When I was in college, for the short time I was there, I studied under a philosophy professor who mentored me in doing research in academia. She was a successful philosopher — barely 35 and already tenured at an Ivy League institution —and sincerely interested in the pursuit of ideas and in helping me, a lowly undergraduate, with my research. She was specifically a moral psychologist (a philosopher who studies the meaning of emotions, feelings, and reactive attitudes) and I had entered into the ambitious project of writing a series of papers on the moral psychology of romantic love.
The subject was understudied in moral psychology, despite the fact that romantic love is one of the most (if not the most) significant psychological states an individual feels in his/her life. While collecting academic articles on the subject, I thought it would be important to read a few books written by academics and published by popular presses like Simon & Schuster or Random House to get an idea of how people currently talk about understanding romantic love.
One day while working with my advisor, I read off the list of suggested reading I developed. When I got to the popular press books, she scoffed and suggested I not waste my time on “pop academic” books. I was taken aback. She was the furthest thing in my mind from an ideologue or a dogmatist. Save a jab at Ayn Rand (which I expect from most academics), she had never given me the impression that trying to pursue and communicate these ideas to the general public was somehow normatively bad.
What was the point of further understanding these significant ideas if not to communicate to the general public how to better their lives? If academics were to stay in the Ivory Tower, why have students in the first place? Why not just employ all liberal arts professors at a liberal arts think tank and let them save their time? Sure, some nuance gets lost in communicating to non-experts, but that’s a given with any form of communication. Good communicators build their nuance in and account for readers and listeners misinterpreting them. That shouldn’t indict the pursuit of spreading enlightenment outside of university halls.
We both later left the university. Her to go run a department at prestigious liberal arts school and myself to pursue my studies outside of school.
This fall, Peterson’s Patreon page surpassed $60,000/month in donations and is probably well over $80,000 at this point.
That same discomfort I felt at being told not to waste my time on “pop academia” revisited my stomach over the last few months. Academics and intellectuals, many of whom I otherwise respect for their contributions in their specific fields, scoffing at the sudden popularity of Dr. Jordan B. Peterson brings the same feeling back. I’ve tried to understand that scoffing and discomfort without dismissing it as pure academic politics. This is my attempt at explaining what I think is really going on. I’ve avoided this topic for a few months, but seeing academics and intellectuals I otherwise respect acting in ways that are not commendable put me over the edge.
So here we go.
A Few Notes on Peterson’s Rise to Prominence
I first discovered Dr. Peterson in the winter of 2016 when a friend sent me a video of him being accosted by students at his university.
Between the context of who sent me the post and the recent hooplah over provocateurs like Milo Yiannopolous at the time, I moved on thinking that Peterson was at worst himself a right-wing provocateur (although the above video suggests otherwise by his reactions, such as his earnest, “yeah, I don’t like Nazis,”) or at best just being used as a shelling point for the kinds of people who find their time is better spent arguing online than actually working in the real world. Entertaining? Sure, but not really worth the time or stress to get pulled into political drama.
I paid little attention to his political campaigning in Canada around Bill C16 and heard little of him until another friend sent me a video lecture of his on Jung and Nietzsche after we had discussed interpretations of dreams. The video was low-quality, taken from an iPad or iPhone sitting on his podium at UofT and recorded in 2015, long before Peterson became the poster child of free speech activists online.
At this point, I thought, “okay, interesting. I’m glad to see a professor putting his lectures online,” and little more of it.
Then this article passed my timeline:
$50,000 per month?
This fall, Peterson’s Patreon page surpassed $60,000/month in donations and is probably well over $80,000 at this point. Peterson eventually stopped displaying how much he was earning per month on Patreon because of criticism directed his way (which is important and we’ll get to below).
This caught my attention. I’ve spent the last few years thinking about how to upend higher education and have worked with some leading entrepreneurs and thinkers in this space. Continually, we come back to the question of liberal arts education and its value (remember, I studied philosophy!). Some people are too quick to dismiss liberal arts education as useless and not worth the time. Instead, they insist on purely vocational education. Yet many of the most successful and happiest individuals I know are widely read (rarely because of their college courses), can discuss ideas from Aristotle to Jung to Jacobs with you, and love the idea of entertaining big ideas.
