Jordan Peterson is telling young white men what many of us already know: Neverland is a lie.
The University of Toronto psychology professor, clinical psychologist, best-selling author and YouTube sensation Jordan B. Peterson published his third book and second international best-seller, Beyond Order, in March. The book expands in an intentional and direct way on its prequel, 12 Rules for Life (2018). Like 12 Rules for Life, Beyond Order offers 12 rules meant to help readers craft lives that include less pointless suffering (though not necessarily less suffering) and more meaning (though not necessarily more happiness).
As in 12 Rules for Life, the presentation of these rules ranges from the literal and mundane (“Try to make one room in your house as beautiful as possible”) to the metaphoric and abstract (“Do not hide unwanted things in the fog”). Overall, Beyond Order is well argued and provocative, though more prone to discursiveness than its predecessor.
Peterson’s tendency toward tangents in Beyond Order belies the book’s even sharper focus on one overarching argument: The meaning in life is found in taking responsibility.
For the best-selling author and YouTube sensation Jordan Peterson, Neverland has always been a lie.
This contention is made explicit only in Rule 4: “Notice that opportunity lurks where responsibility has been abdicated.” But in fact, the moral and psychological argument for shouldering heavier personal and professional burdens rather than lighter ones animates every chapter of Beyond Order.
After five years of international fame, Peterson’s reputation as a divisive public intellectual is often viewed as inextricable from his work itself. This is mostly because his controversial views on Bill C-16 (a Canadian law pertaining to the use of pronouns as related to trans people) got a great deal of media attention in 2017 and helped to grow his burgeoning international reputation.
Yet Peterson and his central message about responsibility are difficult to shoehorn into either of our increasingly polarized political camps.
Peterson and his central message about responsibility are difficult to shoehorn into either of our increasingly polarized political camps.
Rhetoric on the left tends to be invested in acknowledging people’s suffering and the ways that trauma, oppression and the like can ravage the mind and the soul. Meanwhile, rhetoric on the right tends to be invested in telling people to strive regardless of their circumstances. Peterson does both; he is honest about how hard life is and how unfair it can be, and he offers practical guidance about how to order one’s mind, body and environment to withstand inevitable suffering and pursue goals with purpose.
A deep dive into Peterson’s books and lectures raised three questions for me: 1) Why is this very old message about meeting profound suffering with heroic responsibility resonating in a new way in the 21st century? 2) Why is it resonating disproportionately with younger white men? 3) How does Peterson’s argument, and the cultural context around it, challenge us specifically as Catholics?
An Old Message for a New Time
In many ways, life today is far easier than it was 100 (or even 25) years ago. People generally live longer and healthier lives, and there are ever more technologies that free us from drudgery and inconvenience. And yet this very technology has spawned new and unique mental, psychological and spiritual demands. One has to be quite organized to keep track of the average American’s 100 passwords. It is disconcerting and stressful to make choices when the options seem endless. And it is particularly difficult to manage the incessant demands of modern life absent the familial, communal and religious contexts that those before us mostly took for granted.
When my paternal grandparents got married in 1944, there was no question that they would live in Philadelphia’s Italian section. It was an equally foregone conclusion that the vast majority of their income would go toward paying their bills. They did not have a lot of choices, and they would not have known what to make of them if they did. Their parents had been born in Italy; neither of them had graduated from high school; and they were both Catholic.
Their load of responsibilities was not light—they raised children without a lot of means, and had the same concerns and struggles as everyone both before and after them—but there were many sets of shoulders to help bear those burdens. They lived among scores of family members and friends and went to the same stores, church and social events as nearly everyone they knew. With their community thus institutionalized by both geography and custom, their familial dramas included a cast of characters large enough to absorb any particularly operatic incidents with less collateral damage than would have been possible otherwise. Thus, their lapses as individuals, as spouses and as parents were less consequential to themselves and to their children than they would have been without the collectivized, communal responsibility that lightened their individual loads.
When my husband and I got married in 2012, by contrast, we were both pursuing graduate degrees. Our decision to remain in the Philadelphia region, where I had grown up and we had met as undergraduates, was born of an explicit desire to achieve rootedness among family and friends—an outcome that we understood could no longer be taken for granted. And our decision to stay in Philadelphia was fraught rather than obvious. It meant not living in Cleveland, where my husband had grown up.
Jordan Peterson’s resonance with younger people reflects the extreme demands of modern life and the new isolation in which we are expected to meet those demands.
Moreover, even as we have sought to centralize, routinize and institutionalize many of our familial relationships and friendships, we recognize that our interactions with others are nearly always conscious choices rather than ever-present unconscious realities. For this reason, our responsibilities—professional, marital and parental—are ours alone in a way that was not true for either my Italian-American grandparents or his Liberian ones. Hence no amount of self-awareness or hard work can render us truly fit for the sheer amount of personal responsibility required of anyone trying to be a decent citizen, worker or parent in today’s newly individuated world.
Enter Jordan Peterson with his now 24 rules, making what was communal, implicit and abstract for my grandparents individual, explicit and specific for me.
Thus, it is Peterson himself who has noticed that opportunity lurks where responsibility has been abdicated. His resonance with younger people reflects the extreme demands of modern life and the new isolation in which we are expected to meet those demands. It also reflects the failure of our parents and grandparents to prepare many of us for the logistical, psychological and emotional reality that they unwittingly created.
Much has been made of the fact that Peterson’s audiences tend to be dominated by younger white men. Progressive critics have tended to assume that if a lot of white men are buying Peterson’s message about responsibility, there must be something sexist and/or racist in the message itself. If there weren’t, this line of reasoning goes, more women and people of color would be enthusiastic about Peterson, too.
