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 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.