LONDON, ONTARIO – Like most Canadians, I first heard of Jordan Peterson in September of 2016 and the first impression he made on me was very favourable indeed. Could it be that we finally have an academic with sufficient spine and wit to call out the spiralling inanity of our institutes of higher but narrower learning? A clinical psychologist and a very popular University of Toronto psychology professor as well as a researcher in the psychology of religious and ideological belief, Peterson shot to national prominence by putting down his foot. By the simple act of saying ‘no’ to governmental bullying dressed up as compassion and accommodation for those of untraditional sexual identities, Peterson suddenly became headline fodder right across the country.
On the surface Bill C-16, which amended the criminal code to affix gender expression and identity as a protected ground to the Canadian Human Rights Act, might seem a benign enough measure to bring protection to a vulnerable segment of the population. But Peterson pointed out that this new amendment when enforced in conjunction with Ontario Human Rights laws, showed our government drifting into dangerous and unprecedented territory in which they were assuming the power to compel citizens’ speech. He drew his line there because of his conviction that it is only through unfettered and uncompelled speech that we are able to think a thing through; that sometimes we have to say some stupid, outrageous or offensive thing out loud and see how it looks – both to ourselves and to others – before we realize that we need to take it back, or refine it or develop it further.
Peterson warned that a refusal to address ‘trans’ or ‘non-binary’ individuals by whatever preferred pronoun they currently choose (‘zhe’ and ‘zher’ were just the beginning; by some calculations there are now more than 50 of these graceless terms to choose from), could result in being charged with hate speech; a crime that could carry a jail term if a convicted person refuses to pay the fine which Peterson has vowed he never will. He has also vowed that if sent to jail, he will go on hunger strike.
By dint of section 46.3 of the Ontario Human Rights Code, employers can also be punished if any of their workers fail to toe the preferred pronoun line. Once Peterson went public with his objection to the new legislation, he received two warnings from his University overlords to please shut up about this stuff. Though they assured him that his professorship was not at risk, he was denied for the first time ever a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Grant. By that point, support for Peterson’s stand against the rising tide of PC tyranny was itself starting to swell and Ezra Levant and Rebel Media started up an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign for Peterson which raised $195,000 – enough to fund more than two years’ worth of his research – in just one month.
“Hey, it’s just a few innocuous pronouns,” Peterson’s numerous critics declared. “Why make such a big stink about something purportedly designed to not hurt people’s feelings?”
Peterson himself, anticipating the pushback for making this stand explained why ‘preferred pronouns’ was the hill he chose to die on in a column for The National Post: “I will never use words I hate, like the trendy and artificially constructed words “zhe” and “zher”. These words are at the vanguard of a post-modern, radical leftist ideology that I detest, and which is, in my professional opinion, frighteningly similar to the Marxist doctrines that killed at least 100 million people in the 20th century. I have been studying authoritarianism on the right and the left for 35 years. I wrote a book, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, on the topic, which explores how ideologies hijack language and belief. As a result of my studies, I have come to believe that Marxism is a murderous ideology. I believe its practitioners in modern universities should be ashamed of themselves for continuing to promote such vicious, untenable and anti-human ideas, and for indoctrinating their students with these beliefs. I am therefore not going to mouth Marxist words. That would make me a puppet of the radical left, and that is not going to happen. Period.”
While it may be news to Tabitha Southey, author of a childish Maclean’s magazine column on Peterson that completely misrepresented his point, it isn’t the transgendered that Peterson is taking his stand against. He has said that on a one-to-one basis with a person whose intentions he believed to be sincere, he might even be willing to use one of their preferred terms if requested to do so. He believes the transgendered are only being used by the latest crop of recycled Marxists who couldn’t very well continue promoting their old cause once its propensity for mass extermination and disastrous economic policies had been exposed by the 1960s. And so they formulated it in different terms to make their poisonous ideology more palatable to contemporary sensibilities.
As he explained in an interview with Convivium magazine: They “started to play a sleight of hand, and instead of pitting the proletariat, the working class, against the bourgeois, they started to pit the oppressed against the oppressor. That opened up the avenue to identifying any number of groups of oppressed and oppressor and to continue the same narrative under a different name . . . The people who hold this doctrine – this radical, postmodern, communitarian doctrine that makes racial identity or sexual identity or gender identity or some kind of group identity paramount – they’ve got control over most low-to-mid level bureaucratic structures, and many governments as well.”
