Jordan Peterson in the maelstrom
The response to Jordan Peterson unmasks the true character of public discourse
Recently, I learned the original meaning of the word “hypocrite.” It comes from ancient Greek and means an actor, someone speaking from under one of the masks that were used to signify the roles in a play. Not long afterwards, I remembered that Jordan Peterson has a new book about to come out, and my mind made a connection—not with the controversial Canadian professor, but with the response to his work. Peterson once again faces a maelstrom of invective and hostility, in the process revealing the true character of much of our public discourse.
I don’t say this because I’m a fan of Peterson’s work. In fact, I’ve written previously that I think his first book, the phenomenal best-seller 12 Rules for Life, is a mixed bag. But while his work may not be my cup of tea, he is undeniably promoting the kind of “anti-fragile” conversations that test what we truly believe, and ultimately make us stronger. However, his work can only have that kind of positive effect if his voice is actually respected and accepted in public discourse—and therein lies the rub.
For example, Peterson was recently the subject of an in-depth feature in the Sunday Times, which he agreed to so that he could tell the story of the nightmarish and debilitating illness he’s experienced lately, clearing the air of that subject before the release of his book. The resulting interview is remarkable. Long on opinion and short on journalism, it does contain legitimate questions—does Peterson’s experience make him re-evaluate any of his advice?—but the interview as a whole is thickly encrusted with snark, like gratuitous observations about his daughter’s appearance (she’s described as “a glossy, pouting Barbie blonde”) and specious comparisons with Donald Trump. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the journalist had an axe to grind, and that in her rush to sharpen it she not only failed to stay within the bounds of reasonable reporting, but also omitted to feel any compassion for a man who by his own admission has been suffering from a condition that induces suicidality.
Or take the storm of protest that broke out at Penguin Random House Canada late last year. Staff there were apparently so dismayed that their employer would be publishing Peterson’s new book that some broke down in tears and “dozens … have filed anonymous complaints,” with one worker describing Peterson to reporters as an “icon of hate speech.” And then there’s the 2019 decision by Cambridge University to withdraw a visiting fellowship which had already been offered to Peterson and accepted by him. The decision, which was announced on Twitter, was made on the basis that, "[Cambridge] is an inclusive environment and we expect all our staff and visitors to uphold our principles. There is no place here for anyone who cannot." It’s not the first time Peterson’s been the subject of opprobrium on campus; a 2018 lecture at Queen’s University attracted vigorous opposition, including from a protestor who was found by police to be carrying a garotte.
It’s all a very stark contrast with what we hear about the norms of tolerance, diversity, and inclusion in public life these days, to say nothing of kindness—fine values, if they’re genuinely meant. The treatment meted out to Peterson suggests that they’re not, or at least that they’re applied rather selectively. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that only some kinds of diversity will be tolerated, only some viewpoints will be included, and only some people are judged worthy of compassion.
Of course, I recognise that part of what generates this response to Peterson is the belief that his views marginalise and exclude others, that tolerance will not be extended to someone who is supposedly intolerant. I’m not familiar with all of Peterson’s work, and it’s certainly true that some of his views are confronting, even at times abrasive. But I’ve yet to see the reaction to him justified with anything that looks like compelling evidence.
Some might say that the reaction doesn’t really matter, arguing that Peterson has plenty of platforms available to him like a YouTube channel with nearly three and a half million subscribers, so there’s no real risk of shutting down his message to those who still want to hear it. This, I think, misses the point, which is that the reaction sends very effective signals about whether Peterson is worthy of attention and, worse, contributes more to polarisation than it does to a healthy discourse. In other words, it just reinforces a vicious circle in which whoever can exert the most pressure controls the conversation. This is not the stuff of flourishing civil society, or the way in which we learn from one another.
So what can we take out of all of this? There’s a clue in Peterson’s recent Sunday Times interview, which he began by saying,
“there’s an element of trepidation [about an interview like this] because I would say the most stressful experiences I’ve had in the last five years, apart from being in the epicenter of various demonstrations, were definitely interviews with people who were[,] well, they ranged from mildly hostile to very hostile. And those are tight ropes, you know, because if you make a mistake, well, it can be devastating; devastating to your career[,] devastating to your family, devastating to your general reputation.”
And yet, he continues to do what he does, something that must take an awful lot of courage and conviction. This, to me, is his major contribution to public discourse now—not the content of his ideas, but his demonstrated willingness to speak with conviction about what he believes, even when it is costly to do so. That’s a positive example to the rest of us, to be willing to speak passionately about our beliefs, so long as we do it with respect for others. Not only that, by standing his ground, he provokes his critics into revealing their hypocrisy. In the process, he helps to reveal the true state of our public discourse. That’s no fun for Jordan Peterson, but it’s a public service to the rest of us.