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Jordan Peterson is a prophet—and a problem for progressives

Peterson understands how ideology shapes culture—and that enrages his harshest critics.

A screenshot of Jordan B. Peterson during an interview with the UK's Channel 4 News. (Image via youtube.com)

More than four decades ago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn said that we need moralists to challenge the self-destructive and dehumanizing drift of western culture. The writings, lectures, debates, and critiques of Jordan Peterson, a University of Toronto psychology professor, reveal why we need them. Peterson has been called the “most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now,” and his YouTube videos have attracted nearly 50 million views. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Peterson has more than a half-million YouTube subscribers, and nearly 300,000 Twitter followers: “They devour the classics he deems must-reads—Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Orwell. When asked to compare him, they turn to historical figures like Plato, Diogenes, Gandhi. They insist he’s changed their lives.”

Although he has spent the past 20 years at Toronto, he is remembered fondly by his graduate students from his years at Harvard in the 1990s. In a 1995 article titled “Linking Mythology with Psychology,” The Harvard Crimson quoted Peterson’s students as saying that Peterson was “teaching beyond the level of anyone else…I remember students crying on the last day of class because they wouldn’t get to hear him anymore.”

During his Harvard years, Peterson became interested in what motivates individuals to participate in atrocious acts to support their ideological identification. Understanding how ideology shapes culture still motivates him today—and that in turn seems to motivate some of his harshest critics. Peterson’s criticisms of the evils of postmodernism and gender theory led one faculty member at Canada’s Wilfrid Laurier University to compare him to Hitler. This comparison was a response to a decision by a teaching assistant on the Wilfrid Laurier campus to show her undergraduate students a five-minute clip of a debate featuring Peterson. A faculty committee was assembled quickly to investigate the T.A.; during the interrogation she received from the faculty panel, the T.A. claimed that she showed the video “neutrally” to teach her students that they needed to listen to all sides before reaching conclusions. But her supervising professor angrily rebuked her for showing the video—claiming that giving a platform to Peterson was like “neutrally playing a speech by Hitler.” The professor’s remarks were recorded by the T.A. and although he later apologized to her, the university has not sanctioned him for his bullying behavior.

Peterson inspires passion on both sides of the ideological divide. His most devoted demographic is 20-30-years old, and mostly male. They are Millennials—the most insulted generation in history. While they are often unfairly dismissed as the “snowflake” generation because they are supposedly so easily offended, or the “trophy” generation for all those participation medals, Peterson understands them better than anyone—and he understands just how untrue these stereotypes are.

Peterson understands that these young men are part of the most anxious generation we have ever seen. He understands that more than one-third (34.5 percent) of incoming, full-time college students indicated on UCLA’s 2016 higher education survey that they “frequently felt anxious.” Likewise, a 2016 survey of more than 500 university counseling center directors revealed that for the seventh year in a row, anxiety has been the most predominant concern among the current cohort of college students. Anxiety overtook depression as the number-one concern on college campuses in 2009. Peterson understands all of this better than anyone else, because he knows that the source of this anxiety has more to do with the human condition than with participation medals—and he offers a way to understand and address the anxiety that is plaguing so many of our students. Although he offers no simple “power of positive thinking” to make everyone feel better, his new book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, offers chapter titles like “Pursue What is Meaningful, Not What is Expedient.”

In a chapter titled “Be Precise in Your Speech,” Peterson warns about the corruption of language. In fact, it was language that got Peterson in trouble to begin with, when he refused to use the newly created “gender pronouns” promoted by the transgender community and enforced by progressive bureaucrats everywhere. Challenging Canada’s human rights laws and regulations requiring the use of new pronouns like “zer” and “xe” to refer to transgendered individuals, Peterson refused to comply. He maintains that there is no scientific evidence that any genders exist outside of male and female; he also says that there are too many new genders and pronouns to remember. But, most importantly, Peterson claims that the requirement to use them infringes on freedom of thought and speech. Peterson knows that language is key to social change—and to the rise of totalitarianism.

