Mapping the Meaning of Jordan Peterson
Show me what it's for
Make me understand it
'Cause I've been crawling in the dark
Looking for the answer
Is there something more
Than what I've been handed?
'Cause I've been crawling in the dark
Looking for the answer
1. The reason.
When I was young someone once said this to me:
“If there is a view someone else sincerely believes, and you cannot figure out for the life of you why anyone on earth would find that view compelling, that means you have not fully understood their view.”
One of the things that I find striking is how often people will dismiss a view as being absurd, or ridiculous, or nonsense, without ever bothering to try to figure out why people find that view compelling. If you want to understand the culture moment you’re in, it is not enough to know what people believe; you need to understand WHY that view is compelling. This is something which I think almost all of our “thought leader” class gets wrong.
People believe things for REASONS, and if you want to understand why people hold certain views, you need to understand those reasons.
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2. Remember me
If you think back to the mid 2010’s, you will remember that the actress Lena Dunham was a cultural phenomenon. She graced the covers of “Vogue,” “Marie Claire,” “Glamour,” ”Elle,”and “Harper’s Bazaar.” In 2013 she was on Time Magazine’s list of ‘100 Most Influential People,’ her book Not That Kind of Girl reached number two on the New York Times bestseller list, and her T.V. show Girls was a critically acclaimed hit and a commercial success. It would be difficult to overstate just how much of an entertainment and media superstar Lena Dunham was between 2012-2015.
The main driver of Lena Duhnam’s popularity was Girls, which she both created and starred in. The show was a genuine cultural sensation and it left a massive footprint in the media ecosystem of the time. The show, like it’s creator, wore its feminist sensibilities on its sleeve making auch things as body image, female empowerment, and abortion re-occurring themes, The worldview of the show and it’s creator were always on full display.
The interesting thing for us is that while there was no shortage of articles by conservatives savaging Ms Dunham for all of her perceived shortcomings, Conservatives seemed to miss the point. In fact, what strikes me most about the conservative reaction to her rise during that period is the utter inability of conservatives to understand the “why?” behind the rise of Lena Dunham.
There many who dismissed Lena Dunham as merely the avatar of a sort of upper class entitlement, but very few who bothered to actually try ro find out out why her show struck such a cord with so many people. People wrote off her success as a product of a nihilistic secular culture run amok, but very little attention was paid to what exactly she was tapping into. And this is precisely the problem.
Lena Dunham’s outlook on life, her experiences, her values, and her worldview were the creative soil out of which her show grew, and that outlook on life and worldview are WHY she was popular. The reason the Lena Dunham was so popular is that there was an audience of young, secular, educated, liberal, soon to be professional managerial and creative class millennial women who shared Lena Duhnams’ worldview and experiences and with whom her show resonated.
The conservative failure to understand this is exactly why Lena Dunham was able to leave such a large cultural footprint, while conservatives were totally defeated in the culture. Conservatives who wrote Lena Dunham off as a fad, who mocked her work, and who dismissed her as a Hollywood creation riding the coattails of a decadent culture completely misunderstood the significance of Lena Dunhams’ rise to stardom.
3. Can you Save Me?
Jordan Peterson is in many ways the polar opposite of Lena Dunham. Where she was a young, female, liberal feminist, who made entertainment for young millennial women, Jordan Peterson is an older, male, right leaning, anti-woke academic who came to fame through lectures and videos opposing many of the cultural ideas that Lena Dunham would support. Jordan Peterson could be understood as providing a cultural response to the ideals, values, and worldview put fourth by Lena Dunham.
Jordan Peterson first grabbed the spotlight by opposing the Canadian governments bill C-16 on the grounds that he objected to the possible free speech ramifications of compelling people to adopt certain pronoun usages demanded by trans activists. But this only launched Peterson into the spotlight, it wasn’t what kept him there. Jordan Peterson now has more than 5 million subscribers on YouTube, he has a partnership with the Daily Wire, and his book 12 rules for Life, an Antidote to Chaos has sold more than 5 million copies.
Jordan Peterson has had an enormous impact, and the reason for that is what concerns us here. What is interesting is that much like Lena Dunham in the mid 2010’s, there seems to be very little understanding as to why Jordan Peterson continues to have such a massive following.
