Who is this man, this Jordan Peterson, academic clinical psychologist, tenured at the University of Toronto with hundreds of thousands of YouTube followers, who has made a splash recently as a voice of reason, battling the political correctness elites and upsetting the academic grandees?
Less than a week ago, we got a stormy weather alert in an article that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled "What's So Dangerous about Jordan Peterson?" by Tom Bartlett, with the tease "Not long ago, he was an obscure psychology professor. Now he leads a flock of die-hard disciples." One might suppose, considering Mr. Bartlett's choice of words, that Peterson is a Jim Jones-style cult-leader, but instinctively, I knew I would like to find out about anybody described as dangerous by the trade paper of American higher education.
Mr. Bartlett considers Dr. Peterson a threat because Peterson deviates from the leftist academic canon – a conservative, traditionalist, moralist anti-political correctness psychologist academic. He objects to the speech police and the tyranny of the left. He that a totalitarian-speech police state is developing in Canada, and, by instinct and conviction, he objects strongly to the "good speech" laws demanding the use of concocted or inapposite pronouns and labels preferred by the little darlin's of the newly concocted gender-identity claxon, cowbell, and tin drum army.
Peterson objects to speech police tactics, and he does it eloquently. That's a threat to and dangerous for the academic poobahs who live and breathe censorship and intellectual tyranny. Bartlett's essay is an alert: watch out for this conservative who has a bad attitude on lots of things and opposes our new pronoun gender identity group project and our promotion of the grievance status of the newly formed sex-gender-dysmorphist deviant group.
After I wrote to others about my discovery of Peterson, I was directed by one reader to a recent Peterson media splash, a YouTube interview cum debate by a feminist firebrand interviewer Cathy Newman at Britain's Channel 4. Ms. Newman, a veteran U.K. TV personality, engaged Dr. Peterson on her claim that unequal female pay and power in business and other organizations are an example of gender persecution and oppression by patriarchal Western societies. Ms. Newman came, all armed up, shouting her flinty-edged argument that gender job inequalities are due to bias and abuse by men. Then came a well deserved Peterson social sciences buzzsaw refutation of her arguments, delivered with a smile to the visibly frustrated and increasingly desperate Newman, who seemed relieved when the 30 minute "interview" ended.
Peterson, to the delight of millions of people who watched the video (it is nearing 4 million views, 150 thousand likes to 3-some thousand dislikes) was the well prepared and skilled matador with Newman, gently, politely reminding her that sex is not the only thing to consider when there are male-female differences. Peterson took Newman's arguments in mid-flight and decimated her attack, didn't miss opportunities to point out her interrogatory misconduct. It was a rout, highlighting his rhetorical skills, command of the social sciences research literature, good sense, and overarching good humor. There was a particularly good segment where Peterson reminded Newman that her accusations and assertions were based on an incorrect and nonscientific univariate (one cause) analysis blaming sex, when good social science research requires a multivariate (multiple causes) analysis. He followed up with examples of many alternative causes for inequalities – simple things like choice, preferences, conflicts of personal and social responsibilities, female fertility time frames, emotional constitution, physical energy realities, required time commitments, and domestic and family priorities – and he pointed out that the variates list was incomplete. Game, set, match, Peterson.
Peterson's expertise as a debater and interviewee is not the place to stop this discussion. His great accomplishment is teaching, counseling, and coaching people to urge them to live the good life, the virtuous life. He has an impressive social media following consistent with his success as a revered and respected classroom teacher everywhere he taught, combined with a successful general clinical practice that has a special effort devoted to career and life coaching.
Peterson teaches people to be better, stronger, faster, and more competent and respected, including women looking for tips and coaching on how to succeed. Coaching is his deal, his nature, his forte, and you can see his intensity when he does intimate videos with just him up close to the camera, with a look that reminded me of Vince Lombardi.
