David Foster Wallace in his 1990 essay E unibus pluram: television and US fiction, wrote that postmodern irony serves as a way of making us more at ease with our slavish attachments to the predictable cliches of visual culture, rather than helping us detach from it. As a result, a snotty, cynical attitude becomes a necessary part of the mass media culture, a way of feeling above the crowd, when we are merely absorbed by it.
Irony becomes an intellectual crutch, an end in itself, and culture comes to standstill. Foster Wallace admits that it was necessary for popular culture to break from the stifled past of precious and deceitful idealism. However, the same irony that deconstructed the suffocating lies of bourgeois conservatism, is now incapable of helping us create an alternative.
He said: ‘… irony, entertaining as it is, serves an exclusively negative function. It is critical and destructive, a ground-clearing. Surely this is the way our postmodern fathers saw it. But irony’s singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks.’
Foster Wallace goes on to say: ‘Anyone who has the gall to ask an ironist what he actually stand for ends up looking like a hysteric or a prig. And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalised irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its content is tyranny. It is the new junta, using the very tool that exposed its enemy to insulate itself.’
Some might contest that not all irony is destructive, that it can actually be a very positive and progressive force. They would be right, of course. But even Christopher Hitchens, that fiery apostle of irony, noted the difference between his preferred, nuanced and contemplative irony, and the hip, nihilistic sneering of the current age. In the opening words of his Letters to a Young Contrarian, Hitchens wrote that there are many ways that the independent mind is patronised and misrepresented out of existence and one of them is to be given the title of ‘contrarian’. However, there is a more subtle form of attack:
‘To be called “satirical” or “ironic” is now to be patronised in a different way. The satirist is the fast-talking cynic and the ironist merely sarcastic or self-conscious and wised-up. When a precious and irreplaceable word like “irony” has become a lazy synonym for anomie, there is scant room for originality.’
The ubiquity of the jibe and the desire to tear down, to lash out at any form of enthusiasm and deeply held values, with a cocksure tone of superiority, then, is not only damaging to the culture. It also gives ammunition to the philistines, to those who are already suspicious of culture and the arts. The result is an unholy alliance of the hipster nihilist and the overly-proud Trumpian ignoramus.
And most worryingly, the only thing held to be of any sacred importance, is the conviction that nothing is sacred or important at all, and to reach for a positive value system is to be hopelessly childish, or worse, reactionary and nostalgic for an age of unified cultural hegemony.
Douglas Murray stumbled upon this in his 2016 book The Strange Death Of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam, when diagnosing European intellectuals’ fevered reluctance to cultivate positive values in the face of an academic critique. Reflecting on his attendance at a fruitless and arcane philosophy conference, Murray wrote:
‘If there remains any overriding idea, it is that ideas are a problem. If there is any remaining commonly held value judgement, it is that value judgements are wrong. If there remains any remaining certainty it is a distrust of certainty. And if this does not add up to a philosophy, it certainly adds up to an attitude: shallow, unlikely to survive any sustained onslaught, but easy enough to adopt.’
Even before the television age, this broken, suspicious and contemptuous superiority can be traced as far back as the early 20th century, when the poetic guns of Ezra Pound were turned on the cosseted cynicism of his peers:
‘O generation of the thoroughly smug
/and thoroughly uncomfortable,
/I have seen fishermen picnicking in the sun,
/I have seen them with untidy families,
/I have seen their smiles full of teeth/
and heard ungainly laughter.
/And I am happier than you are,
/And they were happier than I am;
/And the fish swim in the lake
/and do not even own clothing.’
Industrialisation had already disconnected Pound’s generation from the simple truth of crooked smiles and picnics in the sun. The pure dharma of a fish inhabiting his sea is lost on us, a generation of people born addicted to technology and convenience, sceptical of anything that reminds us of innocence and vulnerability.
This inherent distrust of meaning may be prevalent, essential even, in an age of mass communication, but it seems that Jordan Peterson, the now ubiquitous Jungian professor who for the last eighteen months has been telling us all to ‘tidy our rooms’ and ‘grow the hell up’, may have the escape route from this cycle of obedience and bafflement.
His new book 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos is at once merciless in its account of human frailty, and Romantically optimistic in its argument for living a wholesome, meaningful and dutiful life.
