Last week, Laura and I got to see Jordan Peterson on his 12 Rules For Life tour in Kansas City. It was one of the best nights I can remember. As we walked up to this old theater in midtown, people were converging from every direction. When we got to the entrance, we saw that there was a long line of people waiting so we followed the line down the block. We kept walking and walking, past hundreds of people waiting to get in. About a quarter of a mile later, we finally found the end of the line. These lectures have been selling out only a day or two after they open. Thousands of people are paying to come sit and listen to a college level lecture for almost two hours. What’s going on?
For those of you who haven’t been following the Peterson craze, his three podcasts with Joe Rogan are the best places to begin, or check out this interview, or this piece on the various hit pieces that have been written. If you’d rather just get to the good stuff, here’s the Cathy Newman interview that started it all.
Jordan Peterson is one of the most interesting figures to arise in a very long time. His popularity is unprecedented. As I’m writing this, he has 1.5 million YouTube subscribers and almost 10,000 Patreon subscribers. He’s absolutely taken the internet by storm.
Several months ago I was in a conversation with some guys about Peterson and I asked them if they had been following him or listening to his lectures. A few of the guys had listened to a few podcasts or watched a couple of videos, but one of the guys was completely dismissive; “Peterson is just a fad and since he’s not Christian, he shouldn’t matter to us anyway.” This might have been over the line in hindsight, but I told him that he would never impact young men with the gospel if that’s what he thought. Jordan Peterson’s widespread success tell us a ton about our culture and we would do well to learn from his appeal.
What can Jordan Peterson tell us about the world? Here are a few things Peterson is absolutely right about:
Men and women are different.
In today’s culture, these are fighting words. Part of the progressive ideology brought on by the LGBTQ advocates is the erasure of gender differences. If you believe them, all of the difference between the sexes can be linked to cultural conditioning. Little boys don’t instinctively like trucks, weapons, and toy soldiers, they’ve been taught to like them by an oppressive set of cultural standards. Jordan Peterson calls this trend exactly what it is: unscientific. The science of personality and the sociological data available in egalitarian countries reveal the exact opposite. There are undeniable differences between men and women.
Peterson’s expertise is in the psychology of personality and he constantly refers to the big five personality traits: extraversion, openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Everybody has these traits in different amounts, and if you map all of society, these traits present as a bell curve. If you look at the way the traits manifest in men and women, there are some obvious differences. For example, women, in general, are higher in neuroticism - which Peterson often defines as sensitivity to negative emotion - and they are also higher in agreeableness. Men are typically lower in agreeableness - which explains why the most aggressive people in society are almost all men.
Pushback on this point is often rooted in a misunderstanding of how bell curves work. This does not mean that all women are more agreeable than men. It means that women are set to the right of men on the spectrum so that by the time you get a couple of standard deviations out from the mean (which is pretty even) a higher percentage of people who are very high on agreeableness are women. As whole groups, men and women score differently on personality.
The second difference involves interest. Because there has been a move toward egalitarian societies in the western world, it’s possible to plot societies against each other using egalitarianism and job selection as two variables. In societies like the Scandinavian countries where almost every part of their culture has become gender neutral, women actually select careers like nursing in much higher numbers than in the United States, which is comparatively less gender neutral. This is pretty eye-opening; societies that are more egalitarian reveal larger disparity in career selection among men and women.
This shouldn’t be a surprise for Christians. We believe that God made men and women to bear his image together. We believe that men and women are absolutely equal in dignity and in salvation. We also believe that God has designed men and women differently and in ways that cause both genders to flourish. This is extremely unpopular to say, but Jordan Peterson is a strong ally for Christians on this topic.
Hierarchies can be based on competence.
The leftist ideology sees every part of society as a hidden power dynamic. You can blame almost everything negative on the patriarchy. For many progressives, the world can be broken down into oppressors and the oppressed and any hierarchy must be torn down and exposed as a societal evil. While we talk a lot about fairness, what’s lurking underneath is a worldview that sees every power structure as corrupt. Peterson hits this head-on by arguing that there are some hierarchies that are simply based on competence. It’s possible that the most talented people rise to the top, not because of historic injustices or rigged systems, but because some people are better at certain things than others.
