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Opinion Jordan Peterson comes to town: A conversation between skeptics

University of Toronto professor and clinical psychologist Dr. Jordan Peterson outside New York Public Library on March 25. (Jesse Dittmar for The Washington Post)

Jordan Peterson, clinical psychologist and University of Toronto professor, has become an undeniable intellectual phenomenon. After entering the public consciousness via YouTube lectures, his highly visible opposition to a bill outlawing discrimination based on gender identity and expression, and a combative viral interview with Britain’s Channel 4 News host Cathy Newman, Peterson has emerged as something of a guru for an army of young men looking for guidance on how to make their way through the world.

Today his self-help book “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos” is a national and international bestseller, and his book tour is sold out in cities across the United States. But this sort of popularity is not without conflict. Critics have called Peterson’s work simplistic and sexist, pseudoscientific, alarmist and at times conspiratorial. Peterson himself has been accused of being part of the “alt-right.”

Still, his influence continues to grow. In an attempt to better understand Peterson and what attracts people to him, Post Opinions columnist Christine Emba and Digital Opinions editor James Downie read “12 Rules for Life” and attended the sold-out Washington event on Peterson’s current book tour. Then they hopped on Slack to sort it all out.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Christine Emba: So! Jordan Peterson! Live on a Friday night! What’d you think, Jim?

First of all, I want to assert that [talk-show host] Dave Rubin, the opener, was incredibly irritating and his weirdly conspiratorial presence made the whole thing worse. Sorry, Dave!

James Downie: It was absolutely fascinating, though perhaps not in the way Peterson would like. From the word go, you could sense the political aspect of the crowd. When the PA announcer said there’d be “zero-tolerance” for heckling, the crowd roared; you could tell immediately what kind of night it was going to be. And having Rubin — a fellow “member” of the self-styled “intellectual dark web” — be the host made the politics that much more central.

Emba: Can you expand on that? Why did politics need to be central?

Downie: Well, so many people have come to him through political means, even if (as I’m sure we’ll talk about) it isn’t central to his talk or his book. When your YouTube lectures have titles like “Identity politics and the Marxist lie of white privilege” and “The Rising Tide of Compelled Speech,” it’s impossible to avoid politics.

Emba: But the show (lecture?) itself was much better than I had expected.

Downie: Agreed. You can see why people like watching his talks — he’s like the superstar professor in college who has the 250-person lecture class.

Emba: They’re all men, though. All young, generally white, men.

Downie: As a 30-year-old white male, I had plenty of company in the audience. The crowd was, what, 70-75 percent male?

Emba: At least. Although some have suggested that Peterson’s audiences are more diverse than you might expect, the audience here was probably about 3/4 male and 90% white. And looking at those who didn’t fit within that grouping (including me, a black woman), they appeared to be mostly supportive girlfriends, and even some parents — actually, I think we were sitting right behind some — who brought their troubled sons. As though they were accompanying them to a therapy session!

Downie: The gender aspect in particular is not so surprising after reading his book. As a young male, I’m used to “life advice” books targeting me in a passive sense (i.e. nothing can be universal advice without applying to young men). But this book was the first time in years that I felt the “life advice” was affirmatively targeting me. And people respond to that.

Emba: Interesting. In a pretty recent tweet, Peterson mused “91% of those who view my videos are male. Why? Why so few women?”

It actually made me laugh, a bit. I don’t know, Jordan? Maybe because you explain women by describing them as snobby, teasing lobsters?

But there is something deeper, that he did allude to in his lecture, and in his book: women are doing … better in society, at least in the way that it’s structured these days. It may seem normative to say so, but I do think that women tend to spend more time thinking about their lives, planning for the future, sort of sorting themselves out — and know how to do so. So they don’t need Peterson’s basic life advice as much as men do.

Downie: That’s certainly been my (limited) experience.

Emba: These days, young men seem far more lost than young women. And we’re seeing the results of that all over the place — men disappearing into video games, or pornography, or dropping out of the workforce, or succumbing to depression and despair. So maybe they need this more.

Downie: But speaking of “doing better,” the audience and Dave Rubin almost seemed more optimistic than Peterson. There was a lot of talk about how “we’re winning” and a sense of a “movement,” though it wasn’t entirely clear what that movement was beyond (to quote Rubin) “this week we got Kanye.”

Emba: Right! Peterson seemed more focused on his message of “fixing your life” and making yourself better as an individual person, apolitically. Rubin seemed as though he was trying to tie this into a different movement, that of the “intellectual dark web,” almost some alt-movement. He made it sound really cultish and weird, too! Like “This is an *idea revolution,* we’re *ahead of the curve*,” “you feel like you have to creep around with these ideas but NO LONGER,” as if anyone has ever hidden the idea that you should attempt to be manly in the face of adversity.

