In Aspen, Colorado, up a narrow switchback road, high above the picturesque valley, where a house unburdened by close neighbors opens onto a furnished open-air patio, I found Jordan Peterson, arguably the most influential, most controversial, and most improbable intellectual star in North America, earnestly holding forth to several of the very successful locals who were eager to meet him and to ask what project he is up to, exactly, with his relatively newfound fame.
That particular evening, sitting on an outdoor sofa upholstered in white, eschewing caviar hors d’oeuvres and cocktails for water, his back turned to a spectacular view, he was having a quick dinner before an appearance at the Aspen Ideas Festival. But in general, Peterson is traveling the English-speaking world in order to spread the message of this core conviction: that the way to fix what ails Western societies is a psychological project, targeted at helping individuals to get their lives in order, not a sociological project that seeks to improve society through politics, or popular culture, or by focusing on class, racial, or gender identity.
That’s why, despite a bestselling book, a Patreon page that generates a small fortune in revenue each month, a YouTube channel with a massive audience, and the ability to appear regularly on podcasts that reach millions of people, he has recently traveled to dozens of cities to appear before audiences of 2,500 or 3,000 people. He’s in Sacramento today, San Diego tomorrow, Long Beach on Friday, and Thousand Oaks on Saturday. In July and August, he is scheduled to speak in at least 11 Canadian cities. In September and October, he’ll be back in the United States, with speaking appearances in at least 19 more cities.
In almost all of those appearances, he will speak about 12 Rules for Life, a book full of advice. And his fans will ask questions pertaining to its lessons. But the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-sponsored by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, was an anomaly in this series of public appearances: a gathering largely populated by people—Democrats and centrist Republicans, corporate leaders, academics, millionaire philanthropists, journalists—invested in the contrary proposition, that the way to fix what ails society is a sociological project, one that effects change by focusing on politics, or changing popular culture, or spurring technological advances, or investing more in diversity and inclusiveness.
Many of its attendees, like many journalists, are most interested in Peterson as a political figure at the center of controversies, whether about the use of trans pronouns, or gender roles, or sundry critiques of the academic milieu where he spent years, most recently as a tenured University of Toronto professor well-liked by students. Before his rise, no one would’ve imagined that a Jungian academic who lectures on religious texts and timeless lessons that humanity might glean from myth would be a household name, or an author outselling self-help gurus among people seeking to turn their lives around; nor would anyone have anticipated that the very same Canadian professor would be seen by many progressive journalists, left-feminists, and trans activists as a menacing force.
As I’ve delved into Peterson’s work and public statements—an ongoing effort—I’ve often been frustrated by how frequently press accounts misrepresent this person whose beliefs I am trying to grasp (notable exceptions include articles by Wesley Yang and a Scott Alexander book review), wrestled with the actual substance of his views, finding deep areas of agreement and disagreement, and sought interviews with Peterson fans in hopes of clarifying how he is changing their attitudes toward life, culture, and politics. I’ve hoped to avoid the mode of criticism that identifies and focuses only on a figure’s most controversial words, as if locating a sufficiently problematic statement renders it verboten to glean anything of value from a person’s work. Peterson deserves a full, appropriately complex accounting of his best and worst arguments; I intend to give him one soon. For now, I can only tell you how the Peterson phenomenon manifested one night in Aspen, during the briefest of interludes from a book tour, before an audience very unlike those that he is accustomed to on the road.
In fact, I intend to relay a mere subset of what transpired, thanks to able moderation from Bari Weiss of The New York Times and good audience questions.
‘A Gutenberg Revolution’
Most intriguing were Peterson’s remarks on new media. “For the first time in human history the spoken word has the same reach as the written word, and there are no barriers to entry. That’s a Gutenberg revolution,” he said. “That’s a big deal. This is a game changer. The podcast world is also a Gutenberg moment but it’s even more extensive. The problem with books is that you can’t do anything else while you’re reading. But if you’re listening to a podcast you can be driving a tractor or a long haul truck or doing the dishes. So podcasts free up two hours a day for people to engage in educational activity they otherwise wouldn’t be able to engage in. That’s one-eighth of people’s lives. You’re handing people a lot of time back to engage in high-level intellectual education.”