The foundation of Peterson’s synthesis of Jungian myth-reading and statistical psychology is his commitment to the idea that hierarchies are essential to life. Not only are they fundamental to our natural environment, but also our nervous systems are hard-wired to systems of dominance.
His use of the example of the lobster is much satirised but it comes from a hard science world-view, demonstrating that our neurological reward systems are evolutionarily linked to survival within dominance hierarchies. Lobsters, like humans, respond to status, and their brains release serotonin in a similar way to our own brains. When a lobster wins a fight, he becomes more brazen in his challenges of other lobsters. If he loses a fight, he becomes less prone to risking conflict. The difference is in serotonin levels.
The chemical induces a response, whereby the lobster becomes more erect, more courageous in exposing his vulnerabilities. Serotonin makes the lobster’s nervous system begin to predict success, rather than avoid failure. Peterson’s point is that a chemical used in modern anti-depression treatment, has the exact same effect on creatures from whom we departed evolutionarily over three million years ago. And just like humans recovering from depression, the lobster’s nervous system on serotonin creates a feedback loop for success.
This connection between humans and lobsters has profound implications for the way we see depression. Peterson shows that depression, rather than being a disease, like cancer or tuberculosis, is more like a psychological trap. The experience of failure, disposes us to expect more failure, and the experience of disappointment and fear means we fall quickly down the dominance hierarchy. Like the lobster, we start to slouch, and we begin to see hiding away from conflict as a guarantee of survival, as opposed to adopting a stance of readiness to fight, like the lobster whose serotonin disposes him to expect victory over his peers.
So not only are dominance hierarchies a fact of life, they are intimately linked to our experience of happiness and success. We will be happier the more status we enjoy. We can adapt ourselves to greater chances of fulfilment and success, if we reverse the negative psychological loops that drag us down into depressive thinking and the expectation of failure. Lobsters who have placed themselves lower down the dominance hierarchy can be made to act like dominant creatures when artificially given doses of serotonin. They become more erect, displaying the stance of dominance to their peers, and thus creating more of a chance of beating challengers.
Peterson’s critics accuse him of trying to use science to argue for a fatalistic view of injustice. However, Peterson is a scientist, and he demonstrates a nuanced understanding of evolution, as opposed to a ‘might-is right’, Victorian social-Darwinist view of human life. Nature, says Peterson, is neither romantic nor definitively cruel. It is both beautiful and destructive, and inequalities and suffering are as much a part of life as stunning sunsets or the mystery of childbirth.
Environments are not static. They too change, and some aspects of nature evolve more dynamically than others. The basic morphology of arms and hands stays the same but the actual length and shape of bones may change faster. Weather may change but climate stays the same. Evolution, says Peterson, ‘is chaos, within order, within chaos, within higher order.’ The old Victorian ideal of there being some clean, identifiable type of organism that will always survive, whose attributes lead to ever-increasing fitness to environment, is a myth. There is no template specified by the world, to which we are always moving towards. The templates themselves always change. All creatures are in a dance with nature. No one standing still will survive.
The way we have evolved to handle this flux between chaos and order is through the development of ‘culture’. Again, this is where Peterson comes up against his critics. Culture is not opposed to nature, he insists, but part of it.
‘There is little more natural than culture,’ write Peterson. ‘Dominance hierarchies are older than trees.’
This is important because many of the claims of modern activism and post-modernism are grounded in the idea that power is held unjustly as a product of oppression – whether it is the patriarchy, capitalism or some other conspiracy. For Peterson, dominance hierarchies are what create inequalities, and if we are to contend with them, we must first accept them as part of life.
He is not, as some have claimed, saying we should capitulate to existing hierarchies, or accept inequality as a given in all instances. Rather, that trying to fix cultural and biological problems through heavy-handed political solutions and ideological projects, is at best doomed, and at worst a highway to hell.
So rather than being some apologist for oppression, Peterson is at pains to insist that the only way to avoid the negative low-status loops of depression, and to avoid draining our our nervous systems of serotonin, is to reverse the chemical chain reaction. It is not the existence of hierarchies that is the problem, but our inability to face up to the facts of life, which causes depression. Just as negative loops are created by small events which lead to a cumulative experience of failure and low-self-esteem, so too can small, positive actions create positive feedback loops.
