Why is Jordan Peterson a thing?
I was 11 when I figured out that everything was bullshit.
I was 28 when I realised - nothing was.
Innocent enough beginnings
I remember her looking at me like I'd just told her to go to hell.
I remember her hesitation. Her total unpreparedness. The stinging hatred in her eyes.
And at the end, the final hit:
"Well, I'm not descended from monkeys. Maybe you and your family are."
That's the sound of reality cracking.
My third-grade Religion teacher just gave me the gift of light. Hallelujah!
All those sacred cows that the adults held dear, all the taboos - I saw through them. In the spiritually infused post-communist rubble of 90s Romania, as an 11-year-old atheist, I felt like an intellectual ninja, a prodigy. Now that I had access to the source code, I could enlighten others, and together, we would ring in the FREETHINKING UTOPIA!
I grew up lamenting the plight of my fellow humans, crushed by inequality. I saw fat cats raking in money at levels they couldn't possibly spend and homeless people shivering on the street in winter. I went on to study economics and became a diehard Keynesian. I read everything Stiglitz and Krugman published, and Naomi Klein was my spirit animal. I soon comfortably slipped into socialism.
I felt broken by the arbitrary and suffocating social norms imposed upon me by society. I felt harassed, unimportant, sidelined. In college, I majored in Gender and Diversity Management. I became a feminist.
I felt I was all trained up in rationality and now had all the tools at my disposal to debate, pester and nudge people until they exhausted their stupidity and got with the program of the coming revolution.
At parties, I was the girl that people invited because she was funny but then didn't invite the next time because she was TOO INTENSE.
I was the girl that once made a creationist cry, and sent a 2-hour long silent shudder through her best friend's birthday party. The girl that argued for 4 hours about rape culture at a picnic until everyone picked up their blankets and left.
But I didn't care, I was on the right side of history, illuminating the inept masses towards the path of virtue.
Then, a few years out of college, I read The Blank Slate, by Steven Pinker. I also had a few conversations with undeniably smart people who didn't agree with me.
I felt triggered a lot.
And then a bit less.
My strong beliefs, strongly held, were slowly fading.
Cold hard reality
At 28, I moved to London.
I wanted a complete change, and boy, did I get it.
I was alone in the big city, not making any money, loveless, friendless and pretty wretched overall. One night, while mindlessly wandering through the thicket of memes on Facebook, I came across a story about a Canadian professor who was unapologetically being a dick to trans people.
"Hmm," I thought, "let's see this fucker defend himself."
What followed were about six months of listening to Jordan Peterson lectures and podcasts and chain-smoking on the balcony of my Walthamstow flat.
I was watching the buses pass and thinking of lobsters.
"Older than trees...", in that Kermit-esque voice, would resound through my apartment like a chant from another dimension.
In colloquial parlance, this is what is called a mind-fuck.
My whole life I was sold on what was wrong with the world.
I was sold on class struggle, gender discrimination, the haves and the have-nots. I was sold on constant irritation with the status quo and the virtues of activism. I was sold on rights, revolutions and sticking it to the man.
I was sold on people that had answers, an anointed caste of intellectual messiahs that told me the world was solvable.
We just had to get our hands dirty.
But, somehow, in the midst of all of this righteous indignation, we all still felt like shit.
Nobody I ever met gave me a coherent reason why this is all worth it.
Nobody ever had a good enough counterargument to why I shouldn't spend my life in a drunken, drugged-up, cynical stupour, eating cheesy Bugles on the couch and numbing my crushing fear of death watching Jersey Shore re-runs.
"You just shouldn't" is not good enough when the abyss opens up black and howling in your nightmares.
Jordan Peterson was the only person who wasn't afraid to confront me.
He wasn't hedging constantly like the other noodle-spined thought leaders of today. He wasn't biting his tongue to appease this or that interest group.
There is an almost forgotten power in being someone who won’t preface his words by prostration and apology for an entire cultural heritage. Pointing out that there is value in a tradition that is objectively the only one that gave humanity a second of respite from tribalism and squalor - that’s rare heroism in our time.
