Jordan Peterson, as just about everyone now knows, has shot into the public-intellectual stratosphere in the past year or so. His rise was propelled by a principled stance against compelled speech, which coincided, and eventually did battle with, a dizzying array of new gender pronouns. His passionate defense against government encroachment on free speech fit into the zeitgeist like a missing puzzle piece, and he was off, gaining new, adoring fans every day. He drew them in with his heroic refusal to bend to the dictates of the politically correct scolds, but they stayed for his fatherly nostrums on self-actualization and personal responsibility, and his wildly successful book, 12 Rules for Life. His croaky voice and salt of the earth Canadian accent, his frank emotionalism and refusal to stand down in the face of bien pensant intellectuals in the media and in academe have set him apart from the crowd. But as his stature and influence have grown, so has his tendency to vilify his enemies.
True, Peterson has almost as many detractors as he does fans. He has been sneered at, accused of misogyny and transphobia, his academic credibility called into question and his ideas derided as conservative claptrap. He is regularly attacked in publications like the Guardian, the Globe and Mail, the New York Review of Books and other centrist or left-leaning media outlets. The most notorious hit piece on him came from the Channel 4, during the Cathy Newman interview in which she appeared to be trying to twist his words to make him look like a rank woman-hater. Yet the more he’s been vilified, the bigger his fan base has grown. His success has revealed the extent to which millions of young people in the West have been feeling unmoored from traditional morality, set off balance by the weird tension between moral relativism and the seemingly contradictory puritanical certainties of our societies. Anything goes, as long as you repeat the mantras of progressivism—especially in the university setting.
Peterson believes that moral relativism and unchecked progressivism are dangerous trends that ignore what he describes as nature’s laws—natural hierarchies, masculine and feminine social and work roles—and the ancient truths about life that can be found in the world’s religious teachings. He worries that “politically correct” thought leaders and their sheep-like followers wish to engineer society along left-wing ideological lines. In an effort to convey his warning, he invokes the horrors of the twentieth century’s fascist and communist experiments in which totalitarian governments embraced faddish pseudoscience and leveraged propaganda and language policing to bring about their reigns of terror. Curiously, he seems comparatively unworried about current trends on the far right.
Ten years ago, Peterson’s cri de coeur might have been received as almost comically alarmist. Today, a cold civil war simmers between the optimists on the left and the pessimists on the right, and the political and social fortunes of the West seem to be in play. The optimists are ever alert to the ways in which too many people around the world remain disadvantaged, and believe that the more fortunate among us have a duty to help those stranded by war, poverty, gender violence and racism. While they fear the scourge of climate change and the power of moneyed interests, they have faith in the perfectibility of human society. The pessimists view the surging tide of refugees and economic migrants as an existential threat to the values and treasure of the West. Nationalism and populism are on the rise, emboldening chauvinistic, authoritarian political leaders. Meanwhile, figures from the Left like the biologist Bret Weinstein and YouTube star Dave Rubin are sounding the alarm about call-out culture and thought-crime vigilantes, and have planted their flag in the centre, volleying cries of treason from their former comrades. The centre is shifty ground nowadays, viewed with suspicion for its claim to reason and open debate. To some, Jordan Peterson’s warnings of worse upheaval to come have begun to seem prophetic.
Jordan Peterson’s life lessons are, for the most part, common sense and have found an eager readership among the young. In a world riven by doubt, dread and suspicion, his lessons on the Bible and on personality are entertainingly tied to narratives about human striving and suffering. Their particular appeal may be due to Peterson’s Romantic sensibility, and the urgency with which he imparts them. This romanticism and earnestness, coupled with his glorification of the individual in a fractured world, have struck a nerve and filled a niche few of us—let alone Peterson himself —could have predicted. His extraordinary success may have come at a cost to him, however.
Being an influencer in today’s world requires constant engagement with one’s audience. It isn’t enough to sit alone in one’s study, thinking and writing, occasionally shambling onto a stage in a rumpled suit or sensible flats to small audiences of educated people. A public intellectual has to feed his audience’s hunger on social media. He has to be ever present, not only writing, but also making appearances on television, YouTube, and at public venues. He has to produce content on Twitter, converse with followers and comment on current events. To maintain his brand he has to be consistent in his messaging, analyzing everything through the lens of the worldview that brought him to prominence.
Peterson may be taking this too far. He is candid about his tendency to brood, and his thin skin is showing. He despises the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century and genuinely—and on a good day, persuasively—argues that the far left’s ultra-progressive agenda is stifling debate. On a bad day, and ever more often, he casts the Left’s activities and ideas as part of a dangerous conspiracy. The way in which he is beginning to engage his detractors is more combative than it needs to be. He is exultant on Twitter when he finds evidence for his gloomy prognostications, and withering toward his opponents, even when he has decisively triumphed over them. He handled himself well and gained countless new followers and readers in the wake of the Channel 4 interview with Cathy Newman. While she had her defenders in places like the Guardian, Peterson was congratulated and validated a million times over. Why then does he continue to retweet unkind stories about her, or comment disparagingly about media coverage of her? He gets irate with his critics, swearing at them, telling one he’d “slap him happy”. Twitter is probably not the medium for him, but if he’s going to use it, he needs to set his shoulders back, as he might say, convey confidence and not get drawn into petty squabbles.
This new, less charitable, angrier Jordan Peterson may lose the credibility and respect he has worked so hard to achieve. He has been hugely inspirational to young men and women around the world. He has helped to spread important ideas about personal responsibility toward oneself and one’s community. Millions of young people watch his passionately delivered lectures on psychology, philosophy and the Bible (who would have thought?), and come away feeling better prepared for life. He has a lot to offer. It would be a shame for him to let tribalistic rancor and personal insults define the next phase of his career.