The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jordan Peterson is on a crusade to toughen up young men. It’s landed him on our cultural divide.

Jordan Peterson, a Canadian psychology professor whose wildly popular lectures rail against victimhood and exhort men to toughen up, is photographed outside New York Public Library. “I don’t really regard myself as a political figure,” he says. (Jesse Dittmar/for The Washington Post)

NEW YORK — The world is wretched with weak men. Slouchers, slackers, chumps, low-status dudes who have amassed a crumpled pile of inferior habits and made the world a messier place.

Or so Jordan Peterson will tell you. But fear not, the doctor is here to help, preaching his thoroughly footnoted gospel of order and discipline, one rule at a time — in a popular book, in lectures far from his ivory tower roost and, most potently, on YouTube.

The man of the moment, the self-proclaimed “professor against political correctness,” sits in his Manhattan hotel aerie before another sold-out talk based on his best-selling “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.” The University of Toronto clinical psychologist also sold out his date at Washington’s Warner Theatre on Friday, so he’ll return next month to lecture there again. Plenty of men are listening. Even Kanye West, who amid his still-unspooling existential crisis on Twitter, shared an image of his computer screen, on which a tab for a Peterson video was visible.

For such a multimedia-genic prophet, Peterson has a manner that is unexpectedly gruff and odd. He emphasizes words sharply mid-sentence, almost to the point of barking. He’s slow to offer direct eye contact, prone to gazing downward — whether onstage in front of nearly 3,000 acolytes or even in a one-on-one conversation. The effect is that Peterson, 55, seems too immersed in big thoughts to be bothered by what’s in front of him.

“I don’t really regard myself as a political figure,” Peterson says, but increasingly he is, embraced by conservatives and the alt-right, and viewed suspiciously by the left. It was politics that launched him to fame last year when he spoke out against a Canadian bill mandating the use of transgender pronouns, which he views as trammeling free speech.

A couple of years ago, Peterson was a respected though far from famous academic when he began posting his lengthy lectures online. Now there are hours and hours of his talks and interviews on YouTube, a viral Encyclopedia Jordanica with more than a million subscribers. Some of his video lectures clock in at 180 minutes with generous servings of biblical stories (but only for their moral teachings; Peterson abandoned organized religion as a teen) as well as Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn and his hero, Jung. Even the least popular talks of recent months have racked up more than 100,000 views.

Sharing videos of lectures is “a revolution that can’t be understated,” he argues. “It’s as big as the Gutenberg revolution. It might be bigger.”

Few people read challenging books, he says, “but it turns out that people can listen to things they can’t read.”

Peterson elicits nearly every opinion except indifference. “The most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now,” wrote David Brooks in the New York Times, calling him “a young William F. Buckley.” Critics, and there are plenty, raise serious doubts.

“He takes a really simplistic approach toward gender inequality. It feels like a dressed-up version of misogyny,” says Gary Barker, a developmental psychologist who has studied ways to promote gender equality and violence prevention. “The scary part is it doesn’t provoke men to be better but to live with this inequality and get what you can out of it.”

Peterson rails against victimhood and “radical left-wing identity politics.” He’s an opponent of regulated equality and a skeptic of the notion of male or white “privilege.” Like many thought leaders who flirted with socialism in their youth, Peterson crusades against anything that he thinks smacks of Marxist tendencies and groupthink, which means a lot of inveighing against “postmodernist” scholars, who are probably a bigger nuisance at faculty confabs than in the lives of his fans.

His combative nature and mastery of video has proved to be catnip for extremely online young men. An interview with British broadcaster Cathy Newman, in which the two clashed on topics such as the gender pay gap, has been viewed more than 9 million times. (After Newman endured a hailstorm of misogynistic abuse on social media, Peterson cautioned his Twitter followers (now 642,000 strong) to “be civilized in your criticism. It was words. Words, people, words. Remember those?”)

Since its publication in January, “12 Rules” has sold more than 700,000 copies. His only previous work, “Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief,” from 1999, sold 500 copies in hardcover.

Peterson notes, with a touch of pique, that “Rules” was summarily rejected by American publishers. “They’re not very happy about that now,” he surmises.

Part of Peterson’s appeal is that he never appears in doubt. His thoughts are uttered as though they were the rule of law. He commands young men to grow up and take stock. Rule No. 1: “Stand up straight with your shoulders back.” He admonishes: “Don’t be dependent. At all. Ever. Period.”

Blunt and opinionated, Peterson appears temperamentally incapable of picking his battles. In “12 Rules,” he attacks Elmo: “I always hated that creepy, whiny puppet.” He believes happiness, as a goal, is folly. He maintains a Hobbesian view of life as nasty, brutish and short, with an emphasis on the brutish.

Being nice is “a low-end virtue,” he exhorts. “It’s the absence of a particular fault — at best.” His goal is “to strengthen the individual” and, by the individual, he means young men who have become, to quote Arnold Schwarzenegger — which he does — “girlie men.”

Women can join the parade — he believes his lecture audiences are about 40 percent female — but his attention is on guys. If “men are pushed too hard to feminize,” he writes, “they will become more and more interested in harsh, fascist political ideology.” He argues that “the populist groundswell of support for Donald Trump in the U.S. is part of the same process.”

Peterson operates far from the palliative, cashmere-swaddled Oprahworld of contemporary self-help — yet help is precisely what he's offering.

“I’m always surprised when people respond positively to what I am saying, given its seriousnessness and strange nature,” he writes. He warns against the “victim mentality.” He loathes any excuse for weakness, even from people who’ve experienced cancer, abuse, horror. In his clinical practice, he writes, he observed patients with monumental problems triumph.

