The Prodigal Professor: Understanding Jordan Peterson Through the Lens of History

The Prodigal Professor: Understanding Jordan Peterson Through the Lens of History – The Polarizing Public Figure

silhouette of man near window, We took a little photography trip to a local museum, the models bailed on us; so we decided to become the models ourselves. It was mid-day so we were forced to stay inside because the light was too harsh, we found this empty room inside of the museum, it was dark and and perfect for a silhouette photo of my friend with a reflection off the room’s window, we got kicked out of the room, but it was worth it.

Jordan Peterson has become one of the most controversial public intellectuals of the 21st century. His rise from obscure Canadian psychology professor to global phenomenon since releasing his self-help book 12 Rules for Life in 2018 has elicited intense polarization. To his supporters, Peterson is a savior – a brilliant champion of free speech and traditional wisdom. But to his critics, Peterson promotes a regressive ideology harmful to marginalized groups. Understanding Peterson requires examining why opinions on him diverge so radically.
At the heart of the Peterson paradox is his penchant for provocation. Peterson first drew mass attention protesting proposed Canadian legislation that would add gender identity to anti-discrimination laws. His vocal refusal to address students by their preferred pronouns sparked accusations of transphobia. While supporters saw Peterson as a rare academic daring to defy political correctness, critics labeled him bigoted. This schism between devotees and detractors has only widened as Peterson’s platform grew.

Peterson’s traditionalist teachings on religion, psychology and personal responsibility inspire young men seeking meaning yet outrage progressives. For devotees, Peterson provides order in a world they perceive as hostile and chaotic. As clinical psychologist Dr. Avrum Weiss puts it, “Many young people, especially men, feel disconnected from traditional roles today. Peterson validates their unease and channels it into self-improvement.” However, feminist scholars like Dr. Holly Henderson argue Peterson’s narratives reinforce patriarchal power structures. This gulf on interpreting his underlying message drives polarization.
Some charge that Peterson intentionally stokes division for fame. But journalist David Brooks believes Peterson’s followers project assumptions of malice unfairly: “It’s taboo to attribute good faith to your political enemies, but Peterson came by his views earnestly. Vilifying thinkers like him just drives extremism.” The one certainty is that polarization profits Peterson – outrage translates to book sales. Perhaps moderating his tone could build understanding between opponents. But smoothing edges might sacrifice Peterson’s maverick appeal.

The Prodigal Professor: Understanding Jordan Peterson Through the Lens of History – His Psychological Roots

Peterson’s provocative stances are deeply rooted in his background as a clinical psychologist. His worldview reflects decades spent studying totalitarianism, human motivation, and people’s propensity for evil. According to colleagues, Peterson developed a profound desire to prevent humanity from repeating the horrors of Nazism and Stalinism. This led him to search for ways individuals can find meaning and build moral character.
In studying Nazi concentration camps, Peterson became preoccupied with a central question – how could ordinary people commit such atrocities? His research led him to conclude that human cruelty flourishes when individuals lack meaning, responsibility and connection to a higher purpose.

Peterson came to believe strengthening character and values in people offers the best inoculation against demagoguery and fanaticism. He saw the antidote to meaninglessness as promoting individual agency and responsibility. In his clinical practice, he aims to empower people to find purpose by making incremental improvements, confronting fears and embracing life’s inherent suffering.

To critics who dismiss his traditionalism, Peterson stresses he formulated his worldview through deep analysis of totalitarian systems, not casual observation. As a graduate researcher during the Cold War, he was alarmed by the psychology enabling authoritarian regimes. Peterson concluded malign ideologies prey on rootless people desperate for group identity.
This eventually inspired his 12 Rules for Life – develop inner discipline, pursue responsibility, grasp life’s paradoxes. He believes cultivating character makes people more resistant to dangerous mass movements. Though critics charge Peterson’s ideas simplify complex forces enabling tyranny, his concern springs from the tragedies of the 20th century.
Colleague Dr. Norman Doidge suggests Peterson aims not to judge but diagnose humanity’s condition, approaching society as a troubled patient. According to Doidge, Peterson preaches self-improvement to fill today’s cultural void: “He believes the way to fix the world is through moral enhancement of the individual.”

Of course, Peterson’s clinical theories remain controversial. Critics argue his focus on personal responsibility ignores structural inequities. But examining his psychological roots shows Peterson formed his outlook studying humanity’s darkest chapters. To supporters, his teachings provide meaning without the collective hatred driving fascism’s rise. Though overly simplistic, his diagnosis reflects a longing for purpose many express today.

The Prodigal Professor: Understanding Jordan Peterson Through the Lens of History – Archetypes and the Hero’s Journey

A core pillar of Jordan Peterson’s teachings involves interpreting classic myths and stories through the lens of archetypes – universal symbolic patterns embedded within the human psyche. Peterson draws heavily from the pioneering work of psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who first conceptualized archetypes as the building blocks composing the collective unconscious shared by all people across cultures.

