With a bestselling book, 850,000 followers on YouTube, and $60,000 a month in direct contributions from fans, Jordan Peterson has every material reason to be happy. But watch one of the lectures or interviews that have made him famous, and you will see a face full of sorrow. He talks about overcoming depression—from long experience of failing to do so. He tells audiences to stand up straight with their shoulders back—then lowers his eyes. He preaches personal uplift—and breaks out in tears. His fans, uncertain young men, love him all the more for it.
I could scarcely have less interest in Peterson’s ruminations on Jungian symbology, evolutionary biology, or psychometrics (whatever that is), but it is easy to see why people respond to his soulful brand of self-help. Jordan Peterson is a success because so many other men are failing.
It is awkward to point out this fact. Being a man is not exactly a social disability in the Year of Our Lord 2018, as Peterson’s rise amply shows. (A few years ago, he was just another professor of clinical psychology at the University of Toronto.) But fewer American men than ever enjoy the advantages that Peterson and his social peers take for granted: lasting marriage and stable employment.
In 1962, 70 percent of American adults were married. Today, 50 percent are. In 1950, almost all American men in their prime were employed. Today, one out of every ten American men is unemployed in the strength of his years.
As Anne Case and Angus Deaton have noted in their research on “deaths of despair”—from suicide, overdose, and alcohol-pickled livers—men who lack a steady job or stable partnership are especially prone to suicide. In 2016, the CDC counted 121,573 deaths of despair. Seventy-one percent, or 87,035, were suffered by men. Men account for 67 percent of American overdoses, 77 percent of American suicides.
Most people don’t need statistics to see this. A few years ago, I met up with some old friends at a house in the country. Drinks and confidences flowed freely. One man admitted that he had recently slit his wrists. Another had been going on and off anti-depressants, trying to keep up his spirits while maintaining his libido. His girlfriend finally dumped him. I took pride in my relative steadiness, not knowing that melancholy was about to land me on a psychiatrist’s couch from which (absurdly enough) I had an excellent view of that temple of positive thinking, Marble Collegiate Church.
Peterson is a latter-day Norman Vincent Peale, offering sympathy and practical advice. He tells his fans to get a job and become worthy spouses. His video “Suicide & Breakfast” has 274,000 views; “The Meaning of Life for Men” has 465,000; “Advice for People with Depression” is at 547,000—and counting.
But Peterson has an instinct for cultural combat that Peale lacked. He flirts with positions that the Religious Right gave up on long ago, such as opposition to contraception and divorce. “Was it really a good thing,” Peterson asks, “to so dramatically liberalize the divorce laws in the 1960s? It’s not clear to me that the children whose lives were destabilized by the hypothetical freedom this attempt at liberation introduced would say so.” He refuses to use gender-neutral pronouns, such as “zi” and “zir,” that blur the line between woman and man.
Most stunning of all, Peterson criticizes the liberal rhetoric of freedom. “Rights! Rights! Rights!” he exclaims. “It’s appalling. And I feel that that’s deeply felt by the people who are coming out to listen to these things. They’ve had enough of that.” He describes his enthusiastic fans as “people who have been fed a nauseating, saccharine diet of rights and freedom for fifty years.” His book promises “an antidote to chaos.”
I once thought it impossible for anyone over forty to understand how hollow sloganeering about freedom sounds to the young. Peterson is the exception. He champions free speech and identifies as a classical liberal, but he seems at best ambivalent about liberty.
“We require rules, standards, values—alone and together,” he says. “We’re pack animals, beasts of burden. We must bear a load, to justify our miserable existence. We require routine and tradition. That’s order.” He applies this truth to religion. “It is therefore necessary and desirable for religions to have a dogmatic element. What good is a value system that does not provide a stable structure?” In a liberal society, defending dogma is the supreme heresy.
Peterson’s blunt statements have made him the target of a great deal of denunciation. Writing in MacLean’s, Tabatha Southey dubbed Peterson “the stupid man’s smart person” because of his potted accounts of “postmodern neo-Marxism.” It is true that Peterson does not seem to have spent much time in the byways of Derrida, Foucault, or Horkheimer, for which I for one cannot blame him.
Snobbish critiques like Southey’s show why Peterson and figures like him have become important. From 1998 to 2015, a mortality gap opened up between Americans with a bachelor’s degree and those without. Men aged 50–54 who had graduated from college saw their mortality rate fall from 349 to 243 per 100,000. Those without a college degree saw their mortality rate increase from 762 to 867. Southey’s dismissal of these “stupid” men is far more politically dangerous than Peterson’s lack of expertise in Deconstruction and the Frankfurt School.
What critics and fans alike miss is just how unlikely a guru Peterson is. Though he brims with sympathy for the confused, he is uncertain about where they should go. He advocates for rules but is vague on who should set them. He believes in the importance of religion, but he doesn’t quite have one.
Peterson was raised, as I was, in the low-church Protestantism of the plains, a faith he drifted out of after encountering Darwin. There is something restlessly individual and vague about this brand of Christianity, and Peterson, for all his appeals to science, sometimes sounds like just another God-fearing plainsman who sits alone with his Bible, sharing insights with passersby. Like that plainsman, he seems to be searching . . . searching . . . for some private revelation. I am pleased to see he still makes allusions to Pilgrim’s Progress (which I doubt Ms. Southey is able to catch), but like Christian in the Doubting Castle of Giant Despair, he has forgotten the key in his bosom.
Peterson knows the necessity of rules. He sees that life requires meaning. But seeing the value of these things is not the same as having them. One cannot love, mourn, or sacrifice at second hand. Knowing that people must bear a load is not the same as receiving a yoke that is easy and a burden light.
Last summer, I spent a week with a group of seminarians in a traditional Catholic order. They came from Nigeria, India, England, Canada, and the U.S. All shared a desire for structure, yes. But they had gone beyond that desire after meeting a Good Shepherd, whose rod and whose staff comforted them. Secure in his love, they were ready for chaos and risk.
A seminarian from England told me of his distaste for the culture of permission he had inherited from his parents. “They don’t understand why I’m a priest, let alone why I wear this cassock and like the old Mass.” His siblings are less religious but share his impulses. “My brother’s in the army. My sister works for the NHS. We wanted to be part of something. Our parents think we’re crazy.” He was expected to adopt the kind of Catholicism he encountered at the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, a UFO-shaped building that a gray-haired bishop built in the ’60s to suit the Catholics of the future. But the Catholics of the future turned out to prefer the past. When the young Englishman saw his first Latin Mass, he said, “It was like a kaleidoscope turning. All these things I knew and believed to be true suddenly took on a unity and wholeness.”
Young men look to Peterson for answers, but he is still turning the kaleidoscope, searching for pattern and form. Earlier this year, an interviewer for VICE asked him, “Who is your target audience, who are you trying to reach?” With eyes downcast he said, “Partly me.”
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things and a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.
Photo via VICE News.