When I arrive on a Sunday morning at the discreet, upscale Manhattan residential hotel where Jordan B. Peterson is staying, I’m relieved to find no trace of anti-Peterson forces. Lately he’s been attracting fervent protesters, and at least one of his public appearances this year has been marred by low-level violence.
The 55-year-old Canadian clinical psychologist and University of Toronto psychology professor is in New York to headline the Beacon Theatre, a 2,894-seat neo-Grecian beauty on the Upper West Side. Tonight he’ll take the stage in front of a sold-out house of fans who have paid upward of $50 for the privilege. This will be the kickoff of the U.S. leg of his 12 Rules for Life tour, in support of his book of the same name. Since its release in January by Random House, 12 Rules has gone on to top U.S. and various international best-seller charts. As the title suggests, it’s a self-help book—but a wide-ranging intellectual romp of a self-help book that capitalizes on Peterson’s unlikely internet fame: In the five years since he started his own YouTube channel, videos of his lectures have racked up more than 50 million views.
The first thing I ask Peterson, as we sit down to talk in a perfectly appointed private lounge, is how much he worries about protesters. It’s only 11 a.m., but he’s already in an elegant suit and tie. “First of all,” he says, “what are you going to do? I don’t believe that enhancing security makes you more secure. I think that if you set the stage, if you walk around with bodyguards, you look like a target. And so I’m not doing that.”
All the data suggests that as a society becomes more egalitarian, the differences between men and women get bigger, not smaller. And no one disputes this data.
What Peterson is not willing to do is part of what has made him so famous—despised in some quarters, beloved in others. One of his more notorious refusals involves Bill C-16, a.k.a. An Act to Amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code, which was introduced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s administration and became law in June 2017. Although C-16 is rather vaguely worded in its attempt to advance protections for transgender people, the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s interpretation of the law is that “refusing to refer to a trans person by their chosen name and a personal pronoun that matches their gender identity” or otherwise “purposely misgendering” would “likely be discrimination,” and thus illegal.
Peterson regards the “misgendering” provision of C-16 as state-mandated “compelled speech” and a wedge-issue victory for so-called social-justice warriors—a pejorative for “identity politics” activists.
C-16, Peterson says, “was much, much more ideologically toxic than it appeared on the surface, which I knew because I read all the policy documents.” For instance, he says, “the social-justice tribunals in Ontario are exempt from jurisprudential precedent. If you have any sense, that leaves you speechless.” “The Ontario government,” he continues, “is completely run by social-justice types.” (Ottawa, the capital city of Canada, is located in the province of Ontario.) “These people are hell-bent to infiltrate organizations of every sort regardless of the traditions and history of the institution. And our current prime minister, Trudeau, is weak and immature.”
He refines the insult: “Uh, attractive, charming, weak and immature, completely under the sway of the ideologues. Trudeau made that manifest with one of his first decisions. When he set up his cabinet in 2015, he made it 50 percent female, despite the fact that only 25 percent of the people elected were female, which first of all means that he did not pick the most qualified people for his cabinet.” He adds, “Just make them 50 percent women, because the best way, obviously, to pick cabinet members is on the basis of their genitalia.”
Throughout our conversation, Peterson’s go-to tack as a professional persuader is to insist that those who disagree with him simply don’t have the facts—particularly when it comes to sexual identity. For instance, he cites studies showing that, as he puts it, “almost all the people who are really interested in things are men”—as opposed to women, who are, on average, more interested in people. According to various researchers, this helps explain why men gravitate toward thing-obsessed professions (engineering, architecture) and women toward helping professions (teaching, medicine).
Peterson, of course, is always ready to head off counterarguments at the pass: “You might say, ‘Well, those differences are socioculturally constructed,’ which is what the postmodern types would claim. But that’s not true, because all the data suggests that as a society becomes more egalitarian, the differences between men and women get bigger, not smaller. And no one disputes this data. This isn’t some pseudoscience dreamt up by right-wingers.”
At another point in our conversation, Peterson makes clear his thoughts about sex and sexuality in regard to this magazine and its founder, Hugh Hefner.
