have to agree with Peterson’s particular views on transgender speech laws to empathize with him in his famous video with a belligerent interviewer from BBC Channel 4, or to be concerned with the way protesters at college campuses shout him down.
In other words, those investigating Peterson’s appeal should probably consider the possibility that at least some of the “disaffection” of his male fans comes from somewhere. Why should we assume that student activists who bring air horns and placards into school lectures to keep guests from talking speak for all their peers? Couldn’t there be some, maybe even many, who are offended at such tactics and appalled at their effectiveness? Could it be that these same people admire Peterson for his courage amidst a crumbling public square?
I’ve observed that many who register concerns and annoyance at Peterson rarely have much to say about these other phenomenons. It’s almost as if Peterson’s ideological targets are so assumed and so instinctive on the Left that his words make no sense there, like he is boxing a ghost some cannot see. My point is not that everything Peterson writes or says is true. As a Christian, in fact, I think his archetypal approach to truth itself is fatally flawed and doomed to fail eventually. But an honest appraisal cannot find that Peterson’s messaging comes from nowhere, or that it’s rooted in nothing real. Only those comfortable with these fault lines can fail to see them.
I don’t find Peterson or his book depressing. What I do find depressing are the cultural orthodoxies he attacks. Emba asks whether Peterson’s appeal means we don’t have any parents any more. Has she considered the possibility that the problem is not lack of parents but a radical transformation of parenting? All it takes is a 30 minute perusal of the bestsellers section or 10 minutes on Facebook to realize that self-esteem, meeting of felt needs, and complete supervision at the cost of independence are some of the most important principles in contemporary parenting. In fact, some have observed that the transformation of the university has been into a sort of helicopter parent, whose job is no longer to shape youth into adulthood and instill virtue where there is foolishness, but to authenticate self and pacify all grievances.
Some, of course, dispute this narrative, while others think what I’ve described in negative terms is actually healthy. Praise God for healthy disagreement. But pretending these larger fault lines of disagreement don’t exist and that Peterson’s messaging is just code for poor white males who lost the culture war will not work. Peterson’s rules resonate right now because man cannot live on equality alone, and he is one of the few public figures willing to say it. In the words of C.S. Lewis, there is a “secret signature of each soul” that cannot be expressed sufficiently through politics or science. That is Peterson’s real message, as well as his critics’ real stumbling block.