If you’re trying to understand the worldview and appeal of bestselling author/psychologist Jordan Peterson from an erudite, Christian perspective, you can’t do better than the work of Alastair Roberts. Roberts’ lengthy essays on Peterson, his new book, and the reasons for his sudden prominence are exceptional, and I commend them to you.
I read 12 Rules For Life shortly after it was published. My own interpretation of Peterson’s project is that it is first and foremost a response to nihilism. Peterson isn’t interested in making Christians or conservatives out of his readers. He is, on the other hand, committed to demolishing the post-structuralist moral lethargy of contemporary progressivism. That this goal has been widely conflated with Christian evangelism or right-wing signaling says far more about our wider culture than it does about Peterson himself. Christians who are overeager to appropriate Peterson as a deep cover operative for the gospel are unwittingly conceding secularism’s power to move the goalposts. No orthodox, Bible-bound and tradition-rooted believer can resonated fully with Peterson’s psycho-parabolic interpretations of the faith.
You can’t sum up Peterson’s growing platform merely by pointing to his rejection of progressivism. There are lots of conservatives out there, including many intellectuals. So why does Peterson’s influence seem disporportionate compared to others who are likewise thinking and writing and speaking against the same trends and ideologies?
How Jordan Peterson Conquered the Internet
The key to that question is, I think, to look where Peterson’s platform came from: The internet. Peterson’s ideas and lectures have been streamed via YouTube and other platforms for several years now. In the preface to 12 Rules, Peterson recounts that the content of the book was first iterated by him in an online app called Quora, a crowdsourcing Q & A platform on which Peterson’s ideas about psychology, parenting, marriage, gender, and motivation found an eager audience. His popular TED Talks have continually heightened his online profile, and even mediocre-quality video recordings of his 200-level courses boast hundreds of thousands of views. In other words, Jordan Peterson is internet famous.
If Peterson were a Florida-based talk radio host, almost nothing he says in his lectures or in 12 Rules for Life would be noteworthy. If he were a fellow at, say, the Heritage Foundation, or a National Review columnist, it’s difficult to imagine anyone singling him out in a positive way. Peterson’s notability rather comes from two complementary facts about him: He is an online commodity, but he doesn’t talk like he is. He is a figure of “internet culture” whose ideas and language cut across that culture. He has a prophetic and energizing appeal, in other words, to people who are exhausted from living under the anticulture of the internet.
In his book Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen describes “anticulture” as what is left behind when radical individualism subsumes cultural norms and shared understandings. Because the language of autonomous personal rights is inherently at odds with the language of community and culture, the implementation of those rights—especially by a central state—demands the destruction of existing culture. Because human beings cannot live together without culture, however, there must be something to take its place. The only culture that is compatible with radical liberal individualism is anticulture. It is the culture of nothing, made by no one in particular, for no particular reason. The norms and values of anticulture can be summed up in only one idea: People are free to be and do whatever they like, and you cannot question this.
It may sound strange to talk of the Internet as if it has a culture, but it does. Online life has particular rhythms and languages that people who spend time online must learn in order to properly assimilate. Two very different but equally helpful examples of what happens when someone fails to assimilate into online culture are former governor Mike Huckabee and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Both Huckabee and Tyson are accomplished men who command a lot of respect from their respective ideological tribes. Neither of them, though, seem able to use Twitter well. Huckabee’s attempts at humor are groan-worthy, too on-the-nose, and come off extremely self-important. Likewise Tyson shows a painful lack of self-awareness as he earnestly and pedantically explains (among many other things) why Star Wars is not scientific.
These are trivial examples, but they illustrate the point. The internet has a culture, a culture that can be detected most clearly when people run afoul of it. On closer inspection, however, the culture of the internet is much more akin to Deneen’s anticulture than a flourishing community of norms and mutual understandings. For one thing, digital technology depersonalizes individuals by removing their physical presence and compressing their identities into things that can be easily exchanged in online society—things like personal narratives, or ideologies, or subculture, or even victim status. Because people in the online community can only know one another through these markers that the technology enables and the individuals permit, the internet’s social “rules of engagement” —its culture—are overwhelmingly deferential and censorious. There is nothing in online living to parallel the complexities and challenges of, say, cross-ethnic interaction offline, where proximity and physical presence often disarm stereotypes and biases and reveal shared elements of culture.
Instead, the anticulture of the internet often leaves no alternatives to either immediate deference and validation of someone else’s identity—their narrative—or else outraged dominance of the other. Those who choose the latter strategy are rightly denounced as trolls and are identifies as outside the civilized space of online community. That means that the first option, instinctive deference and authentication of mutually contradicting narratives, is the only one for people who want to be liked and respected online.
The essential feature of online life is that it fosters a curated homogeneity. In a 2014 essay for the MIT Technology Review, Manuel Castells described, positively, the community of social media as a community of radical individuality:
Our current “network society” is a product of the digital revolution and some major sociocultural changes. One of these is the rise of the “Me-centered society,” marked by an increased focus on individual growth and a decline in community understood in terms of space, work, family, and ascription in general. But individuation does not mean isolation, or the end of community. Instead, social relationships are being reconstructed on the basis of individual interests, values, and projects. Community is formed through individuals’ quests for like-minded people in a process that combines online interaction with offline interaction, cyberspace, and the local space…
The virtual life is becoming more social than the physical life, but it is less a virtual reality than a real virtuality, facilitating real-life work and urban living.
This “real virtuality” is nothing less than an alternative epistemological and social structure that powerfully shapes how we think and how we interact with one another. The real virtuality has a defined anticulture, expressed through social media’s outrage mobs and ironic detachment from moral earnestness through enforced expressive individualism.
Jordan Peterson’s messaging clashes violently against this anticulture, and the conflict is all the more compelling because Peterson is an active member of the virtual community. Where the internet anticulture downplays the disciplines of routine life, Peterson says “If you want to find meaning, clean your room.” Where the internet anticulture either pornifies women or depersonalizes gender into meaningless social categories, Peterson posits metaphysical, even mystical differences between the sexes. Where the internet anticulture eschews religion as a symbol of the regressive, Peterson offers an explanation for all of human history that is rooted in God. To the millions of people who consume the anticulture of the internet for hours every day, Peterson’s ideas sound either astonishingly violent or revolutionarily liberating. The fact that they are actually neither goes missed because of the context from which Peterson is speaking. He is assaulting nihilism from the inside and questioning secularism from within.
We do not yet fully understand the sociological ramifications of online communities. Social media and smartphone technology have undone the normal architectures of human experience much faster than most could have predicted. For Millennials especially, the experience of growing up with the internet is one that has not yet borne all its fruit. Our nieces and nephews have grown up not only with the internet but with mobile omni-connectivity. What does this mean for us as people?
Peterson’s growing platform may be a clue. It’s possible that in the coming years the anticulture of the internet will be combined with the market power of a few elite tech companies that use algorithms to actually create community thinking. Curation will empower more homogeneity, more virtue signaling, and more resistance to people and institutions that cut across the anticulture. This resistance will, like all cultural resistances do, inspire more fringe interest in dissenting voices. As many commenters have pointed out, Peterson’s worldview is not a culture warring one. He is received as a culture warrior not because his ideas are extreme but because his audience is. If online connectivity keeps consuming all aspects of public life, this dynamic will only intensify.
For now, it is enough to say that Jordan Peterson is successful at this moment because he is offering real help to those disillusioned with the anticulture of the internet. Christians should take note, and realize that even in places where resistance to the gospel seems most entrenched, the field is ripe for harvest.