Is this Peterson guy dangerous? Maybe not physically (Jordan Peterson is not an impressive physical specimen, regardless of his “dominant lobster” posturing attempts). But mentally? Yes indeed. And no one knows better than his U of T colleague, Prof. Bernard Schiff, who initially championed him, and later came to question that decision. Here are some representative snippets:
Several years ago, Jordan Peterson told me he wanted to buy a church. This was long before he became known as “the most influential public intellectual in the Western world,” as he was described in the pages of the New York Times a few months ago. It was before he was fancied to be a truth-telling sage who inspired legions, and the author of one of the bestselling books in the world this year. He was just my colleague and friend.
I assumed that it was for a new home — there was a trend in Toronto of converting religious spaces, vacant because of their dwindling congregations, into stylish lofts — but he corrected me. He wanted to establish a church, he said, in which he would deliver sermons every Sunday.
He wanted to actually lead a church? That sounds cultish already. And that’s only the beginning:
I am alarmed by his now-questionable relationship to truth, intellectual integrity and common decency, which I had not seen before. His output is voluminous and filled with oversimplifications which obscure or misrepresent complex matters in the service of a message which is difficult to pin down. He can be very persuasive, and toys with facts and with people’s emotions. I believe he is a man with a mission. It is less clear what that mission is.
Well, yes and no, Prof. Schiff. I’d say that his mission is clear enough, judging by the overall behavior of the man and the far-right nature of his followers. I smell a right-wing Jim Jones here. One who is leveraging his past (modest) achievements in the field of psychology to sell snake oil and poisoned Kool-Aid to the masses, and succeeding in getting a lot of Freeze Peach absolutists on board with what is ultimately a very unsavory mission to be the defender of the defended, voice of the voiceful, and the empowerer of the already-too-powerful. But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit here, so let’s snip some more…
We did not share research interests but it was clear that his work was solid. My colleagues on the search committee were skeptical — they felt he was too eccentric — but somehow I prevailed. (Several committee members now remind me that they agreed to hire him because they were “tired of hearing me shout over them.”) I pushed for him because he was a divergent thinker, self-educated in the humanities, intellectually flamboyant, bold, energetic and confident, bordering on arrogant. I thought he would bring a new excitement, along with new ideas, to our department.
He joined us in the summer of 1998. Because I liked him, and also because I had put myself on the line for him, I took him under my wing. I made sure he went up for promotion to associate professor the following year, as the hiring committee had promised, and I went to the dean to get him a raise when the department chairperson would not.
This is interesting, and raises a red flag. What did the colleagues (not named, probably to protect their privacy from all the Peterson fanboys) know that Prof. Schiff was unwilling or unable, as yet, to see and confront here? And what were the department chair’s reasons for not promoting him or giving him a raise? We don’t know, but if Peterson’s behavior in the limelight is any indication, I’d say their concerns were pretty well founded. The man’s no genius (he’s an intellectual slob actually), but he appears to enjoy being thought of as such. And he’s not a bit shy about seeking the status of a guru, nor is he offering more than weak and token protest against the far-rightists who have latched onto his Freeze Peach arguments with the greatest enthusiasm. Who does that remind you of? (As a Bad German, I could tell you what it looks like to me, but again…that would be getting ahead of myself. Onwards.)
On campus, he was as interesting as I had expected him to be. His research on alcoholism, and then personality, was solid, but his consuming intellectual interests lay elsewhere. He had been an undergraduate in political science in Edmonton, where he had become obsessed with the Cold War. He switched to psychology in order to understand why some people would, as he once told me, destroy everything — their past, their present and their future — because of strong beliefs. That was the subject of his first book, Maps of Meaning, published in 1999, and the topic of his most popular undergraduate course.
He was, however, more eccentric than I had expected. He was a maverick. Even though there was nothing contentious about his research, he objected in principle to having it reviewed by the university research ethics committee, whose purpose is to protect the safety and well-being of experiment subjects.
He requested a meeting with the committee. I was not present but was told that he had questioned the authority and expertise of the committee members, had insisted that he alone was in a position to judge whether his research was ethical and that, in any case, he was fully capable of making such decisions himself. He was impervious to the fact that subjects in psychological research had been, on occasion, subjected to bad experiences, and also to the fact that both the Canadian and United States governments had made these reviews mandatory. What was he doing! I managed to make light of this to myself by attributing it to his unbridled energy and fierce independence, which were, in many other ways, virtues. That was a mistake.
Another thing to which I did not give sufficient concern was his teaching. As the undergraduate chair, I read all teaching reviews. His were, for the most part, excellent and included eyebrow-raising comments such as “This course has changed my life.” One student, however, hated the course because he did not like “delivered truths.” Curious, I attended many of Jordan’s lectures to see for myself.
Remarkably, the 50 students always showed up at 9 a.m. and were held in rapt attention for an hour. Jordan was a captivating lecturer — electric and eclectic — cherry-picking from neuroscience, mythology, psychology, philosophy, the Bible and popular culture. The class loved him. But, as reported by that one astute student, Jordan presented conjecture as statement of fact. I expressed my concern to him about this a number of times, and each time Jordan agreed. He acknowledged the danger of such practices, but then continued to do it again and again, as if he could not control himself.
