This is a video of a conversation between Jordan Peterson and John Vervaeke. Both of them are favorite professors and outstanding teachers at the University of Toronto. This video was taken before Jordan Peterson’s status rocket ride via Bill C-16.
Peterson here is noticeably fatter and dumpier than his current svelte, three-piece-suited persona on his evangelistic crusade masquerading as a book tour. He’s also less careful and in some ways more fun and spontaneous. Millions of people looking to tear someone down has a sobering, limiting effect on people. Long term Peterson watchers will view this video with nostalgia. “Ah, remember the days when Jordan could just be Jordan…” It’s like thinking about the childhood of Truman from the Truman Show.
As most of Peterson’s fresh new content (to the degree that there is some) is behind theater walls and not being blasted to the world via YouTube like the Biblical Series has the zombie mob of Peterson followers have gone foraging for brain elsewhere. I’ve been watching Vervaeke videos along with my usual audiobook-podcast foraging now supplemented by a perpetual stream of recommendations offered by the little zombie hoard looking to forage behind me. We are interesting zombies in that we like to try to sow our brain forage gardens by offering supplements and nutrients to those whose brains we plan on eating in advance.
Peterson vs. Vervaeke
Vervaeke is clearly an outstanding teacher loved by students. He’s got some terrific material that he’s posting online and the number of people (including myself) harvesting from his brain is growing. Determining importance in any given moment is nearly a pointless exercise because of the problem of perspective. Today JBP might look more important and Vervaeke less and 2 years or 10 years or 100 years from now it could be the reverse, or both might be forgotten. We look back in time with such terrible resolution it should give us some sobriety about judgment making.
A big part of Vervaeke’s work that has my interest is his work on relevance and attention. This new YouTube sojourn I’ve been on has me constantly looking at my own disordered ADHD self and wondering “why do I do what I do? I’m a mystery to myself.”
That isn’t a new experience for me. I’ve long been a mystery to myself. This isn’t a new thought for a Christian. The Apostle Paul ponders this dynamic in himself in Romans 7.
Relevance and meaning are obviously deeply intertwined and mysterious to us. Why does one U of T professor ride a status rocket becoming a multi-millionaire authoring a best selling book and selling out large venues around the world while the second one is merely successful but on a much more tiny scale?
There are of course differences in personality. If you watch the conversation they had in 2015 JBP is his usual self, and a lot of fun. He’s interrupting Vervaeke, hogging the conversation, so excited and ecstatic and weird and funny about his insights. Many of the insights are by now familiar to those of us who have feasted deeply on his brain. He’s colonized a mob to a significant degree.
Vervaeke is himself too. He’s certainly got the points he wants to get out there to make but he’s more patient and courteous in letting Peterson be Peterson and allowing him to hog the show. The moderator, whose job it is to rein JBP in is not up to the task which is no surprise given the status differentials there on the state. JBP is notoriously mavericky (in the words of Sarah Palin) in interviews. Watch him with Ben Shapiro’s first Sunday show. At Oxford with Roger Scruton JBP was considerably better behaved (possibly because of other perceived status differentials) and the product was considerably improved but perhaps less entertaining.
What is a Culture War?
The real difference, at least in this moment between delta in the popularity of Peterson and Vervaeke is the culture war. Peterson walked into the C-16 debate and then into the Cathy Newman interview and this launched him. I don’t want to fail to give JBP the credit due to him in these episodes because in both of them the man clearly found his moment. The third big way that many found JBP was on Joe Rogan and in that context it was Peterson being Peterson and the world seeing him for what he had to offer with his insights and his charismatic personality.
Having gotten into the YouTube thing and watching a number of other channels that started around the same time I did grow faster than my own (I’m not complaining, really…) I ponder why. How is what I do different from Jonathan Pageau or Rebel Wisdom or Benjamin Boyce or Mr. Reagan or the Distributist. I pick these name because I’ve been on all their channels and I’ve spoken with all of them and I consider them “friends” of sorts at that word has been redefined by social media. I ponder how all of us are doing quite different things even while what we are doing is all quite connected and there is considerable overlap in our audiences. These questions grab me and make me ponder.
A Culture War is a massive multi-player relevance game where the large story structures that orient us and allow us to live with each other work through their stuff. They intersect with our individual stories and the stories of our other multi-layered communities in ways that massive number of people can’t ignore and in thousands of aspects whose threads make up the fabric of our lives. There are almost so many variables in all of this that attempting to list them requires tremendous time and insight.
JBP ignited to a culture war status rocket that propelled him into the stratosphere. It was truly man meets moment or man meets wave. I don’t want to take anything away from Peterson because I think the work he did in the years to create Maps of Meaning and the years he’s refined it since are integral to the wave and the moment. There is a reason it is HIM and nobody else and he should be given full credit for that.
You also cannot separate his lifetime of work from the currents and historical geography that created the wave. All that shaped him and all that has fed into this project, the work he did on the list of great thinkers, his work in psychology, his work as a practitioner, his upbringing in rough Northern Alberta. It’s all there. This is the sort of thing that again and again convinces me that there is a God and providence is real because no human being would be smart enough to engineer this. It is also the case that this is analogous to “organic inspiration“. It all comes together and it did so in Peterson not Vervaeke.
Now history isn’t finished. History is littered with “also rans” that on the low resolution looking back get lost amid the noise and the clutter. Will that be Peterson? Will that be Vervaeke? Will that be both of them?
Rockets vs. Platforms
I use the term “status rocket” intentionally because rockets are enormously powerful machines that propel huge payloads high into the atmosphere or even into space. They are, however, short lives.
Platforms, like the tower of Babel or space elevators work differently. They allow repetition and economies of scale to operate. You can use a rocket to cross a river or you can build a bridge.
Both rockets and platforms have their beauties and their uses but they are distinct. The question will be who will build bridges and platforms.
Without individuals (rockets) nothing changes. Without institutions (platforms and bridges) nothing lasts.
My enduring question in this whole episode is whether platforms and bridges will be built. Who will build them? Where will they go? What will they enable?