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Gender + Sexuality

The Bluffer’s Guide to Jordan Peterson

All you need to know about the YouTube star and self-help guru before his visit to Vancouver.

Shannon Rupp 14 Jun

Shannon Rupp was a Tyee contributing editor. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)

With a shtick that’s a cross between a tent preacher, a self-help guru, and your mom (on a bad day), Jordan Peterson has begun taking his travelling salvation show on the road.

The University of Toronto professor turned Internet star will be in Vancouver on June 23 and 24 for two sold-out shows at the Orpheum in which he will debate another podcasting star Sam Harris. They’re putting about 5,600 bums in seats, which would be pretty good for an indie band, and is downright spectacular for a couple of guys as boring as these two. (Before you object, have you heard their podcast?)

So if you didn’t get tickets, congrats: you dodged that bullet! Besides, everything you need to know about the cultural debate du jour is online. The question: Is Peterson dangerous, or is he just another one of those self-appointed gurus peddling platitudes?

Don’t have an opinion? Here’s a bluffer’s guide to get you through the next few weeks of party chat about men, women and lobsters.

The crusty man and the crustaceans

Peterson has said that he thinks the hierarchies in lobster-world explain human social organization. Alas, when it comes to Peterson’s whimsical interpretations of scientific research, real scientists weep. Much as they used to weep over the New Agers who insisted quantum physics explained New Age woo-woo.

Plenty has been written and said about his lobster analysis, but here’s a thoughtful piece discussing that particular Petersonism, written by Leonor Goncalves, a neuroscientist who does research at University College London.

Nevertheless his fans have adopted what ought to be dinner as a symbol of their cause, and you may see it on T-shirts and tchotchkes around town.

Peterson is dangerous

Peterson is obviously charismatic in the political theorist’s meaning of the word: a leader who inspires intense devotion despite having no obvious charm. Which is probably why so many critics are calling him dangerous, including the now-retired professor who lobbied to hire him at the University of Toronto.

In an explosive piece in the Toronto Star, Bernard Schiff recalls that Peterson was always “eccentric” and had a tendency to present “personal views as absolute truths.”

He discusses how Peterson gradually became more extreme in his emotional views and began misrepresenting facts of all sorts, in disciplines far outside his own. Schiff calls it “an abuse of the trust that comes with a professorial position.”

“I am alarmed by his now-questionable relationship to truth, intellectual integrity and common decency, which I had not seen before,” Schiff writes in the Star. “His output is voluminous and filled with oversimplifications which obscure or misrepresent complex matters in service of a message which is difficult to pin down. He can be very persuasive, and toys with facts and with people’s emotions. I believe he is a man with a mission. It is less clear what that mission is.”

Shape-up, Bucko!

Peterson has a penchant for vintage slang and he directs much of his advice to young men. Or Bucko, as he calls them.

Because he’s a professor of counselling psychology and also has a private counselling practice, he’s a dab hand at telling other people what to do. So his best-selling book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos contains such tried-and-true tips as, “Stand up straight with your shoulders back.”

Although he’s best known for the advice he gave in an interview: “Clean your room!”

And really, who isn’t pro-clean-rooms?

Jezebels in the workplace

Peterson offered a bemused reporter at Vice magazine his views on men and women at work.

“Is there sexual harassment in the workplace? Yes,” Peterson says, taking over as his own interviewer. “Should it stop? That would be good, if it did. Will it? Well, not at the moment it won’t because we don’t know what the rules are.”

Say what, now...? Oh never mind.

Score one for Peterson

A British TV presenter covered herself in glory and Twitter-swipes when she turned what was supposed to be an interview into an opportunity to bark accusations at Peterson. He sidestepped her attempts to put words in his mouth with ease.

It was an astonishing display of incompetence on the journalist’s part, and Peterson’s fans refer to it often.

