The religious hunger that drives Jordan Peterson’s fandomJordan Peterson, the alt-right, and the reactionary allure of mythology.
By Tara Isabella Burton@NotoriousTIBtara.firstname.lastname@example.org Jun 1, 2018, 3:00pm EDT
Few self-professed public intellectuals have captured the spirit of the moment like Jordan Peterson, the Canadian clinical pop philosopher whose atavistic advocacy of masculinist revivalism has made him the de facto guru of the right.
Peterson’s philosophy — enumerated in TED talks, YouTube videos for his 1.2 million subscribers, and self-help books (his latest venture, 12 Rules for Life, topped several best-seller charts) — is deceptively simple. Culture, he says, has historically been a battle between order (traditionally conceived of as masculine) and chaos (traditionally feminine).
The great myths and legends of history, to say nothing of religious narratives, are supposedly rooted in this dichotomy: a dichotomy that humans crave. Our postmodern, post-Marxist (left-wing, liberal, politically correct) era has lost touch with this duality. We’ve become collectively feminized. In an era in which, in Peterson’s account, boys can “decide to be” girls, women abandon their natural and biological identity as caregivers, and men no longer stand up straight to “be men,” identities and contrast lose their meaning. The clear borders of culture have been dissolved.
But if men (and, by and large, Peterson’s advice is geared to men) stand tall, if they clean their rooms, if they embrace order and the kind of performative dominance so ubiquitous in the animal kingdom (Peterson’s philosophy is spiked with a heady dose of evolutionary psychology), they can somehow get back to this longed-for primordial state. In so doing, the narrative goes, they will rediscover a sense of meaning and purpose the West has lost.
“In the West,” Peterson writes in 12 Rules, “we have been withdrawing from our tradition-, religion- and even nation-centred cultures.”Peterson’s overarching narrative is one of renewal: make the West great again
There is nothing particularly novel or controversial about Peterson’s theories, which read like a Wikipedia summary of the philosophy of Nietzsche. The Birth of Tragedy traced the cultural tension between the “Apollonian” forces of order and the “Dionysian” ethos of chaos a good century and a half before Peterson.
But Peterson’s public persona has made him far more controversial than his relatively anodyne theories might suggest. After all, he first came to prominence for publicly refusing to use the preferred pronouns of his transgender students. Increasingly, he’s been associated with his fan base, which includes many on the alt-right, men’s rights activists, incels, and other reactionary corners of the internet landscape — though it should be noted that Peterson has often criticized the alt-right, and sees his message of personal responsibility as a path out of it.
What’s fascinating about Peterson is not the novelty of his ideas, but their power, and the quasi-religious influence he exerts on his followers. In a New York Times profile of Peterson, Nellie Bowles interviews a devotee who sees in Peterson’s philosophy a kind of grand unifying theory that made him rediscover religion. In Peterson’s interpretation of biblical stories, he says, he found the truth of his sexual frustration.
“It made sense in a primordial way when he breaks down Adam and Eve, the snake and chaos,” Bowles quotes her source as saying. “Eve made Adam self-conscious. Women make men self-conscious because they’re the ultimate judge. I was like, ‘Wow this is really true.’”
It’s easy enough to dismiss Peterson, as some of his critics have done, as catering to the sexual frustrations and perceived loss of status of (usually) straight (usually) white (usually) men. But to do so is dangerous because it overlooks the degree to which Peterson has tapped into something very real, very necessary, and very strong: a legitimate spiritual hunger for meaning that, combined with the eroticized trappings of “countercultural” transgression, alchemize into a heady intellectual cocktail. (Peterson declined through a representative to be interviewed for this article.)
The idea of the “rebellious traditionalist” — someone who at once hungers for an idealized past and is somehow considered thoroughly punk rock for doing so — is a perennial one, particularly in reactionary and far-right circles.
Take Julius Evola, the right-wing Italian philosopher active in the middle of the 20th century and who has been influential to modern right-wing figures, including Steve Bannon. He popularized the capital-T version of Traditionalism as an occult phenomenon: an attempt to recapture what he believed to be a primordial spiritual truth that all world religions had somehow fallen away from. Evola made his reactionary tendencies radical, describing his goals in highly sexualized and countercultural terms (his most famous book title was the aptly named Revolt Against the Modern World).