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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.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. I heard Petersen in Toronto (someone else bought me a ticket). My summary of the lecture was that it was a boring sermon trying to convince me of things I already believed using logic I didn’t like and insulting people that I do. It was a lecture, not a sermon, but it felt like a sermon. He was talking about how life has meaning and the quest for virtue is worthwhile, but he used philosophers and classic literature whose legacy is inconsistent with his conclusions.

    Pushing back on your first point, I think he does give easy answers, he just coats them in philosophical language. Rather than engage with difficult questions, he appeals to his base by constantly insulting the institutions of higher education and liberal government.

    October 2, 2018
    • You could be right, Will. I don’t get the sense that he’s trafficking in easy answers from 12 Rules but I have, admittedly taken this book in isolation. I have little doubt that Peterson can be insulting in his demeanour and selective in his accessing of philosophy. His use of the bible, while interesting, certainly leaves much to be desired hermeneutically. The post was not meant to be an apology for his content as much as an exploration of the sociological phenomenon of his popularity. I’m speculating on the itch he seems to be scratching, however well he happens to scratch it.

      Re: a “boring sermon,” well that certainly may be true. As I said, I’ve never listened to or watched one of his lectures. But given what I know of the size of his audiences and the age of those who listen, I’m wondering if some of us pastors could do with being a bit more boring. 🙂

      October 2, 2018
    • Paul Johnston #

      William, you have mischaracterized the good doctor. 🙂 It is his love and respect of, “higher learning” that has led to his, something of a crusade, against humanities departments that are nothing more than vapid ideologies underpinned by socialist/totalitarian dogma.

      As for your second criticism, Dr. Peterson is a classic liberal by any measurable standard. His complaint is with, “wolves in sheep clothing” types who have bastardized the meaning of western liberal thought.

      October 3, 2018
  2. Paul Johnston #

    Yes, he expects better of us as our institutions, particularly religious ones, used to do. Frankly he is doing a better job in isolation as an individual in this regard then I see either the church or government doing.

    Populism doesn’t have to be tyranny, it can be the ideas that fuel Dr. Jordan Peterson.

    He is quite simply a prophet of our time.

    October 2, 2018
    • I don’t think Peterson is a prophet. Prophets call people back to God, to love, to justice, to righteousness, to mercy. And of course, on the other side of Christ, prophets call us to Jesus and to his way of being in the world. I don’t think Peterson does these things, even if I think he has some useful wisdom to offer.

      October 2, 2018
      • Paul Johnston #

        Not in a conventional sense, I would grant you that but perhaps, and given our recent affinity for, “God doing new things”, Dr. Peterson has been chosen.

        Before I would get into a lengthy discussion, one that you might have limited interest in, 😉 I would posit this for consideration.

        Most of, “church” from my seat in the pew, is a religious idea rooted in secular culture. Dr. Peterson, on the other hand, seems to take the perspective of a secular man looking to root us in the right religious idea.

        Of the two, I think Dr. Peterson’s, if I have described it correctly, is closer to God.

        October 3, 2018
  3. Paul Johnston #

    I am truly at a loss to understand why any self professed Christian would view Dr. Peterson with disgust.

    October 2, 2018
  4. mike #

    I agree with Paul. I see Jordan Peterson as a sane voice crying in the wilderness of cultural mayhem, in a society that is spiraling down into a dark abyss of chaotic madness. Yes, I view Peterson as a prophet, his underlying message though is simply a fragment that must be pieced together with the fragments from other modern prophets in order to “hear” the overall voice of God.

    We are now made witness to a decisive Battle taking place in Heavenly places. Jordan Peterson and others like him stand fighting on the front line of the culture war and the line they hold separates us from Hell….

    October 2, 2018

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