Among the “Visionaries Who Grapple with Chaos”: Listening to Jordan B. Peterson

Pekka M. Kolehmainen
Postdoctoral Researcher, TIAS & John Morton Center for North American Studies

I began my postdoctoral research project on antifeminism and right-wing politics this fall at TIAS. Right around the same time, I got news that one of the eminent public antifeminist figures of our time, Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, was coming to Helsinki on a book tour. I could not resist attending. I had been following Peterson’s rise in the right-wing media ecosystem since 2016 when he first emerged to the public eye. This came after his stand against being requested to respect the chosen pronouns of his students as Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto. Since, he has become a self-help guru for anxious young men in particular and a figure connected to a whole host of right-wing organizations, though he might deny being right-wing himself. By attending his lecture, I wanted to try putting myself in the shoes of someone who might get their first exposure to Peterson through such events. Just how right-wing is he, at least in the context of his public speaking?

It is a common critique from both Peterson and his fans that people do not listen to him enough and rely on their preconceptions of him, rather than on what he actually says. So, what does he actually say in his tours? Having attended the event, I can say the answer is: both a lot and very little. For a man who has listed “Be precise in your speech” as one of the key rules for life in his books, his lectures seem to leave a lot to the implications. In fact, listening to Peterson reminded me of a popular scene in the comedy show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, where the most horrible of horrible people, Dennis Reynolds, talks about “the implications” as a way of coercing women:

While Peterson is not quite so nefarious in his speech, the scene feels like a good summary of what it feels to grapple with Jordan Peterson. “Because of the implications.” Therefore, in this blogpost I will examine Peterson’s status as a right-winger through this one event, by focusing on what he says and what he implies. And following one of Peterson’s more agreeable suggestions in the lecture, I will do so with at least a slight tone of humor.


How Peterson Speaks

Jordan Peterson is not a Trumpian demagogue nor a Steven Bannon-like iconoclast. He is deeply professorial in his output and demeanor, often talking in obscure stories and long-winded tangents. Before him taking the stage, the ice hockey stadium was filled with ambient classical music and the event included a performance by a classical guitarist before the main lecture. Peterson walked on wearing a fairly stylish custom-made suit, apparently by a Finnish tailor, who had made one suit for each of the 12 rules in Peterson’s original self-help book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Penguin Books, 2018). The suit was two-sided, making him look a little like the Batman villain Two-Face. The fabric in the inside of the coat was bright red on one side and sky blue on the other, supposedly to symbolize heaven and hell. Symbolism and implications, all around.

For much of his 45-minute lecture, Peterson largely seemed to be constructing the talk as he went, relying on mental associations to move from one story to the next. This was my initial impression as a listener and he confirmed as much during the Q&A. Apparently, he never knows what he is going to stay on stage ahead of time. It as not a pre-rehearsed, polished performance, but rather a talk given by someone with a backlog of stories and recurring themes he would pull up on the spot, sometimes searching, sometimes stumbling. At least, that was the impression: a professor thinking on stage, live, even if the actual things he discussed were familiar to any who had followed Peterson’s output prior.

The rambling, tangent-prone, free association style lecturing felt quite at odds with the rest of the presentation of the event. After the classical music died down, Peterson’s wife, Tammy, took the stage to introduce the speaker. However, first she took a moment to advertise some other “Peterson family” products the audience might be interested in. These included an essay writing app developed by their son and “Peterson Academy” spearheaded by their daughter. The latter was advertised as an institution aiming to provide accredited education to a bachelor’s degree (as of yet, the organization is not accredited) for a tuition fee of $4,000. The price-point was advertised as a bargain to an audience consisting of Finns from a country of free university-level education.

The focus on advertising persisted to parts of Peterson’s lecture and even the Q&A. Although the tour was advertised as being based on Peterson’s second self-help book, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life (Penguin Books 2021), the book or its contents were not mentioned even once during his lecture that I could tell. Instead, he based his speech on the themes of his upcoming book, titled, apparently, We Who Wrestle with God, as well as his 16-part podcast series on the Book of Exodus from the Bible, which has since come out on the Daily Wire Plus, a subscription service for the ring-wing media site The Daily Wire.

