Jordan B. Peterson: the controversial believer in two genders
Clara Fox Feb. 13, 2018
There’s a man in Canada who wants young people to eat breakfast, lift weights and clean their room. He’s not your typical celebrity, but there’s no denying that he has celebrity status—with 150 million YouTube views, the University of Toronto professor answers psychology questions from his subscribers, has uploads of his university lectures (what he calls ‘conversations’) and most recently released a new book that has hit Amazon’s bestseller list.
On Jan. 31, Jordan B. Peterson was in Los Angeles to give a talk about his new book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos at the sold out Orpheum Theater. The mostly-male crowd he drew at the event was indicative of the already acknowledged fact that it is mainly men who gravitated towards his message. (Eighty percent of his 750,000 plus YouTube subscribers are male, though Peterson points out that YouTube in general skews to a male audience where his fame has largely grown.)
Peterson first made headlines in Canadian newspapers, and then international news outlets, for refusing to agree with a federal and provincial government mandate on transgender pronouns. Although he says he would refer to a transgender woman as “she,” he doesn’t want “to cede linguistic territory to post-modernists.” (He says there are only two genders, male and female, and so refuses to use the newly created pronouns for the approximately 70 different non-binary genders, which are recognized by the Canadian government.) A free speech advocate, Peterson refuses to allow the government to dictate what words are acceptable.
One of the 12 rules, “Tell the truth, or at least don’t lie,” provides an explanation of the philosophy that made Peterson speak up about the transgender pronoun legislation. Decades ago Peterson felt like a fake when his words didn’t reflect the truth. “I was using language to bend and twist the world into delivering what I thought was necessary.” (pg. 205) He began to practice listening to his “internal voice” to gauge whether what he was saying was true or just from an ambition to win an argument or gain status.
“The better ambitions have to do with the development of your character and ability, rather than status and power,” Peterson writes. “Status you can lose. You carry character with you wherever you go, and it allows you to prevail against adversity.”
Telling the truth has gained Peterson an unlikely following. He tells young people that they need to grow up, to create real relationships instead of resorting to pornography, to work hard. And they listen. “They have something to offer,” Peterson explained to Cathy Newman during a Channel 4 News interview. “People have within them the capacity to set the world straight—that’s necessary to manifest in the world. And also, doing so, is where you find the meaning that sustains you in life.”
Peterson is, in his own words, a lateral thinker, which pushes the book’s page count to almost 400 pages. His second rule, “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping,” spends several pages proving that people are more likely to take care of their pet than follow life saving orders from their doctors. “How much shame must exist, for something like that to be true?” he asks before launching into the story of the earth’s creation, then to a discussion on the evolution of scientific study and then to pages on the definition and property of chaos and order, with an exhaustive supply of examples of each. Then he takes us back to the Garden of Eden to a detailed account of the first sin of Adam and Eve before acknowledging mankind’s fallen nature. Peterson draws on Carl Jung for the answer to dealing with our fallen nature, which he says is also found in the Bible: “embracing and loving the sinner who is yourself, as much as forgiving and aiding someone else who is stumbling and imperfect.” (pg. 60)
His arguments take a winding road because he is eager to go back to first principles and more than happy to define and explore new ideas that come to light on his path to his final conclusion. His writes the book as an antidote to suffering. Although suffering has no limits and although there is no avoiding pain, there is still no need to suffer “stupidly.” Some suffering, in other words, can be eliminated if someone is willing to make sacrifices now for greater happiness later. He adds that if evil is real, so is goodness; the highest good should be everyone’s goal, wherein lies life’s meaning.
Peterson says he “acts as if God exists” and is hesitant to call himself a Christian—a revelation that surprised Spectator’s Timothy Lott (and undoubtedly many more)—since Peterson so often references both the Old and New Testament to back up the tenants of his belief system. He appears willing to agree with the precepts of the Bible without saying he believes that the biblical stories actually happened. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, for example, may be true, he told Lott, because “the world is a very strange place. It’s far stranger than we think.” But he mostly thinks of the resurrection story as a “phoenix story” that “symbolizes the necessity of the psyche to undergo a sequence of deaths and rebirths in its attainment of the ideal.”
Old clips of Peterson’s first news interviews about the transgender pronoun debate often show a man visibly angry. “I am not going to be a mouthpiece for language that I detest,” he says through clenched teeth. But his manners have definitely evolved. Most recently, Peterson won applause for his handling of the Cathy Newman interview where he was repeatedly accused of being anti-woman despite his track record to the contrary. He good naturedly explained his actual position while backing up his stance with clinical findings. “Women are just as smart as men, the data on that is very clear,” he says, while agreeing that the gender pay gap exists, but saying other factors are at play besides sex discrimination.
Recently, during an interview with Rubin Report, Peterson acknowledged that his rough Alberta upbringing needed to be toned down to properly handle these kinds of interrogations. “You can be strong and defend yourself minimally, and that’s a real art, that’s the essence of sophistication,” he says of the attitude he hopes to adopt. “And so it’s been a continual challenge to adjust my sophistication to the level of challenge, and I’m trying to do that, but I don’t always manage it.”
A nod to rule 4: “Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.”
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