The Guru Appeal of Jordan Peterson in our Post-Everything World

Last week, Douglas Murray penned an adulatory article for the Spectator titled “The Curious Star Appeal of Jordan Peterson.” “Why,” Murray ponders in the lede, “are young Brits flocking to hear a psychology professor talk about morality?” It seems a good question, especially if you’re familiar with the phenomenon, and Murray answers it, even if he doesn’t realize he does. Peterson, professor at the University of Toronto, Murray identifies, “has become a mixture of philosopher, life-coach, educator and guru. He has the kind of passionate, youthful, pedagogical draw that the organized churches can only dream of.”

The key words in that brief biography of Jordan Peterson are, in increasing order of importance, “life-coach,” “passionate,” “churches” (in the given context), and “guru.” Put another way, Peterson’s star appeal isn’t curious at all to anyone who understands the inner mechanics of religious movements. Whether he realizes it or not, Peterson is leading one. That explains his star appeal effectively entirely.

If Murray understands this, he hides it well, possibly for good reason. Peterson’s growing throngs of fans don’t just flock to listen to him in public events around Britain (and elsewhere). Though such things are notoriously hard to track, they are increasingly well-known around social media for taking criticism of their YouTube educator rather poorly, to say the least. Partly, they’re vociferous in their defenses of Peterson for good reasons — much of what he has to offer is quite good, like his stance on free speech and resistance against social justice nonsense (which Peterson identifies simultaneously with postmodernism and Marxism, which he conflates to some degree). Still, as often happens with people in thrall to a religious-like leader, they exhibit a strong trend toward what falls under conventionalism, which means roughly that what they feel is good for them should be conventional and thus something of an imperative for everyone.

Pastor Jordan Peterson

Murray describes Peterson as “a counter-cultural (or counter-counter-cultural) hero who was willing to say what almost everybody else thought,” adding that he is also “someone not only with humanity and humor, but serious depth and substance.” For the most part, and so long as he isn’t talking about certain topics (like objective truth), this is an accurate characterization. Peterson comes off as genuinely genial, compassionate, engaging, friendly, informed, genuine, authentic, hard-to-flap (though not quite unflappable), humorous, charismatic, often perspicacious, and positively human, this last one being a trait which shows up far too rarely in public academic types, and he does so because in all likelihood he is all of these things. Still, these traits aren’t why Peterson commands so much interest and devotion. On their own, they’re not enough to have propelled Peterson to the “curious star appeal.” That takes something more.

Murray understands this, too. In fact, it simply beggars belief that Murray finds Peterson’s star appeal “curious” at all, as he even puts his finger right on the damn thing.

“He sees the vacuum left not just by the withdrawal of the Christian tradition, but by the moral relativism and self-abnegation that have flooded across the West in its wake. Furthermore, he recognizes — from his experience as a practicing psychologist and as a teacher — that people crave principles and certainties.”

That is, Peterson is leading a nascent religious movement, one we might see as neo-traditionalist, as does Christianity Today and, to some degree, even Peterson himself. Murray understands this on some level, as he even tells us exactly who the new Petersonite converts are. In Murray’s words, which echo Peterson’s own, Peterson “recognizes that people — particularly young people, and young men most of all — are badly in need of help.” And he’s probably right. As Murray puts it,

“He sees a generation being urged to waste their lives waving placards about imaginary problem [sic], or problems far beyond their (or anyone’s control) and urges them instead to cut through the lies, recognize the tragic and uncomfortable position we are in as humans and consider afresh what we might actually achieve with our lives.”

All that’s needed to see this growing movement for what it is, then, is to ponder some of Murray’s phrasing. “Moral relativism” and “self-abnegation” almost certainly refer primarily to the terrible false choice between proxy religions young people presently face, especially young men. In the apparent cultural vacuum that has been left by the retreat of tradition and religion, seekers today largely have to choose between social justice leftism and alt-right idiocy if they seek some deeper sense of meaning and belongingness in their lives. Here, Peterson offers a middle way.

Unfortunately, the “principles” and “certainties” that Murray claims people crave, and that the viability of this third path depends upon, ultimately refer to a rather nasty fly in Peterson’s soup. These mean precisely the kind of dogmatism that Christopher Hitchens famously and rightly pointed out “poisons everything.” They are the root of what Jonathan Rauch called the “fundamentalist impulse,” which is the perennial enemy of liberal society against which American Enlightenment figures urged we must always retain vigilance — specifically because people crave them so. It isn’t coincidental, then, that “principles” and “certainties” are precisely what the social justice left and alt-right (not to mention the Islamic State) are selling by the truckload to disaffected Western kids. Peterson is clearly aware of these concerns and sees himself explicitly as offering an alternative.

“Waste their lives waving placards” is a fairly obvious reference to the protest culture of today’s lefty youth, and we needn’t guess which “imaginary problem[s]” Murray is referring to here because he does us the kindness of telling us explicitly.

“Peterson has made one of the most unpopular but vital realizations of our time: that we are creating a generation of men who (especially if they don’t belong to any ‘minority’ group) are without hope, foundation or purpose. Everything in the culture insists that they are terrible: proto–rapists when they are not rapists; proto-racists when they are not racists; condemned for their ‘privilege’ even when they are failures and their every success dismissed as undeserved. … Peterson is one of the very few to take this problem seriously and to help young people to navigate towards lives of meaning and purpose.”

From this, we can surmise that Murray means “feminists” and other social justice leftists more than anyone else. Picking on these lefty culture warriors in this way and in this context is eminently justified, however. If they are to satisfy the social justice types, especially under late feminism, most young men trying to figure out who and how to be in this world are offered a small set of dismal choices that range along an unpleasant spectrum from dispiriting to annoying to downright insulting.

Not all young men walk with their backs bent by today’s supercilious approach to feminism, and not all of these men are interested in embarrassing themselves in the putrid Men’s Rights or alt-right arenas. But to find obvious male role models for many young men remains a struggle. They could, for example, join some of their peers in a turn toward mega-alphas like retired Navy SEAL Jocko Willink and his hard-assed advice to get up and work out as hard as they can at 4:30 in the morning. If that sounds unpleasant, it’s because it’s meant to be, and Willink is glad to point out in varying degrees of subtlety that if you don’t like it, it’s mostly because you don’t have discipline and aren’t a real man. Far from being the spirit of manliness to inspire the students at the University of YouTube, it’s generally demotivating for almost everyone. (It’s great for the handful of people it works for, we can suppose, but — come on.)

Enter Peterson, billing himself as an accessible hero archetype who was “raised and toughened in the frigid wastelands of Northern Alberta,” and who “has flown a hammer-head roll in a carbon-fiber stunt plane.” Rather than telling men who refuse to suffer the nearly insufferable that they are weak, Peterson reaches to them by lecturing in two-hour blocks with a message of “clean your own room” before setting out to change the world, to think deeply, be reflective, become competent, and stand up for yourself and what you believe is right. These are all very good messages, and he delivers them with all of the humor and humanity, and the substance and depth, for which Murray rightly congratulates him.

Good advice, however, is cheap. Similar messages to many of Peterson’s are available in any number of self-help books, especially for the young entrepreneur or businessperson. That kind of thing has never before been enough to inspire a generation of lost boys, who mostly want to find their way to winning in a way that truly resonates with them — to some kind of masculine success. So Peterson urges them in intentionally inflected tones to be, for example, powerful and instructs them so by riding on a claim that it’s what women really (secretly) want from men more than anything else. Wink, wink. After all, it was true when men were men and women were women, and we can all know it because this mythological story about snakes from the Bible bears it out. And so by tossing in some pop-psychology and pop-evolutionary theory, partially rooted within his own expertise, Peterson gives this melange of advice the full appearance of “depth and substance.”

This is why Murray is right to bring us imagery from the pulpit when describing Peterson and his appeal. That Peterson is charismatically delivering an apparently much-needed, meaning-laden message to a crowd thirsting for it explains much his popularity. Religious allusion also explains the strangest piece of the Peterson puzzle: the peculiar devotion of his fans, many of whom simply know you’ll love Peterson too once you’ve heard enough of him to hear him correctly. To put it simply, they, like their social justice-infused nemeses, are members of a largely unorganized emerging religious movement. This, of course, is a polite way of calling the Petersonites a nascent cult, though it isn’t at all clear whether Peterson leads or merely inspires his not-too-motley crew of the culturally fed-up.

Peterson and Religious Psychology

To better understand the phenomenon, perhaps the most fascinating clue comes from Peterson himself, from a lecture he published to YouTube about a year ago: part two of “Marionettes and Individuals” from his 2017 Maps of Meaning 3 series. About three quarters of the way through this lecture, Peterson devotes several minutes to explaining the phenomenon of how groups of this kind form a sort of conspiracy with their charismatic leader. Using the example of Adolf Hitler, Peterson explains how a disgruntled speaker talking to a similarly disgruntled crowd can establish a feedback loop in which, rather than the leader taking the crowd to dark places in an intentional way, the leader and the crowd go into the shadowlands together. In listening to this segment of this year-old lecture at this point in his career, it’s difficult not to imagine the charismatic Peterson, fed up with the excesses of social justice leftism, reaching to a crowd that feels the same way he does but doesn’t know how to articulate it. In fact, unless entranced by it, this irony is almost all one can think about.

