“One of the Foremost Thinkers of Our Age”: Dr. Jordan Peterson
Award Winning Psychology Professor Dr. Jordan Peterson has built up a massive online following for his cutting-edge views of personality and the psychology of religion. With a new book—12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos—coming in January, 2018, The Spectator has run an extensive feature story on the man they call “one of the most important thinkers to emerge on the world stage for many years.”
From The Spectator:
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.’
Read the full feature here.