“Who the hell are you, really?”
Jordan Peterson barked the question at us through a perma-squint, like a character in a Western. Peterson does this sort of thing a lot. The “brusque dad” shtick is very much a part of his appeal.
The easy part first: Peterson is a Canadian clinical psychologist and professor who has become famous for his viral self-improvement lectures and his equally viral opposition to Bill C-16, which added gender identity to the forms of discrimination covered under Canadian human rights law. Being anti-“political correctness” is part of Peterson’s message, but is not nearly its entirety. The professor is far more concerned with sharing his philosophy of life. And millions of young men, especially, are buying his books, watching his YouTube videos and flocking to theaters such as the Warner to hear him share it.
Peterson himself will tell you that serving as a father figure is his heaviest burden. Much of his work is dedicated to pushing a generation of confused youths to build character, put their lives in order, become adults. “I want to talk to you about how people exist in the world,” he told those in attendance last week. And that’s what this tour is all about. It is also what makes it profoundly depressing.
Peterson’s bestseller is a wordy self-help epistle for young men (it’s mostly men who follow him) in need of direction. Inside a cover invoking an old-school, gold- embossed Bible are lessons such as “Stand up straight with your shoulders back,” “Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient),” and “Tell the truth — or, at least, don’t lie.” These rules are drawn from Peterson’s study of what he describes as “archetypal myths” — the stories of Christianity, the pantheon of ancient Egypt, quotes from Milton and Dostoevsky — mixed with neuroscience and psychology.
It’s far more benign, even helpful, than much of what can be found on the disaffected-young-man-Internet. Visiting the grimier corners of YouTube and Reddit will quickly introduce you to the “incels,” self-described involuntary celibates such as the one who police said drove a van into a Toronto crowd last month, and a surging number of young white nationalists such as those who organized last summer’s tiki-torch march in Charlottesville.
But that doesn’t mean Peterson is harmless. At times, he leans into an oddly conspiratorial obsession with “neo-Marxist” liberal professors meaning to march us to the gulag via the gender equity in the classroom . . . or something. And his interpretations of certain principles — that “loving your neighbor as yourself” should be a utilitarian act, for instance — lend themselves all too well to the right-wing ideology that would pretend structural issues such as racism don’t exist and that people should, and must, care for themselves alone.
Still, Peterson is unusually willing to question recent social shifts that have too often been unthinkingly accepted as self- evident goods. “What are the basics of peoples’ lives?” he says, speaking about the importance of work, marriage and family, or against no-fault divorce and easy-access pornography. “Thinking about these things is what has made me into a traditionalist.”
This basic confusion over his message highlights a larger and sadder phenomenon. 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. Reams of research about young men succumbing to despair, disappearing into video games and pornography and drugs, back them up.
What is most striking to me, though, is the simplicity of the message. Peterson’s teachings are the sort of thing you would expect to learn from a parent, mentor or religious tradition while growing up. Peterson’s role is like that of a clear-eyed friend: someone to whom you can ask questions, with whom you can reflect upon the difficulties of your life. Someone who will give you bracing feedback when needed.
“Who the hell are you, really?”
Do we not have parents anymore? Do we no longer have friends? Peterson’s pronouncements all used to be common wisdom — how did it disappear?
The Jordan Peterson phenomenon calls to mind recent research, from scholars such as Richard Reeves and Robert Putnam, about an America dividing into social haves and have-nots. There are those lucky few for whom these rules to an orderly, productive life are inculcated from youth. And there are the rest, left to scavenge meaning for themselves, who will have to rely on Jordan Peterson.