At bottom, what Peterson is describing in “Marionettes 2” is the fundamentals of religious psychology. It’s difficult to ascertain how much religious psychology Peterson formally understands, but from his nearly seamless incorporation of religious themes and recognition of their cultural and affective importance into his lectures, it’s clear he’s not entirely ignorant on the subject. In fact, this short description of Hitler’s rise to popularity establishes fairly convincingly that Peterson has at least a very solid informal understanding of the psychology he’s exploiting in his own crowd.

This isn’t to lay blame. Peterson himself in his “Marionettes 2” lecture indicates that this relationship is rarely intentional — the psychological processes that wed the leader to his crowd are, in fact, quite subtle and sophisticated, and they will conquer most people easily without their realizing it — and to all appearances, this seems to be contributing to Peterson’s “curious” star appeal. In fact, this seems to be a moment for Peterson to reflect and, perhaps, to take his own medicine.

Consider, for example, Peterson’s recent interview with Cathy Newman on BBC Channel 4. To be sure, the vast majority of this interview shows Peterson at his absolute best, handling an aggressive and distorting Newman with ease, wit, grace, and — most crucially — data, and it demonstrates why he’s both very likable and a serious public intellectual well worth taking seriously in much of what he says. Nevertheless, in his first few minutes with Newman, Peterson demonstrates elements of his more concerning side and, particularly, a hint that he may be going somewhere quite unintended along with a crowd that’s making him just as he is making them. While explaining to Newman how men need to “grow up” and get their lives in order, for example, Peterson catches himself in a moment of clarity on the very point he made a year earlier in “Marionettes 2.” He remarks, “I’ve been telling young men — but it’s not — I wasn’t specifically aiming this message at young men to begin with; it just kind of turned out that way.” Indeed, the leader and the crowd very often walk together. In these cases under Peterson’s own advice, it’s clear that it’s up to the superior leader to figure out where he and his followers going and to make exceedingly careful decisions about the whole affair.

Understanding religious psychology can only help. While the empirical study of the psychology of religion is slow to characterize specifically what constitutes a religion, or more loosely a religious movement, it is quite clear on how religion works at the psychological level and informative on what makes them what they are. At the very bottom, as I elaborated upon in Everybody Is Wrong About God, as sets of ideas, religions are cultural structures that help people meet a variety of psychological and social needs, primarily needs for meaning making, control, and sociality. That is, people turn to religions to make sense of their worlds both functionally and meaningfully, to feel more in control of (shall we say) chaotic circumstances, and to establish and maintain a social order to which they belong, in which they can place themselves, and from which they can derive esteem.

There’s a lot going on here that makes a structure like this work — and in terms of what makes it religious. People often think it’s God or gods that make a belief structure religious, but that’s not quite right. Religions are more accurately a kind of community, known as a moral community, built not so much around deities as around certain kinds of symbolic cultural narratives. Particularly, religions provide meaning by offering a symbolic mythological narrative into which life, society, and the broader universe are contextualized. (The mythological aspect of religions is where God usually comes in and seems to be, in fact, the crucial divider between religious structures and mere ideological movements.) Furthermore, religions not only provide and maintain the community in which the religious subculture thrives but also utilize the underlying mythology to provide structure and order for that society. They also deliver their mythology and philosophy for life by means of psychologically elevating messages; protect their mythological structure from challenges, either from other competing mythologies or from rational inquiry that probes too deeply, by making use of nonstandard epistemologies that serve to support and protect the mythological structure at their cores; and usually have some mechanism by which conversion to the faith can be achieved and is marked. Religions tell people in an emotionally salient way what’s going on, how things are best ordered, and who and how to be, and they provide means for knowing their own.

Resisting Domination

It isn’t hard to see how Peterson’s message operates in the religious way for a disaffected group of lost young men, specifically those who have had enough of being told who and how to be by the excesses of social justice progressivism (but who don’t want to have to turn to either of the embarrassing idiocy of the alt-right or hyper-alpha masculinity that seems to be offered as the only contemporary alternatives). In stark contrast to these bad options, Peterson offers a means for the everyman, especially the one smashed under the feminist’s thumb, to tap into and evoke his own inner Nietzschean übermensch. In plainer language, Peterson is offering an accessible and contemporary vision of manliness that, whether for right or wrong (and probably some of both), seems to have been lost to the cultural changes of the past several decades. It reaches to the vulnerable, as religious conversion mechanisms nearly always do, and “red pills” them, which marks their conversion and roughly means that he breaks them free of the cultural assumptions that dictate upon their times.

This view of manliness appeals to the downtrodden young man by helping him “straighten his back,” as Peterson puts it, so that he can make something more of himself. At least to a few layers down, this sounds great, but there’s more to it than that for our lost boys. As Peterson admonishes Cathy Newman, “Women deeply want men who are competent and powerful.” This is telling, isn’t it? Peterson’s message reaches these young men not only for the higher purposes at the end of his sentence, but also for the usual ones at the start of it — so they can become what women really want, which is to say so that they can get laid.

Not only that, Peterson promises more than sex from women who desire them to his acolytes. He also makes sure they won’t have to be dominated by those women in return for a sexual relationship. “You can’t dominate a competent partner,” he tells Newman, “so if you want domination….” Unfortunately, Newman cut Peterson off before he could finish that fascinating sentence, but he finally continues by saying that “women who have had their relationships with men impaired and who are afraid of such relationships will settle for a weak partner because they can dominate them.” In a conversation with Camille Paglia a few months earlier, Peterson made similar waves by remarking, “I don’t think men can control crazy women.” Though the context was different — Peterson was urging other women to check their more intense sisters, seemingly meaning aggressive feminists, and to do so because men can’t be violent against them — the implicit message of powerlessness against feminism for his lost boys is the same.

Why so many young men would want to be sexually desirable is no mystery and never has been, but why all of Peterson’s talk about female domination would resonate with them is a more curious matter that again evokes the religious appeal Peterson carries. Religion often offers an emotionally tangible solution to some vexing problem that leaves people feeling powerless (often, it’s death), and here, for more men than at any point in history, that problem is feminism. Like their guru, Peterson’s fans have had enough of the kind of domineering feminism that considers their very being to be “toxic,” and they can’t stand the poisonous “social justice” activism that dismisses them for being intrinsically “privileged.” Feminism, in many regards, has gone much too far in the 21st century, and it has created a cultural circumstance, as Murray rightly diagnoses, “destined to produce societal resentment and disengagement on a generational scale.”

Of all brands of snake oil that can be sold, the kind that answers societal resentment is the most potent kind, and it is the sort that has the highest likelihood of turning toward the religious. Wherever it will go in time, Peterson’s message currently does exactly this. What Peterson provides his audience is a sweeping explanation that tells a frustrated people “here’s why things are going bad for you and why you feel out of control of your life, and here’s what you can do about it within yourself, starting now.” How very Biblical, or Quranic, or Buddhist, or Woke. This is an invitation to being born again, and moral rebirth is always an exercise in remaking oneself in a new moral image that enables you to regain control over the broken parts of your life. Peterson’s “order out of chaos” message equipped with plenty of implicit hearkening back to a lost time when men were men and women were women sets the stage perfectly for this mechanism. Like all religious movements, it also sets itself up to become a self-fulfilling prophesy by remaking society in its image by valorizing the traditional roles it claims to rely upon.

Maps of Mythology

Religions can sell such a sweeping change to such a wide audience because they offer a meaning-making framework that appeals to emotions and rests upon myth. They then draw copiously from real world examples to show how one’s life is likely to be out of control outside of that framework and more under control within it, making themselves self-fulfilling cultural prophesies. As psychologists of religion Ralph Hood, Jr., Peter Hill, and Bernard Spilka explain,

“The attribution [meaning-making] process described earlier represents not just a need for meaning, but also for mastery and control. Especially when threatened with harm or pain, all higher organisms seek to predict and/or control the outcomes of events that affect them. This fact has been linked by attribution theorists and researchers with novelty, frustration or failure, lack of control, and restriction of personal freedom.” (p. 17)

This need for control works for people especially when it provides a subjective feeling of control, even when that sense of control is illusory (like with religious reliance upon magic such as intercessory prayer or a belief in transcending death). It’s potency is ultimately rooted within the search for world-contextualizing meaning.

