Editor's Note: The following article, originally published on February 5, 2018, is our fifth most popular blog post of the year.
Jordan Peterson is not your average YouTube star. While he finds himself in the company of those like “PewDiePie” and “Smosh,” Peterson is not reviewing memes and toys or mixing techno. He is preaching the truth in YouTube vignettes with searing candor. And much of what he has to say is about marriage.
While I had heard of Peterson over a year ago as one of the first and few academics to resist the gender ideology movement and its absurd anti-grammatical demands, I really discovered him a week ago like so many others after seeing his now infamous interview with the UK’s Cathy Newman on Channel 4 News. In one of the most entertaining and stunning intellectual volleys I’ve ever seen, Newman lobs some of postmodernism’s hardest fastballs at Peterson, and he hits a homer in response every time.
When I first watched it on YouTube, it had around 50,000 views. It now has over five million, and that number will surely climb. When I checked back on the video, the top comment from a viewer was simply, “My God that was amazing.”
Peterson is a Canadian professor and clinical psychologist whose background includes the likes of Harvard and McGill. But unlike most academics, Peterson has managed to straddle both the worlds of academia and social media, using YouTube to speak especially to young people disenchanted with a morally bankrupt culture caught in the chokehold of political correctness. To be sure, he’s a media sensation, and much of that is due to his occasionally sensational style of speaking. He swears, he shouts, and he stages. But he’s worth listening to all the same, especially on the topic of marriage.
In particular, Peterson is a rare and pointed critic of divorce. Put more magnanimously, he is one of the most persuasive advocates for fidelity and permanence in marriage as a positive good and a path to inner freedom. In various videos, Peterson emphasizes the idea that when we don’t take our marriage vows seriously, we cripple our ability to be open with one another because we fear that being truthful to ourselves with our spouse will give them license to leave us. In a world where the majority of divorces are filed unilaterally, his point is well taken.
In his video, “The Shackles of Marriage,” Peterson says:
What do you do when you get married? You take someone who’s just as useless and horrible as you are, and then you shackle yourself to them. And then you say, we’re not running away no matter what happens…If you can run away, you can’t tell each other the truth…If you don’t have someone around that can’t run away, then you can’t tell them the truth. If you can leave, then you don’t have to tell each other the truth. It’s as simple as that, because you can just leave. And then you don’t have anyone to tell the truth to.
Marital permanence is not a shackle, in other words, but the only way to be true to oneself and to another in love and intimacy.
In his column for The New York Times, “The Jordan Peterson Moment,” David Brooks notes that a theme of Peterson’s videos is the line between chaos and norms. According to Peterson, Brooks writes, “we’ve decided not to have any values” and “we deny the true nature of humanity.” Brooks continues, “The downside is we live in a world of normlessness, meaninglessness, and chaos… All of life is perched, Peterson continues, on the point between order and chaos. Chaos is the realm without norms and rules.”
And Peterson’s view is that we’ve made chaos out of marriage. In another video, “The Real Reason for Marriage,” Peterson notes that people say they want to leave open the possibility of divorce so that they “can be free.”
“You want to be free, eh? Really? Really? So, you can’t predict anything? That’s what you’re after?” he demands, going on to admonish, “It’s a vow. It says, look: 'I know you’re trouble. Me too. So, we won’t leave. No matter what happens'…That’s why you take it in front of a bunch of people. That’s why it’s supposed to be a sacred act. What’s the alternative? Everything is mutable and changeable at any moment.”
Many call marriage a form of “voluntary enslavement,” Peterson says, but really, “it’s an adoption of responsibility.” The responsibility, he argues, is to help each other solve each other’s hardest problems, which is only possible, he says, within that boundary of permanence, with the knowledge that your vows truly do hold their meaning.
Peterson’s vision of marriage is a dynamic one. Properly understood, it’s a lifelong wrestling between two worthy adversaries who strengthen each other and help one another to sort out and improve upon their various personal struggles and weaknesses. It’s a radical take on a traditional view.
Of course, Peterson tackles much more than marriage. In fact, there are few topics he doesn’t touch. As critics have pointed out, his style can be severe. But it’s important that the truth in his arguments not be inextricably associated with the harshness in which it is delivered. The 40 million and counting views his videos boast suggests that the culture is hungry for the verities he speaks, especially, perhaps, his font of wisdom on marriage. It’s difficult to get the culture’s ear on marriage. For now, at least, Jordan Peterson’s got it, and that’s a good thing.
Image: via WikiCommons