There was something peculiar about the crowd that turned up to hear the Canadian psychology professor Jordan Peterson preach from his book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, at the Emmanuel Centre in Westminster back in January. I don’t mean the fact that it was about 80 percent young men. That was to be expected. It more or less correlates with the gender balance of the audiences that Peterson had surreptitiously built up on the “intellectual dark web” with his fiery YouTube lectures on personal responsibility (40 million views and counting). Lectures that have seen him described, variously, as an “alt-right scientist” (Slavoj Zizek in the Independent), “a secular prophet” (Melanie Phillips in the Times) and “the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now“ (David Brooks in the New York Times).
Something about what he’s saying speaks to young men. “And what’s wrong with that?” Peterson countered when Cathy Newman challenged him on this gender imbalance of his audience in the now infamous Channel 4 News interview – immediately recognised as a key battle in what we will soon be calling World Culture War I.
No. The interesting thing about the 1,000 or so people lining up in the cold, hoping for Peterson to sign their 12 Rules, was that they were identical to the sorts of crowds you would see queuing up for Richard Dawkins and/or the late Christopher Hitchens preaching the gospel of New Atheism a few years ago. Science-grad types with geeky T-shirts, wire-framed glasses, sensible footwear, slightly unkempt hair, pedantic lines of questioning.
Could it be that exactly the same people who were going to God Delusion lectures as twentysomethings are going to Peterson lectures as thirtysomethings? Peterson, though, has built his audience by deconstructing the Abrahamic stories, providing dense exegesis on Cain and Abel, marvelling at the architecture of Gothic cathedrals, and critiquing the New Atheists’ conception of religion as “unbelievably shallow”. He’s made the Bible hip. Even granting the quasi-religious bent of the New Atheist, that’s kind of interesting.
I’d brought along Adam Curtis, the BBC documentary maker, wondering what he’d think of the Peterson phenomenon. He had, he told me, been waiting for someone to come along who managed to reconcile the modern cult of science with religious mysticism. He also noted that Peterson was pretty fast and loose with his science and had almost no sense of humour. “He thinks he’s funny, all the lobsters and everything, but it’s not the same thing.”
Still, the effect on those young men was marked, and has been so as his fame has built. In one of his YouTube lectures, Peterson breaks down in tears as he contemplates why that should be. “We’ve been fed this unending diet of rights and freedoms and there’s something about that that’s so pathologically wrong,” he says, prowling around the darkened stage:
“People are starving for the antidote. And the antidote is truth and responsibility… That’s the secret to a meaningful life. If you don’t have that, all you have is suffering and nihilism and despair and self-contempt. It’s necessary for men to stand up and take responsibility. They all know that. They’re starving for that message.”
Peterson is in some ways an unlikely conscript to the culture wars: a clinical psychologist and tough love self-help guru, obsessed with Carl Jung, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Disney’s Pinocchio; his first book Maps of Meaning (1999) sold about three copies and his initial route to fame came through a legalistic campus debate about transgender pronouns. But he is now an enthusiastic soldier.
His conservative admirers, such as Douglas Murray, like to paint him as an innocent truth-teller, smeared as a demagogue by the identitarian totalitarian snowflakes of the campus Left. And, well, it’s a funny sort of demagogue who espouses universal healthcare or legalising marijuana; Peterson says he doesn’t do politics (hmmm…) but if he did, he’d side with Justin Trudeau’s liberals. But then he does himself no favours by retweeting PC-gone-mad clickbait, describing Milo Yiannopoulos as an “amazing person”, picking fights with an automated Slavoj Zizek quote account, disparaging SJWs (Social Justice Warriors) with sinister racists such as Stefan Molyneux, and scarcely finding a word of criticism for Donald Trump, who seems to me much more of an imminent threat to western civilisation than, say, a few excitable students.
So there’s a lot about Peterson that is “problematic”, to use that early contender for Word of 2018. He seems content to describe life as chaotic and unfair – usually using his beloved Pareto distribution – and leave it at that. He rails against “Marxist post-modernists” but seems incurious about what either term actually means and how they are often in violent opposition (if he actually read Jacques Derrida’s analyses of power and corruption, he might find a bit in common).