To be on the bottom of the dominance hierarchy, is to be in a constant state of reactivity. There are more threats, therefore serotonin is not very desirable. It is safer to hide, rather than be brave.
Things can malfunction. Even when someone is relatively high in the hierarchy, the natural counters to chaos can go off, if certain key things are out of whack. This is why routine is so important. Without it, we live in a constant state of stress. Peterson says that when treating clients for depression, the first two things he asks about are sleep and eating. Without taking these into consideration first, depression, he says, is almost untreatable. The point is to manage mental healing, according to the way our nervous system actually works. Small steps like mastering sleep patterns and eating nutritional meals won’t make anxiety and depression disappear, but they can kick-start the nervous system into adapting itself for success. But we can’t do that if we are constantly blaming others, or raging against society as if it were a ‘rigged system’.
Peterson talks about agoraphobics, alcoholics and depressives as examples of people caught in a ‘positive feedback loop’ related to the parts of the brain associated with dominance and status. Alcohol may act as a counter to the negativity associated with low serotonin and low status, but the withdrawls become increasingly worse, meaning the alcoholic is caught in a loop of dependency to get that hit that counters to the feelings of low status.
People who experience acute fear, may experience bursts of anxiety. This can then be triggered by the same situations where that fear was first experienced. The association then becomes more ingrained, so that eventually any instance of uncertainty can cause acute panic. The anxiety feeds on itself, so that the self shrinks and the dangerous world becomes ever larger. This is agoraphobia. Our anxiety systems tell us that anything we previously ran from must be dangerous. Anxiety creates more anxiety. Breathing becomes faster and shallower, and this leads to more fear, which just creates more anxiety.
Depression makes us isolated and separated from friends and family. This makes us more useless and robs them of confidence, and then they become even more isolated and divorced from loved ones. It’s a vicious cycle.
This is also the case with people who are bullied. They become more slouched and make less eye contact, meaning they become more likely to be bullied. The slide down the dominance hierarchy is fast and slick, once the positive feedback loop has been initiated.
People who have gone through some experience that makes them wary of aggression may find it hard to release such emotions. This can make them more susceptible to bullying and tyrannical behaviour. Peterson says, ironically, that demonstrating a capacity for aggression makes it increasingly unlikely that you will have to use it. Failing to do so, makes you more likely to become a victim of it.
Peterson says that in treating clients who believe that being harmless is the best way to survive, he invites them to see the link between their harmlessness and their resentments. It is only by admitting to and looking at their resentments that they are able to see what needs to be done to redress imbalances in their lives. Peterson also translates this to society-wide problems. Bureaucracies and tyrannies feed off people’s submission, the act of going along to get along. This creates festering resentment which can often become cruel and pathological. For Peterson, the only way to avoid this is for the individual to confront their resentments and stand up for themselves, and not allow such resentments to embed themselves.
It is therefore necessary that we stand up for ourselves, show our teeth, and maintain strong boundaries. If we do not, we sink into a personal hell, but we are also contributing to the hell of those around us.
As much as all of this relates to Peterson’s clinical practice, it also helps us understand his politics. If we allow ourselves to fall into negative, reactive loops, then of course culture is going to appear to us oppressive, and our experiences will continue to confirm this. It is essential, according to Peterson, that we break this loop; not just for our own psychological health, but the for the health of culture and society as a whole. His admonitions about ‘taking responsibility’ or ‘tidying your room’, despite becoming memes and cliches in their own right, are actually grounded in a pragmatic view of how a healthy individual can build his or her relationship with their environment, with society, and with ‘Being’ itself.
Peterson can come off overly traditional. The sceptical mind may see the sense in what he is saying, but still feel resistant to the idea of ‘sucking it up’ and buying the apparent proposition that only conformism and traditional virtues are the key to a fulfilled life. However, beneath the apparent conformist orientation of Peterson’s idea of psychological health and society, there is something thrillingly subversive. We don’t ‘stand up straight with our shoulders back’ because he is telling us to. We do so because it empowers us, it puts us back in the existential cockpit. The message of responsibility that is much talked about in explaining Peterson’s appeal, is also a message of liberation.