The advantages of having a mythological core within such a meaning-making framework are numerous and allow people to bring messages home. Particularly, mythological structures provide grand explanatory narratives and emotionally resonant symbols. They’re also essentially unfalsifiable. One cannot debunk a myth because the myth itself is a story, and anything in a symbolic story that is falsified is and always was obviously metaphorical. This reliably leads to problems. Drawing from an admirable essay about “Wokeness and Myth on Campus” by Alan Jacobs, which in turn draws upon the work of Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski’s book The Presence of Myth, a mythological core

“describes that aspect of our experience ‘not revealed by scientific questions and beliefs.’ It encompasses the ‘nonempirical unconditioned reality’ of our experience, that which is not amenable to confirmation or disconfirmation. …the mythical core describes our most fundamental relation to the world. It is our metaphysical background, the elements prior to our manipulation and control. For Kołakowski, the failure to distinguish between the mythical and technological cores leads to a failure to understand many social trends and events.”

Jacobs, still following Kołakowski, points out another significant advantage of mythological structures that makes them into their own rather tremendous problem. Myths aren’t merely stories; they represent a “way of being in the world,” and as such, they present deep affective connection for believers and inspire devotion. As an unfortunate consequence, myths cannot be questioned in any significant part lest doubt threaten the integrity of the whole structure. As Jacobs neatly articulates, though using the example of social justice left “woke” activists on campus,

“Something even more deep-seated is at work when student protesters’ interpretations of events, and their proffered remedies for historical or current injustice, are challenged and the students reply, ‘You are denying my very identity.’ This response makes sense only within the mythical core, not the technological core [approximately, in Jacob’s words: a stance toward the world that is instrumental and manipulative, in relatively neutral senses of those words]. One cannot analytically pick apart a complex, integrated mythical framework and say, ‘I choose this but not that’ without tearing holes in the web and leaving it dangling and useless. That is what instrumental reason always does to myth.”

The mythological appeal of Peterson’s message is, perhaps, its most overt feature. He openly and frequently appeals to Christian symbolism, Western cultural mythology, Jungian archetypes, and idealized visions of gender roles and dynamics to make his points — and to make them more visceral. This is, in fact, roughly what his book Maps of Meaning is about. It also works. As Murray observed, describing one of Peterson’s public events,

“Going back to the time when we lived in trees and feared fire and snakes, he explored the psychological and mythical reasons why the snakiest of all snakes [dragons] might have lodged itself in each culture as the representation of evil. And from there we went to Eden and the Gulag via the Judeo-Christian tradition’s discovery that even if we chase down every snake in the land we cannot fully destroy the one inside ourselves. Motes, beams and eyes were discussed in relation to his advice to a generation hooked on public displays of morality: ‘Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world.’”

All of this feels immediately resonant to anyone familiar with the legends. This, as Murray indicates, does more than connect Peterson’s audience to ideas and “give them a home,” it sets them within an overriding mythological web that cannot be picked apart in part lest it be left dangling and useless in total. And Peterson isn’t just some secularized prosperity-gospel charlatan cynically selling a resonant message for praise and profit; he almost unquestionably deeply believes exactly what he’s saying and thus convincingly communicates not only a message but a vision for the world. Again, in Murray’s keen assessment, “as well as being funny, there is a burning sincerity to [Peterson] which only the most withered cynic could suspect.”

That seems perfectly true, even recalling Peterson’s own “Marionettes 2” warning about and for charismatic public figures, but the essence of secularism — as an antidote to the privileging of any particular moral mythology — is that sincerity (or conviction) covers exactly none of the ground toward validity. This is why Peterson’s message demands more care than he’s giving it. Whether he understands this or doesn’t, the movement building itself around his unique presentation — and around him — almost certainly will not. Movements rarely understand such things. The need for care falls upon the leader and should be inspired in the followers, and it depends upon epistemology, a workable theory of knowledge. The trouble is, mythological structures are, as a general rule, permanently allergic to robust epistemologies, and Peterson’s seems no exception.

Utility and Truth

Rather than rigorous approaches to ascertaining truth, many mythological frameworks of attribution rely upon alternative or even what we could call “island epistemologies,” which are roughly what our friends on the far left and in the churches might refer to as “other ways of knowing.” Calvinist theology, for example, relies upon the island epistemology known as “Reformed Epistemology,” which in its simplest essence insists that people can feel the presence of God directly and thus can directly assert theological knowledge. Feminist theology, especially the intersectional sort, similarly relies upon an island epistemology known as “standpoint theory,” which theorizes that the oppressed can see more of our social reality than can dominant groups and thus possess keener insight than privilege allows. Without being quite so far out to sea as these island epistemologies, Peterson’s approach to truth leaves a lot to be desired except by those who wish to preserve his mythology.

Peterson, in Maps of Meaning, lays out a very relativistic approach to truth that seems almost openly postmodern. It directly appeals to “ancient” knowledge and seems to put it on some kind of a level with scientific epistemology.

“How is it that complex and admirable ancient civilizations could have developed and flourished, initially, if they were predicated upon nonsense? … Is it not more likely that we just do not know how it could be that traditional notions are right, given their appearance of extreme irrationality? Is it not likely that this indicates modern philosophical ignorance, rather than ancestral philosophical error? We have made the great mistake that the ‘world of spirit’ described by those who proceeded us was the modern ‘world of matter’ primitively conceptualized. This is not true — at least not in the simple manner we generally believe. The cosmos described by mythology was not the same place known to the practitioners of modern science — but that does not mean it was not real.” (p. 8, emphasis original)

Treating Peterson’s approach to epistemology so simplistically, as with much about the man, misses the mark and requires many more words to tangle with. Rather than being naively postmodern or relativistic, with a consequential departure, Peterson essentially adopts as an epistemology the pragmatism of another great symbologist in his tradition, William James.

The short essence of pragmatism, as James laid it out, is that truth isn’t particularly relevant; what matters is what is useful. In developing pragmatism, James was trying to sidestep the thorns and brambles that functionally define all philosophical inquiries about truth and to focus upon utility instead. For James, rather than asking is it true? we are better off asking what use is it? and pursuing that which is most useful. It’s a compelling philosophical take that even bootstraps itself — pragmatism should become that which is most pragmatic itself and thus needn’t justify itself as true because it is inherently (optimally) useful — but it merely adds complexity to the problem of truth. In every conceivable example, the central proposition of pragmatism, P is useful, still has to be examined for truth, not merely utility, and this has to be done the old-fashioned way.

Nevertheless, for those familiar with Peterson’s confusing discussions on the topic of truth, his reliance upon James’ pragmatism is obvious, and for those also familiar with James, so is Peterson’s fundamental betrayal of it. In fact, Peterson makes no bones about the fact that his approach to truth is ultimately rooted in pragmatic utility. So far, so good, but Peterson diverges from James by being willing to call true that which passes his usefulness test. In this way, Peterson is able to effectively play Three-card Monte with the idea of “truth” and to wed his more careful and well-founded statements to his underlying mythological core, which ultimately constitutes the magic of his message.

So, if (mis)using James’ pragmatism in this way isn’t quite an island epistemology in the same way as standpoint theory, it’s a bulb on the end of a very narrow peninsula in the epistemological landscape. By constructing “truth” as he does, Peterson is able to dodge the kind of rigorous epistemology that would tatter the mythological core at the center of his message (and popularity) while using it to generate a social movement around himself that therefore cannot course-correct. Dealing with new information effectively requires one of two things, after all, either a solid approach to ascertaining truth or a truly fortunate choice in leader who can do it for you. This is a problem Peterson warns about in other cult-like ideologies than his own, but it might help him at this point to ponder the beam in his own eye. It won’t be easy, though. In “Marionettes 2,” Peterson recognizes the difficulty of precisely this problem and offers the example of Ghandi’s extreme asceticism as a prophylactic against drinking his own Kool-Aid. Asceticism aside, it isn’t clear Peterson is being so careful.

The Guru Mechanic

This is the precise guru mechanic that Martha Nussbaum adroitly pinned upon “Professor of Parody” Judith Butler with regard to the cult of gender performativity that follows her, to Peterson’s likely chagrin. Though Peterson keeps both of his feet well out of the chaos in the quote below, much in the relevant part of Nussbaum’s criticism applies,

“When ideas are stated clearly, after all, they may be detached from their author: one can take them away and pursue them on one’s own. When they remain mysterious (indeed, when they are not quite asserted), one remains dependent on the originating authority. The thinker is heeded only for his or her turgid charisma. One hangs in suspense, eager for the next move. When Butler does follow that ‘direction for thinking,’ what will she say? What does it mean, tell us please, for the agency of a subject to presuppose its own subordination? (No clear answer to this question, so far as I can see, is forthcoming.) One is given the impression of a mind so profoundly cogitative that it will not pronounce on anything lightly: so one waits, in awe of its depth, for it finally to do so.”

