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Jordan Peterson: Public Intellectual or Snake-Oil Salesman?

Who is Jordan Peterson? Well, In short, he is a very controversial man. Having started his career in psychology as a common professor, a giant turn of events meant that he now leads a fan base of over one million people, who appraise him for having improved and even saved their lives with his YouTube lectures and his latest book; “The 12 Rules of Life” where he acts as a self-help guru, and even a father-like figure, sharing ideas about topics ranging from feminism and gender to race.

Peterson kicked off his career just like any other scholar. He received a PhD. from McGill University; one of the most prestigious college institutions in Canada, and was then hired by Harvard University, where he worked as a professor. Peterson is currently employed by the University of Toronto, as a clinical and research psychologist. But, how does one goes from being a common scholar to an actual celebrity? Well, that can only be explained by the power of YouTube.

Although his work in topics such as personality assessment is very respected in the field of psychology, it has little to do with his fame. In fact, Google searches for his name didn’t start to rise until October 2016, after his appearance in the debate surrounding bill C-16. A Canadian bill that adds gender identity and gender expression to the Canadian Human Rights Act. The video where Peterson is shown debating this bill with trans students, went viral. After this episode, his online lectures and writings began to capture a larger audience, and he basically became a regular guest in public talks and television shows.

Peterson speaks and writes about a wide range of topics. Whether it is feminism, social hierarchy, climate change or how to raise your kids. His supporters say this speaks of his intelligence and broad knowledge. On the other hand, critics suggest that he speaks about topics he does not know enough about, which leads to many generalizations and simplifications in his statements. For example, after his attacks on bill C-16, experts of Canadian law stated that his interpretation of the amendment was actually incorrect, and that his refusal to call a person by their preferred pronoun would not lead him or anyone to be prosecute as he had asserted. Nevertheless, this type of inflammatory and in multiple cases misinformed stance is rather his trademark approach to public issues. This, as expected, results in a lot of controversies, even at UvA. In an open letter; employees and student organizations asked Room for Discussion to change the format of the debate to represent a contradicting opinion from an equivalent opponent. Peterson responded to the open letter on his website.

Philosophy and Politics

Peterson is a big advocate for traditional gender roles, stating that there are biological differences playing a decisive role in a person’s interests and behaviors. According to him, these organic traits make women more “agreeable” than men. Consequently, translating into completely justified differences regarding remunerations and positions in the workplace. His logic rationalizes a patriarchal order and a hierarchical society, an order which should not be disturbed by groups seeking for equality of outcome. In fact, according to the Canadian journalist Jesse Brown, “He tells his fans that these so-called marginalized people are not really victims at all but are in fact aggressors, enemies, who must be shut down”.

Another important element of Jordan Peterson’s philosophy is his search for “the meaning of life” and with that, his battle against ‘chaos’. In this, he is heavily influenced by Christianity. Peterson claims that the structure of Christian values is used to provide a created purpose. He likes to mention Nietzsche’s quote; ‘God is dead’, to which he adds that Nietzsche thought that with the diminishing influence of Christianity, our moral base would perish.

This is why he seeks to reinstate some of this structure through his search of our mythology. In this, he not only follows Nietzsche, but mostly psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who believed men are incapable of making up their own morale since we are not slaves to ourselves. Instead, we should seek our own mythology. Peterson sees our mythology as being a truthful individual who takes responsibility. This is the true meaning of life, the antidote to chaos, and the element that so many people miss nowadays.

Peterson also has a lot to say about contemporary events. He is a fierce and vocal opponent of what he calls ‘Postmodernist Neomarxism’, a combination of postmodern thought and the egalitarian and -in his eyes- totalitarian ideology of Marxism. Peterson ascribes Postmodern and Marxist views to a lot of university professors (the UvA-letter will not help to curb that view) and in general to most of the modern left. These postmodernists are against Western culture, he claims, and even wants to destruct them. This accounts for his role in the debate surrounding political correctness and emancipatory movements like feminism and LGBTQ-activism. Peterson, a big believer in individualism himself, claims these movements are highly collectivist and authoritarian.

Popular and controversial

It is clear then, why he has become such an important figure within the online community. He fits perfectly in the current political and social circumstances. The spike in social movements such as “Me Too” or “Black Lives Matter” has put on the spotlight multiple social injustices and inequalities. However, if you are accustomed to privilege and injustice, this turn of events in which others get a fairer deal, might actually seem like oppression. Peterson justifies and takes advantage of these feelings of resentment and anger from a declining social status. For example, he criticized feminists, claiming that they have “an unconscious wish for brutal male domination” and compared trans-activism to neo-Marxist authoritarian leaders such as Mao Zedong or Stalin. This might explain why 80% of his regular viewers on YouTube are male.

In less than two years he has managed to create a massive platform of over 1.3 million subscribers on YouTube and 900k followers on Twitter. This massive online community that he has gathered grants Mr. Peterson around $80k per month just through donations on his crowdfunding account on Patreon. They feel educated by the broad range of topics he discusses. He is believed to be the voice of reason in a time where emotional identity and politics dominate the public debate. To many of his followers, Peterson is more than just a guy who says sensible things on the internet. He is their mentor, who tells them what they have been doing wrong and how they can fix it. This explains the title of his latest book: Twelve Rules for Life. Young men feel like Peterson has given them a purpose to live in a world that seems to lack direction. As he says it himself, these young men never get an encouragement to step up for themselves and take control of their lives. Peterson says he is the first one to say that to them, which is very impactful. As a thank you, they write him letters, thanking him for bringing them back from their own ‘destruction’.

This might explain why Peterson’s followers tend to be very defensive of him. For this, you only have to look in a YouTube comment section from a video that merely mentions him or even the Facebook-page of this Room for Discussion event. His followers make compilations of Peterson ‘destroying’ feminists and ‘SJW’s’, and many YouTube channels are devoted to propagating Peterson’s philosophies. This is very significant for young people, since a large part of their political education is on the internet.

And I deliberately say political education, since a lot of what Peterson says has a strong political undertone. In his much-spoken-about interview with Cathy Newman, Peterson says Mao and trans activists can be compared because “the philosophy that guides their utterances is the same philosophy.” Although he says not to strive for it, he claims that these are sure to spark controversy.

Jordan Peterson is a guest at Room for Discussion on Wednesday, October 31st at 13:00. This Introduction will be followed by two articles on Rostra discussing Peterson’s appearance at Room for Discussion and his thoughts in general. These articles will debate each other as a way to create discussion within the student community of the University of Amsterdam. Make sure to read them!


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