I have previously explained why Catholic readers should approach Dr. Peterson’s work with caution due to the dangers in his thought. Now, we’ll discuss his misguided ideas on gender: what Dr. Peterson calls the “feminine chaos.”
Order vs. Chaos
12 Rules for Life is predicated on the Jungian archetypes of order and chaos, symbolically expressed as masculine and feminine. In Jungian psychology, chaos and order are held in tension and balance: Too much order and too much chaos both lead to error.
Peterson provides a heavily skewed understanding of these archetypes. He waxes poetic about the beauty of masculine order, devoting pages to expounding on everything from tradition to classrooms and clocks to hearths (Peterson 35). By contrast, he gives chaos a total of three sentences about being the birthplace of ideas before launching into a damning litany of the horrors that the feminine archetype brings: dark caves, mother grizzlies, the fall of the Twin Towers, and marital infidelity (Peterson 34).
None of these things, however, receive nearly as much attention as what Peterson considers to be the central aspect of feminine chaos: the “crushing force” of sexual selection (Peterson 40). While he devotes 10 sentences to describing masculine order (only two of which highlight its negative attributes), feminine chaos earns nearly double the amount of real estate. In fact, he spends eight sentences focusing on the utter chaos men experience when they are “turned down for a date” (40).
His word choice in this passage is telling. If he meant to say that men may be disappointed by rejection, then he should not have used words like “crushing” and “devastating,” both of which connote destruction, trauma, and catastrophe. Peterson’s rhetoric in this instance suggests that he views a woman’s “no” as deeply damaging to the spurned would-be lover, and his diction is not the only thing that suggests such an interpretation.
Earlier in the same chapter, Peterson provides a handful of examples to illustrate what he means by order and chaos. As he explains, before the “Twin Towers fell — that was order. Chaos manifested itself afterward” (35). A mere five pages (filled with additional examples of order and chaos) later, Peterson begins his tangent on female “choosiness” (40).
There is an inherent danger in juxtaposing the horrors of a terrorist attack with the prerogative of women to decide with whom they share sexual intimacy. To compare the two suggests that women actively damage men by refusing to have sex with them. Furthermore, to situate a woman’s decision about her sexual partner as an attack against the men she declines is to view her primarily in terms of her sexual usefulness, rather than view her holistically as a human person.
To situate a woman’s decision about her sexual partner as an attack against the men she declines is to view her primarily in terms of her sexual usefulness, rather than view her holistically as a human person.
The Catholic Response
In the Catholic worldview, this cannot and should not be the case. Catholic teaching upholds sexual intimacy as a free and mutual gift of self. Consent (as expressed in marital vows) is, therefore, a healthy aspect of rightly-ordered sex and not a “devastating” force of rejection. Furthermore, Catholics ought to subordinate their sexual desires to right reason, prudence, and sacrificial love. Given this teaching, we understand that men (and women, for that matter) do not need sex and should not be fundamentally devastated by its absence, even if they are disappointed.
To put it even more clearly: The suggestion that men experience “chaos” when a woman turns them down for a date suggests that they were entitled to a date in the first place. Remember the lobsters? Peterson instructs his readers to fight their way to the top of the dominance hierarchy, thereby becoming the most dominant lobster and earning “the most desirable females” who will “line up and vie for your attention” (15). Women, in other words, are the dominant lobster’s just reward for ascending to the top of the hierarchy.
This metaphor objectifies the women in question, who seem to exist in the hierarchy only as commodities for dominant men to possess. Of course, if you think you deserve sex due to your high position in society, it is no wonder that you would find a simple rejection to be wholly crushing. Seeing the world through this lens means that a woman’s “no” becomes a rejection not just of a particular sexual encounter but of the man’s self-worth, status, and achievement.