We don’t eat good food because lifestyle columnists tell us to. We don’t stick to daily routines because we get brownie points from our elders or our peers. We do these things because they actually free us from being at the mercy of external forces, whether they are cultural, psychological or political.
That status and human happiness are intimately linked throws light on the high levels of depression in our consumerist culture. Feelings of despair and meaninglessness seem to be exacerbated by the dominant values of the contemporary economy, which encourages an almost pathological obsession with material success, gossip and self-esteem based on constant social comparison.
A further offshoot from Peterson’s understanding of dominance hierarchies and the way serotonin creates feedback loops around failure and victory, is his insistence that we can only develop ourselves if we compare ourselves to who were in the past, rather than everyone else around us. We need our internal critic, because we need some standards in order to live a meaningful life. We need to be able to tell ourselves that some behaviours are preferable to others. However, as a clinical psychologist, Peterson recognises the dangers of this voice, and the role it can play in maintaining negative spirals towards nihilism and depression.
Comparing ourselves to unrealistic templates of success, or to peers whose lives bear no resemblance to the challenges of our own, can only make matters worse. This critical comparison is a recipe for serotonin drainage. However, realistic and nuanced comparisons are healthy, and can be motivating. It is this subtle difference between realistic and unrealistic standards of success and fulfilment, that seems to underpin Peterson’s concept of psychological health.
The effect of internet connectivity and mass media on our dominance hierarchy is extensive. Peterson notes that in the past a decent amount of talent might have propelled someone to the top of their local dominance hierarchy, and the path to further elevation for other competitors would have been relative clear. Today however, Peterson says, ‘our hierarchies of accomplishment are now dizzyingly vertical.’ Meaning, the competition for top dog in any sphere is now almost impossible to penetrate.
A good example of this can be found in the music industry. The best guitar player in a provincial city may be the biggest fish in a small pond, but this exceptional talent is no guarantee of industry success. Not even close. There is simply too much competition, to the point where talent becomes almost irrelevant. A traditional idea of success in the music industry can no longer be a sustainable ideal for anyone choosing to live this life. The rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle of limos and large hotel suites and long world tours filled with sex and luxurious decadence, just doesn’t happen anymore. The market is saturated and the demand is lower. The same is true for many other models of success across various industries.
The upshot of this is that most of us are destined to live near the very bottom of our dominance hierarchies, unless we alter our concept of what success is, and we start to judge success according to alternative metrics. One way of dealing with this, would be to adopt a cynical defensiveness, to subject the culture as a whole to a resentful and withering critique, and thus to sustain one’s psychological integrity through a manageable nihilism. This is close to what David Foster Wallace was warning us about in 1990. Sarcasm, paranoia and treating human relationships as if they are nothing but power plays, is the mark of this world view, and it appears to be the dominant tone of popular culture.
Another way of dealing with this challenge, one which has also gained a lot of sway in the prevailing culture, is the simplistic ‘positive thinking’ of new age spirituality. Peterson notes that delusional thinking was actually recommended for a time by professional social psychologists, given the fact that dominance hierarchies were becoming ever more vertical and difficult to ascend.
Peterson’s view is that we must reject the delusional wish-fulfilment of the new agers, as it means living our lives under a fog of lies. This can only lead to even greater levels of disillusionment and despair, and as a result is dangerous to society as a whole. However, being cynical about the very possibility of living a meaningful life, is no better, and no closer to truth. Peterson says, ‘Talking yourself into irrelevance is not a profound critique of Being. It’s a cheap trick of the rational mind.’
Neither of these half-baked solutions actually protects us from the downward spirals of negative feedback loops and depression. Peterson’s view is that we should actively embrace suffering. We must be mercilessly realistic with ourselves, before we can carve out a meaningful life. We must acknowledge the fact that life is often miserable and terrifying, and that we ourselves are prone to laziness and self-deception. Given these brutal facts of life, we can actually start to make a progress of sorts, we can see that small improvements, rather than perfectionist accomplishments, are more sustainable.
Peterson can often come off as deeply grim and pessimistic. However, his insistence that we face the suffering of human life is actually inspiring. Seeing the world this way frees us from black and white thinking about success and failure, and leaves us free to define our own ideal of success, and therefore to be in charge of what makes our lives meaningful. Instead of getting lost in outdated ideas of success and comparing ourselves to others, Peterson urges us to:
‘Dare, instead, to be dangerous. Dare to be truthful. Dare to articulate yourself, and express (or at least become aware of) what would really justify your life.’
