Right-winger? Not me, says alt-right darling Jordan Peterson
To his growing legion of mostly male fans, Jordan Peterson is a cultural messiah, but to his critics he’s a professor of piffle. When the Canadian psychologist recently brought his brand of intellectual machismo to Australia, crowds flocked – and controversy followed.
An awful roar rose up as the hundreds of angry protesters pounded on the locked panelled doors and stained-glass windows of the historic sandstone hall, yelling out a volley of obscenities designed to drown out the guest speaker about to step up to the podium. To Jordan Peterson, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and fiery anti-PC warrior, the shadowy figures prowling up and down outside the soaring arched windows at Queen's University in Ontario, Canada, looked like zombies. But if the steely professor was rattled, he didn't show a sliver of it in front of his 900 fresh-faced fans.
As Peterson was about to commence his lecture – entitled The Rising Tide of Compelled Speech in Canada – a young male intruder yelled out, "That's a f…ing lie, there's no such thing as compelled speech" from the wings, as a couple of other protesters strode defiantly across the stage with a hand-painted banner spelling out "Freedom to Smash Bigotry". After a woman standing on a ledge outside smashed a stained-glass window, sirens started wailing and blue and red lights flashing – police later caught up with her in a side street and found a garrotte in her backpack. The whole fracas only made Peterson's audience love him more. At the end of his speech on this frigid day in March 2018, he received a thunderous standing ovation.
The Canadian clinical psychologist talks to Fairfax Media about what he thinks of his opponents, Rosa Parks and the interview that shot him to fame.
Peterson has grown used to having this effect on people: one moment, outpourings of boundless adoration; the next, boiling, seething scorn. That's what happens when you become one of the most talked about, polarising intellectuals in the world, with a huge following: more than one million subscribers to his YouTube channel and 50 million views of his videos, which he only started recording in 2011. Controversy propels sales, which helps explain why Peterson's new book (his second), a white-and-gold-covered tome called 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, with its old-school tips for leading a better life, has become a runaway bestseller, taking centre stage in bookshop windows as far afield as Dubai and Oslo. Peterson is on track to becoming the biggest-selling Canadian non-fiction author of all time, and one of North America's wealthiest academics.
The raucous demonstration at Queen's University occurred only days before he arrived in Australia for a speaking tour (tickets sold out within days in Sydney and Melbourne and just seven hours in Brisbane, according to his promoter, True Arrow). A virtual cheer squad of conservative columnists from The Australian and Sydney's Daily Telegraph, including Miranda Devine and Janet Albrechtsen, turned out gushy pieces about their new hero. Meanwhile, such is his divisiveness, the mere mention of Jordan Peterson's name was turning some dinner party conversations into cage fights.
Why all this heat about a 55-year-old university professor, who, in his personal deportment, looks as plain and harmless as an aspirin? Because Peterson has the cojones to say a lot of bold, some would say bad, things. Political correctness has gone overboard. Men are in crisis. The gender gap isn't simply the result of sexism but of deep biological differences that no amount of social engineering will remove. Women tend to choose caring careers that pay less; men are more likely to opt for dangerous and dirty jobs that pay more. Motherhood has been devalued. Blaming inequality on capitalism or the patriarchy is a leftist delusion. The Western helicopter parent needs to back off: children are tough and resilient. The term "white privilege" is a racist insult, a self-loathing term used by shallow liberals.
Worse than all this, there's no room for even tepid dissent. Criticise the left and you're labelled a fascist, a toady of the alt-right. Dare to criticise the extremes of Islam and you're branded an Islamophobe. Question LGBT+ politics and you're a homophobe; refuse to use gender neutral pronouns and you're a transphobe.
