In Depth

Jordan B. Peterson: star psychologist or ‘professor of piffle’?

Canada’s anti-snowflake crusader has acquired a cult following but not everyone thinks he’s a man of substance

Psychology professor and culture warrior Jordan B Peterson is a divisive figure.

The American social critic Camille Paglia describes him as “the most important and influential Canadian thinker since Marshall McLuhan”, while US economist Tyler Cowen believes the bestselling author is “the most influential public intellectual in the western world”.

But fellow University of Toronto professor Ira Wells has written a scathing article entitled “the professor of piffle”, describing Peterson as a mere YouTube star rather than a credible intellectual. Canadian magazine Macleans has labelled him “the stupid man’s smart person”.

“He’s very much a cult thing, in every regard. I think he’s a goof, which does not mean he’s not dangerous,” Macleans columnist Tabatha Southey writes.

So what does the 55-year-old professor believe and why is he so controversial? As a Globe and Mail headline puts it: Is it “high intellect, or just another angry white guy?”

A ‘reluctant star’

Peterson’s star rose in 2016 with a YouTube series called “Professor Against Political Correctness”.

He has “no truck with ‘white privilege’, ‘cultural appropriation’ and a range of other ideas associated with social justice movements,” says The Guardian. “His reluctance to call transgender people by their preferred pronouns (unless they ask him to) has earned him a reputation as a transphobe, and while his views have marginalised him within the academic community, they have bolstered his reputation in conservative circles.”

Peterson claims to be a reluctant star.

“In a sensible world, I would have got my 15 minutes of fame,” he told the Ottawa Citizen last year. “I feel like I’m surfing a giant wave… and it could come crashing down and wipe me out, or I could ride it and continue.”

His 15 minutes of UK fame came in the form of an interview with Channel 4’s Cathy Newman, which has so far been viewed almost 7 million times on YouTube.

At its core, the interview, was “an argument between classical liberal ideas and modern identity politics,” says The Guardian’s Matthew D’Ancona.

“Peterson made his case with reference to individual characteristics and attributes; Newman challenged him to consider the structural disadvantages facing, say, women in the workplace or transgender students.”

His showmanship was as noteworthy as his ideas.

“When he performs his expertise on the media – notably his exchange with Channel 4 News’s Cathy Newman – Peterson cites his sources and references with intimidating confidence,” says The National’s Pat Kane.

But some critics say his research is weak, attacking his new book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. In it, Peterson uses lobsters as an example to explain human hierarchies. He notes how lobsters who lose enough fights on the ocean floor also lose social status and stop producing serotonin.

But, as Leonor Goncalves, a Research Associate in Neuroscience at University College London, writes in The Conversation, lobsters and humans are “just not a great comparison”.

“The human brain is hugely malleable and that behaviour and society can influence how it develops,” says Goncalves. “Humans crave change and challenge. We also try to make our societies more fair and balanced and aspire to make humanity better and more advanced.” 

Bill C-16

In Canada, Peterson is known by many for his stand against former Bill C-16, a defence of transgender rights that passed into law last year. He claims the change to the Criminal Code means he could now be prosecuted for refusing to call a transsexual student or faculty member by the individual’s preferred pronoun.

As he wrote in 2016 in the National Post: “I will never use words I hate, like the trendy and artificially constructed words ‘zhe’ and ‘zher’. These words are at the vanguard of a postmodern, radical leftist ideology that I detest, and which is, in my professional opinion, frighteningly similar to the Marxist doctrines that killed at least 100 million people in the 20th century.”

Peterson did “something a decreasing number of people in our societies are willing to do: he stuck his head above the parapet,” says The Spectator’s Douglas Murray. “He politely but firmly objected to officials telling him or anyone else what words to use or to define for him what the meanings of words should be.”

Not everyone is convinced by the professor’s views.

“Peterson’s secret sauce is to provide an academic veneer to a lot of old-school rightwing cant, including the notion that most academia is corrupt and evil, and banal self-help patter,” says Tabatha Southey.

“How does one effectively debate a man who seems obsessed with telling his adoring followers that there is a secret cabal of postmodern neo-Marxists hellbent on destroying western civilisation and that their campus LGBTQ group is part of it?” she writes. “There’s never going to be a point where he says: ‘You know what? You’re right, I was talking out of my a** back there.’ It’s very much about him attempting to dominate the conversation.”

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