Everyone tries to save themselves, and every one fails to do so. The scriptural story repeats this idea through its narratives—kings rise, kings fall. And it took Jesus to liberate us from the fear of death. As Hebrews notes, humans “were held in slavery by their fear of death” until Christ came (Heb 2:15). Ernst Becker also recognized our fear of death. He speaks of human culture as a hero making culture (1973: 7). One major motivator for our pursuit of meaning and heroism is the “terror of death” (1973: 11).
Jordan Peterson has left the cultural space that he had inhabited for years. Suffering from a physical dependency to benzodiazepine and most recently coronavirus, he has understandably receded from the limelight.
Yet many have felt his absence—something difficult to achieve unless his presence had already made a deep impression on the souls of many. Evidence of this statement follows from a simple Google search for “Jordan Peterson” and the news articles that result from the query or from social media.
While some readers may have immediately made up their mind at this point about the article and Peterson himself since he represents (according to some) extreme-right views or some other unfavourable position, I would ask you to pause. I am not here to talk about Jordan Peterson nor to analyze his way of being in the world.
I want to talk about why so many people have listened to Jordan Peterson and why his absence has made an impression on so many. While Peterson undoubtedly knows how to speak to hearts, I do not think that alone explains why he affects so many people. The answer is more fundamental.
What he supplies, people feel that they need.
So what does he provide?
Why should a message as mundane as “clean your room” or take responsibility for your actions take deep root? These are common sense after all? Why should a message that takes into account statistical differences between male and female experience connect with so many?
What is he doing? What do people get from him? Note: I am not talking about whether Peterson correctly speaks or not. I am saying that some gap, some need exists among many people.
Recent CDC statistics give some insight into this need. While the pandemic certainly influences the numbers, the CDC reports that 10.7% of Americans seriously considered suicide over a 30 day period. Note: this accounts for serious consideration—not the regular depression of anxiety over life that many feel.
Yet this high number follows from years of an increase in suicide numbers. And these numbers, importantly for this discussion, reflect high numbers of male suicides. The CDC reports: “In 2018, the suicide rate for males was 3.7 times the rate for females (22.8 and 6.2, respectively).”
Some sickness has embedded itself among us—and in males particularly. I remember during my high school days that three male acquaintances of mine died—one due to suicide and the other two seem to have resulted from self-destructive behaviour.