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Jordan Peterson, the obscure Canadian psychologist turned right-wing celebrity, explained

Who Peterson is, and the important truths he reveals about our current political moment.

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Jordan Peterson.
Javier Zarracina/Vox
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Jordan Peterson is a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, a widely cited scholar of personality, and the author of what’s currently the No. 1 best-selling nonfiction book on Amazon in the United States. The New York Times’s David Brooks, echoing George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen, calls him “the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now.”

Jordan Peterson is also a right-wing internet celebrity who has claimed that feminists have “an unconscious wish for brutal male domination,” referred to developing nations as “pits of catastrophe” in a speech to a Dutch far-right group, and recently told a Times reporter that he supported “enforced monogamy.”

When Cathy Newman, a journalist for the UK’s Channel 4, challenged Peterson’s arguments in a televised interview, she received so many death threats that she had to get help from the police. “There were literally thousands of abusive tweets — it was a semi-organized campaign,” she recalled in an interview. “ It ranged from the usual ‘cunt, bitch, dumb blonde’ to ‘I’m going to find out where you live and execute you.’”

This is not a case of mistaken identity, of two Jordan Petersons yoked to the same name. These seemingly distinct men, the accomplished scholar and the controversy-courting culture warrior, are one and the same, and their work is integrally interlinked. And that hybrid of scholarly air and provocative trolling has netted Peterson a huge following; he has 560,000 followers on Twitter and nearly 1 million YouTube subscribers.

Peterson “introduces people [to] many many other things they just don’t really get elsewhere,” Cowen says. “He is still influential, massively so, reaches a large general public audience of millions, most of all young males. How many other intellectuals do?”

So how did an obscure Canadian psychologist become an international phenomenon?

The answer is that Jordan Peterson is tailor-made to our political moment. His reactionary politics and talents as a public speaker combine to be a perfect fit for YouTube and the right-wing media, where videos of conservatives “destroying” weak-minded liberals routinely go viral. Peterson’s denunciations of identity politics and political correctness are standard-issue conservative, but his academic credentials make his pronouncements feel much more authoritative than your replacement-level Fox News commentator. (I reached out to Peterson; a spokesperson turned down my interview request.)

Peterson is also particularly appealing to disaffected young men. He’s become a lifestyle guru for men and boys who feel displaced by a world where white male privilege is under attack; his new best-selling book, 12 Rules for Life, is explicitly pitched as a self-help manual, and he speaks emotionally of the impact his work has had on anxious, lost young men.

Jordan Peterson, then, isn’t just some random professor who managed to strike it rich. He’s emblematic of the way white male anxiety is producing new and powerful political movements across the West today.

Jordan Peterson’s transition: from scholar to internet celebrity

Peterson is both a clinical and research psychologist, meaning he sees patients while also doing research. After he received his PhD in psychology from McGill University, one of Canada’s two most prestigious universities, in 1991, he spent two years practicing at McGill’s hospital. After that, he was hired by Harvard, where he taught until 1998. He left when the University of Toronto, Canada’s other leading university, hired him as a full professor and a practicing clinician.

Peterson’s research specialty is personality traits; one of his most prominent papers is a study of what makes people more or less creative, where he argues that people who pay more attention to seemingly “irrelevant” details actually tend to be more creative. According to Google Scholar, he has been cited more than 10,000 times in academic publications and is one of the 70 most cited researchers in his subfield. I spoke to eight academic psychologists before writing this piece; the feedback I received on his published work was uniformly positive.

“His work in personality assessment ... is very solid and well respected,” says David Watson, a psychology professor at Notre Dame.

But this work, respected as it may be, has little to do with Peterson’s fame. His most influential research was published in the late ’90s and early to mid-2000s; of his 20 most cited papers, only one came out after 2010. By contrast, his international celebrity — as measured by worldwide Google searches for “Jordan Peterson” — didn’t start to rise until October 2016:

jordan peterson
Jordan Peterson Google Trends search, March 2004 to March 2018.
Google Trends

What happened in the fall of 2016 is that Peterson inserted himself into a national Canadian debate over transgender rights — specifically by refusing to refer to a student by their chosen gender pronouns.

