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Jordan Peterson and the Importance of Personal Responsibility

Allisa Corfman Allisa Corfman
12th May 2021
Jordan Peterson and the Importance of Personal Responsibility
Peterson is a controversial figure (Getty Images).

Note: The views and opinions expressed in blog/editorial posts are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the views or opinions of Misbar.

Jordan Peterson says he lives by one simple rule: never say something you know is not true.. He has often said that whatever the consequences of telling the truth might be, they are far less disastrous than the consequences of telling a lie. 

Before achieving worldwide fame, Peterson was a practicing psychologist and lecturer at the University of Toronto in Canada. When Canada passed laws to ensure that transgender students be called by their preferred pronouns, Peterson – who considered himself somewhat of a classical liberal – refused. He explained in interviews that he did not take issue with transgenderism, and would probably not refuse to call any person by his or her preferred pronouns. However, he did take issue with what he viewed as government-compelled speech. He felt strongly that the state should not be able to dictate what a person said or did not say to the degree that a person could be punished for calling another person by the wrong pronoun. 

Students protested against Peterson, who began uploading his lectures to Youtube. His videos began racking up views by the millions. 

For a while, Peterson’s name was known best among those who were embedded in what has been deemed the “intellectual dark web”: a group of netizens who post lectures and host podcasts to discuss topics that are sometimes shut out of the mainstream conversation. 

Peterson focuses heavily on the topic of personal responsibility. For example, he tells young men, “If women are constantly rejecting you, you are the problem – not the women. And better that! Because you can change you. You cannot change them.” It is this kind of message that can give young people a sense of agency over their lives, and is exactly what his best-selling book 12 Rules for Life addresses. 

Peterson has become highly controversial even though his message helps people defeat nihilism and find success.  This could be because American culture has focused on rights more than responsibility for so long; and Peterson’s works clearly and distinctly put the focus on responsibility more than rights. We live in a culture that is obsessed with rights. Everywhere you look, there are people fighting for the rights of one group or another. And personal rights are quite obviously central to what it means to be human, and certainly rights are central to the Constitution of the United States. But Peterson chooses to focus on personal responsibility –  something that has been largely forgotten in a society obsessed with rights. 

Peterson has become a controversial figure largely because he has divided people not along political lines, but rather between those who want agency over their own lives and those who want someone else to blame. 

Peterson has never denied that some people have more dire circumstances than others. His podcast and books show that he is keenly aware of the suffering that marks human life, and knows that suffering befalls people unequally. However, he also stresses that any situation can be made worse by one’s own choices. By contrast, any situation can be improved, no matter how slightly, by one’s own choices. Thus, he stresses personal responsibility as a means to achieving meaning in life. Meaning – not happiness. It is this discussion of personal agency and focus on responsibility over rights that has landed Peterson in hot water. 

Peterson’s critics often rely largely on name-calling rather than choosing to engage in actual discussion or respond with a thoughtful counterargument. It is common to see critics call him names and label his work sexist, misogynistic, racist, or even dangerous. In the mainstream media, Peterson has called a Nazi and a white supremacist, though none of his work comes even close to reflecting any of the ideas held by these extremists. He is accused of having a mostly white, mostly male audience. Peterson has responded by saying that he used to resent that accusation, but eventually he came to question why this would even bother people. He explained that if young white men are really the danger to society that many accuse them of being, then is it not a good thing that someone is helping them? 

Peterson’s works give people hope that they do have some agency over their lives and some power to make their lives just a little bit better. As a direct result, people will feel less dependent on the government or their own political party to be the agent of change in their lives. If people feel that they can make their lives better through their own personal choices, it makes them put less stock in their government and those in power. 

Young people who are hungry for knowledge, reason, and common sense have turned to Peterson in droves, and no matter what his critics claim, this is unlikely to change.