Having listened to a decent amount of Jordan Peterson content and read his book, the way that he continues to be represented in the press and in much of academics is fascinating to me. There is a general consensus amongst the elites that he is dangerous for some reason, but their explanations invariably mischaracterize what he produces.
I think I finally understand why this is. One thing that is often mentioned by press that is favorable to him is that he is “earnest” by nature. In fact, it’s more accurate to say that he believes not only that there are bad things, but that there are good things. Not “good” as in enjoyable to particular person(s) in the world, but objectively and morally good—as in noble, edifying, inspiring, uplifting, and and worthy.
© Travis Rupert / 2018
These are, in general, concepts that are foreign to our cultural elites, whose cynicism and ironic skepticism are legendary.
They have been taught—and now believe and teach themselves—that nothing means anything. Everything is a pose, or at best merely a personal preference. Belief in “goodness” as a quantity and as a concept is as anachronistic as belief in a flat earth or in the four humors. Such belief rightly belongs today only to the credulous, to the naive and the simple.
Now along comes someone who says without irony and while holding a Ph.D. that nobility is actually a thing. Not only that, but lots of grown people actually agree with him. This is very troubling to our cultural elites. Though they frame their reactions as exercises in public intellectualism, I think something more personal is at stake underneath it all.
They can’t afford to confront the possibility that nobility might exist after all, because they have spent their entire lives being dismissive of it. They have spent their entire lives, in fact, cultivating the kind of willful, self-satisfied ignobility that an ironic, postmodern pose embodies. It is the adolescent triumph of the sneering nonbeliever, “woke” not so much in the social justice sense as in the “your parents have been lying to you and Santa Claus isn’t actually real” sense.
To imagine that there might be something actually noble somewhere in the world, or that there might be things to be taken seriously, or that (most importantly) something somewhere in human life might actually mean something to someone without the wry qualification of caveats or knowing winks—is to imagine that they have wasted their entire lives becoming something banal and tasteless when they might have been so much more.
They argue that Peterson is a threat to social structure precisely because they can’t admit to themselves or anyone else that Peterson has placed them uncomfortably face-to-face with their personal values and unexpectedly shown these to be avoidant and overcompensative rather than impervious and astutely shrewd.
In short, Peterson makes them feel like middle-class teenage punk rockers feel when they come face-to-face with actual battle-worn and battle-weary rebels that have been on humanity’s toughest front lines. Their years of taking the piss—which used to make them feel important and knowing—suddenly feel small and twee after all instead, despite pretensions to the opposite—as do they, themselves, if they don’t push back cognitively and reinterpret things as quickly as possible before the rising implications become conscious realizations.
If Peterson is right, they’re suddenly not the smartest people in a room full of naive plebes; rather, they themselves are the naive ones in a civilization of adults who were right all along. And like all callow youths, they can’t afford to countenance this loss of face at the personal level; it would require that they start all over again in building a self that they aren’t embarrassed by in a world in which nobility and vice are things after all.
In short, it’s not what Peterson might mean for the world that is so troubling to some people, despite what they say; rather, I suspect that what’s at stake is what Peterson might mean for their images of themselves and their own contributions to the world.