Jordan Peterson and Powerful Men

Jordan Peterson’s interview with Cathy Newman on Channel 4 has understandably and deservedly been receiving a lot of attention over the last couple of days. A great many people have expressed their admiration for Peterson’s calm and clarity and, much less edifying, their derision for what they perceive as Newman’s unpreparedness and ideologically-induced dullness.

Many aspects of the interview and the discussion within it are striking. However, I wanted to draw attention to just one specific aspect that caught my attention.

The conversation begins with Peterson talking about the huge need for men to grow up. He expresses this conviction, not as a sort of accusatory finger-wagging, but as a heartfelt expression of concern for the well-being of men. Men need to grow up because the world needs such grown-ups to set it straight and because this is how we find meaning in our lives and in suffering.

Peterson’s message is a remarkable one to the ears of many young men today (and it should be remarkable that it is remarkable—Matthew Hosier is absolutely right that the Church should pay attention). Peterson’s message is that men need to grow up because the world needs powerful men, and because women need powerful men. Men’s power is something that they have to offer the world and also something in which they should find meaning and dignity. And men’s power is good for women too.

Just how counter-cultural this message is merits reflection, not least as an indication of part of what is wrong with our world. Within society today, men are increasingly taught that their power is toxic and problematic, that they need to step back to let women advance. The sort of male spaces in which men develop and play to their strengths are closed down and the sexes integrated. The suggestion that the male sex rather needs to step up and play to its strengths, and not just function as meek, compliant, and deferential allies to women, is one that instinctively appalls many. ‘Powerful man’ is seldom heard as anything but a pejorative expression.

Newman’s response to Peterson’s claims about the need for men to take control of their lives seems to assume a zero-sum game approach to the situation. The prospect of Peterson creating stronger men is perceived to be a threat to women. Male and female strength are in competition and opposition, so that the stronger men are, the weaker women will be.

Yet Peterson’s response challenges this perception, and challenges it from a very important angle. While Newman and others like her tend to perceive gender relations primarily in terms of the frame of competitive and largely zero-sum relations between individuals in a gender-neutralized economy, where male strength will almost unavoidably function as an obstacle and frustration to women and their advancement, Peterson asks the crucial question: ‘What sort of partner do you want?’ Here male strength is presented to women, not in terms of a society that, through the over-integration of the sexes in a gender-neutralized economy, presents them with increased competition and provokes their envy and frustration, but as something that enables them to be supported, challenged, and to grow.

Women, Peterson argues, deeply desire competent and powerful men as partners, because they can contend with and rely upon such men. Such power is not seen in tyrannical control—in the puerile husband who live action role-plays as a micro-managing patriarch—but in competence, confidence, strength, resolve, courage, honour, self-mastery, and other such manly virtues. Many women will settle for weak men, because weak men allow them to dominate them, but such relationships are almost always unhappy and frustrating for both parties in the long run.

Just how threatening the development of powerful men is to our society and how invested our society has become in stifling men and discouraging their strength is illuminating, and the responses to Peterson are often telling here—both the instinctive resistance of many women to the prospect of more powerful men and the immense hunger of young men for a maturity they feel they lack.

As is seen later on in the conversation, male strength seems to be one of the greatest obstacles to women receiving equal outcomes in gender-neutralized societies. The fact that men aren’t just going to stop exerting their strengths to allow women to advance beyond them is a large part of the explanation for the so-called ‘glass ceiling’. The problem should be clear: in a gender-neutralized society such as ours, where the realms of the sexes are increasingly collapsed into each other, men’s greater strength becomes a problem and an injustice that needs to be removed on the one hand, and women need to learn to become increasingly masculine in their behaviour on the other.

In such a society, both sexes are frustrated. Men’s strength is discouraged and pathologized and the system subtly stifles them in various ways, in order to let women achieve better outcomes relative to them. Women, for their part, are frustrated as they cannot receive the same outcomes in realms that almost unavoidably play to masculine strengths and traits and, in order to achieve comparable results, will tend to have to behave more like men.

Beyond this, as Mark Regnerus highlights in his recent book, Cheap Sex, women’s advancement in the economic realm has brought about, as its direct consequence, a serious weakening of their power in the relational and sexual arena. The fact that the contemporary ‘sexual marketplace’ so consistently plays to male preferences and behaviours and women have to learn to live with so much harm and dysfunction in their relationships, while possessing so little power to set the terms of male behaviour in this arena, is a result of the same forces that allowed them to advance economically.

