The feminist case for Jordan Peterson
I came to mock the Canadian guru but stayed to respect the depth of his thought
I wrote the first draft of this article almost exactly two years ago. Twelve Rules for Life — a book that would go on to sell more than 3 million copies — had just been published and its author, Jordan Peterson, clinical psychologist and academic at the University of Toronto, had recently appeared in a Channel 4 interview with Cathy Newman in which he had made some controversial statements about the gender pay gap that had attracted a lot of attention. I was commissioned to write a review of Twelve Rules. I never published it, because soon afterwards I accepted the offer of a job at a rape crisis centre and I suspected that writing on such a controversial figure — even to condemn him — could get me into trouble with my new employer. I put the review aside.
When I began writing this piece, I returned to that first draft and I discovered that it was not good. Like most progressives, I had taken an instinctive dislike to Peterson, and had set out to write a snarky review that would make my ideological allies feel good about themselves. No doubt I was motivated by a certain snobbishness too, reluctant to believe that so many ordinary people could have bought a book — a self-help book, for goodness’ sake — and that it could have any real worth. The result was glib and dishonest. I regret that now.
For a year or so following the publication of Twelve Rules, I mostly forgot about Peterson. Meanwhile, he became ever more famous. His global speaking tours attract huge numbers of adoring fans who credit him with transforming their lives for the better. His critics hate him with equal fervour, believing him to be representative of a sinister turn against progressivism that is now ascendant.
Peterson entered the public eye in 2016 when he released a series of video lectures on Bill C-16, a proposed amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act that would, he argued, categorise a refusal to use preferred pronouns for transgender people as equivalent to hate speech. An almighty outcry ensued, as it always does, and Peterson was cast as the figurehead of a backlash against woke identity politics. He became very well known, very quickly, and all of a sudden this academic from rural Alberta, described affectionately as a “cowboy psychologist” by his friends, was everywhere.
At least Peterson is thinking hard about this issue — harder, in fact, than the authors of most “gender and sexuality” books
The last few years have been difficult for Peterson. In 2018 his wife Tammy was diagnosed with cancer, and Peterson – who has spoken openly about his history of depression – began taking anti-anxiety medication. He became physically dependent on the drugs and last year he admitted himself to a medical centre in Russia where he was placed in an induced coma. His daughter Mikhaila has recently reported that his health is now improving, although he came close to death.
Twelve Rules is his second book. He wrote his first, Maps of Meaning — a dense academic study of mythology — over the course of 13 years and, before his rise to stardom, it attracted few readers. Before he became famous, his principal academic contribution was in the study of personality.
It was this academic work that brought me back to Peterson, almost by accident. I had developed an interest in personality disorders and was writing something on the subject. Watching a lecture by a psychiatrist on YouTube, a similar Peterson video was suggested to me. I clicked. I found it interesting. I kept clicking.
There are hundreds of hours of Peterson’s academic lectures available on YouTube, the platform on which he has found most success. These videos show Peterson loping across the front of the lecture theatre, speaking always without notes. He has an unusual voice, which he himself compares to that of Kermit the Frog, and a habit of bellowing “No, WRONG” if he disagrees with an idea. In both his speaking and his writing, he expresses himself with clarity and certainty — too much certainty, perhaps. “This is good,” he often tell us, or “this is not good”; “things will go well for you” if something happens, or “things will not go well for you” if something else.
“I am always surprised when people respond positively to what I am saying, given its seriousness and strange nature,” he writes in Twelve Rules. And yes, his message is both serious and strange. He has spent a lifetime focusing on one question in particular, attacked from a multitude of directions: why do people risk everything for the sake of ideology? By which he means, not belief systems as such, but specifically totalising belief systems that simplify the world into opposing forces of good (us) and evil (them). Growing up in the midst of the Cold War, threatened by the very real prospect of global destruction, it seemed to Peterson that human beings are caught in an eternal predicament:
… between the most diamantine rock and the hardest of places: loss of group-centred belief renders life chaotic, miserable, intolerable; presence of group-centred belief makes conflict with other groups inevitable.
He has thus made it his life’s work to, as he puts it, “inoculate people against ideology”. His solution? “The elevation and development of the individual.” Which brings us to Twelve Rules, the self-help book which seeks to do just that.