The sheer transcendence of not taking any shit. Especially from the well-known, well-meaning bullies of today.
He has nothing to apologise for. He knows it and you know it.
He wasn't too afraid of my feelings to tell me that I'm not perfect-just-the-way-I-am. He courageously stated that self-esteem has to be earned and it isn't just a participation medal for being alive.
Through Peterson's work, I realised the connection between truth and meaning. I realised that I'd spent a good part of my life doing and saying things that undermined my view of myself and made me weak. I was bending the truth constantly, hedging, avoiding and taking shortcuts.
I saw that most of my anger and resentment poured out of an inexhaustible well of guilt that had swelled throughout the years. I wasn't all I could be, by a long shot, and that unspoken knowledge was slowly eating me alive.
Peterson didn't sell me empty religious tropes. His argument is based on something I think about a lot: game theory and evolution.
He wasn't saying what we all thought. It was deeper than that.
He was saying what we all were.
The hero archetype.
The apex of the dominance hierarchy.
The Jesus figure.
It isn’t just some stone age myth.
It’s the codification of the fact that to "win" at life you need to think across all current and future dimensions.
You need to prevail in the long game.
And to win the long game, you have to sometimes lose in the short term.
An ancient, profound and evolutionarily encoded discovery that you can gain the future by sacrificing the present.
I realised I wasn't the enlightenment Ubermensch I thought I was, I had merely switched religions.
I went from a gullible childhood Catholicism to the cult of fixing humanity with my rational endowments.
I fell into a trap David Foster Wallace warned about:
"There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship."
I chose to worship the rational perfectability of man. Utopia.
But I was ignoring my ignorance.
It takes a lot of arrogance to think you know what the world needs and how to get there.
I should have known better, growing up between the smoking embers of another failed utopia, my home, Romania. But I was blinded by my anger at the suffering of the world. When you're young, suffering doesn't make any sense. It simply calls out for revolution, for struggle, for punishing the culprits, for elevating the victims.
Peterson hit the brakes on my revolution.
"Clean your room" is the stuff of hundreds of memes and makes him look like a petty kook when taken out of context. But here's why it's powerful: you have to learn to master your immediate space to have any hope of mastering a more complex environment. If you can't figure out how to keep cockroaches out of your kitchen, establishing a new world order might be a bit too high a mark, bucko.
The world is a highly complex arena, and the way things are is not easy to understand, neither is it just oppressive and neither is it random.
It's the end point of thousands, hundreds of thousands and millions of years of biological and cultural evolution. And many times it's both biology and culture woven together in ways that aren't simple to reverse-engineer or simple to change by decree.
There’s something about Jordan
While I don't agree with everything Peterson stands for - I'm still very much an atheist, for example - I credit him with giving me one of the most precious gifts I have ever received: responsibility.
And this, my friends, is the essence of Peterson-mania.
For all the articles crying out in confusion about the popularity of this deplorable man, few seem to pinpoint the actual culprit. It's poor ole forgotten responsibility.
Selling personal responsibility to young people sounds like some million dollar challenge where you have to subtly stuff it into a Pokemon Go and porn sandwich and pray they don't feel the taste.
But, surprise! They gobble it up by the fistful.
Because it's not just about stale, militaristic responsibility, it's about the prize at the end of the journey - meaning.
It's about real self-esteem, self-respect, strength, truth, being valuable to those around you. It's about real virtue. Not the virtue of pledging allegiance to the newest, trendiest intersectional buzzword without any skin in the game. I am an "insert-trendy-platitude"-ist too!
Make love, not war.
Teach men not to rape.
"Imagine all the people..."
True virtue means personal sacrifice. Doing the right thing and telling the truth even when you stand to lose everything.
An unclean thought
One of the most important intellectual battlegrounds of our era is purity.
