I suspect that most of Jordan Peterson’s critics have not read his books. Their judgments are formed either by what other people have said second-hand about Peterson or by their own incomplete and fragmented understanding of his wider oeuvre. Whilst his many supporters will be, no doubt, excited about his newest book, Beyond Order, his harshest critics will not be queuing up to buy it, I presume, based on opposition to what they think this man represents: right-wing conservatism and disregard for the oppressed and marginalized. Having now read the book myself, I can say definitively that both claims against Peterson are flat out wrong.
Professor Peterson is not a right-wing reactionary, but rather a political moderate and a centrist. In chapter after chapter, he evenly critiques both progressive and conservative policy solutions, arguing instead that optimal social outcomes depend on a balanced integration of the best ideas from both sides of the political spectrum. He rails in equal measure against the “dangerous ideology” of the Nazi party and the horrors of communism, and yet still manages to recognize “some value” in Marxism.
Professor Peterson is also not a misogynist. The love and devotion that he shows for his dear wife, Tammy, radiates brightly throughout the book. His attitudes toward, and advice for, women in general are also liberation-oriented. He outright rejects the idea that modern marriages should simply default to traditional gender roles, arguing instead that men and women must be free to negotiate who does what in the house. In recounting the experiences of a former client in his clinical practice, he argues that women should not subordinate themselves to their husbands, even over matters as trivial as what artwork is displayed in the house.
In what will be music to the ears of many scientists, he argues against oversimplified theories and single variable explanations. Simultaneously, he also delivers a passionate defense of the arts and humanities, calling the study of literature “a veritable necessity” and peppering his prose with biblical passages and poetry by William Wordsworth and Walt Whitman.
For those of you not interested in his politics, there is much to like about the scholarly contribution of Beyond Order. He seamlessly weaves together sociology, social psychology, and evolutionary biology without denigrating the former in favor of the latter. The book is academically insightful, in the same vein as Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life or Harold Garfinkel’s Studies in Ethnomethodology. By this I mean that Peterson is able to draw novel linkages between social artefacts and ideas, taking the ostensibly mundane and taken-for-granted and rendering them profound and revelatory.
“Peterson is able to draw novel linkages between social artefacts and ideas, taking the ostensibly mundane and taken-for-granted and rendering them profound and revelatory.”
The writing style is refreshing and captivating. The chapters unfold a bit like a mystery novel. Hints are dropped along the way like breadcrumbs. On more than one occasion, readers will ask, “Where’s he going with this?” only to later see a perfect integration of ideas at the end of the chapter.
In perhaps the best indicator of the book’s appeal, my primary school aged daughter approached me while I was working my way through Beyond Order and asked if I would read aloud to her. She sat quietly through an entire chapter. At the end of every section, I asked her if she wanted me to keep reading, and she said yes. She didn’t understand it, obviously, but there was enough in the book to capture her attention, including repeated references to Harry Potter.
In sum, critics might be pleasantly surprised by how much they share in common with Peterson. They will not find, as they might expect, a cold-hearted social Darwinist celebrating the dire plight of the poor and downtrodden, but rather a compassionate clinical psychologist who loves his family and has dedicated his career to helping people like me overcome mental illness and grief. If you are a long-time Peterson critic, you should at least give this book a go. You won’t agree with everything he says, but you will find that you share more in common with him than you first imagined.
Professor Andrew R. Timming
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