Jordan Peterson and Religion on the Internet

The greatest power a state can possess is the power to control what they say, and this allows the state to alter the nature of truth and reality itself.


“Get yourself together. Get yourself together so that when your father dies, you’re not whining in the corner of the room, and you can help plan the funeral. Stand up solidly so people can rely on you. That’s so much better than being a victim.”

Jordan Peterson, the Internet’s anointed father

The majority of the internet is a terribly cynical place and it always has been. Much of this is because of the nature of the medium and how it reduces human physical contact to mostly textual communication, reaction GIFS and hashtags. Or maybe it is because of the average age of regular internet users, which is usually on the younger side of the general population.

Because of this, any deeper discussion of morality and responsibility is almost immediately dismissed on the internet, and those crazy enough to brave the treacherous waters by trying to foster these deep discussions usually pay the price by being on the receiving end of a good dose of anonymous internet trolling and abuse. In short, except for very rare circumstances, nihilism, snark and pessimism rule the roost on the internet and its most popular platforms — Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, etc.

It is precisely because of this reason that the internet superstardom of Canadian university professor Jordan B. Peterson is so different and exciting.

Professor Peterson first found himself in the Twitter feeds and “Youtube recommended” lists of most people in the USA and Canada at some point in the Fall of 2016, when he voiced his opposition to Bill C-16 in the Canadian parliament. In his infamous videos, he took a firm stance that he would refuse to use some unconventional (some might say “made-up”) pronouns to refer to certain transgender people, which the law would have mandated him to do. The bill (which ended up passing through the Canadian parliament in June 2017) would have made it illegal to “misgender” a person who claims to be a different sexual identity. Dr. Peterson explained in videos that this issue was less about the sensibilities of transgender people and more about the power of the state to dictate what we as citizens say and think.

He says in this Youtube video, that free societies have had instances where a reasonable restriction on free speech is imposed by the government — for example, the case where someone calls for violence against another person or group — but there has never been legislation in free western societies that “would require us to use a certain kind of vocabulary”.

The fact that this debate was about transgender issues was besides the point for him, as it was about a free individual in a free society being able to control her own speech and the state not being able to force her to lie, when she knows it is a lie. It is the same problem faced by protagonist Winston Smith in the second half of George Orwell’s dystopian epic 1984, when an agent of the Ministry of Love tortures Winston to make him knowingly lie about certain events of the book.

As the character of O’Brien demonstrates to us in 1984, the greatest power a state can possess over its subjects or citizens is the power to control what they say, and this allows the state to possibly alter the nature of truth and reality itself. In taking a stance against the Canadian law, which has appallingly still been passed by the government there, Dr. Peterson was standing up for the very basic human right — the right to formulate one’s own speech — and this made him a hero on the free speech supporting faction of the internet.

But while people flocked to Dr. Peterson’s videos on Youtube because of his zany clarity in this time of political chaos (his Youtube channel now has more than 500,000 subscribers, a number unimaginable for a channel which usually makes long videos and talks about nothing but philosophy and history), while they backed him because of his quirky personality and unquestionable authenticity (the Internet hates nothing more than inauthenticity, and looking at Dr. Peterson’s $60,000 per month earnings on crowdfunding website Patreon, the internet clearly loves the professor from Canada), people found themselves listening to Dr. Peterson long after the transgender drama had ended, and this was largely in part to what the Professor has to say about a variety of other topics that were completely unrelated to transgender people or pronoun usage.

Maybe the most fascinating topic within this realm was the issue of religion and belief in the West, and Dr. Peterson’s view and analysis of the Bible has rocked the boat on religion on the internet and has seen people describe him as a “gateway to Christianity for non-believers”.

This is a minor miracle by itself on the internet, which has generally served as the haven for atheism and skepticism since its inception. In this age of cynicism and nihilism in public life and culture, the internet has often earned its reputation as “fortress nihilism”. Dr. Peterson has upended this trend in the most remarkable way.

This can be seen through the most popular video on Professor Peterson’s channel, which is part one of his thirteen part series on the “Psychological significance of the Biblical Stories”. The video is almost three hours long and has about 970,000 views on Youtube (as of the 16th of November) and is a clear demonstration of the fact that there is a hunger for meaningful content about faith, personal responsibility and morality on the internet.

For conservatives, this should be an exciting prospect and possible canary in the coalmine for a growing demand for these ideas. It’s possible that after being raised with nothing but discussions of rights and privileges, young people and especially young men, have a need for direction and responsibility, and we conservatives should be the ones satisfying this demand.

This inversion of the normal rules of the internet is also visible in the comment sections of professor Peterson’s videos. Generally speaking, comment sections of Youtube videos are places worth avoiding entirely. The anonymity of the internet leads people to be inconsiderate and provocative on purpose and this leads the Youtube comment sections to generally be areas of snark, personal attacks, if not outright abuse. But a quick survey of almost any of professor Peterson’s videos will show you how he has almost completely bucked the trend on this erstwhile unavoidable part of the internet culture. People thanking the professor for the positive changes they’ve made in their own lives due to the Professor’s message of self responsibility — “Clean Your Room”, “Sort Yourself Out” and other related messages of self authorship in life – are commonplace in the discussion of videos.

The most fervent of his supporters will say things like “This man could single-handedly save Western civilization, if only people would listen”, but most people give accounts of the improvements they’ve been able to conduct in their own lives. It’s hard to overstate how uncommon and unlikely this positivity is on a forum such as Youtube, especially when the topics being covered — history, psychology, politics and philosophy – can so easily be topics people disagree on.

The professor is clearly not a perfect person, and he himself tries to fight the messiah complex some on the internet have developed around him. He said in a recent interview on the Youtube talk show The Rubin Report, “It’s important not to conflate the message with the messenger. I have been fortunate to be able to communicate important historical ideas in a time where they seem to not be taught or valued enough”.

However, one cannot deny that the Professor’s success and his impact can tell us a lot about the political environment of the internet and the younger generation that uses it so religiously. Firstly, it tells us that there is a strong demand for meaningful content that deals with deep philosophical and historical topics, a trend also observable in the growth of the medium of podcasts. This is partially because the parts of society that generally take responsibility for distributing these ideas of virtue, faith, good vs. evil – i.e. schools and universities – are clearly not doing enough to get these ideas to people that are seeking them. Secondly, the broader areas of Western culture – the media, the popular culture – are clearly facing a dearth of these discussions as well – and this shortage is being filled by eloquent speakers like Professor Peterson through the ever-growing medium of the internet.

This phenomenon can also possibly conservatives who are concerned about the lack of conservatism in the younger generations in the west with a possible new approach.

Young people, especially young men who have grown up with the internet and in a culture where words like “toxic masculinity” are accepted labels, are clearly missing a coherent message about personal responsibility in their lives.

We might have to communicate the message in a new way – younger people, especially on the internet, do not appreciate moral hand-waving and despise the feeling that they’re being talked down to – but if we as conservatives can take the time to communicate clearly why people need faith and why social stability is a good thing, why it clearly improves their own lives and the lives of the people around them, and we do so in a manner that is humble, we can reach younger people and get them to see the role conservatism can play in political and personal lives.