Western society, he suggests, has turned against men. "We are playing very foolish games in the West," he warns in one YouTube video. "And we could bring the house down around us." When a young German interviewer informs Peterson one of her professors recommends not having a child to reduce her carbon footprint, Peterson cracks, "Tell him he can save the planet by jumping off a cliff." In another video, he fumes that "the radical left has never taken responsibility for being on the same side as the Stalinists, Maoists and Cambodian murderers. At least the Germans apologised: 'Sorry about the Nazis.' "
In Peterson, conservatives have found a soul mate, a proudly politically incorrect firebrand with a bracing turn of phrase. Progressives, meanwhile, have been busy going into battle or priming themselves for a fight. In The New York Times, columnist David Brooks backed Peterson as the "most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now", while author and filmmaker Richard Poplak, writing in the Johannesburg Review of Books, dubbed him an "academic bullshit merchant", dismissing 12 Rules For Life as a "self-help book for assholes".
Psychiatrist and writer Norman Doidge thinks Peterson is "brilliant", but Peterson's colleague at the University of Toronto, Professor Ira Wells, derides him as the "professor of piffle" – a YouTube star rather than a serious intellectual. Tabatha Southey, one of Canada's most popular columnists, branded him "the stupid man's smart person" in a widely quoted article. It's safe to say that Peterson's unique brand of intellectual machismo hasn't so much touched a nerve as exposed its quivering endings.
Rage, of course, is all the rage today, at both ends of the political spectrum. Which explains why Peterson's avid YouTube fans, 80 per cent of whom are male, make his videos on the Conservative Network sound like gladiatorial contests, with clickbait titles such as "Jordan Peterson DESTROYS leftist host"; "Peterson in HEATED debate"; "leftist host SNAPS at Jordan Peterson". Even his perfectly sober, low-key interview with 7.30 anchor Leigh Sales is amped up by his fan boys as a "CLASH".
Peterson first attracted headlines back in September 2016 when, in a fit of pique, he recorded a video declaring he wouldn't abide by a new bill introduced by the Canadian Government, which he claimed would make it illegal not to address people by their preferred pronouns. In an extraordinary example of overreach, the university issued a warning to him to withdraw his comments – a threat they withdrew after he read their missives to his YouTube audience. Nearly 200 newspaper stories across North America reported on the incident.
But it was his interview – or rather showdown – on the UK's Channel 4 in January 2018 that became a viral phenomenon, attracting more than nine million YouTube views. Peterson's cool corrections ("I didn't say that", "That's not true", "You're not listening to me") to anchor Cathy Newman's floundering list of questions about the gender pay gap (and her clumsy repetition of "So what you're saying is …") turned into a 101 disaster tutorial for journalism students. Instead of being the avenging feminist anchor, Newman's simple projection on to Peterson of a toxic sexism led her straight into a "Gotcha" moment.
Amazingly, Channel 4 saw fit to upload the entire, unedited 30-minute train wreck on to YouTube (only five minutes of the pre-recorded interview went to air), which led to such an overflow of scalding abuse of Newman on social media that Channel 4 roped in "security specialists". Peterson told his Twitter followers, now numbering more than 600,000, not to threaten Newman and to be "civilised" in their criticism.
One moment, he is trading barbs in a podcast with comedian Russell Brand, or joking with openly gay comic Tom Ballard in ABC TV's Tonightly, the next he is standing beside former Nationals MP and deputy PM John Anderson in Sydney decrying identity politics. He describes himself as a classic liberal, but he's the darling of conservatives, hyper-conservatives and the alt-right. He's opposed to social justice warriors, but warns inequality in Western societies can endanger their stability, and supports aspects of social welfare.
So who is the real Jordan Peterson?
My first impression of Peterson, when we meet in the plush, expansive offices of his publisher in North Sydney, is that he's got the perfect face for a film noir private eye: deep-set hawk eyes, a thatch of greying hair, and a mask of world weary, don't-mess-with-me attitude. My second impression: he can be disarmingly candid, serving up a contradictory cocktail of fire and vulnerability. In person, with his wife Tammy sitting opposite around a large meeting room table, he talks about the depression that runs through the family on his father's side, and his 26-year-old daughter Mikhaila's struggle from a young age with a rare, severe form of rheumatoid arthritis. (He also has a son, Justin.)
