My article “Jordan Peterson Comes to Aspen” generated a lot of correspondence. Most of it defied the conventional wisdom that the University of Toronto professor turned celebrity intellectual is either uncritically loved or hated. Some Dr. Peterson fans disagree with parts of his oeuvre; some critics see merit in his project; and lots of folks are earnestly wrestling with his ideas. By the time I cleared my inbox I felt more optimistic about public discourse than before––and more persuaded than ever that social media is hugely distorting.
Since so many fans and critics alike are trying to think through the words of this suddenly influential man, I’ve been inclusive in the number of emails I’ve included. Folks who are interested in an appetizer or a fast-casual dining experience should satiate your hunger and leave at will. And I’ve pared down some emails for concision to keep the quality high for those who stay for the 12-course dinner.
Either way, I hope one takeaway, wherever readers come down on Dr. Peterson, is to have a less caricatured view of the folks on the other side. The arguments in these emails are useful in part because they are trying to get at the truth. But those that are in error still lend insight into how their authors are thinking.
Don’t assume that I agree or disagree with any of what follows.
Thank you for your measured commentary on Jordan Peterson. I think my primary discomfort with him is the core idea you’ve identified: that he promotes the “psychological project” over the “sociological project” of correcting the ills of society. I follow self-help ambivalently, as someone who in practice takes on nearly absolute responsibility for my life’s outcomes and for better living through intentional self-improvement but subscribes earnestly to the idea that social circumstances outside individual control, including political and socioeconomic structures, are determining factors in those outcomes.
I suspect this is a common dialectic held by others in my Anxious Young Liberal demographic.
The fact that Jordan Peterson visibly appears at the junction between self-help and political discourse indicts the idea that I can have it both ways. Whether he’s willingly standing between politics and personal philosophy or has been placed there by critics is not totally clear to me, but there he is. I have a similar discomfort with Sam Harris, with The Minimalists, and even with figures who seem to fall to the left of the spectrum but preach a new kind of prosperity gospel of expensive self-care, like Gwyneth Paltrow and a wide array of copycat lifestyle bloggers, and yet, I receive (look forward to!) their newsletters.
Peterson disturbs me because some of his ideas and attitudes aren’t that far outside my cultural/intellectual wheelhouse, but he seems to be irresponsibly allowing his alt-right following to take these ideas in a direction I fundamentally disagree with (hence the confusion between “obvious” and “wrong,” I suppose—maybe the transmission / transformation of his ideas through the culture really can make them both at once).
Like many young people, I grew up in a society where I was free to do basically anything. I was told from a young age that I could do anything. Despite all of this potential I was never told how. Jordan is the how. Everyone wants to live a meaningful life but no one had ever taught me how to lead a meaningful life. For some meaning comes naturally … but for most of us, life is suffering, and life is suffering primarily because of our own behaviour. Sure, there are obviously external forces at play, but our society does a pretty good job of supporting people and protecting them from external harm.
No one is talking about internal harm. Internal harm is the harm your inflict on yourself when you decide that you are a victim. I’ve been there. As a victim you come up with excuses for everything. You blame others for your faults, and by doing that you never address the real problems in your life. What Peterson has taught me is that you need to address the real problems in your life before you go out and try to fix the world. You need to turn in the victim card and take responsibility or else you will continue down your path of destruction.
All of this might be difficult for successful people to understand, and at one point I would have been the same person saying “what Peterson is saying is obvious.” In reality, you can never truly appreciate what Peterson is saying until you really need it, and there are no shortage of people in this world who really need it.
The strength of both the positive and the negative responses to Jordan Peterson calls for explanation… I think Scott Alexander was on the right track in suggesting that Peterson fits the prophet archetype and so people respond accordingly. However, he also fits the archetype of the strong and authoritative father figure. When people respond to Peterson, they often aren’t responding so much to his teaching as to the man himself and to the archetype he represents.
For many young men, the authoritative yet loving father figure is something for which they have a sort of primal hunger. Such a figure is peculiarly capable of leading them towards maturity in manhood. If Peterson were a more maternal figure saying the same things, his words couldn’t have the same resonance. On the other hand, there are a great many people for whom the authoritative father figure represents the patriarchy and all that they find oppressive about that. They see the archetypal threat to their freedom, someone who represents a particularly unapologetic male form of authority.
For someone whose positions excite so much controversy in context of gender debates, it is apt that Peterson himself may demonstrate something of the fact that gender and gendered archetypes are deeply and likely inescapably constitutive elements of all of our perception. The notion that all that matters is the content of someone’s beliefs or statements seems naive.
A good example of this was the re-staging and gender-reversal of the presidential debates, which illustrated just how powerfully the gender of the speaker conditioned the audience’s reaction to them. When a man played the part of Hillary Clinton, he provoked a negative reaction in many who had supported her. However, when a woman played the part of Donald Trump, people who loathed Trump were rattled by how appealing they found her. It seems to me that Peterson is someone who triggers people’s gender archetypes in similar ways, producing polarization in people’s responses to him.
I’m 28-year-old Canadian pursuing a clinical psychology career. I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve ever written a journalist. Your articles on Jordan Peterson fill me with a genuine feeling of relief and hope. You seem like you actually care about seeking the truth, and in this day in age, that’s a breath of fresh air. Your ability to remain clear-headed and rationale when writing about someone so often conveyed as binary––either God or the Devil––is inspiring. It must be a challenge to accurately portray this strange, painfully alluring public figure. It seems like many forget he is a human being like the rest of us.
I don’t characterize myself as either a die-hard JP fan or a vehement detractor. I stumbled on one of his videos over a year ago on YouTube, well, because Big Brother knew I was struggling with social anxiety and this “just happened” to pop up as a recommended video for me. At the time, I found his style of speaking engaging and his advice uniquely practical, like he understood a certain nuance about social anxiety that no one had ever conveyed to me before. To me, this has always been indicative of someone who is not only wise but has forged that wisdom in the fires of their own pain. You feel an immediate connection. A sense of intimacy that’s a little intoxicating.
I’ve been through countless therapists in my life and not once did any of them tell me how to talk to a group of people, or take the time to explain what it truly means to “face your fears.” No one gives you a life-manual, and when a professional therapist (often one’s last bastion of hope) minimizes that fact it’s more than a little debilitating. Jordan has an ability to captivate you by framing your personal struggles universally. He makes you feel less alone. He applies a solution to not just to your own immediate fears, but shows you that by practising small, realistic acts of courage, you become a stronger individual.
This, in turn, might even create a better society.
He showed me that you can train yourself to become resilient in a world that often crushes you. That you can discover meaning in a life riddled with tragedy, in ways that are accessible to almost everyone. For people who cannot afford to wait for larger systemic solutions, who wouldn’t want to hear that?
To some, his preachy themes and jeremiads are obvious and didactic. Does that make them any less meaningful? That common critique makes me feel frustrated, angry, and a little hurt. Maybe I don’t find social situations obvious or easy to grasp, and maybe his mantra of ‘speaking your truth’ requires repetition because I struggle with it every day of my life. On the surface, that “obvious” critique seems weak and dismissive, as it ironically adds nothing new to the conversation and stone-walls any insightful discussion. Below the surface, it reeks of smug insecurity and hypocrisy. Especially for anyone who advocates for empathy and tolerance, it displays a conspicuous lack of basic compassion for the people he might be speaking to.
