The Oxford Student Long Read: What should we make of Jordan Peterson?

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There is not much lightness in Jordan Peterson’s touch. He stands before his audiences slightly hunched, often with lowered eyes and a sullen expression on his face. His manner carries a brooding intensity which matches the solemn urgency of his speech: this is an unusual approach for someone who can be not unfairly described as a self-help author. Peterson does not fulfil the bright-eyed, gleaming smile stereotype of the genre. Nevertheless, the momentum he has energised has seen him sell-out venues across the world, gain over a million followers on YouTube and receive monthly donations of over $50k from his fans. The fact that Peterson’s message is pulling in crowds and cash is undeniable.

Peterson first rose to prominence over his objection to a new piece of Canadian legislation, Bill C-16, which he argued would restricted the freedom of speech over the compelled use of certain pronouns for transgender people. This provides the context for the other major aspect of Peterson’s work, in which he is not merely self-help guru, but also culture warrior. His infamous interview with Cathy Newman did not primarily centre around his advice for self-improvement, but rather issues such as the gender pay gap, transgenderism and free speech. This is a further oddity: Peterson is at the same time offering lifestyle advice and providing extensive cultural and political commentary, and the two seem to sit together quite comfortably.

What is more unusual is the fact that Peterson navigates these issues using a patchwork of Jungian psychoanalysis, evolutionary biology and lengthy reflections on biblical stories. These themes emerge out of Peterson’s work as an academic psychologist and clinical practitioner, and make his message distinctively academic in style. This means that at moments his hard empiricism makes him sound like one of the ‘New Atheists’ who were popular in the noughties, whilst at other times he sounds like a street-preacher heralding somewhat bizarre interpretations of ancient texts. This oddness adds a great sense of intrigue and mystery to his message, as he peppers his talks with pithy explanations of esoteric subjects, creating an appeal to both the right and left-brained.

Though he leads extraordinary excursions through Jungian archetypes, the neurobiology of lobsters and ancient mythology, the reader comes out of the rabbit hole at some very plain advice

The main points of Jordan Peterson’s book 12 Rules for life are strikingly banal given this backdrop. Though he leads extraordinary excursions through Jungian archetypes, the neurobiology of lobsters and ancient mythology, the reader comes out of the rabbit hole at some very plain advice: ‘Stand up straight with your shoulders back’, ‘Make friends with people who want the best for you’, ‘Assume the people you are listening to might know something that you don’t’. Admittedly, much of this advice makes a lot of common sense, such as his famous encouragement for people to begin self-improvement by tidying their room. That cannot hurt, and the challenge to idealists, that they should begin by cleaning their own mess before trying to fix other people’s, is surely wise. But sensible advice does not tend to draw crowds and cash in the way Peterson does, which leaves us wondering why this should all prove so popular.

One explanation is that Jordan Peterson carries himself and speaks with an unusual air of authority. He has the authority of the academic expert, having taught at Harvard and Toronto, but also of one who is experienced, having been a clinical practitioner for many years. He has the authority of success, in his new found fame and career, but also of the underdog champion, shunned by the ‘liberal-elite’ and suffering from long-term depression. He has the authority of an empiricist, appealing to peer-reviewed scientific research, but also of a slightly mad, creative genius in his melding this with myth and mystery. In interviews, Peterson this authority oozes with heady mixture of calmness and intensity, and his carefully placed words communicate a confidence in getting things right. His run in with Cathy Newman was a classic example of this – completely unruffled, leaning back in his chair and turning the tables on the aggressive inquisitor. There is also a distinctly authoritative tone in the content of his message – pull yourself together! tidy your room! – which seems to appeal to a certain type of millennial who feels let down by the philosophy of ‘do whatever feels good’. In a culture of pushover parents and pupil-led learning, the unflinching call to discipline and moral rigour from a stern voice can offer an incredibly reassuring sense of authority and order.

There is also a distinctly authoritative tone in the content of his message which seems to appeal to a certain type of millennial who feels let down by the philosophy of ‘do whatever feels good’

New Yorker magazine summed up Peterson’s message as a ‘Gospel of masculinity’, and the overwhelming number of men present at his speeches reflects the appeal of this emphasis. In a recent interview, he asserted, against the common notion of ‘toxic masculinity’, that masculinity is ‘not fundamentally carnage and pillaging, not fundamentally rape culture, not fundamentally world destroying’. It is true that, looking more widely, there are plenty of examples of where critiques of machismo have become critiques of masculinity per se. One example is Robert Webb’s popular book How not to be a boy, which is good at pointing out what being a man does not mean, but ends up arguing that masculinity itself is something that men need to ‘recover from’. The result of this sort of discourse is that we have become very good at saying what men should not be like, but there is a vacuum of thoughtful, articulate attempts to give a positive vision of what masculinity is and why it is important. Though some would reject the very idea of this, or simply laugh it off as rather embarrassing, the fact is that by stepping into this gap, Peterson is offering something that many men are hungry for.

