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Why They Listen to Jordan Peterson

“High intellect or just another angry white guy?” Photo: Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty Images

After more than a year of gathering online celebrity, Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist, YouTube star, and culture warrior, has finally burst into the cultural mainstream. Already in 2018 there’s been a viral, adversarial interview with Channel 4’s Cathy Newman (written up in The Atlantic), a sympathetic profile in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a fawning David Brooks column, an interview in New York, a Tyler Cowen blog post naming him the West’s most influential public intellectual, and three denunciations from the socialist left, two of which liken his views to those of the Norwegian mass shooter Anders Breivik. This flurry of publicity is well-timed: Peterson’s new book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, is currently the most sold and second-most read book on Amazon.

Peterson was a relatively obscure professor at the University of Toronto until September 2016, when, in a series of YouTube videos, he criticized a Canadian human-rights bill outlawing discrimination on the basis of gender identity for being a “politically correct” restriction on free speech. This launched a familiar sort of controversy, as the left labeled him a bigot and the right embraced him as a martyr. Peterson embraced the part — he escalated his rhetorical war on the campus left (which he derides as a “neo-Marxist” assault on Western civilization) and began to attract a large and loyal following on Patreon and YouTube, mostly among young men drawn to his stern self-help advice, polemical assaults on “social-justice warriors,” and expansive lectures on subjects such as the Bible, Jungian archetypes, and Soviet totalitarianism. (Full disclosure: I interviewed him in January 2017 for a profile that never came off.)

Peterson is now a fully fledged cultural phenomenon, and it’s as difficult as ever to know what to make of him. Is the guy a genius, a crank, or a dangerous authoritarian? As a headline for the Globe and Mail recently put it: “high intellect, or just another angry white guy?”

12 Rules for Life is, as its title suggests, a self-help book composed of Peterson’s rules for living. Most are, on the surface at least, commonsensical injunctions about personal responsibility. Rule one is “Stand up straight with your shoulders back”; Rule three, “Make friends with people who want the best for you”; Rule eight, “Tell the truth — or at least don’t lie.” Others are more whimsical: Rule 11 is “Do not bother children when they are skateboarding,” which, it turns out, is a way of saying that risky play is an important way for kids to develop and test their own limits. (A big theme: Overprotection leads to underdevelopment.)

If you’ve never listened to Peterson talk, this might all sound relatively conventional. It’s not. Each rule is accompanied by a lengthy exegesis in which Peterson unfolds his sprawling theories about nearly everything, digging beneath the surface of his rules to argue that they reflect, variously, our biological evolution, the accumulated wisdom of the world’s religions and mythologies, and the lessons of Western literature. The range of Peterson’s references is at times bewildering, and reflective of the man himself: He is, on the one hand, a psychologist and psychotherapist with a decent grounding in the biological sciences and long clinical experience, which tends to foster a certain pragmatism. On the other hand, he is an autodidact from the Canadian boondocks who, haunted as a teenager by vivid nightmares of a nuclear apocalypse, gave himself a Great Books education in order to cope with his existential dread and obsession with the nature of evil — the sort of person who looks for the meaning of life in Dostoevsky.

The result is that 12 Rules for Life features an eclectic mix of influences, synthesized in a sometimes fascinating and sometimes confusing manner in order to ground Peterson’s more pragmatic advice. The most important of these influences is the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who posited a specieswide collective unconscious populated by “archetypes,” or deeply rooted characters and symbolic motifs that reappear in art, dreams, myths, and religions. Peterson combines the idea of the archetype with modern evolutionary science to argue that mythological and religious stories have evolved over thousands of years to express, in dramatic form, fundamental truths about what it means to be human. Thus traditional, commonsense morality is, for Peterson, not only pragmatically but existentially and metaphysically true. Rule seven, for instance, is “Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient,” which advises readers about the benefits of sacrificing short-term pleasures in the pursuit of more difficult yet rewarding goals. Simple enough. But to explain Rule seven, Peterson goes back to the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis. The brothers are commanded to sacrifice a portion of their labor to God; Peterson argues that this represents humanity’s real historical discovery that present sacrifice leads to future reward. And when God is unhappy with Cain’s sacrifice, Cain grows jealous of his more successful brother and kills him — an archetypal example, in Peterson’s view, of how our own inadequacies lead to resentment that causes us to strike out at others.