Peterson understands that language is the crucial battleground. Changes in language prompt changes in perception; significant changes in moral perception can begin with linguistic assaults based on individual desires rather than moral categories. Feminism has created an ideology of what they call “rape culture” in order redefine gender relationships; death advocates reclassify assisted suicide as “compassionate choices for aid in dying” in order to normalize killing; abortion advocates at Planned Parenthood refer to “fetal tissue” when discussing the selling of infant body parts. Pedophiles—and their academic enablers—call child molestation “inter-generational sex” as the first step in normalizing sex with children.

In an interview with Lifesite News, Peterson pointed to the Catholic Church as offering a bulwark against ideologies of the political left and right: “The Catholic Church warns us against the danger posed by the un-moored rational mind.” He added that religion in general provides a balanced and complete understanding of reality, while ideologies such as fascism or Marxism (which he says lies at the root of gender theory) present a very narrow understanding. For Peterson, the mandatory acceptance of gender theory and polygender names and pronouns is just the latest product of nihilism.

Peterson’s Millennial followers offer the greatest hope for the future, because they have already suffered the real-world consequences of the corruption of the language and the elite imposition of the new immorality. Their anxiety is tangible. But they are beginning to gain the courage from Peterson to speak out against the moral chaos that has destroyed their neighborhoods and their families, and that threatens to destroy their lives. Assuring them that they can rise above the culture of victimization, Peterson tells his followers to “sort themselves out,” confront the chaos, and avoid being fooled by “the naïve optimism of progressive ideology.” Drawing often from the Old Testament in lectures and debates, Peterson has said that “life is about remorseless struggle and pain.” He says that “life is tragic,” and he knows that we are all capable of monstrous acts. He knows—as Christians have known forever—that life is difficult. Peterson tells his followers that they cannot make the bad things go away by retreating to a safe space, but they can make themselves stronger. He reminds us that when the rains come—as they always will—we can be like Noah. We can find a way to save ourselves and the ones we love by building a better boat in which to weather the storms.

About Anne Hendershott 79 Articles
Anne Hendershott is professor of sociology and director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is the co-author of Renewal: How a New Generation of Priests and Bishops are Revitalizing the Church (Encounter Books).

25 Comments

  1. It is clear that the Father of Lies is behind our current confusion of language since this prevents us from reaching the truth. Of course, the Father of Lies works through people who have fallen under his spell.

  2. “Peterson’s Millennial followers offer the greatest hope for the future, because they have already suffered the real-world consequences of the corruption of the language and the elite imposition of the new immorality. Their anxiety is tangible. But they are beginning to gain the courage from Peterson to speak out against the moral chaos that has destroyed their neighborhoods and their families, and that threatens to destroy their lives.”

    Peterson may be a good start for them but what they need is a complete worldview rooted in Christ. But they won’t receive that from many of our Roman Catholic bishops and priests, who will offer them the SJW Gospel instead.

    • Rest assured he is a Christian existentialist and is deeply rooted in the psychological centrality of Christ and does not dismiss the metaphysical. His approach is highly respectful of atheists all the while questioning their fundamentals.

    • Because Peterson has done his homework. He is razor sharp and precise.
      Francis is not sharp or precise. Francis shoots from the hip and sews confusion everywhere he goes.

      • Because Francis is more concerned with virtue-signaling to the media a socialist world view rather than respecting our tradition that have gotten us this far.

    • Peterson is doing what the Pope is supposed to be doing. He’s helping people to improve their lives, he’s fighting back against political correctness (and being persecuted for it), he’s literally preaching the Word and making people (atheists even) interested in the Bible and Christianity again.

      The keys were given to Peter and now they should pass to “Peter’s son.”

  3. I think what is so attractive about how he speaks is not that Jordan understands the audience, but that he seeks the truth. And truth is universally attractive. It only offends those who are trying to hide from it.

    • Yup, spot on. All but a handful have left the field of battle.
      Capitulation from the very top under the fraudulent excuse of “mercy”.
      Something wicked this way comes.