Jordan Peterson did an eighteen episode lecture series on the book of genesis, where each lecture is 2 and a half hours long, This lecture series has racked up more than 35 million total views, with an average of 2 million views per lecture. Let me make my point here a little sharper: In a culture of shrinking attention spans Jordan Peterson released an eighteen episode series on the psychological significance of the book of Genesis, with each lecture running about two and a half hours, and this series racked up *checks notes* 40 MILLION VIEWS.
A nearly 60 year old Canadian psychologist did a lecture series on the psychological significance of the book of Genesis and racked up the kind of view count that is usually reserved for short viral videos, online celebrities, Gen z/Millennial influencers, and pop musicians. And yet, for all that, it seems as though huge swaths of intellectuals, thought leaders, pundits, and cultural critics seem to have no idea why Jordan Peterson has become a cultural phenomenon.
There are many people who have sought to write Peterson off as a charlatan, a fad, or little more that a charismatic self help guru. This is to completely misunderstand the appeal of Jordan Peterson. There are other critics who make a more genuine attempt to understand Peterson try to locate his appeal in the fact that he offers genuinely good advice to young men. While this gets a little closer to the answer it too fails to understand the appeal of Jordan Peterson.
There are a lot of sermons on YouTube teaching about the Bible, and there are a lot of self help channels on YouTube. Very few (if any) of those channels are racking up millions of views for 3 hour lectures, and none of those channels are are getting those types of numbers with the consistency of Jordan Peterson.
This is not something that can be dismissed as just “good advice fore young men.” It’s deeper than that.
4. Crawling in the Dark.
If you want to be able to make an impact in the culture, you must answer the questions and engage with the issues people are actually struggling with, and the struggle of today's young people is about meaning. All the questions that young people ask today are, at the root, about meaning and purpose. Until you begin to answer those questions you will not be able to make any impact in the culture.
Today’s young people live in a world where nothing is stable and they are told everything, including every aspect of their identity, is socially constructed. They live in a deconstructed world where everything is constantly interpreted and reinterpreted and they're bombarded with information from all angles, and as such they are desperate for a way to interpret the world in a way which gives them meaning.
Meaning is just under the surface of the most common questions young people ask. I think a lot of the depression, anxiety, self-doubt, malaise, and existential angst of young people is caused by the absence of meaning and purpose in people’s lives. The entire world they live in has been deconstructed and said to be merely the product of linguistic systems, or power relations, or arbitrary cultural norms.
In a deconstructed world there is nothing transcendent or objective to serve as a linch pin for meaning and purpose. You can't even have a meaningful discussion about these things because anything that is expressed publicly gets instantly deconstructed via social media. Everything that might be seen as meaningful or purposeful is "deconstructed" and (according to the deconstructors) shown to be nothing more then an arbitrary social construct having no more objective meaning or purpose than anything else. Meaning is thought of as some kind of a social illusion, a thing we invent for ourselves, not something that exists independently of our social constructions.
In a deconstructed world the transcendent is replaced with a knock off of the real thing:
-"the truth" is replaced by opinion and consensus
-"the good" is replaced by wants and pleasures.
-"the beautiful" is replaced by "taste" and "style"
In a deconstructed world there is no objective meaning or purpose…it's all been wiped away. That is the world we are in now, and that is the thing that lies at the root of the concerns of many young people.
I am convinced that success and hustle porn so rampant on social media, the myopic focus on ever more unique gender identities, and the attempt to build up racism and homophobia as though they were Goliaths in need of slaying are all products of the search for meaning in a postmodern world.
Meaning is the thing that matters. Anyone who wants to impact the culture for the better needs to come to grips with the nihilistic despair that lies at the heart of postmodernism, and figure out how to inject hope and meaning into a world of nihilistic cynicism and despair.
And this is what Jordan Peterson does.
This, and this alone, is what explains the cultural impact of Jordan Peterson.
Jordan Peterson has offered people a way to try and pull the sword of meaning from the stone of a nihilistic postmodern world. Jordan Peterson is giving young people, and young men in particular, a path forward to help them make sense of the world and live in a way which gives their lives meaning. Any explanation of Peterson's popularity that does not wrestle with this fact is doomed to miss the point.
Thank you for reading