This is easy to do, because Youtube has dozens of videos of him talking. After spending much of last night and today watching him, I think I can speak to both why he is loved and why he is hated. If you want a five-minute exposure to Peterson, I suggest this clip in which he speaks about how to overcome social anxiety.
I think the most important point to make about Peterson is that he is a therapist. People keep trying to interpret him politically, but so far as I can tell he has little interest in politics. I have written here before about the great divide between the political and therapeutic approaches to the world, and confusion over the difference is corrupting how people react to Peterson. The world is hard, you know, and full of suffering. To this the politician says, "let's fix things so there is less suffering and less difficulty." The therapist says, "You have to become a tough enough person to endure the suffering and overcome the difficulty." Most of Peterson's controversial statements take the form of "stop complaining and toughen up." This enrages politically-minded people, who say, "You mean we shouldn't try to fight sexism and racism and lift up the poor?" Peterson rolls his eyes and says, "Go ahead and do what you can to improve the world, but meanwhile we all need to toughen up and get on with our lives." "So," say the activists, "you're saying that the suffering of the poor and the oppressed is their fault?" Round and round it goes, a perfect circle of misunderstanding.
The second thing about Peterson is that he is a Jungian in love with myths and archetypes. Like James Campbell or Robert Bly, he is always explaining contemporary things by reference to ancient Egypt or the pyramid on the dollar bill. This includes Jungian ideas about male and female; Peterson firmly believes that men and women are different in ways reflected in ancient stories. One of the best lectures of his I have seen riffs on the story of Peter Pan. The only example of adult masculinity he knows is the toxic one of Captain Hook, so he refuses to grow up, even though that means he can't have a real woman (Wendy) and has to make do with Tinkerbell, "the imaginary fairy of porn."
Like most modern Jungians Peterson draws on evolutionary psychology to buttress his views. He is always referring to dominance hierarchies, submissive gestures, reproductive success, the whole vocabulary of animal behavior. Thus you get passages like this one, from a long explanation of how life is poised between order and chaos:
Chaos the impenetrable darkness of a cave and the accident by the side of the road. It’s the mother grizzly, all compassion to her cubs, who marks you as potential predator and tears you to pieces. Chaos, the eternal feminine, is also the crushing force of sexual selection. Women are choosy maters. … Most men do not meet female human standards.And the third thing about Peterson, the thing that gives a hard edge to all his teaching, is his Nietzschean individualism: his insistence that only individuals matter, and that our only mission in life is to be a good and successful one, rather than a bad failure.
Your group identity is not your cardinal feature. That’s the great discovery of the west. That’s why the west is right. And I mean that unconditionally. The west is the only place in the world that has ever figured out that the individual is sovereign. And that’s an impossible thing to figure out. It’s amazing that we managed it. And it’s the key to everything that we’ve ever done right.Peterson uses this whole structure to carry out what one might call a therapeutic ministry to young western men. He is teaching, he says, "how not to be pathetic." If you want a woman, stop whining about how impossible they are and become the kind of man they want. If you want a job, become the kind of person employers want to hire. If you want anything at all, get out of your basement and get to work. You should, he says, consider yourself on a heroic mission:
Burden yourself with so much responsibility that you can barely stand, and then you'll get stronger trying to lift it up.The first rule in his new book, 12 Rules for Life, is "Stand up straight with your shoulders back." Posture, he says (with a full dose of both Jungian story telling and ethology) is a metaphor for how you live, and standing up straight means living with confidence, bearing your burdens proudly, treating others well, refusing to bend to bullies, and so on.