“The problem with Hugh,” Peterson says, “was that he thought sex was recreational, essentially.” He pauses for effect, then adds, “It’s not”—saying “not” with both a rounded Canadian vowel and a scolding tone.
“So what he did was wrong. Now, that doesn’t mean it should have been illegal, but he was part of the process by which the sexual revolution occurred. You don’t want to pin it on him, because mostly it was driven by the birth control pill, and that’s a biological revolution.”
This is classic Peterson—the Peterson you meet on YouTube. In addition to the content he posts on his own channel, his fans have posted countless excerpts from his TV interviews and internet Q&As in which he expounds, disapprovingly, on the sexual revolution. In one clip, titled “Jordan Peterson—The Birth Control Pill,” he links the pill to the “big ’60s experiment” of sexual promiscuity and adds, “It isn’t obvious that that went particularly well. It certainly led to the pornographication of our society, which I really think is actually quite dreadful.”
At the same time, in 12 Rules he celebrates the male inventors of the tampon, anesthesia (first used to lessen the pain of childbirth) and, yes, the birth control pill. “In what manner,” he writes, “were these practical, enlightened, persistent men part of a constricting patriarchy? Why do we teach our young people that our incredible culture is the result of male oppression?”
Below a Peterson fan video with the title card “Why Casual Sex Is Wrong,” the most up-voted comment is “Jordan Peterson fans don’t have casual sex anyway,” followed by a pile-on that includes “They don’t have any form of sex at all” and “Weak, stupid virgins. I like pussy. Have fun cleaning your rooms that no one will ever enter.”
You can’t point to one thing, one policy, one ideological axiom on the left that has the same degree of self-evident toxicity that racial superiority does, though I think equity comes close.
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Peterson’s assorted declarations—particularly about gender and identity—are not only controversial in some quarters; they’ve resulted in his attracting some very controversial supporters. James Sears, head of an unregistered neo-Nazi Canadian political party, admiringly described Peterson as a “Nazi philosopher” in a July 2017 tweet accompanied by an image of two young men posing with Peterson at a speaking engagement; the men are holding a giant flag of Pepe the Frog, the cartoon amphibian that started as an innocuous internet meme but by 2016 had been vaguely appropriated by white supremacists. Grilled by an interviewer for the public Canadian Broadcasting Corporation earlier this year, Peterson said that the shot was hastily taken, that he has been photographed thousands of times with his fans at events and that “the left sees all sorts of things as hate symbols.”
When I ask Peterson about extremist ideologies, including white supremacy, he says, “I’ve been thinking about the difference between the right and the left, because obviously the right can go too far. If you’re on the right, as soon as you start making claims of ethnic or racial superiority, you can put those people in a box and you can say no. On the left, we know the left can go too far, but we don’t know when. I think it’s because it’s a multivariate problem. You can’t point to one thing, one policy, one ideological axiom on the left that has the same degree of self-evident toxicity that racial superiority does, though I think equity comes close, the demand for equality of outcome”—i.e., the anti-capitalist idea that we should all more or less end up with the same number of marbles, no matter how we play the game.
The Jordan Peterson who is famous today for positions such as these was shaped by the Jordan Peterson who wrote Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, which was published in 1999 by British academic press Routledge. He describes the decade and a half he spent working on that tome as a profoundly formative experience: “I was comparing and contrasting two narratives—let’s say the narrative that drove the Communists and the narrative that drove the West. I was curious in a postmodern way, I suppose, about whether or not these were just two arbitrary narratives. Because that’s a possibility, right? We’re all socially constructed. We can organize ourselves according to whatever narrative we want.
“What I figured out was that the narrative of the West is not arbitrary; it’s just right. We got it right—that the individual is sovereign. That’s the right answer to the problem of tribalism. I don’t care if it’s tribalism on the left or the right.”
Of course, Peterson’s certainty about the superiority of the West and the historical triumphs of the patriarchy inevitably rattles those who have problems with certain Western and patriarchal traditions (e.g., structural discrimination). Last October, street fliers were anonymously posted near Peterson’s Toronto home that read, in part, “Community Safety Bulletin: Jordan Peterson, a local man teaching at the University of Toronto, has been campaigning against the human rights of women, people of colour, Muslims and LGBT people for over a year.… Due to pressure from Jordan Peterson’s alt-right base, the University of Toronto has not taken any action to fire him or disavow his attacks on minority groups.”