Again, this worldview is antithetical to Catholicism. In Love and Responsibility, John Paul II insists “that the person is the kind of good which ... cannot be treated as an object of use and as the means to an end ... the person is a good toward which the only proper and adequate attitude is love” (Wojtyla 41). There is nothing in Peterson’s writing that suggests that women are much more than commodified bodies which placate male desire, inspire male violence, or validate male status and success. Nowhere in 12 Rules for Life, amid the numerous pages dedicated to the problem of female choosiness, does Peterson suggest that men adapt an attitude of love towards the women they encounter. At best, Peterson’s understanding of sexuality and relationships is deeply impoverished. At worst, his work actively encourages men to see women as tools for validating their own self-worth and reinforces an attitude of entitlement to the female body.
In Love and Responsibility, John Paul II insists that “the person is a good toward which the only proper and adequate attitude is love” (Wojtyla 41).
The Case of Male Violence
Why does this matter? Let’s turn to Rule 6 of Peterson’s eponymous “twelve rules,” where he spends nearly an entire chapter sympathizing with the truth-telling of mass shooters like the ones at Sandy Hook or Columbine, arguing that they were acting out of a crisis of “Being” (Peterson 146). He argues that these mass-killings are motivated by an “existential” crisis about the state of suffering in the world as a way to “spite the creator of the universe” (Peterson 147).
While Peterson does not endorse their method of managing these existential problems, he does spend pages insisting that their methods (namely, mass murder, rape, and arson) are “perfectly understandable” and, in some ways, almost commendable (Peterson 148). For example, he calls one rapist and murderer “strong and logically consistent,” insisting that he had “the courage of his convictions” (Peterson 149). After all, if Peterson’s hypothesis is correct and these murders are a reaction to the senseless suffering of the universe, then “vengeance is a moral necessity” (Peterson 149). This chapter is disturbing for its attempts to rationalize mass-murderer, but it is also deeply troublesome for another reason.
Many of the shooters and mass-murderers that Peterson quotes were, as Dr. Kate Manne points out, exactly the sort of people who were obsessed with their place in the worldly hierarchy and fixated on the fact that women would not sleep with them. Eric Harris, the Columbine killer whose journal Peterson quotes in 12 Rules for Life, also filled his diary with rape fantasies, diatribes about the rightful place of women beneath men, and obsessive rants about his own position within society. At one point, he admits that his hate “grows” from his lack of self-esteem, especially “concerning girls.” Of course, Peterson chooses not to use that particular quote to set up Rule 6. The diaries of these killers reveal a worldview eerily similar to the one that Peterson posits: Fight your way to the top, and you win female attention. If women reject you, it is an indictment against your entire worth as a man.
It is no wonder, then, that Jordan Peterson appears to believe that the rejection of women is cause for male violence. In a New York Times interview, he was asked about his thoughts on Alek Minassian, the Toronto man who killed 10 people and injured 16 in 2018. Minassian identified himself as an “incel” or “involuntary celibate,” part of a group of men who have little success seducing women and believe that women should be treated as objects to be used for men’s pleasure. Peterson’s response to Alek’s crime is chilling: Violence happens, he suggests, “when men do not have partners” (NYT). If society made sure those men were married, the violent attacks would cease. As Peterson says, “[Alek] was angry at God because women were rejecting him. The cure for that is enforced monogamy.”
Jordan Peterson appears to believe that the rejection of women is cause for male violence.
Leaving aside the phrase “enforced monogamy” (which Peterson insists is an anthropological term meaning “enforced by social conventions”), Peterson’s suggested “cure” is deeply problematic. It is pernicious to casually link a man’s lack of sexual satisfaction with his proclivity for violence, as though a man could be excused for acting out when he does not have sex often enough (or at all). While Peterson cites a study that found correlation between male aggression and lack of monogamy, the study itself admits that “the relationship may also work the other way around, with crime and antisocial behavior affecting union formation and stability” (Seffrin 2016). In other words, the jury is out as to whether Peterson’s claim can be supported by research, especially when various other studies conclude that an excess of men does not correlate with an increase in violence.
