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The Unbearable Heaviness of Jordan Peterson

This, I posit, is why a man who laboured in the dark for thirty years is now selling millions of books and embarking on sold-out international lecture tours: Because he makes the case for taking life, and oneself, very seriously.

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 The Unbearable Heaviness of Jordan Peterson

Published in Folha de S.Paulo (in Portuguese) on 7th April, 2019


Intellectuals aren’t supposed to break down in tears while giving lectures. Modern wisdom is meant to have abandoned discussion of our exile from Eden. The genre breezily labeled “self-help” doesn’t typically implore its reader to “become aware of your own insufficiency – your cowardice, malevolence, resentment and hatred.”

A man who in the summer of 2016 was an obscure psychology professor with a minimal public profile has vanquished these and other cultural norms – and he has sold more than three-million books in the process. Jordan B. Peterson is a phenomenon, as is his 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. The book has been on Amazon’s bestseller list for 56 weeks. In Brazil, it hasn’t left Amazon’s top twenty since last May.

If you’ve already heard of Peterson, then you probably know him as either the most thrilling public thinker in a generation, or a proto-fascist woman-hating huckster. The polarity of this public reception speaks to the general cool-headedness of internet opinion – but its intensity mirrors, accurately, the intensity of the man himself. Whatever else is true of Peterson, he is not faking it. He is earnest. He is a man who appears to spend his waking life tortured by the big questions, certain that how we elect to answer those questions is a matter of life and death.

This, I posit, is why a man who laboured in the dark for thirty years is now selling millions of books and embarking on sold-out international lecture tours: Because he makes the case for taking life, and oneself, very seriously.

"Layered on top of this therapeutic mood is one of Peterson’s more old-fashioned leanings: a belief that life is fundamentally tragic, and that humans are fundamentally flawed. Here we start to see what is truly strange – and, I think, uniquely appealing – about Peterson."

Happy intellectuals are all alike; every unhappy intellectual is unhappy in their own way. What is often forgotten in discussion of Peterson is that he has spent thousands of hours working as a clinical psychologist. That is, he has spent thousands of hours sat alone in a room with another human being, listening to their woes, trying to help them. 12 Rules For Life draws on this experience to interrogate the reality of how and why people suffer, and how they might turn that suffering into something generative. The book’s focus on the individual – on personal accountability and psychological self-reliance – might be politically conservative, but it is also therapeutic. Like therapy, the book is interested not in societal critique, but in what an individual one can do, today, to feel less miserable. Like therapy, the book attempts to reveal our inadequacies and internal blind spots by triggering a mixture of embarrassment and clarity that we don’t have to admit to until later on, when we’re alone.

Layered on top of this therapeutic mood is one of Peterson’s more old-fashioned leanings: a belief that life is fundamentally tragic, and that humans are fundamentally flawed. Here we start to see what is truly strange – and, I think, uniquely appealing – about Peterson. In terms more suited to an Ancient Greek dramatist or a medieval theologian than a YouTuber or a typical guest on The Joe Rogan Experience, he talks in a way that would make a dinner party unravel into silence. Peterson tells people that “the tragedy of self-conscious Being produces suffering, inevitable suffering,” at a scale that can quite easily lead to “your soul... withering and dying.” (If you aren’t sure what he means, he’ll remind you of things like the inevitable oblivion that awaits you and everyone you love.) Peterson tells people that Homo sapiens have such “a great capacity for wrongdoing” and “proclivity for malevolent actions” that any honest person is entitled to wonder whether “perhaps Man is something that should never have been.” (If you aren’t sure what he means, he’ll remind you of the cannibalism of the gulags, or the bayoneted babies of Nanking.) Peterson does all this while making impassioned reference to the most enduring myths in human history, and paraphrasing imperious thinkers like Dostoevsky and Nietzsche. He does it while frequently using the G-word.

In short, Peterson talks about life in terms that are grander, darker and heavier than any other public intellectual. He does so with a ferociously furrowed brow, the formality of a sharp three-piece suit, and a tendency to be moved to tears by the things he is saying. It is this, more than his conservatism, that unnerves his critics. Observe Peterson’s interactions with the mainstream press. His sparring partners will battle him on a handful of political talking points, but faced with his broader message – the message that runs through 12 Rules for Life – they don’t know what to say. Life is a tragedy, tainted by malevolence? Sorry what? When Peterson mentions that, for example, every human being’s psyche plays shameful, self-destructive tricks on itself, his polite, media-trained interlocutors aren’t capable of responding, because they are too embarrassed by the prospect of engaging with such epic gloominess. Write-ups of journalists’ encounters with Peterson are frequently coloured by a forced and giddy confusion, peppered with kookily irrelevant details and sidelong eye-rolls. They revel in the moments when the interviewer elicits a flash of grumpiness. All of this makes sense: Humour is our go-to defence against unbearable seriousness. It is the giggling in church, the silly anecdote at the funeral, the wisecrack when a friend talks about finding themselves.

