In an interview with the Times, Jordan Peterson revealed the pressure that the last year has put him under. Here, Harry Mount asks what makes him tick
He is an unlikely combination: a Canadian professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and a massive hit on YouTube, after his no-nonsense attacks on political correctness.
He shot to fame in Britain last year after he eviscerated Channel 4 News presenter Cathy Newman when she misunderstood his arguments about the transgender row that first made his name.
In 2016, Peterson came to prominence in Canada in his YouTube talks, attacking a Canadian government bill on transgender rights. He said he wouldn’t be compelled by the proposed law to call students by their transgendered pronouns. He did this on free speech grounds, saying it was wrong that he could be prosecuted for failing to call a transsexual student or academic by their chosen pronoun.
Cathy Newman on Channel 4 said this reaction was offensive – and made her objections to him pretty aggressive.
Peterson responded by saying, ‘You’re exercising your freedom of speech to certainly risk offending me. And that’s fine! I think more power to you, as far as I’m concerned.’
Newman crumbled, admitting, ‘You have got me.’
It was a classic Gotcha! moment. In fact, Peterson said – in a more amused than triumphant way – ‘Ha! Gotcha!’
It’s this calm, clever arguing technique, taking on progressive dogma, that has endeared Peterson to his largely male group of fans.
At 57, he looks like a soberly dressed Daniel Day-Lewis, speaking in gentle, considered tones, far removed from those expected of the traditional ‘shock jock’. He is a Malcolm Gladwell for conservatives, with his arguments rooted in close analysis of the Bible.
Now he has written a book, 12 Rules for Life – An Antidote to Chaos. It’s an antidote to modern self-help books and the school of psychology that recommend positive illusions as the cure for mental health problems. As Peterson puts it, in his characteristic, outspoken words, ‘Their credo? Let a lie be your umbrella. A more dismal, wretched, pessimistic philosophy can hardly be imagined: things are so terrible that only delusion can save you.’
In a nutshell, Peterson’s philosophy is: ‘Pull yourself together.’ It’s particularly aimed at young men who have been told not to be manly; that it’s OK to be weak. It certainly isn’t OK, says Peterson. And, what’s more, women won’t like you if you are weak.
‘Women don’t want boys,’ he writes. ‘They want men. They want someone to contend with; someone to grapple with. If they’re tough, they want someone tougher. If they’re smart, they want someone smarter.’
Peterson sets the background to many of his rules for life in the frozen northern Canada of his youth.
In one summer job, working on a railway crew in central Saskatchewan, he admired and learnt from the hard-as-nails railwaymen. Peterson applies those lessons across the social spectrum: ‘Do your work. Pull your weight. Stay awake and pay attention. Don’t whine or be touchy. Stand up for your friends. Don’t suck up and don’t snitch.’
Young men across North America and Britain are transfixed by the mild-mannered professor telling them to man up like this. In one memorable passage in his book, he compares humans to lobsters, explaining that both species have a natural hierarchy.
‘If you’re a number one [lobster or human]… you’re an overwhelming success. If you’re male, you have preferential access to the best places to live and the highest-quality food… the most desirable females line up and vie for your attention.’
The news isn’t good for low-status lobsters or humans: ‘You have nowhere to live (or nowhere good). Your food is terrible… You’re of minimal romantic interest to anyone.’
Peterson’s cure for these problems is distinctly traditional: steer clear of drugs; find a decent spouse and reliable friends; work hard.
In a way, his new book is an old-fashioned manners manual, with chapters called ‘Stand up straight with your shoulders back’ and ‘Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie.’
Put simply, the world is difficult and life is unfair. You must get tough or die.