The lines to the two entrances to the Community Center Theater were around the block and beyond for the much-anticipated presentation by Jordan Peterson last week. And the buzz, especially amongst the male millennials in those lines, suggested that something akin to rock-star status has attached to this middle-aged clinical psychologist, who had been a largely unknown Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto before several YouTube lectures struck a chord with viewers.
So who is this guy, why is he so popular, and is he really that important?
Jordan B. Peterson is the author of “12 Rules for Life – An Antidote to Chaos” (Random House Canada, 2018) which is a best-selling book, especially among young men (females, not so much). In addition to his book, Peterson has gained fame as a member of the Intellectual Dark Web (the I.D.W.) for defying political-correctness and presenting viewpoints that ignore tribalism and orthodoxy in favor of practical reality and scientific knowledge. In his book, Peterson presents what might be considered a neo-traditional view of how to succeed in life and be a better human being in the process. He is today’s Norman Vincent Peale (Rule 3: “Make friends with people who want the best for you”), although he’ll have to find a way to overcome prejudicial reactions to some of his views to achieve Peale’s level of acceptance.
Listening to Peterson last week, I became convinced that he can get there. His unscripted talk was nothing less than brilliant, even if he occasionally engaged in what appeared to be sophistry to make his points. He began by referring to “winning,” which was a word used by Dave Rubin (another I.D.W. member) in introducing him. (Rubin had made reference to the I.D.W. in suggesting that the size of the crowds Peterson was drawing was proof that independent, non-aligned, critical thinking was “winning.”)
But Peterson moved quickly from whatever thought he wanted to communicate on “winning” and proceeded to cover about a dozen other ideas and “Rules” over the course of close to an hour before tying up his remarks by coming back to “winning” in an ingenious summary of everything he had discussed. And from all appearances, the entire hour was unscripted, almost as if he had been verbally free-associating in front of a capacity audience in the large hall. Even assuming that he had drawn from similar remarks on any of the subjects he had covered countless times in the past (he is on a multi-city tour of which Sacramento was his 47th stop), it was a remarkable speech.
Peterson speaks with clarity (Rule 10: “Be precise in your speech”), reflecting the mind of a scientist, which, he happily acknowledges, is what he is. Twice during his talk, he paused to find the right words to convey his thought. One of those pauses was so long as to suggest that he had either suffered a stroke in mid-sentence or was experiencing some other kind of mental/psychological meltdown. Instead, he found the exact words he needed to finish his thought and made complete sense thereby in what he ended up saying.
His principal message is personal responsibility, which was how he tied together all of the points he had made in his hour talk. (Rule 2: “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.”) “Winning,” he said, “has to start with each individual taking responsibility for our own actions and decisions.” His book lays out the ways to be responsible. They include being informed, being tolerant, being honest, and seeking perfection for yourself before seeking to correct others. (Rule 6: “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.”) Much of his book draws on Biblical passages, and Peterson as much as admitted to being a Christian during the Q & A with Rubin following his talk. He refused to say, in response to a question, whether he believed that Jesus was resurrected following his crucifixion, claiming that he was only up to Exodus in his detailed study of the Bible, and that too many points in Genesis were born out by parallels in other traditions. (This part of his remarks seemed to me to be pure sophistry, disregarding the very real possibility that those parallels were born of ignorance rather than of truth.)
Much of Peterson’s appeal to young men may flow from the sense of personal empowerment his Rules appear to provide. His difficulty with women results from what can be interpreted as anti-feminist perspectives (promoting the ideas, for example, that there are legitimate differences between the sexes that in part relate to innate ability and physiology, and that men, throughout history, have more often protected women than oppressed them). He is also viewed askance by some liberals, but his appeal to the alt-right seems misplaced, unless all I.D.W. thinkers are similarly viewed for opposing political correctness. Politically, Peterson is enigmatic, which is a simplistic way of saying that he views political issues as complex imponderables. In terms of political correctness, that “explanation” sounds like a cop-out. To Peterson it is just being honest. (Rule 8: “Tell the truth—or, at least, don’t lie.”)
But Peterson does have proposed solutions to the massive political divide that currently exists in America. Being Canadian, he had to justify his credentials to offer his solutions by saying that he had primarily lived in the U.S. for the past six years. Principal among his solutions is listening more carefully and engaging in dialogue more tolerantly. (Rule 9: “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.”) If his message isn’t precisely “love your neighbor as yourself,” it’s at least “respect your neighbor as yourself.” In that regard, he is very much in line with the implicit credo of the Intellectual Dark Web, which seeks the exchange of views on matters that individuals disagree about in pursuit of greater understanding, rather than “winning” arguments.
At his core, Peterson represents a wave of classic liberalism that would make Descartes and Voltaire proud: intellectual thought developed fully. He seeks a better world through personal responsibility and a better body politic through mutually advantageous, intellectually sound, scientifically based solutions. “Winning,” as he concluded in his remarks, is not a victory of one idea over another but a path to collective enlightenment in which the world and its inhabitants all win.
Peterson probably isn’t worthy of the absolute adulation he received from the Community Center audience as he took the stage last week. But he merits attention, and his cause, if that’s the right word, may be an antidote to the sickness from which the country seems to be suffering.