This is where Peterson makes one of his better-known points. Equality of opportunity and equality of outcome are two very different concepts. Equality of opportunity means we should make every effort to give people, including those who have been historically oppressed, the opportunity for success. On the other hand, equality of outcome means controlling power structures to the extent that the same number of people from different ethnicities, sexes, and sexual identities reach every outcome. This prohibits competent people from every demographic community from succeeding. It’s anti-capitalistic, but it also denies the incentives for production across society and industry.
Paul presents a slightly different but important framework when he discusses giftedness in the body in 1 Corinthians 12-14. We believe that we should work for justice, but we also believe God has gifted people in different ways and there is no reason to be ashamed of being good at something. Every gift should be used to give glory to good and bring about human flourishing.
Free speech is worth fighting for.
Peterson first exploded onto the scene over the issue of free speech. When the Canadian government mandated that all employees had to use the preferred gender pronouns of transgender people, Peterson publicly refused. He’s made clear that he would call a person by whatever pronouns they preferred if they asked him personally, but he viscerally objected to being forced to speak and think a certain way by the government. This comes out of one of Peterson’s signature warnings, compelled speech is fascism.
In his interview with Cathy Newman, Peterson points out that compelled speech often comes as a result of a victim mentality - you shouldn’t be able to say that because it harms another person. But in the interview, he cleverly jokes that Newman doesn’t seem to have a very high regard for his comfort. Free speech is downstream from free thought, and the right to speak freely necessarily entails the likelihood that offensive ideas will be discussed and entertained. Speaking in place of the disinvited Steve Bannon at the New Yorker festival last week, Malcolm Gladwell doubled down on his controversial Twitter quip, “Call me old-fashioned. But I would have thought that the point of a festival of ideas was to expose the audience to ideas. If you only invite your friends over, it’s called a dinner party.”
The freedom to think, speak, and publish undergirds the university system and society at large. Peterson’s unwavering commitment to opposing compelled speech is something everyone should be following. Rule 8, in 12 Rules for Life, is “Tell the Truth - Or, At Least, Don’t Lie.” In this chapter, he defends the power of truthful speech. One of the things Peterson is known for is his use of myths to expose the deepest parts of human nature. He loves to talk about the Lion King, Pinocchio, and the Little Mermaid, but he also loves to talk about the Bible. In Rule 8, he claims that the logos, what he defines as truthful speech - that which brings order out of chaos - is the most powerful idea in the history of the world. The power of words and ideas to bring order to the world is unparalleled, and as a consequence, free speech is one of the most precious rights we have.
The Left has gone too far and needs to be held accountable.
One of Peterson’s key insights is that the left has gone too far but nobody is holding them accountable. Social-political ideology can be put on a spectrum. There are those on the left and the right, liberals and conservatives (for the most part), and then there are the extremes. Several dangerous groups have been identified on the far right; neo-nazis, white supremacists, American nationalists, and other groups who can be characterized by racist ideologies and violence. Most of these groups are to the right of the alt-right, and they’ve come to prominence as a result of their support for Trump at rallies and protests and on Twitter. But most on the right do not identify with these groups, nor do they have much trouble differentiating them from traditional conservative groups.
The left is a slightly different story. Peterson argues that it is too difficult to distinguish the left from the radical left. The alt-right counterpart on the left, known as the antifa, also shows up at political rallies and on college campuses. They’re pretty easy to distinguish. But what about the other members of the illiberal left? These are the people boycotting speakers on college campuses, holding the administration captive with protests and lists of demands, interest groups calling for CEOs to step down or enforce implicit bias training. There is less of a bright line between these groups and traditional liberal groups.