Downie: Yes, absolutely. There’s no doubt that Peterson shares many conservatives’ fear of “political correctness.” One of the larger applause lines during his talk was a throwaway shot at political correctness. But there’s a dissonance between how central it is to his appeal and how “un-central” it is to his book.

Emba: Right. We both read “12 Rules for Life,” and then went to this thing. What did you think of Peterson’s content and message more generally? I was surprised, reading the book and going to this lecture, by how simple his message was. How self-evident it seems to me.

Rubin made it sound as though Peterson held some *hidden knowledge,* but there’s no secret to “stand up straight and make sure the people you keep around you pull you up rather than drag you down.”

I think you felt the same, and I wonder what that says. After all, we’re pretty different in terms of background, but both came out with a similar impression.

Downie: I agree! And I actually think Peterson was right to observe that it’s remarkable how many students at the universities where they tested some of his theories hadn’t been told these things. Though I thought it was interesting that he seemed to think that teaching this kind of thing was a job for the educational system rather than the parents. I bet many Americans (especially conservatives) would disagree with him there.

Emba: Well, he is Canadian.

And it’s not necessarily true that he thinks it’s a job for the system. After all, there’s a long chapter in his book that’s all about how to parent well. My impression was that he realized he was talking to an audience who were probably past the stage where they can be influenced by their [no doubt hapless, indulgent, non-traditional] parents, and need to know how to seek out this knowledge for themselves whether through an alternate university system like this online thing he apparently wants to set up, a crowdsourced PragerU, or through his books and lectures, which he has placed online.

Downie: He loves crowdsourcing. And yes, you’re right — he does talk in the book about how crucial early development is for kids and parents.

Emba: I think perhaps we’re both lucky in that though our backgrounds are different, we both come from relatively stable families with parents and surrounding adults who inculcated these “rules” intrinsically, from our youth on. So the Peterson gospel doesn’t feel new to us.

That, perhaps tangentially, makes me think about the phenomenons of “Dream Hoarding” and “Coming Apart,” as highlighted by scholars like Richard Reeves and Robert Putnam and, in a rare moment of helpfulness, Charles Murray. The fact that there are whole swaths of our generation who are advantaged by already knowing this information about how to make your life better, and another whole swath who is being left behind, character and life-formation wise, because they don’t. And they are left to rely on Jordan Peterson.

Downie: One thing that’s definitely central to the book is telling people (particularly men) that life is hard, and you need to get it together.

Just in the week or so I was reading “12 Rules,” I had several men my age come up to me on buses or in coffee shops and strike up conversations with me about Peterson — the one thing they all talked about right away was how the book had a lot of “hard truths” that they needed to hear. And I think that says a lot about the book’s appeal: It gives aimless people a map, and as Peterson says, when it comes to life a bad plan is better than no plan. The flipside, though, is that he’s a “pull yourself by your own bootstraps” kind of person. There are moments where he’ll admit that sometimes people’s lives go badly for reasons beyond their control, but largely the message you come away with is that if you don’t like the way things are going, it’s your fault and your fault alone. And that’s an easier message to believe when you’re a white male and systemic obstacles aren’t really a thing you run into.

Emba: Right, ugh. That was one of the things that annoyed me about his coda to the book, where he talks about writing with a “pen of light” the sort of answers he would want inscribed on his own soul, which, I guess, are those he thinks are most important to pass on. (This was a bit of a ridiculous literary device. But then, as an editor, I’ve heard worse.)

One of his dictums was “What shall I do with the poor man’s plight? Strive through right example to lift his broken heart.” Or … you could, I don’t know, HELP HIM? Give him a hand? Jesus, who Peterson LOVES using as an example, was extremely interested in giving people handouts. I mean, literally.

Downie: Speaking of which, you tweeted afterwards that Peterson was on “conversion watch.”

Emba: Yes, this is a moment to note one of my most surprising takeaways from this event: Jordan Peterson professes not to be religious, but he is. His book is built on what he describes as archetypal myths from different cultures, but leans *very* heavily on Judeo-Christian ones especially — Cain and Abel and the stories of Jesus’s life, from his temptation in the desert to his death and resurrection.

This tendency was even more pronounced in his live lecture. Basically every line, every piece of advice he gave, was supported by a Bible verse. At one point, he quoted the gospel of Matthew: “Knock and the door will be opened to you” — and said, “This is how life works, ACTUALLY” — basically glaring at the crowd and daring them to disagree.

