Jordan Peterson: Calling a certain audience to order and mightily annoying the rest

One of my 30-year-old sons sent a Mother's Day e-mail that said,
"I have learned so much from you and I believe the reason why I have such a wonderful partner to raise a family with is due to the many lessons you imparted...I make my bed every day now!"

I was delighted, but also jolted. "Make your bed" is a tenet of the controversial psychologist Dr. Jordan Peterson's from his best-selling "12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos", along with "stand up straight with your shoulders back" and "take responsibility".

Had I been a Peterson Mom?

I have been watching Peterson's profile gain traction for a time, via videos and press coverage. I can't look away.

Some of what he tells his audience makes sense. At the same time, he promotes a return to traditional sex roles (in the name of stability and safety), is dismissive of LGBT persons' struggle for inclusion, and has a creepy jones for suffering—but then I think that about certain Buddhist personages, too.

Peterson fills a need. Just like the times get the shoe choices they deserve, every so often the culture seems to require someone new to tell them How to Live. Or, because so many of Peterson's fans are young adults, How to Grow the Eff Up.

He draws fierce criticism and cheap personal shots (a writer slammed his bedspread), a common response to prominent figures who disrupt the status quo and propose unpalatable strategies. And he may be falling into the classic trap of guruhood: believing his (positive) press, letting it fan arrogance.

Peterson delivers not particularly new advice cemented to some retrograde strategies. His approach is fear-based, not a surprise given that his private counselling practice addresses loss, confusion and crisis. In his university class lectures (see YouTube), Peterson addresses issues in psychotherapy with fluency; when he speaks to the public in vintage-looking piped suit, he plays to the attendees' sense of powerlessness, irrelevance, impasse.

He delimits a polarity, Order vs Chaos, a deep, ancient, irreconcilable human condition, the font of myth, art and plenty of monkey business between the sexes. His Jungian roots are always two inches grown out; he introduces archetypes to a mostly young, often male audience.

In Peterson's rat-a-tat delivery, I also hear a good shot of the Stoics, and the Bible, big time.  (For a neat dissection of Dr. Peterson's philosophical chops, see this Psychology Today article by Paul Thagaard. However, Peterson is neither a philosopher nor an ethicist; the lines blur in his presentations.)

Not bad stuff if you are thirty, living in your parent's basement, and sick of a life afflicted with what one of his fans calls "face-sucking nihilism". Persons stuck in that space need someone, and this will not be a gentle, "smile on your brother" figure. A Jordan Peterson will rise.

Over the past fifty years,  I've seen friends grab on to their guides, from the Buddha to Bentham, from Osho to Erhard; seen many go from from devotion to disillusionment. A handful have been scarred to the point of hiding past affiliations.

Others have flourished on their path, finding peace, purpose, community. If still followers after three decades, they are like persons in a long marriage, accepting the ups and downs and staying the course. Not one of the contemporary "gurus" whom I or close friends met at close range was without personal flaws and inconsistencies.

Though I never followed one particular teacher, in my twenties, the work of Dr. Albert Ellis (himself a controversial figure), especially his "Thirteen Irrational Beliefs" was foundational to my emerging adulthood; I guess he was my Peterson. 

What about you? Was there someone whose teachings, whether religious or secular, were formative? Are those still valid for you today?

This year, Peterson holds the stage, drawing fire, selling tickets, stirring it up. We should not ignore the gurus, they are a mirror of our culture. We might remember when we were young and looking for   someone with answers, whether that was a prof or Stevie Nicks.

I wondered, why do young adults need Peterson to tell them to clean their rooms, make their beds? I'm pretty sure their mothers did. Sometimes it takes a fervent preacher in a suit to make the point.



Comments

Jane said…
Ah, sons and their mothers. What a sweet message. It sounds like your son is in a good place in his life. My youngest son baked and painstakingly decorated a cake for me for Mother's Day. Words and thoughtful gestures make the best gifts! Now I'm off to discover this Peterson person.
sandra said…
Peterson is part self-help guru, fire and brimstone preacher and maybe your mom, but on one of her really bad days. The caution to pay attention is a good one because like many charismatic figures there is the likelihood of much bad with a little good (like clean your room and stand up straight). His views on women, diversity, his racist positions are all things to be wary of. It's unclear how dangerous he is, but there is a class of "buckos" our there listening... that's worrisome.
Patricia said…
One of my sons (24) is a big fan of Peterson; he also told me that he now makes his bed every day. As you say, haven't I been telling him things like that all his life?

On my son's urging I tried watching a couple of Peterson's youtube videos - I didn't last very long, I didn't think he was a very good speaker, he droned on and on. I do find him worrisome.
Chicatanyage said…
My husband is currently reading his book and I will read it when he has finished. I have read the first chapter and found "lobsters" an interesting metaphor. I have also watched some of his debates on youtube and the channel 4 interview which seemed to cause quite a stir. He is certainly a formidable debater, I try to really listen to what he is saying and not be influenced by all the hype. I think that he is the type of person that polarises opinion so I shall keep an open mind for the time being.
Jean Shaw said…
Completely ignorant of Peterson and his sayings.