Peterson takes this insight much further than success advice, however. He believes this critical distinction between realistic and perfectionist ideas of success, is at the heart of difference between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. The Old Testament God is a wide abstraction from the experience of dominance hierarchies. He is a terrifying judge, and he dishes out cosmic punishments and rewards. The New Testament God, however, as embodied in the ideal of Christ, is an abstraction of every individual’s choice to ‘live voluntarily.’
According to Peterson, this is the spirit of the West; a movement from top down commandments, towards nurturing the desire to do good because it is the most likely way of creating happiness on earth. The ideal found in Christ is a positive vision of the individual, someone who is not merely obedient, but who chooses good actively, because they have the breadth of vision to know it is the right thing in the long run, even in the light their own selfishness and moral limitations.
Peterson’s genius here is in uniting a knowledge of biological dominance hierarchies and Christian ethics. Even better, the resulting synthesis is supremely pragmatic and manages to be both scarily realist in its view of human nature, while also being life-affirming. We do not shy away from the inner critic, the voice which connects us to our evolutionary hierarchies. However, neither do we frame our lives as zero-sum games. We see our daily job as one of careful progress, rather than wholesale dominance, and thus we learn to find a deep meaning and self-respect in the small incremental victories we gain over the inevitable hardships of our lives. We can become resilient in the face of disaster, and competent when faced with chaos. Even death itself, viewed from this perspective, can bring a heightened sense of the beauty of our tiny lives.
The notion of sacrifice is intrinsic to Peterson’s view of personal development. The myths of Abraham and Christ, for Peterson, have deep evolutionary significance. The idea of sacrifice is intimately linked to the ‘discovery of the future’. That is, delaying sensual gratification in the present for survival in the future, is something that distinguishes humans, and allows us to main dominance in the evolutionary chain. On a tribal level too, delayed gratification is the necessary in the formation of what we now call ‘society’.
Biblical myths of sacrifice, for Peterson, demonstrate a cultural evolution in the understanding that I might delay my own needs being satisfied in the immediate present, so that my family, my tribe, and my nation, might survive in the long terms. The Adam and Eve story, Abraham’s call to kill his own son, and the ‘ultimate sacrifice’ of God’s son going to the cross, are all ways of dramatically articulating the importance of delayed gratification in the cultural evolution of humanity.
However, understanding sacrifice as merely bargaining with God would be too reductionist. Peterson is at his most insightful and penetrating in the discussion of the myth of Cain and Abel. Both these biblical brothers offer sincere sacrifices to God, but only one is favoured: Abel. Cain becomes resentful, enraged at not being given his due, and murderous of his own hero, Abel, who for an unknown reason is the object of God’s love.
It is better to please God, to offer sacrifice, rather than to indulge ourselves. For Peterson this is the pre-conceptual, emerging awareness that satisfaction of the sense is not always the best option, that it is worth the pay-off to take a hit now, for survival and happiness in the years to come. Some may argue, as Sam Harris does, that such interpretations of otherwise very brutal and primitive stories is too convenient. That there is no real method of measuring the veracity of such speculations, other than that they sound good.
However, there is evolutionary insight here. It is better to delay gratification, but as with the Cain and Abel story, this is no guarantee of utopian deliverance. God may always disappoint us. And thus we easily descend into war and bitterness, jealousy and rage. And for Peterson, it is this psychological insight, though played out in extreme and violent stories, that is important. Cain does everything right. He loves his brother, his hero, and he loves God. But when he doesn’t get what he feels he deserves, when he feels that the very real sacrifices he made are being punished, rather than rewarded, he murders his brother, tearing down his highest ideal, as a way of getting revenge on God.
Peterson points to the writings of school shooters and well-known psychopaths, to drive home his point. He quotes Eric Harris, the Columbine killer, whose last entries in his diary were curiously human, chillingly familiar in the contemplation of his own fragility, and in the one-pointed obsession with revenge. What’s common among these bloodthirsty killers is a distaste for Being itself, a desire to inflict punishment on the innocent, merely for existing. Such evil manifests, in Peterson’s words, ‘to protest the intolerable vagaries of Being.’ It’s one thing to undergo suffering, but to be subject of conscious, determined cruelty and malevolence can damage people for life. It was the sense that Cain was punished for his virtues that drove him to murderous rage.
