The biblical scholarship of the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson is one of several reasons why he is one of the most original voices to emerge in the global marketplace for ideas.
Here is someone who lives out his erudition. It makes him as formidable on television as he is engaging in print.
If you haven’t seen his recent interview with Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News, then I suggest you put the kettle on, fire up the iPad – borrow a computer if you have to – and kick back for half an hour.
What you will see, if you aren’t one of the six million people who have already watched it on YouTube, is someone re-positioning the counter-culture live on air.
It’s been described as a fiery interview. I have to say that, as a member of that tiny tribe of live news studio broadcasters, I’ve been on the receiving end of worse.
What makes the interview remarkable is Peterson’s humility before the facts, his genuine sense of incredulity at a worldview defined by groupthink, not empiricism. And something else: a playfulness with ideas, even though they are being articulated by a man for whom the precision of words is paramount.
Watching it again, I feel a sense of professional kinship with the interviewer. But my heart is revved up by the sight of a guest who refuses to let other people do his thinking for him.
Jordan Peterson’s book, 12 Rules for Life, was released last month and became an instant bestseller. I am chary of self-help manuals and banalities dressed up as dictums for self-improvement. But, but, but … if it is snake-oil, then it’s the good stuff.
The foreword sets the context: Western civilisation crippled by doubt, producing citizens so uncertain they are likened to melting “snowflakes”.
It reads: “… this generation, many of whom were raised in small families, by hyper-protective parents, on soft-surface playgrounds, and then taught in universities with ‘safe spaces’ where they don’t have to hear things they don’t want to – schooled to be risk-averse – has among it, now, millions who feel stultified by this underestimation of their potential resilience.”
Most of this is not new. The character formation of “snowflakes” starts with “helicopter parents” and is finished off by the trigger warnings of university. But this is the first time I’ve seen such a direct causal link drawn between shrinking family size and generational temperament.
As I’ve been arguing for a decade and more, pro-natalism is a concept deserving rehabilitation. Singing the praises of larger families need not make one a head-banger. Don’t let all that debate-stifling stuff about bad men – Hitler, Stalin, Napoleon – ordering women to breed, eclipse the possibility that society might benefit from the chemistry of bigger broods.
Peterson has described himself, in at least one interview, as a Christian. I imagine that openly religious psychologists are rare birds. For students of the mind, faith is sometimes seen as something to be medicalised, not practised.
Only recently, I read about the concept of apophenia, a word coined by a psychiatrist to explain how people find meaning in their discovery of patterns. I don’t know about you, but I’m with the late Alistair Cooke, who said such coincidences should be taken seriously as a gift of grace. “Somebody,” he said, “is saying ‘stay the course’ … reminding you that they have you in mind.”
Those were the concluding words from an episode of Letter from America, recorded in 2001. In it, the grand old man of BBC radio chronicled the pattern of coincidences that seemed to wind a thread between the assassinations of presidents Lincoln and Kennedy.
He explained it like this: “Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846, Kennedy exactly 100 years later in 1946. Lincoln was elected president in November 1860, Kennedy in November 1960. Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy who urged him not to go to the theatre, Kennedy had a secretary named Lincoln who advised against his going to Dallas.
“Booth shot Lincoln in a theatre and ran off into a warehouse; Oswald shot Kennedy from a warehouse and ran off into a theatre. Lincoln was succeeded by a southerner named Johnson, Kennedy was succeeded by a southerner named Johnson. The first Johnson was born in 1808, the second in 1908.”
Perhaps you see no pattern there, simply a jumble of improbabilities. It proves nothing, of course. But on a cold February night, as I sit typing these words, it’s enough to conjure up the sound of Cooke’s sonorous, sometimes mid-Atlantic voice. I adored his Letter and can quote chunks of his best-known broadcasts, memorised from recordings on DVD.
For me, like him born into a fairly deprived area of the north country, Cooke represented an ideal. A journalist from humble origins who parsed his times with wisdom and without defaulting to cultural relativism. That the BBC apparently saw him latterly as an embarrassment makes me admire his peerless reportage all the more.