Peterson is as compelling filling up a camera as he is wandering the classroom, appearing to be improvising on a theme, but doing it as musicians do a cadenza, jazz artists an improvisation. The trick to jazz improvisation is playing music on a theme that repeats with a disciplined creativity that furthers the theme. Peterson has his game in order: no lulls or empty places, a stay-awake lecturer, well aware of the theme, effective because he is insightful and eloquent, but committed to teach and modest in his attitude.
Peterson's got it and ain't gonna lose it. The only way he might be ambushed is being targeting by the destroyers of the left with their name-calling and politics of personal destruction. I never underestimate the people-shredder political correctness crowd, which has vile and vicious tactics down to an art form. I am reminded of the old saying that faculty politics is so bloody because the stakes are so small – and Peterson has a lot of natural and dedicated academic enemies.
Take a look at Peterson's website and his various lists of rules for good living, and you get the picture: he is a classical stoic, and he advises people on how to grow up and be adults with a mature and virtuous approach to life. He says honesty is the key to civil behavior, and courage and fortitude are essential. People on our side of the cultural divide would have to agree with damn near everything he says.
Peterson objects to identity politics as the product of socialist cant and ideology that wants to put people in groups based on grievance or the socialist theory of deterministic societal struggle. He considers socialism misanthropic at its core, dead to the importance of the individual. He opposes the socialist mindset that is nihilistic about the value and importance of the human spirit and human action and conduct that subscribe to a moral code. That is a mouthful, but necessary to be fully indicative of his superior intellect and good instincts about what is good, what is right.
Peterson is a traditionalist, committed to teaching people to live a virtuous life – and he thinks happiness is living the virtuous life. Pursuit of happiness is his theme, how to be your best friend in achieving real happiness, and he adheres to the Aristotelian-Stoic-Buddhist-American philosophy that being a virtuous, honest, courageous, engaged adult, a credit to society and to your friends and family, is the way to achieve happiness. Peterson has staked out his position and is at war with totalitarians and ideologues of the left in academia and society in general as an old-fashioned stoic. A fearsome sight for a leftist.
Peterson has written and lectured about rules for a good life – ten rules, twelve rules, and a longer set of forty rules for life that are discussed in his YouTube videos and other media, including books. Some rules are mother wit, commonsense reminders for the needy. Most are just wisdom, essential to a good and happy life.
The label "Alt Right" is used as a weapon against Peterson because it is an all-encompassing epithet, a flexible way to condemn anyone with a conservative lean. It is being used now by critics of Peterson to describe him, since he teaches from a conservative point of view – and his enemies would be happy to label him misogynist, racist, homophobe, dysmorphophobic, transgenderophobic, a moralistic, intolerant bigot who must be destroyed.
Stoics know these things. Marcus Aurelius said:
When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can't tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me.
I took a few days to absorb Peterson, a bright and fascinating phenomenon, an articulate, smart, eloquent man doing some public counseling as a lecturer in a classroom on a video, taking on politically correct tyrants on the side. I have read his rules for a good life, listened to his commentaries on the rules. It became evident that Peterson, who grew up in a remote, very cold Fairview, Alberta, north and west of Edmonton, and went on to great success in academia and as a psychologist in practice and then a public psychologist and teacher, exemplifies an old but important story. His life course appears to be the story of the human search for meaning, wisdom, and purpose – the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path, Taoist and Confucian philosophy, Christian concepts of wisdom and virtue, the Roman and Greek Stoic meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and the teachings of the Greek slave Stoic doyen Epictetus.
One thing Peterson has done is awakened a young audience, predominately male, to the value of the virtuous life, the life of a responsible, engaged, and effective adult male, or female, who is a credit and an asset, a benefit for friends and family. That's the good news. The bad news is that the academy and chattering class are opposed to such teachings as promoting values of the evil and oppressive Western tradition.
John Dale Dunn, M.D., J.D. is a physician and inactive attorney living in Brownwood, Texas.