I typically stay away from topical subjects. As a scholar of Metaphysical poetry, theology, and philosophy, the subjects that I usually write about—phenomenology, sophiology, mysticism, and poetics—are not of the kind that make it into the headlines. Nevertheless, I’ve been asked to write about what has come to be called “The Jordan Peterson Phenomenon.”
Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, first came to national attention in his native Canada in late 2016 because he balked at his country’s new legislation demanding people use “alternative pronouns” when referring to certain persons, usually transsexuals. Quite simply, Peterson refused to use these pronouns—“ze,” “zhe,” “zir,” and so forth (I’m not even sure how to pronounce them)—arguing further that terms like “gender identity” and “gender expression” are notoriously ill-defined, despite being used to bully opponents into submission. This was Peterson’s “mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore” moment.
At the time, I was glad he stood up to the government (and university) bullies. Good for him. Universities, of all places, should be places where free speech is respected and the marketplace of ideas encouraged. Agree or disagree with Peterson, it was certainly a discussion worth having. And still is. But universities in Canada it seems, much like many of their American counterparts, are far from being open spaces hospitable to the exploration of knowledge and the pursuit of truth.
In the meantime, Peterson has become a phenomenon. And bigly. He has 518k followers on Twitter, over 898k followers on Youtube, and a bestselling book, 12 Rules for Life. Not surprisingly, Peterson’s popularity has instigated much debate and critique (a good deal of it nasty) from the press as well as from his fellow academics. The academic criticism tends to be very snippy. Actually, much of it sounds like envy dressed up as analysis. But this should come as no surprise: academics in every humanities department, small and large, on earth treat their colleagues in much the same manner. The only difference with Peterson is that now the whole world can see what really goes on at the department level.
I’ve only paid attention to the Peterson phenomenon tangentially. A couple of my acquaintances are friends of his, so I more or less see what’s going on with him through social media, but I’ve only read a few news stories and watched a couple of videos of Dr. Peterson in action.
One of the videos features Peterson in a rather exuberant conversation with feminist iconoclast Camille Paglia. Paglia is always entertaining and her very quick mind and even quicker delivery are a great contrast to Peterson’s slightly more melancholic—but still very sharp—disposition. They talk about everything from the state of the university (not fans), 60s radicalism, Eric Neuman’s theories on psychology and myth, to feminism, postcolonialism, Marxism, etc, etc. It is a rollicking conversation, indeed, dizzying, and to some degree a study in free association.
The other video I saw is of Peterson’s shocking takedown of BBC interviewer Cathy Newman, who effectively embarrasses herself and her profession in an obvious (and damned amateurish) attempt to discredit Peterson and his work. Peterson, for his part, is very thoughtful and clear-thinking in his engagement with Newman, and clearly looks shocked at her misrepresentations of his work. It is a marvel of journalism with an agenda.
My takeaway is very simple: Jordan Peterson is a professor, a pretty decent professor. He may not be the greatest thinker currently alive in western civilization, but he doesn’t need to be. No professor does. He does what a professor should do: he interrogates assumptions, presents his ideas in a clear and cogent manner, and is a respectful and courteous listener to those with whom he disagrees. Being a good professor is more than enough.
The fact a good professor, a solid scholar, and a decent human being becomes an overnight sensation just for doing his job—as if his ideas are outrageous innovations and not simply standard intellectual inquiry—should tell us far more about our culture and the state of higher education than it does about Jordan Peterson. And that is a shame. Jordan Peterson didn’t become famous on his own initiative (he’d already been a professor for over twenty years before he became a “sensation”), the media made him famous by freaking out about some absolutely normative ideas. But that’s who we’ve become.
Now, if I could only figure out how to get 900k hits on a video about the Metaphysical poets.
Michael Martin, Ph.D., is a former professor and the current editor of Jesus the Imagination: A Journal of Spiritual Revolution. His works are available at Angelico Press.