At the time, the Canadian parliament was considering something called Bill C-16, a bill banning discrimination against people on the basis of “gender identity” or “gender expression.” In September, Peterson released a series of YouTube videos attacking the bill as a grave threat to free speech rights. He said he would refuse to refer to transgender students by their preferred pronouns; separating gender and biological sex was, in his view, “radically politically correct thinking.” He argued that C-16 would lead to people like him being arrested.

“If they fine me, I won’t pay it. If they put me in jail, I’ll go on a hunger strike. I’m not doing this,” Peterson said in an October 2016 TV interview. “I’m not using the words that other people require me to use. Especially if they’re made up by radical left-wing ideologues.”

Experts on Canadian law said that Peterson was misreading the bill — that the legal standard for “hate speech” would require something far worse, like saying transgender people should be killed, to qualify for legal punishment. This is an early example of what would become a hallmark of Peterson’s approach as a public intellectual — taking inflammatory, somewhat misinformed stances on issues of public concern outside his area of expertise.

But it worked for him. Peterson’s videos on C-16 and political correctness racked up more than 400,000 views on YouTube within about a month of posting. There were rallies both for and against Peterson in Toronto; he made the rounds on Canadian television.

Perhaps the defining moment of this controversy was a filmed confrontation in October 2016 between Peterson and a group of student activists at the University of Toronto. In it, Peterson calmly fields questions from trans students who are angry about his refusal to recognize their gender identity. In the video, he turns the argument around on them — suggesting that transgender activism, and the broader rise of political correctness, was bound to produce an ugly and dangerous backlash.

“I’ve studied Nazism for four decades. And I understand it very well. And I can tell you there are some awful people lurking in the corners,” Peterson says. “They’re ready to come out. And if the radical left keeps pushing the way it’s pushing, they’re going to come.”

Fans of Peterson’s worldview saw the video as proof of his genius and bravery; Peterson was the avatar of reason and facts pushing back against irrational “social justice warriors” (SJWs). One cut of the confrontation, titled “Dr. Jordan Peterson gives up trying to reason with SJWs,” currently has more than 3.5 million views on YouTube.

This was a seminal moment in the Peterson brand. It was proof that taking combative stances on camera — especially arguments where you’re set up to win, like a calm professor confronted by angry students — would get you huge numbers of fans. There are now innumerable videos of Peterson arguing with various liberals and leftists on YouTube, with titles like “Leftist Host SNAPS At Jordan Peterson, Instantly Regrets It.” They have millions of views and have led to a massive surge in donations to Peterson’s personal account on the crowdfunding site Patreon. He currently earns around $80,000 per month from Patreon donations.

“I shouldn’t say this, but I’m going to, because it’s just so goddamn funny I can’t help but say it: I’ve figured out how to monetize social justice warriors,” Peterson told the podcast host Joe Rogan. “If they let me speak, then I get to speak, and then I make more money on Patreon ... if they protest me, then that goes up on YouTube, and my Patreon account goes WAY up.”

Peterson’s stellar academic credentials act as a sort of legitimizing device, a way of setting up his authority on politics and making his denunciations of “leftist ideologues” more credible and attractive to his fans. Combine his undeniable talents as a public speaker and debater with his ability to use YouTube to reach audiences around the world and you get a right-wing celebrity who has transcended Canada and become a global reactionary star.

What does Jordan Peterson believe?

Peterson’s political ideas are most cleanly laid out in a two-and-a-half-hour lecture he’s given, titled “Identity politics and the Marxist lie of white privilege.” His upload of one of the speeches, at the University of British Columbia Free Speech Club, has been viewed more than a million times on YouTube, with other copies and excerpts from it racking up similarly large numbers.

