After Google employee James Damore was sacked for suggesting that inborn differences in likes and dislikes (such as preferring people to things) might explain why there were fewer female employees working in technology than men, the first person he gave an interview to was a relatively unknown Canadian professor, Jordan Peterson.
To some it might seem like an odd choice. It’s true that Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, has a substantial online presence — his videos have had 150 million views — but all the same, Damore had the world’s media knocking on his door. Why choose Peterson?
To those who follow Peterson, the reason will be apparent. Damore clearly picked up much of his information about innate gender differences from one of Peterson’s many lectures on the subject of psychometrics, an academic discipline that mainly focuses on empirically measuring the variations in different psychological traits between human beings, including across the axis of gender.
Peterson has been in similar trouble to Damore for posting his supposedly controversial lectures online. In August, he was briefly suspended from YouTube and Google without explanation, although he was quickly reinstated after a furore in the Canadian media.
At the University of Toronto, after receiving two written warnings, he has been in danger of losing his job following his announcement that he would refuse to use the preferred gender pronouns of students and faculty who don’t identify with their biological gender, to the fury of radical transgender activists. The use of such pronouns is mandatory under a recently instituted Canadian law, Bill C-16. Peterson rejects the injunction on free speech grounds. ‘I’m not going to cede linguistic territory to post-modernist neo-Marxists,’ he says. He has expressed the view that he might use the preferred gender pronoun of a particular person, if asked by that individual, rather than having the decision foisted on him by the state.
I first came across Peterson not in any of his political manifestations but because as a novelist and writing teacher I stumbled across his deconstructions of classic stories and myths, which for any storyteller are extraordinarily instructive. He has turned his mind to popular classics like Disney’s Pinocchio and The Lion King, and he is currently giving a series of lectures (viewable online) on the psychological meaning of the most popular story of all, The Bible.
I spoke to him shortly before the Damore furore broke. Peterson is a rather handsome and intense 55-year-old, who has suffered depression and has a lugubrious demeanour often interrupted by bursts of acute wit, self-deprecation and humanity. His eyes, if he were to be the subject of a romantic novel, might well be described as ‘burning’ and he is a man gripped by a deep passion for his subject, which is apparent in nearly every utterance. A critic might claim that ‘demonic’ would be a better description, especially when underlit by a computer screen on one of his YouTube channel broadcasts, combined with an imposing set of eyebrows and a style of speech that is punctuated with penetrating, almost evangelical convictions about what the world is like and what is currently going wrong with it.
Free speech is a core value for him — the core value — and one that is becoming increasingly pressing, most recently (as I write this) with the resignation of the Labour shadow minister Sarah Champion after she made remarks in the Sun about Pakistani sex gangs and ran foul of what was considered acceptable by the Labour leadership. That elements of the left have begun to label free speech as somehow a ‘right-wing’ value is particularly rattling (although such censorious thinking has a long history in radical left ideology).
‘If I can’t say what I think, then I don’t get to think, and if I can’t think then I can’t orient myself in the world, and if I can’t do that, then I’m going to fall into a pit and take everyone else with me,’ Peterson says.
Peterson has been saddled by some of his critics with the label ‘alt-right’, which he views as a ridiculous slander. He describes himself as a ‘classic British liberal’ who makes those on both the left and right uncomfortable. He supports socialised health care and the liberalisation of drug use, and is libertarian on most social issues.
‘Alt-right’ is certainly one of the most inaccurate pigeonholes you could imagine cramming him into. His heroes include Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Orwell and Solzhenitsyn. He is a Christian, but more on the pattern of existential Christians such as Søren Kierkegaard or Paul Tillich than anything to be found in the Midwest Bible belt.
Peterson’s thought-crime is that he disagrees with the view of transgender activists that gender is a social construct and has no grounding in biology (although he is not opposed to transgender rights in general). So why does his right to free speech trump a transgender activist’s right not to be offended? Why not just keep his thoughts to himself?
‘Because thoughts aren’t like that,’ he says. ‘People mostly think by talking. Not only do they think by talking, but they correct their thoughts by talking. If you deprive people of the right to think, then you doom them to suffering. You doom their stupidity of its right to die. You should allow your thoughts to be cast away into the fire — instead of you.’
His claims about gender — that women consistently differ, cross-culturally, from men on many of the Big Five personality traits identified by psychometric researchers — are, in psychology circles at least, not particularly controversial. These traits are Openness, Neuroticism, Conscientiousness, Extraversion and Agreeableness (each of these are technical definitions that are somewhat more precise and different in meaning to their casual usage as terms).
‘These traits are not social-cultural,’ says Peterson. ‘The evidence is crystal clear. As you make a country more egalitarian, the gender differences get larger. Most particularly, women are higher when it comes to Agreeableness — wanting everyone to get along, not liking conflict, compassionate, polite, self-sacrificing — and Neuroticism — higher in negative emotion and more responsive to grief and threat and punishment and isolation.’
The denial of what he considers these fundamental realities has led him to become an outspoken critic of mainstream academia.
‘The humanities in the universities have become almost incomprehensibly shallow and corrupt in multiple ways,’ he says. ‘They don’t rely on science because they are not scientifically educated. This is true particularly in sociology, where they mask their complete ignorance of science by claiming that science is just another mode of knowing and that it’s only privileged within the structure of the oppressive Eurocentric patriarchy. It’s appalling. We’re not having an intelligent conversation, we are having an ideological conversation.