He was a preacher more than a teacher.
Okay, that snippet was a bit lengthy, but you can see the red flags going up all over it here, can you not? Obsession with communism (which by that time was no longer considered a threat by any political scientist worthy of note); objection to a routine review of his work by the university ethics committee (WHY?); questioning the qualifications of others to review him, while trying to position himself as being above question (uh-oh!); objection “in principle” to mandatory reviews designed to protect the safety of persons being used as psychological research subjects (double uh-oh); unwillingness to realize that some of those subjects had been mentally abused (MKULTRA in Montréal, anyone?); and most insidious, but also most telling, the “delivered truths” that some of his more fanatical students found “life-changing”.
That last is a huge red flag to anyone who, like me, has had some experience with New Age religious movements and cults. We learn to spot the potential charlatans pretty quickly, because they rake in the big money, and buzzwords like “truth” and “it changed my life” figure strongly in THEIR sales spiels, too. And if you think I exaggerate their dangers, you might want to take a gander at this next snippet:
Always intense, it seemed that, over time, Jordan was becoming even more so. He had periods of incredible energy when, in addition to his academic work, he ran a business selling the personality assessment tools that he had developed. He actively collected Soviet, and then Mexican art, on eBay. He maintained a clinical practice. He was preoccupied with alternative health treatments including fighting off the signs of aging as they appear on the skin, and, one time, even shamanic healing practices, where, to my great surprise and distress, he chose to be the shaman himself. And he did all of that with the same great fervour and commitment.
Again: Obsession with communism (specifically, “Socialist Realism” style art); peddling his own program (snake oil with an academic gloss?); “alternative health treatments” aimed at fighting the signs of aging on the skin (which, as any good dermatologist could tell you, should be viewed with caution — and seem not to have worked either, because the man is definitely showing all his age and then some).
And oh yeah, “shamanic healing practices” in which Peterson played the shaman, himself. On what authority? Given the pattern established above, I’m going to go way out on a limb and guess that the “authority” was strictly self-arrogated, by none other than Jordan Peterson — who has published no peer-reviewed studies of his own in shamanism, and probably got what he did from the same hokey New Age sections in bookstores where I saw them (and gave the vast majority a leery side-eye, because holy snake oil, Batman).
Meanwhile, the red flags just keep on adding up:
What was off-putting was his tendency to be categorical about his positions, reminiscent of his lectures where he presented personal theories as absolute truths. I rarely challenged him. He overwhelmed challenges with volumes of information that were hard to process and evaluate. He was more forceful than I, and had a much quicker mind. Also, again evocative of what I saw in the classroom, he sometimes appeared to be in the thrall of his ideas and would not, or could not, constrain himself and self-monitor what he was saying.
Categorical positions. Overwhelmed colleagues with information that was hard to process (that argumentation style, BTW, is called the Gish Gallop, and is a hallmark of the snake-oil peddler). And most unnerving, his ideas kept running away with him in class, and he made no effort to check or moderate himself. (Again, this Bad German is reminded of someone who acted much the same way in his own speeches. Oh, whoever could it be???)
All of this could still be harmless enough, had it remained contained in U of T’s ivy-hung halls. But it wasn’t.
Jordan’s first high-profile public battle, and for many people their introduction to the man, followed his declaration that he would not comply with Bill C-16, an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act extending its protections to include gender identity and expression. He would refuse to refer to students using gender neutral pronouns. He then upped the stakes by claiming that, for this transgression, he could be sent to jail.
Which, of course, he wasn’t. He’s still out there, preaching away, completely unimpeded. But interestingly, and characteristically, he’s changed his tune ever so slightly:
Jordan told me if he refused to pay the fine he could go to jail. That is not the same as being jailed for what you say, but it did ennoble him as a would-be martyr in the defence of free speech. He was a true free speech “warrior” who was willing to sacrifice and run roughshod over his students to make a point. He could have spared his students and chosen to sidestep the issue and refer to them by their names. And if this was truly a matter of free speech he could have challenged the Human Rights Act, off-campus and much earlier, by openly using language offensive to any of the already-protected groups on that list.
Ah, the martyr complex. I know I’ve seen that somewhere. But where? WHERE???
Note that Jordan Peterson has been neither fined nor jailed, incidentally, for his “pro-free-speech” stance. But people are sending him pots of money, believing that he’s going to need it to bail him out. He won’t. He might need it for a legal settlement, though…one in which he’ll be having to pay up for making others’ lives unduly hard, and actively interfering therein:
Not long afterwards the following message was sent from his wife’s email address exhorting recipients to sign a petition opposing Ontario’s Bill 28. That bill proposed changing the language in legislation about families from “mother” and “father” to the gender-neutral “parents.”
“A new bill, introduced in Ontario on September 29th, subjugates the natural family to the transgender agenda. The bill — misleadingly called the ‘All Families Are Equal Act’ — is moving extremely fast. We must ACT NOW to stop this bill from passing into law.”
