The self-styled philosopher king throwing lightning bolts from his—“his” almost always being the correct pronoun—ivory tower is a well-worn archetype, if a slightly endangered one. Dr. Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto, cuts a familiar figure but has a reach beyond which his antecedents would have only dreamed. His new book, the modestly titled 12 Rules for Life, was released in January and is Amazon’s third-best-selling book of 2018 to date; his YouTube channel has more than a million subscribers, an impressive figure for an academic in a medium dominated by adenoidal video game streamers and teenagers chasing viral infamy.
If you’re struggling to understand what the appeal of a once-obscure psychologist from rural Alberta is, and why his legions of young, mostly male acolytes gobble up his every word, you’re not alone. Gallons of digitalink have been spilled attempting to parse the subject, with voices like David Brooks breathlessly declaring ours the “Jordan Peterson moment.” For all the perplexity surrounding his rise, however, there’s a simple explanation for his popularity. Peterson’s writing and lectures, on the surface level, are full of not-too-tough love and legitimately useful life advice; “Stand up straight with your shoulders back” and “Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street” are the titles of two chapters in 12 Rules for Life, top-line exhortations he uses to explain his views on dignity and the importance of life’s small pleasures.
But there are plenty of would-be self-help gurus floundering in the lower reaches of the Amazon best-seller list while Peterson occupies the penthouse suite. What sets him apart is his ability to marry easy-to-digest platitudes with a passionately articulated and deeply conservative worldview, one that goes down just as smoothly for his overwhelmingly white, male fan base. Peterson speaks to the “lost boys” who populate the internet forums and finished basements of America with authority and candor, a comforting-yet-challenging paternal voice to a demographic that’s been the subject of as much scrutiny in recent months as Peterson himself.
And by combining his sensible empowerment program with reactionary treatises against “social justice warriors” and “cultural Marxism,” he’s succeeded where similar ideologues and pundits have failed—for better or worse, winning otherwise disengaged hearts and minds to his intellectual program. Canadian writer Tabatha Southey earned an online harassment campaign at the hands of some of Peterson’s more aggressive fans with a scathing essay in which she warned against his “dreadfully serious message,” asking of his lectures “when you insist the stakes are that high, the opposition that pernicious, who’s to say where the chips will fall?” The answer may be unclear, but in an era when the politics of male backlash helped put Donald Trump in the White House and have reignited a violent, long-dormant culture war, that makes Jordan Peterson perhaps the most important pundit in North America, if not the world.
A piece of Canadian human rights legislation would seem to be an unusual jumping-off point for a culture-wide phenomenon, but these are unusual times. Peterson first rose to national prominence in 2016 during a debate over Bill C-16 in Canada’s House of Commons, proposed to add legal protections for Canadian citizens on the basis of gender expression and gender identity. On September 27 of that year he posted a video on his YouTube channel titled “Fear and the Law,” in which he argues that poorly worded, ambiguous definitions of “gender identity” and “gender expression” in the bill would inevitably lead to a “dangerously totalitarian” regime of political correctness. The videos outraged University of Toronto students, who took to campus to protest in turn, sparking a confrontation that captivated the Canadian media. It wasn’t long before Peterson’s willingness to enter the fray and coolly deflect the emotionally charged protesters made him an instant star on the American right in turn. Videos with titles like “Jordan Peterson DESTROYS SJW and Feminists” and describing his being “Swarmed by Narcissistic SJW Ideologues” have received hundreds of thousands of views, with dozens of attendant adoring comments from his fans.
It was the beginning of a meteoric rise. His YouTube playlist titled “Professor Against Political Correctness” paints a picture of his widening media footprint over the past two years, including a constellation of conservative new-media stars from alt-right icon (and fellow Canadian) Stefan Molyneux to the relatively milquetoast podcaster Ben Shapiro. The month of 12 Rules for Life’s release in January saw an appearance on Fox News with a breathless Tucker Carlson, who described Peterson as “a truth-teller” and “one of the great interviews of all time.” His Patreon page, where he solicits funds to “[create] lectures about profound psychological ideas,” surpassed $50,000 in donations per month last summer, and has likely far outstripped that amount in the interim.
It’s difficult at first to reconcile the avuncular, ersatz father figure of 12 Rules with the “BEAST MODE” anti-P.C. sentinel Peterson serves as to his most rabid supporters. Peterson, 55, is mild-mannered to the point of occasional, unintentional comedy; he’s jokingly (and accurately) compared his own Prairie-province croak to that of Kermit the Frog. But his placidity is a large part of his appeal as a culture warrior—a relentlessly “rational,” Great Man-style counterpoint to the perceived emotional excesses of the progressive left. Peterson’s even-handed, “just trying to have a conversation” style of political discourse allows him to position himself as the last sane man in a world threatened by leftist hysteria, the students in his original star-making videos serving as perfect foils. This dynamic was exemplified in one of the most popular videos featuring Peterson, a January appearance on Channel 4 where he calmly dismantlesan overreaching critic in the British journalist Cathy Newman.