Rather like Brene Brown and Martha Beck, however (in keeping with my status as a middle-aged woman).



Helene Harris said…
The older I get, the simpler my belief system becomes and honestly I do try to impart it to my sons. 1- be happy. Strive everyday to do things that bring joy, make u smile, and conversely, that don’t make up unhappy. 2- the governing proviso is don’t hurt anyone (anyone!) else. Make those two things work and I believe your life can be very very good. The important #3 is to not let anyone else tell u what you should be doing. You can listen of course, but no one , including parents, gets to dictate to adult children.
LauraH said…
Have to say this is the first I'm hearing of Mr. Peterson so I now feel a little more plugged in. There always seem to be gurus of one sort or another. Going way back I remember a lot of publicity about Werner Erhard and EST, various yogis, etc. I never 'followed' anyone or felt that such teachings made an impact on my life. The closest I ever got was an older woman who taught and continues to teach me a great deal about gardening...I'm not sure that's quite what you had in mind:-)
Laura Jantek said…
I enjoy that your blog covers so much territory! Indeed self help gurus abound. I see the "mom like" advice part of the retro rediscovery trend. Some good and no doubt some bad is generated. I do feel badly for adults who have not been exposed to every skills-- mannrers at meal time how to look after oneself. The challenge is "adulting--
Tickie VanLan said…
Your reference to Albert Ellis resonates. I was introduced to his work by a friend when I was in my 20's ( I am now 68) and his no-nonsense gift of rational emotive therapy and the list of irrational beliefs were the gift I needed to grow up. I have been following the work of Jordan Peterson via his podcasts as a counterpoint to Sam Harris. Harris is a compelling, engaging debater and their back and forth is fascinating. That podcast can be found on samharris.org. Thanks for your wide-ranging views on so many topics. I cannot order a J Crew blouse now that I look more closely at the skimpy collars! Clarissa
Beth said…
Gurus: very much at arm's length! Always creeped me out, and friends who became devotees cemented that aversion. But I have also learned a lot from reading some of their books and teachings, from Trungpa Rinpoche to Fr. Richard Rohr to Arnaud Desjardins.
Laura Jantek said…
An excellent attitude-- most have something helpful to say but....no need to become a devotee!
Mardel said…
What a lovely note from your son, and an interesting post as well. I've never been a major follower so have mostly managed to avoid following the gurus of the moment, although occasionally they capture my attention. I hadn't heard of Peterson,and so was startled at your reaction to your son's note. Like most moms I probably told my children to make their beds every day, and it is one of my few strict habits to this day. I make the bed as soon as I rise in the morning. For me this is because it is a small moment of order, and it means that no matter what else happens during the day, I will have a crisp clean neat bed to retire to at the end of the day. That small action moors me in a way, and afterward the day can be as calm or as chaotic as it will. But I also remember that there was a period in my 20s when I did not make my bed.

Peterson worries me a bit, now that I've looked him up. I''m not sure that I have been particularly shaped by any particular guru, although a good deal by philosophy as I've read over the years. I'm happy that you mentioned Ellis though, his "13 irrational beliefs" really challenged my acceptance of certain beliefs and behaviors I had been reared to take as a sort of gospel, and really helped me to find the road to independence. I suspect each of us needs to find our individual path, and those paths may be different. It also always makes me smile that my own children and those of my friends so often find enlightenment from gurus and friends who are telling them the same things that their parents and I had been saying all along. I am sure I was the same way
une femme said…
Have had my share of experience with "gurus" mostly because of my Dad, who went through EST when it started up back in the 70's, then cycling through a few more through the mid-80's. What I've found is that most of them offer some very universal and sensible philosophy (like "make your bed" or "be on time") which tends to hook people in, but then spin off into the fantastical or in the case of Peterson, downright retrograde stuff. As my Dad went through EST he moved from putting the top down on the car more often to enjoy the breeze to believing he'd been reincarnated several times (including as one of Genghis Khan's generals).

I tend steer very clear of anyone who tries to impose rigid one-size-fits-all solutions for a complex world, and to me Peterson is just a shinyd-up version of patriarchal religious fundamentalism.
Duchesse said…
All: Thank you for your comments and especially (une femme) reminding us that adherence can sometimes spin off into very odd beliefs.

Someday I might write about the evening I spent in a hot tub, drinking a cache of champagne that a former employee of Erhard's liberated when she did not receive severance pay.

I do not find Peterson remotely as worrisome as some persons now fully elected to make world-changing potentially devastating decisions.

And nice to hear from others who appreciate Ellis' work. It is worth noting that he had some points of view about woman that would be considered retrograde now... not to mention his behaviour in personal life.
Francie Newcomb said…
My husband just told me about an article in Saturday June 16 Wall Street Journal about Peterson. I have to say after reading it that he and I both are a little wary of his thinking. It seems to verge on the authoritarian.