‘Students, instead of being ennobled or inculcated into the proper culture, the last vestiges of structure are stripped from them by post-modernism and neo-Marxism, which defines everything in terms of relativism and power.’
His battle to defend the fundamental tenets of free speech against language control has meant he has had to pay a price. There are videos on YouTube showing disturbing confrontations between him and radical transgender activists.
‘I’m very upset by the criticism — very, very upset,’ he says. ‘But I know what the consequences of failing to engage in the necessary conflict are — and those consequences are worse. To speak words that others told me to speak is to kowtow to a corrupt ideology and would break the part of me that is useful in the world.’
Peterson studied political science — notably 20th- century European totalitarianism — before taking up psychology. This has left him with a dark view of the path that collectivist thinking can lead you down. He is both astonished and puzzled that the crimes of Stalinism and Maoism have not received anything like the attention that has been given to the Nazi atrocities.
Students coming to his classes are often entirely unaware of the mass exterminations those systems of belief wrought during the 20th century — numerically greater than those perpetrated by the Nazis.
This ignorance, he believes, as a Jungian, is a real and present danger, since he considers that the Shadow (the dark part of oneself that has to be recognised and incorporated in order to produce a mature human being) needs to be acknowledged if it is not going to wreak havoc — and totalitarian pathology disguises its malevolence with declared good intentions.
‘We are all monsters and if you don’t know that, then you are in danger of becoming the very monster that you deny,’ he says.
This belief is not a million miles from the Christian belief in original sin. Peterson’s Christianity is perhaps one of the most mysterious sides of his personality. His current deconstruction of The Bible grew out of his previous work in analysing the meaning of world myths and folk tales, a journey recorded in his book Maps of Meaning — The Architecture of Belief. This is a hefty and challenging work which opens with a quote befitting someone who has the demeanour of a prophet: ‘I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world.’
His Christianity is also viewed through a Jungian lens. He points out that the INRI inscription on crucifixes also has a mystical meaning, apart from ‘King of the Jews’ — ‘Through fire all nature is renewed’. ‘Which means that in order to renew your soul, you have to die and be reborn repeatedly,’ he explains. Peterson’s world view includes a lot of respect for Taoism, which sees nature as a constant battle between order and chaos, and posits that without that struggle, life would be rendered meaningless.
Peterson is not, rather surprisingly, only a philosophical Christian. When I ask him whether he actually believes that Jesus physically rose from the dead, he is unable to answer.
‘The world is a very, very strange place,’ he says. ‘What we don’t know about consciousness and its relationship with the body, and time, and corporeality, and vulnerability — and death — would fill many books. I don’t understand the structure of being well enough to make my way through the complexities of the resurrection story. I don’t think it’s reasonable to boil it down to “do you or do you not believe it”. I don’t know the limits of human possibility. I am unwilling to rule out the possibility of life after death, the idea of universal redemption and the defeat of evil.’
However, it is not his unorthodox Christianity that is responsible for Peterson’s immense online audience. It is gender. More than 90 per cent of his audience are men, which seems a pity since there is nothing particularly gender-specific about his teachings. Why the imbalance then? ‘Because these men’s stress levels are very high,’ he says. ‘I’m telling them something they desperately need to hear — that there are important things that need to be fixed up. I’m saying, “You guys really need to get your act together and you need to bear some responsibility and grow the hell up.”
‘The lack of an identifiable and compelling path forward and the denialism these kids are being fed on a daily basis is undoubtedly destroying them and that is especially true of the young men.’
At this point, to my astonishment, Peterson begins to weep. He talks through his tears for the next several minutes. ‘Every time I talk about this, it breaks me up,’ he says. ‘The message I’ve been delivering is, “Find the heaviest weight you can and pick it up. And that will make you strong. You’re not who you could be. And who you could be is worthwhile.”'
They’re so starving for that message. Young men are so desperate for a pathway that they are dying for it. And it’s heart-breaking and terrible that this idea has been kept from them. It is a malevolent conspiracy or ignorance to keep that from young men. Some of the young men who come to my lectures are desperately hanging on every word because I am telling them that they are sinful, and insufficient, and deceitful and contemptible in their current form, but that they could be far more than that, and that the world NEEDS THAT. This presents an ideal that can be approached and life without that is intolerable. It’s just meaningless suffering and that’s true if you have all the cake you can eat and all the girls you can have one-night stands with.’ Peterson composes himself. The tears are patently sincere — his sincerity probably defines him more than any other quality. It is rare to come across a public figure so lacking in artifice or conscious self-presentation.
Whether he will be finally destroyed by the forces that oppose him — which is entirely possible — or continue to gather followers at the current remarkable rate is open to question. He will be publishing a new book in January 2018, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Penguin Random House Canada) — and this may be what lodges him firmly in the popular imagination.
I have watched dozens of the videos Peterson has posted — they are addictive — and I am coming to the conclusion that I am probably watching one of the most important thinkers to emerge on the world stage for many years. Peterson is quite likely to find himself outshining the rogue Marxist Slavoj Zizek — whose concerns about free speech he shares — as the celebrity academic de nos jours.
But he is a more profound, charismatic and serious figure than Zizek and is almost certain to end up as a front-line warrior in the culture wars that continue to rumble across Western societies. One of his mottos is ‘Don’t apologise for what you think’ and there is no question of him backing down under pressure from his ideological critics. As such, he is either remarkably brave, irrepressibly stubborn or wilfully provocative. Whatever the case, he has become increasingly difficult to ignore — and whoever chooses to do so, whether out of partiality or prejudice, will deprive themselves of an intriguing intellectual journey.