February 9, 2018
Just imagine that somebody told you that men and women are biologically different, that people ought to take responsibility for their own lives, and modern life often seems hollow and meaningless.
Imagine that this person went on to say that young men often lack a sense of initiative, too many university courses have fallen victim to trendy dogmas, and free speech sometimes means telling people what they don’t want to hear.
Would you shudder in horror? Would you rush onto social media to condemn him as a dangerous lunatic? Or would you, perhaps, nod in agreement at what seemed like plain common-sense?
Only a few years ago, sentiments like these would have seemed utterly uncontroversial. But it is, I think, a damning reflection of the hysterical self-righteousness and blind intolerance of our times that the man making these arguments, the academic Jordan Peterson, is now one of the most controversial figures in the English-speaking world.
A clinical psychologist at the University of Toronto, Peterson is the academic equivalent of a rock star. Millions of people have watched his YouTube lectures about everything from the importance of free speech to the deeper meaning of the Book Of Genesis.
On Twitter, he has more than 365,000 followers. And in the U.S. and his native Canada, his book 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote To Chaos, a blend of philosophy, psychology and self-help, is a No 1 Amazon best-seller.
Yet in Britain, Peterson is something of an unknown to the wider public — or, at least, he was. Then, last month when visiting London to promote his book, he was interviewed on Channel 4 News by Cathy Newman.
Their acrimonious half-hour exchange, which ignited a firestorm of accusations and abuse, has already been watched almost 5.5 million times online.
Even now people are still arguing about it. Newman’s producer claims he had to call in security consultants after vile threats from her online critics.
I’ll come back to the interview later, because it is worth emphasising that Peterson did not arrive in the television studio without considerable baggage.
Until two years ago, the 55-year-old Canadian was simply a saturnine, clever and intense man who taught psychology in Toronto. But then, in the autumn of 2016, Peterson released a video announcing his opposition to an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act, designed to protect people’s human right to ‘gender expression and identity’.
Peterson was having none of it. He was horrified, he said, that the Bill would turn him into a criminal if he refused to call a transgender student by whatever pronoun they wanted.
Bizarre as it may sound, transgender activists in many North American universities insist that their tutors use the invented words ‘zhe’ and ‘zher’ rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’ and ‘his’ or ‘her’. (I promise I am not making this up.)
Almost uniquely among his academic peers, Peterson had the backbone to say no.
‘I will never use words I hate, like the trendy and artificially constructed words “zhe” and “zher”,’ he explained. ‘These words are at the vanguard of a post-modern, radical Leftist ideology that I detest, and which is, in my professional opinion, frighteningly similar to the Marxist doctrines that killed at least 100 million people in the 20th century.’
That last line is perhaps a bit strong. Indeed, it is safe to say Peterson is never shy of going over the top.
Yet although he is understandably scathing about the more lurid claims of some activists — who believe, for example, that gender is entirely ‘socially constructed’ and has nothing to do with human biology — his real objection was not to transgender people themselves.
What outraged him was the thought of being forced to use certain words by the State. For, as he pointed out, there could hardly be a more flagrant example of dogmatic authoritarianism hiding behind a mask of liberal tolerance. To the trendy Left and his politically correct colleagues, Peterson immediately became a hate figure. Almost unbelievably, a young tutor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada, was even disciplined, just for showing students a clip of Peterson speaking.
To young people on the Right, however, Peterson has acquired hero status. When he toured Britain last month to promote his book, his appearances drew packed houses.
After he spoke at the Emmanuel Centre in London, the Spectator magazine’s Douglas Murray wrote that there were so many people, mostly young, that many had to stand at the back.
‘For an hour and a half,’ Murray reported, ‘the audience listened to a rambling, quirky but fascinating tour of evolutionary biology, myth, religion, psychology, dictators and Dostoyevsky.’
Many were evidently beside themselves with excitement, with hundreds queuing to get books signed.
‘At one point, overwhelmed by the response of the audience and its ecstatic reaction to him and his wife,’ noted Murray, Peterson even ‘broke into tears’ — a pretty extraordinary way for an academic to behave at a public lecture.
Yet the remarkable thing is that, far from being mind-blowing innovations, Peterson’s ‘rules for life’ could hardly be more old-fashioned.
When you strip away some of the scientific jargon, some of them — ‘Stand up straight with your shoulders back’, for example — sound like the sort of thing headmasters used to say.
Addressing one of his favourite subjects, the weakness of modern parenting, Peterson is memorably scathing.
‘More often than not,’ he remarks, ‘modern parents are simply paralysed by the fear that they will no longer be liked or even loved by their children if they chastise them for any reason.’
Children, he says, need not just love and support, but limits and discipline. (Who could argue with that?) But many children have a mother who ‘ties their shoes, and cuts up their food, and lets them crawl into bed with her and her partner far too often’.
He imagines the mother telling her child: ‘Never leave me. In return, I will do everything for you. As you age without maturing, you will become worthless and bitter, but you will never have to take any responsibility and everything will always be someone else’s fault.’
As so often, Peterson exaggerates, but you can see what he means.
After all, isn’t one of the defining features of the Snowflake Generation their unshakeable belief that everything is always someone else’s fault?
