very era’s perceived crisis of masculinity produces a guru intent on solving it. In the 1990s, it was Robert Bly and the “mythopoetic masculinity” he promoted in books such as Iron John, as well as relationship counselor John Gray, who gave us the reassuring bromide that “men are from Mars, women are from Venus.” By the 2000s, scholar Michael Kimmel was warning in Guyland about “the perilous world where boys become men,” or, more accurately, where boys kept putting off becoming men. “Thirty is really the new 20,” Kimmel told Inside Higher Ed in 2008.
Today, amid the fallout from the #MeToo movement and feminists’ continued insistence on the ubiquity of toxic masculinity, a new man-whisperer has emerged: the University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson. A savvy user of YouTube and social media, Peterson recently released his new book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, which hit No. 1 on Amazon, and he’s been speaking to sold-out audiences across the U.S. as well as in Canada and England. An interview he gave on BBC, during which interviewer Cathy Newman repeatedly interrupted him and accused him of committing sins against wokeness, went viral and secured his place among the most well-known warriors fighting political correctness. He’s readily accessible and Reddit-approved.
But for all of the claims about Peterson’s supposed iconoclasm, most of what he says and writes is neither controversial nor novel, as his new book reveals. His discussion of Jungian psychology is straightforward but not groundbreaking. (Bly, too, was influenced by Jung and wrote about him at length in Iron John.) His examination of the Hebrew Bible is surprising only if one hasn’t read the Bible, in which case it’s workmanlike. His arguments about biological differences between men and women that might lead to different life choices that in turn explain things such as the gender pay gap are correct as far as they go but far from fresh. His extended attack on the postmodern academic left is a committed one, but it doesn’t really add anything new to the debate—although it did add to his fame when he publicly opposed a Canadian law requiring the use of gender-preferred pronouns for transgender people. So, too, with his defense of free speech on campus; Peterson’s voice is a welcome addition to this important crusade, but he’s not really saying anything we haven’t heard from scholars such as Amy Wax, Bret Weinstein, and many others who have experienced firsthand the often-brutal excesses of campus social-justice warriors. As for the more practical life advice Peterson offers—such as “set your house in perfect order before criticizing the world”—Admiral McRaven went viral on YouTube three years ago when he told us to make our beds.
All of which is to say that Peterson is a commonsensical self-help guru with commonsense suggestions. But that’s not what he aspires to be, and it’s not the way he’s being treated. As New York Times columnist David Brooks recently noted, we are having a “Jordan Peterson moment,” wherein people like economist Tyler Cowen declare Peterson “the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now.”
Yet, after reading Peterson’s new advice book and a sampling of his scholarly research, the question remains: Can you become a brave public intellectual and professional controversialist if there isn’t really much that’s controversial or brave in your work?
You can—in the era of YouTube. If opportunity makes the man, then YouTube made Peterson. He has more than half a million subscribers to his YouTube channel, where he regularly posts lectures about the Bible, mythology, and personality studies. According to several news sources, he also earns more than $60,000 a month from the crowdfunding site Patreon, where his page boasts, “Dr. Peterson is creating lectures about profound psychological ideas” and where he says he’s hoping to eventually create an online university. One could argue that Peterson is performing a public service merely by elevating the quality of what’s on offer on YouTube. His lectures are good, and at least he’s not vlogging a walk through a suicide forest in Japan like popular YouTuber Logan Paul.
He is in many ways the perfect antidote to an era that has reached peak pussy hat. His challenging of postmodern nonsense in the academy as well as the many misguided pop-culture narratives about girl power has obviously sparked public interest. If his advice helps young men and women find love in the time of toxic masculinity, or encourages someone to read Dostoyevsky or Solzhenitsyn, then why the long face?
For one, it encourages the promotion of a kind of public intellectual whose credibility rests not on the power or clarity or originality of his ideas but on the number of social-media followers he amasses. It also makes an academic martyr out of a social-media molehill. Peterson’s sudden rise (dubbed “meteoric” by more than one publication) reveals just how unhinged activists on the left have become. The left has denounced him as an alt-right, misogynistic, transphobic, mansplaining heretic, when in fact he’s less a dangerous Nietzschean Ubermensch than he is a manly version of Marie Kondo, offering deceptively simple, philosophy-driven solutions to complicated problems. Kondo turned straightforward tidying advice into an empire; Peterson is doing something similar with his grab-bag analyses of fairy tales and Bible stories. Kondo tackled individual clutter in the home; Peterson is attempting to tackle the individual clutter of the soul.
But it’s unlikely that the way forward for a generation of intellectually and socially displaced young men lies in discursive dives into the meaning of “the eternal feminine” and trickle-down evolutionary psychology that leads to advice such as “stand up straight.” Peterson’s social-media fanboys and YouTube numbers don’t lie, and as a soldier in the war against the excesses of political correctness, he’s already won many important battles. But will his YouTube evangelizing lead to any real, long-term contributions to our understanding of masculinity? Probably not. As another breakout Canadian academic once observed, the medium is the message. Unfortunately for Peterson, Kierkegaard is unlikely to dethrone cat videos on his medium of choice.