A lot of people love Jordan Peterson. A psychology professor at the University of Toronto and current social media phenomenon, he has an extremely enthusiastic fan base. For his readers and listeners, he is a father figure and guru who helps them make sense of their lives amidst the wreckage of the postmodern collapse of the family, state and religion. He is a dispenser of hard sayings that illuminate new possibilities. He is a breath of fresh air in a stale public discourse that privileges being “nice” over discovering truth.
For others, Peterson is a dilettante dabbling in areas outside his expertise. He is dangerously wrong about the “cultural Marxism” he claims has corrupted our society. He preaches patriarchy, misogyny and illiberal politics. He willingly misrepresents his critics’ views, ripping to shreds anyone expressing the slightest dissent from his controversial ideas.
Through his lectures, podcasts and public stands on contested political and social issues, Peterson has built an internet platform that extends well beyond academia. It includes 21,000 followers on Quora, 1.5 million followers on YouTube, and over 2 million copies sold of his 2018 book 12 Rules for Life.
Peterson urges his followers to seek deep meaning in life rather than superficial happiness. But can he create a community?
But the polemic that brought him fame does not bring out the best in Peterson, nor does it seem to be his true passion. As the New Yorker notes, Peterson “remains a psychology professor by trade, and he still spends much of his time doing something like therapy…. Peterson’s goal is less to help his readers change the world than to help them find a stable place within it.” Indeed, he has an uncanny gift for tapping into the deep suffering of millions and their search for meaning in that suffering.
Peterson’s therapeutic approach also strikes at the heart of an ancient dilemma: whether or not human beings are fundamentally social creatures, and thus whether our fulfillment ought to be sought through community, or in spite of it. Whether he grapples sufficiently with this problem is a crucial question.
Peterson on Suffering
Peterson first gained international fame in 2016 when he entered the fray over the protection of gender-inclusive language under Canadian law. In three videos released on YouTube entitled “Professor Against Political Correctness,” Peterson outlined his concerns with Bill C-16, a Canadian bill that would add gender identity and orientation to antidiscrimination provisions of Canadian federal law. Peterson argued that the proposed law would limit freedom of speech and legislate compelled speech, requiring Canadians to use the preferred pronouns of transgender persons or risk prosecution for hate crimes.
While some disputed Peterson’s analysis of the bill, his fame was secured.
Yet the driving concern in his work is not centered around political issues, but basic realities of human existence. Suffering is chief among them. Peterson’s concern with suffering goes to the root of this thought, showing how psychology and politics often intersect for him. One of Peterson’s longest-running fascinations, for instance, concerns persevering in one’s ethical commitments in the face of widespread evil, as in Stalin’s Russia or Nazi Germany. When faced with complicity or resistance, Peterson notes, most people in such regimes chose complicity. We would likely be no different, he argues. And so he formulated his question: “Psychologically, how is it that you must conduct yourself in the world so that if the opportunity to participate in such things arises you won’t?”
Peterson’s concern with suffering goes to the root of this thought, showing how psychology and politics often intersect for him.
Part of resisting such complicity, Peterson thinks, involves carving out ethical individual agency from moral chaos: taking responsibility for one’s own actions and refusing to be complicit in “hell,” as he calls much of the modern experience. To take a stand of your own forces you to take a hard look at the realities you would rather avoid. One must “follow one’s blisters” rather than one’s bliss, as the comedian Russell Brand put it in an interview with Peterson. For this reason, Peterson urges his followers to seek deep meaning in life rather than superficial happiness.
In that effort, Peterson returns again and again to the reality of suffering. In his book 12 Rules for Life Peterson counsels us in the title of the first chapter to “Stand Up Straight With Your Shoulders Back.” That is the only way to “accept the terrible responsibility of life, with eyes wide open.” One must confront the “chaos” of the world in order to turn its “potential into the realities of habitable order.”
Peterson wants his followers to change their attitudes and behaviors, to develop maturity, purpose and order.
That chaos includes a world in which the weak regularly lose to the strong, the vulnerable are bullied, and even the little things people do in their daily lives worsen that tyranny.
Peterson is not simply describing the world for his audience; he wants them to change their attitudes and behaviors, to develop maturity, purpose and order. He identifies grievances but emphasizes that people need to take responsibility for them, to recognize harmful ideas but also eschew self-deception and victimization. As Peterson says of Jung, “That which you most need is found where you least want to look.”.
This dynamic emerges throughout 12 Rules for Life. Peterson argues that it is not surprising that things go wrong. Most people live with disease, tragedy and pain. What is a surprise, however, is how many people persevere through suffering. Such perseverance is an “everyday heroism” that “is the rule...rather than the exception,” for which the “only appropriate response” is “dumbfounded gratitude.”
Peterson clearly means to pull in his readers with this description, to see this reality as their own. “There are so many ways that things can fall apart,” he counsels a sad, unhappy world, but “it is always wounded people who are holding it together.” Peterson emphasizes both the reality of suffering and the possibility of persevering through it. This is his signature move to his fans: a measured sympathy, but also tough fatherly love.
Through these vignettes, Peterson reveals himself as only a few steps ahead of his audience. That is part of his power. In an age in which everyone is selling something, Peterson seems to many of his devotees to be in a selfless and honest pursuit of truth.
Like many of his fans, Peterson adopts a strikingly individualistic approach to society’s problems.
Peterson also mirrors his followers’ disillusionment with established social institutions. He left his childhood church because he felt what he “was being told was lies” that the pastors did not believe. In a heartfelt moment in a recent interview with America, he lamented: “You can’t teach those lessons and not think they’re true.”
