If you have even the most mild interest in current events you’ve probably heard of Jordan Peterson. If you haven’t, I commend you for not turning on a TV or browsing the internet for the last month, but the talking head phenomenon surrounding the Canadian psychology professor has been riveting. Peterson has captured the public’s attention, for better or for worse, by his NY Times bestseller 12 Rules for Life and his one-sided TV interview that has dominated Youtube.
Peterson’s words have elicited strong responses from readers and viewers. Some have lionized him as a misunderstood genius while others have been more critical—calling him a “stupid man’s smart person” or a mystic fascist. He has been an extremely polarizing figure, gaining wide appeal among the alt-right and garnering even greater scorn from the far-left. Yet beyond these diverging reactions, there have been countless people in the middle and on both extremes saying, “Wait, maybe we should reconsider this Jordan Peterson guy.”
Despite coming from the world of academia, Peterson’s ideas could best be described as conservative. He pushed back against his university’s mandate to use the preferred pronouns of its students and has made controversial statements regarding women in the workplace (including expressing doubts about sexism’s correlation to the gender pay gap). These views have lead to his further critiques of free speech on college campuses and resulted in his association with libertarians like Dave Rubin, Eric Weinstein, and Steven Pinker and with “9/11 liberals” like Bill Maher and Sam Harris.
Peterson has also, despite his perhaps ambiguous beliefs on God, spoken a lot on religion and ethics. He approaches the topic from a psychoanalytic perspective, seeking to comment on the prototypes at play in the biblical text that might enlighten how we can more profitably live our lives today.
In light of all this, it’s hard to speak objectively about the Canadian psychologist. As much as he claims otherwise, Peterson does, in fact, make a lot of incendiary remarks, and there’s a lot of emotion tied up in the subjects he discusses. He is a dividing figure.
Still, Jordan Peterson offers a number of insights. The aspect of him I appreciate most is his insistence on rationality. He refuses to accept cultural truths or give into identity politics, and this is nowhere more aptly demonstrated than in his sensational interview. Moreover, Peterson brings a much-needed, reasonable perspective to several issues; his ideas may often be unpopular, but they are practical and almost always supported by research. For instance, his insistence that the gender pay gap is a multi-faceted phenomenon not entirely due to sexism (though still acknowledging its presence) is a refreshing move beyond typical partisan agendas.
However, I’m not okay with everything about Peterson. My most surface level critique is how petty he can be in discussions, arguing with sentiments he admittedly agrees with just because he can. More serious concerns, though, develop with his approach through evolutionary psychology and Jungian archetypes. On a fundamental level, Peterson is concerned with these two perspectives, that the human psyche is perfectly understandable through the lens of evolutionary psychology and that classic categories offer normative stencils for human development. He trespasses particularly in his Darwinian approach by positing that not only can humans best be understood historically through evolution but that it gives us the most helpful direction for moving forward.
In as much as Peterson helps people cross ideological divides, I welcome him. I welcome anyone who does so. And I appreciate many of the positions he takes that help in that process. But we should continue to look on Peterson with skeptical eyes, cautious of his ground-level philosophy. We need to remember that anyone can be brilliant and bigoted, even that Jordan Peterson guy.