By Jonathon Van Maren
Dr. Jordan Peterson is once again traveling the continent giving lectures on his 2021 book Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life. In response, the Jordan Peterson explainers are popping up in the papers, with various pointy-headed pundits attempting to articulate why Peterson is so popular. At this point, we’ve heard them all—he’s a populist pundit, an alt-right reactionary, a figurehead for toxic masculinity. These tired slanders are the product of barren imaginations and air-tight skulls. Peterson is none of those things. He’s the guy heading towards the cultural leper colony.
Young men are having a rough go these days, and young women are outperforming them by nearly every metric . Around 25% of American children—around 18 million of them—grow up without a father or father figure in the home. That’s the reason Chicago native Rob Kenney—who grew up without a dad—launched a YouTube channel called “Dad, how do I?” teaching fatherless young men how to do things their fathers should have taught them, like how to tie a tie or unclog a drain. The channel picked up 1.85 million subscribers within two months—it now has more than 3.9 million. Jordan Peterson falls into the same category—in National Review, Christian Chensvold called him “YouTube’s Father Figure.”
Peterson is famous for his compassion for struggling young men, and has been frequently reduced to tears publicly while talking about their difficulties, the stories they tell him, and those who say he’s changed (or even saved) their lives. Millions of young men love Peterson in return, and it is easy to see why. He genuinely cares about young men that many have found generally easy to despise—porn-addicted, video-game obsessed, dysfunctional young men who have never been taught to work are often nearly incapable of sustaining solid relationships (and have never even been shown what they look like.) Both the Right and the Left often hold them in contempt.
The Right thinks they should grow up, get a job, and pull themselves up by their bootstraps, even if they don’t have any or if they didn’t have a dad to teach them how to use bootstraps. The Left places them at the very bottom of the totem pole, young men who may be toxic only because no father figure has ever taught them to be useful, but condemned and dismissed nonetheless. Many young men are victims of broken families with nobody speaking for them, the Right telling them to get it together, and the Left telling them they’re horrible. They are viewed unsympathetically, but many simply do not know how to become men in the first place.
Enter Jordan Peterson, who has done something quite different: He loves them. He obviously wants to help them. He takes their Skype calls to talk about their problems. He calms their nerves when they’re asking questions. There was a moment in 2018 on his first book tour when a young man was asking him a question that he’d written out in advance on his smartphone. He was shaking and nervous and stumbling over his words, and Peterson addressed him quietly: “Don’t worry about the others in the room. Just pretend it is you and I, and ask your question.” Only the first few rows heard him say it. So did the young man. He asked his question.
If you’re a social conservative like myself, it’s easy to fall into the trap of despising many young men because you constantly see the harm they’ve caused. Generally speaking (by the data), they’re obsessed with porn; they ask girls for naked pictures which they share around with others; they’re cynical; they don’t know how to treat women. But then again, many of them didn’t have fathers. Nobody taught them that porn was poison; that true, intimate relationships are a source of happiness and fulfillment; that restraint is essential to a meaningful life. That is, until Dr. Jordan Peterson showed up and told them to clean their rooms. Millions of them are listening.
I’ve said often that I do believe I was born with privilege, but that it has nothing to do with ethnicity and everything to do with having loving parents and a large family to grow up in. Millions grow up without that privilege, and thus things I take for granted are denied to many young men who experience only bitterness and absence in their place. Boys desperately need fathers to teach them how to live, how to work, how to love women, how to be men. Without fathers, we are lost. Jordan Peterson with his maps of meaning is to many young men a father figure because he sees who they might have been if their fathers had stuck around, and who they might yet be if they work on themselves.
It has always confused me that progressives despise Jordan Peterson so fiercely. His is not a particularly ideological project. His primary purpose seems to be turning young men into solid citizens—the war for their ideological affections can come later. Far from being an alt-right guru, he is helping boys become men—the sort of men that women can marry and have children with. His fight is, in that sense, a civilizational one. We’re lucky to have him.