At some point last year I was surfing the web (does anyone actually still say that?), streaming music. In the process I found myself listening to Tom Waits’ hobo classic Cold Water. I briefly scrolled down to see the comments on the video and discovered, much to my surprise, a number of people saying they had been brought to this particular song by Canadian psychology professor Jordan Peterson.
Like I have been with everything that’s ever emerged on the internet, I have to confess I was a bit slow on the uptake with Jordan Peterson. In fact, it’s only this week that I have for the first time read anything written by him or watched any of his videos. When I first saw those quotes on that Tom Waits song, I knew vaguely who Jordan Peterson was but found the references to “room-cleaning rock” etc a bit cryptic. I assumed, correctly as it turned out, that one of Dr Peterson’s messages was that people should clean their bedrooms.
I can now say I’m a bit more familiar with his work. There also happens to now be a bit more of his work. Not only has his popularity exploded on the internet and in his speaking tours (to the point where he is regularly described as “the world’s most influential public intellectual”), but he has also this year published his first book since he rocketed to viral internet fame.
That book is 12 Rules to Life: An Antidote to Chaos – like a self-help book with a few more references to Carl Jung than the genre usually provides. I haven’t read it, but the chapter headings mostly look like pretty sound, if unremarkable, life advice. I can also agree with his emphasis on taking personal responsibility (mostly for your own life, which is what his motif of “clean your room” refers to, although he does also talk about trying to impact the world around us).
Some of his theories are a bit more strange or worrying – the often-quoted examples being his bizarre thesis that he can’t deal with disagreements with women because if it came down to it he could never hit them; and his promise (since withdrawn) to, like a 21st century Joseph McCarthy, build a database of humanities courses full of “cultural Marxism” to warn people off them and eventually close them down. (So much for rule 9 “assume the person you are listening to knows something you don’t”).
I’m not going to do an in-depth critique of Dr Peterson’s ideas, and wouldn’t be able to even if I wanted given I’ve hardly read them. My cursory scan doesn’t show much of the overt misogyny, transphobia or xenophobia he is often accused of. There is admittedly plenty to dislike about the values of many of his biggest fans (who are strangely keen on labelling his fairly mild monologues “Jordan Peterson DESTROYS LEFTISTS” etc). He certainly does fit the mould of a “culture warrior” given his combative way of approaching ideas other than his own (it’s strange given his extensive analysis of the psychology of beliefs to then hear him talk about “post-modernists” or “cultural Marxists” as if they are one homogenous conspiracy). But if it comes to the battleground of culture wars, I would say if ideas can’t stand up to the critique of someone like Jordan Peterson they probably won’t convince many people outside of the believers anyway.
The thing about his output though, is for all its vast quantity (when I googled his “12 rules” the first video that came up was a three hour lecture!), I just don’t think there are many new ideas there. I mean, clean your room? That is the exact advice your mum gave you your whole life. Using bible quotes, traditional social values and psychology 101 to give a motivational speech? That happens in literally thousands of churches around the world every Sunday. A bit more uncommon are the quotes from Nietszche and Jung, but they are just that – quotes.
You could say it’s symptomatic of our current media landscape, where youtube videos and not books are the dominant medium of ideas, that someone like Jordan Peterson can be called a prophet. But then again, he is hardly the first person to sell millions of books by offering people a dozen steps to transform their life.
Once you’ve watched a few of his videos and your “recommended” feed fills up with his work, you realise how many of his popular videos have titles like “how to attract women” or “what women want”. You realise then that maybe it’s not actually 21st century interpretations of Carl Jung and the bible; not even critiques of post-modernism and identity politics; that people are flocking to him for.
But what I think is a shame, the thing that irked me about all those people proudly proclaiming how Jordan Peterson sent them to Tom Waits’ video, is that Jordan Peterson’s “bear your suffering, sort yourself out bucko” cheerleading is kind of cheating people. It’s that image of all those people cleaning their room while listening to Tom Waits sing about the joys of not having a bedroom.
As well as liking Tom Waits, me and Dr Peterson also have a mutual appreciation of that other famous hobo – Jesus. But what does the professor like about Jesus? Is it his radical inclusion of the outcasts (the disabled, prostitutes, tax collectors)? Or his anarchistic philosophy of social organising (“you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven… The greatest among you will be your servant.”) Or his habit of sticking it to the powers that be in his society (both Roman kings and Jewish religious leaders)?
Well it doesn’t seem to be any of those. He likes Jesus as someone who manfully carried the cross of his suffering, but a big part of it seems to be that he likes Christianity as the cultural foundation of modern western civilisation. There is some validity in that view, but by seeing Christianity as a foundation pillar of the status quo, he’s missed out on the best bits. As well as – importantly – the whole thing that got Jesus killed in the first place.
When he sums up his theories in pithy little points about dressing up in a suit for your self-confidence, or accepting traditional social and gender roles, or becoming more productive and successful workers; Peterson is actually insulting Jesus, Tom Waits, and most of the great thinkers he is so fond of quoting – most of whom had to directly challenge the social norms of their time and place to find meaning in their own lives and to contribute something unique and significant to the world.
Jordan Peterson likes to tell his listeners to do something heroic, to make the world better. In hoping for that I can again find some common ground with him, except I think his manual left out Step 13 – imagine a future for yourself and the world around us that is different – better – than the one we live in now. Dedicate yourself to living for that world, even when it means being out of step, or actively working against, some of the values we have inherited from our past.
Dr Peterson is right – we do live in a world that is tragic and unjust. But in a society riddled with exploitation, greed, xenophobia, social and environmental destruction; lives of meaning and heroism can surely mean more than just clean bedrooms.