If anything, the way we discuss Jordan Peterson holds up a really ugly reflection of ourselves and perhaps that’s why I still have trouble looking away when I see his name pop up somewhere. While sometimes I learn something new, half of the time I get the feeling that Jordan himself lacks compassion, and often I’m left with the feeling like I was just lambasted by a coach.
In the end, my optimistic side hopes that at least some of us can learn something from all this. Even if it’s a simple, on-going commitment to show respect to one another. I know it’s possible because I’ve been able to do it in my own life. If I have some ability to respectfully challenge others and let others challenge me, why can’t others do the same as well? Civility, as you put it. Is this not how most of us want to be treated or to treat those we say we care about? Though many of us, Peterson included, don’t appear to share the same concern. Like all of us, he can remain self-righteous when he feels verbally attacked, maliciously misrepresented or criticized in bad faith (ex. “sanctimonious prick”). My cynical side wants to believe that civility is a pipe dream.
My biggest beef with Jordan is, again, something that bothers me about most people in the here and now: relentless certainty. The underlying assumption that “it’s better to be strong and wrong because the truth might make me feel weak. God forbid I don’t know the answer.” But even that seems to be a boring platitude. Stephen Fry’s closing comments in the Munk debate captured it perfectly for me: as a society, we don’t seem interested in engaging each other with a sense of lightness. We are adverse to the embrace of little humble uncertainty. Perhaps many people feel they can’t take what Jordan says lightly because they feel in some way that their lives are at stake. He comes across as a threat to their sense of security. He creates uncertainty about one’s own views, or makes sweeping statements that say something along the lines of “If we have it your way, we’ll soon enter a leftist dystopia.” He takes your fears about society and shoves them back in your face.
For myself, the common threads I witness through the brouhaha around Jordan apply to how we talk about any public figure. Rampant ad hominem and logical fallacies aside, most of the discussion reflects back important questions like: how much does context matter when quoting someone’s views? When does it not matter? Should someone be continually held accountable for something they said that one time, even when they attempt to rearticulate it, redact it, or defend against the misrepresentation? (The Vice interview = case and point).
I’m inclined to believe that the reason many on the Left see him as an adversary is fundamentally based on felt sense over fact: once someone is guilty (or godly) in our eyes, it’s hard to shake that impression. And for many, he is guilty precisely because he is idiosyncratic. If others don’t agree with us, the false judgment is that we are being rejected in some way, particularly with the topic of trans rights. We might feel a slight pang of shame, and for some, our gut reaction is to lash out and displace that shame onto others, or the person we hold as responsible. Acknowledging where we went wrong would risk too much. And backing down or admitting our own falsehoods would make us feel threatened because that would mean we are wrong and him right. It might even make a person feel like they’re a little like Jordan Peterson.
It’s so obvious and wrong and a good portion of society appears to really struggle with cultivating some semblance of humility for the purpose of productive dialogue. We don’t seem to understand that this is really the only way forward. We’ve succeeded as a species because of our ability to work together.
If we lose this ability, we may lose everything we have gained. If you look at almost every article written about this man down to the most asinine YouTube comment, it demonstrates that half of us crave a hero while the other half craves a villain. He’s like a father figure occupying all its negative and positive connotations. Does this then mean that so many of us are blindly suffering?
If so, what is the true nature of that suffering?
Perhaps Jordan, directly or indirectly, intentionally or not, holds up a mirror to the same trite bullshit we all struggle with ourselves each day but loathe to admit, like: not being able to precisely communicate our own feelings and views while feeling judged for it, awkwardly going off on brutal tangents, looking super uncool and old-fashioned, being liked, being hated, not-wanting-to-stand-out-but-craving-connection-via-vulnerability, staying true to ourselves and harming others along the way, enjoying provoking others while feeling shame about it, appearing selfish, being selfish, unworthy complaining, achieving success, choosing truth over tact, over-reacting, being needlessly stubborn, paranoid, hypercritical and hypocritical, and anything else that we love or hate about Jordan that also manifests itself in us. There’s an old saying in 12-step circles when someone is caught up in blame: “when you point a finger at someone else, you always have three pointing back at you.”
The problem with this interpretation: you can never really prove it. From my own experience, it’s only revealed when you’re at your nadir in a heap on the floor, and even then, you still have to want to know the truth in order to see it. Pain is a catalyst for change. I’m not sure the majority of us understand the kind we truly need.
I’ve been aware of Dr. Peterson for some years through his appearances on the current-affairs programme The Agenda on TV Ontario. I always found the segments that he participated in to be very interesting and his perspective challenging and refreshing. So I was surprised to see him embroiled in such controversy. It did give me pause. As he seemed to be doing the rounds of conservative media outlets, I began to wonder if I was wrong about him.
Was he actually alt-right? After reading lots of articles and watching even more YouTube, I am satisfied that he is not. If he would talk to anybody who would listen at the beginning of this controversy, where he expressed concern for not only keeping his job but also his therapy license, well, fair enough.
Too many journalists approach Peterson as if he’s Liberty Valence and they are going to outdraw him. Bemusement, ridicule, outrage, and envy swirl around him from those in opposition, while many in the general public hang on every word he says. I am thankful that a few writers are taking the time to step back and ask: “What exactly is going on here? Why are so many people so receptive to him? Why do some people see him as the Devil himself? Have young men actually turned away from the alt-right simply by cleaning their rooms?”
Much good can come from questioning Dr. Peterson on his ideas, and pressing him for clarity. The public benefits by having a clearer idea of who he is, and Dr. Peterson also benefits by being forced to refine his ideas. He is often far too vague.
I suspect that many progressives oppose him because many of the ideas from the academic left have found their way into the wider culture and are accepted without any serious scrutiny, especially when scrutinizing some ideas results in being labelled a troll, an enemy of the people, a supporter of rape culture. It is difficult to dismiss Dr. Peterson simply by labelling him as toxic… But then, ideologues on the right are just as happy to slander their opponents.
All orthodoxies are being challenged, old and new. But which way are we going? Not to a very good place, if the strong-man regime in your country is any indication. As far as the identity politics of the left, intersections are good places to get run over. Could Peterson be merely pointing out some useful guide posts?
I was appalled by the treatment of Lindsay Shepherd by Wilfrid Laurier University. I am queasy about linguistic appropriations and speech codes but try to empathize with their progenitors. I’m a Canadian social democrat who abhors censorship, groupthink, and both demonization and caricature of (most) perspectives I disagree with. But Peterson is also a knowing provocateur whose logic falters precisely when his righteous indignation releases his rhetorical adrenaline. I do think the academy, like every other institution, is on occasion overly deferential to declared sensitivities and too quick to regulate rather than allowing the cut and thrust of human interaction to sort things out. He may pose as simply doing his duty as a fearless truth-seeker, but he appears blithely indifferent to collateral damage.
Sometimes students (and others) take offense or feel threatened when they shouldn’t, but sometimes their concerns are legitimate and deserve respect and accommodation.
There is a difference between coddling and spoiling, and righting a genuine wrong, or at least giving voice and presence to hitherto invisible groups. And there is proportionality and risk: if acceding to your wishes annoys me, while not doing it might cause you considerable distress, maybe I should just pay the price.
(Yes, there are limits and unintended consequences.)
Here’s a litmus test I use: does an idea, critique, train of thought, or public presentation appeal to angry people prone to black-and-white thinking and ad hominem argument, or to civil, thoughtful, informed and curious people? I suspect that while Peterson may attract his fair share among the latter group, his star power derives from the former. And to use his own statistical reasoning, while most of his scholarship and thinking lie comfortably in the middle part of the curve, the flashpoints lie on the tails. It’s fine to live out there from time to time, but don’t be surprised when your provocations provoke.
