Jordan Peterson might be today’s most influential public intellectual, having achieved that fame in only two years following a long career as an academic (with an impeccable record) and a practicing clinical psychologist. He burst onto the media scene with a hard stand against forced speech imposed by a law in Canada. Then he became a symbol of resistance against the wild excesses of postmodern identity politics.
The media have yet to figure this out, but their jeering attacks on him unleashed a lion.
Today he travels the country and the world, selling out theater venues like a rockstar, with tickets going for $60 to $300 each, along with hats and t-shirts snapped up in the lobby, plus a long line of people wanting pictures for their social profiles. He has just re-booked for another 50 appearances in addition to the 50 currently on the list, with the venues getting larger by the week.
Think of it: you can buy tickets to hear the thoughts of a quiet liberal intellectual on Stubhub!
It’s all truly hard to believe or even imagine. For those of us who believe in ideas – at a time when free speech and free thought in academia are rare and when media culture reduces all ideas to angry sound bites and partisan politics – this is a hugely encouraging phenomenon. It means that serious thought is not dying; on the contrary, there is such a high demand for penetrating and profound ideas that regular people are willing to pay to get them.
A Singular Figure
It’s perhaps true that Noam Chomsky could have filled up such a theater at the height of the Vietnam War. Maybe William F. Buckley could have done the same at one point in his career. But I’m not sure either one of these could have gone on tour and reliably filled thousands of seats with paying customers night after night for month after month. Ayn Rand is another possible case but I doubt her demographic draw would have been as vast and varied.
I’m trying to think of another living intellectual – a pure intellectual, not a comedian or sports star or musician or rabble-rousing political commentator – who can pack a house for 3,000 people paying this amount to see him. Maybe I’ve overlooked someone but I can’t think of anyone.
And so you wonder what is really behind this remarkable rise of this man and his show. If you look it up, you will find no shortage of opinion pieces that suggest that the Peterson phenom is all about anger, resentment against modernity, some rebellious and maybe bigoted movement of reaction and authoritarianism.
The problem with these claims is that there is not a shred of evidence to back them up. They are easily and instantly refuted by the slightest exposure to the Peterson corpus whether on video or in print.
Last night I attended a lecture in a venue outside of Hartford, Connecticut. The show seemed to have every seat filled: people from all walks of life but they mostly tilted in the young direction. The loudspeaker announced a no-video policy, otherwise our view would have been blocked by hundreds of iPhones held high for 90 minutes.
The announcer further said there would be no heckling of any sort allowed under any circumstances. The people cheered, I among them. I think we are all pretty well fed up with tribal wars being fought with screams, signs, and anger. We came to listen and learn. That’s all.
The opener was Dave Rubin (who recently interviewed me). He skillfully warmed up the crowd with an introduction worthy of a beloved hero. The crowd cheered at every sentence. Dave knows why people are here. He knows what Peterson has meant to this generation. He knows that everyone there has watched the thousands of YouTubes and bought his mega-bestselling book 12 Rules.
Then Peterson came out on stage, and revealed an authentic sense of gratitude and appreciation for those who came just to hear him talk for 90 minutes. He had no magic opening to get people going. On the contrary, he seemed anxious to lower expectations. He began with some small observations about the tour and his book, the strange place in which he finds himself, and some fascinating anecdotes from his long career, spotted with some vignettes from political and economic history.
He is sometimes inadvertently funny, so sometimes the audience would laugh affectionately. This would make him laugh in turn, and then wonder out loud why people thought what he said was funny.
His humility is endearing, really a model. His absolute refusal to engage in any kind of manipulative demagoguery is a fantastic relief. He made it clear within the first ten minutes that if anyone had come for red meat, he or she will be deeply disappointed.
This is not a rally. It’s not a cult. It’s not a religion. It’s not designed for any political purpose. It’s not even about Jordan Peterson. This show is about serious ideas and nothing else. It’s sole goal is to inspire deep thought about life, meaning, purpose, and all of our futures on this earth, which, as he kept reminding us, we will not leave alive.
A captivating aspect of listening to Peterson in any venue is merely to observe his uncommon erudition. His vocabulary is vast and effortlessly transferred from mind to voice, flowing from sentence to sentence with penetrating power that seems almost without limit, without a single utterance of “uh” or “hmmm.” He is unveiling gradually, with a powerful inner fire, the contents of his mind as it pertains to the great topic of understanding and navigating ourselves and the world around us. It’s not clear that he had a particular plan for what he would say that night but he might have; regardless, his speech is different every single time. It has an improvisatory feel. The entire package is nothing short of awe inspiring, and all the more so because Peterson himself is not particularly interested in his personal talent; for him, it is all about the insight and understanding. He is in awe of the opportunity to do what he does best: teach and counsel.
Once the speech got going, he chose to talk first about the things about the world that are not getting the headlines today. If you pick up the papers, you would think everything around us is collapsing. But if you look at the data, what you see is very different. Poverty is falling at a rate never seen in history. Many fatal diseases are being eradicated. War is less common than ever. Violence is falling. Technology has brought information to the masses. The standard of living the world over – even where it never before existed in any form – is rising at an amazing rate, with only one exception: where political totalitarianism keeps people down.
And here he began that real point. It’s not enough to rattle off the phenomenal statistics about the improvement of the human condition. We must understand the why. His answer was clear as a bell: growing amounts of freedom are unleashing creativity within the structures of capitalistic institutions that are encouraging people to enter into networks of productivity, cooperation, and marvelous achievement.
And here I heard his clearest statement yet about his ideological commitments. He is a proponent of human freedom and human rights, a liberal in the classical sense, which is to say, a genuine liberal who believes in freedom of speech, association, and trade. That seems rather simple to observe but, apparently, not.
