Culture

The author and professor has become one of the most controversial thinkers in Canada.

Is Jordan Peterson a Troll or Is He Just Misunderstood?

Jordan Peterson has the mien and intensity of that one cool high-school teacher you remember from your youth. He is curious and engaging, and he breezily references Jung, Piaget and Nietzsche while pausing to digress into off-the-cuff discourses on topics like the hidden alchemical symbolism in the Marvel Avengers movies.

That kind of intellectual heft, mixed with culturally savvy plain-spokenness, is the foundation of Peterson’s rather remarkable popularity in Canada and internationally. He’s part science nerd, part (maybe) misunderstood do-gooder, and if you’ve begun to chafe under the weight of watching what you say, Peterson may just be your intellectual superhero, fighting for your freedom of speech. His online talks attract tens of millions of views, mostly by men under the age of 30—the first generation of men raised to be politically correct and brought up with an awareness of their privilege that, because it’s all they’ve known, they don’t necessarily feel.

Peterson’s new book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, is aimed squarely at the fears, failures and aspirations of that masculine demographic. It’s a group that is both under- and over-served. Most pop culture is aimed directly at it—so much so that for a small, vocal contingent, the thought of a woman wielding a light sabre borders on blasphemy. And yet, with that attention comes a kind of permissiveness that has had some unintended consequences. But before we can discuss how Peterson addresses those consequences, I feel compelled to reference the giant rainbow-coloured elephant in the room that follows Peterson everywhere these days.

That elephant would be the three videos he posted in September 2016 in which he railed against Bill C-16, a proposed anti-discrimination law that added gender identity and gender expression to the Canadian Human Rights Act. Peterson argued that it was so poorly constructed and contradictory that it would restrict free speech and leave the door open for further restrictions on intellectual inquiry. Under the law, his lectures could suddenly be considered hate speech, he warned—partly because he refuses to use gender-neutral pronouns.

Although Peterson has gone on record saying that he is happy to address a student or colleague by the pronoun that fits the gender they present to the world, he draws a firm line against what he sees as an ever-changing list of pronouns that includes “ve,” “te,” “em,” “zie” and “zir.”

The ensuing media storm transformed the student-friendly University of Toronto lecturer into a whipping boy for the activist left, who saw Peterson as a transphobic alarmist and misogynist, and for free-speech advocates, he became a rebel bravely fighting back against the tyranny of liberal academia and gender politics. Unfortunately for him, his fight to protect freedom of speech also made him a hero for those on the fringes of the radical right who could cloak their actual bigotry in his legitimate critiques of left-wing excesses.

The backlash against Peterson soon went far beyond the usual protests, internet smear campaigns and calls for his firing. He was mysteriously suspended from both YouTube and Google for a short spell; his office was vandalized; and activists postered his neighbourhood with “Community Safety Bulletins” accusing him of “having open associations with neo-Nazi groups” and “campaigning against people of colour, Muslims and LGBT people.”

“I’ve had moments when I would have liked to have my old life back,” he concedes, speaking with me via Skype. “But I’m not complaining. What’s happened to me is a radical broadening of the good and the bad. The worst things that ever happened in my life occurred over the past year, but so did the best.”

Peterson does himself no favours by refusing to more actively disavow those right-wing-fringe supporters who have aligned themselves with his ideas, but he claims that their numbers are grossly over-exaggerated. “When you look at the YouTube comments sections for most [political] videos, they make you want to take a bath. On my site, maybe one comment in 50 comes from someone who needs a slap. As for the anti-Semites, their miserable, wretched carcasses pop up everywhere.”

Peterson is hardly an overnight success. His ideas on the connections between ideology, mythological and religious symbols and evolutionary psychology, explored in his book Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (1999), proved so popular with his students that he adapted them for a 13-part educational TV miniseries. He also began to make regular appearances on TV discussion panels.

It was his controversial take on Bill C-16 and his ensuing attacks on what he sees as the rise of an intolerant neo-Marxist postmodern left that got him labelled a defender of far-right beliefs. That label has so permeated public perception that a teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University was recently reprimanded for showing a video clip, from Ontario’s public television channel, of Peterson discussing his views on gender-neutral pronouns.

For his supporters, irony and vindication rarely come in such big doses.

Cassandra Williams, a U of T student union member, poses in front of a sign at the Jordan Peterson protest/rally.

The idea of wrestling order and honour from a chaotic life event is one of the central themes in 12 Rules for Life. The book draws on many of the same scientific and cultural findings as Maps of Meaning, but here, Peterson has repurposed his readings of mythology, psychology and evolutionary theory into a philosophical self-help guide aimed primarily at millennials.

The chapter titles alone (“Stand up straight with your shoulders back,” “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world,” “Tell the truth—or, at least, don’t lie”) announce his intentions while evoking his tough-but-caring-teacher persona. The book’s title, especially the prominence accorded to the word “Rules,” is also a giveaway.

“There is such a huge underground clamour for rules,” Peterson says, “that I don’t think I could have picked a better word had I planned it. Our culture has talked about freedom for so long that from the bottom of our psyches we’re crying out for a conversation about rules and responsibilities and structure.”

Peterson’s recent experiences confirm this observation about rules. “One of the things that’s stunned me over the past year, talking to live audiences, is that as soon as I address the need for rules and the moral obligation to bear a burden and speak the truth, everybody falls silent, especially the younger men. They’re on the edge of their seats.”