When I saw that The Atlantic had an article about Dr. Peterson I braced myself for another gross misrepresentation, or ideological hit piece. I was surprised and delighted that you not only presented a fair and honest portrayaI of JP but we’re also able to disagree and raise some concerns with his logic without castigating him and and his fans as knuckle dragging, Nazis.
I am one of the many disillusioned ex-progressives (socialist) that has watched in abject horror as the last flitting scraps of illusion have fallen away from the political party I once believed in. I have watched news outlets I used to trust tell blatant and demonstrable lies all while I have had to watch the socialist agenda destroy my home city of Seattle. Today, in some small way, you have reminded me that I must always be vigilant about the attitude in which I approach news and conversation. Had I let my anger at the left consume me I would have never found a new writer to read. That would have been shameful.
I hope this missive is not inappropriate. As I am sure you can tell, I am not a very well educated man. I guess I missed all that privilege people keep telling me about. So I appologize for taking up your time. I just think it is important these days to reach out to people who are doing the right thing. I can imagine an article that didn’t demean Jordan was not well received but it was the right thing to do. I will continue to read your work and wish you the best of luck in your career. Thank you for restoring a tiny piece of my faith in humanity.
I disagree with your final assessment of the McWhorter/JP debate.
JP’s claim of psychological expertise is self-evident, already clarified and not needing to be withdrawn. Why wouldn’t his instincts be finely honed, after 25,000 hours of talking with people, to weigh a student’s motives, much like a veteran fireman’s instincts for immediately detecting the areas of greatest danger upon arrival.
Tacit knowledge is accumulated through practice.
When JP attempts to break down these instinctual processes for us—a rather delicate task—his opponents are lying in wait to seize upon a term or descriptor that can be twisted to serve their purposes. You’ve alluded to this reactionary tendency. I’m attracted by JP’s willingness to put himself out on a limb where he cannot hide. This is counter-intuitive behavior for most of us, and we don’t know how to handle it, so our natural recourse is to attack it.
I am a 23-year-old straight, white male that recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree. As someone who has always considered myself strongly left leaning, Peterson is probably the single most influential figure in moving me to the center.
I first discovered him on YouTube in 2016 after watching the (now notorious) video of him arguing with trans activists at the University of Toronto. I agreed with most of his points, although I disagreed when he suggested that he might not call students by their preferred pronouns, whether it was legislated or not.
I’m not super interested in his epistemology. I am more interested in how, not necessarily why, Peterson has become a household name. I have been extremely disheartened to find so many media sources that I know and respect willfully misrepresent Dr. Peterson’s views. I can only interpret these mischaracterizations as laziness or deliberate acts of bad faith, both of which are inexcusable. I don’t think Dr. Peterson’s utterances deviate that much from many socially conservative arguments. There exists such a void of conservative academics in the social sciences, that the first one to speak persuasively and provide evidence for his claims became the world’s most popular public intellectual.
Of course, I have my concerns.
Like you, I didn’t like his “slapping” outburst on Twitter. I think he has become overexposed and it’s only a matter of time before he says something truly regrettable. Not to mention, I disagree with much of what he says. But those that view his rise as anything but constructive, or at least, important, confuse me.
I’m not a Peterson fan but I’ve read enough to know that he has touched a nerve. Men are largely at sea. There is a great yearning for a spirituality that can heal wounded souls. There is a need for men to feel pride in being a man however we come to define what that means. Unfortunately, the insta-demonizing culture we live in does not allow us to take the parts of Peterson’s message that resonate and think about them or even to rebut them with convincing argument. That is ultimately discrediting for progressives.
To focus on the pronouns or his too eager acceptance of guru status is a shallow and unworthy critique. I await a real takedown of his animus toward collectivism.
The issue of coming out—to oneself, to others, and especially to those in positions of power—is the key starting point. It is not a moment, a sudden release from the closet, for most people; coming out tentatively to a few close friends as gay, at 13 or 14, provided some release for me, but it was precarious.
Without exaggeration, it was among the most terrifying experiences of my life – and I had to do it over and over again, to gradually expanding circles of people. It got easier with time, as the anecdotes of many friends suggest is the norm, but it never became something easy. And, even if I grew up in a smaller, deeply conservative environment, being a White, upper-middle-class, cisgendered male means I had it much easier than many – particularly those who are trans or GNC. Coming out as a trans individual means acknowledging and accepting, to oneself and those around oneself, a reality which lays out a very difficult, often literally dangerous road ahead in life. No one crosses that line without serious, soul-wrenching consideration. The specter of backlash and denial is not a hypothetical, not a thought experiment; it is a grueling, unending lived reality for members across the LGBTQ+ spectrum…
Rejection—and far worse—still is not uncommon despite recent social, political, and legal strides. LGBTQ+ youth still contemplate, attempt and, agonizingly, do commit suicide at rates far in excess of other demographic groups. Many of them have experienced various forms of rejection, alienation, and denial of their realities; many of them will have also experienced extreme traumas, abuse, vicious discrimination, and physical and sexual violence; and all will know this broader milieu of uncertainty, fear, and degradation which threatens their well-being in visceral—not hypothetical—ways.
The “theatrical element” in those interactions establishing norms and desires for pronoun uses, more likely, are expressions of relief or some sense of a rare victory – a recognition and a validation so many members of the community are denied routinely, even within the supposedly progressive academy.
There is the possibility that some students do, emphatically, enjoy seeing a stodgy, middle-aged White man sitting uncomfortably with them as they explain the intricacies of gender and sexual identity. Making the olds and the straights squirm for a moment might be a nice cherry on top, but I would have to imagine it is an ancillary benefit rather than a primary motive in all but a vanishingly tiny number of cases. And, to paraphrase a great comedian and one of your exceptional colleague’s reflections on her work, it is a temporary tension heterosexuals encounter only vicariously and fleetingly – not the daily tension, and fear, which far too many LGBTQ+ people continuously shoulder.
Thank you for your thoughtful article. What Dr. Peterson has repeatedly said about the topic of transgender pronouns is that he objects to being compelled by the Federal Provincial government to use certain language when he is speaking with or to a transgender person. His point is that he will use whatever language he feels is appropriate and will do so with compassion but he will not allow the government tell him what that language must be.
I’m a huge fan of Peterson: his message on personal responsibility has really helped me. I think someone should be able to present a theological and psychological message for the betterment of thousands without being saddled with political baggage and constant name-calling (alt-right? Transphobe?) … A journalist who is willing to take on Peterson’s views in fair discourse is RARE. Although I disagree with the movement to engender greater change through group movements and identity politics, I totally respect your position as an individual to argue for what you believe in. Especially if your not going to stack the deck and misrepresent your opponents.
What’s so troubling about Peterson, with respect to his stance on transgender pronouns, is that he seems to be saying that his sincerely held belief trumps what someone else knows to be true. There is a level of hubris there that’s hard to get around.
Who gets to decide whether a belief is sincerely held? What if I decide that Jordan Peterson is not REALLY a professor or a psychologist? What if something about him just makes me think that he got his education for the “wrong” reasons? Can I refuse to address him by his proper title, even though university policy says otherwise? Can I say, “Yes, I know you prefer to be called Dr. Peterson, but I’m going to call you Jordie, because that fits with how I see you.”