How is he finding his new-found fame? "It's been a profound existential shock," he replies. "It began at the end of September 2016 when I made a couple of political protest videos, and it's been one scandal after another ever since, with the media attention accelerating."
"Jordan likes the public eye," interjects Tammy. "He's always attracted attention as a speaker and thinker who likes to challenge … after he started putting his lectures online and did work for TVO [an educational public service broadcaster in Canada], his following really started to grow."
This insurgent tell-it-like-it-is attitude has driven Peterson all his life. He grew up in the small town of Fairview, in Alberta, Canada, the eldest son of Walter, a schoolteacher, and Beverley, a librarian. Although the teenage Jordan was a party boy who loved sports and Led Zeppelin, he had a very serious, thoughtful side. He was involved with the social-democratic New Democratic Party but by 18 became disillusioned with their shallowness. "They didn't like or understand the poor at all; they just hated the rich," he says.
Recalls Tammy: "He lived at the end of my street and now and again he'd stop and give me a ride. I've always thought he was interesting – that's why I married him."
Regarding his daughter Mikhaila's depression, he notes, "I said to her one day, 'If God granted you a wish and you could get rid of your rheumatoid arthritis or your depression, which would you pick?' She said she'd opt to be free of the depression."
Peterson, his wife and daughter are now on a strict diet, which Tammy prepares in serviced apartments as the trio travel the globe. "There is increasing evidence for some people that depression is associated with excess levels of inflammation," says Peterson. "I had a variety of autoimmune symptoms and they're all gone, as is the depression. All I eat now is meat and greens."
He went through a ghastly period, he says, when the university was issuing him with warnings over his opposition to Bill C-16, which banned discrimination on the grounds of gender expression in Canada. "It was very stressful to have my livelihood on the line, and I was also concerned I might lose my clinical licence."
Yet when he goes on to say that 80 per cent of funding for the humanities should be withdrawn to shut down what he claims is the untrammelled influence of "Marxist post-modern" academics, it's clear he doesn't so much want to challenge his opponents as annihilate them. And Peterson by no means has a monopoly on having his free speech or academic freedom threatened.
I’m not saying Harvey Weinstein’s victims invited their own victimisation, but I’m not impressed by the fact that this went on forever and no one said anything.Peterson on the #MeToo movement, talking to The London Evening Standard
A new report on US National Public Radio claims at least 250 professors, many on the left, have been subject to abusive calls and vicious attacks on social media, including death threats. Some have lost their jobs, others have had to shift homes. The "Film Your Marxist Professor" page on Facebook receives about 10 submissions a day and content has been picked up by the New York Post and alt-right sites such as Breitbart and neo-Nazi forums such as Stormfront.
The culture wars are indeed becoming ugly; many would argue Peterson isn't helping matters with his apocalyptic views on the threat radical leftists represent. I ask someone perhaps sympathetic to Peterson's views – respected conservative commentator Tom Switzer, a senior research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies – whether he thinks "the Left" has infiltrated the humanities in Australia, as Peterson claims it has done in Canada.
"The focus on race, sex and gender across a range of disciplines has certainly made us aware of black spots and blind spots in traditional accounts of our history," Switzer notes. "Fair enough. But we increasingly view our history through an identity politics lens. We also all too often stress undoubted episodes of racism or discrimination in isolation from the big picture. As a result, there is too little focus on the unprecedented progress Western societies have made in recent times in overcoming racism and sexism."
Qantas recently sought advice from The Diversity Council of Australia, which recommended airline staff favour gender neutral terms. Peterson tells me this is an example of the "idiot diversity games" now common in Canada. "These kinds of speech codes are not just about respecting diversity and treating or naming individuals respectfully based on their gender," agrees Switzer. "This is about policing so-called offensive language in a way that is ultimately about controlling so-called acceptable thought."
In fairness to Channel 4 broadcaster Cathy Newman, Peterson can be a hard man to pin down on many issues. I ask him whether he believes in God, a question he has repeatedly dodged in the past. As I happen to believe it's a reasonable line of enquiry of someone who spends so much of his time at the lectern quoting the Bible, I press the point.
