Is Jordan Peterson A Rebel With A Cause Or A Dangerous Man With A Megaphone?

In late 2017, an open letter signed by hundreds of members from the University of Toronto was sent to the senior administration of the institution, calling for the termination of a professor of psychology. I had just begun living in the city at the time, had no idea who this man was, why he had made so many people angry, and why they wanted him out. Over the coming months though, his name began popping up in all kinds of places. There were trolls on Twitter who began citing his lectures, subscribers on YouTube who began masquerading as evangelists to get more viewers to listen to him, and case studies online with titles like ‘6 Brilliant Marketing Strategies of Jordan Peterson.’

Jordan Peterson: Creative Commons

As someone working in a rather unique space where journalism, communications, content marketing and digital strategy co-mingle in an unholy alliance, I suddenly found myself unable to ignore the presence of Jordan Bernt Peterson.

After spending a worrying amount of time trying to find out more about the man, here, in no particular order, are some of the things I can say with certainty: Peterson is undeniably appealing. He has compelling arguments to make, about everything from entrepreneurship to racism, and picks topics designed to raise hackles or provoke debate. He probably understands how our celebrity and viral-video driven world works a lot better than marketing gurus who claim to. He is self-aware and values the power of words. I notice, while putting down these descriptions, how they create a portrait that is nebulous, saying a lot without really saying anything at all. In that, they dovetail neatly into what people who criticize Peterson say most often — that he is a sophisticated version of an illusionist, working with smoke and mirrors.

The 56-year old Canadian has played his cards extremely well though, starting from the department of psychology at the University of Toronto and evolving into a bestselling author, online star, cultural commentator and influential thinker. It has been a remarkable rise for someone who only crept into popular consciousness with the book 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote To Chaos last January. His Wikipedia page lists everything from what he read as a teenager to how his political leanings shifted, what subjects he studied, and how working in Canada, America and Europe informed his ways of looking at the world. But those are mere facts. To understand why Peterson inspires rabid fans and angry detractors in equal measure, one must watch his lectures on YouTube or listen to episodes of The Jordan B. Peterson Podcast instead.

Peterson’s writing style makes it hard for readers to empathise with his beliefs, which makes the success of his books surprising. There are references to Christian theology, his “rules for life” are delivered in a tone that is part moralistic and part sincere, and it even includes comparisons between lobsters and human social hierarchies that prompted one critic to describe the work as “pseudo-intellectual psychobabble.”

The book that made him famous

There are a number of other things that jump out when one immerses oneself in Peterson’s world. His criticism of things that millions hold dear, for instance, starting with political correctness. Peterson has specific ideas about what can and cannot work in 2019’s woke generation, including a belief that gender-neutral pronouns are a gateway to anarchy. Among other things he has problems with are HR departments (although, to be fair, don’t we all?), human rights organizations, and how Marxism has infiltrated campuses worldwide.

What these attacks do, in a world armed with smartphone-enabled trigger fingers, is launch impassioned armies of supporters who rail fiercely against anyone who dares to criticize their Prophet du jour. Consider, as an example, a video titled Joe Rogan Experience #1006, starring Peterson in conversation with American evolutionary theorist Bret Weinstein. Among the 26,000 comments inspired by the two-and-a-half-hour video are some that are cloying (“Whenever Dr. Peterson speaks for a prolonged period of time, I somehow feel more conscious of my own humanity”) and others that can’t figure him out (“Much of what he says is word salad. He contradicts himself frequently…For older people — and especially for women — he’s irrelevant and misleading and de trop [sic]”)

It’s interesting to try and evaluate what makes Peterson so attractive to a particular demographic — young men. His open contempt for leftism, socialism and political correctness eerily echo the anger these things evoke among right-wing audiences the world over. They are also attractive ideas to men still trying to figure out what they want to do in life, struggling to cope with capitalism, shrinking job markets and a world where the certainties that propped up their fathers no longer exist. What Peterson does, in a manner that has been used by orators for centuries, is simply give these rebels a cause to rail against, irrespective of whether they understand it or not.

Peterson plays the role of the Rockstar philosopher well, despite his attempts at humility. His obvious erudition stands him in good stead, allowing him to draw upon everything from literature and anthropology to religion and political science to bolster an argument. Anyone watching him, listening to a podcast or reading his work is often too overwhelmed by the sheer weight of ideas that prop up his proclamations to objectively consider whether or not they make complete sense.

What I found troubling was his argument about masculinity going through a crisis, which is so completely at odds with what has been happening across India over the past year. Peterson may not have had Asia in mind at all, of course, but it’s hard to justify his self-pity on behalf of his gender at a time when women the world over are tearing down entrenched systems that have allowed them to be taken advantage of for so long. A much-viewed interview between Peterson and English journalist Cathy Newman is particularly disquieting, because of how strongly he believes that sexual discrimination has nothing to do with the gender pay gap.

Peterson’s star will only rise, if only because controversy drives so much of what we consume. As someone with a finger on the zeitgeist, he has created a self-sufficient monster that, funded by adoring fans, has the ability to wax eloquent on anything and everything under the sun, safe in the knowledge that there will always be someone listening. One may argue that a misstep could bring it all crashing down, but we live in a world that has repeatedly shown a proclivity to forgive things one would assume were horrifying. It did, after all, make Donald Trump President.

— First published in GQ India, March 2019