The Jordan Peterson Demographic Isn’t Going Away

Fox personality Tucker Carlson speaks at the 2017 Business Insider Ignition: Future of Media conference in New York, November 30, 2017. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
Liberals can grouse all they want that aggrieved American men are flocking to the wrong kind of savior, but that won’t solve the problems those men face.

Can you believe Tucker Carlson, having the temerity to air a segment called “Men in America”? Rachel Dicker, a columnist at Mediaite, certainly can’t. “With each passing week that I watch [the] segment,” writes Dicker, “I wonder more and more what sad and furious planet he descended from to convince his aggrieved audience that they’ve been lied to and put down by The Man, who is definitely A Woman. (And also probably black and gay.)”

Good one. But “convince” seems like the wrong word. After all, the glib elite consensus is that because American men are born with a head start, dominate the upper ranks of the country’s major institutions, and don’t face any particular challenges, life should be easy for us. Do the men who dropped out of high school need to be “convinced” that this isn’t true? What about the men whose friends are suffering from drug addiction, or who are addicted themselves? The men with no job prospects, no social capital, and no hope of finding a life partner? When Carlson pointed out, correctly, in the first entry of the series that American men are increasingly dropping out of school, addicted to drugs, falling out of the job market, committing crimes, and killing themselves, it wasn’t an exercise in persuasion. Carlson’s target audience doesn’t need him to “convince” them that their lives have gone awry; they know it already.

What Carlson was actually doing in “Men in America,” which concluded last week, was offering his version of an explanation of why conditions are dreadful for so many American men. He blamed a combination of immigration, automation, second-wave feminism, the vilification of traditional masculinity, and certain ill-advised government programs. Reasonable people might find his explanation cynical or demagogic. But that’s beside the point. For whether or not he’s right about the reasons why men are facing hard times, Carlson is surely right that they are. Meanwhile, his critics, in a representative stand-in for polite progressive opinion, were content to mock or deny the existence of this state of affairs rather than take a stab at offering an alternative explanation for its causes.

Which of course is why there’s demand for a “Men in America” series at all. Carlson is making an obvious play for what Elliot Kaufman calls the Jordan Peterson demographic: men in their late teens, twenties, and early thirties who are frustrated with the way their lives are going, often for good reason, and eager for someone to recognize their plight and offer a way out. In fact, Carlson featured Peterson — a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto who has become famous on the back of his YouTube videos, his lectures, and his book 12 Rules for Life — in the first entry in his series. Plenty has been written about the Peterson phenomenon; the writer Park MacDougald describes his message thus:

Life is hard, you will suffer, and in order to handle that suffering, you will have to be prepared. Preparing means taking responsibility for yourself. That’s hard, too, so you may try to avoid it. You may use all manner of evasions and rationalizations to convince yourself that things will sort themselves out on their own, or that others will bail you out, or that if they don’t, it’s their fault and not yours. But that’s a lie. So stop lying. Accept responsibility for your fate.

These lessons might seem obvious, and can be found in texts aplenty written over the last 3,000 years. But as MacDougald points out, “Peterson has become a celebrity by telling young people to get their act together, which suggests that there are a lot of them who need to hear it.”

As the dismissive criticisms of Peterson and Carlson show, the Left has little on offer for young men save for a choice between self-abnegation and enduring slurs about sins of the past.

No sooner did Peterson become associated with the political Right than he became a fascist misogynist in the eyes of progressive pundits. Some corners of the Internet mock Peterson for his overweening social-media activity and perpetually high-strung disposition. Yet one of Peterson’s virtues is that he appeals to men who have fallen out of society — those “not in education, employment, or training” — who might otherwise wind up in fringe movements. It was Angela Nagle who, in her book about the Internet culture wars, posited a connection between the “growing celibacy among a large male population,” the “anxiety and anger about their low-ranking status in the hierarchy” that such persistent sexual frustration engenders, and the mushrooming of the so-called alt-right in 2016. Peterson appeals to the same folks, but scorns the identitarian movement that has captured many of them. Some of the 25-year-old college dropouts motivated by Peterson to get their lives together might have otherwise spent their time watching Sargon of Akkad videos or reading The Occidental Observer or buying Mike Cernovich’s brand of nootropics, so to the extent that Peterson’s rise has drained support for cranks, there’s a strong case that in consequentialist terms it has been a good thing.

And, as the dismissive criticisms of Peterson and Carlson show, the Left has little on offer for young men save for a choice between self-abnegation and enduring slurs about sins of the past. Peterson is on to something: They could use a sustained dose of the insights they used to get from tough-minded teachers, coaches, clerics, professors, or drill sergeants. Many of the institutions represented by those stalwart role models, however, have decayed. All the while, the need for sound advice persists. So long as there is demand for truth-telling about how to live as a man in America, there will be no shortage of advice-givers.

None of this is to say that Carlson is the right man for the role or, for that matter, that Peterson has entirely lived up to his lofty billing. The Canadian academic’s success was always bound to produce imitators seeking to capitalize on an underserved market, and nobody should be blamed for feeling ambivalent that Fox News’ most cynical host is chief among them. Carlson’s career has been an exercise in switching convictions. His decision to pivot toward Peterson is intended to grow his rapt audience, not promote his sincerely held beliefs. He’s a shrewd actor and savvy businessman, not a responsible thinker.

So yes, it is reasonable to worry that future outreach to the Peterson demographic will slide ever farther into demagoguery. But to object to Carlson’s and Peterson’s prescriptions is one thing; to deny their diagnosis is another. Pretending that men in America don’t face their own challenges and mocking those who offer them solutions is a self-defeating political strategy that will only send the aggrieved elsewhere in search of someone willing to admit the obvious. Rather than grousing that the wrong people are reaching out to this demographic, it would be more productive to think honestly about why the demographic exists at all.

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