He has been a severe critic of the conventional left, and thereby been brutally treated by mainstream media, with countless interlocutors attempting to ferret out his inner malice. Incredibly, he has been smeared as having some kind of secret rightist agenda to pave the way for some kind of authoritarian (or racist, misogynist, or you name it) takeover; most absurdly, he has been accused, without the slightest bit of evidence, of carrying water for the alt-right.
That last claim is truly infuriating. If anything, he has done herculean work in drawing people away from both rightist and leftist versions of identitarian collectivism. People who worry about the rise of identitarian nationalism and racism as a reaction to the social-democratic left – I wrote a whole book on the topic – should be deeply grateful to him for explaining that there is a liberal alternative.
Here is a man who stood on stage and talked at length about the two types of poisonous totalitarianism that wrecked the 20th century, Communism and Nazism. He urged everyone to read two great books by authors who suffered deeply for their dissent against the regime: Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago and Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. This is not extremist literature. These books serve to illustrate the moral core of what it means to live in truth and resist the lie even to the point of massive personal suffering.
At this point, he revealed so much about what is really driving him. He explained that his study of 20th century totalitarian bloodshed showed him that all modern cases of absolutist despotism were not really about bad men leading good people into Hell. These experiences were about the willingness of vast numbers of people around the leader and ruled by the leader to lie – or at least decline to tell the truth – because they lacked the conviction to speak truth, or were too lazy, or feared the consequences.
The lie, he said, is the reason for the loss of liberty and the good life. The reverse is also true. The key to building and maintaining freedom is to think and speak the truth even when confronting a world bent on ignoring and disparaging that truth.
At this point in his lecture, the audience entered into a new level of engagement. Rapt attention. Mouths wide open. No one checking their phones. Everyone still. And so it lasted for another full hour as Peterson’s mind travelled through more history, philosophy, sociology, economics, and moral psychology.
As I thought about it later, it struck me that this 90 minute tour de force darn near amounted to an undergraduate liberal-arts education, with this one difference: students are simply not learning this material in today’s regimented and agenda-driven educational institutions. It’s not so much that Peterson is saying new and amazingly innovative things, though there is plenty of new insight here; it’s that he is saying real and truly useful things that have emerged from a genuine search for truth.
He demonstrated what this search for truth looks like in his riff on religious faith, which somehow manages to be deeply respectful of the religious narratives without pushing an implausible piety that today’s students would find tendentious and tedious. His now-famous commentary on Genesis struck me as truly creative, with an argument that the key to the Western faith is its conviction that humans are made in the image and likeness of God – with the spark of Divinity – and possessing of some features of the creative power that led to the invention of the world itself. If we lose that story, we risk the destruction of the deepest cultural foundation that undergirds our freedom, rights, and prosperity.
His point is not that students should be taught religious dogma. Rather, his point was that a real education should lead not to nihilism but a paradigm of meaning that informs the way we conduct our lives. It is not enough just to tear everything down and cause students to believe only in power as the one real thing, whether good or bad; educators and intellectuals have a duty to inspire the search for truth and to assist the discovery of the good in their own lives and the world around them.
He gave the following vivid illustration of the life of a post-graduation senior just entering the wiles of the workforce and regular life with all its confusions and challenges. Imagine a helicopter dropping a 22-year old in the middle of the ocean and the pilot yelling through a megaphone: “find your way to shore!” This is the situation young people find themselves in today, which is precisely why Peterson’s clarion call for heroic responsibility resonates so loudly.
He finally turned to the issue of meaning in life, and the need for adventure, somewhat circling back to his list of modern achievements for human well being. The achievements came about because people dedicated themselves to an impossible idea. They took risks. They confronted their deepest fears. They overcame envy, bureaucracy, doubts, and smears. They stood for truth. And they very likely didn’t get the credit. But they lived and are living lives of great adventure and meaning.
So should we all.
You might be wondering where politics fits into all of this. He mentioned the current US president only one time and in a mostly dismissive way that elicited sympathetic snickers from the audience. If any members of the mainstream press who have been smearing this man as nothing but a waterboy for the titanic shift in national and world politics are reading now, please know this. He made himself extremely clear: the key to a good life is not to be found within politics; it is to be found from within.
And you know what? The audience cheered. Cheered! What does this tell us about what is happening at these Peterson events? For one thing, it tells me that my initial impressions of him from two years ago were entirely wrong.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I thought he was just another political pundit on the make, a man who would exploit our angers to gather a cult around himself. I was dead wrong. My presumption reflected my personal exhaustion with this mode of public manipulation that always collapses into some kind of unseemly personality cult or financial racket.
That is not what Jordan Peterson is about. As he himself has gradually come to learn, his voice is in a long line of liberal intellectuals – even if he rises above most of them in history – who is there to urge people to turn toward peace, tolerance, personal heroism, and truth, in service of making the best possible use of our days on earth.
Every great demagogue has a rehearsed and inspiring ending to his speech, something to give people a desire to do something wild and inspire devotion to the person who inspired them to do it. Peterson again defied expectations. He maintained the soft delivery style he used for the entire speech. He finished a final point about being a good person, living a great life, and getting along with others, and then he waited a few seconds and quietly said, “And that’s all for now.”
The audience rose in applause immediately, out of respect for this man but mainly out of appreciation for his message. As I waited to go backstage, I asked three young men why they had come to this event. The first one, a senior in college and a major in engineering, said very quickly: “I’m searching for meaning in life.” His other two colleagues concurred. That was the beginning and end of it. They were thrilled to be here.
Politics promised to give us a meaningful life. It failed. Now we have to find it elsewhere. As the poet Virgil led Dante through Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell, Jordan Peterson is the tour guide of the modern world in its confrontation with our inner selves.