Part 20 (of 20) — Peterson’s Appeal
Assessing Peterson’s 12 Rules of Life
Four months ago a young woman approached me after a church service, handed me 12 Rules of Life while saying, “You really needed to know what this guy is saying.” I’m so glad she did!
To be frank, given the buzz I’d heard about Peterson throughout the previous year, I didn’t expect I would agree with much of what he had to say. Among other things, most of the dozen or so Peterson fans I’d run into over the previous year appealed to him to justify prohibiting women being in positions of authority in the church, to support their opposition to what they called “the LGBTQ agenda,” and, in two cases, to defend their decision to vote for Donald Trump!
On top of this, the only news about Peterson I’d encountered from social media highlighted the fact that many Alt Right and White Supremist advocates revere him as something of a hero. So, when I began reading 12 Rules of Life, I expected to find an intentionally provocative white guy with misogynistic, patriarchal, racist, homophobic and xenophobic tendencies dressed up in intellectual garb. I suspect this is the uninformed perspective many who have had little to no first-hand contact with Peterson also thought of him.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover my initial impression was grossly mistaken. Not that I agree with everything Peterson says. As I’ve argued in this series, I believe Peterson’s social conservatism, grounded in his evolutionary perspective and reinforced by his use of Jungian archetypes, leans in a patriarchal direction. I also think Peterson simply doesn’t get “white privilege,” and his psychological use of biblical texts is often questionable. Most importantly, I believe Peterson’s “you must save yourself” philosophy is fundamentally contrary to the Gospel, as are his rather inchoate views of Jesus and God.
Despite these disagreements, however, I found much in Peterson’s writings and lectures that is insightful and practically helpful for a general audience, and with only a couple of exceptions (such as the interview I reviewed in the previous post, I have come to enjoy listening to his lectures and interviews. Indeed, I believe I’ve read and listened to enough of Peterson to understand why he is currently so popular. And since my previous post was my most critical post in this series, I thought it only fair to close this series with a positive review of the four aspects of Peterson’s thought and persona that I think contribute to his current popularity.
For starters, Peterson is an incredible communicator. The fact that he consistently fills up large auditoriums with everyday people who come to hear him talk for two or three hours about some pretty heady subjects suffices to prove this point. In an age in which we’re told everyone’s attention span is getting shorter, this is no small feat!
Peterson can hold audiences this long and keep them coming back for more because he is smart, passionate, provocative, and very often practically insightful. He is a great story teller and knows how to articulate complex topics in easily understandable ways. And while he has a tendency to ramble on occasion (he rarely uses notes), his ability to effortlessly weave together information from a wide variety of fields, including psychology, evolutionary biology, and ancient literature, is truly impressive.
Moreover, while Peterson sometimes comes across as arrogant, I have been impressed by how often, and how deeply, he demonstrates raw honesty, vulnerability, and self-depreciating in his talks. And, while Peterson’s sarcasm toward opponents is sometimes a bit over-the-top, he is frequently extremely funny. There is a touch of entertainment in all great communicators.
But perhaps the most important quality of Peterson as a communicator is that he has a rare ability to challenge his audiences without coming across as preachy. I found this to be true both of his lectures and his 12 Rules of Life. Peterson comes across as understanding, and authentically caring about, the struggles that the members of his audiences endure. And he offers very reasonable and highly practical advice on how they can turn these struggles to their advantage. If you peruse the on-line comments that people have left in response to various lectures or interviews, you’ll find people frequently testifying that Peterson articulated things they had felt for a long time but were unable to vocalize, and he showed them a way forward.
That is the mark of a great communicator.
Confronting Post-Modernism and Political Correctness
We are living in a time when thinking out loud in an unguarded matter about certain touchy subjects is risky, especially in academic institutions (which, ironically, were originally designed to encourage, not suppress, freedom of thought and speech). The reigning assumption is that, if you’re an “enlightened” modern person, you just know there is a rather wide spectrum of “truths” you simply do not question. If you dare to question any of the politically correct rules about what can and cannot be openly discussed, especially in the context of a secular University, you will likely find yourself being dismissed as an ignoramus who doesn’t “get it.”
If you think this is an exaggeration, I encourage you to familiarize yourself with the case of Lindsay Shepherd, a Teaching Assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University. This young lady was reprimanded and accused of violating the University’s “gender violence and sexual assault policy” and of being “transphobic” simply because she showed a five minute clip of a televised panel discussion on gender-neutral speech that included Jordan Peterson. The fact that Peterson was on this panel was enough to make at least one anonymous student “uncomfortable,” which is how Shepherd got into hot water.
This despite the fact that Sheperd herself disagrees with much of Peterson’s thought, and despite the fact that she remained absolutely neutral when she presented the video and presided over the subsequent class discussion. Her diversity supervisor told her that showing her class a video with Peterson in it was akin to “playing of a speech from Hitler.” 1
Peterson refuses to abide by the dictates of the post-modern politically correct speech police. Indeed, he routinely exposes the incoherence of post-modernism as well as the Marxist ideology that he believes lies behind it, all the while arguing that this movement will lead to socially disastrous consequences if left unchecked. While I remain unconvinced that post-modernism is fueled by a Marxist ideology or that this movement will lead to apocalyptic social consequences if allowed to continue, I completely agree with Peterson’s critique of post-modernism, and I count myself among the multitude of people who find Peterson’s willingness to take on this ideological giant to be as refreshing as it is admirable.