Peterson suggests that liberals separate themselves from leftists groups by condemning violent protests, censorship efforts against free speech and free research, implicit bias training, and equality of outcome. These actions all go beyond what the moderate left stands for.
It will be interesting to see how this shakes out over the next month leading up to the midterm elections, and over the next two years leading up to the Presidential election in 2020. As the Democratic party has drifted to the left, especially on the issues of diversity and identity politics, it is more difficult to discern where the line is between party-line Democrats and radical left-wing activists.
Life has meaning and you are worth fighting for.
In the midst of everything else he does, I think Jordan Peterson’s most important legacy will be convincing a generation of young men that their lives matter, that there is more to life than what they’re experiencing, and that they need to put their house in order and begin to find meaning in their lives. Peterson is the father millions of young men have always wanted. He’s hard on them, but he loves them. He understands that the biggest problem among young men is not laziness, it’s shame. They’re ashamed of their existence. They have been bludgeoned by society into believing there is something wrong with being who they are, and they carry that around with them every day. Then they’re publicly mocked for not being who they know they could be.
On the most basic level, Peterson is the mentor our society desperately wants. He’s a reliable expert because of his academic credentials, and when you listen to him you notice immediately that he is smart, thoughtful, articulate, and has an alien depth to him that is extremely refreshing. He’s willing to tell young men that they’re not what they could be. This is one of my favorite things I’ve ever heard Peterson say, in an interview with the Spectator, “Some of the young men who come to my lectures are desperately hanging on every word because I am telling them that they are sinful, and insufficient, and deceitful and contemptible in their current form, but that they could be far more than that, and that the world NEEDS THAT. This presents an ideal that can be approached and life without that is intolerable.”
Peterson’s fundamental claim is that the world consists of order and disorder and that meaning comes from being able to turn chaos into order. We make meaning in our lives, or bring about enough meaning to justify our own existence, as we operate by the 12 rules. This has a stong appeal among those who struggle to find motivation, purpose, and meaning in the midst of suffering. This is why Peterson has been considered a self-help writer. He’s not afraid to tell his listeners to get up early, make their beds, get their lives in order, and make something of themselves. There’s something to be said for Rule 6, “Set Your House in Perfect Order Before You Criticize the World.”
Maybe most importantly, he’s brave. He’s willing to stand up for what’s right. I think there are so many people who have watched their leaders burn out, fall on their faces, capitulate, or just get run over, that they are longing for someone who can stand up for what they know is right. He may be unconventional in some ways, but you cannot doubt Peterson’s courage.
I think this is why he resonates so deeply with Christian young men. One of the things that surprised me the other night was that the demographic wasn’t just millennial men - it looked like the crowd you would see walking into any number of churches on a Sunday morning. There were couples of all ages, groups of guys and groups of girls, and there were tons of dads and sons who had come together. Peterson’s appeal is getting broader. Over a thousand people sat rapt in that theater in Kansas City for over two hours because they wanted to hear someone tell them that life has meaning, and it’s not too late to make something of yourself. It’s not out of reach for you to bring order out of the chaos of your life.
I’m sad that it’s taking a Canadian behavioral psychologist to make this kind of impact. He’s certainly an expert, and his training makes him very appealing to those who have hangups with religion. Many of the things he’s saying can and should be said by Christian pastors, and we should take a page from his book. He’s not afraid to stand up for what’s right, and there are so many people out there looking for someone to boldly defend what they believe. Peterson isn’t right about everything, but he’s an essential player in the conversations we’re having as a culture.
If he can make this kind of impact, imagine what a bold group of Christians who know what they believe and are unafraid of opposition could do to change the world. Peterson should be an inspiration for believers, a call for precise thinking, clear speaking, and undaunted action. We have an even greater message. We can make an even greater impact.
Check back next Monday, I’ll be publishing an article titled, “4 Things Jordan Peterson Is Absolutely Wrong About”
Cole Feix is the founder of So We Speak and a regular writer. Follow him on Twitter, @cfeix7.
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