How to Understand the Jordan Peterson Phenomenon

If you haven’t yet heard of Jordan Peterson, you soon will. The Canadian professor and psychologist is the author of the international bestselling book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. His YouTube channel has nearly a million subscribers and more than 40 million views. The New York Times columnist David Brooks describes him as “the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now.”

And talking about what Peterson means has practically become a requirement for Christian writers and thinkers (for example, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

With all the available commentary, why should anyone read another article about Peterson? While there may not be much more to add, I think two observations can help us make sense of the Peterson phenomenon.

The Jungian Francis Schaeffer

When trying to explain the sudden appearance and appeal of influential thinkers, we often compare them to those who came before. Such analogies quickly break down, of course, because differences between individuals are more numerous than are their shared qualities. For example, the meteoric rise of Peterson is reminiscent of Marshall McLuhan, another Canadian academic who helped explain the modern world. Yet on the most relevant points, Peterson is not at all like McLuhan.

A more fitting—though somewhat absurd—comparison would be to say that Peterson is reminiscent of Francis Schaeffer.

Schaeffer was a pastor-theologian, a “missionary to the intellectuals” rather than a true public intellectual. But for many Christians (including me), Schaeffer changed the way we viewed the world. Instead of being forced to choose either atheistic existentialism or Protestant fundamentalism, Schaeffer offered a third way—a Kuyperian-style Calvinism as a world and life view.

Through this lens, Schaeffer offered a perspective that was both personal and global. He showed how the Christian worldview could both help evangelicals follow their faith with intellectual integrity and also serve as an interpretive tool to explain everything in the world, from art to philosophy.

While Schaeffer’s theological views weren’t particularly innovative, his empathetic, pastoral concern—which came across even in his writings—helped expand his audience and his influence.

In a similar way, Peterson’s core message isn’t especially original (it’s mostly repackaged Jungianism, as we’ll consider below). His appeal is his genuine concern for individuals and their flourishing—an unusual trait for a public intellectual, and one that has made him a different kind of missionary.

So many evangelicals are fascinated and concerned about Peterson because he  exemplifies the kind of popular thought leader our movement has not produced since Schaeffer.

Personality alone, though, cannot fully explain the popularity of Peterson. His appeal is due largely to his ability to deliver an inspiring, albeit pseudo-Christian, counter-cultural message for an anxious age.

Seeing the World Through the Three-Axis Model 

In the 1960s, feminists and student activists adopted the phrase “the personal is political.” They meant that experiences were affected by political structures and policies, and that an examination of the private world could provide insights for our public lives. Peterson has subverted this view by showing how the political should lead us to focus more on the personal.

Peterson’s views resonate because they don’t align neatly with the standard political labels (conservative, liberal, libertarian, and so on). Instead, they capture the underlying structure.

Economist Arnold Kling has a simple framework for understanding this structure and finding the true political divisions in America. Rather than a simple “left-right” dichotomy, Kling argues that we tend to use particular heuristics (i.e., rules of thumb) that help us view and explain political issues. In general, Kling claims, we all fall somewhere along three-axes:

My hypothesis is that progressives, conservatives, and libertarians view politics along three different axes. For progressives, the main axis has oppressors at one end and the oppressed at the other. For conservatives, the main axis has civilization at one end and barbarism at the other. For libertarians, the main axis has coercion at one end and free choice at the other.

Kling first proposed this hypothesis in 2012, when the classifications of “progressives,” “conservatives,” and “libertarians” still seemed to have firmer boundaries. Today, it’s clear the disagreements within the three-axes are as significant as the divisions between them.

For example, both progressives and nationalists align along the oppressor-oppressed axis. Both factions believe politics is a zero-sum game and that if someone is “winning” (whether countries, classes, or races) then someone else must be “losing.” What distinguishes these opposing sides, such as intersectional feminists and populist nationalists or antifa and the alt-right, is who is doing the oppressing and who is oppressed.

