Jordan Peterson's Third Way
There’s a question I’ve been getting a lot lately. If, as I’ve argued, the combative and gratuitously provocative approach of the culture warriors doesn’t work as well today, and that the cultural synchronization and affirmation of the cultural engagement model is obsolete, then what should Christians (or political conservatives, who have similar styles) do? How should they engage with today’s “negative world”?
I don’t think there’s one recipe everyone should follow, but I like to give the example of Jordan Peterson from four years ago. In particular, his 2018 appearance on the UK’s Channel 4 is a model of how to behave. This is one of the events that helped make Peterson famous. Even if you’ve watched it before, it’s worth doing so again after reading my analysis. The section about the so-called gender pay gap is too long, but don’t let that stop you from watching till the end.
There are a few points I’d highlight about Peterson here.
He is culturally engaged. Channel 4 is a major public broadcaster in the UK, and he takes advantage of the opportunity to appear on it.
He has skin in the game. Peterson agrees to this interview even though he surely knew that he would be facing a hostile interviewer. And since his interviewer would be female, there would be something of a double standard in which she would be free to attack him, but he would be called a misogynist if he did the same to her. This raised the degree of difficulty for him. Yet as someone who knows he has an audience of mostly young men, and also what the criteria of masculine behaviors are, he knows he has to go into the arena if he wants to be credible. Any number of very prominent Christian leaders in America seem to only talk to elite secular media when it’s very likely that the reporter will be friendly (e.g., talking to David Brooks about his article on saving evangelicalism from itself). They aren’t risking hostile interviews or cancellation these days.
He holds frame. Peterson maintains his own frame at all times. The interviewer is operating from a socially sanctioned feminist frame in which her questions and argumentation are predicated on what’s good for women (and by extension, good for herself). Women promoting what they think is good for women or even themselves personally is socially approved. Peterson never adopts this frame. He doesn’t apologize for having attracted a predominantly male audience, even though that was not his original goal. He is happy to discuss what’s good for women, but you’ll note that his first answer about why he tells young men to grow up and be competent is that it’s good for the men themselves. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a pastor exhort men to do something on the basis that it’s good for the men themselves. It’s certainly a rare form of argumentation today. Almost the totality of even nominally pro-men or pro-boy arguments treat the men themselves as instrumental to achieving some other social good. An example of this might be that we should care about fatherlessness if we want to stop school shootings. In this line of thought, the well-being of fatherless boys is only a concern inasmuch as it affects some social ill that we actually care about. Peterson’s willingness to care for young men because he views them as important in their own right, as ends not just means, is extremely rare and is a huge part of why he drew so many followers. Your frame in your context may not be the same as Peterson’s, but you need to be able to hold that frame and exhibit the same sort of integrity he did here. I use the term integrity here in the sense of structural integrity. He does not allow pressure from the interviewer to deform or destroy his frame integrity.
He’s speaking truth. Similarly, Peterson here says any number of true things that are unpopular or disallowed in contemporary elite or “legitimate” discourse. He notes that hierarchy is inevitable and natural for human beings. He says that while sexism exists, factors other than sexism account for the lion’s share of the difference in pay between men and women. He’s not saying it in a provocative style, or to gratuitously offend. But he’s confidently and calmly stating that these truths.
He stands his ground without getting defensive. This is related to the two points above. When challenged, he stands his ground. He doesn’t back down or equivocate, though he does acknowledge complexity and speak with nuance when appropriate. He also doesn’t get emotional, defensive, etc. He just continues restating his position in the face of hostile questioning. That doesn’t mean he’s totally passive. He does go on rhetorical offense at times. For example, when asked why his right to free speech should trump a transgendered person’s right to be offended, he asks why she should get to offend him. He also uses the “agree and amplify” technique. When asked at the end about his online followers attacking his critics, he says something to the effect of, “Yeah, and I attack my critics too.” (He then clarifies that he is referring to his academic critics). Rhetorical aggression is completely legitimate. The key is that he controls his use of it and is not being driven by emotion or reactivity.
He demonstrates mastery of his material. Jordan Peterson isn’t just running his mouth. He shows that he has complete mastery of the psychology literature in the areas where he is speaking, and can draw on his long history as a clinician. One of his core exhortations to young men is to become competent. He demonstrates that competence here.
He has credentials. Peterson has a Ph.D. from McGill (a very prestigious Canadian university), and was on the faculty at Harvard and the University of Toronto (another prestigious school). While credentials are certainly over-valued today, and credentials don’t necessarily guarantee competence or even basic honesty today, the fact that Peterson has these credentials gives him added credibility in the public square. We go off base when we become credentials obsessed. But we are equally controlled by credentials when we are reflexively and monolithically opposed to them. Instead we should seek to understand what credentials convey genuine value, in what context, and which ones are useful and wise for us to pursue.
There’s a reason this interview was electric, went viral, and has drawn over 38 million views so far. This despite the fact that much of his advice is very basic and banal. Peterson gives a masterclass on one type of public engagement approach that we need to see more of today. It unfortunately way too easy to come across as a prophet today because of how truly dreadful so much of the American elite class is.
Now, Peterson subsequently went through some severe personal problems. He’s also morphed in ways that are unfortunate. I would not hold up the Jordan Peterson of today as a model to nearly the extent as the Peterson of four years ago. But keep in mind, he was subjected to sudden fame, enormous public pressure, as well as the weight of responsibility of having millions of young men changing the way they live their lives based on what he said. Few of us have ever experienced that kind spotlight and pressure, and we should not be so sure we would not suffer similar problems.
Regardless, this model and the seven attributes I highlight from it form a very useful third way model between the provocateur model of the culture warriors and the assimilation model of too many cultural engagers.
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