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The satisfaction of seriousness: The Peterson Phenomenon.


“SERIOUSNESS,” SAID LEONARD COHEN in a TV interview, “is profoundly satisfying to the human soul.” The truth of that statement is borne out by the popularity of Dr Jordan Peterson, who has emerged as the most unlikely intellectual celebrity of our day. Just watch a couple of his videos – either his university lectures or his talks and interviews, it doesn’t matter – and you’ll see what I mean. This man is serious. He talks about serious things: life is painful and tragic; the monsters of malevolence and totalitarianism are not only found outside of ourselves but inside our own psyches; happiness is a worthless goal whereas meaning is supremely important; people should stop whingeing they’re victims and take responsibility for their own lives before trying to change the world.

All this is framed by an intellectual structure of clinical psychology, scientific research, philosophy, mythology, religion and literature. With Peterson you get Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Piaget, Freud, Jung and Solzhenitsyn as a regular part of the mix. Every discussion or lecture is delivered in the professor’s earnest style. As Norman Doidge says in his Foreword to Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life, about what the man was like when he first met him at parties organised by mutual friends years previously: “He had this odd habit of speaking about the deepest questions to whoever was at his table…as though he were making small talk.”

How is it that someone who is so damn serious gets to become a YouTube star, with a massive global following, most of them young people, especially men? How is it that seriousness itself has become so popular? I think there are two straightforward explanations. One is that Peterson addresses a hunger in young people for honest discussion about the old philosophical question: what is the best way to live one’s life? The other is that he addresses the emotional component of this question. No one else is doing this in the public sphere. No intellectual or academic, no author, no celebrity, no politician, not even any religious figure.

Unlike the Four Horsemen of the Atheist Apocalypse from the early years of the millennium — Dawkins, Dennet, Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens — who are probably the nearest examples of popular public intellectuals, Peterson delivers a message that is more than intellectual. Dawkins et al had a single theme and a single line of attack: Christianity is bad because it’s a religion and therefore irrational and dangerous. They found themselves blindsided by the violent irruption of Islam and the obviousness of Christianity’s ineffectiveness in modern Europe. The militants talked to their fans as fellow Enlightenment rationalists for whom reason was all, and they didn’t pay enough attention to the emotional life of the individual or group, especially when it came to the importance of religion.

Peterson’s primary message of personal responsibility is anathema to the left, whose desire is to clone young people into cliche-spouting footsoldiers of the revolution.

Peterson is not afraid to tackle these ideas head on. It puts him directly at odds, not just with the political left per se but also with the overwhelming leftism of the education system and the media. His tirades against communism, cultural Marxism, postmodernism and identity politics are notorious (and justified). His primary message of personal responsibility is anathema to the left, whose desire is to clone young people into cliche-spouting footsoldiers of the revolution.

So where society is encouraging young people to stay in a state of prolonged adolescence, Peterson is saying grow up, tidy your room, take some responsibility for your life.

Where society is saying there’s no difference between men and women; that women should behave more like men and that men should reject their traditional masculinity to become more like women; Peterson is saying: no, there are real differences between the sexes and these matter when you make decisions about your life, especially when it comes to the importance of the family.

Where society is saying, rights are all that matter Peterson replies, rights are meaningless without responsibilities.

Where society is saying, free speech is OK unless it offends someone, Peterson is saying, without the freedom to be offensive we cannot even think, and that without the ability to think for ourselves we become slaves in a tyranny.

There is no doubt he has become a kind of father figure to many young people, women as well as men, because he takes their needs and concerns seriously – as individuals. He proposes practical and intellectual solutions. He roots these solutions in cultural tradition (he recently described himself as a “terrified traditionalist”) and evolutionary biology, all of which is guaranteed to enrage the blank slate social warrior types. He expands the context of the argument beyond the shrivelled horizons of atheist rationality, political expediency and socialist dogma to connect us with the past, in a revisiting of the Burkeian idea of society as a contract between the dead, the living and the yet-to-be-born.

It’s a serious vision but a powerfully positive one. It’s one that clearly is proving profoundly satisfying to many people. I hope it grows and becomes more powerful, because as a society, as a culture, as a civilisation, we certainly need it.

suxcoverCurrente Calamo columnist, poet, writer and lecturer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire . From 2005–2008 he was the Royal Literary Fund fellow at the University of Lincoln where he now teaches English Literature and Creative Writing. His poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent collection is Spyglass Over The Lagoon. A selection of his Fortnightly Currente Calamo columns, Sucks To Your Revolution: Annoying The Politically Correct (US), is available as a Kindle ebook.

One Comment

  1. wrote:

    Well, this is gross. Why are you promoting someone who’s transphobic, misogynist, and racist as if he is a actually a serious intellectual figure, and not the doddering anti-intellectual he actually is?

    I thought this site actually promoted an interest in the humanities and, you know, actual human beings.

    Guess I’ll be removing the Fortnightly Review from my RSS feed. Bye.

    Monday, 16 April 2018 at 15:54 | Permalink

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