Jordan Peterson is raising ultimate questions about the meaning of life in a culture starved for meaning.
“A Christian must not be either a Totalitarian or an Individualist. I feel a strong desire to tell you—and I expect you feel a strong desire to tell me—which of these two errors is worse. That is the devil getting at us. He always sends errors into the world in pairs—pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse.”
—C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
Jordan Peterson’s Mission
Peterson talks about things that need talking about. He is himself compelled (internally, I trust) to speak about the things that matter to him the most: the nature of consciousness, human perception, evil and good. What is the right way to live in the world, and what are the consequences of not doing so?
It’s about here that my doubts about Peterson begin to surface. Peterson has, through his various different lectures and media, built a platform (his own Noah’s ark) of considerable scale and implication (conceptually speaking), and from here he proposes to offer his own solution-set.
Peterson is a scientist (sort of), a psychotherapist (or was), and something of a philosopher (if we want to stretch our definitions); but when he lectures, whatever the subject, at least fifty percent of the time he is proselytizing, a word which means “to convert or attempt to convert from one religion, belief, or opinion to another.” This, I think, is largely why he is not taken seriously by academics and intellectuals (those who are heavily identified with academia, at any rate), because he more or less reverses the axiomatic principle of scientific and academic thought by making all his data and points deeply personal, heartfelt, and emotionally (sometimes even histrionically) argued.
This is very much the point of Peterson’s mission, to restore the humanities to their dominant role in culture, which is to say, to make scientific and intellectual understanding and reasoning once again subject to morality, or to divine and/or natural law.
The Problem with Moral Absolutism as a Fix for Moral Relativism
I have no argument with Peterson here as to this being both necessary and desirable, at an individual level. My concern with Peterson is that he wishes to extend this knowledge outward prematurely, having not yet fully worked it out. Perhaps he feels he has worked it out privately, or semi-privately, over decades of university lectures and dialogues. Perhaps he underestimates how much it is going to suffer serious distortion on the way from his interior—the realm of personal intellect—to his exterior, into the realm of collective action. If so, it won’t be long before the penny drops—assuming it hasn’t already.
Peterson appears to believe that individual axioms or methods—if sufficiently worked out—can be extended to collectives with just a little monitoring along the way. But I think it’s inevitable that, when we assume that what works for us is going to work for others (even something as innocuous as tidying up our rooms), we ignore just how unique each person’s relationship to reality really is.
This is probably why moral absolutism doesn’t work as a counter to moral relativism—because the ultimate questions in human existence may not have answers, as such, but be most meaningful expressly as questions, i.e., as a means to place ourselves in a liminal space, within the reach of divine intervention or revelation.
The Jordan Peterson Worldview
Peterson is presenting his data and his interpretive models as building blocks in what is essentially “the Jordan Peterson worldview.” This worldview might be summed up—in fact was, by Peterson himself—as “rules for life.”
Peterson himself has said, the higher the goals we set for ourselves, the more meaningful our lives become, the happier we will be. He has, accordingly, set himself the highest goal of all, give or take: to teach people the right way to live. This is the goal of the Prophets of old and of Saints and religious avatars whose lives and words gave rise to religions.
In the common vernacular of 2018, Peterson can be (and is) accused of “mansplaining”—he is telling us how the world works, which is what all self-respecting gurus, autocrats, and dictators do. Strictly speaking, mansplaining is condescending to others, and I wouldn’t necessarily want to accuse Peterson of condescension. He doesn’t obviously pander to his audience, on the contrary. But there is an element of autocracy to his method, of imposing his view of the world onto the world, albeit as a canny response to a collective need.
Peterson is approaching what he perceives as chaos with an articulated order: he is presenting maps that expose the lack of meaning in people’s lives by—or in the process of—offering up what (he sees) is truly meaningful. The danger of this is that it prevents the creative potential of chaos—of lack of meaning in our lives—from begetting its own solution.
A Snake-Oil Salesman’s Diagnosis
By this I mean, if Peterson is making people aware of the lack of meaning in their lives in more or less the same breath (or at least the same lecture or series of lectures) as he is offering up a map of meaning, there is every possibility they will simply use the map to bung up the hole where meaning ought to be, like a Band-Aid over an infectious wound.
This is the method and ruse of the snake oil salesman: first (mis-)diagnose the sickness, then offer the cure. If you are really clever, you sell the cure in such a way that people don’t even realize they are sick until they take it. This bypasses the process of solitary self-examination and discovery, a process that, by definition, no guru can permit his followers to experience.
That Peterson is, or is on his way to becoming, a guru for the secular seekers of the world (including the spiritually-minded, and maybe even Christians too) is something there can be little doubt about. That he aspired to such a role is also hard to refute, seeing as how his only previous book, twenty years ago in 1999, was called Maps of Meaning and his current platform is more or less wholly consistent with the system he worked out back then.
In other words, Peterson has been working—and waiting—a long time for this opportunity. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this as an aspiration, or even, potentially, as a method, though personally I think anyone sufficiently driven to become a world teacher to succeed at his goal, must have some deeply neurotic patterns driving him.
But if we leave aside Peterson’s personal psychology (something I try to do as much as possible), the question becomes, how complete (and how effective) are the maps he is selling? I don’t think it’s possible to answer this without referring back to Peterson himself, and to the following, the cultural movement, he has generated.
The Jordan Peterson Avatar?
