A few years ago, Bill Maher appeared on the (now shuttered) Charlie Rose Show. Maher is one of the smugger, less sufferable “New atheist” types, and has more or less made a lucrative career out of representing conservatives and religious people, especially Christians, as idiots at best and theocrats at worst. So it was a bit surprising to see a clip from his interview with Charlie Rose getting passed around with enthusiasm amongst many conservative (and Christian) politicos.
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.
I think it’s past time to admit that the hostility we see from college students toward speech and ideas they dislike is a generational issue. I know this sounds like I’m encouraging stereotypes of millennials, and reasonable people are not supposed to talk about any group in that kind of systemic language (well, almost any group). But denying the generational character of anti-free speech attitudes puts us at a serious risk, I think, of failing to understand why so many millennials feel this way in the first place.
Millennials are the first generation to grow up in an internet age. Note the wording carefully, because millennials are not the first generation to come of age with the internet (Gen-X). They are, however, the first Americans to have had their childhood shaped by the rhythms and cultures of online life. This is enormously important, because it means that millions of millennials grew up having their worldview and (more importantly) their relational identity calibrated by technology that is ephemeral. Because many millennials were online at formative intellectual and emotional times of their life, their expectations of what life is really like are shaped by digital technology…which means, among many other things, that many millennials have, since their early childhood, practiced a semi-autonomous sort of mastery over their world. The delete, cancel, log off, and block buttons have always been right by them. And for many of these millennials, adolescence meant the mobilization of this technology. Whether it’s the family PC or their own iPhone, millennials have, for what is functionally their entire existence, related to the “other” through digital medium.
To me, this suggests that what anti-free speech millennials misunderstand is not “free” but “speech.” The idea that words and ideas can exist outside their personal power to mediate them is a confusing idea, because that’s simply not how they learned about the world. When Jordan Peterson or Ben Shapiro or Ross Douthat write or say something that aggrieves their presuppositions, the millennial brain responds by insisting that not only are those words wrong (which is a legitimate response), but the fact that they had to hear them is a moral negative (which is not). If ideas are nothing more than words, and if words are nothing more than customizable strokes on an interface, then it does not make any moral sense that anyone should have to read or hear anything they dislike. Such a concept runs afoul of the techno-epistemological system that millennials raised on the digital age were shaped by. The entire premise of the internet is that you get what you want, and nothing more.
Analog learning, by contrast, impresses upon our minds the objective reality of words. Nothing you can do can make the words in that book go away. You can throw it out, tear out the pages, burn it if you wish (you wouldn’t be the first!), but the words are there, the book is there, and the meeting of ink with paper has produced, however small, a moment of cognitive everlastingness that can only be ignored, not erased.
Human nature craves absolutism and uniformity, not dissent and debate. Learning from books does not by itself stem this craving. Wisdom is not merely about form. But in analog learning, the relationship between me and the other is given definite shape and texture. The words will always be there, and it is my choice how to respond to them. By contrast, the internet temporalizes and commodifies thinking, so as to make the consumer as intellectually plastic and capable of more consumption as possible. This might mean, then, that shouting at millennials on Twitter to be more accepting of free speech is a loser’s cause. Recommending that they log off and read some books, however, might be a start.
Consider for a moment the portrait that is currently emerging of the young American adult.
Let’s begin with college. Despite its many dysfunctions and uncertain economic future, higher education is still considered to be the crucial pivot into adulthood for most American youth. Crippling college debt exists not so much because teens and parents are willing to spend so much on an education, but because they are willing to spend on an education experience. Come for the tuition, stay for the dorm and student life fees.
And what is the college experience nowadays? For insight, we might turn to Nathan Heller’s essay in the latest issue of The New Yorker. He writes from Oberlin University, whose culture and institutional stability is systematically being ripped apart by a student body of 19 year old “activists” who demand instantaneous, sweeping, and authoritarian intervention on a daily basis. Heller is clearly sympathetic to Oberlin’s progressive ethos, and his observations do not incriminate the students as much as they contextualize them. Nevertheless, his essay’s depiction of life at Oberlin—in classrooms to the common areas alike—is terrifying. At one point Heller recounts an incident that epitomizes the school’s culture of ruthless value enforcement:
For years, a campus café and performance space called the Cat in the Cream had a music-themed mural, painted by an alumnus, that celebrated multiculturalism: it featured a turbanned snake charmer, a black man playing a saxophone, and so on. Students recently raised concerns that the mural was exoticizing. “We ended up putting drywall over it, and painting over that,” Robert Bonfiglio, who had been the chair of the Student Union Board, told me. “They were saying, ‘Students are being harmed. Just do something now.’ ” But if individuals’ feelings were grounds to efface art work, he reasoned, every piece of art at Oberlin would be in constant danger of being covered up, or worse—a practice with uncomfortable antecedents. “The fear in class isn’t getting something wrong but having your voice rejected,” he said. “People are so amazed that other people could have a different opinion from them that they don’t want to hear it.”
Heller’s essay is vivid, but the culture he describes at Oberlin is by no means exceptional. As Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have written, the “coddling of the American mind” is not isolated to a selective slew of elite universities. It is a phenomenon embedded into American higher education at large. There was a time not long ago when college was considered an intellectual sanctuary for coming of age. But for these universities that submit their entire existence to the experiences and felt needs of undergraduates, it is not the students who are expected to grow up, but the institutions themselves. The students are In The Know; it’s the educators that must protect what is already there, not grow it. College has become Never-Never Land.
What about life outside the ivory tower? For this, we might consult some new data from the Pew Center. The headline is self-analyzing: “For First Time in Modern Era, Living With Parents Edges Out Other Living Arrangements for 18-34 Year Olds.” Men in particular have become startlingly immobile: More than a third of men aged 18-34 live with parents rather than alone or with a romantic partner.
This kind of existential paralysis isn’t just a matter of changing economic contexts (though that certainly is part of the problem). For men especially, the prolonged delay of marriage and relational commitment often means a perpetual adolescence in other areas of life. Love and sex are arguably the best incentives for men to assert their adulthood and achieve in life. But in the safety and comfort of mom and dad’s basement, young men get to live out their fantasies without the friction of real life, often turning to porn and video games to give their static lives the imitation of thrill. Growing up is optional.
The basement is Never Land. The university is Never Land. Even dating is Never Land, thanks to Tinder and a hook up culture that eschews commitment with the safety of online anonymity. Pop culture, with its endless fixation on comic books, child fantasy adventures, and nostalgia, is Never Land. Our American landscape is a monument to the heedless pleasures of knowing it all, playing it all, and sexing it all.
C.S. Lewis rebuked the cowardice of secularized modernity. “We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise,” he wrote. “We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.” With apologies to J.M. Barrie, we could say it another way: We tell our Lost Boys to flee to Never Land, and are shocked when they vote for the pirate.