Jordan Peterson's Call to Adventure: Why a Canadian psychologist is becoming a well-known figure in America

He’s certainly not a “household name” yet, but he is racking up some decent book sales and millions of views of his YouTube clips. Back in February, I wrote about his now legendary interview with Cathy Newman in which she spent nearly half-an-hour trying to put words in his mouth. Today Esquire published a lengthy profile of Peterson which was praised by NY Times opinion writer Bari Weiss:

I read the piece and found it interesting because it presented another side of Peterson and his work that I wasn’t aware existed. Peterson’s detractors paint him as a fascist (or proto-fascist) looking to lead angry, young men down some sort of alt-right path. But the author of this piece suggests Peterson’s appeal to many is as a kind of father figure, someone who tells them to stop wasting their time and get their act together.

Here in a guest cottage at the summit of a high hill in northern California, the tenth stop on a three-continent tour to promote his new book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Jordan Peterson has broached the topic that never fails to move him to tears. The emotional burden he bears as a virtual father figure to millions of wayward young men.

For a moment, he resists, falling silent and still. He looks stricken. “This always breaks me up.” The tension gathers in his weather-beaten face. He flushes. The effort to hold back tears then shifts to the effort to expel them. They flow freely. The cathartic release of emotion sends a subtle tremor through his rather emaciated body. He recovers his speech. “I don’t tell people, ‘You’re okay the way that you are.’ That’s not the right story. The right story is ‘You’re way less than you could be.’”…

The themes that preoccupy Peterson—good and evil, personal responsibility, honesty of speech, love of family, the virtue of child-rearing, adherence to the daily and continuous work of self-improvement—are so dulled by overuse on the tongues of grotesque right-wing hypocrites they’ve long since been emptied of meaning. Peterson’s gift is to infuse them with renewed life, to speak them in a way that does not fill his youthful, godless, reflexively cynical audience with embarrassment. How he manages this is a marvel of the age.

And it’s that pastoral message that is getting through to a lot of his most ardent fans:

Peterson would sometimes forward Szemberg emails he had received from viewers of the series. “A young man from Italy wrote in, saying, ‘I was about to commit suicide. I heard your lecture. And I’m going to live.’ The ability that [Peterson] has to speak to those who feel themselves at the end of the line, and to tell them: ‘There is a way for you to regroup and to rethink yourself and be productive and live a good life.’ That’s real. That’s not his imagination. The response that he gets proves how important it is for there to be someone who is believable when he says, ‘You can do it.’”…

I watched several hundred people trade a few words with Peterson, some of them bearing gifts. “You are omnipresent in our life,” said the female half of one married couple.

“Thank you for helping me to become a less agreeable person,” said one Asian woman.

“You’ve helped me to grow up,” said a young man.

The ratio of those expressing gratitude for the positive effect Peterson had had on their personal lives to those wanting to talk about the culture wars was roughly twenty to one, a more or less perfect inversion of the impression given by much of the media.

I spoke to a Hispanic man named Joseph. “I was smoking too much weed. I was drinking too much. I hadn’t talked to my family in years. I didn’t think I needed anyone. Now I know that I do,” he said, wiping away tears…

I asked if Jordan had tried other self-help programs or books. “Yeah, but none has ever made a difference.” I noted that Peterson’s message is a dark one. “That’s why I like it. When he says, ‘Life is suffering,’ that resonates very deeply. You can tell he’s not bullshitting us.”

I haven’t watched more than a small portion of Peterson’s videos, but I would agree that his innate pessimism is part of his appeal. He sometimes comes across as a cheerleader for a somewhat grim Sisyphean struggle. You’re going to be miserable, he says, that’s a given. But you can make things better if you try to rise above it.

Peterson is even pessimistic about his own future as a kind of internet celebrity. “I’m surfing a one-hundred-foot wave,” he told one interviewer, adding, “And generally what happens if you do that is that you drown.” There are certainly plenty of people eager to see him go under, but true to his own message, he keeps surfing.