Tell Me Who I Am and Tell Me Why It Matters
A brief follow-up to last week’s post on the experience of reading Jordan Peterson. The response, whether in online conversation or private correspondence, was largely as I imagined it would be—a mixture of disgust and delight with not much in between (although there was some, it should be gratefully noted). So it goes. Delight and disgust are the lingua franca of the digital age. But I wanted to at least gesture toward a question I alluded to (but did not address) in the post: Why is someone like Peterson popular now?
I suspect there are many candidates who would be more qualified to answer this question than I am. I have only this one book (12 Rules for Life) to base my judgments on. I’ve watched precisely zero Peterson lectures and I don’t follow him on Twitter, so I have no idea what he delves into in those domains. I’m also aware of how truly atrocious the optics of a middle-aged white man talking (somewhat) sympathetically about Peterson are deemed to be out there in the world. And yet, I have a few ideas. Two to be precise.
First, and perhaps somewhat strangely, I think people are attracted to Peterson because he gives us an unvarnished anthropology. He is, if nothing else, a straight shooter. He does not flatter us with platitudes or pat us on the head for giving it a decent try. He names all of our selfishness and deception, all of our mixed motives and weakness, all of our laziness and self-congratulatory preening and posturing. Take this paragraph, for example:
Become aware of your own insufficiency—your cowardice, malevolence, resentment, and hatred. Consider the murderousness of your own spirit before you dare accuse others, and before you attempt to repair the fabric of the world. Maybe it’s not the world that’s at fault. Maybe it’s you. You’ve failed to make the mark. You’ve missed the target. You’ve fallen short of the glory of God. You’ve sinned. And all of that is your contribution to the insufficiency and evil of the world. And, above all, don’t lie. Don’t lie about anything, ever. Lying leads to Hell.
My first reaction to paragraphs like this is, “Hey, dude, take it easy!” My second reaction is, “Er, well, yeah. That’s me.”
I think one of the reasons Peterson is popular is because he pays human beings the compliment of expecting better from us. We are well tutored in the myriad social forces that shape and constrain human behaviour, of the ways in which unearned privilege and unjustified suffering can hinder human flourishing (if in very different ways). We know that to be human is to be yanked around by countless forces, within and without, that lie beyond our control. But we also know, in our heart of hearts, that we can be miserable, selfish, conflicted creatures, and that the world and our neighbour need better from us.
[Incidentally, at morning prayers with some Anglican colleagues today, we gulped and “ahem-ed” our way through a blistering passage from the prophet Hosea which began thus:
Hear the word of the Lord, O people of Israel;
for the Lord has an indictment against the inhabitants of the land.
There is no faithfulness or loyalty,
and no knowledge of God in the land.
Swearing, lying, and murder,
and stealing and adultery break out;
bloodshed follows bloodshed.
Therefore the land mourns,
and all who live in it languish…
It occurred to me that Jordan Peterson’s indictment of the human condition sounds not so very different from the Lord’s of Israel… ]
The second reason that I think people might be attracted to Peterson is because he gives them permission to ask existentially significant questions. Questions about God and what God might be like, about suffering and how it might be transcended and redeemed, about moral responsibility, about freedom and meaning, about heaven and hell and what those words might mean, about order and chaos, about coming face to face with the terror and glory of existence. About what, finally, all of this might be for.
These were among the questions that drew me to philosophy back in my university days, and I remember being shocked to discover how rarely they actually made an appearance. We talked a lot about language and logic. We talked about epistemology and empirical verifiability. Important stuff, to be sure, but, not exactly the kind of stuff that sets a soul alight. I wanted to talk about the meaning of life; what I often got was how to parse the meaning of sterile propositions about knowledge claims. I wanted to read Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard; instead, we read Wittgenstein and Popper. Again, it’s not that the latter are unimportant, but… well, you know.
One doesn’t have to agree with all of Peterson’s conclusions (I don’t) but it’s hard not to appreciate someone who has the audacity to unapologetically say, “These big questions still matter, damnit!” To be a human being is, after all, to be a fearful and wonderful thing. Peterson names this, in his own way. I think that at least some people are hungry for this naming.
I could be wrong in this cursory assessment of Peterson’s popularity. I suppose it could be the case that it’s all a smokescreen for what is, at bottom, a patriarchal agenda or the last desperate flailings of a white guy who’s scared of losing his privilege. But having read the book, it certainly doesn’t seem that way to me. I think (or at least I hope!) there’s more interesting stuff going on than that.