In his estimation, that technological revolution has revealed something good that we didn’t know before: “The narrow bandwidth of TV has made us think that we are stupider than we are. And people have a real hunger for deep intellectual dialogue.” He feels universities ought to have been meeting some of that demand:
I’ve known for years that the university underserved the community, because we assumed that university education is for 18- to 22-year-olds, which is a proposition that’s so absurd it is absolutely mind-boggling that anyone ever conceptualized it. Why wouldn’t you take university courses throughout your entire life? What, you stop searching for wisdom when you’re 22? I don’t think so. You don’t even start until you’re like in your mid 20s. So I knew universities were underserving the broader community a long time ago. But there wasn’t a mechanism whereby that could be rectified.
A Defamation Lawsuit
Earlier this month, Jordan Peterson filed a $1.5 million defamation suit against Wilfrid Laurier University after several of its employees compared him to Adolf Hitler and Milo Yiannopolous while scolding a grad student for showing one of his videos in class. She recorded and later released the conversation.
Weiss pressed him on the decision to sue.
“You are one of the most outspoken champions of free speech right now,” she said. “I would like you to grapple with believing in free speech so strongly, and yet also suing this university for slander.” Isn’t there a danger of a slippery slope? Doesn’t he risk chilling speech?
“Let’s go a little easy on the Hitler comparisons,” he said. “You might want to save that for when it’s really necessary. It’s sacreligious to use an insult like that except in situations where it’s justified … A second thing is that you’re both professors, get your damn words straight. Am I Hitler or Milo Yiannopolous? Those are not the same people! In case you didn’t notice, one of them was the worst barbarian of the 20th century, with the possible exception of Stalin and Mao, and the other one is a provacateur trickster …”
Then he explained his belief that the university hadn’t learned its lesson after the scandal in which it disciplined the graduate student in question; Shepherd is now suing the university. “The only reason I brought the lawsuit forward seven months later was because of what happened with Lindsay Shepherd. What happened to her at Wilfred Laurier was absolutely inexcusable. Everything they did to her was predicated on a lie … I thought, you people haven’t learned anything, you’ve learned absolutely nothing. So if one lawsuit doesn’t convince you maybe two will.”
As for free speech, he continued, “free speech is still bound inside a structure of laws. And these people broke the law. At least that’s my claim. So I don’t see the contradiction there at all. You can’t just slander someone, defame them, lie about them, you can’t incite people to crime, there’s all sorts of reasonable restrictions on free speech that are already codified in the British common-law system.”
Challenged about the possibility that he risks creating a chilling effect, he responded:
Well, you know, I do see it that way, which is why I spent seven months thinking about it before I decided to do it. But there’s always risk in every decision, there’s the risk of doing something, and there’s the risk of not doing something. Both of those risks are usually catastrophic in every decision that you make in life. So I weighed up the risks and I thought, no, the risk here of not doing something is greater than the risk of doing something.
I still think Peterson made the wrong call. Two aspects of his case make slippery-slope concerns especially relevant: First, by his own admission, he is using a defamation suit to teach an ideological adversary a lesson; for prudential reasons, I would urge the use of defamation lawsuits, which are not necessarily inconsistent with a belief in free speech, only for the recovery of actual damages. Second, we’re talking about remarks that were intended to be private and only became public because they were surreptitiously recorded and released.
A Critique of Universities
At times, Peterson sounds a bit like Bernie Sanders. Universities are beyond forgiveness, he argued, because due to the growing ranks of administrators, there’s been a radical increase in tuition. “Unsuspecting students are given free access to student loans that will cripple them through their 30s and their 40s, and the universities are enticing them to extend their carefree adolescence for a four year period at the cost of mortgaging their future in a deal that does not allow for escape through bankruptcy,” he complained. “So it’s essentially a form of indentured servitude. There’s no excuse for that … That cripples the economy because the students become overlaid with debt that they’ll never pay off at the time when they should be at the peak of their ability to take entrepreneurial risks. That’s absolutely appalling.”