His advice for women – have children! – is hopelessly limited. He seems to think that the reason everyone’s worked up on US campuses is because of those “damned post-modernists” and not, say, because of resurgent nationalism, or widening inequalities, or the corporate capture of government, or precisely because the individualism he espouses easily leads to atomisation and narcissism.
Peterson chooses evidence to fit his thesis: once he’s “figured out” some question that’s been exercising scholars for centuries, that seems to be it for him. And at least one of his 12 rules – the one that you should tidy your room before taking up social causes – is just stupid. History doesn’t recall the state of Martin Luther King’s sock drawer. (Also, he really doesn’t have a sense of humour: that ability to embrace and enjoy paradox and ambiguity and irony without freaking out; Keats called it “negative capability”. The identitarian Left and the doom-mongering Right could both do with a large dose of it.)
So, I have to ask myself why I (a leftist! A feminist! A progressive!) find myself returning to Peterson? Why could I not stop listening to his Psychological Significance of the Bible podcasts last autumn and winter? Why do my fellow progressives’ critiques of him feel a little hollow and forced? Why do I have four or five WhatsApp threads going with friends who are going through similar paroxysms of allure and disgust?
One of Peterson’s core themes, which he takes from Jung, is that reality is composed of order and chaos – and that at the border between order and chaos, the known and the unknown, is the appropriate place for a person to stand. Indeed, he claims that our nervous system is wired for that. One of the things that makes him such a compelling conundrum is that he stands almost precisely on the border of risible and profound. Just as you’re thinking “Oh come on he conjures a story of genuine compassion (he is a practising clinical psychologist after all) or reaches into a description that reshapes your understanding in ways that are beautiful and illuminating.
You might take as an example his insights (inspired by the anthropologist Lynne Isbell) into the co-evolution of human beings and snakes. Snakes were our evolutionary ancestors’ number one predators; primates developed specialised 3D vision and enlarged brains partly to spot venomous ones in the undergrowth; these adaptations happened to prove useful for other purposes, such as social interactions and abstract thought. So it’s no wonder we’re so scared of snakes nor that they recur (often as dragons, spliced with our other predators, raptors and cats) in mythologies the world over. Fear of snakes is wired into us.
So it’s not that far-fetched to suggest that snakes gave human beings consciousness – which is precisely what is suggested in the story of the Fall. That’s not precisely verifiable science. And it’s not exactly Christian doctrine. It’s more like a poetic conceit, fleshing out Jung’s notion of mythology as an expression of the “collective unconsciousness” with empirical studies and demonstrating how shallow it is to dismiss the Bible as a lot of superstitions. The Book is, rather, the accumulated and distilled wisdom of a certain members of our species, passed down generations, recorded in text, and then further built upon. I can live with that.
There is, in there, a reconciliation of data-based empiricism and a deeper human narrative that searches into the mysteries of Being. (Peterson gives it a capital B, after Heidigger.) “What science tells you is what things are,” he explains to podcast host Joe Rogan. “Religious truth tells you how you should act.”
At times, Peterson describes himself as “deeply religious” and occasionally as a “Christian”, but he is not a Christian in the sense that most Christians would understand it, declining to state that he believes in God (that depends on what you might mean by “believe” and “God”, he says). He prefers to reformulate the question: “I act as if God exists.” He doesn’t see God as a supernatural being but as a way of conceptualising the future – and it sort of makes sense to personify the future as a judgmental father, right? It doesn’t matter what you believe exactly – why would God care how you phrase your internal prayers? What matter is how you act.
As for whether he believes in the divinity of Christ, well that’s another thorny question. Depends what you mean by “divinity” and “Christ”. He chooses to see Christ as the “meta-hero” at the root of western civilisation. “We take the most true things about your life and about ten other people’s lives and amalgamate them into one person, say a literary hero. And then we take a thousand literary heroes and amalgamate them into one person. That’s a religious deity.” That’s Christ. “And his archetypal mode of being is true speech. That’s the fundamental idea of western civilisation. And it’s RIGHT.” The act of speaking the truth – the logos – is divine for him, in the sense that it has “ultimate transcendent value”.