Score one for British journalists

Peterson doesn’t fair so well over at BBC radio’s Arts and Ideas with a good journalist who just happens to have a PhD in English lit and a background as a university professor himself. Note how the register of Peterson’s reedy voice climbs higher as he is questioned about his outdated ideas on early 20th century psychiatrist Carl Jung, the collective unconscious, and how femininity equals chaos.

Why monogamy?

The New York Times published a profile headlined, “Jordan Peterson: Custodian of the Patriarchy,” in which the author delivers his much-mocked line about how marriage and monogamy would prevent incels — straight men who are angry they don’t have female partners — from committing terrorist acts.

This, he claims, is the purpose of monogamy and how it all got started. I will leave it to you to imagine the startled and worried looks on the faces of academics across the disciplines from anthropology and biology to history and law.

A new club

There’s a new appellation for people who are getting Internet-famous by promoting contrarian ideas: the intellectual dark web. It’s a bit of a misnomer since they’re not on the dark web at all, they’re right where Google can find them.

Duelling bigots

The Munk Debates invite high-profile speakers in arts, politics, and academia for friendly arguments about trendy topics, such as the one they did in May: “Be it resolved that what you call political correctness, I call progress.”

It made the news because the whole thing turned nasty. Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of sociology at Georgetown University, a stylish orator who began his career as a preacher, called Peterson “a mean mad white man.”

Peterson called that “a helluva thing to say in a debate” not least because it made the discussion about race. So Dyson asked: “What about IQ testing in terms of genetic inheritance?”

Peterson has given some colourful interviews about how IQs are connected to race — it’s just biology, he says — which have caused more than a few eyebrows to pop. In one podcast he claimed Ashkenazi Jews have average IQs that are 15 points higher than the public average of 100.

This Munk “debate” is a train wreck, in which it becomes clear that these two supposed representatives of the left and the right are really just two of a kind.

Duelling bigots, meet Jeeves

The clear winner of that Munk Debate was British actor and novelist Stephen Fry, who played Jeeves in the TV series about the witty gentleman’s gentleman who keeps that rich fool Bertie Wooster out of trouble.

Fry kept pointing out that no one had bothered to define political correctness, while speaking in that civil style that used to be standard practice in universities — Fry went to Cambridge. He was cordial and withering in his contempt for Dyson, who also took a homophobic swipe at Fry.

“It’s been quite a clash of cultures,” Fry says in his closing remarks (which come at the 1:38:30 mark.) “We’ve had classic huckstering, snake oil talk...

“[The debate] became quite heated and I had hoped it wouldn’t. I was hoping that we could be a shining example of how people with all kinds of different political outlooks can speak with humour and wit and a lightness of touch,” Fry says. “As G.K. Chesterton says: angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.

“I think it is important for those of us who are privileged to be here to take ourselves a little more lightly. Not to be too pompous. Too earnest. And not to be too certain.”

Well, amen to that.

His emotional burden

As for whether Peterson is dangerous, I’d say he’s too much of long-winded bore to be dangerous. And talk about being too earnest and pompous? Esquire reports that he gets all misty-eyed at the idea he has become the virtual father to millions of poorly parented Buckos. Then again, Esquire also reports he is raking in more than US$85,000 a month via crowdsourcing from some shadowy donors, so somebody clearly likes his style.

Rumours that he’ll run for office have people worrying that Peterson could be a demagogue on the rise. But I think he’s just the latest in a long line of self-appointed gurus who comfort the overwhelmed by telling them simple things will solve their problems. They preach the wisdom of kindergarten, the wisdom of artists, or the wisdom of U.S. Navy Seals. (“Make your bed!”)

Peterson reminds me of that guy who captured the hearts of disgruntled males in the ‘90s by inviting them to go drumming in the woods. Whatever happened to Robert Bly? He also used to bang on about Jung’s paranoid-and-Victorian ideas about women.

Although I don’t know why these guys are always so quick to blame women for what’s wrong with the world. When it comes to room-cleaning, bed-making, and perfecting our posture, I think women have been doing the bulk of the work.

© Shannon Rupp. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)  [Tyee]

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