The Hypnotic Appeal of Jordan Peterson
WORDS BY TERENCE DUGGAN
As was once said about the British Empire, it seems that young male millennials have ‘lost an empire, and failed to find a role’, and into that chasm steps Jordan Peterson. Depending on who you ask, Dr Peterson is either the ‘most influential public intellectual in the world right now’ or the ‘most infamous public intellectual in Canada’. His critics decry him as someone who is focused on criticising feminism, identity politics, transgender rights, and has since become an ‘alt right’ icon- whose ways of thinking are abhorrent to progress and human dignity- often to the extent of being disqualified from a platform or arena. His supporters argue that far from being a functionary of piecemeal political issues, he posits a radical philosophy of life- a way of finding meaning and purpose in a chaotic existence. Peterson is a lightning rod, with views that electrify the extremities of the political spectrum.
Peterson’s philosophy revolves around the concept of self-responsibility and in doing so, he argues that human psychology is wired to value hierarchy and order in a chaotic universe. As such, we can only attain happiness if we govern our lives in a manner that applies hierarchy and order to our chaotic existence. Famously, he cites lobsters as having a similar hierarchy-driven nervous system to humans as evidence of how deep seated such values are. He thus argues in his flagship work ‘twelve rules for life’ that one should ‘stand up straight with your shoulders back’ ‘treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping’ and ‘set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world’ among other rules.
You may have gathered from such quotes that Peterson’s ideals are remarkably unremarkable. Far from being paradigms of hatred, they sound distinctly middle-aged, middle-class, and middle-brow (one might also add middle income to this mix). And yet I found that they had a certain, almost hypnotic, appeal. At a certain stage I found myself asking why I was so hypnotised by this what appeared to be, on the outside, a fad. For that matter- a fad which proposes a fairly pedestrian set of ideals. All the more unsettling was that I fitted the perfect demographic profile of a Peterson acolyte- an educated white male millennial who despite every advantage in life finds oneself in a state of educated white male millennial ennui.
The by-line of Petersons work is ‘an antidote to chaos’. If I may, a more appropriate one would be ‘an antidote to modernity’. To a certain extent, people crave direction. As a young idealist liberal, I once believed that it was the fundamental desire of all mankind to control their own lives and their own destiny in the manner of a rugged Germanic hero. I once said this on a drunken late night conversation to a very successful young lawyer. She snapped back at me- mid sentence ‘Of course not! Why on earth do you think religion exists?!”
I guess that for a generation of people that have been raised to believe that fame, success, good looks, and baccalian amounts of money can come into our hands by virtue of pure destiny are forced, at some stage in our 20s to confront the uncomfortable reality that those things elude us, and happiness eludes us. One interpretation is to say that a generation raised in a secular, liberal, world is left without the hierarchy that all people crave. Another is to say that being raised to crave money and materialism renders life empty and meaningless. Whatever your views, there’s a distinct void in our era that fits compellingly with a mild mannered Albertan pointing his tween arms and telling us to ‘stand up straight- you have chaos to confront’.