And if Peterson’s message isn’t written off as terribly over-the-top, insufferably dour, then it is written off as its inverse: trite and obvious. Hearing the suggestion "make friends with people who want the best for you" (rule three of 12 Rules), rather than considering that a professional psychologist of thirty years might mean something beyond the most shallow version of that statement, his critics will congratulate themselves for immediately seeing through the platitude. Peterson is painted as somehow both a secret Nazi, and a lukewarm self-help scribbler. He is both the purveyor of dark and incendiary new messages, and also material that is so hackneyed it barely needs discussing.

"Peterson has the air of a preacher enduring an extended dark night of the soul. And his religious-grade seriousness just stuns, because aside from exaggerated political angst, the rest of cultural commentary is meant to be essentially light-hearted."

To be clear: I don’t mean to suggest that Peterson’s worldview is so brilliantly and perfectly conceived that it leaves no room for riposte. It isn’t, and it does. (He seems to be a climate change denier, for one.) But the reason there is such a general temptation to write off his message as either too serious or too simple is because then what he is saying can be framed as essentially unreal, more akin to poetry or fiction than a real account of life. And this framing allows one to dodge Peterson’s crushing sincerity, and the scale and depth of his obsessions. What we see is that, within cultural commentary at large, there exists a general refusal to countenance the deepest and darkest questions of life. Not of current affairs, but of life. Rather than a polite panel guest come to offer some polite rebuttals, Peterson has the air of a preacher enduring an extended dark night of the soul. And his religious-grade seriousness just stuns, because aside from exaggerated political angst, the rest of cultural commentary is meant to be essentially light-hearted. Perhaps not in topic, but certainly in tone. Peterson says that his project was first inspired by the question “confronted with the opportunity to become an Auschwitz guard, how can you protect yourself against saying yes?” It’s a hell of a question, and one I don’t imagine most of his critics have anything like a serious answer to. Um... Do yoga? Vote for Bernie?

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Besides polite befuddlement, the most common way for Peterson’s critics to sidestep engagement with his worldview is to brand it as one giant appeal to the dark heart of misogyny. This is the Peterson controversy in a nutshell: he appeals to men. And anything that appeals to men is ominous, goes the logic, because large amounts of men-in-agreement equals the central ingredient of patriarchy.

Without doubt, some of Peterson’s work finds shallow appeal with the internet’s rotten underbelly of “red-pilled” misogynists. To pretend otherwise is silly. Peterson tells men it’s okay to be men; he is a traditionalist who believes marriage is sacred; he is skeptical about the fruits of female birth control. Some of his followers undoubtedly come from that mass of bitter men who were serially ignored by the pretty girls in school. However, a much bigger proportion of Peterson’s fans appear to have been inspired into the opposite of resentment or hatred. According to Peterson, “maybe a hundred times a week,” a man approaches him and tells him a story about how they’ve “put their life together” because of him. At least one of these men was literally on the verge of suicide. The mood at Peterson’s lectures, according to accounts of the tens of thousands who have attended them, is overwhelmingly positive: not twitchy incels thanking him for teaching them how to hate women, but normal people thanking Peterson for helping him improve their lives. All of this is a continuation of Peterson’s pre-fame era, when at the University of Toronto he was regularly rated by students as “life-changing.”

Again, none of this is to say that there aren’t elements of Peterson’s thinking that demand close scrutiny. But the fact is that Peterson appears to have a rather astonishing ability to connect with lost young men. It seems reasonable to think that he has helped many more than he has harmed. Though his most vitriolic critics label him a proto-fascist, Peterson says that many on the fringes of the far-right have written to him describing how his lectures actually brought them back from the edge. Throughout the West, to varying degrees, men are overrepresented amongst the suicidal, the alcoholic, the homeless and the imprisoned. They are increasingly uneducated and unemployed. That Peterson’s message is actually reaching and helping ailing men is often completely ignored by people who, on other days, would ostentatiously wring their hands about this state of affairs.

And as with his broader message, a central reason Peterson is actually managing to reach men has to do, I think, with the fact that he is willing to take the question of how men ought to live life seriously. The so-called crisis of masculinity appears to genuinely break his heart, and in a therapeutic vein, he tries to offer men advice which is at once solemn about life’s burdens, and sternly beatific about its potential. “I’m asking men to be more honest,” Peterson says, “especially in their speech and their thinking, and to be more responsible for themselves and their family and their community, and to grow up and to shoulder their burden and to live a responsible and meaningful life.” He’ll wrap this message in the vivid gravitas of ancient story, and he’ll talk with the straightest of faces about dreadfully old-fashioned virtues like courage, bravery, resilience and reliability. His speech is plain, but it is raw, devoid of the ingratiating glossiness that accompanies most public discourse. His rhetoric is weighed down at all times with cosmic concerns, and steeped in Peterson’s personal experience of “very severe” depression.