I think his response would be, “Well, we have an agreed-upon set of metrics that determine when someone gets to be called doctor or professor. And I met those metrics, so I get to be called by those titles.” To that, I would then respond that maybe we need an agreed-upon set of metrics for trans people, too. And when they meet those metrics, they get to be called by their preferred pronouns, without any pushback from Jordan Peterson. But somehow, I think that he’d still insist that his judgment is superior to any metric.
What we have, then, is a fight about which sincerely held belief will take priority when there’s a conflict. Peterson says, “Well, mine should!” But he never really gives a reason. He takes it as a given that his appraisal should get more weight than a lived experience.
I wonder if this speaks to a larger cultural anxiety. With the digital Gutenberg revolution that he describes, we’ve been overrun with media to the point where it’s often impossible to know what’s real. When faced with such a situation, some people turn to simplicity or tradition to orient themselves. Maybe this is what actually drives Peterson—not a hatred of trans people, but a fear of indiscernible reality. If so, it makes sense that he would double down on fixed pronouns as a way of holding on to something immutable.
I don’t even believe it’s a Trans issue at all, in any sense. It’s an issue, as Peterson says, that centers on ‘compelled speech legislation in the British common-law system that had never been done even once.’ It’s about compelling speech. Not demanding what you shouldn’t say, but demanding by law what you must say. And if we’re not diligent, the subjects around which this is compelled may broaden, from Trans to who knows what. Just my two cents.
I’ve been following Peterson since I first saw a Youtube video where he was arguing with some angry students outside the University of Toronto. Now, I don’t claim to be one of his rabid supporters. There are times when he loses me. I was expecting more out of his book; sometimes he seems to contradict himself.
And his sense of humor leaves something to be desired…
What I enjoy most about Peterson is how refreshing he is in this era of polarization, incivility, and identity politics. As someone who used to identify as a democratic socialist but was pushed to the center in recent years, I’m struggling to see where I fit in. The far-left makes it so hard to want to associate with—they want to jump five steps forward after taking a step back.
I gravitated toward Peterson because his core message of strengthening the individual resonates with me, and I agree with him that taking personal responsibility is the only way to get ourselves out of this mess. Well, that and voting responsibly. I’m not where I want to be with my life right now, but constantly complaining about Trump or Republicans or wanting my government to pull its head out of its ass doesn’t seem to me to be the right way forward.
It just sucks that some people on the alt-right take his SJW put-downs and proclaim that he’s fighting for them. They take 25% of what he says and ignore everything else.
It seems to me that in general he’s willing to go with using people’s preferred pronouns, but that he’s not willing to mouth the neologisms advanced by the activists. And that he’s willing as a matter of respect and courtesy to honor people’s wishes, but is not willing to buckle under to a mandate from the state.
He seems right in perceiving those as very different things.
Why is a Canadian academic with a viewpoint so seemingly idiosyncratic and peripheral to trans rights regarded as such a primary adversary of the left of this topic?
The simple answer is misunderstanding. The story around Peterson and the trans language issue, as I heard it originally, was that he was refusing to call trans students by their preferred pronouns in his classroom. This story was scooped up by the activist community and used as a clear example of discrimination. It took a bit of digging on my part to find the real story, which was that Peterson’s refusal was hypothetical, not a real practice. Unfortunately, Peterson’s actual complaint about free speech was not glaringly obvious, so it was much easier to label him transphobic and call it a day.
Even after clarifying Peterson’s argument, though, his stance still puts him at odds with Canadian values. Canadian laws and norms tend to err on the side of caution when it comes to inclusivity, often doing too much out of fear of doing too little. There is backlash to this practice that Canada will have to reckon with in the years to come, but still, Peterson’s hard line response on this issue is petty and pointless. The guise of ‘free speech’ does not hold up to any kind of scrutiny; this is just a man who does not want to be told what to do.
Additionally, I’ll add a thought on what I consider to be the core issue when it comes to Peterson: misinterpretation. My exposure to him has been primarily through interviews and articles that, due to the type of publications I read, often work to pull out the more extreme and ridiculous of his ideas.
At first, I was as baffled and outraged as the authors; but on closer examination into what Peterson was actually saying, that rage morphed into frustration and eye-rolling. It seems that his ideas are not nearly as extreme as they are made out to be. He uses statements that get attention (enforced monogamy) but after he circles around a few times, it turns out he is saying something rather innocuous (monogamy is enforced through social norms). My concern here is, if his critics are misinterpreting him, is it not possible that his followers are as well? Peterson is hovering at 30,000 feet, speaking from a deeply abstract place, which is fine in academia; however, when his words are reaching huge numbers of people, many of whom may not have the background in academese to follow the twists and turns of his logic, it can become dangerous. His message is being used to forward misogynistic, threatening agendas, and he is, at best, ignorantly condoning this by failing to clarify.
As a relatively-privileged, university-educated Canadian, the debate surrounding Peterson has been particularly impactful for myself and those in my social circle.
I do not really see myself as a ‘fan’ of Peterson. I have not read his books, I do not regularly watch his YouTube videos, and I do not participate in the acrimonious social media wars surrounding this individual. Nevertheless, I am familiar with some of his work, having watched a few episodes of Bible lecture series and some of the more high-profile interviews he has done. Having grown up in Waterloo, Ontario, I was acutely aware of the Lindsey Shepherd controversy at Wilfrid Laurier University, particularly since I was a Graduate student and Teaching Assistant at the time (at another university). Although I am not a Peterson devotee, I know many who are, and I recognize the value that he has brought to important social and cultural debates.
Now, I have my fair share of criticisms of Jordan Peterson, to be sure. Like you, I strongly disagree with his decision to pursue legal action against WLU—he should have supported Shepherd, but to launch a suit of his own smacks of grandstanding and vindictiveness. I also think he often steps beyond his own expertise to offer takes on topics that he has no business speaking on with such authority—I am thinking primarily of theological, economic, and historical matters. Similarly, there are many critically important questions that he ignores and sidesteps when he isn’t able to provide a satisfactory answer.
With that said, I would like to elucidate on why I think his influence has ultimately been positive. Peterson correctly identifies the ideological rot that has infected the University system. While we may disagree with how useful or accurate it is to characterize this rot as the work of “postmodern cultural marxists”, there is undoubtedly a pernicious influence within many departments of higher education that seeks to cast aside (or even deny the existence of) Truth in the pursuit of ideological objectives. As somebody who achieved their M.A., I have seen firsthand how this development has devastated the Humanities, in particular. I will not elaborate further on my own experience, suffice it to say that Jordan Peterson has a certain resonance with many who were enticed by the promises of a liberal arts education, only to find themselves stifled and railroaded by leftist orthodoxy.
It is Peterson’s challenge to this orthodoxy, and the response it elicits from journalists and academics on the left, that largely explain his appeal. Like you, I too am “frustrated by how frequently press accounts misrepresent this person.” I have also seen firsthand how these misrepresentations serve to obfuscate the debate surrounding the man and his ideas, to the point where adherence to Peterson has become the touchstone in a Manichaean struggle between pure good and absolute evil. I have seen friends of mine experience personal and professional consequences for expressing any positive sentiment about Peterson. Long-time friendships have been cast aside, and Human Resources departments have been weaponized in an attempt to purge actual or suspected Peterson acolytes from the milieu of ‘progressive’ downtown Toronto circles. When I see this happen, I am reminded of why Jordan Peterson is a necessary fixture in this intellectual climate.
What I like about Peterson is that he represents a ‘third way’ for masculinity: not Neanderthalic, nor meekly feminine, but the sort of male you might find in ancient fiction: who loves his other men openly, cries freely, and is expressively passionate.
