The digital ink spilled over Canadian clinical psychologist and author Jordan Peterson by now could fill a metaphorical ocean, but I want to venture what I think may be an unexplored cause of his popularity: his lack of guile or pretense.
Anyone who has spent any time in comment box debates or hasn’t been living in an undersea cave since the 2016 presidential election knows the tone of news commentary, opinion writing, and even journalism has taken a nasty turn. Of course, if you had asked someone following the 2012 election whether the partisan rancor in America could get any worse, he might have shrugged and said, “I don’t see how.” That person is probably hiding in a dark place right now, embarrassed by his lack of imagination.
It’s not enough to disagree with someone, anymore. If a person favors a different policy, has come to a different quotient after dividing the benefits of his or her political party by its drawbacks, or even fails to subscribe to an ascendant gender theory of more recent provenance than my five-year-old daughter, such a person is not merely wrong. He or she is too stupid to be classified as a vertebrate (in which case we mock), or else irredeemably wicked (in which case we call him or her a Nazi or a Cultural Marxist). These mutually exclusive attacks are alternated from day to day, often against the same people.
But what if not just merely wrong, but pitiably wrong–even deceived–were still serviceable categories? What if instead of automatically sorting ourselves into warring ideological or partisan factions hurling insults and abuse at one another, we called a ceasefire, met on neutral ground, and admitted, “Hey, I am just playing the part I thought I was supposed to play, but I don’t really think you are a venomous arthropod. Let’s calm down and figure this out.”?
That’s where Jordan Peterson seems to be coming from. If you have watched his rise to prominence, you know it hasn’t occurred in a vacuum. Peterson hasn’t exactly tapped a new audience. He has assumed the role of a kind of nutritious alternative to Alt-Right trolls like Milo Yiannopoulos or Ann Coulter. That these three have enjoyed fame among roughly the same demographic is odd at first glance, but becomes less so the more you think about it. They all owe most of their book sales to young men on the political right. They all champion freedom of speech and rail against the campus culture of conformity and “no-platforming.” They all fire regular volleys at feminist and intersectional politics, ostensibly on behalf (in Yiannopoulos’ case, ironically) of white-heterosexual male-dom. They all pretty firmly reject the metastasized gender ideology in which “non-binary lesbian otherkin” is a viable life choice (again, the irony here is what Milo thinks makes him cute).
But the similarities basically end there. Coulter and Yiannopoulos have devoted their careers to ridicule. If asked by the average young man who chafes at his assigned role as hetero-normative, colonizing, rapist-oppressor what he ought to do with his life, Coulter and Yiannopoulos might reply, “Vote Trump, troll the bejesus out of beta lefties, and stoke your resentment…always keep your resentment and secret sense of grievance white hot.”
Peterson takes a completely different approach. He looks disaffected men square in the face, and without a trace of irony, mockery, or pretense of superiority, says, “You know what? You’re not a monster, and you’re not an idiot, and you’re not what’s wrong with the world, and I understand you’re feeling lost and don’t know what to do with your life. But resentment and blaming other people is not going to get you anywhere. I’m here to help you find your way out of this black hole of impotence, and I want you to start by cleaning your room.”
And he is completely sincere.
By not feinting, faking, or emotionally divesting his words with irony or sarcasm, Peterson exposes himself to mockery. “Is he serious?!” you can almost hear the critics choking through a spray of Shiraz. And the honest answer is, “Yes. He is serious.” He’s the first one in a long time who’s tried that. He’s the first person I can remember who, instead of mercilessly satirizing his opponents on late night comedy or “telling it like it is” (which is just a populist euphemism for obscenity and for whipping your base into a mindless feeding frenzy), has attempted earnestness.
You can hardly help feel disarmed watching or reading Peterson. Agree or disagree with him, his lack of pretense is jarring. He’s not going to browbeat you. You’re not in trouble for having failed to live up to some standard you never had a real chance of meeting. You don’t have to be afraid to ask questions to which everyone nervously assumes everyone else already knows the answers. He’s that first friend who took you aside and taught you how to do The Thing Everyone Knows How to Do, And Which Everyone Makes Fun of Each Other for Not Knowing How to Do. While all the others savage one another with cruel comedy or condemn each other as hardened deplorables, Peterson is quietly drawing life lessons from the Jungian archetypes in Disney movies, and not making a joke out of it. Even with those intent on misrepresenting and demonizing him, Peterson is famously long-suffering and winsome.
Those who have discovered and benefited from his work listen with rapt attention, their guard down for the first time in no-one-remembers-how-long. It reminds me of a scene from “Secondhand Lions,” in which Robert Duvall’s character, having trounced four local hotheads in a bar fight, takes the wayward teens under his wing and teaches them life lessons on how to live straight and be real men. These tough guys melt under his fatherly tutelage into the confused boys they were all along, and end up better off because of it.
That’s what Peterson does. Only he cools the hotheads not by knocking them down a peg and shaming them like a Mark Driscoll, but by offering sincere, unironic, condemnation-free counsel–old lessons we all know deep down inside, but have forgotten how to admit without sneering or sentencing each other to ideological outer darkness.
Peterson knows this is why millions of young men have suddenly sat down at his feet. He says it right away when asked to explain his own appeal: Young people are never given that quiet, sincere space with a mentor and advocate, where they can figure out who they are created to be without condemnation, derision, or attempts to conscript them into one or other of the perpetually-warring factions in our culture.
If Peterson isn’t careful, he’s going to train up an army of young people similarly immune to the guile and pretense by which public careers now live and die. He’s going to spawn a movement of communicators who are willing to calmly and sincerely look their opponents in the face and make their case without hurling abuse or anathemas. He’s going to make it not just possible, but downright effective to be earnest again. And it makes me sad, because we Christians, not an agnostic, Canadian psychologist, should be the ones breaking the stranglehold of insincerity.