What Peterson embodies, in my opinion, is much more important than what he argues. And one thing Peterson undeniably embodies at this stage is success, fame, wealth, notoriety, and social power and influence. Peterson’s celebrity status means he is reaching vastly greater numbers than previously, but it also means he is no longer able to attend to everyone who is seeking to get his attention, legitimately or not (Peterson stopped seeing his patients after his celebrity grew too large for him to manage both).
Is it possible to separate Peterson’s arguments—his stance—from the platform they issue from, i.e., the platform of his celebrity? Or are his arguments inevitably altered by that platform, not only in terms of how pervasive they have become but how persuasive, and how polarizing? High status, after all, is inherently both impressive and threatening to us.
This leaves a wider question, that of whether celebrity in and of itself—i.e., the raising up of an individual to high social status and influence over large numbers of people—is inherently benign, neutral, or harmful. It’s here, I think, that the crux of my argument can be found.
What happens when we develop a “relationship” with a celebrity? In most cases, besides the numerical increase in Patreon donations, YouTube hits, blog shares, or Twitter followers, they do not even know we exist, which means we never really know how or who they are in relation and in response to us. Some relationship. We experience a celebrity only in relation to the audience (cult) we are part of, in relation to “the world.”
We are seeing a performance of a human being in place of a real human being, an avatar in place of flesh and blood.
When Virtue Becomes Virtuosity
The more time I spend on this subject, the more I keep coming back to the question of numbers, of quantity vs. quality, and of status vs. virtue. I think it’s the central question about Jordan Peterson not being raised.
At this point, Peterson is like a pound of butter spread over all the loaves in Ontario. Unless we believe in the feeding of the five thousand, and that Peterson is an equivalent miracle-worker to Jesus, there’s simply no way he isn’t handing out a lot of dry bread and leaving hordes of people hungry and unsatisfied.
Peterson’s status-increase has, in many people’s eyes, not only resulted from his embodying virtues such as courage, intelligence, and discipline, but has also increased his virtuosity. From narrative challenger, he has become a narrative definer. The greater his fame and success, the broader his reach, the more he is seen by his admirers to be changing the world for the better. But what of Peterson’s patients, the ones he has abandoned and left with nothing but automated email responses?
Peterson has decided their needs are less important than the needs of a multitude. This may seem logical enough if your main criterion is numbers. But it turns his patients into something like the collateral damage of Peterson’s shock-and-awe cultural salvation program, eggs in a salvific omelet.
If compassion isn’t rooted in one-to-one dealings with other people, chances are good that compassion is a counterfeit and a cop-out. It represents a safe relationship in which the celebrity-guru gets to remain in the distant position of embodying a “virtue” that never gets tested in the trenches of human intimacy, because no one gets close enough to see them as they are.
This distance is precisely what makes such figures so successful, because it is our projections that fuel their ascendency in the world. This has nothing to do with virtue but only (at best) our perception of virtue, a perception which pertains more to Peterson’s charismatic powers of persuasion than anything.
This latter is certainly a form of competency. But is it an inherently virtuous one?
The False Correlation of Virtue and Competence
Masculinity correlates with virtue in an etymological sense (virtue has the same root as virility), and in an ideal world virtue would determine a man’s status. Peterson, with his insistence on hierarchies of competence as the basis of Western society, wants us to believe there is a correlation (one he is embodying) between virtue, competency, success, and status.
In fact, there is no necessary correlation between virtue and competence, at all, because Ted Bundy and Jimmy Savile were highly competent at what they did (many psychopaths are). Nor is there any between competency and success, unless Peterson wants us to believe that Agatha Christie is as competent a writer as Shakespeare, or that Danielle Steele is a superior novelist to Dostoyevsky. (Status is harder to measure, since it correlates not only with popularity but also with esteem, i.e., not only how many people admire us but the quality of admiration.)
Is it healthful for one human being to become so popular that he no longer has the time or the energy or the interest to reciprocate the attention and devotion (and hostility) he is generating, can no longer relate to even a fraction of the people he is inspiring and influencing (and enraging and intimidating) as anything other than a mass, a collective, a group identity? And is it beneficial for those people to be relating to him as a mass, as faceless and essentially valueless beings, united in shared admiration of a man who does not know them, and whom they will never really know?
This conflation of virtue with competence, competence with success, and success with status naturally cuts both ways: the low of status (who are deemed such due to their lack of worldly success) are ipso facto incompetent, resentful, and acting ignobly.
This viewpoint is apparently so deeply inculcated into us at this point that is automatic and unquestionable—and this includes the radical Leftists and postmodernists who are challenging “the Patriarchy,” since they invariably do so for all the wrong reasons, and only end up replacing one social delusion with another that is the mirror image of it.
In either case, not only can we not find a suitable frame of reference beyond “this world”—we don’t even think to look. And since the failure to see beyond this world goes hand in hand with a failure to see the true nature of this world, the map we are being sold becomes fundamentally meaningless.
Encounter with a Peterson Follower, Celebrity, & the JBP Cult (continued essay)
 Ironically, the quality of masculinity that most closely corresponds with virtue, traditionally (at least in the Judeo-Christian tradition, which Peterson claims to want to uphold), is a lack of concern about status; in a word, humility. A man is worthy of our admiration to the extent he neither admires himself nor seeks the admiration of others. Such a man—one who foregoes the dubious pleasures of pride—is unlikely to achieve much in today’s climate of social climbing. As the foremost of the Christian virtues, humility is not ranked highly in Peterson’s hierarchies of competence, understandably, since we do not live in a world that adheres to Christian values, however much it may espouse them. By the same token, the possibility a person might achieve more at a spiritual level by aspiring to less at a social one is largely ignored in Peterson’s model, which is so much about numbers, stats, and observable results.