Additionally, when Peterson suggests that men would be less violent if they were married, he fails to account for the fact that married men do, in fact, perpetuate violence — often through abusing their wives. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that one in four women experiences intimate partner violence, and one in 10 women experience intimate partner rape. The men that Peterson believes will be “cured” by marriage are, rather, more likely to turn that violence toward their partners. Perhaps his solution of enforced monogamy would reduce larger-scale attacks, but it would do so at the cost of subjecting individual women to domestic violence and marital rape. In all likelihood, the spurned men who act out violently were spurned for good reason; no woman wants to marry the sort of man who would resort to violence just because he was turned down for a date.
When Peterson suggests that men would be less violent if they were married, he fails to account for the fact that married men do, in fact, perpetuate violence — often through abusing their wives.
Simcha Fischer puts it more succinctly than I do:
Last time an incel shot up a crowd, the progressive edgelords of social media instantly put up a cry for publicly-funded prostitutes. That’s all these dudes need! When they don’t get enough sexytime, they get mad and they kill people! So let’s make sure they can do it to women; and then real people won’t get hurt.
It is hard to read Peterson’s philosophy as something other than a direct endorsement of this sort of entitled thinking. He lifts up dominance hierarchies as inevitable, commodifies women as trophies for achieving status, and couches almost every maxim he presents with an explanation of how it could help his readers land a girl. This economizing of human relationships is contrary to a faith where we see human beings as creatures made for communion, not consumption. As St. John Paul II explains, “[I]f sexual values in themselves were the only, or even the primary, motive for choice, we could not speak of ‘choosing a person,’ but only of choosing the opposite sex, as represented by a particular ‘human being,’ or perhaps even by a ‘particular body which is a potential object of enjoyment?’” (Wojtyla 132). Is there any indication in 12 Rules for Life that Peterson believes men and women choose each other for something besides sexual values and attraction?
The examples I cited are not the only times in Peterson’s body of written and recorded work when he mistreats the dignity of women. 12 Rules of Life is peppered with comments (often thrown in parenthetically) that reduce female worth to physical appearance, insinuate that a client was practically asking to be raped, and casually suggest that your average woman wants to be taken by an aggressive and dominant lobster à la 50 Shades of Gray. I have not even discussed (yet) the claims that Peterson makes in the chapter devoted to Rule 11, where he lambasts the evils of all forms of feminism, belittles the virtue of compassion, and rejects the notion that women have ever been discriminated against by patriarchal structures.
It is not my intent to suggest that there is nothing to be learned from Jordan Peterson’s successful engagement of young adults, nor am I saying that I do not see the appeal of Peterson’s approach to Scripture. There is, and I do. What I am saying is this:
We have, in Peterson, a modern thinker who nearly aligns himself with our Catholic Faith and who also consistently misses the mark when it comes to respecting women as human beings with equal dignity. We also have countless faithful, Catholic women (myself included) who have often felt, as St. John Paul II put it, “unacknowledged,” “misrepresented,” and “relegated to the margins of society.” In every church group where men extol the virtues of Jordan Peterson, I would bet that there are women wondering exactly how much those same men respect them as Catholic sisters. What are they to assume if no one ever steps forward to, at a minimum, disavow the more problematic aspects of Peterson’s views on women? Is Jordan Peterson’s work so compelling that it is worth alienating women by choosing to endorse his philosophy rather than defend female dignity?
Catholics (and Catholic men in particular) have an opportunity to stand up for the dignity of women and the beauty of the feminine genius. Unfortunately, I have too often encountered men who, when pressed, cling even more tightly to Peterson as though he were more fundamental to their beliefs than Christ Himself. I believe that our Church, at her core, embraces the dignity of women and that Catholic men, by and large, have a virtuous desire to uphold that dignity. At the same time, unless members of the Church step forward to condemn and correct Peterson’s misguided views of women, there is a real danger that some will mistakenly come to believe that his views are canon.
Catholics (and Catholic men in particular) have an opportunity to stand up for the dignity of women and the beauty of the feminine genius.