The rise of Jordan Peterson

My first encounter with Jordan Peterson was an interview on the Joe Rogan Experience. Since then, I’ve dabbled in some of his material and watched from afar as his star has ascended via endless social media sparring, televised interviews, widely viewed lectures and courses, and a bestselling book. During this time, I’ve felt torn. One part of me thinks there’s more to Peterson’s work and ideas than I’m seeing. Another part of me thinks that his importance is overblown, that he’s simply more adept than most at utilising social media and influencing online networks—and the people that populate them. I’ve yet to decide which it is, and frankly, I won’t be making that decision any time soon.

However, I have begun to think about why Peterson has been able to rise with such haste from obscurity to influence. And on this beautiful morning, as I listen to the rain fall outside and sip my coffee inside my warm residence, I speculated on the reasons for his rise. I came up with four.

1) Conservative values; a liberal audience.
Peterson is a fifty-something, Christian professor whose teachings lean towards the conservative. His primary audience is composed of young liberals who grew up amongst technological revolution and a relentless individualism. Thus, his teachings take on an air of profoundity simply because they are the opposite of what the most recent generations have been inundated with.

2) The invention of an enemy.
Umberto Eco wrote: “Having an enemy is important not only to define our identity but also to provide us with an obstacle against which to measure our systems of values and, in seeking to overcome it, to demonstrate our own worth. So when there is no enemy, we have to invent one.” Peterson pits himself against post-modernism, against Marxism, against ideologues and ideologies, against attempted and actual intrusions upon free speech (and by extension, free thought). With such an abstract enemy, Peterson is able to position himself as a lone(ly), holy warrior, fighting for the good and the right. With such an abstract enemy, Peterson is able to create a divide in his audience—“If you’re not for me, you’re against me”—and use those who are “against him” as fuel for the antagonism of those who are “for him”.

3) Micro- and macro-narratives.
Peterson deliberately manufactures a divide, not just in his audience at large, but in the individuals that compose his audience. His Self-Authoring program—which I have purchased—compels its user to imagine a personal Heaven and Hell, to explicitly extrapolate the consequences of your best and worst self winning out over time. The idea being that, by understanding the best and worst possible long-term consequences of your actions, you’ll be able to make better decisions and undertake better deeds because you have poles with which to measure, compare and navigate with. Peterson pursues this strategy at the macro level as well. He urges his followers to imagine the societal consequences of a culture where speech and thought is policed, where belief in meaning, community and virtue is stripped away. After creating this dystopia in the minds of those who listen, he then turns their attention to the cause, to the reason to stand up and fight—a vision of a truly free society.

4) Skin in the game.
Peterson doesn’t just define his enemy, he engages them. He gives lectures that are overtaken with—and sometimes shut down because of—controversy. He enters the public arena and stands his ground. He encourages challenge, welcomes debate, glories in conflict. His willingness to stand up and take risks for what he believes in endears him to many who cannot, will not, or have not had the opportunity to do the same.

I suspect there are more reasons for Peterson’s rise—some having to do with the merit of his ideas, others not. But from my perspective, from the position of a mildly interested and sceptical observer, his preaching of conservative values to a liberal audience, his invention of an enemy, his deployment of micro- and macro-narratives, and his skin in the game are the primary causes.