Much has been made of Jordan Peterson, the Clinical Psychologist, and his foray into the world of public intellectualism and politics. At times, his rhetoric seems deigned for ingratiating proponents of free speech and those sickened by the debasement of open dialogue into base proclivities and at others, for widening the gulf between liberals and conservatives. Does Peterson’s loyalties lie with the latter? I think that’s reductive but certainly there’s a case to be made that his words could do a whole lot more for that camp than any other figure stealing headlines.
Peterson became something of a fixture following his challenge of the Canadian government’s Bill C-16, which proposed to add “gender identity or expression” as a prohibited ground of discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act. His objection lay on the grounds, not of transphobia, but this being an assault on free speech (by inference of “compelled speech”). Naturally, some saw this as transgressive and petty. Peterson managed to ride a wave of popularity thereafter though, with a series of videos riling against political correctness. This led eventually on to a bestseller 12 Rules for Life, a self-help guide, whose insistence on personal responsibility (and not victimhood) became inextricably linked with the numerous issues he was being questioned on. These included feminism, a crisis in masculinity, and support from some members of the alt-right.
The thing is a lot of Peterson’s support is comprised of anti-PC white males. In the arena of identity politics, he’s been attacked by many because he doesn’t seem to disavow the more extremist parts of his base. Is this necessarily his responsibility? Maybe not but it becomes a worrying clause because conservatives really could do with an intellectual figure or at least his ideas. It gives them something the likes of Trump can’t- legitimacy. Dorian Lynskey illustrated this cohesively in a February piece for the Guardian on the “dangerous” side of this professor and his perceived image as “the cooly rational man of science facing down the hysteria of P.C”. He writes, “[His] YouTube gospel resonates with young white men who feel alienated by the jargon of social justice discourse and crave an empowering theory of the world in which they are not the designated oppressors.” A little ambitious on their part, yes.
Many have brought Peterson up on his defense of patriarchies as natural outcomes of history by asserting that that doesn’t necessarily make them desirable. I wonder if perhaps both sides are being too hasty in this increasingly complicated dialogue. Yes, one could muster that the many elements constituting the history of mankind have resulted in the kind of society we now have but even with this viewpoint, that doesn’t mean all Peterson’s views are calculated to an anti-leftist agenda. In many respects, he’s a breath of fresh air because he dares to question the background behind things like the gender pay gap and the ideology surrounding humanities in universities. It’s also kind of nice to just hear an articulate figure coming from somewhere outside the left.
Even if he’s a troll benefiting from all this controversy, the liberals will take the bait however. In one notable instance, he clashed with Cathy Newman in a Channel 4 interview and came out all the more triumphant and heroic to his base by holding his own against an onslaught of accusations as to what his intentions are (e.g. is he against equal pay for equal work?!?) In others, he’s been protested with blaring horns during speaking engagements on campuses (to the effect that his free speech is quite literally being drowned out). His appeal has magnified significantly as a result of these instances and given the impression to many that liberals really are as hysterical and outraged as conservatives believe.
On the other hand, we can then return to his base of support/fans. They’re aggressive and the message that open, calm debate is the best strategy for discourse seems lost on them. Just look at the YouTube searches related to him. The titles are unabashedly biased and intended to only promote what these people already believe; e.g. “Those 7 Times Jordan Peterson Went Beast Mode” and “Jordan Peterson Destroys Transgender Professor”. These are not the kind of fans you want. As Lynskey has noted, their “intense adoration can turn nasty. His more extreme supporters have abused, harrassed, and doxxed several of his critics”. (That is to publish their personal details online.) Again, he’s not wholly responsible but we can’t ignore the fact that his platform lends him major influence. Some have even referred to him as the most popular Western intellectual in the world today.
Academics are credible sources of wisdom. At least, they’re perceived to be. The problem is that Peterson may have become too big for his shoes. Maybe he does have a lot to offer in clinical psychology and helping young men take responsibility for their lives but now, his inferences have shaped new, highly impressionable ideologies that people are grappling with in quite a messy manner. I admit I find it difficult to distinguish between admiration and skepticism in his case. He’s an engaging and forthright speaker but for every seemingly sensible theory/notion he brings up (I always enjoy a bit of PC bashing), there’s a rocky generalization or embarrassing climate skeptic posturing.
Initially, I wanted to write purely on the dangerous aspects and repercussion of his espousing but a) Lynskey’s article does that both eloquently and in great depth and b) I don’t want to contribute to the idea that he’s just good or bad. He’s a complicated figure and his ideas have opened and added to our dialogue on a number of key issues governing the divide between left and right.