On account of their former power in the ‘sexual marketplace’, women used to be able to exert an immense influence upon men, which they simply cannot now. Men used to have to become marriageable to have a chance at sexual relations (and, as is often pointed out, a man today can see more naked women in five minutes than his great grandfather could see in a lifetime). Yet the woman who has been sexually and economically liberated by the Pill and other features of modern society enjoys little such power to demand maturity, responsibility, and commitment of the men in her life. Such a woman may engage in casual sexual relationships with guys, while wishing for a man who will woo her, commit to her, and sacrifice for her, failing to see the huge counterproductivity of her behaviour. Even if she doesn’t engage in casual sexual relations, the fact that so many of her peers do, coupled with the extreme availability of porn, leaves her with little power.

As Regnerus stresses, the problem here is not that men can’t commit, but that they no longer feel a pronounced need to do so and, on account of the various cultural forces stunting their growth, they are not brought to a position where they could do so. Contemporary feminism is a cause doomed to frustration in key respects because the healthy strength and commitment that women so desire in their partners is something that they are invested in systemically stifling elsewhere and because their natural sexual power over men has been traded off for advantages in the realm of economic participation. There is a strong connection between the weakening of men and the progression of feminism, yet the result isn’t satisfying to either sex.

A society that needs its men to be weak will ultimately prove to be frustrating for both sexes. Here the interpersonal dynamics of the interview are illuminating. Newman seems to be expecting to deal with another man-child who is acting out against the matriarchal forces in society, some puerile provocateur like Milo Yiannopoulos, perhaps. Encountering a manly adult male instead, she seems to be wrong-footed. By the end, she appears to be charmed by Peterson, despite herself.

This is something I have observed in practice on many occasions, with many men and women. When non-feminist males calmly and respectfully, yet firmly and decisively, disagree with them and hold their ground, feminist women, despite themselves, actually respect them far more than most of their patently weak and spineless male allies. They may dislike such men, but by their actions they will often reveal that they take them so much more seriously than the milquetoasts with which they often surround themselves. Women instinctively respond to men who act like grown-ups and are prepared to contend with them as grown-ups too, rather than just deferring to them (and much obedient male feminism is—both parties know deep down—driven by obliging males’ sense of certain women’s weakness before expressions of male power). They instinctively know that such men are more likely to elicit their own strengths from them than fawning weaklings will.

And men typically thrive in relating to genuinely strong women too, rather than the sort of women whose ‘strength’ is a desperate push for control on account of their vulnerability or who are feebly compliant. In a healthy society, the strength of the sexes isn’t a zero-sum game. Quite the opposite! We are stronger when the other sex is stronger. Strong women challenge men to grow up, don’t pander to their childishness, and press men to assume the responsibilities that will lead to their maturity. Strong men push back against women and, through not indulging their immature weaknesses, sharpen them and deepen their character.

Both men and women love characters like Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy because both are strong characters who are made stronger by contending with the other. Neither sex comes away the loser in such an encounter. A lesser man than Mr Darcy could have easily been dominated by Lizzie’s wit and her own growth would have been stunted, even though Mr Darcy’s strength sparked Lizzie’s intense dislike early on. A lesser woman than Lizzie could not have provoked the personal growth that we see in Mr Darcy over the course of Pride and Prejudice. Sadly, our society is increasingly one in which the strengths of each sex is placed at odds with, rather than at the service of, those of the other.

Returning in conclusion to Jordan Peterson, easily one of my favourite Peterson videos is this one, in which he talks about how he met his wife:

Peterson is a extremely emotional and emotive man, yet I have never seen him quite so animated with joy and delight as he is in this video. Hearing Peterson talk about his wife is truly beautiful, particularly because it is so heartening to see someone speaking up for men who really is not driven by resentment towards the key women in his life, but is so wonderfully transparent in his deep love, appreciation, and respect for them. I have mixed feelings about Peterson on various fronts, but I could not appreciate this more.

And here Peterson’s anecdote about his wife taking his last name is not only delightful but instructive. The conversation between Tammy and her friend that Peterson overheard, in which they declared their feminist convictions not to take the last names of their future husbands, displays a crucial dynamic. Tammy declared that, in order to follow through on her feminist desire, she would have to marry a ‘wimp’: the demonstration of her strength as a woman would require the weakness of her partner. In later resisting this, Peterson demonstrates that he is not such a wimp, but is someone who will lovingly contend with his wife, much as she will lovingly contend with him. And, in his refusal to be the ‘wimp’, Peterson makes possible far greater growth for his wife, as they can truly contend with each other as counterparts. Peterson’s wife has clearly captivated his heart, but without needing to emasculate him. They are both the more powerful for not being able to control the other and can both ‘belong’ to each other in more pronounced ways.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Culture, Ethics, In the News, Sex and Sexuality. Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to Jordan Peterson and Powerful Men

  1. Physiocrat1 says:

    I agree entirely with your point about strong men and how that helps women. It is a point which needs making again and again to day.

