The Real Problem With Jordan Peterson’s Book Has Nothing To Do With Bigotry Or Sexism

The Real Problem With Jordan Peterson’s Book Has Nothing To Do With Bigotry Or Sexism

A close read of the popular psychologist's must-read book proves the silliness of claims his message is harmful to women and minorities. But it might threaten your soul.
Rachel Stoltzfoos
By

An honest look at Jordan Peterson proves the silliness of widespread claims in the liberal press that his message is dangerous to women, minorities, and vulnerable young men. What’s dangerous about him has nothing to do with racism, sexism, or any other “ism” liberals use when they want to shut someone up. It’s Peterson’s optimism that poses the danger, not his hate.

If you take what he has to say at face value, his message is unambiguously harmless. Clean your room, he says; stand up straight, tell the truth. Be responsible. This is nothing obviously revolutionary or overtly political. Yet the liberal press has met him with suspicion and hostility. They seem alarmed at his sudden rise from an obscure clinical psychologist delivering lectures on YouTube to one of the formidable thinkers of our time.

“Mostly I feel like it’s going to end in catastrophe at any moment,” Peterson tells a crowd packing the Warner Theater on a stop in Washington DC marking the halfway point of his international book tour. He’s talking about his celebrity. “Felt that way for the past two years. The constant attacks by the press add to that feeling of existential fragility.”

His latest book, “12 Rules For Life: An Antidote To Chaos,” has been a smashing success. But the attacks have been persistent. To his progressive critics, Peterson’s seemingly innocuous advice provides cover for a message of hate and oppression. They see a monster of the patriarchy hiding in plain sight.

Telling men to clean their room smells a little bit like fascism. Suggesting women are naturally inclined to raise children (and that’s okay) is a step on a slippery slope to revoking the Nineteenth Amendment. Asserting that we should respect the wisdom contained in ancient stories is not a legitimate idea — just evidence of a bigoted mind poisoned by intolerance. And so on.

The Claims Match Nothing Peterson Says

If these critics are right, Peterson is a hateful bigot masquerading as a respectable self-help guru. A trickster. A wolf in sheep’s clothing. His sudden surge in popularity, particularly among white men and the alt-right, confirms white supremacy and old-school sexism are on the rise in Trump’s America. His book is a tool in the hands of pathetic young men desperate to regain their power and put women back in their place. Whitelash is coming.

This would all be very concerning indeed if it were true. It’s not a surprising takeaway for people whose worldview is built on a foundation of paranoia regarding patriarchal oppression. The problem is, there’s no evidence it’s true.

These claims are wildly out of step with the contents of Peterson’s book, his stated goals, and the way he carries himself. Take a look, have a listen, read a few chapters, actually consider what he’s saying, and you’ll find the frightening claims to be lazy caricatures. The Peterson these critics describe is nothing more than a boogeyman of the liberal imagination.

“‘He’s pointing out hierarchies exist, he must be a fascist!'” he says at one point, musing about his critics. “It’s like, no. You’re just an idiot.” The crowd eats it up.

Much of the criticism has been unfair. His viral exchange with a prominent British journalist is typical of how the press treats him. Cathy Newman conducted the entire interview as though she were determined to extract the monstrous Peterson hiding under the bed. In question after question, she would restate his words inside a sexist or bigoted frame to see if it stuck. It didn’t.

I read his book cover to cover. I listened carefully to his lecture. I couldn’t find the racist, sexist monster either.

Peterson Says It’s Not About Politics

Peterson lets the crowd in on his theory about these journalists. They misunderstand him and misconstrue his words, he says, because they’re trying to squeeze him into a political narrative.

“I don’t think that what I’m doing is fundamentally political,” he says.

He tries to convince them they’re missing the story, which he says is about a revolution in the lives of individuals who are bettering the world. Almost no one he encounters brings up politics. Everywhere he goes, he says, people approach him eager to share a personal success story. Young men who moved out of their parents’ basement, veterans struggling with PTSD.

So far though, the journalists aren’t buying it. “They don’t believe people are going onto YouTube to educate themselves so they can lead better lives,” he says.

Frankly, it does sound a bit fantastical. Still, where’s the harm in it? Take this passage from Chapter 10, in which he says it’s important to confront problems, and embrace the conflict necessary to address them responsibly:

The problem itself must be admitted to, as close to the time of its emergence as possible. ‘I’m unhappy,’ is a good start (not ‘I have a right to be unhappy,’ because that is still questionable, at the beginning of the problem-solving process). Perhaps your unhappiness is justified, under the current circumstances. Perhaps any reasonable person would be displeased and miserable to be where you are. Alternatively, perhaps, you are just whiny and immature? Consider both at least equally probable, as terrible as such consideration might appear. Just exactly how immature might you be? There’s a potentially bottomless pit. But at least you might rectify it, if you can admit to it.

