The reason Dr Jordan Peterson has captured the hearts of millions is depressing, writes Luke Kinsella.
The rapid ascendancy of Dr Jordan Peterson from psychology professor to intellectual rock star begs the question: What's his secret?
Curious, I dived headfirst into the rabbit hole of Dr Peterson's online philosophy. And now I think I know the answer. But more importantly, I know the significance of the question.
Anyone wanting to understand the state of young people in today's society, needs to learn why he is so captivating.
For the uninitiated, Dr Peterson is a psychology professor at the University of Toronto who has developed a cult following online. His YouTube channel has amassed almost 1 million subscribers and more than 44 million views.
Type his name into YouTube and you'll find videos of him ranting against feminism, postmodernism and 'social justice warriors'. But that's just one side of him. He recently wrote self-help book 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote To Chaos. That Dr Peterson would write a self-help book isn't surprising. He's not just a political bomb thrower, he's been a clinical psychologist for over two decades.
After its release, the book sat at the top of both Amazon's "most read" and "most sold" lists. After being restricted to the confines of his YouTube channel, Dr Peterson has broken into the mainstream to become one of the most well-known public intellectuals in the world.
The majority of his followers are men between the ages of 18 and 35 — a demographic I also fall into. Whether you agree with his politics or not, it's hard to deny his appeal to men my age.
In an interview with 3AW's Neil Mitchell, Dr Peterson admitted that at a speaking event the previous day, six young men told him he'd saved their lives. "It breaks me up. It's sad that there are so many people in that state of crisis … it's overwhelming," he said with tears in his eyes.
"There are a lot of lost people in the world," he said. But the controversial psychologist seems to be finding them.
His secret? After watching several hours of his lectures, I think I've figured it out. It can be summarised in a single word: responsibility.
Dr Peterson's message is a hard one to hear: "Life is suffering." Hardship is inevitable and life will always find some way to make you resentful. But don't complain about it, because that'll make it worse. Instead, find some reason to make life worth it, despite that suffering.
Something terrible happens to you. Should you be angry? Bitter? Resentful? Well, you could be. And you'd probably have every right to be. But is that the answer?
Maybe the answer is to find enough meaning in your life to bear your suffering, to carry it with you. Find a reason to keep going. Responsibility, he claims, is that reason. Being responsible for something or someone is what gives life meaning.
So if you're going to have some responsibility, and if people are going to rely on you, you should strive to be the best person you can be. Start by improving yourself. Fix what's wrong with you because you're not perfect.
My generation rarely hears this. It's not that we think we're perfect — though narcissism is on the rise. We're just rarely told to improve in such harsh terms. Instead, we're told we're special and that we should feel good about ourselves, no matter what. We get prizes for coming in last. We're the "self-esteem generation", so it's always somebody else's fault.
Dr Peterson's saying the exact opposite: You're not perfect, so stop blaming other people for your problems and take responsibility for yourself. Get your act together — you've got things to do. Aspire to a greater version of you.
"Why should you feel good about who you are? You should feel good about who you could be," he said. And we actually like that message. It allows us to take responsibility for ourselves and it gives us a goal to strive toward. It gives us direction.
Dr Peterson isn't in the "self-help" business, he's in the "self-improvement" business. Rule number one in his book is: "Stand up straight with your shoulders back." Rule six: "Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world."
He writes: "Start with yourself. What good are you? Get yourself together so that when your father dies you're not whining away in a corner and you can help plan the funeral. And you can stand up solidly so people can rely on you. That's better. Don't be a damn victim."
He's preaching strength and resilience during a time when victimhood is the primary means of gaining status and respect. Sociologists call this "victimhood culture", and many argue that we're currently living in one. In victimhood cultures, respect is given to those who publicise their oppression, victimisation and, ultimately, their lack of responsibility over their lives.
Victimhood is, after all, antithetical to responsibility. A victim is someone who isn't responsible for their state of affairs. Dr Peterson's response: "Life is an existential catastrophe and a tragedy." We're all victims in life. You're not owed anything because you're a victim. That's not the answer.
The only way to overcome victimhood is to attend to your responsibilities and return to the genuine meaning in your life. Don't reward someone for being a victim, reward them for adopting responsibility amid victimhood. Reward them for not acting like a victim despite being one. Admiration always beats pity.
My generation knows a lot about "rights", "oppression" and what's unfair about the world. This, to our credit, has made us very accepting and tolerant. But Dr Peterson says that discussion about "rights" has crowded out the (more important) discussion about "responsibility". So it's not surprising that young people are starving for that discussion.
And I think he's right. How else could a quirky Canadian academic talking about the importance of responsibility be catapulted to international fame, in the space of just a year?
Of no fault of our own, my generation is taking longer to enter adulthood. And we know it. We still feel like kids well into our twenties.
Dr Jean Twenge's research shows that we're less likely to leave the house without our parents. We're more likely to spend time by ourself. We're taking longer to get our driver's license. We're less likely to have a part-time job in our teens. We're starting dating at a later age. We rely on our parents for everything. And contrary to popular belief, we drink less and do fewer drugs.
Dr Peterson's success is proof that my generation is desperate to break free from the unhealthy reliance we have on our over-protective "helicopter parents". His followers are tired of relying on other people. They want to be the kind of person others rely on. In other words, they want some responsibility.
You might be asking: Why young men though? Why aren't young women flocking to him to the same degree as young men?
Well, he attracts a lot of young men on the peripheries of society. Young men who aren't particularly successful and spend a lot of time on the internet, but have been told they're the beneficiaries of an oppressive patriarchal system which bestows upon them "male privilege" — their ticket to success that somehow isn't working.
"We're so stupid. We're alienating young men. We're telling them they're patriarchal oppressors, denizens of rape culture and tyrants-in-waiting. It's awful … It makes me sad, deeply," he said in an interview with the BBC.
Dr Peterson treats young men like individuals. He recognises that life is difficult and depressing for everyone. He acknowledges their emotional struggles when a lot of people don't and he's providing them with a solution. He doesn't talk down to them. And he doesn't lecture them about any advantages they may hold.
Unlike young women, young men rarely confide emotionally in their friends. Instead, they quietly look to mentors and authority figures. And they've found one in Dr Peterson, whose essentially just providing the emotional support to young men that young women have always provided each other.
While young women were taking care of each other, encouraged and inspired by their feminist sisterhood, lost and isolated young men had nothing — despite being told they had everything. Well now they have Jordan Peterson.