He is convinced of the importance and significance of these stories, these words — and religion, and its significance. At one point he stated that he didn’t have a materialist view of the world, but actually a “deeply religious” one. Direct quote!

Downie: So, now that we’ve immersed ourselves in the waters of Jordan, let me ask you: would you describe him as alt-right? Because that’s so often how he gets short-handed.

Emba. Ah yes, the alt-right. We’d have to get here eventually.

But, no.

I’d say that before picking up his book, just reading “about” Jordan Peterson, I was predisposed to skepticism about his motives and by his compatriots. He is beloved by many characters who I’d definitely call alt-right — Gavin McInnes, Mike Cernovich, that sort of guy. And he pals around with sort of alt-something provocateurs like Ben Shapiro — people who define themselves as being part of the “intellectual dark web,” as if making dumb statements about how white men are oppressed is intellectual. Anyway. He’s not keeping great company. But I think his personal work and statements are generally benign, in many cases actually helpful, in that they urge young people to seek out a better-structured and more meaningful life. What do you think?

Downie: Yes, I agree it’s inaccurate to label him as alt-right, though that is a low bar to clear. Frankly I see him more as a mainstream conservative. I think part of the reason people get this wrong is that there’s a big gap between what boosted his fame and what the central thrust of his book is. He drew a lot of attention for clashing with Canadian politicians over what he saw as policing of free speech and political correctness gone mad. But that’s not really a big part of “12 Rules.” That’s not to say that there aren’t parts of the book I profoundly disagreed with, especially his views on gender and work, but again, for better or for worse that’s mainstream conservatism.

Emba: For my part, I noticed that he does promote some narratives that are wrongheaded, but not necessarily “alt-right.” There was a tangent he went on about a future-mapping study from Holland, and how the act of creating a life plan erased the differences in achievement between men of different races at one college. He went on to extrapolate that “people SAY structural, societal, racial issues hold people back but clearly, psychological exercise can obliterate the difference.”

It was hard to keep from shouting “NOPE. DOESN’T MEAN THAT SOCIETAL ISSUES AND STRUCTURAL PROBLEMS AND RACISM DON’T MATTER.” But is that “alt-right,” or garden-variety denialism? That’s basically what Kanye West said about slavery, and what the Republican Party pushes every day. It is pernicious, though.

I think he’s been adopted by the alt-right and the “intellectual dark web” because he’s been occasionally willing to get himself caught up in the campus free-speech debates, but I don’t think that provocation is his main interest. (He also took a delightfully shady pot-shot at “rationalist” podcaster Sam Harris, by the way, when he was talking about shows he’d recently been on and said that he’d “stopped trying to win ‘debates’ in his 20s.”)

Emba: Oh, tell me what you thought about gender!

Downie: There’s a few weird, less benign passages later on in the book where he tries to grapple with women and careers and the “patriarchy.” My personal favorite is when he points out that the inventors of Tampax and the birth control pill were men, and archly asks whether they could really be part of the patriarchy. Which: a.) is a “dorm-room debate” level of logic and b.) misses the whole point.

Emba: Ha, whew, yep. I forgot about that part. Yes, Peterson is a professor but sometimes his interpretations of things are … wrong.

Downie: Just after that, in the space of one page, he draws a line from the gender studies department at Queen’s University back to the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields.

Emba: Ah, yes, “They want to eradicate all inequality, and that leads us to the gulag!”

A common hysterical talking point about progressives that is just… not true. First of all, very few people are calling for total equality, or complete redistribution until everyone is the same. That’s not what it means when people say that more women should be represented in the fields of math and science, for instance. Why so many persist in interpreting it this way is a mystery to me.

Well, not a complete mystery.

Downie: Interestingly, Peterson’s not even worried about women in math and science — if you recall, in the book he warns about men falling behind in university disciplines, but he cites statistics that (by his own admission) exclude STEM programs. Which is, like, a lot of programs!

Emba: Yes. His focus is on men, and their issues, whether on purpose or not. Related: Peterson does hold unusually — for this time period and for his milieu — traditionalist views on gender roles and gender generally.

Downie: After 300 pages of mostly benign ideas, it’s just a noticeable shift in tone. And its appeal to conservatives and men’s rights activists is obvious.

Emba: Right, which I think is part of his appeal. Some of what he says is maybe not “politically correct” — but that doesn’t mean it’s not commonly held belief. He’s just saying it publicly and without apology.

Downie: I think “traditionalist” is probably the best label for him — both because his views are traditionalist and because his worldview is so dependent on traditions (or at least what he sees as traditions.)

Emba: And traditionally, both written pieces and conversations come to an end. So — any final thoughts on our new friend JP?

Downie: I can’t wait to see whether your conversion prediction comes true.