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.
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.