Jordan Peterson, the Culture War Psychologist of YouTube
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The controversial psychologist has become an internet sensation by taking on gender roles and identity politics.
By Henry Mance
Some people hear mysticism in Jordan Peterson’s voice; others detect anger. But above all he oozes certainty. Airport security is “creeping fascism”; identity politics is “murderous”; blaming capitalism for inequality “is naive beyond belief.” Peterson is to moral judgments what traffic cops are to parking tickets. He describes his own verbal IQ as “off the charts.”
“Ingratitude is one of the things that’s deeply wrong,” he says at the beginning of our lunch, quickly establishing that small talk will not be served. “You hear all these radical leftist types in the West complaining about the 1 percent. By world standards, they’re the 1 percent.”
Oh, sorry — you probably still have no idea who Jordan Peterson is. If social media had never been invented, perhaps none of us would.
In 1999, when he was just a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, Peterson published his first book, Maps of Meaning, and almost nobody read it. In 2001, he circulated an open letter to George W. Bush and the U.S. Congress, warning that a vengeful response to the twin towers attacks risked producing a “cycle of terror.” Almost nobody read that either. Peterson seemed destined to remain a well-regarded psychologist with a slot on Ontario public TV. Think Frasier without the humor.
Then came the internet effect. In 2013, Peterson began broadcasting his lectures on YouTube. Three years later, he denounced a draft law that he argued could lead to the prosecution of those who refused to call transsexuals by their preferred pronouns. It was theoretical: To this day, no one has asked him to call them “ze.” But it made Peterson an overnight general in the culture wars. And he likes a fight: “I’d slap you happily,” he told one critic on Twitter.
Donald Trump supporters have had enough of experts; now they can’t get enough of Peterson. YouTube is full of videos with titles such as “How to shut up a Marxist (Jordan Peterson speech)” (480,000 views) and “Jordan Peterson leaves feminist speechless” (878,000). His self-help manual, 12 Rules for Life, has sold more than 1 million copies since its publication in January, but it’s an afterthought.
“I have a multimedia empire, you know,” he says, intensely. He feels part of “an absolute revolution”: “The spoken word now has the reach of the written word .… Maybe it’s easier for people to listen than read, so maybe that increases the market for ideas by 25 percent or 50 percent — we don’t know, but it’s a lot.”
Peterson epitomizes how the internet is reshaping our public debate, and giving a megaphone to the fringes. Even opponents concede that he reaches anxious white males whom the left cannot. He is the anti-#MeToo, the anti-1968, the defender of old-school masculinity. White privilege is a “Marxist lie”; the glass ceiling is “a lot more complicated than it looks.” He urges people to set social justice aside, to take personal responsibility, to study the Bible. For anyone who thinks Canada breeds only Justin Trudeaus and Margaret Atwoods, here is a reality check.
It’s not just Trumpists. Who isn’t occasionally frustrated by identity politics? Who can’t see the fractures in our social contract, our liberal ethics? You might recoil from Peterson’s debating style, but you can’t escape the uncomfortable sensation that he is dealing in facts. “I’m just laying out the empirical evidence,” he insisted in perhaps his most-watched performance, a 30-minute interview with the Channel 4 News journalist Cathy Newman. The most controversial Canadian is righteous. But is he right?
Peterson loathes carbs as much as Marxists. He has “a very, very, very restricted diet” of meat, fish and some greens — to control severe depression and an autoimmune disorder.
So instead of a restaurant, we meet in a flat in London’s Bloomsbury, where Peterson’s wife, Tammy, prepares the food. (For Peterson, the alternative to the traditional division of household labor is generally “chaos, conflict and indeterminacy.”) I contribute a bunch of sunflowers and a bottle of wine, which it turns out Peterson can’t drink. The flat is small and airless, with a kitchen on one wall and a large TV along another. It is one stop on a promotional tour. “This really is pretty much life — trying to figure out different stoves,” he says.
He spoons liquid into a bowl for himself, and slides a pastry and a Spanish tortilla onto a plate for me. He often uses the longest word possible: He puts down a side plate, and explains, “This is a subsidiary plate.” Tammy heads out for a walk.
Peterson copied his diet from his daughter, who also suffers from depression; since starting it, he has lost 50 pounds, stopped snoring and no longer suffers from psoriasis and gum disease. “I still don’t believe it. It just seems too ridiculous” he says. We sit at a glass-top table, and I ask what he’s eating. “Chicken with chicken broth. It’s pretty damn plain.”