In the lecture, Peterson weaves together an incredibly broad set of topics — ranging from Soviet history to the biblical story of Cain and Abel to Nietzsche to lab experiments that involve feeding rats cocaine — to produce a kind of unified theory of modern politics. At base, he argues that that Soviet-style communism, and all the mass murder and suffering it created, is still a serious threat to Western civilization. But rather than working openly, it seeps into our politics under the guise of “postmodernism.”

Peterson’s argument starts with a vivid denunciation of Marxism. Human society, like all animal kingdoms, is in Peterson’s mind defined by certain biological truths — including the reality that some people are naturally more gifted than others, and that life will always involve suffering. Marxism, he believes, is rooted fundamentally in the hatred of people who succeed in a capitalist economy — and thus will always result in violence when one attempts to implement it.

“Are these Marxists motivated by love or hatred? Well, is it love or hatred that produces 100 million dead people?” he asks in the speech, rhetorically.

Peterson believes that the failure of Soviet communism has not actually deterred communism’s fans in the West, who still secretly cling to the old hateful beliefs. He argues that they do so under the guise of a school of thought he refers to as “postmodernism,” which he sees as his archenemy.

“Western leftist intellectuals are [fundamentally complicit] in the horrors of the 21st century,” he says. “It’s not that they’ve learned anything since; they’ve just gone underground. And that’s what I see when I see postmodernism.”

Peterson uses the term postmodernism fairly loosely, but he’s referring to, roughly speaking, French philosophers working in the middle of the 20th century, most prominently Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault.

He argues that these philosophers, famous for their skepticism about objective reality and emphasis on the social construction of human society, were actually crypto-Marxists. The difference is that they change the language — instead of arguing that society is defined by class oppression, Peterson says, they argue that it’s defined by identity oppression: racism, sexism, gender identity, and the like.

“How about if we don’t say ‘working-class capitalists’ we say ‘oppressor/oppressed?’” he says, summarizing the alleged postmodern line of thinking. “We’ll just think about all of the other ways people are oppressed, and all the other ways that people are oppressors, and we’ll play the same damn game under a new guise.”

This makes postmodernism, which he believes has quietly permeated Western culture in the past 20 or so years, a tremendous threat.

“The Marxists aren’t just wrong: They’re wrong, murderous, and genocidal,” he says. “The postmodernists don’t just get to just come along an adopt Marxism as a matter of sleight of hand because their Marxist theory didn’t work out and they needed a rationalization, because it’s too dangerous — it’s too dangerous to the rest of us.”

Actual experts on postmodernism note that the thinkers Peterson likes to cite were often quite critical of Marxism. His reading of these thinkers, as the social critic Shuja Haider points out, is shallow and deeply uncharitable. “Peterson’s fantasy of neo-Marxist wolves in postmodern sheep’s clothing has little bearing on actual debates in 20th-century political theory,” Haider concludes.

“Peterson’s understanding of Marxism and postmodernism is very vulgar,” Harrison Fluss, an editor at the Marxist journal Historical Materialism, tells me. “He connects the two in [an] overarching conspiracy theory.”

Perhaps more fundamentally, there is no evidence that 20th-century French thinkers have a dominant influence on any sector of the left in contemporary Western politics, let alone society as a whole. I know of no credible political scientist who believes this, and Peterson’s adherence to the notion can lead to bizarre outbursts. For example, he once accused Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of being in thrall to a “murderous equity doctrine” because Trudeau sent a tweet calling feminist activists “inspiring and motivating.”

But Peterson’s grand theory is brilliant as a political stance — one designed to weaponize the grievances of the kind of young men attracted to the alt-right.

Peterson’s framework serves as a justification for dismissing the idea of any kind of privilege — white, male, or otherwise — as a tool used by closet Marxists to manipulate you. He states this explicitly, calling it a “Marxist lie” designed to enable the Marxist-postmodernist effort to seize control of the state.

