Opinion: Farewell Jordan Peterson, a snake oil salesman for our troubled times

OPINION: In 1968 a man named Erich von Däniken made millions with his book Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past, a compilation of unscientific gibberish about aliens that became popular because everyone was obsessed with space at the time.  

In 2018 a man named Jordan B Peterson pulled off the same feat with 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.

I first wrote about Dr Peterson in August last year, and I still haven't heard the end of it. I've made a lot of people mad in my relatively short journalism career, but nothing else has triggered the same level of anger as that article.

I'm not particularly proud of that listicle, which I threw together in an hour-and-a-half with minimal prior knowledge of the guy. So I decided to give Dr Peterson a fair go.

Over the summer I read 12 Rules, his wildly popular self-help book. On Saturday I went to see him speak at the Logan Campbell Centre. Outside the venue, I spoke to people who had bought tickets in a genuine attempt to understand his appeal. 

Dr Peterson's fans have been stereotyped as angry young men lashing out at feminism, or older guys furious that their grip on societal power seems to be slipping.

That's not the impression I got. One man told me Dr Peterson saved him from addiction. A couple of 20-year-olds said they felt disconnected from their generation and had finally found someone to look up to.

Everyone who spoke to me was eloquent and reasoned, aware of the common criticisms of Dr Peterson and armed with decent counterarguments.

I don't think they're wrong for connecting with a public intellectual who has made cerebral topics like philosophy and mythology mainstream. I'm not angry with them.

I am angry with Dr Peterson, who has pulled off the greatest scam of our time.

I watched him pace around the stage on Saturday, listened to him ramble through half-baked ideas, and reached the conclusion that he is an absolute grifter.

He's convinced millions of people that watching a middle-aged man pontificate for 90 minutes is akin to a religious experience. You can get that for free at any bar in the world.

I don't think the people who like this guy are stupid. I think they're lost and scared and desperate for someone to show them the way.

White men made up the majority of his audience on Saturday, a fact he mentioned during the Q&A segment in an incredibly defensive bad faith argument. He sneered at the idea that the demographics of a fanbase might be relevant information. 

It's fair to say that men are having a weird time right now. As cultural attitudes shift at break-neck internet speed, traditional ideas of what it means to be a man are receding with no concrete alternative.

In this odd time between two eras, I imagine a lot of men feel scolded by those who say they're not progressive enough, while also feeling mocked and undermined by lurking patriarchal norms. The world is chaos for these people - they don't know what to do or how to act, and the time is ripe for a fatherly figure to step in.

The problem with 12 Rules has little to do with the rules themselves: Be confident. Maintain healthy friendships. Listen to other people. Don't lie.

They're good tips, if ostentatiously phrased and illustrated with some bizarre personal anecdotes, made hilarious by the fact that Dr Peterson is a weird dork with a penchant for 1950s slang. At one point he fantasises about beating up a scornful toddler who calls him "daddy-O".

Jordan Peterson.
Jordan Peterson. Photo credit: Getty

'The left', if it can be characterised as a united entity, has often painted Dr Peterson as a neo-Nazi bigot. This is dramatic and inaccurate.

He's an old-school conservative who disapproves of college activism and sexual liberation and 1000 other things people of his persuasion don't like. It's not radical. It's not even interesting.

With the exception of his admittedly mesmerising slow-motion entrance to a standing ovation, and one insane metaphor about sin being a rapist wildcat, I struggled to concentrate during Saturday's show.

He gave advice about very specific scenarios, such as what to do if you make people mad on Twitter (don't apologise right away!) or if you're falsely accused of a crime (don't talk without a lawyer present!). He spent 15 minutes imploring us to take our damn pills as part of a wider discussion of Rule Two, 'Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping'.

I've sat through countless university lectures that were far more engaging and radical, and I hated university. Dr Peterson didn't even have the decency to make a PowerPoint.

Yet judging by the rapt silence and wide-eyed faces around me, I was in the minority. People were seeing something I wasn't because they were looking for something I never have.

If we can learn anything from the weird state of the world right now, it's that young men are desperate for guidance. They're not finding it in mainstream media or progressive social justice movements, so they're looking in alternative places.

If a man on YouTube says something that resonates with the frustration and loneliness these guys feel, he'll get an audience. Millions of such people have latched on to Dr Peterson, placing their trust and hope in someone who claims to have found the meaning of life, broken it down into easily digestible statements, and is now giving it away for the low, low price of $39.99, available at all leading bookstores.

They see all the answers in him, and that's how he's cultivated the most passionately devoted following I've ever seen. It's why his fans are desperate to deflect any criticism of him, and why journalists who write about him in less than glowing terms are accused of smearing him or "taking him out of context".

In their eyes, Dr Peterson is the smartest person to ever exist. He is godlike. He is beyond critique, and anyone who tries is a triggered leftie who can't comprehend his genius.

You have to admire the guy for his PR skills, if nothing else.

He's been accused of misogyny, racism and climate change denial, but Dr Peterson's most unforgivable crime is promising a vulnerable audience that life can be conquered by following his step-by-step programme.

Life is chaotic and unfair and frequently dumb as hell, and the only thing you can do is make peace with it. Part of maturing and coming to terms with the world is realising you don't have all the answers - no one does. It's quite possible there are no answers.

If there are, you can bet 'don't bother children when they're skateboarding' isn't one of them.