How philosopher Jordan Peterson will change the world

How philosopher Jordan Peterson will change the world
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Your first sign that something different is afoot: the event is immediately sold out. The second clue: scalpers want over $500 for rear orchestra seats, and over $1,000 for prime. Yes it’s New York. But this isn’t “Hamilton”. It’s a bloody lecture.

And when you get there, there isn’t just one line around the block — there are two, one running in either direction. The audience to this beyond-sold-out event is disproportionately male, many young. And in line you overhear references to Jung, identity politics, biology, responsibility, faith, Nietzsche, the importance of not lying, and Solzhenitsyn. Whoa.

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Why is Dr. Jordan Peterson, clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto, who recently gained meteoric attention in taking on the thought police and their language-criminalizing legislation in Canada, attracting such a huge following of devotees, and eliciting both hatred and real fear among ideologues?

If you’re a young man, there’s a good chance you’ve experienced socially-approved condescension, because, well, it’s all patriarchy and social injustice and men are privileged (unless they are also part of an approved minority or sexual/gender orientation).

Young men hear falsehoods peddled as “truths”: That the sexes are not only equal, they are the same in everything but reproductive organs, and that any differences between males and females are socially constructed. That their opinion on any issue of gender is inherently inferior due to their Y chromosomes. That they are implicitly biased, and must have this bias “trained” out of them.

Additionally, they have observed a movement, where emotions matter and facts don’t, that shuts down critical thought as unsafe, and silences debate through vilification.

They know these things are wrong. But they don’t know why. They are parched for understanding, hope, and purpose to their lives. And into that desert comes the clear water of Dr. Peterson.

The first reason Peterson has had such impact is that this is no ordinary psychologist or professor, staying in his narrow lane. Peterson not only is extraordinarily intelligent, but also widely learned. Listening to him is like wrapping your mind with a Paul Johnson history, an interdisciplinary, intercultural, time-traveling tapestry of transcendent themes and truths — where evolutionary biology, history, literature, philosophy, psychology, music, art, religions, culture and myth are all interwoven.

People find him because of viral YouTube clips, where he dismembers sanctimonious ideologues with a mike-dropping command of fact and logic; they stay for two hour lectures on psychology, mythology, and religious texts — there are more than 400 hours online  — on their new-found quest for understanding and meaning.

Peterson’s focus for decades has been what drives human beings to do evil, particularly the great evils of the 20th century, from Auschwitz to Soviet gulags, as well as helping people have agency over their own lives and the ability to endure and transcend the inescapable suffering of life.

That empathy makes him singularly effective and compelling: unlike most intellectuals’ arrogant pieties that are driven more by resentment than concern, Peterson is obsessed with actual human suffering. He cares deeply about real people, and particularly the unnecessary suffering caused by others, about which he becomes passionately angry. The high purpose of doing what he can to prevent the evil that human beings do — whether out of malice because they believe there is no meaning to life, or through lofty intentions because that is the price of their putative utopia — permeates his work.

His third atypical quality is exceptional humility. For Peterson, growth comes from constantly questioning himself, and being open to seeing another person’s point of view, even where the disagreements are profound.  

In consequence, for all the attempts to pigeonhole his beliefs, he can’t be neatly put on left or right, Christian or not. To him routine questions are complicated, and modesty is called for.

If he does have defining principles, they would seem to be recognizing complexity and nuance, applying deeper wisdom than simplistic materialist explanations, being absolutely truthful, refusing to lie, and speaking out — whatever the cost — against those pernicious ideas and efforts that will hurt others. And because he has been teaching for a long time, he is skilled at taking grand concepts and challenging ideas and accessibly transposing them into everyday lives.

People may not like what Jordan Peterson says, but he is hard to disagree with. He serves as a role model for many, teaching them that facts do matter, to not assume conventional wisdom is right, to not be simplistic, and that it is not intentions that matter, but consequences.

Even more importantly, for many individuals, he reconnects them with responsibility for their lives, giving them agency and purpose — and not just for themselves, but in the effect they will then have on the world around them. Peterson is very insistent that each individual decision moves the entire world closer to either heaven or a bottomless hell. Because those aren’t just theoretical places we may go to after we die, but apt descriptions of the worlds we create around us.

Peterson is in part a font of self-help wisdom, a modern Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, drawing not on faith but on Jung, Nietzsche, Solzhenitsyn, biology, evolution, psychology, and learned wisdom, perceived through myth, religions, and history, all to provide better ways of being.

But he is also a cultural force. He is the scourge of simplistic, pernicious pieties, including: bias and social oppression as the presumed causes of inequality of outcome, equality of outcome as an unquestioningly desirable and enforced goal, identity as a subjective choice and the sexes as the same, patriarchy, white privilege, implicit bias, safe spaces, affirmative rights, postmodernism, nihilism, neo-Marxism, and identity politics.

As Peterson gets better known, he seems to find fewer and fewer on the left who will debate him. That’s no surprise — watch the debates that do exist, and be reminded of the attempted mugging of “Crocodile Dundee”, when he smiles pityingly and says “That’s not a knife. THIS is a knife,” before reducing his assailant to a quivering blob.

But those who like orthodoxies that would limit the speech, ideas, and freedoms of others in order to enforce a social construction of their own should be afraid. Like the boy who had the courage to tell the emperor he had no clothes, or like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose lone voice of truth helped topple a totalitarian empire, when this too crumbles, Jordan Peterson will be seen as the courageous catalyst that exposed the lies and made us a wiser people.

Heather R. Higgins is CEO of Independent Women’s Voice, an organization promoting conservative free market solutions that advance prosperity, freedom, and greater choices. Follow her on Twitter @TheHRH.