How Jordan Peterson Repackages Alt-Right Ideas As Self-Help
By now you've probably heard of Jordan Peterson, whether you wanted to or not. He has a best-selling self-help book, an extensive public speaking tour, a Patreon raking in $80,000 a month, and legions of fans who swarm every article or video mentioning him. The New York Times called him "the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now."
At a glance, he's doing the same "Political correctness is destroying society!" bit that for years has been the hallmark of right-wing content aimed at young white males. But there is something very, very different about Peterson. The sooner we understand that, the better.
On The Surface, His Positions Seem Fairly Typical
Peterson's had a long career as a psychologist, but he first got attention for his politics in 2016, when he made a series of YouTube videos railing against political correctness (his videos now have over 40 million views). His opinions are complicated and wide-ranging, and if for some reason you don't have time to watch his tedious two-and-a-half-hour lecture summing them up, I will attempt to do so for you.
Peterson's big bugaboo is privilege. White privilege, male privilege, straight privilege -- it's all an evil lie. And worse, it's a postmodern Marxist lie. Gasp! It's just a cruel fact of nature that some people are inherently smarter or more charismatic, that men and women are fundamentally different. Criticisms of, say, a white man's success in business stem from jealousy, jealousy leads to violence, and violence destabilizes society.
If you've touched an internet comment section in the last several years, that stuff is all pretty typical conservative thought -- political correctness is the only true oppression, etc. In Peterson's world, there is little difference between a brutal communist dictatorship and being able to identify as a gender different than the one you were assigned at birth on your driver's license. It's all a big slippery slope leading toward anyone who's ever had any sort of "privilege" being sent to the killing fields. Any attempt to agitate for equality is a sham by someone who ultimately wants to oppress you for their benefit.
This is a man who responded to a Justin Trudeau tweet offering generic praise of women's rights movements by accusing Trudeau of supporting a "murderous equity doctrine." This is a man who worries that acquiescing to gay marriage and associated rights like hospital visitation has done nothing to stem the tide of demands that "radical left neo-Marxist types are placing on traditional society." In opposition to a Canadian hate speech law he called the "vanguard" of an "ideological war," he said he was willing to go to jail rather than address his trans students with the pronouns they requested, even as legal experts pointed out that the bar to prove hate speech was a mountain that towered over Peterson's tiny molehill. Peterson is the least chill Canadian in history.
So what makes him different from the literally thousands of grifters profiting from the insecurity of young white dudes? Well ...
He Makes These Views Part Of A Strict Personal Moral Code
Listening to people never hurts, and it's eye-opening to listen to Peterson's followers. Here's a 19-year-old who used Peterson's work to establish healthier habits despite suffering from a serious illness. Here's a man who was motivated to lose weight and gain self-confidence after a nasty divorce. Here's a teenager who tackled their depression so they could get into college. Here's a 20-year-old who described himself as a "shell of a human" with no future until Peterson's words energized him. And here's someone who was motivated by Peterson's teachings to call a suicide helpline instead of ending it all. Here are thousands more examples.
That is the other side of Jordan Peterson.
He recently published a bestselling self-help book called 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote To Chaos. It offers advice on how to find meaning, how to deal with tragedy, how to make good friends, how to avoid feeling jealous, etc. It's nothing that hasn't been seen before, it's written in a ham-handed style that frames every act as part of an epic battle against a chaotic universe, and many of its arguments are dubious at best. But none of that matters, because people have found genuine, life-changing value in it. A lot of people.
Peterson's young white male fanbase is eating up his argument that privilege is nonsense, because many of them are in fact struggling. No amount of this supposed privilege has given them a good life or a sense of purpose. In Peterson, they're finding both. When 12 Rules was published, there was a joke going around Twitter about a mom who couldn't get her son to clean his room, but Peterson could by arguing that cleaning your room helps keep the dragons of chaos at bay. But guess what: When you're struggling, that kind of melodrama genuinely helps. Every religion on earth has figured that out. His fans, meanwhile, repurpose those jokes into memes about how great Peterson is. Why would they be shamed out of liking the guy who saved their life?
