The Canadian psychology professor, author and YouTube personality Dr. Jordan B Peterson rose to fame in September of 2016 when he opposed his government’s Bill C-16 and found himself in the middle of a controversy. Viewers flocked to his YouTube channel where his university lectures, immensely popular among his students suddenly became this pop-culture-subset sensation. Many who had come for the politics stayed for the lectures.
Peterson’s popularity has only grown since. His YouTube channel with 2 million subscribers, lectures, talks, interviews, and conversations combined currently have over 100 million views. He published his international bestseller “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos” in January 2018 and has since been on a year-long book tour giving sell-out talks around the world.
Along with the growing popularity of many other podcasts and interview shows, Peterson’s online rise is a testament to the deep longing for the long-format conversation that mainstream media no longer seems able to provide. The Peterson phenomenon however, goes a dimension deeper; his Jungian reading and psychological interpretation of ancient religious texts, the Bible in particular, seem to have sparked a deep, long forgotten interest within a modern audience. He articulately presents truths in religious ideas and has a bottom-up approach of framing them without appealing to authority, which is very compelling to the modern mind. In May of 2017, he presented his Biblical series lectures to packed theatres.
Peterson compelling presentation of truth in religion seems to have gained a lot of traction in addressing the rationalists. Comments on his videos left by viewers about how they are no longer hostile towards religion are not uncommon. Paul VanderKlay, a pastor of a small church in Sacramento, California, in the United States holds Jordan Peterson meet-ups and has his own YouTube channel where he discusses Peterson’s ideas and interacts with people who have been influenced by Peterson and are interested in deeper exploration perhaps into Christianity and Christian ideas. Glen Scrivener, an evangelist based in the UK, has also shown keen interest in Peterson’s ideas and his approach and has his own videos dissecting, critiquing and building on Peterson’s ideas. Icon carver Jonathan Pageau who established his online presence following a couple of discussions with Peterson, complements with his ideas on the relevance of symbolism in modern life, Peterson’s bottom-up approach to religion. Though they don’t agree with all of Peterson’s ideas and most likely find some to be outright heretical, these Christians see something of value in Peterson’s approach. Pure reason has failed to provide all the answers to the modern world. There is a deep hunger for meaning and Peterson seems to be attempting to rebuild the metaphysical foundation brick by brick.
Another message that is deeply resonant with his audience, especially young men, is the call to personal responsibility. In many ways Peterson can be said to be restating old aphorisms. But he does it in a confident and forthright manner that is rare and refreshing. One immensely popular motto of his- to “clean your room” sets a reasonably attainable personal goal and links it to the act of greater responsibility at a macro level. Such small acts imbued with a sense of greater meaning have proved effective in nudging especially young people to a starting point. His message, fundamentally, is that life is suffering, and taking up responsibility is what provides the meaning to endure the suffering without becoming bitter. Peterson has stated in numerous interviews about how people would come up to him after his talks, stop him in the streets, and open up about their darkest emotions, their moments of vulnerability, their addictions, their failures, and their overcoming of them and progression to better places because of their reading, study, and adoption of his books, lectures, and everything else. The affect of Peterson’s teachings is felt by many, especially boys and young men who credit it to the turning of their lives around. And Peterson is regarded as a father figure, many of whom who’ve been deprived of encouragement and guidance.
But Jordan Peterson is no stranger to controversy. He is often portrayed in mainstream media as a member of the alt-right or branded with labels such as misogynist, homophobe, etc. This is in part due to some of his interactions with personalities closely linked with the alt-right. Some of his viewers also see and use his content calling out the radical left as material for their own hateful projects. Several videos on YouTube preaching misogyny and hate have used Peterson’s ideas and arguments to support their views. It is difficult however to find Peterson himself engaging in any such hateful exercise. Despite several attacks by certain sections of the media, his reputation as a public intellectual is still largely intact. It is safe to say Peterson’s deep regard for reality and his firmness on individual responsibility have largely reflected positively in the influence he has had on his audience. The road ahead looks exciting. The sequel to his bestseller is currently in the works and is expected to be released in 2020. He has also announced his censorship-free free speech platform “Thinkspot” which is currently in beta testing.
Author: Shun Makan
Shun Makan is a freelance writer who graduated from St. Edmund’s College, Shillong, with a degree in English and is currently based in Guwahati.