We live in an age in which we struggle to separate ideas from the people who give birth to them. Whether it is a current celebrity with a Me Too moment, or a founding father who owned slaves, much of our society insists that negative behavior by those who create must inform our understanding of their creations. So has it been recently with Jordan Peterson.
Peterson, a self-help guru and free speech advocate, rose to dizzy heights over the past several years, perhaps becoming the best-known philosopher in the world. Over the past month or so it has become known that Peterson is very ill, suffering in a Russian hospital from severe physical dependence on the anxiety medication benzodiazepine and by some reports near death.
For some who take a dim view of his ideas, Peterson’s current condition is an ironic twist that proves his philosophy of self-reliance and understanding sex differences, among other things, is a bunch of hogwash. After all, if he has all the answers, how he could possibly have let this happen? What right does he have to tell others how to live or to clean their rooms?
But this is a shallow and vapid way of looking at a person’s intellectual output. When judging ideas, it is not the effect they have on their author that matters, it’s the impact they have on the world. If a doctor finds a cure for the half the cancer in the world, but then dies of the other half, it doesn’t somehow render her work meaningless.
There can be no question that Peterson’s lectures have helped thousands of people. I happen not to be one, but I know some, and they truly were helped by the clarity his way of looking at the world provided. Deeply rooted in Old Testament wisdom and the traditions of the West, his 12 rules for life have set many on a healthier course, even though they did not save him from his addiction.
Furthermore, Peterson’s fight against compelled speech that vaulted him into prominence in the first place was a vital contribution in combating new and radical ideas about biological sex and gender. His refusal to comply with Canadian laws and university rules about proper pronoun usage came at a time many who oppose the trans agenda felt cowed and bullied into silence.
Peterson took a lot of fire and his ability to not only take it, but to also seem to thrive, gave courage to people who believe in biological gender definitions to say so. He became a kind of poster child for how to deal with cancel culture: just take the blows and keep swinging. Some even took the opportunity to suggest his success made a mockery of the whole notion of cancel culture; after all, he seemed to be doing pretty well.
But we now know that he wasn’t. Too often we think of the consequences of counterculture purely in terms of professional or monetary success. Oh, look, see, she was cancelled but now she’s even more famous, or he has an even better job. But this completely misses the psychological toll of weathering constant personal attacks, a toll Peterson himself has emotionally spoken about.
And it is the very fact that our society does not divorce ideas from their authors that allows the insidious ravages of cancel culture to be cultivated. It was not enough to take on Peterson’s ideas on self reliance, free speech, or the trans issue. It was not enough to sit with and interrogate the concepts. No, it had to be Peterson the man grilled, attacked, and derided.
A healthy culture cannot long stand such a state of affairs. This is because no author of ideas is so blameless and innocent as to protect those ideas from his personal faults.
Whatever the outcome of Peterson’s illness (and all good people hope for the best), we must not let his addiction negatively color the ideas he has put into the world. If nothing else, he showed there is a deep thirst among millions of people for serious philosophical investigation of the world, on the role the culture of the West plays in it and how we should see our place in it.
Among the smart set, many of whom have disdain for Peterson, it was shocking that normal, everyday people would concern themselves with such high-minded ideas, yet they did, night after night in packed arenas and day after day in front of screens big and small. Peterson believes that thinking deeply does not require a graduate degree, and he is right.
There are no perfect messengers, but when we allow the faults that haunt all of us to erase important cultural contributions, we lose too much in the bargain. We lose the movies of Woody Allen, the comedy of Bill Cosby, the music of Michael Jackson, and the even the founding wisdom of America. Jordan Peterson has given much to the world, and his addiction and illness do nothing to change that.