Professor Jordan Peterson, author of the top-selling 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, is beginning to look weary in the face of the waves of hatred he has endured recently. Two years ago, he was almost unknown outside his field. A Canadian clinical psychologist and professor of psychology (University of Toronto), he is author of over 100 papers in his specialities, the psychology of religious and ideological belief and personality theory. His principal work, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (1999), was a well-received tome. He taught at Harvard before being awarded tenure at the University of Toronto.
So how do we account for the fact that Peterson has also been targeted in Canadian media in a way that seems, quite honestly, unhinged: “the stupid man’s smart person?” (Maclean’s 2017); “The Professor of Piffle” (Walrus 2017); a faintly flickering intellect (Globe and Mail 2018). Some in academia are actively seeking to get him terminated. Few detractors seem to grapple with what he says or care to. As a longtime news writer, I don’t recall seeing anything like it. Some explanation is in order, one that includes a consideration of his recent best-selling book, 12 Rules for Life.
Peterson is best known for two things: One is saying that he would not submit to government compulsion to use new transgender-friendly pronouns, which quickly morphed into the idea that he would be rude to those who solicit them. He denies that and there is no evidence for it. His public behaviour suggests the reverse. As a psychologist who tries to practice his field as a science, however, he knows that much written on this and similar subjects is highly questionable, on the level of the 1980s “recovered memories” blot on the profession.
Then, of course, there is his viral interview with Cathy Newman for Channel 4 News in Britain, where she abandons all pretense of interviewer curiosity and simply rephrases what he is trying to say to suit her own angry perspective. He patiently skewered her pretensions, much like a therapist. But her rephrases beginning with “what you're saying is…” captured the essence of post-modern interviewing. Incidentally, Peterson later defended Newman from attacks by social media trolls, who were bound to notice the over six million views the interview received.
The underlying issue is probably the prof's success at YouTube. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education (January 2018), Peterson has over half a million YouTube subscribers and nearly 300,000 Twitter followers, and he makes $60,000 a month from his online efforts, which began with the ask-an-expert site, Quora. His following consists largely of young men who are attracted to his blend of mythological, psychological, and Scriptural texts into a self-help psychology that offers “ agency, self-confidence and life-meaning.” Canadian essayist David Solway explains,
Pajama Boys living in their parents’ basement drinking hot chocolate rather than the Castalian water of knowledge, and men young and old who have been infected and oppressed by the feminist preaching of toxic masculinity, are in desperate need of moral revitalization and intellectual supervision.
Not everyone wants that need to be met. But I know of no serious evidence for claims that Peterson is in some way affiliated with the alt right, an overrated phenomenon in any event. In some prominent Canadian media circles, however, it appears that if you don’t wonder whether Peterson is a neo-Nazi, you must be alt right yourself.
At the UK Spectator, Douglas Murray assesses Peterson as “a counter-cultural (or counter-counter-cultural) hero who was willing to say what almost everybody else thought.” That sounds about right. Far more people today, including high-ranking people, are cowed by post-modern claims than actually believe them. One suspects that much of the vilification in Canada is due to fear. If only Peterson can be destroyed, others can point to his sad example as a reason for silence in the face of galloping progressive absurdities, often backed by government.
Which brings us to the book, 12 Rules for Life 12 Rules for Life. It is a treatise of self-help psychology in the venerable stoic tradition and at it best, it is very good, something like a gifted coach talking a player out of a slump: “Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.” (Rule 4) And “Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them” (Rule 5) is good advice for raising children to whom the world does not owe praise and obedience under threat.
It’s been a bestseller since its release on January 23, 2018. As I write this (February 6, 2018, 4:45 EST), it is Number 1 in books. Possibly, many people other than Pajama Boys are tiring of the rule of the pronoun police as well as that of angry mediocrities in the academy, media, and politics who gladly back their rule.
The controversy still overshadows the book, despite its success. That is unfortunate because the book should be considered in its own right as an attempt to meld the Judaeo-Christian tradition with mythology, stoicism, and insights from the social sciences. Speaking as a traditional Catholic Christian, I would rate it as a noble failure. For example, when Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth and the life” (John 14: 6) he does not mean “the path of proper Being” (Kindle 1247), as Peterson suggests. The Jewish/Christian scriptures image a direct relationship with God, of which the pursuit of righteousness is an outcome, not a goal attempted all by itself from the human side only. That said, Peterson has introduced many people, starved on a diet of post-modern angst, victimhood, and grievance, to appreciate classical values and their controversies—in other words, to appreciate the life of the mind. A noble failure is still worth reading, on that basis alone.
All that said, as a Canadian, I survey with dismay the gutter-level attacks on Peterson from supposedly reputable publications, noted above. He raises serious concerns, such as the reworking of our judicial system to favour “consequences” of actions rather than “intent,” when determining guilt. But no informed discussion seems possible now. The interrogation last year of teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd, for showing a short clip of Peterson on pronouns in her class, was particularly painful for me because I am an alumna of that same university (WLU ‘71). Then, despite (or perhaps because of?) it being a religiously affiliated university, it was far more open to the conflict of ideas.
One can only hope that it slowly begins to dawn on people that post-modernism means the end of the life of the mind. Whether or not one can prevent that, one certainly need not support it.
Note: Here is an excerpt: from his book: “If you hate your kids, so will other people.”
Denyse O’Leary is an Ottawa-based author, blogger, and journalist.