Empathy, authenticity go a long way to explaining Jordan Peterson’s appeal
He offers a rare spectacle on our screens: a man thinking! Perhaps that’s why his YouTube videos have been viewed an astonishing 50 million times
A University of Toronto clinical psychologist, Jordan Peterson, has become one of the best-known Canadians of this generation. In the intellectual category, he’s easily the largest international phenomenon since Marshall McLuhan.
The proof? The BBC praises and interviews him, The New Yorker takes him seriously, the Times of London loves him and the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia both celebrates and denigrates him.
The Morning Herald, while claiming that Peterson “looks as plain and harmless as an Aspirin,” nevertheless places him among the most talked about intellectuals in the world. It claims the mere mention of his name can turn an Australian dinner party conversation into a ruckus. It goes on to say that his YouTube videos have been viewed an astonishing 50 million times. His current book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, is commanding best-seller lists.
How has this been accomplished by an honest how-to preacher/academic trying to bring a sense of realism into the lives of those who pay attention to him?
His successful method touches the intimate lives of readers and viewers by allowing his own life to play a part in the drama of history and character he’s unveiling. Nietzsche or a Bible story may be his main subject at a certain time but he often steps away from the chosen topic to describe something crucial in the course of his own life. For instance, he mentions on one YouTube video an old friend who killed himself in despair during the time when Peterson was trying to help him. Elsewhere, Peterson talks about his own struggle after it was discovered that his daughter had a rare bone disease. Those he’s speaking to realize his personal troubles give him the empathy to understand theirs. He also offers a practical way to deal with hardship: shorten one’s time of responsibility by focusing on the next minute or so rather than the next three months.
Consider the style of his many YouTube performances. He comes across as thoughtful and calm, a kind man anxious to help where he can. He breathes honesty. A TV lecture often becomes intimate, a seminar for one. He pauses now and then, perhaps reconsidering what he’s just said — and his viewers get a chance to absorb his meaning.
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