“[We cannot] allow people who are manipulating us with historical ignorance and philosophical sleight of hand to render us so goddamn guilty about what our ancestors may or may not have done,” he argues, “that we allow our shame and our guilt to be used as tools to manipulate us into accepting a future that we do not want to have.”

This theory elevates battles over political correctness and free speech into existential struggles over Western society. He is very literally arguing that if the “postmodernists” win, if people start using others’ chosen pronouns, we’re one step closer to modern gulags.

Peterson’s position helps claim the mantle of “facts” and “reason” for the anti-PC right. Because postmodern theorists are skeptical about the notion of an entirely objective reality, Peterson argues, the entire project of “identity politics” is grounded in an irrational rejection of logic and discussion. It’s not only right to reject identity politics; it’s a sign of irrationality not to.

“Postmodernists don’t believe in fact,” as he put it in the lecture on white privilege and Marxism. “They believe that the idea of fact is part of the power game that’s played by the white-dominated male patriarchy to impose the tyrannical structure of the patriarchy on the oppressors.”

These arguments are catnip for a very specific kind of young white man — Peterson himself said in his Channel 4 interview that 80 percent of his YouTube audience is male. These young men are upset about the erosion of white male privilege, about the need to compete with women and minorities for jobs and spots at top universities, and they are angry about the way feminists and racial justice activists describe society.

In Peterson, they found someone telling them that their grievances are not only justified but, in fact, important: that they have picked up on a secret threat to society writ large, and that they are its first victims. Peterson is drawing on a deep well: This kind of anger about the declining social status of white men is incredibly common across the Western world today, and finds a comfortable home in reactionary political movements on both sides of the Atlantic.

“The underlying mass-appeal of [Peterson] is that he gives white men permission to stop pretending that they care about other people’s grievances,” writes Jesse Brown, host of the Canadaland podcast and a longtime Peterson watcher. “He tells his fans that these so-called marginalized people are not really victims at all but are in fact aggressors, enemies, who must be shut down.”

But Peterson isn’t only giving these men an architecture in which to ground their frustrations. He’s also giving them a road map on how to succeed in a society they no longer understand.

Jordan Peterson the self-help guru

Peterson became more than just an internet celebrity on January 23, 2018. That’s when his book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, was published by Random House Canada — and skyrocketed to the top of international best-seller lists. It was after this book’s publication, and the following press tour, that David Brooks pronounced him the world’s most influential public intellectual.

Each chapter of the book is devoted to a specific, somewhat strange-sounding rule. The first chapter is called “Stand up straight with your shoulders back”; the last is “Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.”

The book is a kind of bridge connecting his academic research on personality and his political punditry. In it, Peterson argues that the problem with society today is that too many people blame their lot in life on forces outside their control — the patriarchy, for example. By taking responsibility for yourself, and following his rules, he says, you can make your own life better.

The first chapter, about posture, begins with an extended discussion of lobsters. Lobster society, inasmuch as it exists, is characterized by territoriality and displays of dominance. Lobsters that dominate these hierarchies have more authoritative body language; weaker ones try to make themselves look smaller and less threatening to more dominant ones.

Peterson argues that humans are very much like lobsters: Our hierarchies are determined by our behaviors. If you want to be happy and powerful, he says, you need to stand up straight:

If your posture is poor, for example — if you slump, shoulders forward and rounded, chest tucked in, head down, looking small, defeated and ineffectual (protected, in theory, against attack from behind) — then you will feel small, defeated, and ineffectual. The reactions of others will amplify that. People, like lobsters, size each other up, partly in consequence of stance. If you present yourself as defeated, then people will react to you as if you are losing. If you start to straighten up, then people will look at and treat you differently.

“Look for your inspiration to the victorious lobster, with its 350 million years of practical wisdom. Stand up straight, with your shoulders back,” he concludes, in one of the book’s most popular passages.