I am lucky have discovered who I was early, and in fact find it hard to be otherwise. But I know of a few men who have found Peterson a revelation: that they can be soft, and intimate, and loving with male friends and women, but also stoic, noble and cool-headed, as required. Peterson doesn’t have all the answers, but I believe he has helped a lot of men and women find comfort and stability.
As I was once a psychotherapist, the answer to Professor McWhorter’s question was screaming out to me. When you have 25,000 hours of clinical practice under your belt, you have a very attuned intuition in such situations. I don’t mean an innate idea, simply the product of experience which short-circuits the deductions and explorations one would make as a novice practitioner or non-practitioner. So the question is, why didn’t Dr Peterson say this?
Perhaps he would rather not admit in public that he might act on intuition and instinct, although I can see no reason why not. Or, perhaps he would rather not admit to himself that he might bypass conscious reasoning. Or possibly I’m wrong and he does not size up people this way, although that would be surprising. Anyway, that’s my five-pennies-worth as we say in England.
I have appreciated your coverage of the Jordan Peterson phenomenon… For the life of me, I cannot figure out why he is so prominent, nor why he is so admired or vilified. If pressed, I’d put myself more in the “his observations are obvious” camp, but I don’t think that is particularly accurate. It’s more that I have yet to accurately hear of anything particularly contentious that he’s said.
Here’s a question I would ask Peterson that might clarify matters and that I also find helpful in my thinking about his limitations: “Dr. Peterson, Your advice to individually clean up our own acts rather than society seems timeless. So how would you counsel a 10-year-old working in one of Blake’s dark satanic mills with a life expectancy of only 8 more years due to his work? He’s unhappy with his life, to the extent he has time to think about it. What would you advise?”
Right now the American Left is in a very ugly place when it comes to compelled speech. I think Peterson is hyperbolic in viewing transgendered pronouns as the gateway to Soviet-style oppression and criminalizing thought, but the Left’s reaction to his stance also makes me think he might be right.
Anonymous writes the only email anyone might label “transphobic” if they read them all:
I agree that Peterson’s work is not mainly political or ideological. He is a psychologist, so it’s not strange that his focus is on individual change, rather than social transformations. Most therapists will indeed focus on a patient’s capacity to change his or herself, because that is what that person can actually control. In this regard, Peterson’s work is excellent, and I believe is doing a world of good.
So why is the American left so negatively obsessed with him? A good part of the reason is that Peterson defends a quite traditional morality. His values are responsibility, maturation, and adhering to conventional life scripts and gender roles. He believes these values are not only good, but also a good match to more biological predispositions, have been tested historically, and are supported by the main religions and spiritual traditions. He is not against change or innovation, but he does not believe you can just sweep all of that aside and make the world anew according to a better model (proposed by whom?).
The radical left (as he calls it) finds this position retrograde and offensive, but I suspect most in the world would not agree. I’m writing from Latin America, but I lived and studied 7 years in the US, so if my perspective is from the outside, it is also somewhat informed. Peterson is not asking governments to impose anything on anyone. He is an advocate of equality of opportunities and equal treatment for all. But his point is that traditional scripts are good, and that if people just keep freely choosing them, well, then we shouldn’t get all worked up about it.
Part of the problem is that the “radical left” has become really weird, and doesn’t seem to see it. Peterson believes there are two sexes: male and female. When asked if a transgender woman is a real woman, he answers no. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t understand the person’s mental reality, or that he is going to discriminate against the person, or even refuse to use the pronoun she.
He is just saying that, genetically, the person is a man.
He has no taste for the current leftist game of coming up with an increasing list of sexual identities, and then presenting this as social progress, a form of liberation from discrimination and age-old oppressions (I also share the sentiment). In general, he has no patience with the victimhood complex of the left or right.
A world where sexual differences are de-emphasized is a world without eroticism. I’m all for equal rights. We’ve had female presidents and I’ve voted for them, and my wife frequently makes more money than I do. I have gay friends, and I support gay marriage. I think most people are not homophobic, but don’t want their societies to become a sexual circus either. If I had a child or grandchild with sexual identity issues, I would take the child to the psychologist, not celebrate it as a blessing (if the child turned out gay, I would of course support him or her). There is something valuable in conventions, traditions, and historical precedents. The idea that the whole of human history is a long nightmare of discrimination, classism, and male oppression is just silly.
The terrible right-wing global revolt we are witnessing these days feeds on a reaction to these ideological excesses and hysterias, and propels the work of people like Peterson, who are not mainly focused on politics, but whose message has an undeniable political content in the absurd cultural wars that the wealthy West has unfortunately decided to engage in. In this sense, Peterson’s work is not only important because it helps people be better, but also as a litmus test on the willingness of countries like the US to become reasonable places to live in.
McWhorter initially frames the discussion with the question: “You didn’t want to model for the rest of us a way of thinking?” But McWhorter is being too narrow.
Peterson has a strongly individualistic approach to assessing political issues. He sees himself as modeling more of a meta-process of a person being true to their own perceptions and what constitutes ethical behavior. With the analogy of an expert musician teaching a college class, he or she might have to live with the decision of accepting or rejecting potential students based on evaluating the “soulfulness” of their auditions, knowing that his or her discernment isn’t perfect (e.g., stage fright might manifest itself in some auditioners in a way the evaluator couldn’t imagine) but also having confidence that relying on his own judgement is still the best and most ethical way forward.
We do not have the luxury of considering LGBTQ issues without a history of some people arguing approximately, “That becuase God or my group disagrees with someone, I can dominate that person.” We have not seen the evangelical community stand up and say,”Even if we believe God disagrees with you, we are never permitted to dominate you.” Still we also have no way of knowing how such a statement would be received. The behavior and dialogue of the past shapes and often limits our ability to even have conversations about the limits or boundaries of sexual identity and orientation…
I very much understand why and how words feel like violence.
Dr. Perterson is interesting to me. I am in no position to affirm or deny Jungian this or Freudian that, I haven’t the training for it. I find him to encourage personal, productive introspection followed by application of time-tested existing modes of behavior to be a better person, to live a fuller, more meaningful life, to be prepared for dealing with the tough times we all encounter (which are a part of the human condition and cannot be eliminated) as well as recognizing and enjoying the sweet times when they come.
Peterson does not know it all, nor claim to. He does not espouse some universal, narrow path to greatness or goodness. He encourages people to happily do the little good things that add up, and have aded up (over years and decades and centuries) to big things. There is a lot to be said for this approach, and almost nothing to be said against it that is reasonable. That drives the Prog/Left nuts.
I love it.
I think the reason so many people (myself included) are on a spectrum from wary to revulsed by Peterson’s verbiage is illustrated perfectly in the final segment of your article.
He appears to play the card of “I personally always do the right thing (call people by the proper pronoun) but don’t think I should be legally compelled to.”
For those of us who are concerned with equal rights, it’s shocking to see someone who claims to be an academic put stock into the idea that since he personally is compassionate, nobody should be required to be compassionate.
That is a common argument that crops up throughout history, from “having gay friends” but saying “Marriage is defined as…”, from saying you aren’t “racist, but…”, to saying you don’t believe children should be kept in cages, “but their parents broke the law…”. It’s the kind of shrug used by those who have nothing to lose under the current system, and are not compelled to protect those that do. I’m sure if we had a time machine, people disliked slavery “but…”, or didn’t like seeing the guillotine as much as the next guy “but…”.