Are you a believer?
"It depends on what you mean."
I mean, do you believe in the existence of a Supreme Being?
"I believe that you should carry your cross uphill with goodwill."
So you believe in the story of Jesus's crucifixion and resurrection?
"I tend not to answer that question, because I don't like to step outside my area of competence."
Which I take as a "no". Do you believe, then, that the lessons of the Bible still stand, regardless of whether we believe in God or not?
"Yes, definitely. I have a lot to say about the Biblical stories psychologically. There is an idea running through the Biblical corpus that you can transcend your suffering by accepting it. It's obvious that if frightened people voluntarily expose themselves to the things they are most afraid of, they get braver. That's one of the pillars of clinical practice."
So what frightens you?
"Making a mistake."
To yourself, to your family or friends, or the media?
"All of those. I fear misusing my words. I'm more afraid of the consequences of doing that than I am of the idiot Canadian Government."
You get the idea. In one particularly discursive section of 12 Rules, Peterson – who has been married for three decades – asks, "Was it really a good thing … to so dramatically liberalise divorce laws in the 1960s? It's not clear to me that children whose lives were destabilised by the hypothetical freedom this attempt at liberation introduced would say so." As an offspring of divorce myself – my earliest childhood memory is of my mum and dad yelling at one another – I would say it's far preferable for the mental wellbeing of kids if warring parents split up. One of the most recent surveys taken on this issue, conducted in Britain in 2015 by the family law group Resolution, found 82 per cent of the 514 young people asked said they'd want their parents to separate if they're not happy – staying together "just for the kids" does not make for a happy home. The vast majority of young people affected by divorce eventually realised the separation was "for the best".
In 12 Rules, Peterson makes a number of claims about hierarchical structures, beginning with lobsters and jumping to chimpanzees, suggesting male domination is at the heart of Mother Nature's pecking order. He suggests primatologist Jane Goodall, in discovering that chimps were capable of killing one another, for some time shied away from the truth of biological determinism. He wrote in 12 Rules: "Because of its shocking nature and great anthropological significance, she kept her observations secrets for years … even after she published her account [in 1974], many refused to believe it."
As I recently interviewed Goodall, I was aware that the primatologist was reporting on chimp aggression from the early 1960s, and widely after the great chimp war broke out in Gombe Stream National Park in 1974. When I sent the lines from Peterson's book to the Jane Goodall Institute, the response was emphatic: "The idea Jane Goodall kept the chimps' aggression, or any scientific observation, a secret is not true. Though some people at the time suggested that this fact could decrease interest and even funding for her chimps, Jane's scientific integrity would simply never have allowed her to hide discoveries."
The social hierarchy of our closest living ancestor is indeed male-dominated, as Peterson suggests, but rank is also dynamic, with some females considered more or less the equals of some of the males. Peterson may be a psychologist with decades of clinical practice under his belt, but that doesn't make him an authority on the evolution of animal behaviour (he spends the first 10 pages of his book referring to the dominance hierarchies of lobsters, but his analysis has been dismissed as a misleading oversimplification by experts like neuroscientist Leonor Gonçalves, of the University College, London).
You can't trust the data because too much ideology is involved.Peterson on climate change
Nor is Peterson an expert on the gender pay gap. He argues that women are more agreeable than men – by which he means, more compassionate and polite – and uses this to help explain why they're less likely to bargain hard for a pay rise and more likely to be drawn to the caring professions, from child care to nursing. He points to the most gender-equal country on the planet, Sweden, where he claims male engineers still outnumber women 20 to 1. But according to the Swedish Association of Graduate Engineers, one in four engineers in Sweden is now a woman.
He has counselled women in assertiveness training ("I've taught them how to be formidable"), claiming to have "tripled their wages in a five-year period". But Catherine Fox, author of Stop Fixing Women and one of Australia's leading experts on women in the workforce, says there is little evidence that assertiveness training like this works on a large scale. "First up, not everyone gets to negotiate their pay," she says. "Second, teaching women to behave like men doesn't necessarily work with their male superiors. Studies show that when women enter an equal workplace, wages rise, including for men. Peterson's classic defence of the status quo is based on a slew of outdated stereotypes."