Three things here are typical of the book as a whole. First, it deals with a universally human behavior — a tendency to downplay problems rather than do the more difficult work of identifying and fixing them. Second, it requires ruthless self-examination, without minimizing the reality of injustice in the world. Are you oppressed? Or are you just whining about a problem you don’t have the courage to face and attempt to solve? Maybe it’s a little of both. Third, he’s not telling readers what to think, he’s proposing they think for themselves and see where it leads.

He’s right. His message does transcend politics — at least the shallow, cartoonish form of politics that has driven the “debate” in this country in recent years. It’s not cheap self-help. It’s not quite religion (though many of his fans treat it as such), and it’s certainly not a political manifesto. He talks of no ambition other than empowering individuals to better the world.

Here’s another point, from a chapter on the importance of surrounding yourself with people who want what’s best for you. Are you friends with someone you are trying to save? Peterson urges you to interrogate your motives:

Maybe you are saving someone because you’re a strong, generous, well-put-together person who wants to do the right thing. But it’s also possible — and, perhaps, more likely — that you just want to draw attention to your inexhaustible reserves of compassion and good-will. … Or maybe it’s because it’s easier to look virtuous when standing alongside someone utterly irresponsible.

Consider whether your friend really wants help:

Maybe your misery is the weapon you brandish in your hatred for those who rose upward while you waited and sank. Maybe your misery is your attempt to prove the world’s injustice, instead of the evidence of your own sin, your own missing of the mark, your conscious refusal to strive and to live.

Again, he takes a basically human problem and asks the reader to do some honest self-examination. Are you really helping that person by continuing to be her friend? The reason he says it matters hits on a broader point of the book. He writes:

If you buy the story that everything terrible just happened on its own, with no personal responsibility on the part of the victim, you deny that person all agency in the past (and, by implication, in the present and future, as well). In this manner, you strip him or her of all power.

Here too, he leaves room for oppression, but asks the reader to critically consider whether there is something he or she can do to make things better. This is a theme of every chapter. If you are willing to do the work of identifying your role in the problem, and if you have the courage to do something about it, maybe you can make your life and the world a better place.

‘My Job Is to Make Individuals Stronger’

It’s much easier, in one sense, to hide in self-delusion, abdicate responsibility, and blame everyone else for your problems — that’s the path of immaturity and death. The much more difficult “upward path” requires you to willingly confront both the limits and possibilities of reality, to believe your choices make a difference, and embrace the responsibility of that power.

He sums it up like this in the Q&A session following the lecture: “My job is to make individuals stronger.”

That’s it — that’s the big message. If it’s dangerous, it’s not because it’s going to unleash a white revolution. And it’s certainly not just for white men. Every point in his book can be applied to men, women, adults, and children of any race or nationality.

This message of individual empowerment does directly assault the heart of the progressive sensibility, of course, because it gives no quarter to victimhood. Demanding the state fix you isn’t an option. Letting the power you do have rot away because you believe you belong to a class of an oppressed identity group is an act of moral cowardice. Do what you can first.

You’ll Be Happier If You Respect Reality

Take what he says concerning women, for example. He upsets some feminists, because he draws a biological distinction between men and women. But there is no hint of malice or a desire to dominate. Quite the opposite. He says he is pointing out realities, which if ignored, will not serve women or men. Better to operate within them.

Using the mythology of chaos and order, he argues women embody the terrible and wonderful possibilities of chaos, while men embody the consciousness that results in the rule of order. She creates. He builds, brings structure, rules. This isn’t right or wrong per se, just the way feminine and masculine qualities have traditionally been understood. These are archetypes. It’s easy to see how feminists might take this to mean Peterson wants to put women back in the kitchen and out of politics. But he draws no such lines.

In a fascinating exposition of fairy tales, he addresses the idea that a woman must be rescued by a man in order to find fulfillment. These stories are true, he suggests, but maybe not in a literal sense.

The princess Aurora in “Sleeping Beauty” is trapped by the Evil Queen (representing the dark side of femininity) and her parents’ good intentions (in trying to shelter her from the dangers of the world) in the dungeon of unconsciousness. The prince who rescues her represents her need, not necessarily for a physical man, but for the consciousness of the masculine spirit.

The Prince could be a lover, but could also be a woman’s own attentive wakefulness, clarity of vision, and tough-minded independence.

… For a woman to become complete, such stories claim, she must form a relationship with masculine consciousness and stand up to the terrible world (which sometimes manifests itself, primarily, in the form of her too-present mother). An actual man can help her do that, to some degree, but it is better for everyone concerned when no one is too dependent.

Peterson isn’t saying women should shun men, or that they have to find one who can save them in order to live meaningful lives. He is proposing, though, that the distinction between masculinity and femininity is real, and the strengths and weaknesses of each should be embraced rather than downplayed or devalued. Then they can be wielded advantageously.