If, as FDR is supposed to have once said, one should ask to be judged by the enemies they’ve made, it’s illuminating to look at Peterson’s bête noire—the specter of “cultural Marxism.” In Peterson’s conception, it’s a decadeslong conspiracy handed down from French postmodernists to today’s “social justice warriors” who intend to destroy rational meaning, starting with enforced gender pronoun use and ending with the gulag. In reality, the concept of “cultural Marxism” as deployed by Peterson can be traced back to the 1990s, promoted in a primordial form by Lyndon LaRouche’s think tank the Schiller Institute in its Fidelio magazine.
The Free Congress Foundation, a conservative think tank founded by far-right social conservative Paul Weyrich, then picked up the ball and ran with it in a 1999 video titled “The Origins of Political Correctness.” In the video, the paleoconservative writer William Lind draws a corkboard twine web connecting the work of Frankfurt School philosophers like Adorno and Marcuse to everything from the sexual revolution of the 1960s to 1990s-era campus activism. The assumed endpoint is, for them, the same as for Peterson—brutal repression at the hand of the totalitarian left.
Peterson has a particular fascination with the horrors of the Soviet era. He described on a recent podcast appearance the extent to which his home is covered with Soviet art, which he describes as a form of acquisitive revenge on the communist state. He’s reminisced about his childhood fear of nuclear annihilation at the hands of the Soviet Union, as well, which solidified the communist empire as an ever-present boogeyman in his mind. Consider simultaneously Peterson’s traditional, small-town values (he writes in 12 Rules that he found teenage parties “dreary and oppressive,” and encourages his fans to start families early) and his lifelong fear of destruction at the hands of deranged Marxists, and one can begin to understand how he found his political voice by projecting the former onto the latter.
Peterson’s work, however, has reached an audience much vaster than just the alt-right trolls who share his glee in P.C.-bashing. Although trolling the comments on YouTube videos isn’t exactly a science, there’s a remarkable consistency in the range of those posted on videos featuring Peterson. There are, of course, any number that are disturbingly offensive, or simply inelegant gloating about “owning the libs,” but many reveal an almost awkward, heartbreakingly earnest gratitude to the professor for his lectures. After all, his ultimate exhortation is internal—not to go forth and wage cultural war, but to put one’s own house in order. His signature catchphrase is the 1950s-sitcom-paternal “Sort yourself out, bucko” (There are T-shirts). “I liken life to climbing a mountain … and I’d recently fallen back down the mountain for the second time in my life,” one top comment reads. “Jordan Peterson was instrumental in making sure I didn’t give up and die on the side of the mountain. Onward and upward guys. We’ve got some unnecessary suffering to alleviate. ”
What could be the harm in a little self-actualization? This, to Peterson’s followers, is what makes his critics (and there are many) so preposterous—all they want is to transform their lives, to slay the allegorical dragon to which Peterson frequently refers, crawl out of their basements and stand up straight like the triumphant lobster in one of Peterson’s more famous stories. To an American culture in the midst of one of those nagging crises of masculinity—much of Peterson’s rhetoric echoes that of Robert Bly, the Minnesotan poet laureate who lamented an emasculated and ahistorical “Sibling Society” in the 1990s—his exhortations to throw your shoulders back, clean your room and change your life for the better are a cool tonic in a society where they find themselves increasingly unmoored.
This is where his critics find the most to loathe, yet it’s also the wellspring of his appeal. In Peterson’s world, men are besieged by both sinister, pronoun-enforcing Marxists and Jungian “devouring mothers,” a cabal that’s created a culture of paralyzed man-children. His prescription for those man-children is to … throw their shoulders back, clean their rooms and take advantage of the institutional and intellectual infrastructure through which men have had an undefeated historical advantage in improving their station. To him, the hierarchical structures that underlie Western society are preordained, and questioning them is like questioning the weather, or the train schedule, or the Marvel Studios balance sheet. “You don’t change the world by going and waving signs at people you’ve defined as more evil than you,” he insists in a tirade against the efficacy of protest. If life has dealt you a bad hand, summon your inner übermensch and get thee to the laundromat.
It’s a deeply conservative worldview, but a deeply traditional one in contrast with the radicalism that has defined the online right in recent years. And that’s why Peterson has become such a phenomenon—acidic enough for a generation of angry, insecure young men raised on the illiberal, anarchic modern internet, but enough of an institutionalist that he can help them build bridges to the outside world. He tells a vivid story as a pundit, one where meaningful and time-tested hierarchies are under siege by amoral and malicious subversives. It’s a predictably familiar narrative coming from someone who made his academic mark with an ode to recursive storytelling. And for better or worse, that narrative has been deeply resonant with a generation of young men looking to define their own—so if his critics hope to loosen its thrall, they’re going to have to come up with a good alternative.