One of the most controversial public intellectuals today is an eccentric, primly dressed professor who writes about esoteric mythology, dispenses old-fashioned wisdom such as “clean your room” and champions embattled ideals of manhood.
In reality, Peterson’s ideas are a mixed bag. He says some sensible and insightful things, and he says some things that rightly draw criticism. But you wouldn’t know this from reading Peterson’s critics, who generally cast him as a far-right boogeyman riding the wave of a misogynistic backlash. That’s a mistake.
For all his flaws, Peterson is tapping into a very real frustration: More than half a century after the modern feminist revolution began in the 1960s, we have yet to figure out new rules for partnership between men and women.
Although Peterson can sound like a chauvinistic crank when he seems to suggest that women incite sexual harassment by wearing makeup to the office, his larger points — that evolving norms are generating confusion and mixed signals, and that women play a role in sexualizing work environments — are far from absurd.
Consider: We have rejected traditional sexist proprieties that forbade coarse language in front of “the ladies,” yet a man can now be fired for telling a crude joke that offends a female co-worker. Calling women “the weaker sex” would be considered shockingly retrograde, yet ambivalent sexual encounters are easily recast as violations of women, with men presumed entirely responsible for ensuring consent. Workplace romances abound, yet flirting could be one step away from someone’s idea of sexual harassment.
In this bewildering environment, Peterson offers a code of personal responsibility and self-discipline. Although his message appeals to both genders, the core of his fan base and the focus of his world-saving fervor are young men. Indeed, one of Peterson’s central themes is that men in the modern Western world are in crisis.
Crisis or no, there is certainly evidence that many men and boys have been left struggling by the cultural transformations of recent decades. A 2013 MIT study, titled “Wayward Sons,” notes that boys are more likely than girls to be negatively affected by parental divorce; that young men are less likely to go to college or even complete high school; that working-class men are more likely than working-class women to be left behind by economic shifts; and that those who lose out in the labor market are likely to face poor prospects for marriage and fatherhood.
Peterson sees a feminist assault on masculinity as a major culprit. Although that is much too simplistic an explanation, it’s also true that, in its current form, feminism certainly isn’t helping.
Despite occasional lip service to the idea that feminism can liberate men too from patriarchal confines, most feminist discourse spends far more time bashing men for trivial transgressions.
The fact that the word “masculinity” so often appears next to the word “toxic” says a lot about this cultural moment. So does the proliferation of neologisms for bad behavior with “man” as a prefix: “mansplaining,” “manspreading,” etc. Meanwhile, male troubles are met with “What about the menz?” mockery. Just look at the debate about Peterson. British journalist Helen Lewis has jeered that he is viewed as a serious intellectual “because he’s writing for sad young white men — and their problems are, you know, real problems.”
Peterson doesn’t necessarily offer good solutions. His constructive advice comes with some dubious traditionalist baggage. (“Healthy” women, he writes in his book “12 Rules of Life,” want men who “outclass” them in intelligence, dominance and status.) Though he has said that both sexes must adapt to a new world in which women have freedom and autonomy, he sometimes appears to pander to nostalgia for a world in which men were men and women were housewives.
These contradictions, along with Peterson’s penchant for woolly language, are partly responsible for the confusion around what he really believes. But his detractors often go out of their way to put a sinister spin on his comments rather than understand the need he is meeting.
For all its successes, contemporary feminism’s main message to men is not one of equal partnership. Rather, it’s: Repent, abase yourself, and be an obedient feminist ally — and we still won’t trust you. It’s no wonder that Peterson has found an eager audience in this climate. If feminists don’t like his message, they should offer a better one.