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.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!