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Thought Crimes

Jordan Peterson and the Meaning of the Meaning of Life

“To fail as a poet is to accept somebody else’s description of oneself.” —Richard Rorty

“When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”—Humpty Dumpty

LIKE MOST WRITERS, I exact my revenge upon the Pitiless Universe by pressing its most chaotic intrusions into the service of story. The useless death of my car’s transmission, say, finds fresh purpose as a plot device to keep Frank Everyman in Lonelytown long enough to fall for Miss Adventure. The annoying tic of that adjuster denying my insurance claim gets redeployed as the poker tell of a disgraced CEO tossing his dad’s Rolex into the pot. But making the world right through story isn’t always fun and games. We writers have a responsibility to get it right. Which is why I’m so vexed about what to do with Jordan Peterson. I fear he’s beginning to look like a character who doesn’t know what story he’s in.

Before the YouTube and podcast phenom that goes by the brand name Jordan Peterson was dubbed “the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now,” by New York Times columnist David Brooks (quoting Tyler Cowen),1 there was Jordan Peterson, the obscure if yeasty University of Toronto professor of psychology who taught a popular class based on his then little known book Maps of Meaning. These increasingly appear to be distinct creatures, though one clearly gave rise to the other.

I began to hear about Peterson during his metamorphosis from the latter to the former, when his one-man storming of the ramparts of Canadian PC culture, a cause for which he appeared fully prepared to martyr himself personally and professionally, began to make waves beyond the campus. To the surprise of many, his irresistibly YouTubeable confrontations with transgender rights activists and subsequent television interviews, in which he likened identity politics to “murderous Marxist ideology,” resulted not in his relegation to obscurity, but in a brassy new international platform. And if what I witnessed at the Fred Kalvi Theater at the end of June is any measure, he has put it to extraordinary use.

But I don’t want to get ahead of myself. I first want to tell you my impression of Jordan Peterson before he told his Patreon supporters that he feared he would lose his tenure, to which they responded to the tune of $80,000 a month. Before followers from around the world began to (a) proclaim their deep reverence for the transformational power of his lectures and (b) mercilessly troll anyone who didn’t. Before his recently published bootstrapper’s hymnal 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos became an international bestseller spawning what his people call a “live tour”. Before the infamous Cathy Newman interview2 that convinced his detractors that a cordon sanitaire must be established around the dangerous ideological vector Peterson personifies.

I should probably tread lightly here, because these days in polite circles one does not simply express positive opinions about Jordan Peterson. You have to pre-apologize by way of caveats, extenuating circumstances, special pleading, etc. I fear I may resort to all of these before this article is finished but back then, when I began to listen to Peterson’s podcasts and YouTube lectures, he struck me mostly as a rather brilliant-ish fellow who had given a great deal more thought to what constitutes a life worth living than most, and had come up with some answers that he felt were worth sharing. I want to like him, and so should you. Anyone who travels far enough on a narrow enough road becomes an interesting human being because they will eventually come to a place where few others are.

And now, because I’m polite by nature, I feel the urge to apologize for the previous positive statement by pointing out that many of the answers Peterson provides are unfalsifiable assertions or outright speculation presented as common knowledge or as founded upon allegedly inescapable Darwinian realities. But again this was back then, and back then I was perfectly willing to listen to Peterson being wrong, or even sometimes not-even-wrong, and not because there was no stigma attached, but because he could be terribly, frighteningly right in nearly equal measure.

I suppose I’m predisposed to liking Peterson because we share a fascination for the power of narrative. This was the initial appeal of his Maps of Meaning and Psychological Significance of the Bible lectures series. For similar reasons I remember having been smitten with his myths-as-vessels-of-transcendent- wisdom predecessor Joseph Campbell. Bill Moyers’ 1988 miniseries Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth gave me a revelatory new way to look at story. Unfortunately it did the same for every development executive in Hollywood. In the 1990s, the beats of Campbell’s monomythic hero’s journey became the stone tablets of blockbuster moviemaking. Studio corridors rang out with cryptic comments like, “I get the whole water world concept, but how could the Costner character possibly meet the mentor before he refuses the call?”

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About Skeptic

SCIENCE AND MORAL VALUES Jordan Peterson Phenomenon; Thought Crimes: Jordan Peterson and the meaning of the Meaning of Life; Special Section on Science & Morality. Getting Real About Right and Wrong; No, Being Religious Will Not Save You from Suicide; Lessons from Behavioral Science in a Warzone: How Reason, Skepticism, and Compassion Can Win Hearts and Minds; Moral Philosophy and its Discontents: Can science determine moral values? An Exchange with Massimo Pigliucci, Michael Shermer, and Kevin McCaffree; Facilitated Communication Redux: Persistence of a Discredited Technique; The Mystery of Elite Religious Scientists: A Cognitively Impenetrable Illusion; Five Questions About Human Errors for Proponents of Intelligent Design; The SkepDoc: Beware Stem Cell Clinics that Offer Untested Treatments; Junior Skeptic: Astral Projection