Women Need to Stand Up, Not Sit Down

If you hide from the truth on any level, however, you become sick and corrupt, he argues, because you are not operating within the bounds of reality. A woman, for example, who is so agreeable she never speaks her mind, will lose her self. From his chapter on telling the truth:

Consider the person who insists that everything is right in her life. She avoids conflict, and smiles, and does what she is asked to do. She finds a niche and hides in it. She does not question authority or put her own ideas forward, and does not complain when mistreated. She strives for invisibility, like a fish in the centre of a swarming school. But a secret unrest gnaws at her heart. She is still suffering, because life is suffering. She is lonesome and isolated and unfulfilled. But her obedience and self-obliteration eliminate all the meaning from her life. She has become nothing but a slave, a tool for others to exploit. She does not get what she wants, or needs, because doing so would mean speaking her mind. So, there is nothing of value in her existence to counter-balance life’s troubles. And that makes her sick. … Someone hiding is not someone vital.

Here is a call for men and women to find their voice. Funny, then, liberals aren’t cheering this guy on. But of course what Peterson means and what they mean by empowerment and truth are two very different things.

His is an optimistic message that urges individuals to accept the discipline of reality and take charge of their own lives, despising the ease that comes with victim blaming and looking to others to fix you. Theirs is one driven by a limitless pessimism that insists on perpetual victimhood, encourages undisciplined delusion, and always asserts the force of the state as the solution.

‘Negotiate Towards Peace’

Although Peterson’s message strikes at the very heart of progressivism, he maintains he’s not trying to win an argument.

He’s read a question from the audience: “Do you think we’re starting to win?”

“I hate to conceptualize it in those terms,” he says. “I hope we can make peace. … If you have any sense, what you try to do is negotiate towards peace, so if that’s happening — if people are getting more sensible as a result of these conversations — then great. And I think that might be happening.”

Still, there is something dangerous about Peterson’s optimistic view of the strength of individuals.

Change your attitude, he says, and imagine what is possible? You don’t need god, you don’t need the state, you don’t need politics — just start making your life better. Take the truths of the ancient religions and myths, but set aside the gods behind them if that works for you. Treat them as stories fashioned by men to help you make sense of the word.

Peterson incorporates religion and mythology in this way, as though each story or system is there to serve him rather than make a claim over his life. His treatment of Christianity is especially compelling and remarkably on point. As with the other stories and religions, he treats it with respect, and it shows. His ability to expound on biblical passages is breathtaking (his exposition of the Fall is a must-read).

“The Bible has been thrown up, out of the deep, by the collective human imagination, which is itself a product of unimaginable forces operating over unfathomable spans of time,” he writes in Chapter 4. “Its careful, respectful study can reveal things to us about what we believe and how we do and should act that can be discovered in almost no other manner.”

Discussing the Bible Without Its Central Message

Peterson makes the biblical concept of sin a foundation of his book. Be like Jesus, he says. Take on the sins of the world, make them personal, accept responsibilities for the horror of being. He’s not wrong, per se. But, rather strangely, he seems to skip over another major theme. He doesn’t deal forthrightly with the biblical assertion that humans cannot overcome sin.

Perhaps he doesn’t consider what the Bible has to say about the futility of human effort a relevant discovery. But if that’s the case, it’s not clear why. The utter hopelessness of human effort to undo sin is foundational to biblical theology. It’s not an add-on, it’s a thread running through every single book from start to finish. According to Peterson’s logic, the collective human imagination put it there, prominently, for a reason, so we should at least consider the point.

But he doesn’t address the biblical solution to original sin in his book or in his lecture, even as he deals with Jesus on the cross, where that solution finally plays out. We are not like Jesus, the Bible teaches. We are utterly unlike him. We are weak, utterly corrupt, unable to change. We are the walking dead. Only by accepting his substitution of himself for us before God can we find the strength to do good to ourselves and the world around us. Only by identifying ourselves with his perfection can we find peace with God (with Being).

Kill God and Take His Stuff

There’s no doubt Peterson’s followers will find his message beneficial if they take his advice. Stop sinning and the world will be a better place. Do what’s right and your life will improve. Pay attention to the wisdom of the people who came before you. Stop consciously acting like a fool. No argument there. But what about the person who discovers he doesn’t have the strength or the courage to right himself? What if we do need God? What if it’s not enough to try to live by his rules on our own?

Peterson is tall, but he has an unassuming presence. He speaks quietly, patiently, sometimes taking unusually long pauses to gather his thoughts, as though he truly wants to find the best combination of words that will help you understand. He looks at the floor as he paces around the stage, and seems bemused at his positive reception, even surprised by it.

There’s nothing threatening about him. Yet he commands attention. He seems to have the allure of a religious teacher. Or maybe it’s the allure of a false prophet. If we must squeeze Peterson into a frame, perhaps that of the serpent in the garden would be more fitting. Trust your instinct, he says. Interrogate the world for yourself. Question what God has made plain and see how it shakes out. See what’s useful to you and don’t bother with the rest.

It’s a battle cry as old as the Bible itself: Let’s kill God and take all his stuff.

Rachel Stoltzfoos is managing editor of The Federalist. Follow Rachel on Twitter.
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