Putting aside the fact that there is more gender and racial diversity among Peterson’s fans than the popular perception might lead us to believe, I speculate that there is a reason why comparatively fewer women and people of color find Peterson’s exaltation of responsibility life-changing. It’s not that his message doesn’t apply to us. It’s that it isn’t news to us.
There is a reason why comparatively fewer women and people of color find Peterson’s exaltation of responsibility life-changing. It isn’t news to us.
In order for a person to receive Peterson’s injunction toward responsibility as transformative, he or she would have to have previously believed that avoiding adult responsibility while escaping dire consequences was not only desirable but possible. That is, he or she would have to have believed that failure to grow up could look more like the Neverland of “Peter Pan” than like the Pleasure Island of “Pinocchio” (both of which are among Peterson’s many Disney-adapted preoccupations).
Neverland, where Peter Pan resides indefinitely, is a seeming manifestation of childhood’s wonder. Bright and carefree, filled with fairy dust and games, and stretching out over endless tomorrows without the worries of aging or mortality, residence in Neverland doesn’t appear to extract any price from its inhabitants.
By contrast, Pleasure Island, where Pinocchio alights briefly after missteps in his quest to prove himself “brave, truthful, and unselfish,” is eerie even at first glance. Boys come to the ominously peripatetic carnival of their own volition; but they do not get to choose when or whether to leave. After a few hours of self-indulgent fun, they are transformed into braying donkeys, boxed and loaded onto ships. In short, their avoidance of responsibility robs them of their humanity.
No one needs Jordan Peterson to talk him or her out of a stay on Pleasure Island. Therefore, for those of us whose biological reality of gender, political reality of race, or material reality of socioeconomic status renders failure to take responsibility more likely to result in the kind of permanent and potentially dire consequences that Pinocchio so narrowly avoids, Peterson may be relevant but redundant. He echoes and explicates, rather than countering or complicating, what we understand already about our own Pleasure-Island-like proximity to danger.
Some young white men need a psychologist to convince them of what the rest of us already know: Neverland has always been a lie.
But for some young white men with sufficient academic ability to comprehend Peterson’s writing and lectures, it is actually news that the worry-free irresponsibility offered in the seeming safety of Neverland has psychological, emotional and spiritual consequences. Many of these young white men were raised by baby boomers who accepted as individuals all the benefits of choices my grandparents never enjoyed—but not the attendant responsibilities of a revolutionized social regime that facilitated those choices by eradicating the communal safety net my grandparents took for granted. Now, as young adults, they actually need a psychologist to convince them of what the rest of us already know: Neverland has always been a lie.
Ultimately, the consequence of an extended sojourn in Neverland is just as bad as one in Pleasure Island. Perpetual childhood is just as much a form of dehumanization as transformation into an ass, since it is the ability to live a life of self-aware responsibility that renders humans different from asses in the first place.
Like most women, Wendy senses that Neverland has no real place for her (there are no other “lost girls” for a reason), so she leaves of her own volition. Peter knows that Neverland is made in his image, so he relinquishes the possibility of an adult relationship with Wendy and stays there.
One more young white man who desperately needs Jordan Peterson’s rules.
Our Catholic Abdication
Peterson has said that to be Catholic is, in his view, to be as “sane as a person can be.” This makes sense, because Christ on the cross (and the Catholic determination to leave him there in our depictions, unlike our Protestant brothers and sisters) is the iconic representation of suffering. It is also the ultimate exhortation toward self-sacrifice (that is, the responsibility to love others) in the face of suffering.
So if we Catholics have both the crucifix and an intellectual tradition stretching back millennia that explains its significance, why does anyone need some psychologist’s rules to understand what 1.2 billion people worldwide (not to mention one billion Protestants, many of whom profess much of the same) ostensibly already know?
Peterson has said that to be Catholic is, in his view, to be as “sane as a person can be.”
Why does Peterson’s ability to evince simultaneously both compassion for human suffering and insistence on moral responsibility despite suffering seem new, when it is the Catholic Church—the oldest continually operating institution in the world—that can most credibly lay claim to that concept?
The reason is that, per Peterson, “opportunity lurks where responsibility has been abdicated.” And in the United States—despite the incredible work of many within the church (like Bishop Robert Barron, who recently had an illuminating conversation with Peterson)—we Catholics have abdicated our responsibility and forfeited our credibility in the face of political polarization and increasing secularism.
Too many of us too often live in what Simcha Fisher calls “a pre-furnished house of ideas.” We allow political exigencies of the moment or sociopolitical stereotypes to dictate our uncontextualized expression of either the left’s too often thoughtless “compassion” or the right’s too often heartless “morality.”
If more of us spoke at a uniform volume about the totality of what we allegedly profess—rather than loudly about the ongoing genocide of abortion but quietly about the evils of unfettered capitalism’s sinful inequalities, or vice versa—we would not only be sane, but sound credible.
Clearly, there is an audience for the kind of rigorous pluralism that Peterson is offering—the kind that Catholic belief, rightly understood, demands. Moreover, an accurate understanding of our faith should render us fundamentally opposed to the craven creeds of each of today’s increasingly monistic political camps.
So, just imagine if we American Catholics laid claim to a higher and more appealing truth than the political left, the political right or even a nonpartisan iconoclast like Peterson can provide. Judging by the sizes of the crowds at Peterson’s lectures, we might be able to stop closing our churches and start opening them again.
And then maybe, just maybe, we could help to create an American politics that did not incentivize and almost require the abandonment of each fundamental truth on the altar of another.
But that is a task for another day. After all, we should, per Rule 6 of the original 12 Rules for Life, “Set [our] own house in perfect order before [we] criticize the world.”
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