The world has become an arena of purity tests. It's not a place where you can get a useful idea from someone and remain doubtful of other parts of their thinking.
We've regressed to unfettered tribalism, to us vs them thinking.
You're not just wrong. You're immoral.
In this environment, entire persons can be contaminated. If one of your Twitter followers made a racist joke, well, you've touched the untouchables. You're two degrees of separation away from the ideas of the lower caste. Ewww.
And this is the ace that the critics of Peterson have up their sleeve. The most potent weapon at their disposal isn't the stale straw-manning or the out of context editing: it's contamination.
The media did what it does best and dumped a truckload of adjectives on the Peterson name.
With statements usually couched in the comfort of the shadowy cop-out, "His critics say...", it seems that Jordan Peterson, the Canadian clinical psychologist and university professor is: a transphobe, a fascist, a homophobe, a racist, a sexist, an alt-right dog whistler and an outright Nazi.
The message is clear. Don't listen to this man's ideas. He's contaminated with some of the worst atrocities and dark thoughts our civilisation has ever bred. Hide your kids. Hide your wife.
The most glaring example of this tactic was the now infamous Cathy Newman interview. It was like seeing the relentless hydra of our contemporary culture trying to snap bites out of him, and ending up eating itself.
Both a ridiculous and symptomatic spectacle.
Especially for the foreseeable backlash: The media pilloried Peterson for his followers' attacks on the defenceless hydra, for... jokes they made on Twitter.
Luckily, even a bombshell of a word like racist or fascist fades in intensity when you apply it to too many people.
When everyone is a racist, no one is.
The media's treatment of Jordan Peterson will be remembered as one of the last failed narrative building exercises, and probably one of the many nails in its coffin. In brightly lit studios all across the world, well-earned shivers are running down sweat-drenched spines. These are the twilight years of the media as we know it. Despite all the bombast and protest, there's a limited amount of times you can cry wolf before you deservedly lose your audience. The establishment is quickly running out of credible boogie men if a mild-mannered Canadian psychologist is the highest form of evil they can find.
And if you've never heard of the man and have no patience to listen to 40 hours of deep dives about archetypes of the collective unconscious, I can't blame you for coming away from his portrayal in the media thinking that this guy's just a big ole meanie or even the second coming of Hitler.
But take it from someone who's life has irrevocably been changed for the better in a lot of ways - there's more to this story.
Though video/audio is probably the best way to get a taste for Peterson’s work, his two published books are great condensations of the main ideas.
12 Rules for Life - is probably one of the most silently best-selling books of our time, as the New York Times has other priorities.
It’s an incredibly useful and well written book, but I feel that it only touches on some of the deeper archetypal material, so, it’s not a comprehensive look at Peterson’s thinking. It’s the tasting menu in a three Michelin star restaurant. You should come back for more.
Maps of Meaning - his first book, very convoluted and abstract in language, but it does describe the core of his thinking in more detail than any other format he’s engaged with. The recorded course on Youtube is probably the easiest way of internalising this information, though.
But if you’d like to delve deeper into the Peterson rabbit hole, here are some of the books that influenced him and I found inspiring as well:
Man’s search for meaning by Victor Frankel - a deeply philosophical memoir of life and death in a nazi concentration camp
The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn - we had it on our bookshelf growing up. I remembered the cover, but it seemed uninteresting. “What’s a gulag, mom?” Little did I know it was probably the straw that broke Soviet Union’s back. Disturbing, but excellent.
The painted bird by Jerzy Kosiński is one of the most terrifying books I have ever read. It’s a shattering account of tribalism and man’s inhumanity to man - all seen through the eyes of a small orphan child roaming through villages in a nondescript Eastern Europe during war-time. We’ve forgotten what our culture means when we say “evil”. This book is a chilling reminder.
I know that it feels frightening to venture off the culturally beaten path and crack open books by dissenters, but in this case, there is enlightenment to be found. Jordan Peterson might be the stupid person’s smart person, or he might be a guy simply stating truths that you have to be smart to ignore.