Peterson views the world through two different lenses. The first is that of the scientist — which, of course, is what he is. He understands human beings as animals: creatures who have evolved over a vast span of time and in the face of particular environmental pressures. He condemns the arrogance of social constructivists who see us as the sole authors of our societies. “No, WRONG” he says. We’re the products of an evolutionary process that is older than we can imagine:
The division of life into its twin sexes occurred before the evolution of multi-cellular animals. It was in a still-respectable one-fifth of that time that mammals, who take extensive care of their young, emerged. Thus, the category of “parent” and/or “child” has been around for 200 million years. That’s longer than birds have existed. That’s longer than flowers have grown.
In a now-famous opening chapter Peterson argues that, as a result of these ancient biological structures, we share more with the strictly hierarchical and often savage lobster than we like to admit. “We were struggling for position before we had skin, or hands, or lungs, or bones,” he tells us. And we’re struggling still. So far, so typical of evolutionary psychologists. But then Peterson does something new (or old, depending on how you look at it). He turns to the Bible, and Nietzsche, and Michelangelo, and Socrates, and argues that within the last 5,000 years of human culture lie crucial ideas about how to face the suffering of the world without succumbing to despair. He takes our puny troubles and holds them up before the vast landscape of human history. “Look,” he says, “at the countless millions of people who have felt as exactly as you do now.” And because we’re social creatures who find comfort in the company of others — even the dead — we find comfort in this.
Peterson’s 12 rules are not utopian. Instead, they are intended to make one’s own life, and the lives of other people, somewhat more bearable, sometimes in poignantly simple ways. “Are there things that you could do, that you know you could do, that would make things around you better?” he asks. Well, start there. Stand up tall. Act with dignity. Shoulder your responsibilities. Resist your cruellest impulses. Choose your friends wisely. Speak openly. Stop lying to yourself. Don’t blame other people for your own failings. Don’t tell a tragic story of victimhood and cast yourself as the hero. Sure, it’s seductive (“what can possibly compare to the pleasures of sophisticated and well-practised martyrdom?”) but it’s dishonest, and Peterson despises dishonesty in all its forms.
For many young people, Peterson’s message is startling. They have been presented with a woke political narrative that views human suffering as the result of an unequal distribution of power, with those at the top of the hierarchy abusing those at the bottom for their own gain. If only power could be removed from these people, the story goes, then we could arrive at the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. Peterson says otherwise. He insists that suffering is our lot as human beings, and hierarchies are an inevitable part of that.
Peterson’s account thus holds an obvious appeal to those groups that the woke narrative casts as villains and it is for this reason that his fans are often caricatured as disillusioned white men angry at being knocked off their perch. Although in truth his fans are somewhat more diverse than this, there is no doubt that a certain section of the reactionary right really do love Peterson. Search his name on YouTube, and it takes a long while to get to his excellent seven-hour, three-part lecture series on the symbolism in Disney’s Pinocchio. Instead, we get short, edited clips with titles like “Jordan Peterson Leaves Feminist Speechless”, “Jordan Peterson destroys sjw Student”, and “jordan peterson: best comebacks”. For all of his warnings against tribalism, Peterson seems to attract fans who are not only highly tribal but also eager to use him as their mascot.
In online discussions between Peterson fans, there are many people — male and female, from all social backgrounds — who write movingly of the solace that they have found in Peterson’s work, often in the wake of personal tragedy. There is also a nasty side to his fanbase. I emerged with a strong desire to scrub my skin clean after reading a Reddit thread in which several Peterson fans discussed visiting brothels. These men openly admitted to having no interest in the wellbeing of the women they were buying sexual access to — women who had, in their eyes, fallen to the bottom of society’s dominance hierarchy and deserved to stay there. Peterson himself is opposed to transactional sex, or indeed any sex outside of a committed monogamous relationship. But these fans had nevertheless extracted from his work a view of the world that seemed to justify their behaviour.