This is not a free-speech issue so Jordan is wearing a different political hat. And what does a “transgender agenda” have to do with a bill protecting same-sex parents? What is this all about?
It’s pretty obvious to me what this is all about. Jordan Peterson, self-styled Free Speech Warrior, is going to battle against the free-speech rights of others, and their right to have their families recognized as legally equal to any other. In other words, he’s using his own cries that he’s being oppressed to actively oppress others! Who does that remind you of? It reminds me of someone…
Jordan has studied and understands authoritarian demagogic leaders. They know how to attract a following. In an interview with Ethan Klein in an H3 Podcast, Jordan describes how such leaders learn to repeat those things which make the crowd roar, and not repeat those things that do not. The crowd roared the first time Jordan opposed the so-called “transgender agenda.” Perhaps they would roar again, whether it made sense or not.
But why “transgender” in the first place? In that same interview, Jordan cites Carl Jung, who talked about the effectiveness of powerful emotional oratorical skills to tap into the collective unconscious of a people, and into their anger, resentment, fear of chaos and need for order. He talked about how those demagogic leaders led by acting out the dark desires of the mob.
Interesting how he’s managed to inadvertently psychoanalyze himself here, no? But of course, he’s not a demagogue himself, oh nooooo. He’s just some poor oppressed little psych professor who’s going to jail for refusing to use gender-neutral pronouns when a student requested them! Please send more money via Patreon, NOW!
More recently, when questioned about the merits of “12 Rules for Life”, Jordan answered that he must be doing something right because of the huge response the book has received. How odd given what he said in that same interview about demagogues and cheering crowds. In an article published in January in the Spectator, Douglas Murray described the atmosphere at one of Jordan’s talks as “ecstatic.”
I have no way of knowing whether Jordan is aware that he is playing out of the same authoritarian demagogue handbook that he himself has described. If he is unaware, then his ironic failure, unwillingness, or inability to see in himself what he attributes to them is very disconcerting.
Isn’t it, though? Again, it so reminds me of someone…
His strategy is eerily familiar. In the 1950s a vicious attack on freedom of speech and thought occurred in the United States at the hands of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. People suspected of having left-wing, “Communist” leanings were blacklisted and silenced. It was a frightening period of lost jobs, broken lives and betrayal. Ironically, around this time the Stasi were doing the same to people in East Berlin who were disloyal to that very same “murderous” ideology.
Well, that’s close. But it’s not quite who I had in mind. I had actually pictured something more like this:
Oops. Too soon? Too bad. Because if the shoe fits…
Jordan has a complex relationship to freedom of speech. He wants to effectively silence those left-wing professors by keeping students away from their courses because the students may one day become “anarchical social revolutionaries” who may bring upon us disruption and violence. At the same time he was advocating cutting funds to universities that did not protect free speech on their campuses. He defended the rights of “alt right” voices to speak at universities even though their presence has given rise to disruption and violence. For Jordan, it appears, not all speech is equal, and not all disruption and violence are equal, either.
If Jordan is not a true free speech warrior, then what is he? The email sent through his wife’s account described Bill 28, the parenting bill, as part of the “transgender agenda” and claimed it was “misleadingly” called “All Families are Equal.” Misleading? What same-sex families and transgender people have in common is their upset of the social order. In Maps of Meaning, Jordan’s first book, he is exercised by the breakdown of the social order and the chaos that he believes would result. Jordan is fighting to maintain the status quo to keep chaos at bay, or so he believes. He is not a free speech warrior. He is a social order warrior.
…he can WEAR that motherfucker. Hitler was a “social order warrior”, too. How do I know? Because I’m German, and I have relatives who lived those times and told the tale. Hitler wasn’t an “agent of chaos”, as Peterson falsely paints him. He was orderly to a fault. Cleanliness wasn’t merely Reinlichkeit, it was Deutsche Reinlichkeit — literally, “German cleanliness”. And that meant racial and ethnic cleansing, too. Jews, Gypsies, believers of religions that didn’t fit the “clean” Catholic and Protestant denominations that were in line with Nazism, atheists, gays, the disabled, labor unions, anybody non-“Aryan” — all had to be “cleansed”. Oh yeah, and so did Marxists, whom he also labelled “Cultural Bolsheviks” (sound familiar???). You already probably know how this was done, so I won’t bother with any history lessons here; all I’ll say is that Peterson, true to form, even gets his role models dead wrong. No, not Carl Jung, who advocated integrating one’s undesirable “Shadow” side with one’s more socially-accepted daylight persona. Herr Gott-Mit-Uns is whose footsteps he’s really following, whether he realizes it or not. At best, he’s a mere charlatan who wants to be a demagogue; at worst, he already is a demagogue with an extensive sphere of political influence. He thinks he’s a martyr for free speech, but actually, he’s a fascist suppressing it, and targeting anyone — academician or student — who dares to dissent from his ultra-orthodox bunkum.
And, in true crapitalist fashion, is making pots of money off it, too.