By contrast, Peterson wants us to embrace the two things that many liberal parents (and their children) most abhor: risk and responsibility.
By his own account, he once worked as a ‘dishwasher, gas jockey, bartender, short-order cook, beekeeper, oil derrick bit re-tipper, plywood mill labourer and railway line worker’.
So, in his case, you can forget the stereotype of the weedy, spineless, denatured academic. In many ways, in fact, his philosophy boils down to old-fashioned rugged individualism, forged in the freezing wastes of Alberta, Canada.
Time and again, he emphasises the importance of individual responsibility — an extraordinarily refreshing thing to hear at a time when most intellectuals regard individualism as a dirty word.
By contrast, he loathes the whingeing, whining identity politics that have become so prevalent in universities across the Western world, with self-righteous students competing to pose as victims of every conceivable kind of prejudice.
Peterson’s favourite target, though, is fellow academics, whom he regards as feckless, incompetent, cowardly, deluded and narrow-minded fanatics, in thrall to an unholy blend of Marxism, post-modernism and radical feminism. In an interview with the British novelist Tim Lott, he suggested that ‘the humanities in the universities have become almost incomprehensibly shallow and corrupt in multiple ways’.
There are, he says, ‘whole disciplines in universities forthrightly hostile towards men. These are the areas of study, dominated by the post-modern/neo-Marxist claim that western culture, in particular, is an oppressive structure, created by white men to dominate and exclude women.’
As a result, ‘at this rate there will be very few men in most university disciplines in 15 years’.
Again, this is a bit overstated. Even so, Peterson’s appeal to young men is genuinely extraordinary. Clearly many young men feel he gives them a sense of meaning, inspiration and encouragement unmatched by any other modern thinker.
Some of it is attributable to his great personal intensity — the burning eyes, the furrowed brow — but it strikes me that Peterson is a distinctly religious figure, a modern version of an Old Testament prophet or an evangelical preacher.
He believes in God. He talks about the story of Cain and Abel and the suffering of Jesus. He believes in Hell, the ‘barren, hopeless and malevolent subdivision of the underworld of chaos’.
He writes movingly about the suffering of his daughter, who grew up with severe rheumatoid arthritis, and asks how God could allow such a thing to happen. And he reflects on the terrible cruelty that men inflicted on one another in the last century.
‘We are all monsters,’ he told Lott, ‘and if you don’t know that, then you are in danger of becoming the very monster that you deny.’
As I said, all this is strong stuff. But it is serious stuff, too, the kind of thing that invites debate, and that will have people arguing for hours on end.
Alas, to the bien-pensant Left, all this is simply heresy. Instead of running the risk of being made to think, they would prefer not to listen at all.
The irony is that in some ways Peterson is not especially Right-wing; he supports the liberalisation of the drug laws and state health care, and defines himself as an old-fashioned British liberal.
Yet in self-consciously high-minded circles in his native Canada, he has become persona non grata. And now in Britain, too.
The Guardian newspaper ran a remarkably contemptuous review of his book, complete with a dark warning about his ‘reputation in conservative circles’. And then there was that highly-charged Channel 4 News with Cathy Newman, a darling of the highbrow Left.
Their half-hour exchange about — among other things — the gender pay gap, transgender rights, and the right of speakers to cause offence, can still be caught on YouTube. Watch it, and make up your own mind.
For my part, I thought it was a pretty good fight — and one Peterson clearly won. And yes, Newman tried to put words in his mouth, twist, exaggerate and over-simplify what he was saying, and generally bombard him with non-sequiturs — but don’t interviewers do that to everybody?
In any case, Peterson beat her back with a devastating blend of politeness and erudition; indeed, at one point he even reduced her to a long, spluttering pause.
What I think is most revealing, though, is the sheer intensity, and even outright abusiveness, of the online exchanges between Peterson’s critics and admirers — some of whom, unforgivably, directed vile, sexist abuse at Cathy Newman.
But this, I fear, is the inevitable result of a culture where some things are supposedly ‘unsayable’, where strident hysteria replaces rational thought, and where self-appointed thought police are continually on the lookout for those who challenge their pet prejudices.
As it happens, I agree with much of what Peterson says. I think he is right that gender is largely determined by our biology. I agree that liberalism has become disturbingly authoritarian.
I agree that people should take responsibility for their own lives, instead of constantly blaming society. And I certainly agree that university life, both here and abroad, is threatened by a rising tide of cant, conformity, jargon and intolerance.
But if there is one thing, above all, that marks Peterson out as a prophet for our times, it is his belief that free speech is sacred.
Sad to say, we live in an age when those who question the dogmas of the day are too often shouted down and cast out.
Those who seek to silence Jordan Peterson, by denying him a platform or caricaturing him as a professional controversialist, are betraying the very liberal values they claim to uphold. I don’t say that he’s right about everything, but he’s right about a lot of things.
If his liberal critics stopped screaming for a moment and bothered to listen, I suspect they might even find themselves agreeing with one or two of his opinions.
But that would mean agreeing with a conservative. And in today’s climate of intolerance, bigotry, conformism and hysteria, that, of course, would never do.