I must unhappily admit that a great many contemporary feminists are made of straw
And Peterson’s message does carry with it that risk. He is sometimes accused of committing the appeal to nature fallacy by assuming that, just because a human behaviour is natural, it must necessarily be good. I don’t believe that Peterson is guilty of that fallacy, but some of his fans certainly are. They seem to hear the first part of his message — that life is awful, and people are awful, and that Darwin was right about more than we like to accept — but then miss the next bit, in which Peterson tells us that we should look the evil of the world straight in the eye and counter it with our own clumsy and faltering efforts to be good. But that second directive is much harder to follow than the first (“Vice is easy. Failure is easy, too.”)
How much responsibility does the man himself hold for the composition of his fanbase? Not zero, I would argue. Particularly when Peterson not only attracts partisans who are mainly interested in “triggering the libs”, but also continues to give them exactly what they want.
There is a striking difference in tone between the footage of Peterson’s university lectures and the public performances he puts on for paying customers. The content is often much the same, but the responses of the two audiences are wildly different. His university students sit quietly, inaudibly answer questions when called upon, and troop in and out of the lecture theatre, oblivious to the camera and, behind it, the millions of viewers. His public lectures, in contrast, attract guffaws, whoops, and frenetic applause. It is not a good environment for Peterson. It would not be a good environment for most people.
At the end of a run of lectures, Dave Rubin — the podcast host and comedian who acts as compère — tells Peterson that, over the course of their five or six months on the road, he has been saving up a few questions to ask the Great Man (whom Rubin, 13 years younger than Peterson, jokingly refers to as “Dad”). The first question: “How do you manage to make each lecture so original?” Peterson patiently explains his method, spared — as he knew he would be — the discomfort of a difficult question.
Peterson speaks in lofty terms about the importance of facing one’s ideological opponents head-on, but he frequently ducks the challenge. Conducting a lecture series with Rubin as compère was a guaranteed easy ride. Rubin is a conservative with no academic background in psychology or philosophy who rarely invites anyone on his podcast he doesn’t already agree with. Of course he wasn’t going to stand up to Peterson. Of course he wasn’t going to correct his mistakes. Of course he was going to call him “Dad”.
Peterson must know this, just as he must know that when he spits out invectives against those fools who believe in the existence of a “patriarchal tyranny”, his audience are going to cheer, regardless of the quality of his argument. Peterson’s key weakness as a public intellectual lies in his tolerance for sycophants. Despite his abrasive exterior, he still wants to be liked (“I’m actually quite an agreeable person, much to my chagrin”).
Which is understandable. Peterson has been monstered by the liberal press, and the temptation when faced with such a monstering is to retreat to the comfort of the in-group. He spent most of his life living in relative obscurity, and then he became shockingly, brutally famous, without warning. That’s not easy to handle.
But if you’re going to tell other people how they should live their lives, you should expect a certain level of intellectual scrutiny. Peterson has a terrible tendency to lump together his ideological opponents into an undifferentiated mass. For instance, he regularly rails against feminists while failing to acknowledge the divisions within the movement. But then I doubt he has read many feminists. I doubt he could name more than a handful. I have heard him name one individual feminist, Germaine Greer, and then only to dismiss her as unimportant. Twelve Rules does not cite a single feminist text.
There are some things that Peterson gets right on feminism. He is correct to argue that women’s lot has been improved more by technological development — including the contraceptive pill, washing machines, and tampons — than by the work of feminist campaigners. And he’s right to notice that those technologies were almost all developed by men. He’s right to observe, also — as he does in Twelve Rules, as well as in the infamous Cathy Newman interview — that the gender pay gap should really be understood as a maternity pay gap, since it is mothers who are overwhelmingly affected by it. Economic inequality between the sexes is not rooted in idle prejudice but in something much more intractable: crucially distinct reproductive roles.
I don’t dispute any of this, and I wish I could say that these were observations routinely recognised by other feminists. But unfortunately, for all that Peterson is guilty of erecting straw (wo)men, I must unhappily admit that a great many contemporary feminists are made of straw.
My antipathy to Peterson when I first came across him was, I suspect, partly the result of embarrassment. I knew there were weaknesses within some feminist arguments and was reluctant to acknowledge the failures of my own in-group. Then there is the fact that Peterson’s analysis of human history does not sit easily with the simplistic understanding of sexism we often hear from progressives. It’s so much easier, and so much more appealing, to believe that if only men stopped behaving like arseholes for five minutes, then society would right itself, and we’d naturally settle at a point of harmonious equality between the sexes. This seems to be the view held by feminists who say, for instance, that sex inequality is just as harmful to men as it is to women, as if millennia of sexual and domestic violence were just a silly accident, easily rectified through education. There is even an increasingly influential bloc of trans-inclusive feminists who argue that biological sex is all a social construct and that “female” and “male” are not coherent categories at all.
