This week’s episode of the Australian TV discussion panel Q&A boasted the inclusion of Jordan Peterson, Canadian professor of psychology and international YouTube phenomenon, fresh from the lecture tour for his book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, taking in 126 cities thus far and addressing roughly 300,000 people.
Australians might well be wondering who the professor is, and notwithstanding some notoriety on questions of political correctness, what he has done to deserve his fame.
The PC debate
Jordan Peterson came to international prominence in 2016 when he publicised on YouTube his objections to a Canadian Human Rights Bill that he argued would compel the use of preferred pronouns for transgender people under threat of criminal sanction.
Peterson’s videos spoke to a broader concern over “PC” culture in universities globally, stifling debate and limiting freedom of speech.
But Jordan Peterson is much more than an impassioned participant in the PC cause célèbre, and those who went looking for more information on the humble professor who sounds not unlike a Canadian Kermit the Frog soon uncovered a wealth of content.
In 2005 Peterson and some colleagues established a for-profit company called The Self Authoring Suite, focused on writing therapy to help overcome personality faults and set goals for the future.
Since 2013 Peterson had also been uploading his psychology lectures at the University of Toronto to YouTube.
Peterson turned out to be a charismatic and impassioned lecturer drawing upon his expertise in psychology, his ambitious yet idiosyncratic ambit in mythology, literature, religion and philosophy, and undoubtedly his many years of clinical therapeutic work to exhort his students and viewers to take responsibility for the meaning in their own lives.
The BBC interview
In January 2018, while publicising his new book 12 Rules for Life, Peterson was subject to a Channel 4 interview with journalist Cathy Newman which soon went viral, amassing millions of views and further expanding Peterson’s audience.
What made the interview so compelling was Peterson’s composure, precision, and evident mastery of his own area of expertise in the face of the multiple distortions, loaded questions, and inaccuracies levelled at him by a hostile host.
Then again a clinical psychologist with expertise in abnormal, social, and personality psychology should be somewhat accustomed to dealing with difficult people.
One needn’t be a fan of Peterson to take pleasure in seeing someone defend their position so adroitly, with the dispassion, clarity, and charity expected of genuine academic debate but seldom witnessed in TV discussion.
We are so used to the unedifying spectacle of talking heads (politicians in particular) either dragging each other into the mud or adhering tenaciously to one-liners and staying desperately on-message that Peterson’s performance was to many a revelation, especially considering the controversial subject matter: political correctness, gender equality, and transgenderism.
What is Jordan Peterson?
At this stage of his career, Peterson is essentially a motivational speaker or self-help guru: a low-octane Tony Robbins for nihilistic young men, or a wizened Marie Kondo with intricate psycho-social implications urging you to clean your damn room!
Whatever political controversy Peterson engages with is superficial to his core message: life is about meaning, and meaning is found in bearing responsibilities.
Like any good psychologist, Peterson offers a repertoire of tools and structures to make the pursuit of meaning and the shouldering of responsibility more manageable.
And it is in the individual, therapeutic context of psychology that Peterson’s true appeal lies. People are drawn to him because he offers a clear, contemporary, and admittedly counter-cultural path out of the depression and disillusionment that afflicts so many people.
Your parents might have told you to clean your room, but they probably never told you how cleaning your room could have meaning in the grander scheme of things, a small but significant component of getting your life in order, taking pride in your responsibility as an individual, and becoming a member of society.
The apparent bleakness of Peterson’s vision, his repudiation of happiness as a goal in life, and his pessimistic outlook can seem jarring, but like a good therapist he is meeting his patients where they are:
“What we all need instead of happiness is meaning — the kind of meaning that will sustain each of us through the suffering that life entails, so that we can endure the self-betrayal and the dissolution of our intimate relationships through death and distance and the illness and ageing and disappointment and death that await all of us, just and unjust alike.”
Rebellion, disenfranchisement, despondency, Peterson offers a seemingly objective and robust therapeutic approach to personal change, and the promise of eventual success in one’s enterprises.
Is Jordan Peterson for everyone?
Many critics of Peterson are put off by his support for traditional values and his gadfly approach to the ideological pillars of political correctness.
If you believe the personal is political, then Peterson resembles a right-wing culture warrior and crypto-fascist.
But for a psychologist, even one who has slipped the surly bonds of clinical practice and joined the tumbling mirth of global online celebrity, everything is ultimately personal.
The therapeutic relationship, ideally centred on and motivated by the dignity of the individual person, must ultimately trump all social and political issues.
But even if you like Peterson and find some of his work enlightening or useful, his is by no means the final word, nor necessarily the most appropriate one, on meaning and happiness in life.
Catholic writers in particular have struggled to reconcile the attractive elements of his work with themes that smack of Pelagian or Gnostic errors, with Peterson’s Jungian interpretations of scripture causing some disquiet.
Some prefer to view Peterson in a friendly light as the enemy of their enemies, but others are cautious about tacitly endorsing someone whose underlying beliefs might well be incompatible with Christianity.
In the end it’s fair enough to just not like Peterson’s intellectual framework or style. In finding a therapist personal style is an important factor, and it’s the therapist who should adapt to the patient, not the other way around.
And in Peterson we’re dealing with the uncommon phenomenon of a psychologist operating on a mass media basis with unprecedented saturation.
Peterson is reaching more people in more ways than a motivational speaker or life-coach or conventional therapist typically would, and in blurring the lines between clinician, professor, and public intellectual it is especially important to remember that psychological therapy requires an individual approach.
Zac Alstin is associate editor of MercatorNet.