Peterson’s problem, of course, isn’t that he fails to state his ideas clearly, unless they’re his ideas about what makes a thing true. He typically is. Instead, by couching his message his own rather unique application of Biblical exegesis combined with Jungian archetypes, he is forcing the crowd to depend on his interpretations to make sense of the next new thing. This is the guru mechanic at work. This is the stunt of a preacher, and given his broad appeals to science to support his emotionally salient connections, a slightly bent variant of James’ pragmatism is the perfect slippery epistemology needed to get the job done. Remember, in this view if it’s useful it’s true, and what method of verification could possibly be worse for a self-sustaining, emotionally salient social movement that appeals to a disgruntled and disaffected populace? It is, in fact, exactly what Peterson himself warned us about in his “Marionettes 2” lecture.

The mechanism that makes this work, as articulated and warned against since antiquity, is rhetoric. Clearly unlike Judith Butler and most theologians, Peterson isn’t for the most part an obscurantist (except about truth), but he is a subtle and powerful rhetorician. Sometimes this is quite welcome, and at other times, it’s a bit worrisome. In his interview with Cathy Newman, for example, we see both. Throughout much of the interview, Peterson effectively turns the tables on nearly every one of Newman’s questions (or misinterpretations of what he had just said) and exudes confident charm while doing so. At one point, he even catches her completely off-guard, leaving her unable to articulate why she should be able to risk offending him while insisting he shouldn’t do what he, in his professional and considered opinion, thinks is the best way to handle the trans pronouns issue.

On the other hand, in the shakier early part of the interview, Newman asks Peterson, “what’s in [your message to young men] for the women?” to which he replies “Well, what sort of partner do you want? Do you want an overgrown child or someone to contend with that’s going to help you?” This is a response that, however genuine and for whatever truth it contains behind its false choice, lights up powerful emotional triggers that do much of his work for him. And much of his presentation is like this. It’s generally good advice given for mostly good reasons on reasonably plausible justifications that still manages to be broken and misleading in fundamental ways. Tucked within all of the care, learning, and sincerity, Peterson promotes a worldview dripping with a kind of seductive simplicity delivered in powerful undertones of moral worthiness.

This is how Peterson appeals to people so much more than seems to offer a ready explanation. He reaches to people, mostly young men and their sympathizers, with sweeping cultural narratives about masculinity and femininity that seem to explain their crappy lot while offering them a means for redemptive action. This most strongly affects those who feel dispossessed or even oppressed by a culture that has marginalized them and who are generally anomic in our largely post-religious secular society, and it is elevating. It gives them an identity, which in turn gives them a sense of society and their place in it, and an appeal to a kind of traditional conventionalism that feels more secure than what seems to be getting them down. He’s giving them a mythology and a hero narrative in which they can throw off their own feelings of oppression and become übermenschen in their own tractable ways, and he’s suggesting that society should be structured by them in ways that naturally reward this position. It’s all very grand, romantic, and Manichean while it advocates an ideology of traditional roles and macho nonsense: order versus chaos, the forces of good against corruption, and powerful men against feminist domination. Turning back to his “Marionettes 2” lecture, we might pause to ask: what could go wrong?

And Peterson’s potent message of worthiness can be far subtler than this. A scene documented by Murray gives a sense of it.

“On Sunday night, one young woman asked what advice Peterson would give to a student like her. He told her to ignore those professors who aimed to wither the souls of their students. Instead, he urged her to use her student years to cultivate the greatest possible friendships. Many of these friendships would be with people who — as Peterson put it — were dead; people whose feet the deconstructionists and resentment-cultivators of modern academia were not worthy of touching.”

It’s one thing to provide this message: spend your time at university making great friendships and digging into literature, reading the greats, and engaging with ideas that make you question what you’re being taught by the prevailing cultural theory — to “raise themselves above the ideas of the time,” as Voltaire put it. It’s quite another to phrase it in such overtly moralistic and symbolic language with such affective rhetoric. Surely, it brings the point home better, but it also led Murray to have to describe the tone and tenor of the “wonderful” Peterson event he attended in this way: “…this was not a Christian revivalist meeting. At least not explicitly or intendedly so.”

So perhaps Murray is pretending not to know why Peterson is so popular, but it’s pretty clear. Peterson is reaching to a generation of lost boys and telling them his inspiring view on how to become real men, become successes, and (nudge, nudge) go fuck the prom queen at the end of the night. So much for the “curious” matter of Peterson’s popularity, then. It’s simple, and Murray got it in a word: whatever his substance and depth, humor and humanity, Professor Jordan Peterson is a guru for young men and their sympathizers who don’t know who or how to be in today’s post-everything world.

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  1. Very interesting and well-worth reading.

    But as a conservative theist, I do have to wonder if you’ve done any work going in depth and refuting classical arguments for God’s existence. For example, the kinds you can find in Dr. Edward Feser’s Five Proofs of the Existence of God.

    I haven’t read any of your previous work, so I don’t know. Do you deal with this anywhere or do you simply assume that these old-fashioned arguments “have already been refuted” and aren’t even worth taking seriously?

  2. I found parts of this article thought-provoking, however I see little immediate danger of JBP becoming a dangerous cult leader as this article appears to suggest. I like to think that if he was going down that route, myself and many others who follow his work would pull back. As a woman, I don’t agree with everything he says about women and I do think his message will be more resonant with young men. Having said that, I do find value in many of his ideas and I think it’s important that someone like JBP is providing an alternative to people (mainly young men) who are inclined to be pulled toward the alt-right. Even if his ideas are imperfect, he is tempering a movement that does pose actual and immediate danger.

    1. Much has been made of the fact that his audience has been predominantly male. Early on he estimated it was 90/10 male to female, while more recently he has estimated that his audience is now closer to 65/35. This change may be a reflection of the increase of his main stream exposure that counters the bigoted, misogynistic, alt-right caricature that he was tagged with early on. As people investigate his views for themselves they see that long before his recent notoriety he was giving the same message to his students. They see that he is authentic in wanting all of them, male and female, to live as individuals to make life better for them, their families and society rather than being trapped by ideological group think. I’m no fanboy that agrees with everything word he says, especially the metaphysical stuff, and he can be a bit hyperbolic at times, but I think that his core message has merit.

      To add further context. As Peterson’s public visibility has extended beyond Youtube it has become apparent to many more people that despite the prevailing narrative he is not a bigoted misogynist. In the Newman interview he said clearly that he is a feminist, in that he believes in equality in all aspects of society, but that the forced equity that is being advocated by some is undesirable and inevitably leads to tyranny. His call to ‘traditional’ values is in no way a step back to some past repressive gender roles. He places them firmly in a modern context. He advocates for people to have children because for most (but not all) of us, it leads to a more meaningful and fulfilling life, particularly in old age. He advises couples to; clearly define their roles in household duties so as to reduce conflicts, resolve marital problems while they are small by telling the truth to their partner and for each to separately reflect on what the other has said so as to come to a resolution as equals. This should reduce the probability that things spiral out of control and result in divorce. It is a matter of both parties taking responsibility to reduce unneeded suffering, particularly for the children who often suffer long term detrimental effects due to living in single parent homes, especially if it is a very acrimonious divorce.

      He is fully supportive of women in the workplace but cautions them that it is a serious challenge. He advises them to plan ahead for managing marriage/partnership, children (if they choose) and career. He recommends that they have things in place by their early thirties for two main reasons; they are biologically limited for having children at a much earlier age than men and they still have a tendency to desire a mate who is equal or higher in social stature than they are. Such men become increasingly rare as they age and progress in their career. Also, they will be competing with a large pool of younger women. That’s not misogynistic. It’s just practical advice that makes sense. It should be noted that these prescriptions for a meaningful life are based on his observations over decades of being a practicing clinical psychologist for 20 hours/week.

      1. Some random thoughts.

        The trouble with feminism seems to be that to large parts of what has become its modern incarnation, anything that falls short of a constant and mindless stream of praise, affirmation, and validation is seen and labelled as “misogynistic” and “hateful”. History has for the most part not taught women to do proper work for their gains (which is now falsely identified as “oppression”), and this effect is amplified by every teenage mind that has never managed to emancipated itself from parental influence. This is equally the fault of parents as it is the fault of our educational institutions. (There clearly is a vicious circle here.) The result is the “snowflake”/”cry bully” phenomenon, which spreads across all societal and political spectra. It’s a sad state of affairs that harms women more than any form of sexism ever could, let alone the imaginary structures of the ubiquitously imagined patriarchy.

        Structuralist theories like feminism and patriarchy invariably evolve into conspiracy theories, forever confusing the possible with the probable and consequently flying into one paranoid rage after another. Eventually these rages become the only identity of their bearers and must therefore be protected and perpetuated into infinity. Only a deeply sexist society can fulfill the modern feminist’s needs and thus sexism must be identified within every aspect of the world and at the same time never be stopped.

