Jordan Peterson is many things. He’s a former clinical psychologist and a former University of Toronto professor. He’s a best selling author of Twelve Rules for Life: An Antidote To Chaos and he’s a YouTube and Patreon star who makes a reported $100,000 a month. He’s become famous in large part for his refusal to address students by their preferred gender-neutral pronouns.
He’s been called the most influential public intellectual in the Western world and the intellectual we deserve. He’s also been called an intellectual huckster, the stupid man’s smart person, a secularized televangelist, and dangerous.
So why is he so divisive? Why are so many intelligent, educated people deeply leery of Peterson while so many others are deeply enamored of him and his ideas?
His Academic Merit
Peterson was a serious academic with rock-solid credentials and academic publications within his discipline. He has a PhD from McGill University, one of Canada’s best universities, taught and researched at Harvard University, and was a tenured Professor at the University of Toronto. However, the philosophical background for his book, 12 Rules for Life and his YouTube popularity over his gender pronouns debate arise not from his area of academic expertise, but from non-adjacent areas in which he has no academic expertise. Many of his supporters extend his academic expertise and bona fides to his popular writings, but many don’t; therein lies one divide.
His Social Ideas
Peterson is a social conservative of a particular type. He’s Christian. He thinks men are inherently different than women and that is a positive versus merely interesting thing. He has a theory of masculinity, which is patriarchal in nature. He has a strong belief — see his lobster metaphor — that humans are inherently and innately hierarchical and that men should be more dominant. He’s on record as espousing enforced monogamy. He refuses to use gender-neutral pronouns. Some social conservatives find his stance appealing; some social conservatives don’t. Therein lies another divide.
He Patronizes Extremists
His comments on enforced monogamy, especially, have made Peterson the patron saint of incels, MGTOW, and men’s rights activist-types. These are men who, because of their toxic misogyny, have significant problems having any type of beneficial relationship with women; men who are much more likely to be violent to women, often fatally. Peterson is giving them quasi-intellectual cover for their misogyny and has been for years, often in one-on-one Skype counseling sessions for which he charges $200.
He does not draw a clear line. Instead, he allows his better ideas to be expropriated and turned into vileness. His propensity for authoritarian demagoguery, as noted by his former mentor, means he says more of the things the masses like to hear. He echoes their echoes and makes a great deal of money from it.
For misogynists, this doesn’t seem problematic. For the rest of us, it’s an ugly and venal aspect of Peterson that makes us even less interested in what simplistic nuggets of guidance he’s actually right about.
Within the mythopoetic men’s movement, Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung is a rock upon which entire philosophies of thought, belief and action can be built without qualm. For the rest of us, Jung is an interesting historical character, who had a few good insights but has been superseded by empirical reality. Peterson is all over Jung, as Robert Bly was in the early-1980s. Most of Peterson’s readers have vaguely heard of Jung and gain most of their knowledge of him through reading Peterson. People who have moved on from Jung shake their heads over his recurrence.
The Quality of His Advice
Some of his advice is good, but incredibly obvious; some of his advice is head-scratching; and some of his advice is pure farce. Here is the complete list of Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life:
- Stand up straight with your shoulders back
- Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping
- Make friends with people who want the best for you
- Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today
- Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
- Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world
- Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
- Tell the truth — or, at least, don’t lie
- Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
- Be precise in your speech
- Do not bother children when they are skateboarding
- Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street
Be truthful, don’t be friends with people who are going to backstab you, make your bed. Sure. Okay. But that’s dime-store wisdom. Pet a cat? Shoulders back? Don’t let your children make you hate them? This is fatuous stuff, even by the standards of genre of self-help books.
As for “be precise,” as all of the critics point out, Peterson couldn’t be precise if his life depended on it. And the humility part is not his strong suit.
There is a strong division between people who think Peterson’s rules are amazingly wise and offer valuable guidance, and those who look at them and think that they are trite, obvious, or merely silly.
His “Inherent Genius”
His followers and advocates seem to think that Peterson is an unrivaled genius; most of the rest of us think he’s a bright guy who’s showing strong signs of being unhinged.
Peterson is merely the current front-man for the recurrent and always mythical crisis of masculinity. Last time around it was Robert Bly, Joseph Campbell, and Robert Johnson who were the foci. This crisis of masculinity occurs in relatively affluent younger, white males with too much time on their hands. The focal points for action are always older white father figures. The repetition is merely tiresome and predictable.
The excesses of the adherents to the crisis of masculinity movement are mostly harmless, except that we are in an era of self-radicalization on the internet; incels are turning into mass murderers and the single biggest predictor of mass violence is previous domestic violence against women. We are in an era when absurdly puffed up strongmen are leading countries.
Those of us who think Peterson is dangerous point to his worst and most dangerous adherents and ask why he isn’t actively talking them down instead of talking them up.
The Future is Electric
The Future is Electric is the house journal of TFIE Strategy Inc, a firm which assists global clients to future proof themselves in our rapidly changing world of business and technical innovation, and geopolitical and climate disruption.