Other times, Peterson is frustratingly vague and uncharacteristically imprecise in his critiques of higher education, with frequent, sweeping references to “postmodern cultural marxists” or “the activist disciplines,” language that both heaps disparagement on many who don’t deserve it and fails to home in on problems with enough specificity to debate let alone to remedy them.
Obvious or Wrong?
A critique I frequently hear from Peterson’s critics is that everything he says is either obvious or wrong. I think that critique fails insofar as I sometimes see some critics calling one of his statements obvious even as others insist it is obviously wrong. While milling about the venue after the event and speaking with other attendees, for example, I heard both critiques of these remarks:
Let me lay out one of the personality differences between men and women because it is worth understanding. And you might say, well there can't be personality differences between men and women. That's anti-feminist. And it's like: No, it's not.
We might have to actually understand that there are differences between men and women so that we can let them make the choices they are going to make without subjecting them to undue manipulation. So a reliable difference among men and women cross-culturally is that men are more aggressive than women. Now what's the evidence for that? Here's one piece of evidence: There are 10 times as many men in prison. Now is that a sociocultural construct?
It's like, no, it's not a sociocultural construct. Okay?
Here's another piece of data. Women try to commit suicide more than men by a lot, and that's because women are more prone to depression and anxiety than men are. And there are reasons for that, and that's cross-cultural as well. Now men are way more likely to actually commit suicide. Why? Because they're more aggressive so they use lethal means. So now the question is how much more aggressive are men than women? The answer is not very much. So the claim that men and women are more the same than different is actually true. This is where you have to know something about statistics to understand the way the world works, instead of just applying your a priori ideological presuppositions to things that are too complex to fit in that rubric.
So if you draw two people out of a crowd, one man and one woman, and you had to lay a bet on who was more aggressive, and you bet on the woman, you'd win 40 percent of the time. That's quite a lot. It isn't 50 percent of the time which would be no differences. But it’s a lot. There are lots of women who are more aggressive than lots of men. So the curves overlap a lot. There's way more similarity than difference. And this is along the dimension where there's the most difference. But here's the problem. You can take small differences at the average of a distribution. Then the distributions move off to the side. And then all the action is at the tail. So here's the situation. You don't care about how aggressive the average person is. It's not that relevant. What people care about is who is the most aggressive person out of 100, because that's the person you'd better watch out for.
And what's the gender?
Men. Because if you go two standard deviations out from the mean on two curves that overlap but are disjointed, then you derive an overwhelming preponderance of the overrepresented group. That's why men are about 10 times more likely to be in prison.
Among Peterson’s critics on gender issues, is the view that men are more aggressive than women for reasons other than socialization considered uncontroversially right or controversially wrong? I am uncertain about the answer.
In response to a negative review of 12 Rules in the New York Review of Books, Peterson famously Tweeted, “You arrogant, racist son of a bitch Pankaj Mishra: How dare you accuse me of ‘harmlessly romancing the noble savage.’ That's how you refer to my friend Charles Joseph (http://charlesjoseph.ca/ ), who I've worked with for 15 years? And you call me a fascist? You sanctimonious prick. If you were in my room at the moment, I'd slap you happily.”
It was an uncharacteristic attack that has ever since been used against him by critics, who rightly believe that it makes him look bad. Does he regret having posted it?
Not a bit. And I'll tell you why. Well, it's really complicated, you know. I have this friend who is a Native carver. He comes from a very rough background. Like, way rougher than you think. And maybe some of you have come from rough backgrounds or you know people who've come from them. But he comes from a plenty rough background. I started working with him, buying his art, 15 years ago, and he was a survivor of residential schools in Canada, and we got pretty close. He helped me design the third floor of my house. And the long and short of it is that I got inducted into his family about a year-and-a-half ago in that big ceremony back in a Native reservation in northern Vancouver. We've been through a lot together. And a lot of it is pretty rough.