By arguing that Trans people don’t legally deserve respect, but then also championing his own lawsuit and raging against accusations that he was co-opting a native heritage, it shows a fairly bald insistence that he personally should be allowed to do as he pleases due to his own self-assessed abilities, but we should not.
Thanks for being open to the conversation!
Here’s my take on why the man is wrong:
In the Fear and the Law video that Peterson uploaded, essentially throwing his reactionary political hat into and ring and and creating the storm of controversy around him, Peterson compares academics who identify as “Marxists” to Nazis, citing the disasters of the 20th century as a refutation of Marx’s ideas.
This is simple political and sociological ignorance. Scholar of Marx, Brian Leiter, has pointed out that the historical Marx would not have supported the actions of the Bolsheviks or the many communist experiments of the 20th century. If Lenin had actually been a doctrinaire Marxist, he would have toppled the Russian monarchy and instituted capitalist relations of production.
In his interview with Cathy Newman on Channel 4 here in Britain, he insinuates that trans activists follow a Maoist ideology. And yet now he is suing Wilfred Laurier university for defamation because some academics compared him to Hitler.
Peterson seems highly hypocritical.
He is far too quick in his willingness to use the nuclear option, so to speak—to accuse left wingers of being totalitarian. I suppose it’s a typical reactionary tactic. He is a highly persuasive defender of the the status quo ante.
His overriding concern is political: he refuses to surrender his freedom of speech to a government that feels compelled to determine that any given pronoun use is a violation of law. And he would hypothetically refuse to appease only the trans student he’s convinced is an emissary of that over-zealous political movement. That’s it. He doesn’t fault McWhorter for taking the pragmatic approach of going along with every request because he’s more concerned about losing time and energy to issues he deems secondary to his teaching. But for Peterson, this linguistic issue is an ethical and political Waterloo.
Why is a Canadian academic with a viewpoint so seemingly idiosyncratic and peripheral to trans rights regarded as such a primary adversary of the left on this topic?
Because if you’re not for us you’re against us.
It’s deceptively simple but true. Because if you give yourself the right to question other people’s identity “and live with it”, that gives every other yokal who reads your books and agrees with you the same right and moral standing to question identity (be it trans, female, POC—anything not you, white guy).
He lacks the moral standing of someone who is in a situation where they are figuring out fir themselves who they are. He is quite the opposite: clearly defined in his own mind who he is—and that fortunately aligns with what the majority of society thinks he is and should be… And whether he wants it to or believes it does, his language around “the law can’t make me do it” smacks horribly of civil rights issues of the past (“I’m not serving blacks no matter what the law says”) and of today (“the law can’t force me to bake a cake for a gay wedding”).
I think one of the keys to understanding Jordan Peterson’s motivating passions can be glimpsed at the end of his very popular interview with Camille Paglia. As she points out, she’s a boomer and sees society as this ‘small thing,’ preferring instead ‘cosmic consciousness.’I think Jordan does too. Much of his critique is ultimately about the need for the individual to rise upon the contingencies of circumstance and society. Hence it is basically existential (ok. Christian existential. Jaspers like, I often think). I’m a boomer too, though more of the once-upon-a-time-punk sort, and feel the same.
I must always keep in mind how much more seriously younger people (genX, like you) and Millennials, take Society, in all its manifestations. Certainly the connections between people are tighter now as a result of technology, so maybe this should not be surprising.
Still, its hard for us to “get.”
As regards the pronoun thing:
Well this is weird for me. I spent many years sharing apartments and houses with people at various points in the transformation. (My girlfriend owned a vintage clothing store, and sorta collected such people. Maybe because she could sell them so much). None of them ever wanted to be ‘in between.’ They just wanted to be men (if they started as women) or women, if vice versa.
No, I suspect this about control and power and Peterson knows it. His expertise isn’t about this specific issue, it’s more about how people seeking power over others use their situation to gain it. Note that this if basically Brett Weinstein’s argument too. He distinguishes between those who genuinely seek ‘social justice’ and those who are actually ‘insuirgents’ and just see the interaction with power tactically. Same with Peterson and the people he encounters. I was, tbh, a little surprised by McWhorter’s naive attitude here.
Finally, as an ancient Berkeley English major who remembers the days when Derrida’s deconstruction gang came to town,and also how buddy buddy Foucault was with the likes of John Searle, I can assure you that Peterson doesn’t get those guys very well. Derrida was the only non-Marxist in his department (zeitgeist matters) and Foucault considered himself an ‘anti structuralist’ more than anything else.
So, how did I get into Jordan Peterson?
I am not an “incel”, nor am I a lost alt-right 20-something. I am a happily married (gay) man who tends to hold fairly liberal political positions. For much of my life, I identified strongly with atheism and was strongly aligned with writers like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. However, with age, that belief system began to wear thin, as it consistently failed to offer anything affirmative.
I had heard about Peterson’s lectures and figured there wasn’t any harm in hearing his views. Various Biblical stories, as told by Peterson, felt fresh and intellectually appealing, compared to the huckster preachers that atheists like myself detest. I started to view religion in a more positive, sympathetic light and came to understand the role it could play in an intelligent person’s life.
I don’t always agree with every Peterson interpretation. And I do agree with critics who argue that one can spin virtually any life lesson out of some randomly chosen myth. ut, he’s generally consistent and his lessons are cohesive. And, he convinces people like me to open our minds to something we never would have expected welcoming. So, for me that represents the greatest appeal…
Peterson believes that the myths tell us something fundamental about *innate* human nature, behavior, and morality. It’s not that the myths and rules came along and defined us … it’s that they came to be because they represent a distillation of social and interpersonal behaviors that have benefitted humans over very long periods of time. This belief puts him at odds with people who believe almost entirely in social construction. Peterson rails against the post-modernists because he sees them as rejecting the notion that the myths—no matter how tenacious—have any validity at all.
Much of the left’s success over the last half century has come from arguing against traditional “truths” and by criticizing institutions as social constructions. Peterson is seen as a threat because he shouts back at the chorus and says — wait a minute! Certainly not everything is socially constructed! And to the extent that things are constructions, might they not also represent something real and innate in human beings? At his core, Peterson strongly argues against moral relativism. For him, some ways are clearly better than others.
Regarding Peterson, I suspect part of the reason that he prefers the psychological answers to the sociological is because he has little experience with non-dominant cultures at the social level.There are other things I like about Peterson—many of his critiques of university culture are valid, as are some of his concerns for the lives of men. But I want to focus on this one issue for this email.
In a short discussion of same-sex wedding cakes with Jim Jefferies, the proposal, “What about not serving Black people?” struck Peterson as an acceptable consequence of his position. But when followed up with, “But wasn’t the Civil Rights Movement a good thing?”, Peterson backpedaled and admitted he could be wrong. I was flabbergasted by this. How had he not already thought of the CRM when the idea of not serving Black people was proposed? Shouldn’t that analogy be something he worked through years ago? And it’s not even a good analogy, as there is a difference between prejudice against an identity and prejudice against an event (not catering to an interracial marriage would have been a more appropriate analogy), and Peterson should have known that. His lack of a thought-through answer was surprising to me, but fit a pattern.
I saw it as more evidence that Jordan Peterson doesn’t tend to consider non-White experiences when coming up with his frameworks. He so often speaks of things at the individual level, I wonder whether he sees his own individual reasoning as adequate for all circumstances—he doesn’t need the perspectives of significantly different communities from his own to inform him.