The lobster has become a sort of symbol of his; the tens of thousands of Peterson fans on his dedicated subreddit even refer to themselves as “lobsters.”

This is classic Peterson: He loves to take stylized facts about the animal kingdom and draw a one-to-one analogy to human behavior. It also has political implications: He argues that because we evolved from lower creatures like lobsters, we inherited dominance structures from them. Inequalities of various kinds aren’t wrong; they’re natural.

“We were struggling for position before we had skin, or hands, or lungs, or bones,” he writes. “There is little more natural than culture. Dominance hierarchies are older than trees.”

The relationship between human and lobster brains is outside Peterson’s area of academic expertise. Experts in the field who have evaluated his claims have found them lacking, as lobsters’ and humans’ neurological systems are radically different. One important distinction is that humans have brains and lobsters (technically speaking) do not.

“If nervous systems were computer games, arthropods like lobsters would be ‘Snake’ on a first-generation mobile phone and vertebrates would be an augmented reality (AR) game,” as Leonor Gonsalves, a neuroscientist at University College London, puts it in a review of Peterson’s argument at The Conversation. “The human brain is hugely malleable ... believing that it is ‘natural’ that some people are ‘losers’ because that’s what lobsters do can have dire consequences.”

But Petersonian lobster theory, and the other things like it in the book, aren’t really questions of truth. They’re about providing the sort of alienated young men who are attracted to his broader work a sense of purpose and meaning. It fulfills roughly the same role in their life as religion might; it’s perhaps unsurprising that Peterson is quite interested in the Bible and discusses it often.

“I think his mass following suggests the existence among a substantial cross-section of young men of a deep hunger for moral order that may well be ultimately a religious yearning,” Yuval Levin, vice president of the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, tells me. “Peterson is actually fairly careful to distinguish the teaching he’s offering from an explicitly religious teaching, but I think he does that because he grasps that some significant portion of the people looking to him are really looking for something like a religious teacher.”

The difference is that Peterson is reaching people who, for whatever reason, aren’t getting what they need from organized religion alone. In fact, some of his followers are actively hostile to religion, seeing it as fundamentally irrational. He’s a moralist who can appeal to the New Atheist set, even though he doesn’t share their hostility to religion.

This aspect of Peterson’s work is far more sympathetic than his ill-informed and frankly nefarious politics — especially since some of his cardinal rules, like “tell the truth,” are perfectly good moral precepts to live by.

It’s worth watching a five-minute excerpt from a BBC interview about his role as a mentor for young men. Peterson openly starts to cry at the beginning:

“Last night, I was at this talk I gave. And about a thousand people came, and about 500 of them stayed afterward. And most of them are young men,” Peterson says, starting to tear up. “And one of them after another comes up and shakes my hand and says, ‘I’ve been listening to what you’ve been saying ... I started cleaning up my room, and working on my life, and I’ve started working hard on myself, and I just want to thank you for helping me.”

When you watch this interview, you get a sense of what Peterson must have been like with his patients as a clinical psychologist — empathetic, passionate, deeply concerned with the welfare of his patients. It’s moving, really.

But Peterson has inextricably intertwined his self-help approach with a kind of reactionary politics that validates white, straight, and cisgender men at the expense of everyone else. He gives them a sense of purpose by, in part, tearing other people down — by insisting that the world can and should revolve around them and their problems.

This painful contrast is on display later in that very interview, in which he explicitly argues that concern for sexism is to blame for the plight of the West’s young men.

“We’re so stupid. We’re alienating young men. We’re telling them that they’re patriarchal oppressors and denizens of rape culture,” he says. “It’s awful. It’s so destructive. It’s so unnecessary. And it’s so sad.”

The empathy that he displays for men and boys in his BBC interview and 12 Rules for Life is touching. The problem is that he can’t seem to extend it to anyone else.

For more on Jordan Peterson, including a short interview with Peterson himself, listen to the May 14 episode of Today Explained.