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She Thinks My Toyota’s…. Inadequate?

Having devoted two posts in the past week or so to the Jordan Peterson phenomenon and what might account for it, and having expressed qualified affirmation for some of the concerns that seem to animate him, I want to add one final post about 12 Rules for Life, this one addressing what I take to be among the least admirable of Peterson’s ideas. I am aware that some readers might be weary of the topic. I’m sorry. I have to take the book back to the library today, so this is all the Peterson you’ll have to endure around here for a while.

The impetus for this final post came, naturally, from a glance out of my office window into our church parking lot. Adjacent to our church is a large motorsports dealer. We allow their staff to park in our space during the week. What this means for the view out my window is that it is often populated by big, muscular-looking pickup trucks. Sometimes they’re jacked up with massive knobby tires and blacked out rims. Sometimes they have all kinds of defiant looking decals like plastered on the back windows. Often they are hooked up to trailers for pulling skidoos and quads and side-by-sides out to the mountains for weekends full of conquest and beer.

Sometimes the guys (and they’re almost always guys) that emerge from these trucks look pretty much like what you’d expect. Twenty something years old, massive bushy beards, baseball caps yanked down over furrowed brows, tattoos, ripped jeans and big boots. Occasionally they’re finishing off the last of a 750 ml energy drink with names like “Monster” or “Rockstar.” They look like guys who could probably snap me in two without blinking.

Beside all of these impressive looking trucks sits my recently purchased cherry red 2007 Toyota Camry. It has four measly cylinders and sounds like a lawn mower when I start it on a cold morning. Its cup holders look well-suited for a small latte (I doubt they could even handle a Monster energy drink). My Toyota looks… practical, if in an inadequate sort of way. It was recently described to me as looking like “something a grandma would drive.” Which, as it happens, was precisely what I was going for! Er, well…

According to Jordan Peterson, the scene in my church’s parking lot is rather easily interpreted. It’s all about the dominance hierarchy. Men need to be manly in order to get women to respect and, potentially, mate with them. Women respect strength and power and conquest. No self-respecting woman would date a guy who drives a Camry. You can’t probably can’t even roast the tires or do a donut in a parking lot with four pathetic cylinders! Women want risk-takers. Can you even take a risk in a Camry?! Guys who drive Camrys spend Sunday mornings before church picking up the empty Monster energy drink cans that the manly truck-driving men fling aside in disdain. Hypothetically. I’m told.

This is all a little tongue-in-cheek so far. But only a little. Peterson has some very strong opinions about gender and hierarchy. Frankly, some of them seem not only outdated and wrong but potentially dangerous. Consider this passage:

If they’re healthy, women don’t want boys. They want men. They want someone to contend with, someone to grapple with. If they’re tough, they want someone tougher. If they’re smart, they want someone smarter. They desire someone who brings to the table something they can’t already provide.

I might have shuddered audibly when I read that paragraph. Particularly in light of the news about Brett Kavanaugh that has dominated recent weeks. Whoever turns out to have been in fact lying in this whole sordid spectacle, the one thing that was never in doubt for me was that Christine Blasey Ford’s story was plausible in principle. There are very few things that are more believable to me than that a group of tough, smart young men, amped up on entitlement and alcohol and manliness, would force themselves upon a young woman sexually for sport and amusement. I’ve been to those parties, I’ve heard the frat-boy language of conquest and bravado. It’s as despicable as it is ubiquitous. Whatever else our cultural moment needs, it is surely not statements about “healthy” women needing tougher men.

Jordan Peterson is not, of course, advocating sexual assault. This should go without saying, but probably doesn’t. But in a cultural context where we are and will be for some time reckoning with the ubiquity of (primarily male) sexual misconduct, it hard to imagine a more tone-deaf statement than, “If they’re tough, they want someone tougher. If they’re smart, they want someone smarter.” Peterson’s trying to argue for a recovery of the idea that there are significant gender differences, and I think most of us would acknowledge this. But this whole “Women need manly men who are smarter and tougher than them” seems to me a truly awful, insulting and potentially dangerous way to go about it.

I say this, of course, as a human being and as a Christian. If I believed that human beings were just another animal (a lobster, say, to use Peterson’s famous example) thrown up from nature’s purposeless clay, I might have more patience for his dominance hierarchy. Nature could well produce—seems, in fact, to have produced—a great many species where males dominate females (and a few where the reverse is true). As it happens, I am convinced that human beings are more than that. We have, together, male and female, been created in the image of God to reflect this image to the world. We have the capacity to reflect on our experience and how we will arrange things in our relationships and social arrangments, even if this reflection takes place within biological parameters. We, of all creatures, can move beyond primal lust and power and the quest for dominance and actually learn how to love. If we were nothing more than accidental bipeds with an overdeveloped frontal lobe, Peterson’s analysis might make a bit of sense. Thank God we’re more than that.