The left-wing version of this axis also tends to fight over who is “most oppressed” since oppression and victimhood denotes moral status. (This is why there is so much infighting between progressive factions that should be united.) The right-wing version of this axis tends to have a “suppress or be oppressed” perspective, believing that if they don’t perpetually engage in ideological warfare with their political enemies they will become or continue to be the oppressed group. (This is why populists and nationalists tend to care more about symbolic victories [e.g., “making liberals cry”] than with advancing a political agenda that advances everyone’s interests.)

Over the past decade, in the wake of the Great Recession, the oppressor-oppressed axis has dominated the freedom-coercion and civilization-barbarism axes. These two axes used to be united in what was called “fusionism,” with libertarians (freedom-coercion) and traditionalist conservatives (civilization-barbarism) joining together in common cause. Only by working together could these two axes keep the oppressor-oppressed axis in check.

But fusionism was always tenuous, and the more society drifted toward individualism the harder it became to maintain the alliance. As a result these axes drifted further apart, to the detriment of both. The civilization-barbarianism axis has especially fallen out of favor as many conservatives—and especially the Religious Right—have drifted toward the oppressor-oppressed axis in an attempt to retain relevance.

And this is where Peterson comes in. He is a one-person model of how the two axes can be transmuted into a new fusionism.

Order-Chaos Axis

In 2016, Canada introduced legislation (which was passed a year later) adding gender expression and identity as a protected ground to the Canadian Human Rights Act, and also to the Criminal Code provisions dealing with hate propaganda, incitement to genocide, and aggravating factors in sentencing. Peterson became a vocal critic of the bill and the requirement to use alternative pronouns for transgender students or staff, like the singular “they” or “ze” and “zir,” used by some as alternatives to “she” or “he.”

“I’ve studied authoritarianism for a very long time—for 40 years—and they’re started by people’s attempts to control the ideological and linguistic territory,” Peterson told the BBC. “There’s no way I’m going to use words made up by people who are doing that—not a chance.”

His refusal to back down made him a champion of both the freedom-coercion and the civilization-barbarism axes (as well as to the “make liberals cry” oppressor-oppressed factions). This would have been enough to capture the public’s attention. But Peterson’s personality and depth of interest helped capture the public’s moral imagination.

Peterson takes the axis that Kling calls “civilization-barbarism” and reframes it as “order-chaos.” In doing so, he makes the axis both more expansive and also more personal. The briefest summary of Peterson’s perspective can be found in this 10 minute TEDx talk he gave on “redefining reality.”

Much of Peterson’s views sound fresh and new because Americans are unfamiliar with Jungian psychology. Aside from such terms as “introversion and extroversion,” Carl Jung hasn’t had much influence on our thinking. Instead, our culture became enamored with Jung’s rival, Sigmund Freud, and the more absurd and narrow explanations of Freudianism, such as the view that all human drives can be subsumed to sexual urges.

In previous eras, when society still retained sexual inhibitions, Freudianism seemed both plausible and liberating. But the sexual revolution helped reveal the fraud of Freudianism, and libertinism made it old-fashioned. In contrast, Jungianism—particularly as presented by Peterson—offers a more compelling alternative to those trapped in the “chaos” of modernity.

The problem is that Jungianism, if taken too seriously, becomes a humanist cult. As Joel McDurmon says,

For all of his toppling of great idols of humanism in our day, Dr. Peterson’s thought, from their presuppositions right through many of his conclusions, is as thoroughly humanist, autonomous, and thus ultimately dangerous, as anything any leftist every said. Christians need to be aware of the depths of this problem in Peterson’s thought, and the implications it has for their discernment of his teachings.

Peterson Plundering the Christians

Augustine once wrote that if pagan writers have “said things which are indeed true and are well accommodated to our faith,” their insights “should be taken from them as from unjust possessors and converted to our use.”

“Just as the Egyptians had not only idols and grave burdens which the people of Israel detested and avoided,” Augustine said, “so also they had vases and ornaments of gold and silver and clothing which the Israelites took with them secretly when they fled, as if to put them to a better use.” Peterson has adopted a similar approach, plundering our Christian tradition for his humanistic ends.

When the Irish band U2 covered the song “Helter Skelter,” Bono said, “This is a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles. We’re stealing it back.” Similarly, Peterson has stolen the song about order and meaning we Christians use to sing so well. It’s time we steal it back.