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Paul Vallely: The Jordan Peterson phenomenon 

02 November 2018

Paul Vallely is impressed by the Canadian intellectual’s counter-cultural wisdom


Professor Jordan Peterson, the contentious psychologist and academic from the University of Toronto

Professor Jordan Peterson, the contentious psychologist and academic from the University of Toronto

THE 3500-seat theatre was full almost to capacity. The audience was mainly men, under 40, and white — but about a quarter were women, with a fair few black people and a surprising spread of social class. The mix said something about the man that they had come to see.

Professor Jordan B. Peterson is a phenomenon: a public intellectual with a sizeable popular following. His book 12 Rules for Life has sold two million copies. He has 1.4 million followers on YouTube, and 900,000 on Twitter. The atmosphere as the crowd waited was like that of a religious revival gathering.

You may have seen Professor Peterson on television interviews, most notably with Cathy Newman, on Channel 4. If so, you will almost certainly have an unrepresentative view of him. Most interviews, on screen and in print, are conducted in a confrontational mode by members of the liberal media elite who object to his views on gender. He first came to public prominence in a row in Toronto, where he was a professor of clinical psychology, because he objected to a new Canadian law making it a hate crime not to address transsexuals by their preferred pronoun.

Peterson has since been adopted as a champion by young white men who feel discriminated against by modern identity politics. Liberal interviewers brand him as the enemy of equality, caricaturing his views for evidence. Peterson responds with a barely suppressed anger.

On stage, he cuts a different figure entirely, although he exhibits some of the same intensity. He feels like the 21st-century equivalent of an Old Testament prophet. Like a prophet, he offers a message which is uncomfortable to our times.

For the past 50 years, our social dialogue has been concerned with rights and privileges, he says. We have forgotten about responsibility and meaning. Freedom and pleasure are useful in their place, but they provide a shallow foundation for life compared with old-fashioned virtues such as courage, nobility, and duty. They are old-fashioned because they have stood the test of time throughout most civilisations.

When he speaks of the West traditionally depicting order as symbolically masculine and chaos as symbolically feminine, he steps into a gender minefield.

But there is a counter-cultural wisdom to much of what he says.

We think gangs are bad, he begins, but gangs are a necessary stepping-stone to adult maturity. We just need to choose the right gang, like the boxing club that teaches young men how to harness their aggression, or the gang of thinkers who provided the intellectual foundations of Western civilisation — a gang that he joined when he went to university.

There is huge richness to his discourse. He draws on psychology, anthropology, and religion. He offers parallels between The Lion King and Cain and Abel. He insists that flawed people need political systems that correct their tilts towards blindness, tyranny, and corruption. English common law is one of the great triumphs of Western civilisation. If the Left over-invests in identity politics, the Right does the same with nationalism.

You cannot go back: there is only going forward, he concludes. Afterwards, in the pub, you overhear snatches of conversation of young men who are affirmed, inspired, and energised to make something of their lives. There is something admirable in that.

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