One day I requested Jordan B. Peterson’s first book, Maps of Meaning, from the university library stacks. I already had an electronic copy and watched the whole lecture course, so the hassle was probably a waste of time, but I still had this strange impulse to encounter a real copy (in the cellulose, so to speak). I wanted to hold it in my hands and contemplate its significance for a few minutes, as if it was one of Shakespeare’s pens or a Gutenberg Bible.
It isn’t always easy to tell what exactly an object is, not least because what something is depends on what you want to do with it and what it becomes over time. Peterson likes to point out how the Ford Model T was a mode of transport but it was also a societal transformation, a powerful anti-authoritarian statement, and the biggest change in human-horse relations since some Indo-European steppe-dwellers looked at the horse’s ancient ancestors and went “hmm…”.
In this sense, it’s not obvious what Maps of Meaning actually is. It is a book, as is a tray, a table support, a paperweight, etc., but it is something else as well. The heavy paperback in my hands felt like a minor relic, with a deeper significance beyond the familiar passages and diagrams I recognised from before. I suspect it struck me like that because it had come to represent what happens when someone decides to do something properly.
About 30 years ago, the not-yet-Professor Peterson decided he’d do his best to work out where belief systems and cultures come from, what their biological and psychological significance might be, and why people would fight over them. The explanations on offer for inter-group conflict were deeply unsatisfying, especially given that there were, and still are, thousands of ICBMs just waiting for a signal to deliver the hydrogen bombs which could effectively reset civilisation to 400 AD.
After years of intense effort the full work was published in 1999. It begins:
“Something we cannot see protects us from something we do not understand. The thing we cannot see is culture, in its intrapsychic or internal manifestation. The thing we do not understand is the chaos that gave rise to culture.”
In PDF form it amounts to nearly 400 A4 pages in small print. It’s a work of stunning depth, weaving comparative mythology, neuropsychology, psychoanalysis, history, literary analysis and philosophy into an argument that the patterns that come up in mythology from different places and times are dramatic, imagistic representations of what it is like to be human, regardless of where or when.
The oldest stories of our species are not a simply incompetent science, rather they deal with the question of how to approach the tragic realities of the human experience without making everything a trillion times worse. The most successful societies are built upon these stories, whether we realise it or not.
Maps of Meaning was a book by an anonymous Harvard lecturer, which impressed those who read it but made no great impact. The book remained relatively unknown for 17 years, the kind of book university libraries keep in an off-campus warehouse, to be retrieved in the unlikely event that someone asks for it.
Peterson went on and worked as a clinical psychologist and conducted research into the psychology of personality, becoming a tenured professor at the University of Toronto. There he taught two undergraduate courses, one about personality and one based on Maps of Meaning. Then, on the twenty-seventh day of September 2016, almost by accident, a sleeping giant woke up.
Peterson must often wonder what his life would be like had he just gone back to sleep that night. He was concerned about the policies surrounding a new hate-speech law in Canada, ostensibly brought in to protect trans people from harassment. He didn’t think it would do anything of the sort. He argued that the law was the work of people who either didn’t understand or actually hated the society in which they lived, and the Ontario Human Rights Commission was an institution fundamentally opposed to the maintenance of a free state.
He started talking at his computer. He put his thoughts on his YouTube channel, where he had already been uploading his university lectures for quite some time.
The response was overwhelming, largely because he was addressing questions that went much deeper than the proposed law. After his thoughts on Bill C-16 had made their way around the planet several times, people got curious about his lectures. His University of Toronto course Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief gained something of an international cult following. His appearances on the Joe Rogan podcast quickly attained legendary status.
Later on, he publicly wondered why so many people care what some random psychology professor thinks about anything. More than likely it’s his ability to articulate things that people half-know, things they’ve picked up bit by bit from books, teachers, TV, parents, friends, but never explicitly grasped.
Peterson became even more famous after his Channel 4 interview with Cathy Newman went viral online a couple of days ago. If you have not seen it, I would advise you to do so as soon as you can. It is nothing short of spectacular.
Thirty years ago, Jordan Peterson decided to take on the problem of how humans work with single-minded determination. He has done so ever since. Cathy Newman charged headlong into the person sitting opposite her and, apparently for the first time in her professional life, met solid steel.
Peterson, backed by decades’ worth of research and experience, and now with dozens of hostile interviews under his belt, is hard to faze. Where the average guest is routinely bowled over, flattened or burnt to a crisp, Peterson stood fast, stated facts with precision and patience, and let Newman’s credibility shatter against him. You have to wonder if she’ll ever utter the phrase “so you’re saying” again without blushing.
The interview showed in painful detail the vast chasm between the competent and the incompetent, the genuine and the fake. For instance, Peterson had to state repeatedly that there are many reasons for any average difference you observe between men and women. Newman did not want to know.
This whole episode could turn out to be a watershed moment in the history of Britain’s relationship with the news. Why watch Cathy Newman act the clown in an expensive studio when you can get Sam Harris vs Jordan Peterson on your phone? If you have something to say to the public, why let journalists filter it when you can talk to a camera and put it on YouTube?
The most remarkable thing about all this, however, is not the interview fallout but the fact that this was just something Jordan Peterson did one day between promoting his new book (12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos), giving lectures on identity, culture, the modern university, and drowning in fan mail. He has received tens of thousands of messages of thanks, from people he has helped to understand themselves and the world more fully and, from there, approach life with greater confidence and strength.
There are thousands of people giving him a few dollars a month on Patreon, as if to say “whatever you’re up to, I want to help”. Around early 2017, hyperbolic comments started appearing on Peterson’s YouTube videos along the lines of “this man is single-handedly going to save civilisation”. A bit over enthusiastic perhaps, but it’s no accident that Peterson has suddenly become one of the world’s most popular public thinkers.
Nobody will agree with him on absolutely everything. This is no great surprise. Be that as it may, over the last thirty years he has reached a point where just about everything he says is at least worth considering. As Douglas Murray of The Spectator so brilliantly put it:
“Whatever else anybody might think of him, Professor Peterson is a man of remarkable learning and experience, and does not appear to have arrived at any of his views by the now common means of ‘I reckon’.”
There’s no particular magic going on, no arcane, esoteric secrets of the Universe.
This is someone who left his ego at the door and put in the effort.