The Peterson effect: a new religion or free-speech rock stars?
In 2017, a relatively unknown Canadian psychology professor, Jordan Peterson, caused a media storm when he said he would refuse to comply with a recently instituted Canadian law, Bill C-16, requiring everyone at universities to use the preferred gender pronouns of students and faculty. While this was the act that saw Peterson thrust into the global spotlight, his growing following on YouTube (well over a million subscribers) and online donation platform Patreon is testament to a surge that was brewing for quite some time before that. Indeed, his popularity has reached ‘rock star’ status, with a crowd of 8,000 seeing his debate with neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris at London’s O2 arena and with a tour across America and the UK featuring venues more accustomed to chart-topping musicians.
Peterson seems to fill a gap in the market for what might best be described as old-fashioned common sense. Old-fashioned because it is at odds with the left-liberal consensus that prevails on campuses, common sense because until very recently most of his views would have been considered uncontroversial. Like his many videos and podcasts, his latest book, 12 Rules for Life: an Antidote for Chaos, encourages readers to take responsibility for their own lives and to strive for some kind of ultimate or transcendent good.
For critics, however, Peterson’s ideas are dangerously reactionary, appealing primarily to young white men who feel emasculated by feminism, multiculturalism and the modern world in general. Many have bracketed him as part of the ‘the intellectual dark web’, along with the likes of Harris, psychologist Steven Pinker and Claire Lehmann, founder of the ‘free thinking’ website Quillette, all of whom have built a following away from established media outlets. What all have in common is a self-conscious rejection of ‘political correctness’ and an avowed preference for science and facts over ideology, perhaps in particular an appeal to psychology for sometimes unfashionable truths about human nature. Their detractors see this as little more than a screen for their own ideological biases.
But is the intellectual dark web in fact a welcome corrective to the excesses of relativism and to a politically correct disavowal of the achievements of Western civilisation? Are these thinkers popular because young people today are starved of robust truth-seeking and a sense of moral agency? Or is their appeal that they offer the illusion of these things while simply rehashing outdated and discredited prejudices?
In Peterson’s case, at least, there is also an appeal to myth as a source of deeper truth, and a resulting respect for traditional religion, putting him at odds with the likes of Harris. Does such an appeal to the ideals of heroism, nobility and the transcendent give the lie to the rhetoric of objectivity and facts? If so, is this necessarily a bad thing? What is it about Peterson and the intellectual dark web that gets people so excited, whether they agree with these thinkers or abhor them? Why have they flourished in non-traditional media rather than the mainstream? And is it time to start taking them seriously?