"None of this is to say that you have to like Peterson’s politics. You can detest his politics. But you cannot explain away his appeal as simply an appeal to dusty old conservatism."

And at the core of Peterson’s rhetorical style is that oldest of masculine prescriptions: tough love. Write this off as retrograde if you want, but not for nothing is the archetypal male role model the aloof sage, the stern sports coach, the merciless drill sergeant. As my own early twenties can attest, a man will tend towards being a man-child if you let him. But “men need to grow the hell up,” says Peterson. Such growing up will help you stop wasting your life, help you overcome the cold temptation of nihilism. It will help you be a good father, a good husband, a good friend. Get to know your own soul, Peterson says. All the horrors of human history, from the personal to the geopolitical, started with people who didn’t get to know their own demons, didn’t embark on their own hero’s journey. Call it a sort of male narcissism if you like – imagining you’re slaying a dragon as you’re populating a spreadsheet, in order to escape from the oppressive dullness of your days – but it is what it is. Whether it’s Homer or Plutarch or Sun Tzu or Nietzsche or Emerson or Hemingway or Cormac McCarthy, men are and have always been drawn to writing that is dramatic, heavy, stirring; to writing that will conjure horrors in pursuit of revelations. Many men really do lead lives of quiet desperation, and it can take something noisy to puncture that quiet.

To reiterate one final time: none of this is to say that you have to like Peterson’s politics. You can detest his politics. But you cannot explain away his appeal as simply an appeal to dusty old conservatism. You can’t move on YouTube for agitated conservatives. None of them are selling three-million copies of a book about self-improvement. If you open 12 Rules for Life, there is little overt politics. And if you examine Peterson’s fans, or listen in on the book-signings that follow his lectures, it is not politics that is compelling them. What is compelling them is Peterson’s enormous, strange seriousness; his willingness to talk in arcanely grand ways about the nature of existence, the challenge of being conscious, and the unseen battles that make up much of being alive.


Because here’s the truth: Life happens in private. Psychic suffering especially happens in private, and a rather inconvenient amount of life happens to be some form of psychic suffering. Yes, there is a vast world out there, pouring in through our senses at all hours – but everything that constitutes this out there is nowhere near as incessant or as loud or as central to life’s essential quality as the movements of the mind. These movements, in the end, are life itself. We are not the opinions to which we loudly attach ourselves, but that strange and secret tapestry which, if we are lucky, a few people will occasionally glimpse. Weaving this tapestry with more intention than luck constitutes life’s basic challenge. The political matters; minds reflect their society. But even after the most successful protest march, one returns home to the solitude of a head on a pillow. Society changes slowly if it changes at all, and for most people the situation is urgent and it is personal. How well they walk through the fire will not depend on the outcome of a national election in four years’ time; it will depend on whether they can learn to face their flaws, swallow their pride, bear the weight of their own thoughts, and a thousand other inner trials. “However long we postpone it,” wrote Joan Didion, “we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously uncomfortable bed, the one we make ourselves.” Even if it is nurtured in therapy, most of this bed-making is solitary work. Every single one of the truly balanced, productive, positive people I know are very familiar with the act of – to borrow the name of Peterson's online course – self-authoring.

"What the popularity of Peterson and his 12 Rules for Life reveals is that, at our cultural moment, any project that wants to connect with people might want to consider taking life seriously, in a way that within mainstream discourse will risk registering as old-fashioned and overly serious."

Fair enough if you don’t like Peterson’s hatred of collectivist politics; fair enough if you’d prefer someone who could offer an antidote to chaos without declaring that said chaos “is symbolically associated with the feminine.” Fair enough if you’d prefer someone who didn’t seem quite so paranoid about postmodernism, or would shut up about Carl Jung. But what the popularity of Peterson and his 12 Rules for Life reveals is that, at our cultural moment, any project that wants to connect with people might want to consider taking life seriously, in a way that within mainstream discourse will risk registering as old-fashioned and overly serious. Especially, perhaps, if that project wants to talk to men.

Peterson’s political enemies in particular might want to consider this. The left can and do attack Peterson’s political remarks at furious length, because talking politics comes easy to it. But the psyche? “Rules for life”? The history of the left is a history of wild and liberatory atheism, and discussion of the dark truths swimming in one’s soul sounds suspiciously religious. Generally, beyond the vaguest prescriptions – try not to think racist thoughts – the modern left quietly avoids the inner life. It is very good at telling people what politicians to mock, what petitions to sign, what documentaries to watch, what behaviours to limit. It is less good on the topic of, for example, why life is worth living. Or how one can start to negotiate the bizarre and private corridors of the self. What the Peterson phenomenon reveals is that – even in our jaded and technocratic age of living by bread alone – questions of such daunting size still grip people, if the reaching for an answer is compelling enough. T. S. Eliot, in language grand enough to please a Peterson, said that “there is one who remembers the way to your door: Life you may evade, but Death you shall not.” But there is a hunger in most people, somewhere, for thought and word that evades neither.


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