The first question of the Q&A (which was conducted via an app from which Tammy Peterson picked out submitted questions to ask on stage) appeared likewise readily tailored for further advertisement, as it asked about Peterson’s plans for turning the Daily Wire Plus into a “real source of news.” However, Peterson’s answer did not appear rehearsed or prepared, so who knows. Was it a genuine question of someone who had fully drank the Kool-Aid? Was it a plant unbeknownst by Jordan Peterson? Is he just really good at playing the somewhat befuddled and struggling thinker moving mountains with his mind? We may never know.


What Peterson Says

So, what does Jordan Peterson actually say? Well, he speaks a lot about religion, which is interesting considering how much his early rise to fame was buoyed by online atheist communities who found enjoyment in Peterson’s clashes with feminism. For much of the talk I attended, Peterson explored various biblical stories, from Adam and Eve to Cain and Abel to the Tower of Babel. However, he bypasses the need for open religiosity on the part of his listeners by framing these as enduring stories of wisdom, rather than divine manifestations. They are presented as transcendent truths, but not necessarily divine. The difference is miniscule, but it is what allows the more non-religious Peterson fans to justify the value in the stories he tells.

Throughout his talk, Peterson continuously fenced with imaginary opponents, by suggesting thoughts the audience might have. To paraphrase, he would continuously go down rabbit holes like, “Well, you might say you don’t believe that these things really happened, to which I say, ‘you need to define what you mean by ‘you,’ ‘believe,’ ‘really,’ and ‘happened.’’” This is something Peterson does with some regularity these days, often shirking from giving out answers in favor of simply asking more definition-based questions.

Ultimately, the goal is to tie these biblical stories together with his background as a professor of psychology. It is well-established that Peterson is a Jungian in his approach, believing in universal myths that are passed down through folklore and storytelling. This is the impetus behind the lecture as well as the upcoming book he is advertising: that people look for models to live through, in order to “embody the spirit of their fathers” (or mothers, he added as a side-thought). Religious tales and stories in general are therefore a “collection of spirits,” which one can model themselves after, and “patterns of behavior” to emulate.

Big part, I believe, of Peterson’s allure is the way he makes affairs of daily life appear a grandiose struggle against forces of chaos. Waking up in the morning and deciding to make breakfast is creating “habitable order out of potential chaos.” All human beings are “visionaries who grapple with chaos,” i.e. they have the mental capacity to instill meaning to their surroundings.

I would not be the first to note that while Peterson despises and opposes “postmodernism,” he is in many ways a fairly postmodern thinker. His view of human beings exerting meaning onto their surroundings is not too far removed from much of modern cultural theory. One of the notable postmodernists, Jean Baudrillard, wrote in 1991 an infamous trio of essays under the moniker, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Baudrillard highlighted how the hyperreality of the imagery of war was manufactured through media to the point where the reality of warfare vanished in public imagination

In much the same way, Peterson sweeps aside the reality behind questions like, “Did Noah’s Ark truly take place,” to allude to a more hyperreal explanation of Noah’s Ark as a story of wisdom and preparedness, which therefore “happens” every time these themes become relevant in daily life. Ultimately, both Baudrillard and Peterson end up at the question of, “what do you mean by ‘taking place’?”


What Peterson Implies

Where Peterson perhaps differs is in the implications. The view of humanity he offers is highly normative. The purpose of “embodying the father” is not just to find meaning and guidance to one’s life, but to find the correct meaning. For instance, at the lecture he suggested that if one does not want children, they have perhaps wrestled with the issue of “embodying their fathers” in the wrong way. It is taken as granted that the correct desire is to have children, and lack of such want is therefore an abnormality caused by a form of failure. Therefore, while Peterson speaks about escaping presuppositions and “embracing chaotic possibility,” all his questions come with pre-existing answers. Grappling with the “spirit of one’s father” or “wrestling with God,” is all meant to lead to a preset destination.