        While I’m sure that Peterson means well, he is prone to succumb to structuralist temptations as well, even if to a lesser degree than modern feminism does. Yet, like feminism, Peterson is clearly driven by a substantial amount of fear of monsters under the bed, in his case of “neo-marxism” and anything that he, mostly mistakenly, labels “postmodern”. Peterson doesn’t understand postmodernism in the least and neither does he want to. It is his blind spot of darkness into which he can project all that he thinks is wrong with the world. There is indeed a lot wrong with the world, but the influence of Derrida et al is hardly the big problem humanity is facing in 2018. Postmodern thought is only very rarely properly studied or even recognized anymore, including by those who make extensive reference to it, and hasn’t been since the late 70s, when consumerism began its long and destructive reign within Western civilization. One effect of consumerism is that professors have been turned into careerists, which is what youtube and Patreon have afforded Peterson to be able to do, even though he obviously never set out for a goal like that. (He was too busy fighting his alcoholism anyway.)

        The question of a meaningful life remains and it remains unanswered by any of the exponentially increasing public outrage and artificially manufactured controversies, such as #metoo, facilitated by “social” media, over who can say what in which context, and thus buzzwords have turned into ideologies, the primary example being “free speech”. These empty wars over literally nothing dominate almost all political discourse in the media, a discourse designed by and for the teenage mind and its childish sensibilities.

        And every time a teenage mind (of any age) continues to dig their heels in in the context of one of these trench wars fought between the sexes, races, religions, or nationalities, a billionaire gets his wings. And by wings I mean offshore accounts.

        1. Well put!

          The culture war is not happening in the same manner that World of Warcraft is not happening. The similarities between fighting against orcs, elves, SJWs and the alt-right should be obvious, but part of the problem is that everyone has been sucked up inside of these virtual worlds. Alone with digits and devices, lost in narrative, bravely fighting an imagined world of dragons. Say what you will about nerds and MMORPGs but at least they recognize that they are playing a game! Oh yes, Charlottesville, but does the aftermath of a sports riot imply that the main event was somehow a real battle?

          Is anything more ironic than Peterson tilting against a Zizek or Chomsky quotebot on Twitter?

  3. Enjoyed the article immensely. Thank you, Mr. Lindsay.

    That said, I disagree with your conclusions and would urge you to take the time to investigate Peterson’s course materials as the best means of obtaining a more accurate view of his positions and their underlying principles. Such investigation requires a considerable investment of time, but the ROI can be considerably advantageous.

    With regards to the reason for his popularity, I suggest that you consider the strong possibility that it is primarily owing to his engaging style of lecturing, combined with a well-reasoned foundation for his discourse.

    I arrived here searching for rationally supported objections to Dr. Peterson’s theses. I have yet to discover any such arguments, but you have come closer than most.

    I have been rapidly approaching the position of being a Jordan B. Peterson sympathizer, but due diligence is in order as a prime prerequisite to professing support for any public intellectual. This search for rational opposing viewpoints is an exercise in tedium ad extremis, and you are thus entitled to my gratitude for a valiant and diverting attempt, albeit one that is redolent of thinly veiled contempt.

    You have missed the mark, but you have done so with a certain panache, gaining another subscriber to this publication as a result.

  4. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that figures on the right tend toward projection. Do you think it’s coincidence that Jordan Peterson, who has so stridently warned about the dangers of the “postmodern cult course” in universities, has himself formed a cult of loyal followers? Pay attention to what he accuses others of, and you will have identified his true intentions.

    1. Peterson is a pragmatist, and his advice to young people is also pragmatic. It is approximately “Do these things for a year and see if your life has improved.” You can look up youtube for countless videos of people who have turned their lives around.

      You want to see his true intentions? Look up one of the videos where he talks about young men coming up to him and telling him how they have turned their lives around.

  5. Wow, he sure rattled your cage. I can’t remember reading such a snarky, resentment-oozing, nakedly strawman piece in a long while, especially not on Areo.

    Just a selection of points:

    ‘By constructing “truth” as he does, Peterson is able to dodge the kind of rigorous epistemology that would tatter the mythological core at the center of his message…’ Have you conducted your own rigorously epistemological Jungian analysis of Bible mythology that shows his to be profoundly wrong? And why the snarky scare quotes round “truth”? If you don’t believe it’s true, say ‘his opinion’, or ‘his message’.

    ‘Newman asks Peterson, “[W]hat’s in [your message to young men] for the women?” to which he replies “Well, what sort of partner do you want? Do you want an overgrown child or someone to contend with that’s going to help you?” This is a response that, however genuine and for whatever truth it contains behind its false choice…’ Please explain how choosing between maturity and immaturity is a ‘false choice’.

    ‘Instead, by couching his message his own rather unique application of Biblical exegesis combined with Jungian archetypes, he is forcing the crowd to depend on his interpretations to make sense of the next new thing.’ Where is your evidence he is ‘forcing’ anyone to do anything? What upsets you so much about someone presenting a series of ideas each of which builds on the last? Is this principle unknown to a mathematician? How is your snarky, strawman sentence more accurate than ‘he presents a Jungian interpretation of the Biblical stories based on his personal beliefs and his extensive academic and clinical practice and leaves it up to the audience to make up their own mind’?

    ‘[W]ith sweeping cultural narratives about masculinity and femininity’ Please name a single cultural narrative that can’t be jeered at as ‘sweeping’. Then explain how such language informs and furthers the debate.

    ‘It’s generally good advice given for mostly good reasons on reasonably plausible justifications that still manages to be broken and misleading in fundamental ways.” Please explain how ‘good advice’ can be ‘broken and misleading’? Isn’t broken and misleading advice generally defined as being bad advice?

    ‘He’s suggesting that society should be structured by them in ways that naturally reward this position”. Another strawman. At no point does he suggest this. He’s saying that society *already is* structured in this way. He points out numerous times that this is unfair and causes suffering. He suggests ways of dealing with this that involve being fair and reducing suffering.

    ‘It’s one thing to provide this message: spend your time at university making great friendships and digging into literature, reading the greats, and engaging with ideas that make you question what you’re being taught by the prevailing cultural theory — to “raise themselves above the ideas of the time,” as Voltaire put it. It’s quite another to phrase it in such overtly moralistic and symbolic language with such affective rhetoric.’ This made me laugh out loud. Are you seriously saying he is wrong to be passionate about articulating his personal moral beliefs? Do you prefer covert moralism, or is it moralism itself that offends you so much? Please explain why you find symbolism problematic. As a writer, do you personally deliberately dumb down your own ‘affective rhetoric’ in fear of actually convincing someone of your point of view?

    “[G]o fuck the prom queen at the end of the night…” Strawman again. Name one instance of where he actually says this. Or are we just gaining a projected insight into your own thwarted dark desires?

    Biased scholarship and shoddy reasoning throughout. Sure hope your math is better than your writing.

    1. Ditto, but I also found a lot of thought provoking observations. I wish the author would take a more open-minded view – there are multiple ways to interpret JBPs statements and motivations. Why choose or even entertain the dark ones? Based on what evidence? I don’t see JBP even skirting towards a dangerous path. Perhaps JBP will be an ongoing force for good. Sure, he may take a misstep here or there, but only time will tell his net impact. And there are lots of intelligent individuals who would notice any kind of pattern and who are not lobsters in a pot slowly coming to boil.

    2. I think you are being a bit unfair. This article is possibly the best criticism of Peterson I have read. To be fair, most of Peterson’s critics rely unpon unfounded assertions, insults and lies, so it’s not a high bar.

      Peterson does imply that his teachings will get men laid. I do find the author’s implication that there is something vaguely dirty about it to be wrong, as human actually are animals, biological entities that really need to get laid. So why should the goal of getting laid be considered inferior to our other goals like eating, socializing, contributing and finding meaning?

      Author uses “truth” because that is where he apparently disagrees with Peterson. Peterson has an evolutionary perspective on truth as useful model of the world. For example, one can say a “true” statement “the perpetrator escaped in a red car”. Useful thing, but only exist as biologically and socailly constructed “truth”. The color red does not exist outside the brain, it is a product of our biology. Simiarly, a car is actually just empty space and probability functions or whatever the latest physics theory suggests. Yet, we can define that as true as it works for us as biological beings.

      Author does not define his truth, so it is easy for him to attack Peterson’s view.

    3. In short… it made me better understand why this guys expertise is in “math” not in psychology.. LMAO sorry couldn’t help myself.. Its gentlemen like this who put off like they have this REAL grasp on Peterson and what he is all about, when not confronted with him(Peterson) in the room.. Then it ALL goes down hill rather quickly when they mess up and wind up in same place at the same time and make the fool hardy effort to question him . We have seen it far too many times and it just doesn’t end well for these types..

  6. This is the most effective criticism of Jordan Peterson that I’ve seen so far. Well done, and I do mean that. However it doesn’t change the fact that he’s doing the world a whole lot of good. I think he’s exactly the right antidote against the destructive spell of feminism and social justice that is eating at the foundations of our society, because he offers an alternative that is actually deeply constructive. But yeah, it’s vital that his philosophy is understood and incorporated by enough people that it can survive his eventual fall from grace or death. As he himself has noted on several occasions, his rise to fame will most probably end disastrously.