And, of course, before they infested our governmental structures with their bad-think, they had to get control of the universities which Peterson claims they were able to do in the ‘70s: “Under the guise of postmodernism, we’ve seen the rapid expansion of identity politics throughout the universities. It’s come to dominate all of the humanities – which are dead as far as I can tell – and a huge proportion of the social sciences . . . We’ve been publicly funding extremely radical, postmodern leftist thinkers who are hell-bent on demolishing the fundamental substructure of Western civilization. And that’s no paranoid delusion. That’s their self-admitted goal . . . Jacques Derrida . . . most trenchantly formulated the anti-Western philosophy that is being pursued so assiduously by the left.”
Anyone who harboured doubts that the political skewing on campuses could be quite as dire as Peterson claimed, had a sobering epiphany last November when Lindsay Shepherd, a Communication Studies 101 teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University (with a specialty in remedial English) was hauled before a star chamber comprised of two of her professors and the university’s Manager of Gendered Violence Prevention and Support. The crime for which she was summoned was daring to show her class a five-minute segment of the TVO public affairs show The Agenda in which Peterson debated other university professors about the merits and demerits of Bill C-16. The poor girl was deluded enough to think that a topical debate on a newsworthy subject would be appropriate fare for young adults in a class devoted to ‘communication’.
Shepherd had shown the clip without commending either side of the argument. If anything, she leaned left at the time. Her superiors called Shepherd in, they said, after receiving an unspecified number of complaints from her students and she was told that what she had done was “very problematic” and “tantamount to violence,” and that she had created a “toxic” and “unsafe” learning environment. Her troika of deeply concerned colleagues told her that going forward she would have to submit her lesson plans for approval in advance and that she should consider herself on probation. Luckily, Shepherd had secretly recorded her entire ‘trial’ and released it to the media with spectacular results that sent all her persecutors and university brass running for cover. While the full findings of a “third party” investigation into the imbroglio have never been released, it was conceded that the inspiration for Shepherd’s hearing came entirely from the lying scumbags who grilled her. Not even one of her students had lodged any sort of complaint.
The preferred pronoun debacle was pretty well all I knew about Jordan Peterson until last September when, on the enthusiastic recommendation of an agnostic friend, I checked out Peterson’s YouTube channel and settled in to watch the first two and a half hour lecture in his Biblical Series which explores the psychological significance of ancient religious texts, ferreting out what these archetypal, civilization-shaping narratives can teach us about how best to organize our understanding and our behaviour so as to bring a modicum of stability and purpose to our personal, social and cultural lives. There are 15 of these lectures in the series so far and, 37 and a half hours into the game, Peterson has only reached the end of Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament. I can’t wait to see what he makes of the next book, Exodus, which contains the whole saga of Moses.
My own experience with Jungian therapy for a few years in my mid 20s and again in my mid 40s has undoubtedly enriched my enjoyment of Peterson’s lectures. A whole galaxy of ideas finds expression in these talks but there are two larger, over-arching ideas that inform a lot of the material. One is his awestruck appreciation for the precarious, life-enhancing miracle that is Western civilization – which the lefties have been relentlessly pissing all over for the last 40 years. “The highly functional infrastructure that surrounds us,” he writes in 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, “particularly in the West, is a gift from our ancestors; the comparatively uncorrupt political and economic systems, the technology, the wealth, the lifespan, the freedom, the luxury and the opportunity.” It is Peterson’s contention that, like Rome, Western Civilization wasn’t built in a day and ignorant hotheads in the grip of this week’s favoured social justice cause are incapable of seeing, let alone appreciating, what they’re hoping to chuck out and replace with their freshly-hatched paradigm of how we all should organize our lives.
The other over-arching idea is Peterson’s Jung-informed apprehension of each person’s inherent complexity, suspended as we are between the competing pulls of the conscious and the unconscious, our need for order and predictability and our need to venture out into unknown regions, the need to balance the yin and the yang. He understands how people can become immured to evil when they approach it one lazy and ass-covering step at a time. “Even when the stakes are low, people won’t speak up,” he laments. In his extensive study of totalitarian and fascist regimes, he has learned how readily ordinary people fall into the sway of evil movements when everyone else seems prepared to go along with them. “Statistically speaking,” he warns, “the chances of you being one of the people who resisted Nazism in Germany are very low.”
Ordinarily, when a figure like Peterson starts to amass a sizeable audience, the media does its bit to cut him down to size by misrepresenting what he has to say, digging up some dirt from his private life or fastening onto some ill-expressed utterance thrown off in a moment of confusion or pique and claiming that that’s what he’s really all about. I must admit that I’ve been worried for Peterson that a blooper or some unseemly imbroglio will emerge but 18 months into his global notoriety, they haven’t been able to trip him up yet. On the private life front, he seems to be an utterly committed husband and father whose two kids actually like him. In addition to being amazingly eloquent and clear-spoken (with his hands as well as his vocal cords) he always takes great care with what he says in lectures and interviews.