Peterson’s philosophical starting point is that “life is suffering,” and that happiness is a stupid goal. Has his own life been mostly suffering or joy? “That’s a good question,” the 55-year-old says. On one side of the balance is the “vicious streak of depression” that has affected him, his daughter, his father and his grandfather; his daughter also has rheumatoid arthritis. On the other are his career and his family; he “really like[s]” both his children, and his daughter recently gave birth. “Probably the good has outweighed the bad,” he concludes.
He and Tammy grew up on the same street in Fairview, a frontier town in northern Alberta. The winters were so cold that homeless drunks froze to death; the nearest big city was hundreds of miles away. Peterson’s father was a teacher and the local fire chief. He himself was a tearful boy who worked odd jobs from the age of 13. “I’m a practical person. I’m not too bad a carpenter. I can renovate houses.… I like working-class people, generally speaking,” he says.
After graduating he had teaching spells at Harvard and Toronto, and developed a personality test for companies based on five traits. (He ranked in the 99th percentile for assertiveness, but only the 30th for politeness.)
One thing I’m not is naive.… I’ve helped people deal with things that most people can’t imagine.
When fame came knocking, he couldn’t get to the door fast enough. “I didn’t expect this, but it wasn’t expectable — this level of notoriety isn’t predictable,” he says. He knew he was dealing with “the most fundamental of psychological ideas.” Carl Jung “probably accounts for about 40 percent of what I think,” but there’s also “a heavy biological component.”
By now, Peterson has taken off his Ecco sandals, and is sitting barefoot and cross-legged while he eats. But he is not Zen. I mention that critics say he deals in clichés: The seventh rule in his recent book is “pursue what is meaningful.” That’s all it takes to light his fuse. “Jesus Christ, first of all, one thing I’m not is naive. I’ve 20,000 hours of clinical practice; you’re not naive after the first few thousand. I’ve helped people deal with things that most people can’t imagine.”
The atmosphere is now a few degrees below convivial. I turn to my aubergine pie, which is peppery and filling. Peterson pours himself water, and leaves the bottle out of my reach. I stare at the unopened wine.
Peterson is obsessed by Nazi and communist atrocities; his home in Canada is decorated with Soviet propaganda; his daughter is named Mikhaila, after the last Soviet leader. He sees inequality as “the norm” in animal life and says he’s in a “theological fight” to put the individual before the collective. But he also wants society to “stop teaching 19-year-old girls that their primary destiny is career.” Isn’t that defining people by a group identity — to say motherhood will shape women’s career ambitions? “Yeah, well, I suppose — I see what you mean. I still think they have the right to make the choice.”
Would this mean fewer women going to university than men? “I don’t know how it should play out practically,” he says. “The mystery isn’t why women bail out of high-powered careers.… The mystery is why anyone stays. It’s a small percentage of people who do the 80-hour-a-week high-powered career thing, and they’re almost all men. Why? Well, men are driven by socioeconomic status more than women.”
What did he make of Sheryl Sandberg’s ideas for women to progress? “Lean in? I think that, coming from her background, she should be careful of attributing too much of her success to her own endeavors.” Peterson’s point is that much IQ is inherited, so Sandberg had a head start. “Lean in — tell that to the person who’s not literate.”
But I’m not sure what this means at a societal level: Men and women have the same average IQ. In heterosexual couples where the man has the lower IQ, shouldn’t he stay at home with the kids? “It’s rare — women won’t marry men with lower IQs.” But when they do? “It might make more economic sense [for the man to stay at home]. Whether it makes more sense, that’s a tougher question.”
We’re on to the idea that men and women have different preferences. What’s the evidence? “It’s absolutely overwhelming. Let me walk you through it,” he says. I decide that wine is now essential, and Peterson pauses briefly to find a glass in a cupboard. We put our plates in the sink.
Last year James Damore, an engineer, was fired from Google after claiming that women are biologically less suited than men to writing software. “Damore got it right, for sure,” says Peterson. Both men cite David Schmitt, a U.S. psychologist whose research has revealed personality difference between sexes. But Schmitt says the differences are moderate in size, and “unlikely to be all that relevant to the Google workplace.”