    1. “As he himself has noted on several occasions, his rise to fame will most probably end disastrously.”

      Lol. Maybe with him on a cross.

    2. The “destructive spell of feminism and social justice” exists only in the various forms of electronic media that have come to dominate the lives of the people who are even bothered by this situation in the first place.

      If you want to get rid of the insane ramblings of either the alt-right or social justice warriors all you have to do is throw your phone in a river and then go for a long walk.

  7. I think a good way to understand Peterson is as an existentialist thinker, with existentialism being the antidote to the nihilism brought about by Nietzsche’s “death of God,” the idea that our old mythologies are no longer believable for those who strongly pursue truth in a scientific sense. While there’s always some risk that fans will become tribalistic sheep following a great thinker, his teachings are all fundamentally individualistic, which should counteract this tendency. Much less than a single theory or mythology that must be defended, he is providing *method* by which people can make their lives meaningful, help them individuate in a Jungian sense, become the heroes of their own stories, etc. This can be compared to meditation as a method to gain control of one’s own mind, such that it becomes a tool and not an obstacle to one’s thriving.

    Also, of course “truth” should be subordinated to utility for life, for thriving. Read some more Nietzsche. Truth (order/meaning/values/goals/direction/beliefs) is just a concept, a tool, that consciousness needs in order to avoid the overwhelming anxiety brought about by nihilism/chaos, but it should never be an end in itself. These things can only be approached asymptotically. Every belief is a working theory, necessary but insufficient.

  8. Peterson’s conception of “truth” is, I think, one of the keys to understanding why he’s effective. He knows what it takes to motivate; he can move in both the analytical, abstract, deconstructive realm and the synthesizing, concrete, constructive one. Hence, he can speak the language of people who are drawn to either more analytical or more creative endeavors, and what he says rings true to many who have tried, failed, and grown as a result. His message appeals to a certain modality of living that is both analytical and critical yet constructive and meaningful. As a leader and teacher he could ultimately go down a dark road but, as of right now, I think there’s a good deal of hope that his net influence will be overwhelmingly positive–and much, much larger than the average academic.

    “Snake oil” is a disingenuous (or, at the very least, terrible) metaphor to use, as snake oil is false medicine, knowingly sold as a lie, that doesn’t work. Peterson offers a modality and path for living which actually does work and makes no promises about detailed results.

  9. Very insightful piece James, obviously you have considered the Peterson phenomenon with some depth, and your contribution is a valuable and well articulated one(which is something I know Peterson would respect).

    My only quibble is the Hitler analogy, it’s going to shut down the receptivity of many people to your observations.


    Because 2017-18 seems to be the era of compulsive hyperbolic overuse of the Hitler/Nazi analogy towards everyone who is daring to think or speak outside the box of the current sociopolitical Orthodoxy and all it’s attendant(and in many cases self-contradicting) moral axioms. The meaning of those words have now been, tragically, emptied of valuable content in the minds of a broad population of thinkers as far as I can tell, and merely triggers a “this author is being irrational and ideologically posessed” reflex.

    I know you were not trying to say Peterson will be the next Hitler, but many readers will be so used to seeing that comparison applied to anybody right of center that they will reflexively abandon listening to the actual content of your observations.
    I understand your point on the irony that Peterson will rail against Nazism while involved in a charismatic leader to crowd dynamic feedback loop that is akin to Hitler(though in no way a dynamic unique to Hitler), but in my estimation the analogy is really a needlesly slanderous one in the current climate of extreme polarization and knee-jerk condemnation, and does your actual arguments a disservice.

    There must be analogies far less contentious and, let’s be honest- cynical, than that of being similar in however innocently ironic a manner to perhaps the most notoriously brutal mass-murderer in the 20th century, and I can guarantee that the young men most devoted to Peterson, who could surely use some dose of self-reflection about their involvement with him as they navigate forwards, won’t get through the first section of your article just by way of seeing “Hitler” and “Peterson” paired again and again.

    But, all the same, your article was a valuable and well considered one.

    Well done.

    1. As I literally built the analogy out of Peterson’s lecture, which became a conceptual cornerstone for the piece, and Peterson’s lecture specifically mentions the dynamic in terms of his own struggle to understand how Hitler came to power, I was sort of stuck with that, lest I be called a liar for misrepresenting the lecture.

      1. Life is full of patterns and the feedback loop between a public figure and its audience is one such pattern, and it can be practically applied to every public figure. Your choice to use that juxtaposition of Peterson and Hitler based on this pattern might have let you indulge with a personal ‘gocha’ against Peterson, but have detracted from the potentially constructive suggestion to Peterson to reflect on his position and the extent to which he is also being driven by his audience in less desirable ways (which is always a possibility).

        Another reservation I have with this article is that it ignores the fact that in order to talk to his audience and capture its attention, Peterson cannot use a purely academic language as used in his Maps of Meaning book, but rather he absolutely have to build a dialog at the emotional level and use that as a carrier wave for the more abstract concepts and messages he wishes to promote.

        Peterson is describing himself as religious and one can certainly view him as a kind of a messenger for a new religion that is an amalgamation of old religions, science and his own philosophy. That in itself is not a bad thing – we have not seen any proof that human civilization can persist without religious structures and if these are indeed required (as Peterson suggests) then it is good to have this kind of modern religion taking hold, rather having people regress to the dogma and fundamentalism of old religions.

    2. well anymore I think “Hitler and racist” are a great many peoples “Go To’s”… and that usually is the defining moment I tend to begin generalizing (I know that’s wrong of me.. even if seldom) and determining that yet again we are getting more of the same same. Its unfortunate that people can not get there words across without insulting an entire legacy of people who did in FACT suffer from Nazi-ism and the wrath of Hitler.. Its nothing short of complete contempt for such a savage moment in history.. the caliber of savagery not too many people remotely has ever felt nor witnessed. Its just so gosh damn disrespectful to the survivors and victims.. and THAT’S when i generally just move on from a essay or article.

  10. Very good article, even if in many ways it is stating the obvious: Peterson’s way of speaking and thinking is fundamentally religious, as he often points out. It is hardly surprising, that the movement around him is in the broadest (and certainly not worst) sense religious.

    Also I find it neither surprising, nor ironic that Peterson finds himself in a feedback-loop with his audience, similar as Hitler did with his. Peterson himself would probably acknowledge that immediately, having repeatedly described how people tell him that he articulates things which they seem to have known already, without really knowing that they knew them.

    It is true that many of his audience become touchy and react more or less badly to criticism. There is nothing unusual or particularly noteworthy in this, since it is generally uncomfortable to have your beliefs challenged and it is the more painful the stronger you hold them. People tend to get defensive (to a variyng degree) if someone lambasts their favourite music style, political views, novelist, religion or TV series. Some people react more foolishly, offended or hysterically than others. I don’t think “Peterson followers” are worse offenders than others.

    What really made me raise an eyebrow was the doubt about his understanding of religious psychology. The author’s acknowledgement that Peterson is “not entirely ignorant on the subject” seems less than generous, given the fact that this arguably is a cornerstone of his expertise.

  11. Fascinating, insightful analysis. Great to see you trying to put the brakes on dangerous aspects of a potentially useful movement. Hopefully JBP has also been pondering these issues and perhaps the essay will force him to, if he hasn’t.

    I understand the frustration about his notion of truth. I think the utility of his notion is to recognize that science has necessarily changed the meaning of the word “truth.” In so doing, we haven’t replaced the prior meaning of that word with another word or concept. The prior meaning is the sense in which religion is true: as Bret Weinstein says, metaphorically true but factually false, which is the only way that pre-scientists experienced the world. John Vervaeke talks about this eloquently in his analysis of the meaning crisis in our culture. To sum up, once we start to believe that our senses are fundamentally untrustworthy, we become divorced from the “truth” of our own experience. What would you call that instead of “truth”?

    I do take issue with your claim that young men are drawn to Peterson because they want to get laid. Peterson is pretty clear that trying to sleep with a lot of women is a sub-optimal life strategy, and as you repeatedly referenced, he advises finding a partner to contend with. He does talk a lot about women trying to dominate men, but that’s because he’s reacting to leftism. He would be equally opposed to men trying to dominate their partners as well.

  12. You spent the last year on Twitter sneering at and mocking Peterson at every turn. Now he has become too big to ignore and, as you readily admit, he is clearly a decent, educated, thoughtful and honourable man. Yet you try and smear him nonetheless and attempt to reduce his astonishing and necessary impact on the culture as merely a simplistic emotional message of alpha male traditionalism aimed at lost young men who’ll believe anything, especially if they think they might get laid. You’re not in his class mate, not even close. And you don’t understand what is happening here. Your cleverness is not enough.