The clearest illustration of this is his infamous half hour interview with BBC Channel Four’s Cathy Newman early this year on the British leg of his promotional tour for 12 Rules for Life. That program has now been viewed a phenomenal eight million times; twenty million if you count other video-bloggers who have used it as the focus of their own commentaries. Newman must preface twenty of her supposed questions to him by declaring, “So what you’re saying is …” followed by some willful misrepresentation of his actual position as she tries to make him out as a sexist monster or a transphobe or just a garden variety idiot. Peterson never gets flustered or irritated, he neither rolls his eyes nor punches out her lights. At most he occasionally chuckles at the wildness of her misconstruing before correcting her assertion and then calmly proceeds from there. And then at about the twenty minute mark, he gently and shrewdly turns one of her questions back on her and she is rendered gloriously speechless. If you’re one of the half dozen people on the planet who hasn’t seen it yet, I urge you to check it out. It is a sublime work of art.
And the other thing that protects Peterson from the low balls of ‘gotcha’ journalism is evidence; mountains and mountains of evidence. In 2013 he started loading up all of his university and public lectures as well as all his interviews (another must-see is his fascinating conversation with Camille Paglia on the decline of the university) onto YouTube. There is now a staggering 600 hours of Jordan Peterson material on his YouTube channel. Though all of it is freely available to anyone who wants to watch (two months ago the Jordan Peterson channel had racked up 800,000 subscribers and 35 million views) many folks who want to support him do so through Patreon. One month before his pronouncement on ‘preferred pronouns,’ he was netting $1,000 a month through Patreon. Last summer it was pulling in more than 50 times that much. (And top all that off with the royalties from his book that is topping the charts everywhere in the English-speaking world . . . Peterson is having a very lucrative run.)
The upshot of all this is that there are an awful lot of eyeballs and ears drinking in a staggering amount of Jordan Peterson’s musings and when some Tabitha Southey or Cathy Newman try to malign him by misrepresenting what he has said, there are battalions of people scattered all around the globe who are only too happy to set the record straight. Particularly with a new book to promote, Peterson is starting to turn up on more mainstream TV shows but for those who’ve been following him on the vastly more open-ended and wide-ranging internet shows run by the likes of Joe Rogan, Gavin McInnes, Patrick Coffin, Dave Rubin, Steven Crowder, Gad Saad and Stefan Molyneux, a ten-minute mini-interview with somebody who hasn’t even read your book bracketed by two clusters of commercials . . . doesn’t really cut it anymore.
Each of the Biblical lectures concludes with about a half hour of questions and answers and this is where we see the incredible appeal that Jordan Peterson has for young men who routinely constitute about 80% of his audience. (Cathy Newman, of course, thought this was a sign of sexism.) This was something that caught Peterson completely by surprise (he has speculated that his prominence on YouTube which predominantly attracts males might explain some of that gender imbalance) and in interviews and talks you can often hear a catch in his throat when he addresses this phenomenon.
He finds himself on the brink of tears because he knows what these men’s thrilled gratitude for his message means. In a world where masculinity is being routinely and relentlessly denounced as toxic and violent and oppressive - and at a time in their lives when they’re just coming into the prime of their idealism and energy and cognitive alertness and yearn to flex every one of their muscles – young men are starved for an encouraging voice that tells them the world could become a better place if they got their act together and picked up the heaviest burden they can find and tried to make things better for themselves and the people around them.
Nothing is sugar-coated for men or women in the Petersonian world view. In short: life is often brutal and unfair and in the end, you and everybody you know is doomed to die. And the more you try to regulate and protect people so that they don’t have to face up to such disagreeable facts of life, the more you disempower them and make them unable to cope. He isn’t afraid to castigate people for their shortcomings. I love his suggestion that maybe trying to wangle somebody into bed on your very first date isn’t the best way to build up a really solid and respectful relationship; that maybe you should talk first and get to know them and see if you actually like them as a person. Just as sublime, I thought, was his contention that you probably don’t understand the whole point of marriage if you’re having an argument with your spouse and are actually trying to win. “Trust me,” he says. “You really don’t want to win.”
A lot of what he has to share is pretty down to earth; the kind of thing a person hears and thinks, “I always knew that; I just never heard it formulated so aptly.” What Jordan Peterson is offering us all is a call to meaning and adventure that is predicated on the acceptance of sacrifice and responsibility. At this rather tetchy moment in human history when so many seem fixated on what they can extract from others as reparations or entitlements, I think it’s a most heartening sign that so many people are listening.
most recent books
Three Artists: Kurelek, Chambers & Curnoe
and his essay collection
No Continuing City
are available in
local shops and on Amazon.ca