He’s heeeeeeeere, he sounds like Kermit, and he is one of the most perplexing cultural phenomena of our era. Jordan Peterson, academic psychologist and therapist turned global lecturer and minor icon, is on his second tour through the antipodes, including an appearance tonight on Q&A.
It may well be the last time Australians see him in the flesh. A sensation a couple of years ago, he can still pull a crowd, but a lot of the buzz is gone — not least in the diminished attention of protesters, for whom he was once practically the number two target, after Milo Yiannopoulos. With his paterfamilias injunctions — “stand up straight” — and his celebration of individualism drawn from animal studies (lobsters, mainly), he offered a section of the populace exactly what he said they shouldn’t be seeking: easy answers to a successful life. That buzz always wears off, and so it goes now.
But what is Peterson offering that has made him such a YouTube and lecture circuit sensation?
For decades he taught psychology, at Yale and Toronto, and ran a private therapy practice. As a new stage of cultural “leftism” took off about a decade ago — one focused on the alleged psychic harm of racism, misogyny etc — he began to get a following by asserting a contrary notion of selfhood and life. Where the new movement sought to emphasise psychic trauma as a real event, and a radical equality of social existence as a goal, Peterson began to assert the contrary. Life was unfair, absurd, and futile, of itself. Equality of condition was a foolish dream. We make meaningful lives by the way we live, and part of that is assuming the burden of obligation and responsibility.
Well, that is not unuseful nor original (though Peterson is not claiming it is). Peterson’s “12 rules” have a strand of the bracing stoicism and liberation from neurotic demand — “I must be happy or I am nothing” — that characterised the best mid-century commentators and psychotherapy theorists such as Christopher Lasch, Albert Ellis and Karen Horney. Nor is that unuseful in diagnosing some of the problems of the contemporary cultural left: a demand for absolute equality of condition, and the invoking of individual trauma as a reaction to a world that fails to offer such.
But that is the lighter thread; the greater part of the weave is the largely fantastical idea that a meaningful life can be sought by a magical return to the historical and cultural limits of an earlier era. For people who feel exhausted by the plethora of choices that come at them from an early age, there is the advice to renounce immediate gratification, to take on the burden of responsibility (“the heavier the better”), and to adopt some fairly rigid ideas of male-female sexual difference, inequality and hierarchies.
In the 1980s, Christopher Lasch noted of the coming of Reaganism; that the “me” decade of the ’70s had proved so awful that people now had a nostalgia for the misery they had escaped in the first place: life defined by work, unhappy marriages from which escape was impossible etc. In some ways, Peterson’s philosophy offers the same simplistic mirroring: to cope with the feeling that you are floating away into the void, put the weight of obligation between your shoulder blades. It is as equal and opposite a burden as the impossible ethical demands of the cultural left: the collective neurosis of seeking human relations free from any inherited power balance whatsoever, the renunciation of humour, chance, pleasure, art, cultural heritage because they are contaminated by inherited oppressions.
Thus one gets the strong sense that Peterson hasn’t been able to deny himself the gratification he suggests we should renounce, in providing easy answers. Tackling the silly social constructionism of the rising knowledge classes/cultural left — the idea that there is no human nature, or relatively deeply embodied sex-gender nature — has him go to that old standby of simplistic animal studies. Thus alpha-beta hierarchies among lobsters — sea-insect automatons who happen to share one brain chemical with us (seretonin) — are taken as a useful guide to the management of social life by language-using, enculturated humans, whose capacity for meaning-making is what makes recourse to animal existence impossible as an answer to the human condition.
From there, it is, inevitably, a short step to warning of a world of chaos, and a seeking of God. The rational thread is lost in a reprise of the cultural hysteria of mid-century figures such as TS Eliot and José Ortega y Gasset, whom Peterson follows on from. For at least some of the audience, that’s the kick. Peterson is the very instant gratification he warns against.
Peterson himself repeatedly succumbs to the temptation of this hysteria: the mild social democratic proposals of the rising Democratic left in the US are treated as the return of a leveling Maoism, random shootings by self-described “incels” evidence that the state should coerce young people into heterosexual marriage. Were he not to portray society as in cultural crisis, no one would come to listen; were he not to offer simple solutions — summoning up a mix of Jung, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter — few would stay to hear more. Reading Peterson’s escalating oracularity, one can’t help but recall Belloc’s definition of a philosopher as someone who gives advice to people who are happier than he is.
There are deep cultural problems facing a society which has been atomised by new technologies, economic destruction of social life, neoliberal destruction of a public sphere, and movements that have become individualist and therapeutic, rather than collective and political, in relation to this. But any honest attempt to tackle them — and to advance the truly liberatory dimension of Stoic-epicurean thought, that no human life is “wrong”, but that there are self-defeating ways of living — has to work from the given conditions of our era: the near-impossibility of sustained abnegation to duty or the sacred, the sense of life as pleasure, the deep demand for as much equality of possibility as can be achieved. Anything that leaves that out is just one for the pot, the virtues of shellfishenss.