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The celebrity psychologist has reached a cult following. I recently attended one of his promotional talks in London, part of his 12 Rules for Life Tour. Apprehensive at first, my feelings remained unsettled as all 8,000 seats were gradually filled with an overwhelmingly white audience, though unsurprising for the ethnographic makeup of the area. However, I was surprised by the gender balance: women were outnumbered, but only just. For a figure who openly admits the heavily male-tilted imbalance of his YouTube audience, this crowd bode well.
That balance did not reflect what was to come.
Peterson's rhetorical style is viciously effective.
He walks on stage. The audience applauds. Then a flurry of people rises to their feet. Moments later, even more are standing. After fifteen seconds, the entire auditorium is booming with a cacophony of hypnotic praise, devoted to this one man. He appears like their hero. A religious cult leader. Why? What on Earth has happened so that a self-help book, imbued with religious, archetypal, and psychoanalytical ingredients, has stirred such a powerful barrage of support? Is it merely his honed, dogmatic rhetorical style (Rule 1 in full action), or is it something far more trivial? I suggest the latter.
The audience is ignorant.
Not only that, but they are blind to their own self-righteousness. The experience of watching a plethora of Peterson videos is all too easily equated with genuine academic discovery or philosophical thought.
Firstly, his videos deliver simple, easily digestible aphorisms. It is unbelievably gratifying to watch a (pseudo-) intellectual video and understand and connect with what the lecturer is actually explaining. Especially if the content is broken down even further on YouTube into bite-size chunks of click-bait procrastination material, as seemingly approachable and relatable as, "How to Stop Procrastinating." Oh, the irony.
The second factor is linked to the decline in literary reading and the short attention-span buzz of social media and instant entertainment. If the average intake of meaningful ideas through novels, academic writing, or wider cultural engagement is dropping, then one must look elsewhere for intellectual stimulation. However, YouTube is yet to be proven as an effectual replacement. Peterson himself quoted Marshall McLuhan, "the medium is the message" during the talk, favouring the video platform over television's constant need to satisfy attention-grabbing demands of brevity. What he fails to realise is that, though his own videos often extend well beyond an hour, those long recordings are immediately fragmented into shorter clips which satisfy those same demands. The widespread hunger for instant entertainment echoes through Peterson's audience in a subtle, but just as present manner.
Later into his live performance, at climactic moments of maximal rhetorical potency, crowd members would frequently holler praise. It was like a comedian facing hecklers, yet these were devout hecklers of loyalty and support. I kept pondering how Peterson's doctrine of free speech and openness to all ideas was dissolving into a one-dimensional audience.
And then it struck me. His fans were not seeking, as they might themselves believe, a deeper philosophical understanding of the world, or a richer meaning to their live. They were satisfied merely with the shallow contentment of listening to a speaker they understood, without acting upon the advice they offer. It is the equivalent of spending two hours watching successions of his proactive, anti-procrastination YouTube videos, while you sit there in your boxers eating cereal out the packet. You understand him, and you might even quite like him. But there is nothing less meaningful than disregarded advice and wasted opportunities.
This is not a critique of Peterson's legitimacy or success, but one must be conscious of his audience's temperament just as much as one concentrates on his personality. An idea misconstrued by a pack as large and well-established as his following has become is an idea is wasted, or worse, destructive.