And whatever the hell his name was had the temerity to say that I was romancing the noble savage. Watch your step, buddy. You don't know what the hell you're talking about even a bit. Had I been a left-leaning personage and he had made a comment like that there would be hell to pay—which isn't to say that I'm a right-leaning personage, by the way. So I don't regret it a bit. What he said was absolutely reprehensible. And he should have been called out on it. So I don't regret it at all. A lot of people said it might have been better for me not to have made that comment and it's possible that they're right. But I actually thought about it and there's no excuse for it--you don't know what you're talking about and you're meddling in things you don't understand. And you're making a casual aspersion not only on me but on my 'Noble Savage' friend.
(After The Walrus questioned the accuracy of Peterson’s claims on this subject, his publisher changed his author biography, which originally stated that he had been “inducted into the coastal Pacific Kwakwaka’wakw tribe,” to stated that he had been “invited into and named by that Canadian First Nation.”)
As a proponent of civility I differ from him here, noxious as I found that review.
On ‘Enforced Monogamy’
In a New York Times article titled, “Jordan Peterson, Custodian of the Patriarchy,” the writer Nellie Bowles quoted her subject as follows:
Violent attacks are what happens when men do not have partners, Mr. Peterson says, and society needs to work to make sure those men are married.
“He was angry at God because women were rejecting him,” Mr. Peterson says of the Toronto killer. “The cure for that is enforced monogamy. That’s actually why monogamy emerges.”
Mr. Peterson does not pause when he says this. Enforced monogamy is, to him, simply a rational solution. Otherwise women will all only go for the most high-status men, he explains, and that couldn’t make either gender happy in the end.
Ever since, some Peterson critics have claimed that Peterson wants to force women to have sex with male incels, or something similarly dystopian.
Asked about the controversy, Peterson said of “enforced monogamy”:
First of all, that's a technical term, by the way, that's been used in the anthropological literature for 100 years … What's even more surreal about that story is that if you're going to try to undermine someone's credibility, and do it effectively, you should attribute to them an extreme view that some person somewhere actually holds. The view attributed to me was that I want to find useless men, distribute women to them at the point of a gun so that they don't become violent—it's like, no one has ever believed that, ever, anywhere.
So it's just absolutely preposterous.
...it's an anthropological truism generated primarily through scholars on the left, just so everybody is clear about it, that societies that use monogamy as a social norm, which by the way is virtually every human society that ever existed, do that in an attempt to control the aggression that goes along with polygamy. It's like ‘Oh my God, how contentious can you get.’ Well, how many of you are in monogamous relationships? A majority. How is that enforced?...As if I want to take women at the point of a gun and distribute them to useless men.
He went on to complain that a view some attributed to him runs directly contrary to what he actually tells some men:
...one of the things I've told men over and over and over and over is if you're being rejected by all the women that you approach, it’s not the women! Right? Because these characters, like the guy who mowed down those women in Toronto, he winds up blaming women—he's blaming more than women in some sense, he's blaming the structure of being for producing women that reject him—it's like, what the hell is wrong with him? He's got it completely backwards. If everyone you talk to is boring it’s not them! And so if you're rejected by the opposite sex, if you’re heterosexual, then you're wrong, they're not wrong, and you've got some work to do, man. You've got some difficult work to do. And there isn't anything I've been telling young men that's clearer than that … What I've been telling people is take the responsibility for failure onto yourself.
That's a hint that you've got work to do. It could also be a hint that you're young and useless and why the hell would anybody have anything to do with you because you don't have anything to offer. And that's rectifiable. Maturity helps to rectify that.
The Trans Debate
The original Peterson political controversy was the subject of this exchange between Peterson and Weiss:
Peterson: I'm loathed by a very small percentage of very noisy people.
Whenever I'm interviewed by journalists who have the scent of blood in their nose, let's say, they're very willing and able to characterize the situation I find myself in as political. But that's because they can't see the world in any other manner. The political is a tiny fraction of the world. And what I'm doing isn't political. It's psychological or theological. The political element is peripheral. And if people come to the live lectures, let's say, that's absolutely self-evident. That isn't why people are there. That isn't why people talk to me afterwards. It's fundamentally irrelevant. The only reason this ever became political is because in Canada our provincial and federal governments had the unspeakable arrogance to propose compelled speech legislation in the British common-law system where that had never been done even once.