Peterson flips over my notepad and starts drawing bell curves to represent standard deviations of aggressiveness. “Of course we don’t hear calls for 50 percent gender equality in prisons now, do we?” That’s fascinating, I say honestly, but I don’t get why you cite Schmitt, who doesn’t agree with you. “I’d have to look at his analysis. My gut feeling would be because it doesn’t fit with his ideological preconceptions,” says Peterson. Bias is other people.
One of my own rules for life is coffee after lunch, but who needs caffeine when you have Peterson? “Hospitals may do more harm than good,” “solar power kills more people than nuclear” — if you have ears, he can prick them up. His sentences have the arc of well-thrown darts. I have to remind myself to stop admiring his words, and to keep interrogating his ideas.
Could 12 Rules for Life stand up to peer review? “Have at it, man! Yeah, I was very careful about the claims in the book.” OK, in a chapter on why people don’t follow their prescriptions, his arguments center on the guilt of Adam and Eve. Is that testable? “The way you would test that is to find out whether people who are harsher on themselves would be less likely to take prescription medication. The probability that’s true is pretty high.” But, he concedes, “the research hasn’t been done.”
Predictably, Peterson doubts climate change is man-made. His book is scathing about environmentalists, whom he accuses of wanting fewer humans on the planet. This, he says, causes students to “suffer genuine declines in their mental health.” Is there any evidence for that? One second, two seconds — 10 seconds pass. “No. There’s no hard evidence.” He suggests the problem is “an epidemiological matter”: “The instruments that people used to assess depression in the 1950s aren’t the same as the instruments now.” So the point is “more a hypothesis.”
Peterson may be an academic, but he’s dispensing with the academy’s constraints. His university salary is around $128,000; that now looks modest beside the $1 million a year he receives in crowdfunding via the site Patreon, in return for YouTube Q&As. Traditional universities charge “unforgivable” fees, and “haven’t got a hope of surviving in their present form,” he says. He has hired three people to work on a proposal for a new online university — “user-funded at the lowest possible cost, but also crowdsourced in terms of its operation.” He is in touch with Peter Thiel, the venture capitalist who urges undergraduates to drop out. There’s a blurred line between the thinker and the salesman, and Peterson has crossed it.
Peterson sees himself as “more of a traditionalist than a conservative.” Yet he is abandoning traditional institutions. He exalts the meaning found in Bible stories but he no longer goes to church. “I can’t tolerate it. I find the ritualistic presentation of the ideas — I don’t know how to say it exactly — I don’t feel that the people who are presenting the stories are discussing them as if they believe that they’re true.” Does he donate to charity? He gives to a kids’ charity in Toronto and to public television, “but not on a massive scale.”
Tammy has returned from her walk, and is sitting on the sofa reading a book called Pressing Reset. Abruptly, she announces we are out of time: Peterson has a call with Sports Illustrated. “That’s that then,” he says.
It’s a shame, partly because I’ve only drunk a third of the wine. It’s a shame too because I had wanted to ask Peterson about his claim that parents should hit their misbehaving children, and not just with “a swat across the backside.” Peer-reviewed articles suggest it does long-term harm. I’d also like to know more about his eye-catching argument that social inequalities are part of the natural order, reflected in the serotonin levels of lobsters and humans. Interestingly, he never mentions in 12 Rules that he took antidepressants to increase serotonin levels in his own brain. Perhaps serotonin isn’t destiny?
I ask about his influence. He knows that context matters: In 2013, he co-wrote a study that found that a meditation session made people more liberal. These days he claims he is stopping angry young men from embracing extremism. But could he be encouraging his admirers to reinforce their prejudices, to build up steam? “No, I don’t think so.… They never talk about politics to me, when they meet me.”
Peterson jokes that prophets “tend to meet a pretty dismal end” and is afraid that his outspokenness will go too far — that he will end up “saying something that would do me in.” But it’s hard to imagine what this could be. Peterson has already accused feminists who defend Muslim rights of an “unconscious wish for brutal male domination,” with no apparent ill effect on book sales. So will people still be talking about him in 20 years? “I don’t know. I don’t know what we’ll be like in 20 years. There’s a lot of things happening in AI and robotics.”
He needn’t worry, I think, as I let myself out into the stairwell. How could robots ever replace Jordan B. Peterson? Yes, they would churn out moral judgments. But surely theirs would be constrained by the available data.
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