Scratch the philosophical surface, though, and it starts to sound like an old-fashioned motivational speech. An exhortation on the virtues of bootstrapping.

For aspiring conservative thought leaders like Peterson, the Trump era has offered both promise and peril. Media gatekeepers have swooned for intellectuals from the right who bring a dash of erudition and contrarian swagger. But those pundits who step up with too much chest-beating bravado can find themselves in the crosshairs of liberals itching to wage a proxy war via social media. Take the case of conservative writer Kevin Williamson, fired by the Atlantic within days of his hiring after critics zeroed in on that time he suggested women who get abortions be punished by hanging.

Peterson certainly looks the part. Lanky with a western mien, this product of northern Alberta resembles a 19th-century prairie-settler prototype, even while wearing a gray flannel suit and McGill University tie.

At age 8, growing up in Fairview (pop. 3,000), he told his father, a teacher, he would grow up to marry Tammy, the girl across the street. He did. The Petersons have two grown children, and a new granddaughter. Tammy and daughter Mikhaila travel with him and help manage what has quickly become Jordan Peterson Inc.

Though Peterson arrived late to the searing glare of celebrity, he appears to relish the attention. While he and Tammy still smart from his contretemps with Newman — who peppered him with aperçus like “You’re like the alt-right that you hate to be compared to! You want to stir things up!” — it has only increased his celebrity among online fanboys.

Like any warrior against political correctness, Peterson directs a fair amount of his contempt toward academia, his professional home of more than three decades. He views campuses as drenched in left-wing dogma, with too much liberal inundating liberal arts.

The feeling seems mutual. He can no longer lecture on campuses without drawing protests. Which is fine by Peterson. He recently signed with Hollywood talent agency CAA and events promoter Live Nation to handle his speaking events. Peterson will spend the remainder of this year lecturing across North America and Europe. Tickets top out at $200 for the VIP meet-and-greet package. He’s in demand on television, promoting his ideas on Fox News, “Real Time With Bill Maher” — really, it appears almost any interview program that asks.

Peterson taught at Harvard in the 1990s, where students were known to cry when his course ended. Gregg Hurwitz, a former student from that time, went on to pen the best-selling “Orphan X” thrillers, which incorporate Peterson’s rules. “He’s telling audiences you have a responsibility to be the best version of yourself. That’s a message that’s immensely palatable to men,” says Hurwitz. “He makes a straight evolutionary, biological and psychological argument toward meaning in the world to maximize that life is worth it. Where does that message exist anywhere in the world?”

For all Peterson’s surety, he’s still stunned by his global popularity. He recalls how a young fan in Los Angeles, “a Latino kid, 21, 22,” jumped out of a car to meet him. “I’ve been watching your lectures for 18 months and I’ve watched hundreds and hundreds of hours,” Peterson recalls him saying. “You’ve really helped me with my relationship with my father.” Then, Peterson says, the young man pulled his father from the car to meet the professor, too.

Telling this story, Peterson starts to cry, at one point too moved to speak. (His video fans treasure the moments when the stoic professor gets choked up.) “That’s amazing,” he says, his face moist with unwiped tears. “Yeah, it’s no joke, you know?”

He’s candid about his family’s history of severe depression, including his own. He is overly sensitive to food. Sweet potatoes, he believes, prevented him from sleeping for three weeks on his tour.

“I still have plenty of health problems,” he says. “They don’t seem to interfere with my intellectual ability.”

Peterson now follows a “ridiculous” diet of meat, salad and water, promoted online by his daughter, with only turmeric and salt for flavor. “Turmeric and salt! Turmeric and salt!” he sings in the middle of Manhattan’s Bryant Park, mocking the entire business with an impromptu jig. The regimen, Peterson says, helped him go off antidepressants, which he once assumed he would take for life, and shed 50 pounds.

During a photo session in the park, without an overcoat on this blustery day, Peterson semi-slumps, violating his Rule No. 1.

“Jordan,” Tammy cajoles, “push your shoulders back!”

Another night, another sold-out crowd, this time on the Upper West Side. How is Peterson welcomed in this Eden of progressive politics?

“We love you, Jordan!” comes a cry from the upper balcony. A standing ovation. Several, actually. Rock star stuff.

“You New Yorkers, you’re a tough crowd,” says Peterson, flashing a rare smile.

He labels his performances “a conversation with the audience,” one where he does all the talking. He strides the Beacon Theatre stage for 2 hours and 40 minutes without so much as an index card.

“Idiotic political polarization is still a bloody catastrophe because life is a catastrophe,” Peterson tells the audience, one of his long hands balled into a fist. “You have an evil heart — like the person next to you.” He tells them, “kids are not innately good — and neither are you.”

Peterson doesn’t tend toward sound bites. Fifteen minutes is a throat-clearing. Tonight, he only gets through Rule 6: “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.” Which represents progress. At one talk, Tammy recalls, Peterson addressed only Rule 1. (His 158-minute video lecture on Genesis, viewed almost 2 million times, barely gets past “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”)

Now he plans to convert “Maps of Meaning” — that first, less-renowned book — into video lectures, while churning out more “Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories” videos, already available online. Through the Patreon website, where he offers premium content, including online Q&A’s, he has raised $60,000 a month.

Peterson’s old life is done. “I don’t want to go back and teach courses to 20 people or 50 people because that would just be stupid,” he says. “You can’t go backward in life.”

It might not be a Rule, but it sure sounds like one.

Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized the terms of Peterson’s offerings for followers through the subscription site Patreon. The story has been updated.