A lot of Peterson’s appeal lies in precisely these certainties. But it also lies in his medium, which is the spoken word. 12 Rules for Life is an international bestseller – but it’s really not that good. It has its moments, but it’s uneven, lumpy, clumsy, poorly referenced and – I would imagine – baffling for anyone who isn’t already acquainted with the Peterson worldview. What Peterson lacks as a writer, however, he makes up for as a speaker (that he manages to be so despite having a voice like Kermit the Frog is no mean feat). ‘The Psychological Significance of the Bible’ series is his real opus. You can hear him working things out, reading the room and responding to criticisms and reflecting on his growing fame in real time.
For much of human history, this is how Bible stories were spread. Jesus never wrote anything down (well, once, on sand, and it was washed away). Neither did Buddha nor Socrates nor Confucius. Ancient peoples often mistrusted the written word, believing it prone to misinterpretation. It might just be why podcasts and YouTube lectures – with their capacity for emotion and shade and dialogue – are reaching parts that the text-based and increasingly authoritarian world of social media just can’t touch. In the past, you’d have had to seek out Peterson in a University of Toronto lecture theatre. Now you can download him as free podcast and have him seep into you.
There have been moments listening to him when I’ve thought: “Am I being brainwashed?” I have considered this at length. I don’t think you can listen to Peterson in good faith and conclude he is “dangerous”. Silly sometimes. Overblown. Apocalyptic. Apparently his home is full of Soviet art, to remind him of the human capacity for evil. But that’s sort of why he’s fun, like one of Dostoevsky’s mad narrators blasted into the 21st century via the frozen wastes of Canada.
I think there’s truth and urgency in his warning that the human soul has roots that descend all the way to hell and each of us needs to recognise this capacity for evil in ourselves and each other and work out what to do about it. I have read The Gulag Archipelago because of Peterson and I’m glad I have; and I have found new ways into Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Jung, Arendt, Piaget, as well as, obviously, the Bible. His descriptions of myth and archetypes have also greatly improved the games I play with my four-year-old son. I pay a lot more attention to my wife, too. And one small example of his intellectual usefulness, even if you don’t agree with a lot of what he’s saying: at one point, he defines a conservative as: “someone who thinks that the safest way to enact social change is on the level of the individual.” Boom! I’m still a socialist. I don’t think that is always the safest way to enact social change. It wouldn’t get you the NHS. It might get you lots of self-help gurus. But it’s good to have that so lucidly defined.
Perhaps in a less paranoid, less existentially perilous era, we could listen to Peterson in good faith. But I’m not convinced that is what’s happening. When I examine what his followers are saying on Twitter, they often emulate the worst of his qualities: the aggression, the monomania, the carelessness. Peterson should take some responsibility for that. I would like him to attack the hard-right with anything like the moral force he brings down on the campus Left. His deeper message, though, seems to be seeping in. The actual fascist, Richard Spencer, has now renounced Peterson as a mere “conservative”, complaining that he is turning angry young men away from their own identity-driven resentment and making them take responsibility for themselves and grow up. Peterson seems quite happy about that at least.
Oh no. The identity-politics right wing does not approve of me. https://t.co/sK2OVDRbSP
— Jordan B Peterson (@jordanbpeterson) February 21, 2018
I do wonder, though, if the Peterson gospel doesn’t provide the precise intellectual seed that will allow him, in time, to be overthrown – a bit like Nietzsche’s conception of Christianity eating itself from the inside out. I can’t think of a better example of the logos than the Florida teenager Emma Gonzalez calling BS on the US gun lobby, on Trump, on the corruption and lies and wilful ideological blindness that had resulted in the senseless deaths of so many of her classmates. “Something happens when you tell the truth…” as Peterson says. Who but the most corrupt and resentful could deny that she is telling the truth? She’s also a hispanic, teenage, female SJW. Presumably Peterson would have had her stay home and tidy her room instead.