Clean your room. Stand up straight. Live truthfully and forthrightly in the world. These are some of the maxims of clinical psychologist, professor and motivational speaker Jordan Peterson. To the outside observer, including Christine Rosen in a recent issue of Commentary Magazine (“The Peterson Principle,” February 2018), the advice espoused by Dr. Peterson sounds like common sense that his listeners should have picked up by the age of fourteen. After all, religious institutions, organizations like the Boy Scouts and organized sports, and social conservatives have been making this case since the beginning of time. Why, then, does Dr. Peterson have a bestselling self-help book and a series of lectures that have been viewed millions of times?
If you ask his critics, they will say that Dr. Peterson dos not differentiate himself markedly from other motivational speakers like Joel Osteen, Tony Robbins, or Eckhart Tolle. After all, Osteen fills the former Houston Rockets stadium on a weekly basis and Tolle’s The Power of Now remained a New York Times Bestseller for years, with some help from Oprah Winfrey. Certainly, there is a long history of charismatic snake oil salesmen using a thin veneer or religion or philosophy to shake down a vulnerable audience. On first glance, Jordan Peterson’s seemingly simplistic rhetoric appears to fit that profile. Having listened to Dr. Peterson’s 14-part biblical lecture series and read his book Twelve Rules for Life, I think he is not only genuine and insightful, but a necessary voice in today’s culture.
Just to give some background, I was born in 1994 so I am a card-carrying millennial. I grew up in suburban New Jersey and went to public school for my entire childhood until I finally attended a Christian university at Villanova (go Cats). My history education was largely the story of the Native Americans and the slaves, why Franklin Roosevelt was great and Lyndon Johnson was just trying to help. My peers were heavily interested in asserting their rights, whether racial or sexual, and some of my favorite teachers were instrumental in the post-Parkland shooting school walkout. This is all to say, to paraphrase Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the liberal dogma lived loudly within Union public schools.
I confess that I believed the liberal tropes. I become a student to the Sam Harris school of New Atheism and decided that my father and grandmother, both devout Catholics, simply had it wrong to believe the big man in the sky would solve their problems. I believed, as Christopher Hitchens did, that “religion poisons everything” and that the arc of history was moving towards a secular society, and that to be skeptical of the new rights movements (particularly LGBT issues) meant being on the wrong side of history. I read Brave New World and could not find a reason why a society with no responsibility and all pleasure was inherently a bad thing. Jordan Peterson changed my mind in a major way.
I tell the story of my experience not simply to entice Walter Isaacson to write my biography (please Walter) but to explain that a sizeable portion of the United States population was brought up in a similar way. According to the Census, 62.7% of the country lives in cities, where the dogma lives loudest. Popular music, television and movies extoll the virtues of fighting for your rights. Church attendance is down markedly, with 36% of younger millennials unaffiliated with any religion. Organized, character-building groups like the Boy Scouts see their enrollment numbers drop year by year. There is clearly a crisis of responsibility in this country in all age groups, but especially among the young.
Enter Jordan Peterson. The first video in his biblical lecture series, Introduction to the Idea of God, has over 2 million views on YouTube. That isn’t considering the podcast version, which likely has many more. From then onward, Dr. Peterson breaks down the entire book of Genesis, from God’s creation of the world and Adam and Eve, though the stories of the Tower of Babel and the Abrahamic saga. He draws comparisons between the stories of the Bible and the teachings of influential psychologists such as Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Carl Rogers. He compares the myths of the Bible to more-modern myths such as the Lion King and Pinocchio. He explains that the Biblical stories are not the surface-level tales of how the world was created which some atheists suggest. Rather, they go straight to the core of human nature and explain the way the world works and how we should live in it, knowledge which existed from the beginning of human life and which was distilled over millennia to the relatively short collection of mythical stories known as the Bible. Dr. Peterson does not pretend to be a Biblical scholar, but rather fully admits that his lectures involve more thinking aloud than the passing on of definitive knowledge. To me and those brought up in a purely secular context, his simple explanations to dense Biblical narratives is novel information.
Dr. Peterson’s Biblical lectures closely mirror the more-distilled version of his philosophy which is found in Twelve Rules for Life. In that book, he uses the science of the dopaminergic system in lobsters to explain why standing up straight is enormously beneficial. He explains that someone’s room is an extension of his or her psyche and, from his experience as a clinical psychologist, suggests that cleaning your room is the simplest way to get started building a better life for yourself. While the book is technically listed as self-help, it is not The Power of Positive Thinking or a suggestion that God wants you to be rich. Instead, it is a call to action. Dr. Peterson acknowledges that life is suffering, and the only way to overcome suffering and achieve anything resembling happiness is to act forthrightly, even though he acknowledges that this is exceedingly difficult. The prescriptions in Twelve Rules are not mind-blowingly novel. They do, however, cut against the modern teaching that rights, freedoms and feelings are of the utmost importance, in a clear and concise way that is uniquely accessible.
This brings me to Christine Rosen’s piece about Peterson in Commentary Magazine. In it, she writes “most of what [Peterson] writes is neither controversial nor novel” and that his “examination of the Hebrew Bible is surprising only if one hasn’t read the Bible.” Both of these critiques would be appropriate, if Peterson was at all suggesting that he was a novel Biblical scholar teaching interpretation of Genesis to the priesthood. Rather, Dr. Peterson’s audience is people like me, who have never read the Bible in any meaningful way. His mission is not to push thought in a new direction, but rather to revive the customs and myths that built western civilization. In an inherently conservative manner Peterson is attempting to not so much build a new world as recapture the truly significant parts of the old world. People outside of the ivory tower, or conservative magazines like Commentary where these values are discussed but merely preach to the converted, get a substantial benefit from this approach. Dispositionally conservative people have long been unable to master new technology like podcasts and YouTube, falling back instead to the pages of Commentary or National Review. By using these new media, Peterson is able to reach a much wider audience and teach a remedial class on the basis of western civilization.
So, sure, Jordan Peterson is a motivational speaker, with all the attendant crowds of admirers that come with the territory. But there is something different about Dr. Peterson that is desperately needed in today’s adrift and increasingly morally bankrupt society.