    1. This is a moralistic response from the in-group moral community. And a poorly disguised one at that. Comments like yours do little beyond bolster the case that Peterson is a guru figure.

      1. As the author did, you’ve conflated coming to Peterson’s defense over tenuous assertions with some sort of mindless moralizing from the acolytes of the great, infallible leader. Phrasing it as a “moralistic response from the in-group moral community” is a poorly disguised way of saying “anyone who disagrees with me must be in a cult”. Or as the far left simpletons would say, anyone who disagrees with me is a “literal Nazi”.

        1. Now you’re mind-reading, just like the SJWs you’re a mirror image of. You don’t get to tell me what I meant by my words. That’s what my words are for.

          1. Are you going to give me the “depends what the definition of ‘is’ is” routine? Your words didn’t require any interpretation. Their meaning was simplistic and straightforward, if couched in quasi-scholarly jargon. And yes, yes I do get to tell you what I think your words meant. Coming from someone who throws down the SJW ad hom, the irony of the notion I “don’t get to” is actually pretty hilarious.

              1. You *really* believe that “anyone who disagrees with me must be in a cult” is just restating “this is a moralistic response from the in-group moral community”? You guys aren’t doing yourselves any favors.

                1. Yes, absolutely. That is totally what is being seen happening here. Very clear. You are like the author of this piece in the sense that you don’t understand, but then less clever, without being less confident. Your whole examining apparatus is outdated, premeditated and faultily wired. You is not able much to discern your not so existent, overly enthralled “young men” from the observing “sympathisers”, endowed, I admit, maybe a little bit with a little surprising sniff of approving enthusiasm. Maybe the meaning of “Cult” could be inverted in this particular occurrence, meaning you’re in when you’re out; out there in that rigid, hyper-spastic, “consciousness and the nature of its nature is yet of course already fully fathomed” extremely non-guru land. Out there in so-called “post-everything” land, gazing at the rotting carcass of Meaning thinking it still makes total sense because there obviously still is the awareness of the observer. That’s why all these quasi intellectual attempts for a rebutting piece have these awkward and forced shallow sameness. The grasps, though somewhat layered, are utterly simplistic and incompetent. The extreem desire to contain it and dumb it down is cute so to say. It’s delightfully fascinating how the vision that is behind this unfolding living work is fully self-referential, fully self-sustaining, self-empowering and self-balancing by its pragmatic ideal loops that are fundamentally grounded in life and reality and in common sense and that it surfaced through an ill-imposed unnatural law causing a deeply, dééply felt existential outcry of an extremely well developed and intensely contemplative honest soul that already had mapped the Arena. It taps straight from the source, that of itself has no system, only creative potential available for who- or whatever wants to do whatever what with it and that has ingeniously structured itself for an endlessly long time into ever more sublime cohesive brilliance until it got halted by this cognitive dissonance thing caused by some emerged species’ disconnected and delusional idea of fully realised hyper-self awareness that therefor by its own means devours its own generative structure and along with that all other. Up to a certain point, and then something happens. Ain’t Nature something else?

                  It’s perfectly good as it is, as it most obviously says: all this is yet only just beginning. ~Õ~

                  1. “You are like the author of this piece in the sense that you don’t understand…”

                    Translation: “Me, I understand. Also, I shouldn’t post when I’m really high.”

                    (Seriously, that’s some word salad right there.)

    2. I completely agree and I am neither a young man nor an acolyte. I found the author’s take perplexing but this explains it: “You spent the last year on Twitter sneering at and mocking Peterson at every turn. Now he has become too big to ignore…”

  13. The notion that anyone that offers an alternative point of view to the ideologically driven left or right is somehow a religious zealot offering snake oil is beyond ridiculous. It’s the same tired argument I hear from religious fundamentalists that atheism is a religion. This article reeks of projection and attempts to infuse Dr. Peterson’s views with an element of fundamentalism that it just doesn’t have. Peterson is the last person on earth that wants to see some unquestioned ideological structure emerge from his work as a replacement for the ones espoused by extremists. His ethos is to jettison such blind adherence to orthodoxy. I don’t know how you can even base an ideology on a few basic notions of personal responsibility and the biological realities of human evolution, but apparently the author of this article disagrees.

    1. >The notion that anyone that offers an alternative point of view to the ideologically driven left or right is somehow a religious zealot offering snake oil is beyond ridiculous.

      It sure is. I’m glad the author didn’t do that.

  14. I’m not sure the “Lost boys” found Peterson as much as Peterson found the lost boys. I think it may also help to understand Peterson if you have read Spengler. Peterson makes a bit more sense in that context. Peterson is the Roman Soldier at the door in Pompei, I think he knows it, but doesn’t want to say it.

    “so they can become what women really want, which is to say so that they can get laid.”

    That is sort of bullshit, getting laid isn’t hard and few MEN I know complain about it (if any really), teenagers, sure. What I do hear from my fellow men is complaints about the lack of true partnership from the women in their lives.

    1. >That is sort of bullshit, getting laid isn’t hard and few MEN I know complain about it (if any really), teenagers, sure. What I do hear from my fellow men is complaints about the lack of true partnership from the women in their lives.

      Do you really think you’re making your point effectively here? You come across as an example of exactly what Lindsay is worrying about in this article.

  15. Excellent article. I like Peterson and agree with his criticisms of sjw culture and postmodernism but he talks a load of waffle when it to his conception of ‘truth’. Also whilst some of his rules for life may be good advice it’s hardly revolutionary thinking. I had learned to keep my room clean by the age of 8. Criticism aside though it is good to see a prominent academic who is also an affable personality challenge the dominance of sjw culture that few people in academia and the established media will do for fear of it affecting their careers.

  16. The Cathy Newman interview was a victory for Peterson but he’s going to put himself in danger if he tries to repeat the success. Talking that fast in such a disconnected way is going to trip anyone up. For instance he says we “divulged” from the lobsters instead of “diverged” which I’ve already seen used as ludicrous proof that he’s not very smart.More of a threat is discussing gender and sexuality without spending enough time to show how he sees his own limitations in it. “You can’t dominate a competent partner,” is an interrupted attempt to talk about studies of sexual attraction. It’s true that his followers purposefully misread and oversimplify him on these things as much as feminists do, titling clips of his with statements about alpha and beta males that he never discusses. Considering that he actually talks about nuanced issues in a blunt tone (his point that hierarchies are usually about competence, not patriarchal dominance, so clean your damn room or no one will ever love you) Lindsay comes off like he’s speaking over-carefully about a pretty dull point (Jordan Peterson is famous!)

    1. Seems like he survived another, more well planned, and more well-mannered, attempt by Wendy Mesley on the CBC just recently. You can tell when he switches into a clinical approach to re-humanize his attacker. That is when he tends to start asking them those very simplistic “what do you want questions”. Good technique. I suspect many viewers sense the power shift that generally occurs.

      Taking a stance on necessarily imperfect solutions seems like a good antidote to modern tendencies to only destroy and find fault. People, as this article clearly illustrates, are desperate for things which create and unify.

  17. Big thank you to James for this article. I’ve followed your Twitter feed more than a year and eagerly waited for your view on JBP after you started critiquing him. Your work on conceptual penis was enjoyable.

    I’ve read a lot of articles about Jordan Peterson, and this is the first one that has offered actual good and constructive criticism about his stance. I especially enjoyed the part about JBP’s use of religious mythology to support his worldview and how his fans are using these myths to construct their own community.

    I’ve followed JBP’s work closely since his first videos regarding forced speech/PC in September 2016. What I really like about JBP is his charisma, excellent public-speaking skills and solid background in science. I think it really is interesting which part of his theoretical worldview reflects his own personality, and which part really is grounded in objective view. Especially after reading Haidt’s work on morality I can’t help but to see the corollaries between JBP’s theories and his own persona. Which came first, the man or the theory?

    What I’ve learned after being “red-pilled” is that there are many subject areas which contain “forbidden knowledge”. There are many blind spots regarding the subjects which are sacred to society/elites at large such as the holy trifecta of race, gender/sex, sexuality (and IQ/multiculturalism). Why I like JBP is that he pokes holes in these “sacred subjects” challenging the status quo. Intersectional theory is flawed on its merits which is why JBP will not run out of things to criticize.JBP cannot however be criticized with feminist/intersectional theory as they are fundamentally flawed. As Pinker has shown, enlightenment thinking is a powerful weapon against these flawed ideologies.

    JBP is not perfect. His theory is “romantic”, but without his theory he wouldn’t have become popular. There can be no perfect theory as the world is much too complex for it. I don’t however think that JBP fans are critical enough of him. His words do not come from God, they are not perfect. There is gaping hollowness in JBP’s theory: what truly is meaningful? He does not provide answer for this, as he knows that it cannot be answered. He says that you can feel the things that are meaningful, but that truly is circular logic. That is JBP’s own religious way of knowing.