Peterson’s analysis of how the West has lost its faith in masculinity supposes, however, that it is rooted in a much deeper cause, which is the death of God. As he puts it: ‘the divine symbol of masculinity has been obliterated’. Peterson’s interest in religion, especially Christianity, can be seen in his earlier work Maps of Meaning, as well as his more recent series of public lectures on Biblical stories. It is clear, however, that for Peterson these stories serve as ‘Archetypes’, which enable profound self-understanding, rather than messages about, or from, God. One Catholic talk show host, in a discussion of Peterson’s appreciation of the ‘archetypal’ significance of the resurrection of Christ, asked him whether he believed it was a historical event. He answered, ‘I need to think about that for about three more years before I would even venture an answer beyond what I’ve already given’. But Peterson’s personal beliefs are not an important aspect of his appeal. What matters more is that he provides a channel for a generation of people who have grown up without any religious affiliation to engage indirectly with ideas which have been foundational to Western life and thought, but now feel like intriguing visitors from a foreign country.

the Peterson phenomenon might best be described as a cult for the secular age.

It is fair to say, however, that Peterson has an idiosyncratic way of using ideas and stories borrowed from religion, and they are very much co-opted into his wider ideological narrative in a way that can blur their more commonly understood meanings. For example, the Bible (one of Peterson’s major sources in his lectures) often becomes a vehicle for ‘Petersonian’ ideas, such as his central point that ‘Order’ and ‘Chaos’ are fundamental realities. This is crucial for Peterson, but is essentially dualist and therefore antithetical to Christianity, which holds that ultimate reality is the harmony of multiplicity and unity in the God who is Trinity. Unless the listener has a good degree of religious literacy, the blurring impact of this co-option of religion and myth into a new structure can be easily missed. But it is all further strength to Peterson’s pull. He gives the impression of transcending the boundaries of materialism and theology, of atheism and religious orthodoxy. Whether he does this successfully is up for debate, but to some extent, the Peterson phenomenon might best be described as a cult for the secular age.

They are reasons beyond religion for finding Peterson’s huge emphasis on ‘Order’ and ‘Chaos’ troubling, though. Peterson writes that Order is ‘masculine’, and is ‘where the people around you act according to well understood social norms, and remain predictable and cooperative. It’s the world of social structure, explored territory, and familiarity’. Chaos, on the other hand, is presented as feminine, and is ‘‘where – or when – something unexpected happens… It’s the new and unpredictable suddenly occurring in the midst of the commonplace familiar’. These are risky statements. It could be said that Peterson is simply talking about how things have been historically represented in mythology and belief systems, with the yin and yang being his prime example, yet one of Peterson’s major premises is that mythologies are not arbitrary constructs. Couple this with his regular exhortations to pursue order – the subtitle of his book is ‘an antidote to chaos’ – and it is not difficult to see how some troubling inferences might be drawn. Does this mean that, at a fundamental level, the feminine spirit is something that must be controlled and kept in order by the masculine? One could imagine thousands of terrible ways this could be applied. This might go further than Peterson’s actual words, but when you bear in mind the fact that going further is what followers always do, then there may be trouble ahead. Those who follow Peterson in maintaining some sense of gender essentialism might wish to consider whether this is really the best way of going about it.

One could imagine thousands of terrible ways his theories could be applied. This might go further than Peterson’s actual words, but when you bear in mind the fact that going further is what followers always do

The question that Jordan Peterson seems to be constantly circling was put to him directly when he spoke at the Oxford Union during fourth week: ‘what is the source of meaning?’. He certainly affirms that ‘meaning’ signifies something and denies that the death of God necessarily leads to meaninglessness. But when he comes to positively stating what meaning is, things get rather slippery: ‘If the value structure is aimed at the betterment of Being, the meaning revealed will be life sustaining… If you act properly, your actions allow you to be properly psychologically integrated now… this produces maximal meaning’. Whether one thinks this is sophisticated or obfuscated, it is hard to escape the fact that Peterson is equating meaning with self-improvement. One wonders where this leaves those who are caught in a downward spiral and find that life’s chaos is overwhelming them – where is the meaning in their experience? Behind the appeal of authority, positive masculinity and God is ultimately the pursuit of meaning, but at this point Peterson does not appear to be offering anything stable.

There is therefore an irresolvable restlessness about Peterson and his message. He does not appear to have found what he is looking for, which explains something of his brooding intensity. This is not a criticism, but it does seem as if many of Peterson’s followers are looking for him to offer something that he himself is still reaching at and unable to define with clarity and precision. His lectures, podcasts and books certainly raise a lot of important questions, as we have seen, though many of Peterson’s answers tend to be either banal or muddled. The three modern vacuums in public discussion that he has touched upon: authority, positive masculinity and God, are open for other voices to enter and need to be taken seriously. The questions are perennial, but this particular lunge at an answer will pass. It has been suggested that the Peterson phenomena is a bit like a cult, but in the end it will be seen to have been more of a fad.