From a Former Petersonite: In Defence of Jordan Peterson

Deemed by his opponents reactionary, alt-right, transphobic, sexist, misogynistic, and ultimately “dangerous”, the controversial Jordan Peterson, who was a few years ago no more than an esteemed Psychology professor, has sold millions of books, sparked viral outrage, built one of the most robust personal followings of modern times, and recently emerged from a near-fatal addiction to Benzodiazepines.

However, of all the unanswered questions I have about Jordan Peterson, one was settled this week – after a bitter fiasco unravelled between him, his daughter and The Times – which was the necessity to write of him, not a critique, nor a paean, but a sledgehammer defence; a defence that articulates clearly why he is an individual who, in the end, has done more good than bad, has healed more than harmed.

A past version of myself was an ardent Petersonite, a fact towards which I am now practically indifferent. I bought and read 12 Rules for Life, certain chapters repeatedly; I regularly watched his lectures, again some repeatedly; if I remember correctly, I mentioned him in my personal statement – as a token of what I read beyond my A-levels. Although I’d be slow to do this were I writing my personal statement again today, I certainly don’t regret having done so – I’ve forgiven 18-year-old Alex for worse things.

I like to think that I don’t agree, entirely, with anyone – for if you do, what is the point of having opinions at all? Alas, today, I recognise far more readily what are gaping problems in Peterson’s oeuvre: the murkiness of coinages such as “Postmodern Neo-Marxist”; his alignment with the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’, a loose grouping of YouTube polemicists who are little more than right-wing activists; his attempt to rationalise his way out of complex social problems, often not taking into account the anecdotal, irrational, all-too-human components of the issue at hand.

Polarisation naturally ensues. His supporters appropriate what he says as a form of empowerment – ‘social justice is stupid, my echo chamber is correct, facts matter more than feelings’. His detractors appropriate it as an attack on their fundamental beliefs, which sadly means that for many on the modern left, the prospect of civilised conversation with or about him is a non-starter. I think on both sides it comes down to a misunderstanding.

This misunderstanding is that Peterson is implicitly putting forward a political manifesto in his observations and lectures; although I cannot speak for him, I don’t think this is so – I think his ultimate aim goes well beyond politics, and touches upon the most intimate and profound aspects of our psyche: our goals, aims, ambitions, our hopes, even.

Beyond the narrow bounds of St Andrews, the world is a large, solitary, and often depressing place. Many don’t have the hope for the future that is only natural in young and gifted people who are fortunately studying what they love. It’s fair to say that in the wider world, a great indeterminable number of people truly are existing under an ideology of hopelessness: they are merely existing. As individuals push against the restraints of this ideology, the unfortunate likelihood is a descent into trains of thought worse still: that of nihilism or totalitarianism, the latter of which explains the rise of the far-right, the far-left and the political polarisation that surrounds us.

For reasons that I, in all honesty, do not know, it is men who are predominantly boarding these trains of toxic thinking: men are committing suicide at higher rates and men are being imprisoned at higher rates for heinous acts of political extremism, provocation, and violence. However much he is mocked for it, Peterson and his imploration to clean one’s room are trying to clear these trains before they leave the station, for when they do, return tickets from the proceeding stations of despair, hatred and misanthropy are hard to come by.

What is of the greatest importance in this defence on Peterson, is that this act of rescue is not a zero-sum game. When Peterson’s message works in a healthy way – when its subject finds a greater meaning for existence in a world previously clouded by chaos, disorder, and hopelessness – we all gain. The connotations and furore that surround him presently may put off certain audiences for good, and this is a shame – albeit understandable. Even then, I hope sincerely that he may be a figure whose core message – hope for the hopeless, and meaning for the meaningless – may be received, evolved, and carried further in the relay of ideas – to new and diverse audiences that may include, but shall not consist only of, young men – by others more accessible and less controversial than he.