I visited Peterson’s lectures and found them to be nuanced, intricate, and to jump well between clinical experience, psychological research (most of which was well-validated, hard to do in psychology), and Jungian myth interpretation. When he released his Bible lecture series, I found myself, for the first time since I was a child, intimately listening about the ideas that go into religion and how these ideas surface elsewhere in the culture. More than a decade of skepticism towards religious texts due to their shallow readings and uses for the Joel Osteens of the world melted away.
His lectures rarely touch on politics in any capacity. When it gets brought up, he’s quick to note that he does not oppose calling trans individuals by their pronouns but that he opposes having his language dictated by a central political committee. This seems commonsensical to me. Part of what made the American and Canadian traditions so egalitarian is their rejection of forced speech and titles.
And for those who listen to Peterson, he bridges any kind of ideological gap (in fact, those I know in the alt-right crowd dislike him more than the honest progressives I know). Peterson’s worldview is a classical liberal rejection of collectivism (an ideology that killed more than 50 million people in the 20th century alone) while simultaneously not falling into an atomized view of the individual relative to his culture.
Just last week, I met with an acquaintance in San Francisco, the Mecca of American political correctness, who described herself as a “liberal democrat type,” who had listened to and met Peterson at a company event. She admitted that she couldn’t read into his politics and found his talk compelling about the nature of the world, men in it today, and why people like Peterson must appeal to so many people outside the San Francisco and Washington DC bubbles. She was explicit in saying that she was neither a libertarian nor a conservative and still Peterson motivated her to introspect, read into Jungian archetypes, and better understand the culture that shapes the world.
She’s not alone. I regularly speak to friends and acquaintances from across the political spectrum who find value in Peterson’s talks. These are people years out of college (or who never went) who now pick up classics like Dostoyevsky, Jung, Neumann, and even the Bible with a critical intellectual lens. Peterson regularly talks about and shares letters from fans who admit that his moralistic talks inspired them to pull themselves together and “sort themselves out” by figuring out what they want from life and pursuing that. r/JordanPeterson (yes, he has his own subreddit) is filled to the brim with stories of people saying how Peterson helped them get control of their lives and navigate the world.
Jordan Peterson is accomplishing for depth psychology what colleges failed to do for the liberal arts in general. When discussing the value of higher education, eventually somebody brings up the point that a liberal arts education is something that helps make life worth living. Learning the liberal arts, learning about culture and history, learning about your place in this big tradition of human civilization, they say, helps you better navigate the world. Those advocating for straight-vocational training are doing students a disservice by not giving them the opportunity to study the liberal arts.
Graduate school marketing departments and collegiate salesmen speak of the virtues of reading thinkers like Jung and Dostoyevsky and how great it is to learn from those who studied them in depth. If college and the universities fail at preparing people with vocational skills, at least they should be able to provide them with a liberal arts education that they can actually use, right?
This is exactly what Peterson is doing. To read an alt-right political agenda or something else into it is willful ignorance.
Jordan Peterson is accomplishing for depth psychology what colleges failed to do for the liberal arts in general: ignite curiosity in free individuals and create lifelong students.
The academic is quick to shoot back that his “pop psychology” is just smarter-looking self-help and that Peterson reeks of charlatanism. This piece below is one such example.
Rather than fact-checking the piece (which has been done online already by numerous others) it’s worth trying to get a better understanding of the question. Peterson’s crime is giving listeners and students tools they can use to improve their lives and connecting these tools to literature, mythology, and clinical experience.
Isn’t the point of understanding oneself and the world better to help oneself? Isn’t liberal arts, properly done, self-help? What should liberal arts look like if it can never be used to improve one’s own life?
If intellectuals were honest about Peterson and what he’s accomplishing, even the most anti-Peterson intellectual should be able to admit that his project is a net-good accomplishing the goals on which most of his colleagues set out in going to graduate school. He’s a prolific researcher and reputable to boot — formerly a professor at Harvard and now at University of Toronto. 12 Rules for Life is not his first book, with Maps of Meaning coming in as a tome of a textbook and depth psychology.
Even the claim that Peterson is unfairly parlaying his prominence into profit falls apart on its face. 12 Rules for Life was proposed before Peterson’s prominence due to Bill C16 (as anybody who knows the timeline for publishing a book should realize) and Peterson started posting his lectures on YouTube years before late 2016.