Weiss: You are often characterized, at least in the mainstream press, as being transphobic. If you had a student come to you and say, I was born female, I now identify as male, I want you to call me by male pronouns. Would you say yes to that?
Peterson: Well, it would depend on the student and the context and why I thought they were asking me and what I believe their demand actually characterized, and all of that. Because that can be done in a way that is genuine and acceptable, and a way that is manipulative and unacceptable. And if it was genuine and acceptable then I would have no problem with it. And if it was manipulative and unacceptable then not a chance. And you might think, ‘Well, who am I to judge?’ Well, first of all, I am a clinical psychologist, I've talked to people for about 25,000 hours. And I'm responsible for judging how I am going to use my words. I'd judge the same way I judge all my interactions with people, which is to the best of my ability, and characterized by all the errors that I'm prone to. I'm not saying that my judgment would be unerring. I live with the consequences and I'm willing to accept the responsibility.
But also to be clear about this, it never happened––I never refused to call anyone by anything they had asked me to call them by, although that's been reported multiple times. It's a complete falsehood. And it had nothing to do with the transgender issue as far as I'm concerned.
Later, during audience questions, John McWhorter, the Columbia University linguist and heterodox intellectual, engaged Peterson in an extended debate about the same issue.
Professor Peterson, I teach students.
I teach trans students. And I'm asked often to call people singularly they. It started probably about four years ago. It struck me as very odd. I'm 52. And some of them you can tell that it’s coming from a very deep place. That's how they feel, and they deeply need to be called they. Some of them, my horse sense says, that they're kind of enjoying giving me a certain shock, and there's a certain theatrical element. That's my horse sense, that there's a certain épater la bourgeoisie about it. I feel it. And I'm probably right. But I can't know. I'm a linguist, I'm a person, and my general feeling has been that whatever they ask I just go with it, and let's change the usage of the pronouns because we have a lot to do.
Now what you said is interesting.
You said that how you make the difference in deciding these cases is that you have psychological training, and you can tell. What I want to know is, for my own elucidation and also because many of us wondered but then it kind of went by: How do you know?
Now, I want to specify, I'd rather you didn't recount the whole episode of how ridiculously you were treated amidst that whole controversy. Three quarters of the room knows. I sympathize with you. I thought it was ridiculous. I want to know specifically, because I'm a linguist without psychological training: How do you know?
And if you hear a tiny bit of skepticism in my voice, you're correct—however, I am open to being convinced. Based on your training, which is immense, how would you know which students to discount as opposed to which ones to go along?
Peterson’s initial answer:
Well, first of all I wouldn't know, which is partly why your skepticism is justified. But I have to be responsible for what I say based on my willingness to take responsibility for my judgment. So I would be willing to do that despite the fact that I might be wrong. Having said that, in any reasonable situation I would err on the side of addressing the person in the manner in which they want to be addressed.
But that's not the issue for me. The issue is that now I'm compelled by law to do so. It's like: No, not doing it. Not now, because it's compelled by law, so that's the end of the game so far as I'm concerned. There's no excuse for compelling it by law. I don't think it was an isolated legislative move. I think it was part and parcel of a whole series of legislative moves that have been made. I think it's an attempt by a certain radical ideology to get the linguistic upper hand, which I think is a terrible thing to do. So I have lots of reasons for rejecting the legislation.
This exchange followed:
McWhorter: I want to hear about how your psychological training makes the difference. That's very interesting. We're talking about expertise here. And my ears pricked up when you talked about how there is a way of thinking that would allow us to decide.
Peterson: No, there's a way of thinking that would allow me to decide for me.
McWhorter: No, us to decide for us. Surely you have a larger mission than what's going on in your own head, and I mean that.
Peterson: No, I have a perfectly straightforward mission which is that there was no damn way I was going to say those words if compelled to by law. That was my mission.
McWhorter: You didn't want to model for the rest of us a way of thinking? It was really only about you?
