A University of Toronto clinical psychologist, Jordan Peterson, has become one of the best known Canadians of this generation. In the intellectual category, he's easily the largest international phenomenon since Marshall McLuhan.
The proof? The BBC praises and interviews him, The New Yorker takes him seriously, the Times of London loves him and the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia both celebrates and denigrates him.
The Morning Herald, while claiming that Peterson "looks as plain and harmless as an Aspirin," nevertheless places him among the most talked about intellectuals in the world. It claims the mere mention of his name can turn an Australian dinner party conversation into a ruckus. It goes on to say that his YouTube videos have been viewed an astonishing 50 million times. His current book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, is commanding best-seller lists.
How has this been accomplished by an honest how-to preacher/academic trying to bring a sense of realism into the lives of those who pay attention to him? His successful method touches the intimate lives of readers and viewers by allowing his own life to play a part in the drama of history and character he's unveiling. Nietzsche or a Bible story may be his main subject at a certain time but he often steps away from the chosen topic to describe something crucial in the course of his own life. For instance, he mentions on one YouTube video an old friend who killed himself in despair during the time when Peterson was trying to help him. Elsewhere, Peterson talks about his own struggle after it was discovered that his daughter had a rare bone disease. Those he's speaking to realize his personal troubles give him the empathy to understand theirs. He also offers a practical way to deal with hardship: shorten one's time of responsibility by focusing on the next minute or so rather than the next three months.
Consider the style of his many YouTube performances. He comes across as thoughtful and calm, a kind man anxious to help where he can. He breathes honesty. A TV lecture often becomes intimate, a seminar for one. He pauses now and then, perhaps reconsidering what he's just said - and his viewers get a chance to absorb his meaning.
He occasionally offers a spectacle rare on our screens: a man thinking! Listeners understand he's arrived at certain answers on his own because they've seen him do it. Responding to one recent YouTube video, a viewer named Fred Cory inscribed an unusual comment: "He lectures like a jazz musician plays, he's courageously improvising the content, exploring the theme with no safety net." Viewers may not know exactly where his argument is going, and sometimes he must even surprise himself. It's another sign of authenticity.
Peterson is often called a conservative, which (when you read him) turns out to be literally true. He wants to conserve the life many of us live rather than to endorse untested ideas that may bring our society crashing down, the fate of other civilizations in the past. He does not embrace the widely held idea that the West is responsible for the fundamental ills of the world. He doesn't like political correctness, identity politics or accusations of "white privilege," and he refuses to use "trendy and artificially constructed words" such as "zhe" and "zher" to describe transsexual students and faculty -- a decision that infuriates many students and drew a reproof from his university's management.
"Our society," as he says, "faces the increasing call to deconstruct its stabilizing traditions to include smaller and smaller numbers of people. Each person's private trouble cannot be solved by a social revolution, because revolutions are destabilizing and dangerous. Altering our ways of social being carelessly in the name of some ideological shibboleth is likely to produce far more trouble than good."
He extols the virtue of personal responsibility. He asks us to "sort ourselves out" and not blame external circumstances for our failures. Life is difficult, Peterson allows, but there has never been a better time to live. He encourages us to feel grateful for the inheritance we have collectively received from the past.
"Stand up straight with your shoulders back" (a title on his book's first chapter) means to "accept the terrible responsibility of life." He believes people are born with the instinct for ethics and meaning. We should, he says, search for meaning above our own interests. "Pursue what is meaningful," he says. "Not what is expedient".
By combining knowledge of the past with a full-hearted optimism and a generous attitude toward his readers and listeners, Peterson generates an impressive level of intellectual firepower