By: Akos Balogh
Canadian Psychologist Jordan Peterson is rocking the western world.
This mild mannered intellectual catapulted to online (and now offline) fame over the last 18 months. His youtube channel is approaching 1 million subscribers, and his new book ’12 Rules for Life – an Antidote to Chaos’ is a bestselling book on amazon.com (over 1600 reviews, giving him an average of 4.5 stars out of 5. Not bad for a book released in January).
He’s just finished a sold-out speaking tour of Australia, where people of all ages came along, giving him a standing ovation as he stepped on stage (before he even uttered a single word). He’s been interviewed by the ABC’s 7.30 report, and Channel 7’s Sunrise, amongst others (although sadly he was not invited onto ABC’s QandA). His interview with BBC’s Cathy Newman– in which he was verbally attacked for his views – went viral (8.6 million views on youtube, and counting).
Respected New York Times columnist David Brooks calls him one the most important public intellectuals in the world right now.
He’s an interesting figure for Christians, because unlike many in academia, he doesn’t dismiss the Bible. On the contrary, he gives 2 hour long lectures on the various books of the Bible, albeit from a different framework than traditional Christianity. And so, not surprisingly, there have been many articles from Christians exploring the Peterson phenomenon (and you can read a number here, here, here, and here).
So why is this unassuming Toronto academic striking such a chord with so many millions across our world?
No doubt there are many reasons, but here are 4 that I’ve noticed:
4 Reasons Why Peterson Is So Popular
1) He Shows People How To Live Meaningful Lives in A Meaning-starved Post-Modern Age.
Meaning in life comes from taking responsibility, rather than abstaining from it.
In an interview with Channel 7’s Sunrise, program, Peterson was asked why he’s so popular. His response is telling:
[S]ince the mid-1960’s, our young people have been fed a never-ending diet of rights and impulsive freedoms…and that leaves a hole…because most of the meaning that people manage in their lives – that would be the meaning that you could offset against the tragedy of life – that comes from adopting responsibility, and carrying a load.’
Human beings need meaning and purpose in their lives – we can’t live without it. And Peterson makes the case for meaning coming from responsibility: the more responsibility you have, the more meaningful your life, in effect.
It’s a simple message – but evidently one that hasn’t been very well made of late. Sociologists have pointed out that the length of adolescence – that time in life where there is little responsibility – is increasing. In 2004 they even coined a term for it – ‘adultescents’.
And the result, argues Peterson, is an ‘epidemic of aimlessness, and anxiety and depression…and that’s partly the case because the case for growing up is not made well.’
2) He Persuasively Critiques the Ideologies Sweeping North American Campuses, and Much of the Secular Left
Peterson has also gained popularity by speaking out against identity politics, and the neo-Marxist ideologies that underpin it, such as (so-called) critical theory, the idea that society is divided neatly into the oppressed, and their oppressors.
In fact, Peterson first came onto the public stage by standing up against a Canadian bill requiring people to address transgender people by their preferred pronoun. He argues this was a case of governmental ‘compelled speech’ – antithetical to free speech, and freedom in general.
Evidently there is growing concern about the impact of identity politics both on the level of university campuses, but also wider society. And so many are lending their ears to his voice.
One of his most poignant moments was when he made the argument for free speech in the midst of being verbally attacked on UK TV. When the interviewer Cathy Newman asked: ‘Why should your right to freedom of speech trump a trans person’s right not to be offended?’, Peterson responded:
Because in order to be able to think, you have to risk being offensive. I mean look at the conversation we’re having right now. You’re certainly willing to risk offending me in the pursuit of truth. Why should you have the right to do that? It’s been rather uncomfortable [for me]…’
Listen to what Peterson says next:
You’re doing what you should do, which is digging a bit to see what the hell is going on. And that is what you should do. But you’re exercising your freedom of speech to risk offending me. And that’s fine. More power to you.’
Newman was literally left speechless by Peterson’s comment.
3) Peterson is Giving Many Men a Positive Vision of Masculinity, and Addressing their Shame
Men are feeling inspired by him to be better men.
Peterson seems to offer men in particular an antidote to the shame that they feel. In a provocative article entitled ‘The Voice Evangelical Men Wish They Had’, Kings college (New York) professor Anthony Bradly argues:
[S] since the 1980s, young men have been shamed and emasculated in a culture determined to destroy the archetypal masculinity of figures like Jesus Christ…Jordan Peterson is retrieving the Jungian archetypal discussion for the disintegrated, shame-driven, emasculated lives of young men for the twenty-first century.
A narcissistic and performance-oriented culture eventually becomes a culture characterized by perfectionism. A perfectionist culture sets up every man to be destroyed by the shame of not measuring up to his idealized self.’
And then comes his punchline:
With Peterson, young men get a truth-telling sage who empathizes with their suffering, compassionately cares about their hearts, invites them to greatness instead of niceness, and calls them to hope and humility without shaming.’
It’s a provocative article – not least because it berates evangelicals for not addressing young men’s shame at not measuring up (whether or not that’s a fair assessment I’ll leave others to decide). But Peterson, argues Bradley, does address men’s shame, with compassion rather than condemnation. He celebrates a form of masculinity where men lead and take responsibility, instead of writing it all off as ‘toxic-masculinity’.
(A good Christian (male) friend of mine who’s become a Peterson fan told me: ‘He has a message about what people (men in particular) should DO…Guys like action. Most of society sees this as toxicmasculinity, [and] at best the church is neutral to masculinity.)
4) As an Academic Psychologist, Peterson Doesn’t Have Much of a ‘Plausibility Problem’ in the Secular World.
The gospel, however, is increasingly implausible to secular westerners.
Peterson’s message of meaning in life is resonating with millions of online – and now offline – followers. And yet, I can’t help but think that the gospel offers such meaning – transcendent, lasting meaning – to the same people. But our churches aren’t filled to standing room only.
So what’s changed?
I think the answer – in large part – is plausibility (how believable something is).
During the Billy Graham era, Christianity was the dominant worldview in the western world. And so Christianity was taken seriously – it was deemed plausible, believable, by the non-Christian world. That’s not to say all non-Christians believed it. But it did mean that when Billy Graham came with a message of hope and meaning, there was standing room only at the MCG.
Times have changed, of course. But people haven’t: we still need meaning. And so when a psychologist like Peterson comes along and provides meaning to people, it’s readily accepted. People today are happy to take advice from a secular psychologist, because he’s plausible – believable, in a way that the church (and the gospel message of a risen Messiah) is not.
Article supplied with thanks to Akos Balogh.
About the Author: Akos is the Executive Director of the Gospel Coalition Australia. He has a Masters in Theology and is a trained Combat and Aerospace Engineer.