    When it comes to the sexual marketplace however women still have much more power than men do. Men still propose and women still dispose even in cheap sex. That women have the pill they can try and pull the sexy hunk (who would be a terrible father) for a night or two. This is power they historical would not have had. It is also what some women do all the way through their 20s. It is when the biological clock ticks that men have proportionally more power. Further, that women think 80% (IIRC, it’s definitely more than 60%) of men are below average in attractiveness shows how high their standards are. The problem is today their standard is distorted by the pill and the welfare state – who needs a competent father who earns decent money when you have the state to pay for your kids.

    • When it comes to sex, women tend to be the gatekeepers. As a general rule, men want sex more than women and are prepared to sacrifice far more to obtain it. The difference now is that men don’t need to sacrifice much at all in order to get sex. The sexual marketplace plays largely to male preferences, with many women being hurt and dissatisfied in the process.

      Women want good husbands, but, whereas they once would have enjoyed the sort of sexual power that could pressure men to shape up, now they are less likely to do so. And on account of their greater economic independence through the Pill and the welfare state, they don’t need men. Women clearly want sex too, so now they can give men commitment-free sex as the female sex cartel that tends to operate in more traditional societies is broken up. The result is that they badly want husbands, but, through their offer of commitment-free sex, discourage the growth of such men.

      When a husband does come along, they no longer need him in the ways they might once have done. As increasingly few men make the marriageable grade, such women tend to initiate most divorces and are far more prepared to do so.

      This whole situation is a trade-off. The power (or empowerment, which isn’t the same thing) that women have won in certain quarters comes at the expense of their power elsewhere.

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  3. Jordi says:

    Very interesting observations and reasoning. My hat off to you, sir. This is exactly the kind of thinking that has made me appreciate and respect Jordan Peterson. Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll add my ten cents.
    As a son of divorced parents (at the age of 6) I have long struggled with my identity, having grown up in female-dominated surroundings. The reason for my past turmoil is, I think, because, on the topic of male-female relations, the emphasis had always been on how a woman would be “equal to” and “worth just as much” as a man, but seldom was it discussed what I, as a man, was worth. This, then, is what angers me whenever male needs are disparaged by feminist ideologues.
    Here’s the interesting thing, though. Because of my feminine upbringing, I’ve never pitied women, because I was taught this would be tantamount to oppressing them. Consequently, I’ve received more respect -as well as a load of grief- from women when I’ve been incessantly egalitarian than when I’ve passed myself off as a feminist. And yes, this includes my mother, who has long identified as one.
    Unfortunately, though, standing your ground does not work as well on (hardcore) feminists: they still reason and think from a distinctly female-centrist point of view. It is also the reason why I, a reasonably strong male individual, stay well away from these types of women, in general, but especially in terms of a romantic relationship.

  4. mnpetersen37 says:

    I just found this article on twitter, and, though I suspect you’ve seen it, if you haven’t, I think you’d appreciate it, as it speaks to some of the issues you raise in this article.

  5. Niklas says:

    All these words because you fail to grasp what Jordan Peterson says about power: Power is competence, power is taking control and facing adversity, power is not suppression through aggressiveness, that’s abuse. He says so in other words during the interview.

  6. Joe says:

    Evangelical churches in the UK have always struck me as very feminised spaces. I’m not sure that Peterson would ever feel comfortable in one of them. His non-aggressive but combative way of talking would be politely but firmly cold shouldered. Which is perhaps also why working class men no longer do church. Telling them to “man up” but also insisting that they adopt a feminine/middle-class professional communication style isn’t going to work. Without denying is other faults, Driscoll understood this fault in evangelical culture (which, in theory, should make everyone feel welcome).

    • I suspect that is true of most UK evangelical churches, yes. Even where there is an emphasis upon men in leadership, manly virtues don’t tend to be that strongly evidenced.

      Perhaps one of the class differences that we don’t attend to so much is the fact that working class persons may be more likely to be accustomed to gendered contexts, whereas middle class types are used to gender-neutralized contexts where old norms of manly or womanly virtue and gendered sociality are replaced by the code of professionalism, the extreme integration of the sexes, and the practice of polite society. This works OK for certain types of men, but is stifling and emasculating for others.

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  9. Valerie Hobbs says:

    Dear Alastair, I read your post with interest. Would you answer a few questions please?

