It is not often that a clinical psychologist becomes the cultural equivalent of a rock star, but Canadian academic Jordan B. Peterson has done just that. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, as the old saying goes, and Dr. Peterson is surely a man who has found his time. And all indications are that, behind his characteristically serious (if not slightly puzzled) expression, he quite enjoys the irritation and annoyance that his forthright statements on our current cultural climate cause the self-appointed members of contemporary Committees of Public Safety. Like Camille Paglia (who provided a jacket commendation for his latest book) he preaches that most unpopular of gospels in this age of victimhood: personal responsibility.
Peterson first gained public attention when, in a series of YouTube presentations, he critiqued Canada’s Bill C-16 by which the federal government added gender expressions and gender identity to the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code. Peterson rightly sees this move as jeopardizing free speech and as a dangerous government encroachment on freedom of expression. In an era where traditional freedoms are regarded by the panjandrums of the culture as antithetical to the well-being of society as a whole, Peterson found himself to be an instant and controversial celebrity, lauded by some and decried by others. Since then, his television appearances (particularly one with journalist Cathy Newman on the UK’s Channel 4), have revealed him to be a calm, precise, logical, clear-thinking, and courageous advocate for his various positions.
For those interested in his overall philosophy of life, his recent book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos provides a thoroughgoing account which, while resting upon his scholarly work in behavioral psychology, is accessible to the layperson. In fact, the basic message of 12 Rules is simple: take responsibility for yourself. That this has proved so controversial is paradoxically both surprising and entirely predictable. Surprising because we live in an age where the individual is supposed to be sovereign over their own identity; entirely predictable because our contemporary individualism always assumes that our failure to fulfill personal potential is always somebody else’s fault. We live in a culture of sovereign individual victims.
While Peterson cites the Bible frequently, his philosophical influences are more eclectic. He cites Freud, Jung and Rogers in psychology, appreciates Nietzsche and Dostoyevski, and in his focus on Being seems to have imbibed something of Heidegger. He acknowledges that Solzhenitsyn’s analysis of the psychology of Soviet society in his masterwork, The Gulag Archipelago, shaped him profoundly, as did the work of Orwell. Clearly an intellectual omnivore, he is yet able to deploy all this learning in a most accessible manner.
Peterson is consequently an outspoken foe of anything which might lead to totalitarianism, political or cultural. One of many cringe-inducing moments in his interview with Cathy Newman comes when he has to explain to her the connection between the way modern identity politics threaten freedom of speech and the policies of Chairman Mao. The interview as a whole was perhaps not quite as bad for Newman as some of his fans claimed—once or twice they seemed to talk past each other, especially on the issue of women’s pay—but what is clear is that, on the issue of speech codes, Peterson thinks in terms of underlying philosophical principles and their social ramifications, while Newman thinks (if ‘thinks’ is not too flattering a word) merely in terms of her own emotional response to the emotive rhetoric of the sexual identity lobbyists.
Yet in his advocacy of freedom, Peterson understands something which seems lost today: to be truly free, the individual must be subject to limits, to constraints. Peterson understands that society is not necessarily an agent of corruption (he dismisses Rousseau’s claims to the contrary in two well-targeted pages). Society shapes individuals and, to the extent that society shapes individuals in a manner which respects their nature, society makes freedom possible. Human nature in general is limited but limitation does not mean less freedom. I cannot fly simply by flapping my arms, but that inability does not mean that I am in bondage. I need to understand my limits as a human being and learn to act accordingly—the limits of human nature in general and of myself in particular: I can, for example, swim but I will never be as good as Michael Phelps.
Failure to understand this—or perhaps better, a refusal to acknowledge this—lies at the root of much of the political insanity that surrounds us. Rejecting this is the premise undergirding transgender ideology, turns speech with which we disagree into acts of oppressive hate, and outlaws reality en masse. That is one reason why Peterson opposes the legislation of gender speech codes: not only do such violate the principle of free speech, in the hands of the transgender lobby they demand that people say that which they know is untrue and inconsistent with reality.