Peterson’s claims about this phenomenon may not be decisive. His wisdom is built on experience as a clinician, but not a complete scientific proof. Nevertheless, if we are honest with ourselves there is something terrifyingly resonant with this account of human evil. We claim not to be able to understand psychotic killers, school shooters and fanatical terrorists, but we understand them perfectly at the deepest level. We know the rage and fury that arises from the punishment of our virtues, from the arbitrariness of tragedy in the face of our most well-meaning and sincere sacrifices. When the best part of ourselves is met with contempt, ridicule or worse, indifference, we become mad. And if we undergo deliberate abuse by a loved one, it does not take much for us let go of our moral sense, and unleash a desire for revenge on God, or existence itself.
Peterson quotes Jung in saying that, ‘No tree can grow to heaven, unless its roots reach down to hell.’ Only when we explore the depths of our own malice, rage, resentment and capacity for evil, can we really make a sacrifice deep enough and large enough to counteract the suffering brought about by human evil. And it is this understanding of psychological development, that undergirds Peterson’s fascinating analysis of the story of Jesus Christ.
Unlike Cain, Jesus did not give into the temptations of the Devil. Peterson gives a psychological exposition of the ‘forty days and forty nights’ Christ spent in the desert. First the Lord is tempted to use his power to turn rocks into bread. Secondly, Satan urges him to throw himself off a cliff, and if he is the son of God, surely he will be saved by his divine father? Thirdly, Satan shows him the nations of the earth, which could be subject to Christ’s own supreme power, if only he chose to wield it. All of these sacrifices show Christ choosing to live well, to adopt a correct mentality towards life, rather than seeking immediate gratification.
Cain is contrasted with Christ. Cain descends into the wilderness of the soul. He feels exploited and oppressed. He gives into the temptations of the Devil and nurses a malice and rage against life itself, and plots revenge on God. Christ, on the other hand, goes into the desert for real, willingly, for 40 days and nights. Enough to really know the truth of himself and his fragility as a man. Jesus confronted his own gluttony, selfishness and desire for power, and only in doing so was he able to understand humanity’s capacity for sin.
It is only in our confrontation with evil, in owning our own ability to be jealous, greedy and lustful of earthly power, that we can hope to live well. Once we realise that we too have the same potential for evil as an Auschwitz guard or a school shooter, can we have the knowledge necessary to rise above the cycles of revenge and Machiavellian struggle that hold human beings in bondage and lead them into the depths of psychological hell.
For Peterson, Christ’s death on the cross is a symbol of a massive shift in cultural consciousness, an actual leap in evolution for humanity. It is the pre-conceptual understanding that it is better to live well, than to merely satisfy our desires in the present; and at the same time, that this right attitude, must be maintained in the face of the worst suffering. A failure to demonstrate this resilience in the face of despair and the temptations of power, leads us down the path of Cain, of resentment and rage.
What’s important here, is that Peterson is offering an unflinching view of intrinsic human evil, while rehabilitating our once commonly held belief in our own ability to transcend this ‘original sin’. There are some extremely learned and detailed digressions in Peterson’s book, on the critique of modernity by both Nietzsche and Dostoevsky. Both authors knew that the scientific refutation of Christianity’s metaphysical claims to fact, were bound to leave a vacuum in human civilisation. For Peterson, the great anxiety of our time is that in losing this framework for God, we lose the very thing that gave rise to scientific knowledge and human progress in the first place: the obligation to live for the the future, by sacrificing the now.
Peterson defines living meaningfully as ‘the development of character in the face of suffering.’ He says:
‘Expedience is the following of blind impulse. It’s short-term gain. It’s narrow, and selfish. It lies to get its way. It takes nothing into account. It’s immature and irresponsible. Meaning is its mature replacement. Meaning emerges when impulses are regulated, organised and unified. Meaning emerges between the interplay of the possibilities of the world and the value structure operating within that world. If the value structure is aimed at the betterment of Being, the meaning revealed will be life-sustaining. It will provide the antidote for chaos and suffering. It will make everything matter. It will make everything better.’