  4. As excellent review/commentary. I would strongly recommend reading Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard address -A World Split Apart’- and give it to any young adult (male or female).

  5. Thanks, Anne for filling in some of the gaps in my knowledge of Dr. Peterson.

    But how to get young women to engage with truth in the same way as the young men have done? So many young women omen have minds filled not with truth, or wills urging them to seek it, but full of ideas from Marie Clare, Glamour, or even worse, Cosmopolitan!

    First of all why is it that more young men than young women are seeking the truth that Peterson offers, and second why?

    • I think males are more attracted to him because he understands their nature–it is to lead and protect. But, too often they have been told to deny that nature. They are encouraged to be more “like women” Peterson encourages them to “stand up straight” – take ownership, move away from controlling mothers (that was something I had to learn years ago as a mother of a son). He tells young males to stay away from people who do not want the best for them. All of this applies to young women also – it applies to all of us. But, women are encouraged to be assertive – and more like men. They do not need Peterson’s message as much as young men do. It all sounds so simple but in a culture that destroys the spirit of young men, it is a revelation.

      • Altar girls, deaconesses and, of course, possible women cardinals.
        The Church now has no use, whatsoever, for any alpha-type males.
        Bet on it.

  6. madam Henderson,
    I have a couple of questions I cannot get answers. I am a fan of Jordan Peterson as I came across his book “Maps of Meaning” However, I can conceive how he does not address that some progressive ideology is responsible for eliminating slavery, empowering women as full participants in society, and helping to promote civil rights. How do I reconcile this with his criticism of activism and progressive ideology?

    • As much as appreciate your note and your support for Dr. Peterson, I have to disagree with you – It was Christians – not progressives–who provided the way out of slavery. Abraham Lincoln was not a “progressive” he was a Christian Republican. None of the abolitionists could be described as “progressive” they were motivated by Christianity and the biblical injunction to respect the dignity of each individual human being as created by God – starting with Wilberforce.
      Progressive feminists did nothing to help women become full participants in society-it was pro-life leaders like Susan B Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others. The biggest progressive of all time – Margaret Sanger thought of herself as part of a progressive feminist movement to empower women but she just added to their enslavement.

  7. Peterson has said nothing that our tradition has not already told us. Pope Leo XIII said that the antidote to Socialism (and/or Communism) was religion:

    4. Nevertheless to restrain the danger of socialism there is only one genuinely effective means, in the absence of which the fear of punishment has little weight to discourage offenders. It is that citizens should be thoroughly educated in religion, and restrained by respect for and love of the Church. For the Church as parent and teacher is the holy guardian of religion, moral integrity, and virtue. All who follow the precepts of the Gospel religiously and entirely are, by this very fact, far from the suspicion of socialism. For religion commands us to worship and fear God and to submit to and obey legitimate authority. It forbids anyone to act seditiously and demands for everyone the security of his possessions and rights. It furthermore commands those who have wealth to come graciously to the aid of the poor. Religion aids the needy with all the works of charity and consoles those who suffer loss, enkindling in them the hope of the greatest eternal blessings which will be in proportion to the labor endured and the length of that labor. Therefore those who rule the states will do nothing wiser and more opportune than to recognize that religion influences the people despite all obstacles and recalls them to virtue and uprightness of character through her teachings. To distrust the Church or hold it suspect is, in the first place, unjust, and in the second, profits no one except the enemies of civil discipline and those bent on destruction.