Ultimately, however, Peterson's primary red meat appeal to young men has little to do with his comments about the gender pay gap or his reflections on Nietzsche, the Bible and Darwinism, as I discover when I hear him speak. It's about something much more primal.
Most men do not meet female human standards. It is for this reason that women on dating sites rate 85 per cent of men as below average in attractiveness.Peterson on dating, from his book 12 Rules For Life
Jordan Peterson's somewhat feathery voice (one wit unkindly likened it to Kermit the Frog) suddenly turns bass flinty, as he strides the stage of Sydney's Chatswood Concourse. "Societies that betray motherhood," he declares, "invariably collapse." It's the kind of motherhood statement we all agree on, but Peterson makes it sound apocalyptic. Think Moses on high, tablets firmly in hand. And indeed as, one by one, he runs through his broad-shouldered "12 tips for life", there's a strong echo of what mothers told their sons a generation or two ago: stand up straight, don't lie, speak clearly, be kind to animals and get your hair cut (okay, so Peterson left that last one out). Perhaps men under 40 haven't heard it before.
Peterson loses me when he spends minutes talking about the alienation of young men like Dylan Klebold, one of the two mass murderers of Columbine High in 1999, without once mentioning guns or gun control. I feel like yelling out to him that you can spend a lifetime trying to understand a young, gun-toting psychopath like Klebold, and in the meantime, he's mowed down another 17 students in a school. Needless to say, the brave young students of Parkland, standing up against the idiocy of the great US arms free-for-all, don't rate a mention.
Peterson loses me again when he adopts a sneering tone – a transparent crowd pleaser – as he utters the words, "Let's celebrate our differences" in the context of the left's push for inclusiveness. Political correctness, after all, exists for a noble reason: to treat people with respect, and not go back to the bad old days of using derogatory terms to describe minority groups. As an article of faith, you can question whether you think political correctness has been taken too far, but making fun of it is adolescent.
Following his talk – really, a run-through of the 12 tips outlined in his book – the floor is thrown open for questions, which range from the bizarre (the male insult of circumcision) to basic self-help advice. Afterwards, he sits outside the theatre signing books until after 1.30am.
The next day, Peterson tells me that the continuous careless pushing of people by left-wing radicals is dangerously waking up the right wing. He estimates that he's saved "thousands of young men from the attraction of the radical right". How can he be sure of that? "Because they've told me in person or written to me."
Google is playing identity politics. Look up ‘White couple’ on Google images. Now look up ‘Black couple’ and ‘Asian couple’. It means Google is messing with algorithms ... according to a built-in political agenda.Peterson on Google, talking to the London Evening Standard
That indeed may be so. Peterson reminds us that Western societies, with our values of equality and freedom of speech, are far and away the best there is to offer in a world increasingly dominated by political despots and religious extremists. "We need tradition to unite us," he says. We also need to believe in ourselves again, and stop constantly engaging in cultural self-flagellation. But unlike Peterson, I would argue that Western society is a freer, truer version of itself as a result of the social changes of the past 40 years: feminism, LGBTI rights and greater racial equality. If the decline of the Church has left a vacuum, as Peterson suggests, it has also enabled secular society to reveal the horrors of paedophile priests and the Stolen Generation.
For polarising figures such as Peterson, there is an immediate perception that you're either for him or against him, but that's not necessarily the case. At the Queen's University protest in March, a lone LGBTI demonstrator, standing in the cold, waved a placard quoting Evelyn Beatrice Hall: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
If his supporters see Peterson as a harbinger of an ultra-conservative uprising, they may be mistaken. In a video interview, I ask him what's the single thing that people get most wrong about him. "The basic proposition that I'm a right winger of some sort – and that's just not the case," he says firmly.
Jordan Peterson's 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is out now.