I saw Dr. Jordan B. Peterson speak live a few weeks ago at the Rymen Auditorium in Nashville, and I’m not sure how to feel about what I saw.
This was the second time I’ve seen him live. I previously saw him when he headlined the Chicago Theater in 2018, following the massive success of his first book 12 Rules for Life. That performance felt smaller, more intimate. The gift shop sold signed copies of his books, Dave Rubin introduced the show with a bad standup routine. The audience was energetic but inquisitive, and respectful.
That was part of what the YouTuber and Reformed Pastor Paul VanderKlay called the second wave of Jordan Peterson. The psychologist’s popularity has risen and fallen since he first became an international celebrity in October 2016, criticizing Canadian Bill C16 which he claimed would create speech restrictions.
His popularity and staying power in the culture came with the mass discovery of his lectures on the psychology of Christianity and mythology. People realized he wasn’t a flash in the pan, that there was something novel and new in his work and that his work could help people in their understanding of life, meaning, and how to navigate the world through the malaise of adolescent despair and uncertainty.
Between 2019 and 2020, Peterson’s popularly dropped off as he was dealing with an extended health crisis tied to prescription drug dependency, caused, in part, by his wife’s developing cancer. He only fully emerged back into the public eye with the publication of his newest book Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life.
The arch of Dr. Peterson’s public career has been tumultuous and dramatic, with him making big splashes and big public mistakes, picking debates with public intellectuals and getting bogged down in minutia, garnering an audience of millions of disaffected young men and becoming a symbol for transphobia and men’s rights activism (according to his opponents).
Chief among the controversies was a question: Does he believe in God? A question he’s answered with a resounding “well it depends what you mean by believe…” Which is a fair answer if you don’t have an answer. Peterson would say he acts as though he believes in God, but that is not the same thing as saying the universe was created ex nihilo by the Trinitarian God of Israel.
When I saw him emerge on stage in February, I wanted to know what happened to him since I had seen him live. I wanted to know how his illness had changed him. I wanted to know what he was bringing to bear following the events of 2020 and 2021, how he would react to the post-election works, January 6, and the Canadian Trucker Convoy. I wanted to know if he’d evolved following the controversies that followed his career height between 2017 and 2018. And I wanted to know if he had changed his mind about God, if he had picked a side after months of suffering and intense pain.
Certainly his audience hasn’t diminished. The historic Rymen Auditorium can seat 2362 people and there were hardly any open seats in the room. The lights went down and the room was met by a wave of cheering as his daughter Mikaela Peterson emerged on stage to introduce the evening’s entertainment. A random crowd member whistled at her, making the room laugh.
I noticed that Dr. Peterson’s physical appearance has continued to change. If you look at his appearance in 2016, he was chubby and his hair more colored. The Dr. Peterson on stage in February was extremely thin, older, wearing five years of anxiety and stress on his face. He was showing signs of that well in advance of his 2019 illness.
Dr. Peterson generally doesn’t prepare a full speech for all of his events. He approaches each of his tour stops with a set of talking points and a general topic, usually one of the chapters from his books. This night’s talk was Chapter 7 of Beyond Order, on the subject of hard work.
As usual, his talking style is roundabout and long winded. He started on a note of pessimism, noting that the nature of faith is putting investment into something that isn’t true, a loaded statement in need of unpacking. Much of the early speech was just dedicated to exploring why rational nihilism is dangerous, exploring how “fully convinced people can go off the rails,” and “that can do a lot of damage.”
This is a very generalized way to start his argument but that’s the foundation he tends to lay. One must understand why they ought not descend into despair and why they need to build firm foundations in the first place, adding that it’s cynical and narcissistic to assume that your rational nihilism is more wise than other people’s ability to function in the world.
Once the desire to move backwards was addressed, Dr. Peterson discusses the tendency for people to stay “in stasis,” for people to not move upward and forward in life, saying “to not know what to do is to not have aim. You’re not going anywhere… you fall apart.”
Instead of pushing people towards ultimate meaning- religious meaning or rational nihilism – he describes pushing his clients towards personal meaning, rejecting the narcissism of believing you fully understand the world in your despair and encouraging them to move in a forward direction. “Walk in that direction, recognize if you’re moving towards your goal,” he said.
He then ended the night discussing his upcoming project “Peterson Academy”, a series of 6-8 hour courses about “how to think, not what to think,” that he has been shooting in Nashville. He then closed by introducing a local band called Kelly’s Heroes, an excellent country rock band that plays weekly at Robert’s Western World on S. Broadway, which played a full set while Peterson and his daughter danced on stage. It was a sweet moment.
If I’m concerned about Dr. Peterson, it’s primarily that his speech didn’t give me a good sense of his direction. How has he changed in the last six years? What has he changed his mind about? How is he adjusting and growing with his popularity and dialogues with prominent atheists and Christians, conservatives and leftists? What has he learned from his messy debates with Sam Harris and Slavoj Zizek?
I couldn’t tell you just from watching him live. I had been hoping for some indication that the Peterson Phenomena was advancing, growing, and evolving; that Peterson might have changed his mind on a few issues or taken on a fresh energy to challenge the growing totalitarian leftist consensus.
Instead he played the hits. Mikhaila talked about her all-meat diet and Dr. Peterson talked about Nietzsche and working through life’s problems. He didn’t even address the war in Ukraine, which had started just a few days prior.
And certainly there’s nothing wrong with that overall approach. There are still millions of young men out there who need his cognitive behavioral approach to self help. There are still people who can benefit from his lectures. I’m just hoping the entire Peterson Phenomena has something fresh to say going forward, and that he doesn’t rest on his laurels, that he doesn’t ossify, and become boring.