‘Immersing oneself in the Peterson fandom sphere is a perspective-changing experience.’ Illustration: Rob Dobi for the Guardian
Perhaps you’ve heard of Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist, self-help guru, and social media star who is also, if some media accounts are to be believed, a dangerous stalking horse for far-right ideas?
“In reality, Peterson’s ideas are a mixed bag,” the journalist Cathy Young wrote in a balanced recent Los Angeles Times piece. “He says some sensible and insightful things, and he says some things that rightly draw criticism. But you wouldn’t know this from reading Peterson’s critics, who generally cast him as a far-right boogeyman riding the wave of a misogynistic backlash.”
The current media narrative about Peterson is often lazy, as Young notes. But worse, this narrative doesn’t take account of, let alone try to explain, the appeal Peterson’s message holds for his millions of fans – most of whom are more interested in his affirmative spiritual message than his pugilistic views on gender and political correctness.
True, Peterson’s own followers sometimes feed the perception he is leading a reactionary counterrevolution. They upload YouTube clips highlighting Peterson’s apparent triumphs over leftist foes – “Jordan Peterson Leaves Feminist Speechless”, “Jordan Peterson on Homosexuals Raising Children”, “Transgender Professor INSULTS Jordan Peterson, Gets OWNED”.
But these (fan-edited) videos give the false impression that most of Peterson’s fans are attracted to his attacks on political correctness. They’re not. If anything, Peterson’s penchant for polarizing political claims distracts from his core message. In his lectures – freewheeling mixtures of self-help counsel, pop philosophy and Jungian theory – Peterson emphasizes self-worth, responsibility, and a Christian-ish notion of man as fallen but redeemable.
In fact, immersing oneself in the Peterson fandom sphere is a perspective-changing experience. For every rant about “social justice warriors”, there are a dozen completely apolitical posts: geeky discussions of Peterson’s lectures about mythology, personal testimonies to the effectiveness of his self-help advice.
Peterson’s advice appears to have helped thousands of people. (Peterson has estimated he’s received more than 35,000 letters of appreciation.) Fans say his message – which starts with seemingly banal directives to “clean your room” and “stand up straight with your shoulders back” – has motivated them in battles against addiction to drugs, alcohol, video games, or pornography; helped them form positive relationships, or exit toxic ones; become better spouses or parents; take charge of their physical health; and rekindle relationships with estranged family members.
In their messages of appreciation, Jordan Peterson’s fans sometimes border on religious testimony.
In a post on Quora, a commenter describes a harrowing period in which his six-year-old almost died of auto-immune disease. During “those dark days”, Peterson’s lectures were “something to anchor me” when “my emotions were in turmoil”, the person writes. “The man is a gift from God. He will undoubtedly go down in history as one of the great thinkers and possibly a person that changed our culture in a significant way.”
It seems questionable that Peterson will go down in history as a great thinker. And, as with all gurus, he ought to be treated with instinctive skepticism. But that skepticism should extend to how he has been presented by the media.
One might think that by now progressives would figure out that vilifying Peterson almost always redounds to his advantage. One would be wrong. By repeatedly trying to put words in Peterson’s mouth during a 29-minute interview this January, Cathy Newman, a British journalist, came across as misreading his ideas.
During a recent panel debate in Toronto, on political correctness, the preacher and academic Michael Eric Dyson’s ad-hominem attacks against Peterson, whom he called a “mean mad white man”, only turned audience sentiment against Dyson.
None of this is to say Peterson’s more inflammatory statements shouldn’t be contested or scrutinized.
In a recent New York Times profile, Peterson appeared to suggest that “incels” – aggrieved young men who describe themselves as “involuntarily celibate” – should be assigned mates to prevent them from taking out their rage on society.
“He was angry at God because women were rejecting him,” Peterson was quoted as saying of the 25-year-old man who went on a killing spree in Toronto in April. “The cure for that is enforced monogamy. That’s actually why monogamy emerges.”
‘None of this is to say Peterson’s statements shouldn’t be contested.’ Photograph: Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images
The article continues: “Peterson does not pause when he says this. Enforced monogamy is, to him, simply a rational solution. Otherwise women will all only go for the most high-status men, he explains, and that couldn’t make either gender happy in the end.”
Besides failing to clearly condemn incels, Peterson’s quote made it seem as if he believes women should be required to sacrifice themselves against their will to fix male violence. He doesn’t. He’s said that by “enforced monogamy” he merely meant encouraging monogamy through social norms. Peterson, of course, is a public figure commanding a vast following, and he should expect to be held accountable for what he says. It is impossible to defend his wild regressive flourishes – like his suggestion, in a recent Financial Times profile, that women would be happier under traditional gender roles.
But anyone who makes even a cursory investigation of Peterson’s work knows that his harshest rebukes aren’t addressed to women, but men, whom he urges to reject self-pity and embrace self-improvement. These aren’t messages tailored to resentful, women-hating “incels” and men’s rights activists; they’re the opposite.
Despite the notion, popular on the left, that Peterson functions as a pipeline to the “alt-right”, it seems as likely, as Peterson himself has claimed, that he saves more directionless young men from far-right radicalization than the other way around. And, if nothing else, the Peterson phenomenon may leave at least one lasting achievement: it has gotten men to open up about mental health.
Although Peterson’s fans are probably more diverse in their ethnicities, genders, and walks of life than described, critics nonetheless like to highlight his following among young white males. It only requires a little empathy to see why such men – grappling with addiction, unemployment, depression, and a feeling of uselessness and failure – desperately crave the paternal encouragement and affirmation Peterson provides.
I had heard that Peterson’s online fandom was a swamp of reactionism, but it turned out to be less striking for its politics than its relative lack thereof.
One of the recurring themes of Peterson’s lectures is that life is painful; only by accepting that pain – “shouldering the heaviest burden you can bear” – can one begin to transcend it. It is a seemingly simple message that turns out to have enormous emotional resonance. (Quotations have been lightly edited for clarity.)
In a Reddit thread called “I think Dr Peterson saved my life”, a 24-year-old Polish man describes how Peterson’s lectures pulled him out of self-imposed isolation and the brink of suicide:
I hope that thanks to [Peterson’s advice], in a year or two I will be a different person, both mentally and physically. Someone who is finally happy, who finally lives and not just barely exists. […] So … thank you, Dr Peterson. Perhaps you have saved another soul.
In another Reddit thread, called “There are people who are 20+ years [old] that have never had a friend”, commenters discuss loneliness. One commenter describes growing up in an impoverished and abusive household:
I didn’t have friends until I was about 17. […] I was the smelly kid at school because I couldn’t shower, had no way to wash my clothes, and I wore the same clothes every day every year for a really long time. […] I’ve been working on social skills for years and years. Finally I “broke through” with the help of Jordan Peterson.
When news consumers get around to reading or watching Peterson’s work for themselves, they often find his ideas far less radical than characterized – and feel betrayed by the media and cultural elite’s representation of Peterson.
The notion that there is nothing redeemable in Peterson’s message – and the accompanying assumption that any fan of his is beneath contempt – is not only wrong, but represents a rather bleak, zero-sum vision of politics.
The left’s most profound message used to be that all human beings deserve dignity and worth, and those who need help should receive it, regardless of their race or gender or class or other characteristic.
If that axiom still holds true – these days I’m not always sure – then it applies to many of Peterson’s fans.
J Oliver Conroy is a writer and journalist based in New York