Peterson: Well, it was about me and the law. I thought the lawmakers had gone too far. They stepped out of their appropriate territory into the realm of linguistic freedom. And as far as I was concerned I wasn't going to put up with that … And I've spoken with no shortage of trans people. And my proclivity has been, without exception so far, to address them in the manner that seems most socially appropriate.
Now you asked a specific question. Do I have special expertise that I might share with other people––
McWhorter: Because you're doing Martin Luther and I think these issues are a little subtler than those.
Peterson: Well, what makes you think that you’re doing the kids who are grandstanding any favors by going along with their manipulation?
McWhorter: Because I can't know which ones those are.
Peterson: Well, fair enough, but you have a type one and type two error problem. One error is that you don't call students what they deserve to be called. That's one error. And the other error is that you call students what they want to be called even though they don't deserve it. And what you're trying to do ought to be to minimize both of those errors. To do that you have to take a middle route.
Now, what you've decided to do—and I'm not criticizing it—you've decided to allow for the possibility of 100 percent of one of those errors, because you think it's a less significant error. You know, you might be right, but it's not like you're acting in an error-free manner. You decided to minimize one form of error at the expense of the other. Because I'd say you're allowing attention-seeking and somewhat narcissistic undergraduates to gain the upper hand over you in your class. Now believe me, it's not a criticism, I understand why you're doing it.
Weiss: Isn't John just erring on the side of generosity and compassion?
McWhorter: I have one more thing to say. I'm not going to take up any more space. Are you saying that psychological theory has nothing to teach us about this? Because you're talking around my question. You're gorgeously articulate. You're smarter than me. Does psychology have anything to teach us or not? Yes or no?
Peterson: I don't think it has anything to offer that I could teach you without––hmmm, let me think––
McWhorter: So it's just too complicated?
Peterson: Well, it is that in part because it's not easy to articulate out the principles, the unerring principles by which you would make such a categorical judgment. Right? Because those are very situation-specific problems.
It's partly the problem of how to make a generic moral truth apply to an individualistic problem. And the problem in the situation you're describing is generally that the devil is in the details, right? You have all these students, they vary in their attitudes to their self-professed gender from the ones who are grandstanding, let's say, to the ones who are very serious, and you have to make a judgment in the moment on the variables that present themselves in a very complex way in that situation. And I understand why you took the pathway you took, it was perfectly reasonable to do so. My point was that you don't minimize all the errors by doing so. It's a fine way of approaching it.
My point was that because of my psychological acumen, I would say, the experience I've derived, I would be comfortable in making the judgment and taking the consequential risk. I'm not saying I would be correct. That's not the same thing at all. I'm willing to suffer the consequences of my error. That's not the same as being right. And so if I feel a student is manipulating me I'm not going to go along with it. I might be wrong about that and hurt someone who is genuinely asking me for something that they need. But I'm also, what would you say, sensitive to the error of allowing manipulation to go unchecked.
McWhorter: Everything you're saying is very well put but it's awfully slippery and I know you can do better.
I agree with McWhorter that Peterson was talking around his question—Peterson neither withdrew the claim that he possessed psychological expertise relevant to the matter at hand, nor clarified its nature in any sort of persuasive manner, nor articulated any reason to conclude that being manipulated into pronoun usage by a student falsely claiming to be trans is a likely or harmful event. Peterson’s posture seems more like misplaced stubbornness than anything else.
At the same time, note what his avowed position is: that he has never refused to call a transgender person by their preferred pronoun, that he has done so many times, that he would always try to err on the side of believing a request to be earnest, and that he reserves the right to decline a request he believes to be in bad faith. Whether one finds that to be reasonable or needlessly difficult, it seems irresponsible to tell trans people that a prominent intellectual hates them or is deeply antagonistic to them when the only seeming conflict is utterly hypothetical and ostensibly not even directed against people that Peterson believes to be trans, but only against people whom he does not believe to be trans.
Why is a Canadian academic with a viewpoint so seemingly idiosyncratic and peripheral to trans rights regarded as such a primary adversary of the left on this topic? Answers to that question, and any comments on Peterson, positive or negative, in advance of future efforts to more fully characterize his views and his effects on the lives of his fans are welcome. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.