Kevin O’Rourke:

Later on, he publicly wondered why so many people care what some random psychology professor thinks about anything. More than likely it’s his ability to articulate things that people half-know, things they’ve picked up bit by bit from books, teachers, TV, parents, friends, but never explicitly grasped.

When I was younger, I dabbled in several different martial arts. One guy whose self-defense videos I enjoyed was Paul Vunak. His innovation was to delineate three different “zones” in which fighting takes place. Basically, he said, fights either happen at arm’s (or leg’s) length, i.e. punching and kicking, or in a clinch, i.e. grappling and wrestling. The third zone was in between the two. Most fighters just treat it as an empty transition zone between the other two, but Vunak taught a number of techniques, mainly involving the elbow and knee, to take advantage of this space where you’re too close for your opponent to take a full swing at you, but not close enough to grab and pummel yet. The key was to consciously recognize the potential of this zone rather than treat it as a meaningless transition. As an all-purpose metaphor, this approach has been even more useful to me outside of its original context.

I watched Joe Rogan’s engrossing recent interview with Jordan Peterson yesterday. Again, I rarely do any video-watching or podcast-listening. If I have an hour or two of free time, I’d almost always rather use it to read, and if I want to know what an interview is about, I’d rather read a transcript, which is much faster for me than watching it play out in real time. But I have to say that I was especially impressed with the uninterrupted, free-flowing conversational structure of the talk, as well as Rogan’s exceptional skill as a host and a listener. They briefly mentioned their shared belief that YouTube and podcasts will eventually be the death of the standard TV model, with its inflammatory soundbites, moronic shouting-heads format of “conversation,” and constant commercial breaks, and I fervently hope they’re correct. A few times, Peterson would pause to collect his thoughts or phrasing, and I quickly became aware that I was tensing up when that happened, because I’d been conditioned by media to expect that the slightest pause for breath or reflection was an invitation to intercept the conversation and run the other way with it. Thankfully, Rogan has the calm patience and attentiveness of a meditating Buddhist. As with most things, I’m probably way behind the curve here, and this is all incredibly obvious to those of you who have been watching vloggers and listening to podcasts for years already, but I just had to express my gratitude that such a wonderful format exists. Long may it continue.

Anyway, there were also a couple of times when Rogan and Peterson expressed their shared surprise over the response to his work. Rogan in particular noted that astonishing numbers of people were obviously ravenous for this message of responsibility, dignity, and self-development, so, he wondered, why was there such a void in the first place? Why did it take this obscure Canadian academic to fill that void, and what were people responding so passionately to about the messenger? There are other books that tell people how the smallest things like making your bed can help change the world, and there are other attempts to present a sort of upper-middlebrow approach to self-help, but those never seem to become mainstream phenomena.

Obviously, Peterson in particular came to prominence for his outspoken opposition to the infamous Bill C-16, at a time when the majority of typical pusillanimous liberals were going along with it, and all the other trendy transgender absurdity, out of their ever-present fear of “looking conservative.” The hero we needed, and all that. But his broader message just happens to fill one of those overlooked “zones” that most people ignore. The liberal clerisy have always considered themselves too sophisticated to take self-improvement seriously, and — here I have to agree with someone like Patrick Deneen — the internal logic of liberalism seems to lead many of them to believe that there’s always something gauche or even sinister about a popular movement with a charismatic leader, as if all such roads inevitably lead to Jonestown. See, for example, this ambivalent piece, which tries to imply something religious, or cultish, or both, about Peterson’s message and fanbase without ever being brave enough to say it outright. “Moralism,” even the common-sense variety, is apparently for religious-right televangelists, and they’re all hypocrites, as we know.

Some of these pieces are no doubt motivated by professional envy, as a bunch of accredited hair-splitters wonder why their monographs weren’t the ones to escape the academic ghetto into the bestseller lists, or why their pedantic critiques of the illiberal left didn’t go viral. But in general, there’s a long-standing assumption on the left-of-center that there’s something inherently suspicious about a man who dares to act as if he might have some answers for other people when it comes to the “how should we live?” philosophical questions. Conservatism has always insisted that our best sources of that wisdom come from cultural tradition and our ancestors. Liberalism has always insisted that we, as separate individuals, should be lamps unto ourselves, only accepting that which we’ve rationally verified by our own experience. It seems like the time was just right for someone to synthesize the two into an accessible package — things we all used to know as “common sense” have to be rediscovered via lectures delivered by a faraway stranger, mediated by technology and social media.