Dr. Jordan B. Peterson has had a rough year, and no one is clearer about that than he is. Peterson was a mainstay of the Intellectual Dark Web movement, boosting publications like Claire Lehman's Quillette, speaking honestly and directly about the nature of suffering, and encouraging people to live an honest life.
The question Helen Lewis asks in her Atlantic article is "What happened to Jordan Peterson?" But a much better question is "why do so many people have it in for Jordan Peterson?" Lewis, like so many others, seems gleeful about his human failings. Why is that? What is it about a man that makes others so happy to try to take him down?
I first heard Jordan Peterson on a podcast called Future Thinkers. The hosts, a man from Canada and a woman from Eastern Europe who were digital nomads, had Peterson on to talk about what launched him into the public spotlight. He had been accused of being transphobic because he refused to be forced to use preferred pronouns. His refusal was on principle alone, that under no circumstances could a government entity or an employer compel him to speak.
His message resonated with so many people who didn't want to be told what to do, to be told that reality was something other than how their five senses as processed through the tool of logic perceived it. And once he had his audience, he tried to explain, as honestly and clearly as he could, his ideas on how to live in a direct and forthright way, and how to consider one's self in relation to the entirety of the human story.
Lewis seems to poke fun at the man and his mission, and for sure when a gentleman such as the good doctor reveals himself with such earnestness there can be room for a little sense of humor. But Lewis' take is that Peterson, as my ten-year-old would say, is almost a little cringey.
She writes that "He is every one of us who couldn’t resist that pointless Facebook argument, who felt the sugar rush of the self-righteous Twitter dunk, who exulted in the defeat of an opposing political tribe, or even an adjacent portion of our own." Then she goes on to say "That kind of unhealthy behavior, furiously lashing out while knowing that counterattacks will follow, is a very modern form of self-harm."
What's missing from this analysis is that Peterson talks to people that everyone else dismisses as garbage. He talks to young men and women who feel they have no future, and to those looking to regain control of their lives. Perhaps he speaks so well on this topic because he knows what it takes to do it, and puts it into practice himself to the best of his ability.
Lewis writes that while Peterson was working on Beyond Order, "He makes no claims that his suffering provided a teachable moment... He also declines the opportunity to place his addiction in the context of the prescription-drug-abuse crisis." Still, she says, "...Peterson is not ready to give up on the hero’s journey, despite the terror he has endured. 'All of that misfortune is only the bitter half of the tale of existence,' he writes, 'without taking note of the heroic element of redemption or the nobility of the human spirit requiring a certain responsibility to shoulder.'"
Why should anyone ever give up the hero's journey? If we place a moral narrative at the center of our lives, if our primary goal is to live honestly and justly, to be kind, then why should it be given up? A hero narrative is not the same as a saviour narrative, and it would do to make that distinction.
Peterson has taken a great deal onto his shoulders because he feels a responsibility to the people who listen to him. To Lewis, that dedication is hubristic, and led directly to his fall, and to his need to reclaim past glory. She writes "Now the irresistible ordeal of modern cultural celebrity has brought him back."
But is Lewis' takedown more of Peterson or of those who find strength in his words? She critiques the way he writes to this audience, saying "Reading Peterson the clinician can be illuminating; reading his mystic twin is like slogging through wet sand. His fans love the former; his critics mock the latter."
Lewis has been a critic of Peterson's, and she writes that her interview with him was her "most viral moment," as it had over 23 million views. While she notes that she received some support, primarily it was the haters that came after her, and she quotes them before moving into her primary point. Lewis writes "...the relentless demands of modern celebrity—more content, more access, more authenticity—were already tearing the psychologist’s public persona in two."
It's not that Lewis doesn't understand the message, it seems that she just doesn't like it. And maybe there's no reason she should—perhaps her room is clean, she doesn't battle with inner demons, and hasn't too many issues as regards suffering, or maybe she does and she just has figured out a way to handle it better than steeling one's self against the uncertainty of life and stepping into the perpetual maelstrom.
After a year of seeing the man who is able to give as much philosophical weight to a children's book as to the musings of Slavoj Zizek struggle under the weight of his own celebrity and determination, it's clear that the lessons Peterson relates come from a place of personal experience.
Lewis nails this on the head: "For a generation that has lost its faith in religion and politics, he is one of notably few prominent figures willing to confront the most fundamental questions of existence: What’s the point of being alive? What kind of personal journey endows our existence with meaning?"
These are questions that can sound trite to a hardened intellectual who is looking for the next great nugget to nibble on, but in fact, these are the only questions that really matter. If we don't know how to grapple with them, how to come up with answers that imbue our lives with meaning, there's no point in doing anything worthwhile at all, and no way to convince ourselves that there is. Peterson provides hope, and he gives his whole self in service to that. Peterson gives us the courage to, in the words of Samuel Beckett, "Try again. Fail again. Fail better."