The mainstream progressive view is that any differences we see between the sexes are entirely socialised, entirely irrational, and therefore entirely curable through cultural reform. There is a fear of confronting a hard question that Peterson brings to the fore: what if it’s not that easy? What if hierarchy, and viciousness, and violence are baked in? What if the feminist task is much, much harder than we’ve previously acknowledged?
There is a central issue which Peterson recognises, and which leading voices within mainstream feminism currently refuse to. Once we get past all the minor issues that dominate social media — from “man-spreading” to the Bechdel test — we get to a core problem that lies at the centre of the feminist project which no one is quite sure how to solve. Women are physically vulnerable to men, who are on average far bigger, stronger, and more aggressive than they are. They are made still more vulnerable by childbearing. This is true in every part of the world, and in every historical period we know of. Modern Western nations have come closer than any others to solving this problem through a combination of birth control and a sophisticated criminal justice system. But it is still the case that women and children are acutely vulnerable to what Second Wave feminists called “male violence” and Peterson just calls “violence”’ and the results are devastating”: 95 per cent of murders worldwide are committed by men; 99 per cent of sex offenders are male. No one knows how to properly restrain the (not insubstantial) minority of men who commit such acts, or even if we can. As Peterson writes:
Violence, after all, is no mystery. It’s peace that’s the mystery. Violence is the default. It’s easy. It’s peace that is difficult: learned, inculcated, earned.
I now realise that, for all his bluster, and for all that I’m repulsed by some of his fans, Peterson’s work is valuable to feminists for the simple reason that he takes the origins of violence seriously. Which is more than can be said for self-described feminists who hand-wave the problem by insisting, as I heard one rape crisis colleague put it, that “people of all genders sexually assault people of all genders”. I am heartily sick of a feminist discourse that is totally lacking in seriousness. While Peterson may have many flaws, a lack of seriousness is not one of them.
The truth is that, if men started behaving in the way that Peterson advises, the feminist movement could pack up and go home. If all men controlled their violent aggression, supported their children, treated their spouses with honesty and dignity, stopped watching porn, stopped buying sex, and applied themselves to the task of behaving more ethically in every area of their lives, then there would be no more need for feminism. Plenty of men are doing this already, and more might do so under Peterson’s influence. That’s a good thing.
In 2018, Peterson appeared on an episode of Question Time on the BBC. The panel were asked a question about knife crime, to which the regular suite of politicians and journalists gave the usual responses. It’s about cuts to youth services, they argued, or family dysfunction, or a lack of role models. Peterson’s answer was novel. He pointed to research which suggests that when young men are unable to advance themselves by pro-social means, they will often turn to anti-social means instead. Committing violent crime can be a way of achieving notoriety, increasing a young man’s status and pushing him to the top of his particular social hierarchy (you see, it’s those lobsters again).
You don’t have to agree with that analysis, but you do have to admit that it’s interesting. It’s also far more useful than any of the platitudes offered by the rest of the Question Time panel. If Peterson is right on this, then there are significant conclusions to be drawn. We might, for instance, want to think about ways of offering young men alternative sources of social status that are less harmful, perhaps through combat sports or financial incentives. We might also need to worry that continuing automation could limit economic opportunities for the unskilled, further increasing violence. These aren’t comfortable ideas but they are important. They are also hugely consequential for women, who are particularly vulnerable to abuse by aggrieved, violent men, and desperately in need of solutions.
It’s not as though there are many others being presented. Influential feminists continue to insist that we should just “teach men not to rape” through consent workshops and privilege-checking, but thus far that strategy has produced nothing except confusion and resentment. At least Peterson is thinking hard about this issue — harder, in fact, than the authors of most of the pink-covered books stacked in the “gender and sexuality” section. I once dismissed his work because it forced me to question the assumptions of my in-group. Now, frankly, I’d rather read Peterson.
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