Many of the atheistic bent will remain determined to dismiss Peterson’s expositions of the gospels and mythical tradition, as unfalsifiable and arbitrary. However, Peterson is not just resuscitating the ideals of sacrifice and religious ethics, merely to make YouTube videos that make people feel better about themselves. If anything, his videos and interviews can be quite brutal in their insistence on the pervasiveness of human evil. He offers, however, both a connection to the past, and a way forward for people to maintain their own psychological integrity in the face of their own bitterness and resentment.
To adopt a new-age view of our own potential, or to fall into political ideology, is to be utopian and disingenuous about the human condition. However, to fall back on the crutch of hopelessness and cynicism about life and our place within it, is to open ourselves up to equally dangerous totalitarianisms. Peterson’s middle path is one of careful, realistic psychological progress in the face of undeniable suffering and the often arbitrary nature of tragedy. Cleaning our rooms, maintaining a schedule, living life in the service of a higher purpose that transcends sensual pleasure, these are the tiny rituals that stand between human fragility and violent hell. In a word, it is the act of giving life meaning, that saves us from turning descendinging into self-destruction.
David Foster Wallace saw no relief in the digitalisation of culture, from the captive passivity of image obsession, and the corresponding irony and sneering superiority that comes with it. We cling to postmodernism, to the fracturing of truth, because it serves a purpose, it helps us to feel aloof and detached, while we subconsciously give ourselves over to enraptured attention. Nothing about social media would have surprised Foster Wallace.
He speculated that the writers of the future might return to sincerity and reverence, away from nihilistic posturing, towards a sentimental naivety, open to accusations of anachronism and conservatism. Such accusations could be, and increasingly are, thrown at Peterson by postmodernists and atheist reductionists alike. For someone whose career is firmly based on the YouTube platform, his message is very much the antithesis of the values that dominate visual culture.
There’s something thrilling about Peterson’s call to ‘be dangerous’. It is not his wars against political correctness that make him a threat. Nor his merciless emphasis on humanity’s capacity for evil. Both of these are inconvenient to the wider agendas of the mass media. Peterson’s often surly and barbed pessimism is never going to sell Pepsi or beauty products. However, it is not these battles that make him such a threat to the dominant narratives of our time. It is, rather, his single-handed rehabilitation of meaning.
Peterson is often asked why he is popular. Why has this dry, rambling and frequently grave professor struck a chord with the young, and particularly young men? His answer is usually to say that young people secretly crave responsibility, because responsibility makes life meaningful, and gives them a reason to get up in the morning.
This is true, but perhaps it is not the whole story. Maybe the reason is that his revitalised conception of a meaningful life offers us an alternative to the nihilistic sarcasm and naive suggestibility that go hand in hand with popular culture. The person who lives meaningfully, who has chosen to take responsibility for their own capacity for evil and to live well in the face of such a terrifying fact, is almost immune to ideological suggestion and psychic manipulation.
For a long time, the most expedient way of guaranteeing one’s own resilience in the face of propaganda or consumer agendas, was cynicism. This explains the seductiveness of postmodernism. Now that this very cynicism and fracturing of truth threatens to become a kind of tyranny in itself, Peterson is offering a remarkably strong and simple alternative way of maintaining personal integrity.
Living meaningfully is to be truly self-dependent. We ‘volunteer’ our own suffering, we become the source of our own inspired purpose. Peterson puts great stock in the hero myth, whether it is Christ, Horus or Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The hero descends into darkness and discovers truth. The truth reinvigorates the nation state, replenishes the land. Unlike Joseph Campbell, however, there’s no easy fix for self-esteem here, no reassuring slogan such as ‘follow your bliss’. Rather, we make ourselves heros by resolving to make small, incremental steps towards the best possible scenario we can envision for our lives, and we do it knowing that tragedy and despair are inevitable and in fact part of the deal.
Peterson’s message puts us in mind of Blake’s Jerusalem:
‘Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.’
An individual who resolves to become the source of their own sense of purpose and meaning, secured by discipline and honesty with his or herself, becomes impervious to suggestion, whether it is ideological manipulation, political demagoguery or consumer advertising. In a culture that is contemptuous of human will, and which equates freedom with self-indulgence, no message could be more thrillingly dangerous.