Peterson influences lifelong students in and outside his classroom and inspires a generation of readers and learners.
That’s why intellectuals oppose him.
Dr. Peterson, The Influencer
The model of the world by which an intellectual or academic operates is the model taught in school. Study hard, do well, get good grades, and you will ascend the dominance hierarchy. Students who follow this system are rewarded in the school framework while those who fail to follow it are punished.
“The intellectual wants the whole society to be a school writ large, to be like the environment where he did so well and was so well appreciated. By incorporating standards of reward that are different from the wider society, the schools guarantee that some will experience downward mobility later. Those at the top of the school’s hierarchy will feel entitled to a top position, not only in that micro-society but in the wider one, a society whose system they will resent when it fails to treat them according to their self-prescribed wants and entitlements. — Robert Nozick"
Once the dozen-plus years of compulsory schooling comes to an end, some young people pursue their success outside of the school framework and do so quite well. People who got poor or mediocre grades in school go on to become successful businessmen and women and accrue wealth. Even more, they accrue influence. They may be intelligent but their intelligence manifests itself better in the business world than in the schoolhouse.
Meanwhile, the intellectuals who spend years in graduate school go on to do well, put together their theses and their presentations, get their professorships (sometimes at prestigious universities!) and still fail to accrue much wealth. Even worse, outside of their small intellectual fiefdoms, they fail to accrue influence. Save the occasional Peter Singer or Jordan Peterson, few academics acquire influence outside of the academy.
When you spend so many years growing up in a system that tells you that you will be at the top of the dominance hierarchy and then you’re not, your expectations are violated. This violation of expectations manifests itself as resentment. You followed the rules, you did things as you were supposed to, and some guy who runs a construction company or built an app gets more influence and respect than you.
Peterson brings an additional level of resentment to the table for these academics and intellectuals who envy his success in their own hierarchies. Not only did he win at their own game with professorships at Harvard and Toronto and more citations than most of his peers get in a lifetime, but he also succeeds in the game of influence outside of the academy. To use his own analogy, he’s the largest lobster in their own circles and a big lobster in society at large.
Many otherwise-level headed intellectuals who turn into dogmatic ideologues at the mention of Peterson are those who spend the most time trying to become influential outside of the traditional classroom. They go on podcasts. They write articles for popular publications and blogs. They build their own little fiefdoms on social media. Yet they don’t touch the nerve Peterson touches. He succeeds where they, too, followed the rules and did not succeed as widely.
Dr. Peterson, The Disruptor
When you spend so many years in a system that tells you that you will be at the top of the dominance hierarchy and then you’re not, your expectations are violated.
The academy is, ultimately, a guild system. Like the guild systems of old and the guild systems of skilled trades today, those who operate outside of the system buck the expectations of everybody else. There are norms about how to succeed and fail. Having dominated the traditional guild through citations, research, and years at Harvard and Toronto, Peterson moves on to disrupt the guild itself.
By putting his lectures online, raising money via Patreon, and hosting independent lectures that anybody can attend, Peterson is unbundling the intellectual experience of the academy and removing the gatekeepers. The resentment sent his way by academics and intellectuals in the guild is much like the resentment and indignation sent the way of independent bloggers and reporters when the Internet started to displace the Mainstream Media as a source of information.
Dr. Peterson, The Capitalist
Not only does Peterson win at the academic’s game and disrupt their game, he wins in the marketplace. While most of his content is available for free, he’s committed the cardinal sin of placing his feet into the marketplace and succeeding at it.
Academics and intellectuals spend years studying ideas and rarely make more than six figures every year in the pursuit of their ideas. That stings. You expect that performing well and doing your job well will bring you rewards but the marketplace rewards value creation not merely understanding ideas.
People value what Peterson is saying and are willing to part with their money to hear more of it. What is wrong with that? Again, go search r/JordanPeterson for people who have quit smoking, lost weight, regained their relationships, gotten promotions, forgiven loved ones, and put themselves together thanks to Peterson’s work.
Peterson brings in more than $60,000/month in small donations on Patreon and his lectures reach more people than the entirety of people who have ever attended the University of Toronto, ever. If that’s improving people’s lives, what could possibly be wrong with that?
That intellectuals resent Peterson’s success in the marketplace says more about their own relationship to value creation than it does of Peterson’s character.