Peterson has flourished on YouTube because he is an excellent lecturer: In speech, his tendency to pursue interesting digressions seems natural, his emotional authenticity is contagious, and he has a personal charisma that can lend seemingly anodyne bits of advice (don’t lie, clean your room) the authority of divine injunctions. On the page, however, his flights lack the same coherence and emotional depth. Still, he produces nuggets of real insight. For instance, a favorite theme of Peterson’s is the “dominance hierarchy,” or the stratified social arrangement in which we all inevitably live. He has a riff, reproduced in chapter one, about how hierarchy emerged way back in our phylogenetic tree. He cites as evidence the fact that humans and lobsters, which diverged perhaps 800 million years ago, use similar neurochemical systems to track their social position: a high-status lobster, like a high-status human, will have elevated levels of serotonin, which translates in both animals into greater calm, confidence, and subjective well-being. Our brains, in other words, have evolved in hierarchies over a very long period of time, and much of our behavior is concerned with maximizing our position within them. All that makes perfect sense, given how much our ancestors’ ability to survive and reproduce would have depended on their status. Part of what Peterson is saying is that we have to understand our own actions and motivations in the context of our existence within the dominance hierarchy; part of it — and this is where he sometimes gets himself into trouble — is to kick at the left for a supposedly naïve, egalitarian social constructivism.

This is one of those arguments of Peterson’s that critics tend to ridicule — he “justifies existing structures of social dominance by deferring to the hard-wiring of ancient crustaceans,” in the words of John Semley. Yet Peterson’s point is simply, inarguably true. Nonhuman primates have hierarchies, birds have hierarchies, revolutionary egalitarian societies have hierarchies; hierarchy isn’t going away. The real political questions are, which hierarchies are legitimate and fair? Which ones incentivize good conduct and allow individuals and societies to flourish? Which ones minimize suffering? It’s an almost banal point that can nonetheless provoke violent reactions, which is something of a theme with Peterson: Despite his eccentricities, he gets some big things right that others insist on getting wrong. (For instance, though social-justice ideology isn’t leading to the gulag, its worst forms have an obvious family relation to communism, complete with internal purges and hostility to dissent.) He is a specialist in baroque arguments for moral intuitions that often lack articulate public defenders.

For, in fact, beneath all the talk of the Bible and Jung and Being with a capital B, the rules and lessons in 12 Rules for Life are fairly simple. Peterson’s basic points are that life is hard, you will suffer, and in order to handle that suffering, you will have to be prepared. Preparing means taking responsibility for yourself. That’s hard, too, so you may try to avoid it. You may use all manner of evasions and rationalizations to convince yourself that things will sort themselves out on their own, or that others will bail you out, or that if they don’t, it’s their fault and not yours. But that’s a lie. So stop lying. Accept responsibility for your fate. It’s a harsh line of thought. It’s also good practical advice.

Some will dismiss Peterson’s personal-responsibility gospel as “bootstrapping pablum,” a way of deflecting attention from structural and political problems by throwing everything back onto the individual. There’s something to the accusation: Peterson inveighs against attempts to change the world as, essentially, a way for people to distract themselves from the much harder work of changing themselves. “Don’t reorganize the state,” he writes, “until you have ordered your own experience. Have some humility. If you cannot bring peace to your household, how dare you try to rule a city?” This is obviously a limited social philosophy — even if your goal is to promote individual flourishing, some political arrangements do so more effectively than others, as Peterson’s own strident anti-communism implicitly recognizes. But as a personal habit of mind, it’s worth remembering that you are just one dumb person among millions who is unlikely to have the final answers for anything.

For others, Peterson’s advice will seem obvious, and they may wonder why anyone needs to say it at all. Shouldn’t everybody already know that they need to be responsible? But Peterson has become a celebrity by telling young people to get their act together, which suggests that there are a lot of them who need to hear it. In a society that tends to eschew limits and presents an illusion of infinite choice, he offers a sense of direction, order, and authority — the “antidote to chaos” promised in the title of his book — that many frankly lack. It’s religion for atheists; Protestant Christianity remixed for the age of YouTube and Reddit. And as Peterson’s wild popularity shows, there are plenty of people out there looking for a prophet.

Why They Listen to Jordan Peterson