    Quod Multum, #4 (1886)
    http://w2.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_22081886_quod-multum.html

    Latin:
    Verumtamen ad prohibendus socialismi terrores una est ratio optima maximeque efficax, qua sublata, parum ad deterrendum valet poenarum metus, quae in eo consistit ut ad religionem penitus informentur cives, verecundiaque et amore Ecclesiae teneantur. Est enim religionis sanctissima custos, et innocentiae morum omniumque virtutum, quae a religione sponte proficiscuntur, parens educatrixque Ecclesia. Quicumque religiose integreque praecepta sequuntur Evangelii, hoc ipso longe a socialismi suspicione abesse necesse est. Iubet enim religio, uti Deum colere ac metuere, ita subesse atque obtemperare potestati legitimae; vetat quippiam seditiose facere: vult salvas suas cuique res, salva iura: qui maiores opes habent, eos inopi multitudini benigne subvenire. Egenos prosequitur omni caritatis numero, calamitosos suavissima consolatione perfundit, spe proposita bonorum maximorum et immortalium, quae tanto futura sunt ampliora, quanto aut gravius homo laboraverit aut diutius. — Quamobrem qui civitatibus praesunt, nihil sunt aut sapientius aut opportunius acturi, quam si religionem siverint, nulla re impediente, innuere in animos multitudinis, eosque ad honestatem integritatemque morum praeceptis suis revocare. Ecclesiae diffidere, eamve suspectam habere, primum est aperte iniustum, deinde, praeter inimicos disciplinae civilis cupidosque rerum evertendarum, prodest nemini.
    http://w2.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/la/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_22081886_quod-multum.html

  8. Peterson is doing a marvelous job in re-creating a kind of Praeambula Fidei for modern people, using mostly depth psychology rather than philosophy as prime base for getting through to neo-pagans and confused minds trying to cope with creeping nihilism. A brilliant communicator, he can start many of these on the search for meaning by mapping the psychological and social routes out of the existential quagmires we wallow in, which He diagnosis with clarity and precision. But there is a but. His heavy use of Jung is a double edged sword. The gnostic Jung at his best yields insights mainly in the psychic realm, but rarely goes beyond to the much higher spiritual realm, and this could be a real and dangerous limitation. For instance, his views about the Logos may open paths for modern generation to recuperation of the crucial and perennial metaphysical concept of the Order of the World, but is still a far cry from the Johanine revelation of Christ as the incarnated everlasting Logos taught by Gospels and the early Church fathers. To be fair, Peterson may be holding back on the important distinction between psychic and spiritual in order to gradually feed ‘milk’ to a spiritually depleted and hungry generation who are not ready for the strong meat of the faith. If so, the man is providing an invaluable service. Negatively, this is confirmed by the rage and fury directed at him by all the forces of the progressive liberal left, who have intuited in him a David to their Goliath.

  9. Peterson does address the need for both progressive and conservative thinking. He, like many of us, does not consider himself traditionally conservative. In fact, he considers himself to be a “Classic British Liberal.” The ability to converse and negotiate, the responsibility to pay attention and speak the truth, these things should allow us to work towards what is best, albeit inperfectly so, but that’s ok because nothing human is perfect and it’s the best we have been able to do.

  10. I swear on the Bible that I’m serious about what I now write.

    The Roman Catholic Church should offer Jordan B. Peterson the Papacy after a year and a day training period. This is a condensed, expedited formation period but Peterson is smart and probably learns quickly. He preaches the way of Logos. Here is the formation path.

    2 months basic training in a monastery in Europe (Monte Casino?). 1 month deacon at parish. 4 months parish priest. =7 months. Then be a Bishop 2 months, Hermitage retreat 1 month. = 10 months. Then be made Cardinal and sit in the consistory for 1 month. Family visitation 2 weeks. Retreat for 2 weeks. 1 day crowned Pope.

    He needs to be put into an RCIA program ASAP and enter the Church Easter 2018. His first communion should be given to him by the Pope. Peterson would then hug his family and then be driven to the monastery for the 2 month basic training. Next Easter (2019) he’ll be crowned Pope.

    This would be world changing for the better and prove that the Roman Catholic Church is truly open minded and ecumenical. I literately believe that this would change history in ways unfathomable and I have faith it would make the world a better place.

    Saint Benedict pray for my petition if you find it worthy.

  11. He reminds me of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. If you dont know who he is check out youtube. His anti comunisum speach is a good example.

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