More broadly, Peterson consistently exposes the shortcomings of all ideologies. This is one of the areas where I personally found Peterson to be most insightful. Ideologies always try to fit reality into the Procrustean bed of a single idea. They thereby over-simply problems and over-promise on their ability to solve problems. And they are dangerous, for they restrict people’s thinking and speaking and can eventually lead to totalitarianism.
At a time when political and cultural ideologies are tearing western culture – and especially America – apart, multitudes of people find Peterson’s critique to be eye-opening and hope-giving. For if there is any hope of reversing the increasingly intense political and cultural polarization we are currently experiencing, it resides in people across the spectrum being willing to suspend their ideological perspectives and coming together to discuss disputed issues by appealing to reason, facts and common sense.
Personally, I see little chance of this happening on a grand scale, but to many, it’s the only hope they have to hang onto.
Finally, many people find the moral and epistemological relativism that is inherent in the post-modern movement to be both unsettling and incoherent, as do I. In this light, Peterson’s constant appeal to reason, facts, and common sense, usually as a means of defending traditional values and perspectives, feels refreshingly reassuring. We of course won’t always be able to come to an agreement about what is objectively true, but, according to Peterson, there is objective truth to talk about, and people should be able to openly think and discuss any perspective on this truth in public.
At a time when freedom of speech is being significantly constrained in certain contexts, it’s not hard to see why Peterson’s perspective resonates so deeply with an increasing number of people.
We’ve seen that Peterson’s central message is that, while almost everybody is a victim of some form injustice, the only way to avoid making matters much worse is to assume responsibility for your life by doing whatever can be done to alleviate your suffering and the suffering of others. This alone, he argues, can justify our existence and give it some meaning. While Peterson is unaware of the unique empowerment that can only be derived from becoming completely dependent on God, and while I think his focus on the responsibility of the individual needs to be balanced with an equally important focus on the importance of community, his call for people to grow up and take responsibility to improve their life has challenged and benefited masses of people.
This message is also a welcomed antidote to the culture of victimization that has been created by the post-modern movement. With the advent of identity politics, young people in particular are conditioned to see themselves and everyone else (except for white males, of course) as belonging to one or more groups of victims whose rights have been infringed upon by society at large and whose problems are to be blamed on society at large. While I think Peterson overlooks the importance of acknowledging that certain groups of people have in fact been systematically oppressed in western culture, his argument that adopting a victim mindset only leads to increased misery, regardless of how much a person has actually been victimized, is nevertheless valid and important, as is his challenge to start doing whatever can be done to change the course of your life for the better.
Along similar lines, I believe Peterson’s challenge for people to think and speak for themselves, and not as representatives of an identity group, as well as his challenge to consider all other people as individuals, and not as representatives of an identity group, has greatly contributed to Peterson’s appeal. Many men and women have claimed that Peterson helped them discover their own unique voice.
Back To The Bible
Finally, Peterson is not a Christian, at least not in any historic-orthodox sense of the word, as I argued in a previous post. Indeed, I’m quite convinced Peterson doesn’t actually believe in God, in any historically orthodox sense of the word. And I have argued that his psychological interpretation of biblical stories in 12 Rules of Life often pays inadequate attention to their original intended meaning.
Having said that, it can’t be denied that Peterson has inspired many who would otherwise have no interest in the Bible to begin to take it seriously. Whether one thinks Peterson is discovering the archetypal significance of Bible stories or that he is rather projecting archetypal significance onto these stories (or perhaps that he vacillates between these two), it can’t be denied that Peterson is making the Bible interesting for people — enough so that large crowds of people who would never dream of going to hear a preacher talk about the Bible for thirty minutes on a Sunday morning regularly go to hear Peterson analyze Bible stories for several hours.
In short, I believe that part of Peterson’s appeal is that he is making the Bible appealing. And as a preacher myself, I can’t help but admire, and perhaps be a little envious of, any person who can pull that of so well.
A Closing Word
If you’ve stuck with me throughout this twenty-part series, I applaud you. I’m aware that this series has demanded more from readers than blogs usually demand. So, for whatever degree you’ve followed this series, thank you!
I also want to once again thank Cory Wright who has provided invaluable feedback on each essay before it was posted. This young man is a walking encyclopedia of Peterson’s videos and writings!
I will close by answering a question someone recently asked me: “Would you recommend reading and listening to Peterson for the average Christian?” My answer was, and yet is, a qualified “yes.”
I recommend reading and/or listening to Peterson because he will get you thinking for yourself. I recommend him because he has a good deal of insightful and practically helpful wisdom to offer. I especially recommend Peterson for Christians (and others) who feel like they’re not living up to their life potential and/or who are inclined to feel sorry for themselves. And I emphatically recommend Peterson for Christians (and others) who spend much time in environments where post-modernism and political correctness are assumed. In fact, I’d say Peterson is probably the best antidote to young people being brainwashed into accepting the post-modern mindset that I know of.
But as always, it’s also important that Christians not read Peterson (or anyone else, for that matter) uncritically. Like the rest of us, Peterson has blind spots, as he readily admits. It’s not just that his views of God and Jesus and an assortment of other particular beliefs are inconsistent with the Christian faith. As I said above, the general thrust of his highly individualistic and “pull-yourself-up-by-your-own bootstraps” philosophy is fundamentally antithetical to the Gospel of God’s empowering grace. Much of this individualistic and self-help material is insightful and helpful, so far as it goes. But the Christian must always remember that it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to do his good pleasure.
So, as the saying goes, “Eat the apple and spit out the seeds.” It’s a balanced way of reading Peterson that I’ve tried to model throughout this twenty-part series.
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