That's what makes Peterson both so compelling and so dangerous. The two biggest talking points of his fans are "Jordan Peterson saved me, now let's continue to better ourselves" and "Diversity and tolerance will annihilate civilization and send us to a dark age of chaos." Here's a fan who thanked Peterson for opening his eyes to the truth about how people on his university campus advocating for LGBT rights are actually extremists trying to destroy him. Which means ...
It's Almost Impossible To Separate His Moral Code From His Politics
Peterson tends to get lumped in with the "alt-right." It's a label he rejects -- not unreasonably, given some of his criticism of them. But at the same time, Peterson does things like imply that Google has a political agenda because if you search for "white couple," some of the images will be of interracial couples. Gee, I wonder what kind of people that complaint could appeal to.
So what makes Peterson different from far-right firebrands like Richard Spencer, who wants America to be a white ethnostate, or Milo Yiannopoulos, whose shtick was complaining that feminists are ugly whores? People are always saying this crap, it's just the mouthpiece that changes, right? There's a simple yet important distinction: Peterson actually believes what he says. At times he's willing to debate in reasonably good faith (here's a clip of Peterson admitting he was wrong on a rights issue after Jim Jefferies caught him out in a logical falsehood).
By contrast, Yiannopoulos is a man who I sincerely believe would eat a dog turd on camera if it would gain him Twitter followers. He used to make hay mocking gamers until he realized it was more profitable to hop on the Gamergate bandwagon. There's no core to his views beyond getting attention by triggering the libs. He found a button and pressed it until it broke.
Spencer, on the other hand, pretended to argue in good faith in front of the cameras, but would quote Hitler when among his own people. Behind his "dapper" public facade was the same dumb hatred of any middle school dropout in the KKK. Any claim of logic and civility was an act, which is why engaging him in debate just played into his hands.
Peterson, though, is not arguing that feminism is a cancer because lol it triggers the libs. He's starting from the core of what he sees as a consistent worldview and moral code. It may sound like more of the same crap because the endpoint is similar. Peterson's code takes him to dark places (if privilege isn't a thing, then a lot of other very ugly things must also be true). But Spencer and Milo didn't offer solutions, at least not on a personal level. Their brand of mindless spite is like a drug for the insecure, but it's not motivating anybody to get into college.
So sure, reviewers of Peterson's book can say he relies on sexist stereotypes instead of science, or that the supposed oppression of white males is just them having to face some of the same challenges that everyone else faced forever. It doesn't matter. Peterson's right-wing politics have credibility not based on their internal consistency, but on his other teachings having turned out to be credible. "This guy was right about how to get my life on track, so maybe he's also right about how feminists are idiots who just need to shut the fuck up and raise some kids."
So Why Should You Care?
Peterson's arguments are a fascinating study in contradiction, because he sincerely empathizes with young men who feel downtrodden while also dismissing calls for empathy from others as being part of a Marxist scheme to send him to a death camp. That makes him easy to scorn, but it also makes him important to understand. He may not be part of the greater reactionary movement, but he's sure as hell giving them a playbook.
Everyone's instinct is to dismiss the "alt-right" and its fellow travelers as a monolith. It's by far the most tempting option, both because it's easy and because it makes sense on an emotional level. Doesn't Peterson slot neatly into the category of people with bad opinions we should ignore or mock? "I don't hate women and minorities, so why do I need to learn the hair-splitting differences between those who think black people should be exterminated and those who just think they should stop whining about inequality?" Because if you don't try to weed out the latter, you end up with the former.
Scratch the surface of most right-wing talk show guests and you'll find a long history of racist jokes and slurs. They're charlatans whose grift can be exposed. But there's nothing to expose with Peterson, no mask you can pull off to reveal the Scooby-Doo villain beneath. If you ignore people like Milo for long enough, then they push too far to try to get back in the spotlight, do something stupid like endorse pedophilia, and flame out forever. But Peterson's not going to change his beliefs to whatever gets him more attention until it blows up in his face; he's going to keep preaching to his slowly growing choir.