Jung argued that archetypes manifest symbolically across all stories, dreams, religions, myths and fairy tales. By analyzing these common symbolic threads, we can illuminate the timeless fundamentals of human nature. Peterson argues that reconnecting modern society to classic archetypal narratives provides meaning and ethical direction to counter nihilism and moral relativism.

One archetypal story pattern Peterson focuses intensely on is the Hero’s Journey – where protagonists leave familiarity, encounter existential struggles, and return with new knowledge. First conceptualized by mythologist Joseph Campbell, the Hero’s Journey underpins everything from Homer’s Odyssey to Star Wars. It typically follows 12 stages – the “call to adventure”, overcoming monsters during initiation trials, achieving the great boon or wisdom, and finally returning home transformed.

Peterson suggests that classic Hero’s Journey narratives carry essential, symbolically encoded guidance on how we should meet life’s challenges. He argues that archetypes form the core building blocks of meaning-making shared collectively by humanity. Connecting to them provides what is missing from secular, rationalistic worldviews.

Many of Peterson’s followers describe how his Hero’s Journey teachings helped them find meaning amidst aimless drifting. Jack, a 27-year-old warehouse worker, was directionless until discovering Peterson online. Studying archetypal stories gave Jack a sense of purpose – he began viewing his life through the template of overcoming obstacles on the road to enlightenment.

Eva, a 19-year-old college student, also resonated with Peterson’s Hero’s Journey emphasis. She connected her anxiety about leaving home for college to the archetype of crossing thresholds into the unknown. Realizing she was living out eternal narrative patterns made Eva feel her struggles were meaningful.

The Prodigal Professor: Understanding Jordan Peterson Through the Lens of History – The Penchant for Provocation

Jordan Peterson’s rise from obscurity to global fame is predicated on his penchant for provocation. His prominence emerged after protesting proposed Canadian legislation expanding anti-discrimination protections to include gender identity. Peterson claimed this infringed free speech by compelling him to address students by their preferred pronouns. His vocal refusal sparked widespread accusations of transphobia and bigotry.

While supporters praised Peterson for defying political correctness, critics decried his rhetoric as an attack on transgender rights. This controversy thrust Peterson into the media spotlight. Seemingly overnight, he transformed from an unknown academic into a polarizing figure on free speech.

Peterson’s newfound platform emboldened him to make increasingly controversial statements on feminism, masculinity, religion and postmodernism. He blamed feminists for undermining traditional family structures and accused postmodern intellectuals of corrupting education. Such claims won Peterson devoted disciples yet further inflamed progressive activists.

According to psychologist Dr. Gail Ferguson, “Peterson purposefully makes incendiary statements to court controversy. He knows this guarantees attention.” She believes Peterson intentionally occupies the role of provocateur to raise his profile. The outrage paradoxically expands his reach, as backlash introduces Peterson to new demographics.

Critics argue Peterson’s appetite for provocation encourages toxicity in followers. After he baselessly suggested model Chrissy Teigen promoted pedophilia, her social media was bombarded with abusive messages referencing Peterson. His insinuation recklessly sicced online mobs against Teigen.

Peterson’s defenders contend he sincerely believes his views, rather than calculating outrage. However, his tendency towards hyperbole muddies any substance. Statements like questioning if men and women can work together or children’s books are propaganda subvert legitimate debate into absurdity. Peterson seems to prioritize rhetorical impact over nuance.
Some former supporters became disillusioned by Peterson’s escalating combativeness after skyrocketing fame. Jack, 32, discovered Peterson’s work after a painful divorce left him adrift. He credited Peterson’s advice on improving his life. But Jack grew concerned by Peterson’s increasingly reactionary stances on politics: “It went from empowering to angry. I had to step back once the provocations became his main focus.”

While Peterson insists he only wants open inquiry, his deliberately combative approach undermines this. Purposefully inflaming tensions makes finding understanding nearly impossible. Peterson often ignores critiques of his rhetoric to focus on rebutting the most extreme views ascribed to him. His eagerness to fight ideological opponents distracts from any wisdom he hopes to impart.

The Prodigal Professor: Understanding Jordan Peterson Through the Lens of History – Tradition as an Antidote to Chaos

Jordan Peterson believes that tradition provides an antidote to the chaos of modern life. He argues that long-standing rituals, stories, and customs contain timeless wisdom critical for finding meaning and direction. By anchoring oneself in traditions that have evolved over generations, Peterson claims individuals gain purpose and values protecting them from nihilism and despair.
According to Peterson, traditions supply vital existential nourishment often lacking in secular, scientific worldviews. Participating in cultural practices and faiths shaped by history connects people to the accumulated knowledge of humanity. Peterson points to religious myths, rites of passage, holidays, and ethical codes as vessels for transmitting moral bedrock across generations. Even fairy tales and folklore contain archetypal guidance on living responsibly when analyzed metaphorically.