    1. You say that: ‘Such power is not seen in tyrannical control—in the puerile husband who live action role-plays as a micro-managing patriarch—but in competence, confidence, strength, resolve, courage, honour, self-mastery, and other such manly virtues.’

    a. Would you agree that feminism (in its various forms) is around because of male tyrannical control? You say that ‘[women] once would have enjoyed the sort of sexual power that could pressure men to shape up, now they are less likely to do so.’ Was not male tyrannical control a significant problem long before the sexual revolution?

    b. Could you elaborate on why the virtues you identify above are ‘manly’? I’m interested particularly in ‘self-mastery,’ ‘competence’, and ‘honour.’ I know you’ve written about some of these elsewhere (‘strength’, for instance).

    2. You say that ‘Many women will settle for weak men, because weak men allow them to dominate them’
    Could you point me to evidence for this?

    Thanks for your time!

    • Thanks for the comment, Valerie. To your questions:

      1. a. No, I think that would be a simplistic claim. Male tyranny is part of the picture, but there is a lot more to it than that. Much contemporary feminism wouldn’t exist were it not for the technologically advanced capitalist society that we live in. The Industrial Revolution and subsequent developments led to the radical disruption, destabilization, or breakdown of the gendered social orders that preceded it. These old orders often involved a great deal of abuse (much as the new order involves a lot of abuse), but it wasn’t the supposed structurally abusive character of the old patriarchal order that gave rise to feminism, so much as the situation that arose as it crumbled before other forces (as Marx observed, wherever the bourgeoisie gained the upper hand, they ‘put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations’). Familial bonds and the societal structure arising from that were eclipsed by detached market relations between individuals. Labour rapidly migrated from the domestic and related realms to the capitalist workplace. As a result, women were increasingly marginalized and the household, no longer the primary site of production and social reproduction, became a reservation ever more detached from the meaningful life and activity of society.

      Women have traded the sort of sexual power that they generally enjoyed in less developed societies for an independent economic power that allows them to compete more directly with men as detached, yet weaker, individual agents. In both societies, women had to deal with male power, which can often be abusive, but feminism is in large measure an adaption to a situation where the dynamics of male power creation have seriously unsettled the sorts of order that exists in less developed societies. The Industrial Revolution was a sort of radicalization of the male libido dominandi, through which it became increasingly untethered from the female creational calling. Where the male libido dominandi so sets the terms, women are faced with the choice of merely submitting to their marginalization, finding some way to tether the sphere of male action more firmly to the sphere of female action so that they might better overlap and intertwine again, or abandoning traditional female spheres to compete on men’s terms and realms, and perhaps feminize male realms a bit. The chosen trade-offs mean that women are largely competing at a disadvantage on the same terms as men, rather than exercising a different species of power over against them. It means that, rather than being arrested, a radicalized libido dominandi is made a largely unrivalled principle of society’s life, even though in the long term it is probably unsustainable.

      b. The virtues are manly because they are the virtues that are sine quibus non for the realization of mature manhood. While such virtues can clearly be found in women too, they are not so distinctively prominent in the firmament of ‘womanly’ character. Manliness is, in practically every society, recognized to be a matter of realized agency. A man must ‘prove’ himself to be a man, while women’s entrance into womanhood generally takes a different sort of form, in which tests and demonstrations of agency are less prominent (although some measure of proof of agency is necessary for demonstration of adulthood). Self-mastery, competence, honour, and other traits like them are all features of well-developed agency, of a man’s capacity to function as a force out into the world. Manliness also takes masculine traits and elevates them to a more honed and realized form, ensuring that virility is expressed in a self-controlled but powerful manner. Manliness enables men to realize the calling that especially falls to them, as the task of dominion and subduing the world are placed more heavily upon the shoulders of men, while the tasks of fruitfulness and multiplication are placed more heavily upon women.

      2. That claim was a claim that Peterson made, presumably in large part on the basis of his extensive clinical experience. It is a claim that is illustrated in things such as the somewhat facetious statement of Peterson’s future wife that she would have to marry a ‘wimp’ if she wanted to go ahead with her preference to keep her surname. If you pay attention, it isn’t hard to see women who adopt such an approach more seriously. It is a claim that I am prepared to make on the strength of what I have seen in a number of men and women of my acquaintance.

      • Valerie Hobbs says:

        Thanks for your reply. I was glad to see ‘I think’ so early in your reply, though the rest needs quite a bit more hedging. Your conclusions about women keeping their names, about the realities facing women in less developed societies, about a woman’s reasoning for marrying this man or that man, are, to borrow your language again, a simplistic set of claims. One researcher to another, I’d encourage you, in your own words, to ‘pay attention’ to what women have to say about their own choices and about their own situations.

  10. p duggie says:

    So have you read Maps of Meaning?

    Would I appreciate it as the christian I am or find it frustrating/annoying (since he seems to have a theory of religion)

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