Until yesterday, my proudest achievement of the year was managing not to form an opinion on Jordan B. Peterson.
Peterson, for the unaware, is a controversial Canadian psychologist and University of Toronto professor who burst into international fame through a massively popular series of YouTube lectures on psychology, personality, personal responsibility, and a bunch of other shit that doesn't really seem like it would go viral on a platform more famous for Justin Bieber vids.
Peterson currently has over 1.2 million subscribers on YouTube, but the incident that initially made him famous was a video that went viral in late 2016. In it, Peterson said that he would refuse to use the preferred gender pronouns of faculty and students at his school if "compelled" to do so under Canadian human rights law, which, at the time, the government was considering expanding. "I don’t recognize another person’s right to determine what pronouns I use to address them,” Peterson said on tape.
Despite his objections, the amendment ultimately passed, and while I don't think anyone has been arrested since then for misgendering, Peterson has emerged as a leading critic of political correctness, post-modernism, and what is sometimes called the "illiberal left." His self-help book, 12 Rules of Life: An Antidote to Chaos, has become an international best-seller, his Patreon brings in over $80,000 a month, and he's spent much of this year touring the world with sold-out events, including two appearances in the last two months alone in Seattle. The first show was so popular, they brought him back for more. And, despite my commitment to never formulating an opinion on JBP, I went.
Jordan B. Peterson inspires nothing if not strong opinions. On Team Fuck JP, you have my dear colleague Rich Smith, who wrote some months ago that Peterson "is basically a weird academic troll and a men's rights activist” (and, today, celebrated Pride by criticizing Peterson’s statements on gay marriage). Rich, like many people, argues that Peterson misinterpreted Canada's human rights bill in the first place, and, what's more, that he's a dangerous ideologue who has swindled reams of unsuspecting young men into believing that he is a savior when really he's nothing more than a quack.
On the other side, you have Peterson's legion of fans, many of whom credit him with helping them get their lives together. Peterson addresses the failure to launch, which refers to people (frequently young men) who never get out of their childhood bedrooms and make lives of their own. His book is a sort of guide to growing up, and the rules themselves are simple, straight-forward, commonsense: stand up straight, don’t tell lies, make your bed, be responsible, etc. (He also says you should pet cats you encounter on the street, which seems potentially problematic for allergy sufferers, but I haven’t actually read the book and am guessing this might be a metaphor, something Peterson is extremely fond of, along with archetypes and allegories of all kinds.)
Peterson is easy to make fun of. He's thin-skinned, responding to seemingly all of his bad reviews on Twitter, and comes across in interviews as overly serious, pedantic, and lacking any sense of humor at all. Take this, from a recent New York Times profile of Peterson by Nellie Bowles: “Mr. Peterson’s home is a carefully curated house of horror,” she writes. “He has filled it with a sprawl of art that covers the walls from floor to ceiling. Most of it is communist propaganda from the Soviet Union (execution scenes, soldiers looking noble) — a constant reminder, he says, of atrocities and oppression. He wants to feel their imprisonment, though he lives here on a quiet residential street in Toronto and is quite free.” This does not sound like a man who can make (or take) a joke, and yet, what I found in Seattle is that he's quick-witted, self-deprecating, and has a wicked sense of humor. There was plenty of dense, metaphor-laden musings during this talk, but there were plenty of jokes as well—as often as not directed at Peterson himself.
Peterson is frequently pegged a misogynist, an accusation that I don’t believe is quite right, although he does hold some traditional (read: regressive, old-fashioned) family values. But, it’s an easy accusation to make based on what comes out of his mouth. When discussing a recent attack in Toronto, when a self-described “incel,” or involuntary celibate, drove a van into a crowd, killing 10, Peterson told Bowles that the “cure” to male violence is “enforced monogamy,” a concept that sounds as dangerous as it does dull.
Unfortunately, Bowles didn’t ask and Peterson didn’t explain what “enforced monogamy” actually is, and so after the profile came out, it sounded like Peterson wants women to shut our mouths, open our legs, and put on red dresses and white bonnets for the men who’ll soon own us. It sounded bad, very bad, but, as Peterson pointed out on his own blog, “enforced monogamy” is an academic term (a quick search of Google Scholar shows this is true) and he was arguing for social enforcement of monogamy over polygamy, not government enforcement of monogamy over polygamy, and it’s basically what we already have (even if polycules are rising in popularity). Still, even if Peterson wasn’t actually arguing for a Handmaid's Tale vision of the future, questions about enforced monogamy have dogged him ever since, mostly in the form of “fuck you for saying that.”