At any rate, it’st time for my trip to the library. I can almost imagine Jordan Peterson sneering at me in my inadequate Toyota. I’m glad I read his 12 Rules. They were interesting. But I won’t be following all of them, and I hope you won’t either.

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. mike #

    “In order to Think,we must risk being Offensive”- Jordan Peterson. I would add that in order to be a christian, we must risk being offensive.

    I applaud Professor Peterson for his courage to speak the truth in love.

    With your permission I would like to submit another “modern day prophet” who takes Professor Peterson’s thoughts to the next level: https://youtu.be/kSGBjYF8XC8

    October 3, 2018
    • Perhaps, but from a Christian perspective it’s important to be “offensive” for the right reasons. The dominance hierarchy isn’t one of them.

      October 4, 2018
  2. Paul Johnston #

    What seems to offend you here is basic evolutionary psychology. Both with regard to mating preferences and dominance hierarchies, Dr. Peterson offers the conventional wisdom of this field. His primary purpose, on line, seems to be to debunk postmodernist claims that the cultural and sexual hierarchies of today, are constructs of western patriarchy. They are millions of years older and run across a myriad of species. Dr. Peterson offers a descriptive overview more so than a prescriptive one.

    As for the mating aspects, there is much contention within the field of evolutionary psychology today. Birth control and abortion rights have revolutionized the mating patterns of our species to the point that much of what was previously believed true, may now not be. Dr. Peterson openly acknowledges this to be so but says there is still insufficient data, only about 50 years worth, to make conclusive statements.

    If I were to simplify Dr. Peterson here, I would suggest his arguments run along the lines of mankind being a biologically determined specie simultaneously capable of spiritual transcendence. God within man; A baptized soul a Christian might say…

    One of the challenges for us in discussion here, is that you have read, “12 rules” and I have not. All my learning has come from on line interviews and podcasts. Given that a few friends have told me that, “rules” is mostly a simplified version of what he speaks of elsewhere, I chose not to buy it. Perhaps that is part of the reason we view him differently.

    October 4, 2018
    • I’m not “offended,” Paul. I’m simply registering a point of disagreement. I have little doubt that a story can be told that makes sense of Peterson’s views from an evolutionary biological perspective. As I said in the post, I simply think that to be human is to have the unique burden and privilege of in some sense transcending a crude form of biological determinism, even if we must acknowledge that biology imposes constraints upon us.

      I do think his ideas about how we too conveniently lay the blame for all hierarchies at the feet of western patriarchy are salient, to a point. It can easily become a catch all for every real or imagined undesirable thing that we encounter.

      October 4, 2018
  3. Paul Johnston #

    One final thought, a modern twist to evolutionary psychology. Studies seem to confirm a new twist to the old argument, that being that women still prefer short term sexual relationships with more masculine types but longer term relationships with the, “Toyota Boys”, more feminine men deemed suitable as better long term partners with similar goals and more active co-parents.

    And so it goes….The things we do for love….

    October 4, 2018
    • “Toyota boys” 🙂

      I’m going to tell my wife that it’s time for a new nickname.

      October 4, 2018
  4. Paul Johnston #

    Oh and another thing, lol. The paragraph you find cringe worthy, I see as basic wisdom. My wife tells me she agrees and confirms that it is a big part of what attracts her to me. SOMEBODY IN MY HOUSE IS GOING DRESS SHOPPING TODAY!!!

    And to conflate this idea with the Kavanaugh trials? A biased argument, not a reasoned one.

    October 4, 2018
    • I’m glad to hear that it works for you. It doesn’t work for everyone, though, and it can be (and has been) enormously destructive in countless lives, so probably best not to universalize it.

      Re: Kavanaugh, well, you’re free to think I’m biased, although as I said in the post, I have no idea who’s actually lying in this case (and nobody else does either, save Kavanaugh and Ford), so I don’t really have a dog in the fight. But I don’t apologize for reflecting upon how statements might sound at this or that particular cultural moment. The problem of men imposing themselves sexually upon women is as old as humanity, obviously, but given the ubiquity of the problem (and our awareness of it) in our time, I don’t think that statements like Peterson’s help. And they could well do harm.

      And even leaving aside the news of the day, I certainly don’t want my daughter to think that she has to go out and find a guy who’s “smarter and tougher than her” to make up for some imagined lack in her life.

      October 4, 2018
      • Paul Johnston #

        I think I read this comment very differently from you. I hear that a healthy relationship is based on partnering with someone you have to contend with, listen to and learn from. Someone who will have gifts and abilities that you don’t. Someone who can make you better. In the ideal relationship, this would be a mutual experience.