Peterson’s message, when stripped of its biblical, mythological and philosophical allusions, is pretty straightforward: “Straighten the hell up!” he booms. “You’re a fucking mess! Grow up, adopt some responsibility, have a goal, develop some conscientiousness!” He continues: “And these young men say, ‘No one’s ever said that to me, that I’m pathetic because I could be so much better!’ It’s so much better than saying they’re okay the way they are.” The stories and myths he introduces to young men speak to the core human desire for objective morals and limits (according to him)—a desire too often ignored by our consumerist postmodern society.

Despite how he’s perceived by his detractors, Peterson hardly fits the bill of a right-wing demagogue. He often tears up when speaking about the struggles of young men, and he goes to great personal lengths to help them access the better self lurking beneath their tats, slouching shoulders and man bun. “People need to accept social responsibility and an honourable function in life, because without it, they degenerate and die. The rules allow you to play the game, and the game allows you to erect a hierarchy of potential achievement.”

It’s no coincidence that Peterson’s message about rules and limits is falling on such fertile ground. Chaos, in the form of rapid technological change and the upending of traditional social structures and values, has been eclipsing order for several decades. “Excessive freedom is indistinguishable from chaos,” he says. “The rate of technological change alone is inherently destabilizing.”

Peterson is not casting aspersions on millennials—he says the cultural shift to a freedom-based ethos rapidly accelerated with the radical lifestyle experiments of the 1960s and ’70s. “Drug use, for instance, peaked among young people in 1979, the year I finished high school. It was all about dropping out but not tuning in. We didn’t join anything—you were a pawn of the state if you did. And we were taught not to trust adults. That’s crazy! You’re an adult from 18 to 80 and you have a culture that tells young people not to trust adults?”

The ensuing social chaos, Peterson argues in 12 Rules for Life, has been particularly hard on men, many of whom struggle to find honourable roles for themselves within the emerging social and political orders. This shouldn’t seem controversial to say, but it is—compared to most groups, men have traditionally had it pretty easy. And yet suicides among Canadian men have become a “silent epidemic,” according to BC Medical Journal (hardly a men’s rights publication), and psychologists are having to develop new protocols for pornography addiction in males in their early teens.

It doesn’t help that many traditionally male attributes, such as aggression and a propensity for relating better to objects than people, are often equated in the popular imagination with undeniably negative masculine traits like physical violence and warfare.

“We don’t have any positive synonyms for ‘aggression’ anymore,” he says. “Why don’t we say ‘forthright’ or ‘indomitable’ or ‘assertive’?” Using stories from the Bible and classical mythology, along with scientific studies, Peterson passionately argues for the need for men to access and tame their innately aggressive nature.

The alternative, as history has shown again and again, is too terrifying to consider. Peterson has lectured about the dangers of ideological extremism on the left and the right for most of his academic career, and he argues that we need to address “the threat of a genuine rise of a new radical right.”

“You have these men who are depressed and anxious and aimless and bitter and undertrained and undereducated,” Peterson says. “And then they’re assaulted with these accusations of participating in rape culture and toxic masculinity.”

According to him, the left’s emphasis on racial and ideological solidarity is only throwing fuel onto this fire. “The lefties are pushing identity politics so hard that a lot of young people on the right are also becoming identitarians,” he says. “Their basic attitude is something like this: ‘OK, you’ve convinced me that my fundamental identity is racial. But [what] you fail to understand is that if the game is race, then I’m going to play to win.’”

Statements like this go some way toward explaining the backlash against Peterson. His passion can come across as being strident, especially if you disagree with him (or think you’re supposed to disagree with him), and like many creative thinkers, he uses spoken dialogue as a means of inquiry, floating opinions and tentative hypotheses that he modifies later. It’s a dangerous practice in a connected world that remembers everything and where every statement is given equal weight, regardless of its context. This makes it easy for the ideologically orthodox on both sides of the political divide to cherry-pick his remarks to endorse their ideological positions.

My own fascination with Peterson began after watching one of his online lectures on mythological symbols of masculinity. As a longtime supporter of feminism, I was skeptical of Peterson’s insistence on innate gender differences, but I couldn’t deny that the innately male traits he was describing—higher aggression and object relation levels, for instance—exactly lined up with my own observations of my 18-month-old son, Charlie. Although my wife and I are raising him in the exact same way as I raised his older sister, Charlie is clearly more obsessed with trucks, dinosaurs and construction sites than she was at the same age. Which isn’t to say that I agree with all of Peterson’s take on gender (or any other topic), but his erudite, research-backed and bracingly unsentimental analysis continues to clarify my own opinions.

Although Peterson has been accused of trying to further the aims of the alt-right, he claims to have rescued scores of men from right-wing extremism. “These young men tell me they were sick and tired of political correctness and being accused of racism and promoting rape culture. They felt like things were stacked against them and became attracted to the right wing. Then they watched my videos and realized that was a bad idea.”

So what’s next for the reluctant prophet of the disaffected? He is currently on a planned sabbatical that will see him speak to packed auditoriums in Europe, North America and Australia. He will no doubt be revered, ridiculed and tweeted about at every stop, but Peterson insists he won’t waver from his message of intellectual freedom and curmudgeonly grace under fire.

“There’s a line in the New Testament that we know as ‘Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth,’” he says, falling back into teacher mode. “Well, that’s not the right translation. The real one is ‘Those who have swords but keep them sheathed shall inherit the earth.’ That’s a very different meaning.”

James Grainger is a freelance writer and the author of Harmless.