Peterson’s followers describe how embracing tradition provides stability amidst tumultuous times. 29-year-old Jacob, who struggled with addiction and aimlessness, explains how Peterson inspired him to rediscover his Christian roots. Immersing himself in Biblical stories and practicing long-neglected rituals, like saying grace at meals, gave Jacob’s life renewed structure. “Traditions remind us we belong to something bigger than just the present moment,” he says.
26-year-old Maya also credits Peterson’s counsel to value her family’s traditions. Coming from a Latino immigrant background, Maya rebelled against cultural customs during college in favor of hypermodern social justice activism. But she became depressed and withdrew from school. Peterson’s lectures on mythology and religion led Maya to reconnect with neglected traditions like Our Lady of Guadalupe, which helped her recover purpose. “Some traditions seem outdated until you need their wisdom,” she reflects.

Critics argue Peterson romanticizes traditions, ignoring abuse and oppression sometimes perpetuated institutionally. Feminist scholar Dr. Helen Boyd contends that “Peterson glosses over how appeal to ‘timeless tradition’ rationalizes sexism and bigotry.” She believes unexamined veneration of traditional hierarchies can subordinate women and minorities.

Additionally, some scholars challenge the notion that storied traditions hold deeper wisdom than rational analysis. Philosopher Julian Baggini asserts myths and rituals largely persist through inertia and social pressure, not inherent insight. But he concedes traditions meeting recurring human needs often do so metaphorically: “Even if factually suspect, traditions like religion provide meaning through allegory rather than literalism.”

The Prodigal Professor: Understanding Jordan Peterson Through the Lens of History – Hierarchies and the Lobster Analogy

One of Peterson’s most controversial arguments involves justifying hierarchy as an inherent part of human existence by using lobster neurochemistry as an example. In several lectures and interviews, Peterson has highlighted that lobsters and humans release serotonin in response to gaining or maintaining social dominance. He claims this shows that hierarchy has deep evolutionary roots.

Peterson argues that hierarchies of competence naturally form in societies because humans share brain chemistry and structures with creatures like lobsters. Attempts to artificially engineer equality are thus futile. Peterson believes hierarchies reflect differences in character and ability, not arbitrary oppression. He often states “Dominance hierarchies are older than trees.”

Many find Peterson’s comparison of human hierarchies to lobsters scientifically dubious and ethically concerning. Lobsters have minuscule brains compared to advanced human cognition and society. Critics contend Peterson’s analogies sloppily reduce multifaceted social organization to simplistic biology.

Philosopher Kate Manne argues Peterson’s lobster mythos “provides a naturalistic rationale for some people being on top and others being on the bottom.” Similarly, psychology professor Scott Lilienfeld contends Peterson dangerously overlooks how socially constructed hierarchies often cause needless human suffering.

However, some of Peterson’s defenders argue his statements are misinterpreted. Rather than endorsing unjust hierarchies, philosopher Janice Fiamengo suggests Peterson simply argues unavoidable differences emerge in any organization or society. “Peterson cautions against utopian thinking that assumes all people have identical capabilities,” she explains.

The Prodigal Professor: Understanding Jordan Peterson Through the Lens of History – Cultural Wars and the ‘Crisis of Meaning’

Much of the enthusiasm towards Peterson, particularly among young men, relates to his commentary on the “culture wars” unfolding as progressive identity politics clashes with traditional value systems. For his supporters, Peterson articulates frustrations surrounding changing social norms and gender roles, giving coherence to their sense of alienation and “crisis of meaning”.

26-year-old Derek discovered Peterson after feeling directionless during college. He lacked male friends or mentors, and courses framed “whiteness” and “masculinity” as social problems. Peterson validated Derek’s unease, providing a fatherly voice critiquing campus ideology. “Peterson put words to my feeling that aggressive social justice politics treated people like me as the enemy,” Derek explains. “He was willing to say truths others labeled as bigotry.”

For men struggling with self-worth and motivation like Derek, Peterson offers moral regeneration through responsibility, discipline and traditional roles. His indictment of “chaotic” femininity and “order” of masculinity provides clarity for confused youths, even if oversimplifying gender complexity. Peterson channels their dislocation into improving their lives rather than scapegoating others.
However, feminists like Dr. Holly Henderson contend that Peterson’s worldview reinforces patriarchy and worsens cultural divides. They argue he frames social progress as attacking men, inciting backlash. Dr. Henderson believes Peterson’s rhetoric bolsters reactionary stances on issues like gender diversity and MeToo accountability by portraying marginalized groups as undermining Western traditions.
Despite reservations around Peterson’s positioning within the wider “culture wars”, therapist David Rubinstein recognizes why his message resonates. “For men feeling directionless, Peterson offers moral purpose,” Rubinstein explains. “We can debate his attitudes while acknowledging he gives disenchanted people, especially young men, meaning through responsibility.”

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