        In my relationship, my wife’s wisdom and talents have changed my point of view, altered my responses and made me a better person. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

        October 5, 2018
      • A healthy relationship is based on partnering with someone you have to contend with, listen to and learn from. Someone who will have gifts and abilities that you don’t. Someone who can make you better. In the ideal relationship, this would be a mutual experience.

        Amen and amen. I wouldn’t want it any other way either. Nothing in this requires, however, a statement about how “healthy women” are looking for men who are stronger and smarter than them.

        October 5, 2018
  5. jc #

    I have to agree will Paul here. I think Peterson is just making a pretty unremarkable claim about how women select mates.

    Here is another rather long but interesting review of the book http://slatestarcodex.com/2018/03/26/book-review-twelve-rules-for-life/

    October 4, 2018
    • That review was fun to read. I loved this line:

      Maybe if anyone else was any good at this, it would be easy to recognize Jordan Peterson as what he is – a mildly competent purveyor of pseudo-religious platitudes. But I actually acted as a slightly better person during the week or so I read Jordan Peterson’s book. I feel properly ashamed about this.

      October 4, 2018
    • Paul Johnston #

      Thanks for the link, jc. From my perspective, this author articulates well the Christian challenge with Dr. Peterson. I share the opinion that God is more theoretical than actual and Christ a means to an end rather than an end in of Himself, in Dr. Peterson’s work. I thought the contrast with C.S. Lewis was quite brilliant.

      Hope all is well with you.

      October 5, 2018
      • jc #

        “But that’s exactly the problem. I worry Peterson wakes up in the morning and thinks “How can I help add meaning to people’s lives?” and then he says really meaningful-sounding stuff, and then people think their lives are meaningful. But at some point, things actually have to mean a specific other thing. They can’t just mean meaning. “Mean” is a transitive verb. It needs some direct object.”

        “What about the most classic case of someone seeking meaning – the person who wants meaning for their suffering? Why do bad things happen to good people? Peterson talks about this question a lot, but his answers are partial and unsatisfying. Why do bad things happen to good people? “If you work really hard on cultivating yourself, you can have fewer bad things happen to you.” Granted, but why do bad things happen to good people? “If you tried to ignore all bad things and shelter yourself from them, you would be weak and contemptible.” Sure, but why do bad things happen to good people? “Suffering makes us stronger, and then we can use that strength to help others.” But, on the broader scale, why do bad things happen to good people? “The mindset that demands no bad thing ever happen will inevitably lead to totalitarianism.” Okay, but why do bad things happen to good people? “Uh, look, a neo-Marxist transgender lobster! Quick, catch it before it gets away.”

        I agree the C.S. Lewis thing is a good comparison but above are my favorite quotes. Don’t get me wrong, I love Malcom Gladwell. His podcasts are great. Scott’s offhand remark about the science in the book leaning Gladwell made me think there is a comparison there to be made as well. Peterson has a way of making the cliche powerful and Gladwell just constructs narrative that makes me want to believe in what he is saying. It’s only later after the spell has worn off I feel a little hoodwinked. I am not sure what to make of that.

        October 6, 2018
      • Yup, he absolutely has a way of making the cliche sound powerful. Although, to be fair, the demand that he (or anyone else) explain why bad things happen to good people is a rather high bar…

        (Says the guy who preached on the story of Job yesterday.)

        October 8, 2018
  6. Paul Johnston #

    Hey jc, we will have to disagree about what constitutes fair criticism. What you see as the best part of the critique, I see as it’s worst. Dr. Peterson is simply saying that a life without meaning, a directed purpose, is a life not fully lived. The idea that, “meaning” matters and is intrinsic to human fulfillment is the existential principal by which Dr. Peterson inspires. He gives meaning to the concept of, “meaning”. How “meaning” looks to the individual, is the purview of that individual. Dr. Peterson identifies the principal, the individual that responds to his inspiration, applies the principal as it pertains to her or his circumstances. All reasonable and good as far as I can discern.

    AS for suffering, particularly when it happens to good people, Dr. Peterson offers the right antidote, the essence of Christian ethos.

    Let suffering redeem you, make you better, humbler more empathetic. Rather then dwell on the, “why me” aspect of suffering, accept what is and make something beautiful out of your response to the suffering. All we control and all we are held accountable for, our are responses. To make the best of responses to the worst of circumstances, is heroism, is inspiring, and always points to what is best in human nature, not what is worst.

    However egregious the suffering, however cruel and unfair, suffering does not have the last word when we rise above it and make something beautiful from it.

    Such an outcome is the essence of the cross and Christian belief.

    October 10, 2018

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