Peterson speaks of a call to adventure to escape the shackles of preconception and the slavery of tyranny. In a weird and possibly the most explicitly political aside of his entire lecture, he compared the European Union to the Tower of Babel, which was built so high that it would threaten God. After the tower collapses in the biblical story, people lose their ability to speak with one another. From this, Peterson leaps to talk about totalitarianism, which he defines as a state in which people cannot speak truth. Totalitarianism, according to Peterson, threatens to “replace the transcendent,” which is a concept he often returns to as the ultimate source of meaning behind everything. It is a complicated concept favored by both Peterson and U.S. conservative intellectuals in the past, but briefly and roughly it means that things receive meaning via an external source outside human interaction: God, or similar entity.

The parable of the Tower of Babel is about encroaching government becoming too big, on the brink of collapse. The true forces of tyranny are alluded to in quick asides, which often garnered the biggest applause from the audience that night. Throughout the lecture and the Q&A, Peterson takes quick jabs at “Political Correctness” and “Wokeness” which both he sees as stifling the ability to speak truths.

But it is not enough to simply escape tyranny. Peterson warns against fleeing tyranny into the desert, versus into paradise. Into chaos, versus into order. His offered definition of freedom is a game akin to chess rather than chaos. Freedom is therefore order. A way that things configure against one another.

Peterson’s call to adventure and liberation is therefore ultimately normative. It is the journey of men (and sure, women can come along too) to become fathers and feel empowered to speak their minds, whatever they might contain, with little worry of others. It is not the story of, for instance, trans people who might escape tyranny of their assigned-at-birth gender and find freedom in expressing their desired pronouns. Indeed, Peterson has continued to stay true to his anti-trans roots, getting temporarily expelled from pre-Muskian Twitter for insisting on dead-naming Elliot Page and pushing the (discredited) idea that being trans is a form of social contagion similar to the Satanic panic of the 1980s (there might be similarities between people freaking out about trans people today and satanic cults in the 1980s in that the reasons for panic are made up, but Peterson is not on the side of the equation he thinks he is).


What Peterson Ultimately Is

In speaking against “tyranny,” Jordan Peterson conjures the image of a singular prophet, one who dares the shed their shackles of preconception and speak out. The implication of the speech is for each member in the audience to imagine themselves as this lone prophet next time they say something out of turn, or, as is likely the case, bigoted and face social consequences. Yet one cannot help wondering how much this also constitutes Peterson’s own self-image as a prophet to his followers.

All throughout his time in the spotlight, Peterson has denied any association of himself as a right-winger or conservative. However, he rose to fame out of resisting societal change and specifically attacking one of the more vulnerable populations much akin to rhetorical tactics used by right-wing movements in the recent years. Even in his self-help books, generally simple life-lessons continuously lead toward more ideologically leaning implications. For instance, the lesson to have more confidence is offered with the prepackaged notion that hierarchies of domination are hard-wired into nature and therefore inescapable. In the book, he speaks against the “revolutionaries of the Sixties” and emphasizes personal responsibility in the face of societal obstacles. These are all recurring facets of conservatism in the U.S. in particular, but elsewhere as well. His general bugbears are the recurring enemies of the right: postmodernism, “Political Correctness,” and “wokeness.”

Even his assertion that he has no ideology is a facet of the U.S. conservative intellectual tradition, stemming all the way from conservative philosopher Russell Kirk who since the 1950s insisted that conservatism was not an ideology but its negation. Meanwhile, Peterson is the contributor for the conservative advocacy organization PragerU and right-wing YouTube influencer Ben Shapiro’s media outlet the Daily Wire’s subscription service.

Thus, I’d say f it quacks like a duck, attends largely duck-favored pools of water, and runs multiple podcasts and lecture series involving other ducks and duck-related subjects, it just might be a duck.

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