Peterson's worldview is ugly, but he's great at calmly explaining it while his opponents come off as shrill. In a video that got nine million views, one interviewer kept misrepresenting Peterson's views, Peterson kept politely correcting her, and Peterson's fans ate it up because it confirmed everything he's ever told them about how people who argue for equality are actually just scammers trying to trick you. Oh, and then they bombarded the interviewer with death threats. That's the future: More people like Peterson, who don't go quite as far as Spencer and Milo, but who have destructive opinions they present from a supposed intellectual high ground.
That intellectualism is a sham in its own way, of course. Peterson constantly misinterprets science to fit his vile view of the world, and it's the height of hypocrisy for him to declare himself a free speech advocate while also advocating for the annihilation of liberal arts courses because he doesn't like their subject matter, or calling a critic he thought was unfair a "sanctimonious prick" and an "arrogant racist son of a bitch" whom he wants to slap. But he is if nothing else sincere, and if we can't make a stronger case as to why his sincere views are destructive, he is going to keep influencing impressionable people and filling holes in their lives while we're all sitting around making jokes about how he thinks women are lobsters.
The Case We've Been Making Against Peterson Clearly Isn't Working
It's cathartic to make fun of Jordan Peterson, but when you also mock his fans, it plays right into his argument that the left is trying to silence all dissent by portraying anyone who disagrees with them as uneducated bozos. If you want Peterson's influence to wane, you have to argue in good faith. Anything else is just proving him right.
In response to the Toronto van attack perpetrated by, ugh, an incel, Peterson argued that society needed to encourage "enforced monogamy," because otherwise men would continue to suffer and lash out. In response, my social media feeds lit up with "Oh, the supposed free speech champion agrees with these murderers that the government should force women to be their girlfriends! Hypocrite much?" But what Peterson actually meant was that we should use cultural and social pressure to uphold the value of monogamy, as opposed to being open to polyamorous relationships or women deciding to stay single and not have kids.
The real problem is that Peterson arrived at that conclusion because he thinks feminists subconsciously want to be dominated by men. That birth control is dangerous because if women don't give into their natural desire to raise children, then the West will collapse. That if women don't want to be sexually harassed at work, they shouldn't have the audacity to wear makeup. But the moment you hyperbolize his views instead of explaining why the less absurd but still horrifying ones are wrong, you give his fans an excuse to dismiss you.
"But Peterson's fans have no interest in debate! They post videos with titles like 'Jordan Peterson DESTROYS SJW & Feminists'!" Right, just like I enjoyed this podcast that destroyed his book. It's why both his fans and his critics are arguing about Marxism and postmodernism despite not being able to define either term. It all plays into their worldview that everything they care about is constantly teetering on the verge of annihilation, and that the other side is trying to nudge it off the cliff. "But that's ridiculous!" Sure, just like it's ridiculous that my fellow liberals have told me America is moments away from becoming the next Nazi Germany since I was a teenager and fucking George W. Bush was president. You've got to present an alternative to that worldview or they're going to keep buying into it, and then some of them are going to buy into even nastier stuff.
In "Jordan Peterson DESTROYS Baiting Leftist Host" on a YouTube channel called Social Justice Fails, Peterson and the host have a polite, measured conversation. The framing is just theater to make you angry, to make you think there's a gap over giant issues that can never be bridged, while the small, ugly views keep worming their way into everyone's brains.
Hell, we're having this discussion as I write this. "You're saying we should be civil to NAZIS when they're already starting to COMMIT GENOCIDE right here in AMERICA?" No, mock them all you want, they deserve it. But there is a difference between the raging zealots and the confused, persuadable kids. And at some point you need to be civil to the latter, to understand that their affinity for him runs deeper than the usual "This is the guy who's smacking down the SJWs!" posturing.
Peterson pairs his attacks with a positive message: "Here's why their way leads to ruin and my way will fix your life." If your counter to that is just relentless mockery and spite, or (in their eyes) endless scolding and browbeating, his way will always look better to them. If you want to win those people over -- and you do -- they have to be presented with a positive message from the other side.
Remember, what Peterson has done, others can do. He's established a template, a worldview that sells common-sense discipline and self-improvement and conservative politics in one package. (See, because it's the Social Marxists who don't want to take responsibility for their actions. Cleaning your room is the ultimate rejection of their worldview!) And seeing how quickly his following has grown, it's clear the old playbook isn't working.
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