Peterson is lauded by conservatives because of the way he irritates the left. And yet there is plenty in his thinking to give the right, especially perhaps the Christian right, pause for thought. His robust defense of freedom of speech and excoriation of bully-boy tactics on social issues certainly appeals to many Christians today. But is this simply because the levers of cultural power now lie in the hands of the left? Not so long ago such things as commercial boycotts were the weapons of choice of the Southern Baptists. Further, the sheer personal nastiness of many debates that take place among Christians online is scarcely consistent with his Rule 9 (‘Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t’) or Rule 10 (‘Be precise in your speech’). And his question, ‘Do you want your children to be safe or to be strong?’ would seem one that many homeschool parents might not answer in quite the same way as he would.
Reading Peterson reminded me of one of the great losses of Protestant theology for which we are now paying a high price: an emphasis on the virtues, or character traits. Protestant ethics have, in practice, made the matter of character—of intrinsic personal virtues—something of secondary importance. This is not a necessary consequence of the foundational law-gospel dialectic but it is the case that discussion of Christian behavior among the Reformed has focused almost exclusively on the Third Use of the Law as an external guide. What Peterson reminds us is that behavior grows out of—and in turn shapes—character. And what society is facing at this point is a serious deficit of character; something for which the older generation (my generation!) needs to take responsibility. We cannot decry snowflake students without realizing that they were created by a generation of parents who were, in the words of English journalist, Rod Liddle, ‘selfish, whining monkeys’ without realizing that this is the world we have created. Nor can we as Christians pass responsibility for this to the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is unlikely to teach your children to respect other people unless you are teaching them the same by precept and by example. We need to bring our children up correctly. We need to take responsibility for our actions.
Perhaps Peterson’s greatest significance lies not in any original insights which he has. He seems in many ways a remarkably unoriginal thinker. The front cover of 12 Rules carries a quotation from The Spectator to the effect that he is ‘one of the most important thinkers to emerge on the world stage for many years.’ Yet it is surely not his thinking that makes him important, at least not in terms of its content. Rather, his genius lies simply in his clarity and his courageous willingness to speak and act consistently with that. His book, when shorn of its occasional flirtations with Heideggerian jargon and stripped down to its twelve basic rules, is really nothing that my father and mother could not have written. Self-respect, self-discipline, patience, courtesy, respect for others, hard work—these were the values that my parents at least tried to instill in me from an early age.
No, it is not his thought that is significant; it is the reactions to it. They are the most revealing. That a book advocating the above values is controversial should be sobering. That he can be seriously asked by an apparently intelligent journalist why his right to free speech should be considered more valuable than somebody else’s desire not to be offended indicates just how precarious are individual freedoms which we considered the jewel of the West just thirty years ago. We truly do live at a time where the omnipresent language of expressive individualism is being used by cultural totalitarians to press for a view of society which ultimately prioritizes group identity in a way that could prove lethal to any notion of true individual freedom. It is perhaps an accident of history that this happens to have manifested itself most obviously on the left. The psychological notion of personhood which underlies it, and the consequent identification of oppression as a primarily psychological phenomenon, does not seem to be of necessity a left-wing monopoly. Just think for a moment about how outraged some conservatives become when somebody dares to express a view with which they disagree; and a moment’s reflection on the history of the treatment of ethnic and sexual minorities does provide a context for the rise of identity politics of today. But the fact that conservatives have sinned too does not justify crazy ideological excesses which, if left unchecked, could challenge some of the basic philosophical foundations of democracy.
What kind of a world do we now live in where a man who advocates hard work and respect for others and roots his arguments in scientific, historical and sociological evidence, is seen as a radical right-wing propagandist? The same world, I guess, where University of Pennsylvania professor, Amy Wax, can propose much the same thing and be roundly decried as a racist white supremacist: a childish, self-absorbed world where every failure is always the fault of somebody else and nobody takes responsibility for anything. Yet the people who criticize Peterson give every appearance of being sane, functioning members of society. Perhaps they are genuinely concerned that his arguments give too much ground to a Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ philosophy? Maybe. I myself fear that the real lesson of Peterson’s notoriety is not that the lunatics have taken over the asylum as the spoiled toddlers have staged a coup at the kindergarten.
Peterson is a talented, courageous and gracious man. But only a society controlled by emotionally stunted nincompoops pretending to be adults would consider him to be either a genius or a dangerous problem. Welcome to where we are.
Carl R. Trueman is a professor at the Alva J. Calderwood School of Arts and Letters, Grove City College.