Peterson is especially interested in the dark side of our personalities, for good Jungian reasons. Until we confront and incorporate the dark, destructive sides of our natures, we are incomplete. In another video I watched, but have lost the link to, Peterson says you don't want to be the person who can't be cruel. Those people are weak and easily bullied. You also don't want to be a cruel person. You want to be the person who can be cruel but then does not; who is not afraid of his murderous darkness but has drawn it forth and mastered it. Weakness is not virtue; only the strong can truly be virtuous. And Peterson likes to display his "strength," as here, when he questions a call to treat everyone with respect:
You bloody don't get to demand my respect.Like many psychologists he is fascinated by the people who perpetuate genocide, and wonders what differentiates them from those who refuse to join in the slaughter:
I think I’m someone who is properly terrified. I’ve thought a lot about very terrible things. And I read history as the potential perpetrator – not the victim. That takes you to some very dark places. . . .So here comes this white guy telling young men that they need to get in touch with their dark sides and move up the dominance hierarchy and learn how to get what they want from life, including women; who believes men and women are very different for the most profound possible reasons, and rolls his eyes at trans people; and who has besides a suspicious fascination with Hitler. No wonder he infuriates leftists, despite his support for national health care, high taxes on the rich, strong environmental protections, and other liberal causes.
“Nietzsche pointed out that most morality is cowardice. There’s absolutely no doubt that that is the case. The problem with ‘nice people’ is that they’ve never been in any situation that would turn them into the monsters they’re capable of being.”
So if “nice people” get the chance to disguise their dark impulses from themselves, are they likely to indulge those impulses? “Yes. And a bit of soul-searching would allow them to determine in what manner they are currently indulging them.”
The fact of our essential darkness may, perhaps, be seen transparently in the flood of hatred, abuse and rage that is now clearly visible on anonymous Twitter feeds. It was “so-called normal people”, not sociopaths, who were responsible for the atrocities of Nazism, Stalinism and Maoism. We must not forget, says Peterson, that we are corrupt and pathetic, and capable of great malevolence.
Peterson is a reactionary in some ways, especially about several key questions that are prominent on college campuses. He hates identity politics because his main focus is the therapist's preoccupation with the healthy individual. He hates the whole movement to treat gender as something to be de-emphasized or changed at will because he believes that the eternal masculine and feminine are fundamental to our souls. He hates whining about the 1 percent because he thinks it is envy. He hates post-modernism because he thinks it subordinates truth to politics, and he believes very firmly that certain things are true whether you like them or not.
Plus – and this is the thing that gets the most exclamation points from his Youtube-posting fans – he hates big parts of contemporary progressive discourse because he believes they are hurtful to the young men he is trying to treat:
Women are structured differently from men, for biological necessity, even if it's not a psychological necessity, which it partly is. . . . Women know what they have to do. Men have to figure out what they have to do. And if they have nothing worth living for, then they stay Peter Pans. And why the hell not? . . . Why lift a load if there's nothing in it for you? That's another thing that we're doing to men that's a very bad idea, and to boys. It's like, you're pathological and oppressive. Well, fine then, why the hell am I going to play? If that's the situation, if I get no credit for bearing responsibility, you can bloody well be sure I'm not going to bear it. But then, you know, your life is useless and meaningless, you're full of self contempt and nihilism, and that's not good. . . . You're like a sled dog without a sled to pull, and you're going to tear pieces out of your own leg because you're bored.This I could not agree more with; if your idea of progressive politics is saying that all men or all white people are evil oppressors, then I want nothing to do with your agenda, and I hate it when people say things like that to my sons.
When Peterson does talk about politics directly he is much less compelling than when he talks about myth or psychology. In this interview he takes student activists to task for trying to change systems they do not understand. Why, he asks, do students who can't even clean their dorm rooms think they know how to make the country better? It's a strange, managerial approach to politics, as if these things could be done without any ideology or any passion. It is probably true that student activists would make a complete hash of running the government, but without the passion of activists, would anything ever change? Peterson thinks about students from a psychological perspective, and he sees them acting out rebellions against their parents and finding their identity through joining the cool club and so on. All of which is important and true, but still leaves out something vital about political activism in our age.
But as I said, Peterson rarely talks directly about politics. And yet – and this is what fascinates me –he has ended up in a political storm anyway. Politics and psychology are, I suppose, different ways of looking at the same thing: how people live together. So a way of understanding psychology necessarily has some political implications, and vice versa. I don't think, though, that we understand at all how to make them work together. Right now we have politics that demand we act rationally and psychology that explains why we never do; does that make any sense? Can we imagine a political system that both promotes mental health and draws realistically on the strengths and weaknesses of our minds?
For now, no.