(A note on enforced monogamy: Sexologist David Ley has a great blog post on Peterson’s argument. He writes that while most research does indeed show that monogamous societies are less violent than polygamous societies, Peterson, is “using data, research, evidence, and theories, based on our dark past, where women did not hold the right to choose what to do with their own sexuality. The history of socially- and religiously-enforced monogamy was one in which female sexuality was property, and marriage was based on economics. The reason that the Incel movement is angry at women, rather than society at large, is that these young men recognize that when women are given the right to choose, they are not choosing them.”)
Enforced monogamy also came up Thursday night, albeit briefly, at Peterson’s second appearance in Seattle, which I attended at the invitation of Bret Weinstein, a former and much maligned professor of evolutionary biology at Evergreen State. Weinstein was the most famous person not on stage in the theatre last night, and in the 10 minutes or so we sat in the audience before the show, so many people approached him, asking for a handshake or a selfie, that I started taking a tally in my notes.
Weinstein’s fans, like Peterson’s, were diverse. It’s often said that Peterson appeals solely to young, conservative, white men, but the audience was far more mixed than the NPR-type cultural events I usually attend. The last talk I went to, Michael Pollan, was about as diverse as a KKK rally compared to Peterson’s crowd (at least if KKK rallies accepted Jews). The majority of the audience last night was white, yes, but not overwhelmingly so. There were a large number of people of color, women, and both the young and the old—although I’m not sure how many genders were represented. And when Peterson finally came to the stage after an introduction by comedian and YouTuber Dave Rubin, the crowd went wild. It wasn’t Beatlemania (no one was tearing their hair out or throwing bras on stage) but the screams were much louder than public intellectuals tend to get.
Peterson’s talk was 70 minutes of stream of consciousness. He didn’t have notes, or, seemingly, any idea what was going to come out of his mouth next. Slightly gaunt and wearing his usual three-piece suit, Peterson looked down nearly the entire time, speaking with his hands and pacing back and forth across the stage. The theme of the lecture, in theory, was the psychology of religion, with plenty of asides about archetypes and the value of storytelling, but it felt to me like an elaborate Psych 101 class. Peterson, who trained as a personality psychologist, made his meandering way through some fundamental psychological concepts, though he didn’t mention that they are fundamental psychological concepts at the time. So, when he talked about how if you are in a grocery store aisle with 500 bottles of shampoo you are less likely to be satisfied with your purchase than if you had just a few to choose from (think of all the opportunities for better shampoo you may have missed), the guy behind me kept murmuring, yes, yes, yes, like this was the first time he’d heard such a dazzling concept. But it’s not dazzling; it’s the paradox of choice, and Jordan Peterson didn’t come up with it.
Still, I don’t think it’s the concepts that wow Peterson’s audience as much as the man himself. And that’s one of the ironies of the Jordan B. Peterson phenomenon: His fundamental message, or at least the message I picked up, is exceedingly simple: Make choices. Take actions. When you fall, get up. Peterson spent a good deal of time talking about the need for value systems, but what he doesn’t do is tell you what value system exactly to adopt. And so, instead of formulating their own value systems, his audience seems to be trying to parse out what he believes and adopting his value system for their own.
And this, I think, is where the danger lies, because, while politics did not come up last night, his own value system is fundamentally conservative: He spends hours talking about personal responsibility but no time at all on the power structures that keep people down. “Stand up straight” and “clean your room” might be great advice for the audience member who can pay for all-access passes to see Jordan B. Peterson talk, but it does nothing for society as a whole. Peterson is about empowering the individual, which, according to his thinking, will eventually benefit us all. It’s the trickle-down economics of making the world a better place, and I’m not sure it works. After his talk, for instance, during an audience Q&A moderated by Dave Rubin, someone asked how to “make Seattle be less fucked up.” “That’s easy,” Peterson said. “Stop contributing to it.” Solid advice, I suppose, but Seattle doesn’t just need people to stop being dicks; it also needs affordable housing, better transit systems, an equitable tax structure, and a bunch of other systems that don’t magically appear when you start cleaning your room or standing up straight.
Frankly, I don’t need Jordan Peterson. I already took Psych 101, and my value system, at this point, is firmly in place. But, clearly, he is filling a need that people are yearning to have filled. They love him. They buy his books and listen to his lectures and donate to his Patreon and pay for his "self-authoring" and personality assessment programs online. Ideally, he would use his platform to inspire this massive audience to think for themselves; but I fear that what they are taking from it is that they should listen to him instead.
After the show, I hung out with Weinstein, Rubin, and Peterson in the green room backstage. It was all off the record, so I won’t tell you what was discussed, but I will say this: Peterson’s persona is real. He’s exactly the same onstage as he is when the cameras are off. So whatever the criticism of Peterson, I do not think he’s a fraud or a fake. Rather, I think he’s a placebo, one that works for some people and doesn’t for others. It’s hard to see what’s so controversial about that.