Without commenting on the correctness or incorrectness of the overarching point, I’d expect that analogy to occur more quickly to an American than a Canadian.
Why is he so consistently misunderstood? In short, the “New Gutenberg Revolution” makes standard social signals less accurate. Long form, nuanced discussion with a massive audience is actually really new and this is a big deal. Our cultural signaling intuitions don’t update quickly without intellectual effort, and we should expect them to misfire when active in a new environment. Dog whistling is real, and we are right to be highly sensitive to it, but some of the general public and left-leaning media are using outdated signal receptors that aren’t updated to the additional nuance that is now available.
He’s sometimes interesting, sometimes innocuous, and sometimes irrelevant. But very, very careful. My wife thinks he’s a snake with an agenda. I think he finds defensible, thin precipices of certitude in thorny issues, perceived as opposition to the primary matter at stake. Since he only argues the part he cares about, he’s perceived as evasive and deceptive by those on one side of the issue, and as a strong supporter of the cause non-celebre by the other.
Really, he’s neither.
One thing to keep in mind when analyzing Peterson is his study of totalitarian regimes. It is the lens through which he sees the world and this is a bloody lens. It is the source of his vitriol and the seriousness that he approaches what many consider trivial issues. For instance, ‘why does it matter what pronoun we call a person if that is what they wish to be called?’ His answer, “BECAUSE 100 MILLION PEOPLE MIGHT DIE. THAT’S WHY!”
I read the first 150 pages of The Gulag Archipelago. Its brilliant, funny, well written and I had to put it down because I was reading it as a farce; like the movie The Death of Stalin. Peterson mentally confronted that evil for a very long time. You cannot understand Jordan Peterson without understanding The Gulag Archipelago.
Peterson isn’t just being stubborn (although he is also that). My sense is that Peterson has a very unusual perspective on the world with unusual triggers that trip unusual alarm bells, due to his peculiar and borderline obsessive fascination with how ideologies can drive people to mass murder and other acts of evil.
This is one reason why he is so easy to misread––his alarmism on Leftist overreach has obvious overlaps with Far Right rhetoric, but Peterson and the Right fear the Left for different reasons. The Right is opposed to the Left’s core values, while Peterson consistently claims that Left-wing thinking is a legitimate and necessary ingredient to a macrosocial synthesis, or balancing act between left/right temperaments which are both required to sustain a healthy society. He’s frequently mentioned that he sees the Left as indispensable to the concerns of the poor and dispossessed who wind up at the bottom of economic and status hierarchies, and concludes that the Left is a critical counterweight to the propensity for even defensible hierarchies to calcify.
Peterson is Phobic—not Transphobic, but Radicalphobic(?)—insofar as he sees radicalism especially of the Left-wing variety (with it’s unbounded nature and lack of limiting principles) as a looming danger to the fragile fabric of civilization. Somewhere along the line, I think Peterson traumatized himself with accounts of the horrors of 20th century Leftist Totalitarianism.
He’s been spooked ever since.
He seems to be more sensitive to hypothetical danger from the Left because of his social position and personal experience. He’s immersed in a subculture—social science in Western academia—that has among the strongest concentrations of Leftist groupthink and countenance for runaway radicalism as any place in the world. He is in the “lion’s den” and feels besieged—which he projects onto society. He is hyper attuned to these particular threats, and dulled to others by the mere constraints of his emotional bandwidth.
Ironically, Peterson and his ideological enemies see the world in very similar ways. Every threat to their values, no matter how subtle, is “of a piece” with a larger monolithic menace that include the most severe and terrifying manifestations of what they fear. Political disagreements over how to rank-order competing values are a seen as a zero-sum tug of war. To a “SJW”, a conservative promoting abstinence before marriage is smuggling in the SAME underlying ideology as a fundamentalist who sees women as men’s property.
Conversely, to Peterson, a pink-haired trans activist trying to mandate alternative pronoun use is promoting the SAME underlying ideology as Mao Zedong.
Where Peterson rescues himself from the abyss of what he calls “ideological possession” is his acknowledgement of nonpolitical mitigating variables like individual mental and emotional states, personal ethics, personality types, biological urges, and material self-interest as causal factors in human behavior.
For apoplectic critics on the Far Left and the White Nationalist Right, these factors are dismissed as a smokescreen to veil the inescapable macro-forces and systems of control governing everyone’s actions. Peterson deploys novel arguments, descriptions of reality and normative principles that run counter to the core narratives of extremists on the Left and Right. His spreading popularity encroaches on the territory they hold in public discourse, so their attacks are as predictable as they are uninterested with accuracy or intellectual honesty.
I am a generally left-wing person, my father was an avid socialist and supporter of my country of New Zealand’s Labour and Social Credit parties, my mother a Green Party voter and caring woman who made sure I understood to a degree the problems facing minorities, people with non-traditional sexuality, women and the poor. I myself could be found as a teenager arguing for socialist principles with the adults around me. For me the idea of university seemed wonderful, a place for thought and debate where ideas like my own could be challenged and improved. However in my time at university I’ve encountered for the most part what many people would refer to as leftists or more colloquially SJW’s. The reason I bring this up is because I think it’s why Peterson, a man with mostly easily refutable positions and a few simply conservative, has been spring boarded into the public conscious.
In these leftist circles, I have attempted to play devils advocate and shared many of my own views that did not fit into the ideology of the leftists I was talking to.
Their response is never to have an open debate, to take your point as valid and to argue why their position is correct rather that yours, the response is go instantly on the attack, to yell rhetoric and to simply assure you that you’re wrong.
Like many, I was made aware of Peterson because of the infamous Channel 4 interview. The interviewer was clearly on the attack, and in those flustered attempts to make Peterson look stupid to discredit his idea’s she accidentally made him look sensible and composed… Leftist attacks make him seem reasonable and contribute more and more to the decline of left-wing politics and the growing rise of the global right. If leftists could just be a bit bloody sensible and not lose their minds at any and all dissension to the ideology then we might be able to bring the political debate back into the realm of reason.
Until then, I fear we will be left in a right-dominated society as a small minority of left-wing extremists further distance the politics of the left from regular people.
I’m 61 years old and twice divorced with three adult children. I self-described as an atheist for many years but generally describe as agnostic now. I started reading Nietzsche at the beginning of my senior year at the University of California, Irvine in the fall of 1978, not long after I had abandoned my Catholic faith. I was a history major and had come across Nietzsche in reference to Hitler’s fascination with him and had sort of dismissed him as a madman, as was common in academic circles at the time.
I started with Walter Kaufmann’s Portable Nietzsche and was mesmerized immediately. I acquired all of Kaufmann’s excellent translations and continued reading them carefully well into my adult life. Nietzsche is one of the most influential and misunderstood intellectual figures of the 20th century. I have defended him against the numerous misrepresentations of his work though not in any professional capacity and still believe that he is eminently worth studying. I was delighted when I discovered several Jordan Peterson YouTube lectures about Nietzsche last year. I think that Peterson’s understanding of Nietzsche is essentially accurate and thus my admiration for Peterson was born.
Peterson understands that Nietzsche’s infamous death of God was depicted as both a catastrophic and liberating event. Nietzsche greatly admired Dostoevsky, and Kaufmann discusses Dostoevsky’s influence at length in his eponymous volume on Nietzsche. Nietzsche in turn exerted a profound influence on Freud and Jung, and Jung was particularly interested in the role of mysticism in the human psyche. Peterson is keenly aware of this intellectual heritage and his critics often avoid these intellectual influences quite simply because they haven’t done the reading. Peterson has read these sources carefully and his interpretations are accurate in my estimation. He discusses them intelligently in 12 Rules, and the obsession with Peterson’s views on transgender pronouns is a distraction from more profound topics.