Those who have dared to criticize Peterson non-anonymously have felt the wrath of the professor’s defenders. In February, when Harrison Fluss, a philosophy lecturer at St. John’s University and Manhattan College, published a piece titled “Jordan Peterson’s Bullshit” (“Jordan Peterson’s thought is filled with pseudo-science, bad pop psychology, and deep irrationalism...”) in the leftist journal Jacobin, Fluss-bashing, in posts with headlines such as "Harrison Fluss’s Bullshit," became a cottage industry among Peterson’s online followers. And last November, when Tabatha Southey, a columnist at the Canadian news magazine Maclean’s, published a piece headlined "Is Jordan Peterson The Stupid Man’s Smart Person?," a similar cottage industry erupted (e.g., "Is Tabatha Southey the Terrible Person’s Virtuous Person?"), and Southey was stalked on social media. As she later told The Guardian, “His fans are relentless. They have contacted me, repeatedly, on just about every platform possible.”
At Peterson’s big show this evening, the crowd is overwhelmingly white. It skews male. The average age is maybe 30 to 35.
And so there has been a chilling effect. In March, when the Toronto Star’s Vinay Menon profiled the suddenly famous local scholar, he noted, in his largely positive piece, that he couldn’t get Peterson’s previously public critics to go on the record. (playboy likewise found it challenging to get prominent Peterson critics to comment for this profile.)
At Peterson’s big show this evening, the crowd is overwhelmingly white—which is often the case for any pricey do on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It skews male. The average age is maybe 30 to 35. Earlier Peterson told me, “It isn’t self-evident to me that I have a demographic, even if what I’m trying to do is exhort young men to grow the hell up and accept their responsibility.”
Onstage, Peterson comes off as a kinder, gentler version of the man I spoke with earlier in the day. He’s often funny in a way he isn’t when he’s in combative, sound-bite-spewing interview mode. He’s a born teacher with the stentorian cadence of a self-appointed prophet, but he also has a chuckle that can call to mind Seth Rogen. He speaks without a book in hand and without teleprompters, engagingly stringing together parables. And after a couple of hours, he runs out of time before he can get through even half the rules.
His audience loves him—he gets a standing ovation upon entrance and exit—and it’s clear he loves being loved. The frequent applause, the laughter, the murmurs of assent all soften him.
Peterson, a lifelong academic who hates academia, who thinks universities are doomed because of their “subsidization and promotion of crazy radical-left ideologies,” is among his people here—here and online, of course. I flash back to the morning at the hotel when I briefly spoke with Tammy, his wife of 29 years. They met in Fairview, a town in the province of Alberta with a population of 2,998 (about 100 more than the seating capacity of the Beacon). At one point she joined her husband and me at our table, and I asked her what it was like being married to a 55-year-old internet celebrity. Without missing a beat she said, “It’s kind of lonely. I mean, if I didn’t travel with him, I’d never see him. He’s too busy now with the world.”
Peterson chimed in: “Part of the stress for Tammy—well, for me but her obviously by proxy—is that for the last two years I’ve been in a situation where if I ever said anything wrong it would have been essentially fatal. It’s a knife’s edge. Things have come close to going wrong.” He laughed nervously and added, “I’ve been in a political scandal, of one form or another, on a two-week basis—every two weeks for two years.”
Saying exactly what you think—even if what you think can sound radically retrograde, even if it attracts the approval of undesirable tribes—is part of the manly art of being Jordan Peterson. The professor could not care less if you are offended or triggered.
While Tammy was still sitting with us, her husband said, “This whole idea that you should be harmless is just an absolute pathology. You should be as dangerous as you could possibly make yourself, and then you should bring yourself under control. And of course that’s right. Of course that’s obviously the case. Women don’t like weak men, not unless there’s something wrong with them.”
I turned to Tammy and said, “Well, you married this guy, so I guess——” She waited a beat or two and then responded with quiet precision: “I looked at him for a long time before I married him. I made sure he would be somebody who could stand up against life. And when I decided he could, I married him.”