Jordan Peterson Claims He’s No Conservative
Jordan Peterson recently found himself in august company. Matt Lewis of the Daily Beast wrote a piece comparing him to William F. Buckley, declaring that “not since Buckley has the right boasted so much [intellectual] firepower.” Yet Peterson, the now-world famous clinical psychologist from the University of Toronto, has described himself politically as a “classic British liberal” and has abjured any connection to modern liberalism or conservatism. He says that some of his beliefs lean left, while others place him closer to the right.
With all due respect, his self-assessment is not very persuasive. In his most recent book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Peterson routinely provides evidence of a deep, thoughtful, yet plainly articulated conservatism. At the same time, his conservatism is in no way dogmatic; he is not a free-marketeering libertarian, for instance. Instead, Peterson’s conservatism manifests itself in his commitment to the preservation of a certain set of institutions, values, and norms without which our society could not operate. This brand of conservatism finds a compelling justification in the work of philosopher Roger Scruton, the most influential conservative intellectual in Britain.
Scruton’s conservatism derives from a love for the “actual”—that is, the astonishing array of privileges and freedoms that our ancestors passed down to us. Included in this inheritance, which we all share and from which we all benefit, are: the rule of law, as opposed to the rule of the powerful over the weak; democracy, as opposed to dictatorship; economic prosperity, as opposed to deprivation; family networks and bonds of friendship, as opposed to social anomy; order as opposed to instability. For most of human history, we could not count on many of these blessings, but today they are taken for granted. In the face of our good fortune, Scruton argues, the most rational response is one of gratitude.
In 12 Rules for Life, Peterson echoes Scrutonian themes by encouraging us to feel grateful for the inheritance we have collectively received—and particularly for a society that continues to function even as individuals deal with the nearly unbelievable burdens of “Being” (like bodily disease, mental illness, deaths in the family, and economic insecurity). He writes “…people prevail and continue to do difficult and effortful tasks and to hold themselves and their families and society together. To me this is miraculous—so much so that a dumbfounded gratitude is the only appropriate response.”
Peterson, of course, is under no delusions about life’s suffering or the human capacity for cruelty, despite all the blessings we do enjoy. Pain, whether physical or emotional, can never be done away with, even in our rich and free and democratic societies. And yet people persist in spite of pain, finding new ways to endure and prosper. We continue to go about our daily lives, bearing our burdens as best we can. This perseverance, Peterson believes, should inspire us all.
Peterson (and other conservatives) do not believe that we should just feel gratitude for what we have; they think it’s our duty to understand the ideas that enabled this flourishing in the first place. In other words, one must engage with the intellectual tradition of the West, beginning with the Bible. Peterson writes: “The Bible is, for better or worse, the foundational document of Western civilization (of Western values, Western morality, and Western conceptions of good and evil).” Unlike many of his fellow academics, he does not succumb to the notion that the Western canon persists because of some conspiracy to uphold Western (or white) hegemony. Rather, these texts remain influential because they continue to shine light on humanity’s universal dilemmas.
Peterson’s respect for tradition and authority, however, is not limited to recognizing the Bible’s influence on the development of our society, or to defending the Western literary and philosophical canon. Indeed, he reveals his further traditionalist impulses when he asserts: “It is reasonable to do what other people have always done, unless we have a very good reason not to.” Conservative intellectuals have long expressed similar sentiments. In How to Be a Conservative, Roger Scruton writes that “it is always right to conserve things, when worse things are proposed in their place.” And in The Quest for Cosmic Justice, Thomas Sowell rails against radicals, rebels, and revolutionaries whose motivating principle is to “Question Authority.” Sowell counters: “For authority to exist, there must have been some process by which particular people came to be regarded as more reliable guides than others. But there is no comparable process by which others come to be qualified to proclaim the dogma ‘Question Authority.’” So “by what authority,” asks Sowell, “do you tell us to question authority?”
There is a more fundamental idea underpinning the work of these conservative intellectuals: the conviction that the mechanisms and traditions of our society are rational and good, whatever their shortcomings may be. This is why the conservative mind, from Edmund Burke onwards, has stood against what Robert Conquest called the “leftist delusion of perfect equality,” as well as those who believe that by turning society on its head we can end all unnecessary suffering, eradicate all hatreds, solve all problems.
Peterson situates himself in that same anti-revolutionary tradition. “Our society,” he writes, “faces the increasing call to deconstruct its stabilizing traditions to include smaller and smaller numbers of people…. This is not a good thing. Each person’s private trouble cannot be solved by a social revolution, because revolutions are destabilizing and dangerous…. Altering our ways of social being carelessly in the name of some ideological shibboleth…is likely to produce far more trouble than good.”
Peterson also takes up other conventionally conservative positions. He extols the virtue of personal responsibility. He enjoins us to “sort ourselves out” and not blame external circumstances for our failures. But the biggest tell that Peterson is a conservative is simply that his general disposition toward life and society is conservative. Life is difficult, Peterson allows, but there has never been a better time to live. Hard work always makes a difference. Men and women are equal, but they are not biologically identical. Boys must be allowed to mature into men. Hierarchies are not always arbitrary. Inequality does not imply injustice. There is much in our shared traditions that is worth preserving. Our culture serves certain purposes, and does so quite well.
Most people can readily agree with those ideas, but in recent times they have come under fire for being insufficiently inclusive, or reactionary, or outdated, or outright problematic. Peterson stands against such criticisms, and against those who would take a sledgehammer to society without knowing what they would lose by shattering it into a million pieces. He’s made his case passionately, but respectfully. And he has been a smashing success, attracting millions of YouTube viewers and selling out venues wherever he speaks. Conservatives are lucky to have such an articulate advocate, his rejection of their label notwithstanding.
Christian Gonzalez is originally from Venezuela, but was raised in Miami, Florida. He now studies political science at Columbia University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.