Indeed, that Peterson first gained notoriety through the website Quora says a great deal. Quora is a place where people come to look for answers. These are often people distrustful of or isolated from normal channels of knowledge. Somehow, Peterson has managed to reach such an audience.
If Peterson is a step ahead of his fans, however, he is only one step ahead of them. Like many of them, he adopts a strikingly individualistic approach to society’s problems. This seems to follow from his desire to resist structures of oppression and sin. After all, he wants to empower the individual to resist complicity with structures of evil.
But it is unfortunate that he sees this resistance by oppressed people as an individual act, one not supported by family, friends and intermediary institutions like churches.
Beyond the Individual
Jordan Peterson is addressing a world in which modern life often appears as an unappetizing choice: freedom or belonging.
Belonging to the teeming global society could look, at its worst, like being an anonymous figure in a faceless mass. And thus so many in our society yearn to be, above all else, free. But the freedom to do what one wants without being beholden to a community seems itself to disintegrate into fearful, powerless isolation.
Few of us want to be just another person in the crowd. But perhaps even fewer of us want to take the risk of existing completely alone in the world, even that it means we could maintain our freedom. So which do we choose: the individual or the collective?
Peterson is addressing a world in which modern life often appears as an unappetizing choice: freedom or belonging.
Most modern thinkers have taken up the cause of the individual. Much of our art and literature valorizes the individual struggling against brute forces: the lone person manipulated by the “Matrix” beyond our sight and control; the Bojack Horseman figure trapped in a virtual prison of pop culture and technology.
We fear collectivism: being subsumed into a social system that renders us anonymous cogs in a larger, sometimes sinister social fabric, like Stalin’s Russia or Hitler’s Germany. Peterson has entered the public eye as someone who forces us to face the cost of collectivism. Recall Peterson’s quotation of Jung: “That which you most need is found where you least want to look.” Peterson emphasizes what you need to do so that you can confront what keeps you from being innocent of the sins of society.
The you, the individual, has the positive agency. Society, on the other hand, is primarily a problem to be solved or avoided. Perhaps that is why Peterson does not imagine the individual’s resistance giving rise to new, healthier social structures. Indeed, while Peterson has been embroiled in many political debates, he takes much of what he does to be nonpolitical, and thinks society today focuses too heavily on politics.
That may well be true, but at times he almost veers too far from politics, missing the genuinely social nature of humans. The book 12 Rules might be impressive for its ability to steer clear of polemical political issues, but it also tends to remain on the level of ethics. It never contemplates the need to build new kinds of community and practices. One question for Peterson is whether the high value he places on individualism gives rise to something beyond the lonely individual, or collapses back into a new collectivism, leaving us alone together.
Peterson Contra Mundum
The individualistic ethos that has made Peterson so popular has helped to earn the ire of many of his detractors. For Peterson, much of modern culture is composed of totalitarian systems of indoctrination. Peterson attacks academia for what he perceives as the excesses and overreach of identity politics, multiculturalism and the politics of universities. At times he seems to embrace a mission to reform modern culture, a task that puts him on a collision course with academia at large. Critiques of Peterson are legion. He opines on a bewildering number of subjects, betraying disciplinary boundaries, correcting colleagues and diagnosing what he takes to be deep illnesses in academia. For such critics, Peterson is dangerously wrong about the “cultural Marxism” he claims has corrupted our society. To them, it seems he preaches patriarchy, misogyny and illiberal politics. Even conservatives will find much to fault in him, as when Matthew Schmitz refers to his “potted accounts” of modernity.
Peterson connects people to the suffering that is at the root of their deepest desires.
But this pushback only confirms for Peterson a major flaw of group politics in our time—namely, the refusal to compromise on even the most extreme of positions. Further, as important as it is to scrutinize Peterson’s intellectual claims about identity politics, those arguments do not alone explain his popularity. He is popular because he connects people to the suffering that is at the root of their deepest desires. I do not know that any of his critics have offered a similar response to the pain and isolation of many of his followers.
Toward a New Community
Peterson names the reality of suffering and the tremendous psychological and spiritual task that is persevering through and against it. He names institutions and structures of power, moreover, as pre-eminent agents of that suffering. What Peterson does not name, however, is the need for new communities.
C. S. Lewis argues in his essay “Membership,” found in The Weight of Glory, that this opposition between individualism and collectivism is a false choice, and proposes that Christianity offers a third way beyond both. Taking St Paul’s language of “membership” in the body of Christ, Lewis writes that to be a member is to be part of a “harmonious union,” not as interchangeable parts of a machine but as distinct yet complementary members who all have their nature and place within the whole.
Lewis argues, in other words, that our deepest desire is not to be free of community but to be free in community, to live in relationships that make us more ourselves.
In Lewis’s terms, Peterson favors solitude over inclusion, which is to say individualism over collectivism. Such individualism is preferable to the collectivism of Nazi Germany, but neither is a good description of humans or their social life. The individual might be able to resist the dangers of a corrupt society. But one cannot build a new society by oneself. And that is clearly what we need in our own time.
The origins of the social ills of our times are complex, but clearly they will not be solved by more individualism. Our institutions are crumbling, whether Congress or the media or schools or American religion or even the family. And the results are not liberating. They are rather the sort of isolation and alienation that leads to opioid abuse, school gun violence and the ever-increasing need to find a scapegoat for our problems.
The ripping of our social fabric shows that we all need new communities of freedom and virtue as much as we need freedom from oppressive ones. Not only must we escape from bad structures, as Peterson would counsel, but we must build new structures where individuals can encounter and rebuild communal life.