Jordan Peterson seems to be everywhere. From the Joe Rogan Experience to Channel 4 News, Peterson makes an appearance. And according to David Brooks, Peterson could be “the most influential public intellectual in the Western world.” So what makes him so influential or popular? Here are four reasons.
Peterson Offers Salvation to Young Men
Peterson has become popular for the same reason that Mark Driscoll was popular among Christians. Both filled a cultural gap by giving young men purpose.
Young men increasingly feel like they’ve lost their place in society because they’ve lost the monopoly on male gender roles. What men used to do, namely, being the primary bread-winner and head of the household no longer are reserved for their gender alone.
While women have received equal rights to participate in the workforce, vote, and so forth over years (all of which are good things), many young men struggle to find their place in this new world.
On top of this, men (and women) encounter a world in which they are taught not to offend anyone while simultaneously being taught to be offended at almost anything. Political correctness has become something of a newspeak for North Americans. And it has become deeply confusing and frustrating for many.
Lastly, and most importantly, parents and institutions have failed young men. Brooks writes, “Parents, universities and the elders of society have utterly failed to give many young men realistic and demanding practical wisdom on how to live.”
In light of these factors, many young men have simply given up. They accept a certain cultural narrative, which removes classical virtues from their life purpose (among other things). Peterson looks at them and says, “Clean up your room. Grow up. Be responsible.” No one has said this to them before. And it’s a conversion moment.
Peterson saves young men from themselves. He’s a prophet, and many young men (and women) buy into his religion.
Peterson Speaks Confidently to a Skeptical World
We’re not used to confident certainty when it comes to how we should live our lives. We’re used to confident politicians who speak on policy. We are used to confidence when it comes to the business world.
But when someone says, “Clean your room” and “get your act together,” we pause. Who is this that speaks with such authority? And he does so with the conviction of someone who has peered beyond the veil of the world into the truth of things.
Now, this doesn’t mean that he actually has done so. He certainly speaks some truth, and his recent book 12 Rules for Life contains wisdom. Yet it’s not clear that his sources for moral truth are necessarily better than others. His moral judgments are rooted in visionary experience, Jungian psychology, his work as a clinical psychologist, and the western tradition. So insofar as one finds these sources of moral authority true, Peterson’s positions will find fertile mental ground.
Obviously, this critique reduces the complexity of Peterson’s thought and of life in general. But I am trying to grasp the source of Peterson’s moral thought according to my understanding of Peterson.
Peterson Empowers People by His Expertise
Peterson often presents statistics, formal studies, and his experience as a clinical psychologist. And due to this, he often appears to win debates or disagreements. And understandably so, for truth is not a subjective decision that we make; it’s something we discover.
People gravitate to him not just because he has answers but because he has data to back it up. Although most of our moral decision making relies on intuition, people still want to find reasons for why they believe what they do. Peterson provides reasons for people with credible evidence to back those reasons up.
Peterson Comforts the Afflicted
Life is suffering, or so Peterson says. Being, our entire life considered, involves suffering, chaos. So bringing balance to chaos through order gives people contentment, a kind of golden mean between two forces.
People experience real suffering, real hardship. The government cannot fix every problem. And religion, for many people, is not taken seriously enough (and does not take itself seriously enough) to provide comfort for the afflicted.
Real comfort doesn’t only give kind words. It speaks truth. It shows you what are you and where you need to be. Peterson does this. He says, “You’ve failed. Get up. Do better. Start small.” And it works. People love Peterson and see him as someone who rescued them from suffering and gloom.
So these are four reasons why Peterson is so popular. Yet as a Christian, I can only go so far with Peterson’s solutions. I can learn from him. And I can affirm that he is filling the gap that the Christian church is not. We’ve failed, frankly, to give deep and true answers to young men and women. Peterson is a secular prophet, filling the gap that the church (thus far) failed to fill.
If he teaches Christians anything, it’s that the world wants the truth and desires someone to rescue it from the gloomy realities of this life. Let’s press forward and fill this gap. After all, Peterson may get someone on track in this life but what about the next?