When the Jordan Peterson phenomenon began to unfold I remember getting texts from friends asking me if I’d heard about this Canadian professor and author who was “destroying” leftists in debates. After watching a few of these examples I remembering thinking how much he reminded me of Ben Shapiro. Obviously the two men are extraordinarily distinct but they clearly share some significant similarities: exceedingly bright, extremely articulate, and exceptionally fearless in who they lock horns with.
And there’s one other thing that makes these two “rockstars of the right” stand out, though I have to be careful how I word this. They aren’t saying anything profound or overwhelmingly original. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that anyone can do what they do or that their contributions to current cultural issues isn’t unique and needed. Much the opposite, in fact.
I’m merely pointing out that the thrust of what Peterson says (the value of traditional morality, the differences between the sexes, the dangers and intellectual failures of Marxism) and what Shapiro says (the importance of free speech, religious freedom, the value of life, the dangers of the sexual revolution) are standard, mainstream conservative thought. Leftists wanting to marginalize them may accuse Peterson of being “alt-right” or Shapiro, an orthodox Jew, of being...wait for it...a white supremacist. But that’s where the mystery and mystique of these two conservative voices arises.
These panicked overreaches and absurd criticisms smack of a desperation on the part of liberal elites to silence Peterson and Shapiro that simply isn’t evident in their objections to other conservative voices saying the same things. What they face is comparable only to the searing hatred from the left that was elicited by Rush Limbaugh’s rise to conservative stardom in the 1990s. And that comparison perhaps more than anything else helps distinguish what makes these two men so noteworthy these days.
Rush Limbaugh took on the left in one of its bulwarks: media.
Jordan Peterson takes on the left in one of its bulwarks: academia.
Ben Shapiro takes on the left in both, with the addition of another of its bulwarks: pop culture.
Peterson stands out because he is playing in the Left’s cultural sandbox. He’s disrupting an emerging secular cultural monopoly with arguments about history, tradition, and the deep truths about human nature that the cultural radicals had long thought they’d banished to the fringe.
That’s the reason for the fury. That’s the reason for the rage. When Peterson walks into a secular university or a secular television studio and addresses a secular audience by referencing ancient theological arguments, the effect is not unlike inviting a genderqueer women’s-studies professor to a Baptist Sunday-school class. Some things (in some places) are just not said.
Then, when people actually respond to that message, the shock is even more seismic.
And that’s it. Rush Limbaugh was (and is) hated not just because he took on the left’s media monopoly, but because he won. He beat them on their own turf. He proved that when people are presented with a viable conservative option, they will choose it. Similarly, Peterson and Shapiro are reviled not just because they show up on campuses, but because they pack the halls and win the arguments.
There’s a lesson there for all of us on the right. No, we aren’t all given the gifts of men like Shaprio, Peterson, and Rush, but we all have a sphere of influence that we can affect more intimately, more deeply, and more profoundly than even those titans. We do that by following their lead and not shying from the exchange. French writes,
No one should believe that Peterson is always right, or that his every utterance is profound, but he has served a truly invaluable cultural service. His success and — critically — his method, which relies as much on scripture as it does on psychology, should serve as a clarion call for Biblical Christians and Jews. There is no need for the defensive crouch. In the spiritual wasteland of secularized America, the harvest is plentiful, and ancient truth can indeed provide the seed for new beginnings.
May it begin with us.