Dr Jordan B. Peterson is a 56 year old professor of psychology from the University Toronto, and last night (Wednesday 13 February) it seemed to me that he was the oldest person in the Melbourne Convention Centre even though it was filled to its 5500 person capacity.
About half the crowd were the young men that legendarily flock to hear Peterson. They were a diverse mob, sporting suits and beards and tattoos and yarmulkas and even clerical collars. The other fifty percent seemed to be their mums, dads, wives, sisters, girlfriends, and so forth – but the main point is that this was a young audience (even the mums and dads). If you had this demographic turn up to mass on Sunday you would have no fears for the future of your parish. There was a sense of fraternity and trust in the air. The people were respectful, kind, friendly and happy to chat to strangers in the line up at the door. Each one had forked out $90 to come and hear someone giving a 2 hour lecture. “Entertainment” like this proves one thing: people don’t mind long sermons; they just want to hear someone worth listening to and something that makes sense to them.
And there is more than just a touch of the bush preacher about Dr Peterson. He has come proclaiming a kind of “gospel”; and even though it isn’t exactly the Christian Gospel, a fair substratum of his message is based on the biblical narrative. In fact, on his podcasts and YouTube videos Peterson regularly strays into religious territory. One of the things he is famous for is his lectures on the psychological meaning of Old Testament book of Genesis. His lecture tonight is peppered with quotations from the the Gospels. Recently he defended the validity of the religious viewpoint in a series of four 3 hour live debates with Sam Harris, one of the “four horsemen” of the New Atheism. In particular Peterson is attracted to the Christian conviction that “the Word became flesh”, and that redemption comes through suffering.
For about a year now, Peterson has been travelling the world giving sold out lectures based on his self-help manual “12 Rules for Life: an antidote to chaos”. Tonight he had just enough time to talk about rule number one: “Stand up straight with your shoulders back”. Yes, his rules all sound like that. Another one is “Set your own house in order before you criticise others” and “Always tell the truth – or at least don’t lie”. And “Don’t disturb kids when they are skateboarding”.
Peterson focuses his message on the importance and potential of the individual in a free society. He declares himself an enemy of tyranny, whether fascist or socialist, on the left or on the right. Tonight though, he had his eyes set on demolishing the postmodern doctrine of Foucault that “power is everywhere” and that all social relationships are based on power and oppression.
If that were the case, he said, our societies would not function. When power becomes the basis of relationship, societies crumble. Bullies in the playground don’t have friends. Corrupt businesses do not succeed. Instead, what works is when the relationships are built on trust and reciprocity. Yes, there are hierarchies in society, but these are based on skill and competence, not power. The successful plumber is the one who fixes your broken pipes.
It is true that the world is competitive and unequal, but we accept that some people are better at business or their profession than others, just as some are better artists, athletes, writers and musicians. Inequality doesn’t matter so long as we treat each other with dignity and live in a reciprocal relationship of trust with one another. In fact, history teaches us that it is usually when powerful forces attempt to impose their “one great idea” for a Utopian equality of outcomes that the real hell breaks loose.
Basically his message was upbeat. The human race is not going to hell in a hand basket. We are eradicating diseases, world poverty is decreasing, there have been no wars between western countries for almost 75 years. But that doesn’t mean life isn’t hard. He told the story of his father-in-law caring for his mother-in-law for 15 years as she slowly died with dementia, and how the whole family gathered around her bed in the nursing home when she finally passed away. “And because we all cared for one another and took responsibility for one another and loved one another,” he said, “it was no picnic, but it wasn’t hell.”
“It was a tragedy, but God only knows what’s inside you, this capacity to confront potential and to turn tragedy into something good. And maybe that would be the purpose of your life; not to be happy, because there are problems to be solved, but be happy after you have solved the problems.
“So I looked at dark things, and I learned that the light is more powerful than the darkness and each of us is capable of remarkable things. That’s what makes us in the image of God, that is what gives us our intrinsic value, and the idea that we have intrinsic value is the bedrock presupposition of our state. Are we gong to question that? Or are we going to live it out? Better to live it out. Thank you.”
There was still time for half an hour of Q&A (and, btw, Dr Peterson will be on ABC TV’s Q&A on February 25). One of the questions he was asked was: “With all your success, with crowds like this turning up to hear you talk for two hours each night and with 3 million copies of your book sold, what keeps you humble?”
“Well, I’m married,” he replied.