    In Jordan’s own pragmatic view, is he doing more good than harm? I strongly belief that he is offering more good in this world. I concur with what James is saying (not trying to cathynewman you): be critical, don’t trust everything he has to say. There really has been no prominent global critic of today’s holy subject areas which is why I hope JBP will continue his work. I have learned not to trust any theory/ideology as they are flawed by default. This is why I will be continue to be skeptical of JBP however much I like what he’s doing.

    1. The reason “what is truly meaningful” can’t be answered by Peterson is because it is deeply personal. I would say that Peterson actually has answered it as well. What is truly meaningful is that which you struggle to achieve (granted, it’s not an original theme). “Feeling” something to be true is another way of stating internalization or moments when knowledge becomes embodied and integrated. When you “feel it to your core” you know that you have stumbled upon something meaningful or achieved internalization and can call upon that understanding almost without thought. In that sense, the knowledge and your goal has *become* you and it is often the sign that you have mastered something.

      Master level practitioners of martial arts is the most direct analogy I can think of in that the years of study, practice and suffering has now been integrated to the point that all that knowledge and training is now “embodied” and can be called upon without conscious thought. What other words do we have to describe that other than some version of “feeling” it. Feeling that embodiment of knowledge is what signifies their mastery and it is also the signal that indicates deep reward and meaning in cultivating the embodiment of that knowledge. Or another way to put it, that “feeling” is what allows you to have confidence that you have achieved.

      We all have a sense of awe when we begin learning something new that a teacher or master of their craft demonstrated as seemingly effortless. The moment you try to attempt the same and are confronted with the difficulty and lack of embodiment of the principles or act you’re being taught, you realize how difficult it truly is and how “alien” the concepts feel as a result of you having not internalized them yet.

      I don’t see a circular argument in this.

  18. It’s ok piece but it is clear that author also has no clue what Thruth is so to attack JP on this is weak. Further to suggest that JP is a fraud(cuz he too has to eat) is childish and probably just being jealous. Further to lay at JP feet that to help young men away from depression is just done to learn to them to F*** the Prom queen sounds to me like some projection or sheer stupidity.

  19. Petersons talks about helping young men. Interviewer asks is helping young men not divisive, “what’s in it for women? Kindda narcistic would’nt you say? Then debate goes on: On the other hand, in the shakier early part of the interview, Newman asks Peterson, “what’s in [your message to young men] for the women?” to which he replies “Well, what sort of partner do you want? Do you want an overgrown child or someone to contend with that’s going to help you?” This is a response that, however genuine and for whatever truth it contains behind its false choice, lights up powerful emotional triggers that do much of his work for him. Peterson comes back with this question when he realizes Cathy only thinks about herself and “WAmen” and seems not to care about other people(young men) Can you imagine if you ask activist for Afro-American rights: What’s in it for the Whites?

    1. That’s probably the hook in Peterson that gets me every time in interviews.. We can make this as complex as we like.. clearly many of you here are some really bright people.. and I commend you.. but I think at the very core of it with Peterson.. its in his ability (while being interviewed) to speak clearly and candidly and fact he remember’s everything both he and the media person says, and asks that is the most attractive aspect. in short watching Peterson deal with these people takes just seconds to realize that these media types are so horrid at listening… and at quoting back exactly what he has told them..that the entertainment value on that alone is worth its weight in gold. Peterson makes these people look as badly as THEY want to look. By simply setting there and holding a discussion he reveals just how far modern journalism has slid down on the pole.No tricks, no gaff’s, he simply talks to them until their heads are about to pop off their shoulders.. That to me is the biggest attribute he retains as far as entertainment value.. and he does it with little to no effort.. He allows people to make themselves look stupid,.

  20. I think you have JBP all wrong. He’s not Christ, he’s John the Baptist.
    Then, you ignore the main driver of the situation: that the West is under direct external barbarian attack. The PoMo Marxists and are only incidental. It’s the barbarians that have made the sense of urgency. You may be right that there’s a mass of schisms coming about what exact symbolic order is best and truest, but right now just about anything will do if it encourages, binds, strengthens.
    JBP points the way, backwards, away from the forces driving us into the rocks, and away from the weak and flashy culture that tries to accommodate us to ruin.

  21. I think you are very wrong in typifying Peterson as making “an appeal to a kind of traditional conventionalism”. He makes absolutely no conventional traditional appeals, i.e. to patriotism, loyalty, deference to authority, utopian aims or promises, etc. In fact, quite the opposite. His appeals are to be an individual capable of suffering the consequences of “traditional conventionalism”.

    1. No, Peterson makes an explicit appeal to traditional values in male/female roles, and argues for a view of society based on hierarchy and dominance, couched in the language of Jungian/Christian mythos. So he prescribes a return to the time when we accepted that worldview, before people invented, let’s say, cultural criticism. The problem is that you go back into the recent past, and Whew! things seem normal. At least gender roles are certain. But then you learn that people were criticising the church, so you go a little farther into the past to a time when faith in the church was certain. And then this process goes on forever, and pretty soon we’re ignoring how history has brought us to our actual situation in the world today, because we’re focused on a fantasy of what the past could have been. You don’t have to look to far in American Conservatism to find the myth of the traditional 1950’s family as a driver of How Things Should Be, for example.

      Meanwhile, Peterson has promised us some kind of safety, some certainty in this return to tradition. But that promise can’t be delivered, and what’s right underneath the promise is the roots of authoritarianism — the idea that if only other genders, other thinkers, other political tribes conformed to my or Peterson’s vision of a traditional worldview, the promise would inevitably be realized. Now we’ve identified the problem, and we need to look for a mechanism to change those people who are preventing us from the solution Peterson is offering. Spend some time in discussions with Peterson’s followers, and you can watch this at work.

      That’s my view of why some of his followers are dangerous, and why some folks understand his prescriptions as supporting their ideologies, because they’re rooted in a similar vision of a promised land just out of reach.

      1. Not sure how you got there but I think you couldn’t be further from the truth. Peterson is not “promising” anything, least of all “safety” or “certainty”. I find he argues for the opposite and basically says that: yes, life is hard, sometimes dangerous, hurtful, often unfair and always uncertain, so that’s why you need to strengthen yourself as an individual, do something useful and stop complaining or reaching for some sort of social justice utopia where every conceivable “inequality” is erased, because we’ve already seen where that line of thinking can lead.

        He argues clearly against the (social justice) view that the hierarchies in (western) society are based on oppression and instead argues that they are based (largely) on merit (which they are), which seems to be the best way to organize a society that we can think of so far. Nowhere have I seen him argue for a society based on “dominance”.

        “What’s right underneath the promise is the roots of authoritarianism — the idea that if only other genders, other thinkers, other political tribes conformed to my or Peterson’s vision of a traditional worldview, the promise would inevitably be realized.”

        Please quote some remarks by Peterson that support this claim because it sounds like you’re claiming “liberal individualism=authoritarianism” which is obviously ridiculous.

        Your description would neatly fit the (social justice) left, and probably the alt/extreme right, but certainly not Jordan Peterson.

        1. I agree with Michiel here. This article is the most intellectual evaluation I’ve read yet, maybe even more intellectual than JBP is even trying to be. He is a counselor and teacher. He talks to individuals. He rejects group think. He defends freedom of speech. I don’t entertain any of JBP’s Jungian/psychoanalytic/symbolism creativity myself. We all see that the PoMo feminism far left is a new religion competing with the right conservative traditional religions. JBP is just a liberal but religious academic who decided to defend free speech. He is not a prophet.

          More biology/anthropology is needed to fully address the current social confusion. Society is a protective patriarchy, not an evil dominion. Men die on the front lines in war to protect the women back home. This is 200,000 years old. Homo sapiens monogamy is also that old. But, many mammalian species have bachelors exiled to the fringe and they survive out there marginalized. Men can go there own way. They need to know that. But that is not ideal for society. Marriage benefits the tribe, not the individual. Social encouragement is needed to form and maintain male/female pairs. Tribe members had status if they stayed paired and were exiled if they failed. This is ancient programmed biology. That evolved mechanism is gone. Society promotes dissolution and exile now. And the single female cannot be individually sexy enough to bring the exiled male in from the fringe to commit. It takes social encouragement or the males will live on the fringe. The 30 something women cannot find men to marry today. It is not Date-onomics numbers game, it is not hook-up culture, it is not b/c women have status, it is more primitive. It is because society punishes men for marrying instead. Divorce laws are blatantly biased. The fertility rate is below replacement. Less than half the 18+ population is married. Without substantial increase in immigration, the economy will collapse near the end of the century. Repeating myself, secular society must find a way to promote marriage comparable to that of the primitive religious anthropological origins of society. Punishing marital dissolution doesn’t work because of the sociobiological origins of marriage. It must be social positive reinforcement to foster marriage. Just an idea.


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