I very much enjoy your writing, Duchesse. This post was a delight to read.
I have just bought the book but haven't read it as yet. I have seen a number of his Youtube lectures and the interview by a British female reporter was a lesson in keeping your cool. I'm afraid that she did her career no good with her constant interruptions, her twisting of his words and her very obvious loathing. It was interesting to say the least!
I have a problem with any messiah types so I approach what he has to say with caution. But a friend and I were just chatting this afternoon and she is a retired teacher who still supply teaches. She never raises her voice, threatens or cajoles - she simply has an expectation of behaviour and if that expectation is not met then the child knows that there will be consequences. She VERY rarely has a child challenge her and in fact they love when she arrives. Her classroom is a place of calm because there are rules for everyone and because certain manners are required. The problem is, younger teachers and parents want to be the child's friend and don't want to be "the bad guy" so expectations are low and things like manners and personal responsibility are never taught. In many ways I think this is Peterson's appeal - children crave order and some sense of security in their lives (even if they do rebel against it at some point) and this seems to be what Peterson offers.
Yes, but he also comforts misogyny and white suprematicm.

Dr. JAM said…
1. IMHO, Peterson is a throwback (in all senses of the word). He is extremely misogynistic-- he believes in "sexual redistribution" as in if the recent violent attacks--from Toronto to Parkland to Isla Park (the incel movement-- the involuntarily celibate men who think think they are entitled to blond popular girls) are the result of men not having sexual partners: Peterson (and other right wing pundits) said that society needs to make sure those men are married. Can we say "Handmaid's Tale"? https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/18/style/jordan-peterson-12-rules-for-life.html
see also https://www.lrb.co.uk/v40/n06/amia-srinivasan/does-anyone-have-the-right-to-sex

And, just to round out the picture:Peterson is homophobic, and racist.

NOT pro-woman.

2. You asked who influenced me-- Hannah Arendt and Kate Millett. Kate Millet's Sexual Politics, 3rd chapter on feminist theory holds up, today. And, yes, while Kate became a good friend, like all humans she was not perfect, but she was one of the most intelligent beings.



Duchesse said…
Dr JAM: I am not a Peterson apologist but any means, but labels are not very constructive. Is there an accessible figure likely to galvanize disaffected, struggling young adults (and maybe older ones, too) to act, someone who does •not• possess the characteristics that repel you?

And someone alive today, please. Then, we can see a positive exemplar.

I have watched a number of lectures and do not conclude that Peterson hates women; I think that his perception of their role is severely limited and that he is not interested in the gains made toward equality, and would sacrifice those for the sake of some other goal, which he calls "order".

At the same time, he speaks of marriage as "an adoption of responsibility" and promotes taking marriage vows seriously, I look at the divorce and separation stats, and wonder, What is going on? What are the causal factors for a 50% failure rate? It is in this arena of relationships, of doing the heavy lifting and committing to mutual growth that I listen to and wonder, Is there some sense here, along with the worrying, wrongheaded diatribes against perceived violation of free speech, etc?

I saw Germaine Greer decades ago; articulate, galvanizing, but a good dose of misandrysm.

I see why you think of "Handmaid's Tale".

Dr. JAM said…
Duchesse, I "hear" what you are writing, but I do find Peterson's idea of sexual redistribution so counter to anything that values women's autotomy and/or equality.
His idea of order is to maintain the patriarchy, not adapt it.


Marriages take work, from both members of the union.
(prepare yourself for getting into the weeds :) )
BUT not everyone marries: the overall marriage rate in the US is about 50% (varies based on race/ethnicity & education) according to http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/09/14/as-u-s-marriage-rate-hovers-at-50-education-gap-in-marital-status-widens/

And, according to the US CDC the rate of both marriage and divorce has fallen since 1990
https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/dvs/state_marriage_rates_90_95_99-16.pdf
https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/dvs/state_divorce_rates_90_95_99-16.pdf

But all said:

I do like your blog, btw, because you make readers think.

Thank you.
Duchesse said…
Dr. JAM:

I already agreed about Peterson's strategies, so I repeat my request to provide a better resource. A link to the talks will be useful.

I do not think that divorce rates (in the US stats you provide) have fallen because the parties have grown more adept at managing their differences. I suspect a major causal factor is that divorce is very expensive.
Other reasons are summarized here: http://time.com/4575495/divorce-rate-nearly-40-year-low/
Note the 50% failure rate.

Canada is different; cohabitation is generally more socially acceptable. Where I live, in Quebec, it is more common than marriage; one third of couples are in common-law unions versus 18% for rest of Canada. (https://www.mcgill.ca/msr/volume2/article4)

Does not yield a lower dissolution rate, the U-Haul is still at the door.

The most popular Peterson YouTube lectures are about 'relationships' and so it seems persons are looking for guidance even though not married or cohabiting. Who else do you think can help?

Even Dr. Phil (a flaming behaviourist whom I have never heard promote equality) may be better than Peterson, but Philip McGraw is not the man of the hour.



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