Peterson extols the virtues of marriage, much as Nietzsche did. I do not get the sense that he is homophobic or transphobic though he is often so accused. I personally favor greater gender and orientation fluidity and Nietzsche most likely did as well. He described Plato’s Symposium as his favorite book not long before he entered the University of Leipzig. He also admired Schopenhauer who defended homosexuality in the late 18th century when it was highly controversial. It is obviously still a controversial topic in 21st century politics. I am intrigued by Peterson because he and I have much different backgrounds but have experienced a very similar intellectual journey.
Western Culture has done great things in the past 200 years, like fighting
racism, improving the standard of living for millions to the highest
it has been in history, and providing personal freedoms where they can
We have been told that many ways of doing things in the past were wrong or incorrect in some manner. While this is true on a number of issues, we likely got a number of things correct in the past (or we wouldn’t have made it this far). To crystallize this idea, consider religion. North America is becoming increasingly atheist and agnostic. Now, assuming god isn’t real, it’s probably better that we find something else to concern ourselves with that better aligns with modern knowledge and circumstances. The problem is atheism hasn’t provided a sufficient replacement for the roles religion played in
most people’s lives.
Peterson speaks at length about religion.
Religion contains very beneficial methods, conventions, and ways of thinking for people. We should not completely throw religion in the trash, rather we should take the best parts of it and use those parts to create something modern, well reasoned, and based on truth through experience. This concept applies to many things Peterson speaks on, equality of opportunity vs. equality of outcome, women’s role in modern economies and sex roles, the nuclear household, dominance hierarchies, etc. Our old ways of doing things may be outdated, but they contain valuable truths that if we were to ignore could put society in a worse position than it was previously.
I’m a long-time Democratic grassroots activist, an entrepreneur, and technology innovator. Jordan Peterson speaks to several concerns I have had about the Left, which could be broadly characterized as prioritizing narratives over facts. I consider him part of a growing intellectual movement critiquing postmodernism and some of the high-profile diversity and inclusion movements, along with Stephen Hicks, Benjamin Boyce, and a few others.
While I feel these movements have merit, I often have concerns about the substance, the way they are expressed, and the goals they pursue. While I don’t think Peterson has impacted any decisions or actions I’ve taken, his talks have reinforced several decisions I’ve made in life. I have regrets about my own utopian thinking related to online politics, and it’s hard to have discussions about them without being accused of supporting some structural “-ism.”
I’m not the only person who feels this way. More than happy to discuss this further, but I would like my name kept out of any articles. I’ve been subjected to the attentions of several groups recently and would prefer to keep a low profile.
If I read your work correctly, I think I come down around where you are: fascinated by him as an intellectual and a cultural phenomenon, maddened by the slander he has endured, and frustrated by his slipperiness on certain issues.
A couple of things that I haven’t seen covered elsewhere:
- Peterson is very quick to malign social justice objectives as identity politics, yet his deep dive conversations, the ones where he really engages as opposed to debating, are largely with white men. I wonder how much he has grappled with what it might be like to grow up in an underprivileged area, as a person of color, and the victim of racism, whether he has interacted with many people who have had that experience, and whether he ought to do more to understand that perspective.
- Why doesn’t he ever criticize Trump or his policies? If he is going to present himself as a life coach and purveyor of human wisdom, it might be useful to apply that lens to a man that many of his followers support. If he is going to wade into culture wars nd draw politically minded people to his events, he has an obligation to weigh in on the single most prominent political conversation today. If he is going to note how susceptible humans are to tyrants, he ought to explain how our current politics are similar or dissimilar. He lost credibility in my eyes when he failed to weigh in on the child separation policy (unless I missed something).
- One thing that has confounded me about the critiques of Peterson is how many commentators have condescendingly discussed his self help advice. “Hoary self-help empowerment talk” (Bowles), “hokey self-help bromides” (Ganz), and there are others. I wonder why somebody earnestly trying to help others live better lives would inspire such scorn and what it says about our current media landscape that such reactions seem so common.
On both sides, the intensity of the reaction makes me think that they are reacting to an authenticity: His supporters seem to latch onto not only the pragmatic ‘self-help’ advice to improve one’s life, but more importantly that he seems to genuinely care. His detractors seem to question ‘why’ he makes the statements that he does. The foundation upon which he has built his shining castle smells corrupt.
This comes through at times in the inconsistency with which he applies his moral framing and the groups of people his is inclined to instinctively defend or undermine. At times his compassion seems more directed to some than to others. Neither group is delving deep enough to make a compelling case. Both seem to be acting viscerally. My instinct tells me that both are right: Peterson is offering needed advice and comfort to those who are seeking it, and is too often attacked rather than criticized; and at the same time he is selective with his level of compassion and advocacy and he willingly averts his eyes from the misuse and misdeeds of some of his supporters.
It all seems a microcosm of our broader social debates: We are unwilling to acknowledge any nuance in our debates. All that our team does is right. All that our opponents do is wrong. That is tribal, and not productive for our society.
I’ve given some thought to the strange phenomenon of his rise to prominence and have attempted to decipher his political leanings. Listening to him solely through a political filter is frustrating. I, like many, assume that Dr. Peterson has a clear political agenda because that is the basic assumption made regarding people in the public arena. He seems to prone to using terms in a sort of anthropological or psychological context to which people assign a political dimension to that he does not necessarily intend. This can be annoying, since someone of his acumen would be aware of how using a term without any qualification would be likely to be interpreted. Perhaps he believes an overexplanation of his use of a term runs counter to his unapologetic style? For someone who bristles at being misrepresented it is an odd choice.
I like his attitude towards a civil intellectual exchange rather than the views he promulgates. If nothing else, he is genuine and frank––something which would make him a natural foe of hand-wringing guilt merchants. He does, however, seem to have a strange “guru” like quality that puts me off him a bit…
I know that much of what he addresses concerns the plight of confused or depressed young men—and I think this is a laudable venture. I don’t find myself “needing” Dr. Peterson’s guidance in the way that others seem to since I’m a fully-formed adult who had an engaged father during my formative years, but much of what he says is eminently useful for young men who may understandably feel that an intellectual world replete with Marxist critiques of patriarchal structures has stigmatized their very existence.
Peterson tells them that it’s OK to be who they are and that they have something to offer a world which they feel has devalued their contributions. If you believe that men have more to offer than oppression, this is a worthy message.
If you don’t (which we both know some do) then he is a particularly pernicious steward of the patriarchy.
One final thought before I get too long-winded. Dr. Peterson reminds me in many ways of a modern William F. Buckley. Particularly on the debate over trans rights which has progressed at an astonishingly rapid pace, he seems to be the proverbial “man standing athwart history yelling ‘Stop!'” Like Buckley, he is informed, charismatic, articulate, urbane, unapologetic, and unafraid to directly engage with those who disagree with him. I find this type of conservative (I don’t know if Dr. Peterson has ever defined himself as such, I have heard him call himself a “traditionalist”—in any event I think it’s a fair characterization) is uniquely vexing to lefties who demand that the villains they’ve made be troglodytes and buffoons. Peterson cannot be written off as a typical conservative or reactionary of the unsophisticated Fox News variety (of which there is sadly no short supply), so they don’t know what to do with or think of him. I don’t know what to think of him either.