Jordan Peterson is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto and has been a clinical psychologist for 20 years. In the past few years, however, he has turned into an extremely popular public intellectual and speaker, with his book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (2018) becoming an international best-seller. It’s also interesting to note that his fan base seems to be primarily made up of young men. But before addressing why he appeals to this particular demographic, it’s important to outline how this clinical psychologist has garnered so much media attention.
Peterson’s Rise to Fame
The sensationalism surrounding Peterson began in 2016, with his public opposition to (what he perceived as) the enforced use of gender-neutral pronouns. He has become a fierce critic of Canada’s Bill C-16, which became law in June 2017. This bill makes it a criminal offence to discriminate against people on the basis of their gender identity and expression. The bill also extends Canada’s hate speech laws to cover transgender people.
Peterson claimed that misgendering someone or refusing to use his or her preferred pronouns could be classed as hate speech under this piece of legislation. However, Canadian experts in law stress that Peterson has either misunderstood Bill C-16 or is mischaracterising it. Law professors say that misusing pronouns is not going to be treated as hate speech. And so Peterson’s critics believe he has been weaving a misleading narrative about how free speech is under serious threat in Canada.
Peterson has become highly popular for his strong stance against political correctness, leftism, socialism, ‘social justice warriors’, and university campus protest culture. The Canadian psychologist is now part of a curious movement called the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW), coined by mathematician Eric Weinstein (who is part of the group). The IDW was detailed in a New York Times piece, with writer Bari Weiss defining the group as:
…a collection of iconoclastic thinkers, academic renegades and media personalities who are having a rolling conversation — on podcasts, YouTube and Twitter, and in sold-out auditoriums — that sound unlike anything else happening, at least publicly, in the culture right now. Feeling largely locked out of legacy outlets, they are rapidly building their own mass media channels.
Other members of this group, who have starkly different political views and backgrounds, seem to share some common values in common. They all generally express dismay with the political left and identity politics, believing that both are undermining freedom of speech. The IDW also includes American conservative commentators like Ben Shapiro and Candace Owens, British journalist Douglas Murray, British anti-extremist activist Maajid Nawaz, evolutionary biologists Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying, feminists Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Christina Hoff Sommers, commentator Dave Rubin, science writer Michael Shermer, and author Sam Harris. Members of the IDW regularly appear on “The Joe Rogan Experience” podcast, as well as talk shows and podcasts hosted by Shapiro, Harris, and Rubin.
NBC has said Peterson is the “favourite figure of the alt-right”, although the Canadian psychologist has frequently criticised the alt-right and denies being right-wing. He claims he is simply a classical liberal. Other mainstream media outlets, nonetheless, point out his conservative leanings. Peterson also seems to appeal to male-dominated groups, such as men’s rights activists and incels (‘involuntary celibates’).
Most of Peterson’s fans seem to be young men, which he has suggested is partly due to the fact that YouTube, where he receives a lot of his attention, is mainly a male domain. But there are other key reasons why young men are looking up to Peterson. His internet celebrity status comes down to both the kind of content he is delivering and the style in which he delivers it.
Peterson’s Messages to Young Men
Scottish fans of Peterson (mostly young men) who came to hear him speak in Glasgow told The National why they find his messages so important. Gordon McNicol, 18, said:
Young men our age are, honestly, lost. They don’t know what they’re doing. They’ll go out drinking, partying, they’ll go and hit on girls – they don’t really have any meaning in life, whereas Peterson’s book is more about trying to find what makes you happy through responsibility, meaningfulness and finding something you truly enjoy.
Meanwhile, James Wilder, 32, said:
I think most people are here for the personal development side … it’s really about responsibility, that’s the heart of it, to take ownership of your actions and not to be frightened to do the things that you need to do.
It seems like a lot of men aren’t so interested in Peterson’s political opinions. They are attracted more to his content on self-development, believing it offers a way to instil meaning into their lives and grow as a man. Many young men feel lost and disaffected, not really knowing how to be a ‘true man’ or what masculinity means to them. Peterson appears to be discussing self-development in a way that resonates strongly with young men.
A lot of Peterson’s messages are about growing up, getting your act together, and taking action. In 12 Rules for Life, his first commandment to young men is to “stand up straight with your shoulders back”. He also tells readers: “Don’t be dependent. At all. Ever. Period.” Here we can see Peterson highlighting the developed, mature man as exuding confidence and being self-reliant. Peterson describes being nice as a “low-end virtue”. His goal is to “strengthen the individual”. This warning against becoming weak rejuvenates the masculine ideal of strength, of being assertive and self-assuredly becoming the best version of yourself. Peterson has also claimed that men are hungry for responsibility, and he argues that responsible action is the path to a meaningful life. He emphasises that a man’s self-respect will come from being responsible.
Another reason Peterson appeals may be appealing to so many young men is that he regularly draws on mythology, especially the notion of the hero’s journey. The hero’s journey is an archetypal story that mythologist Joseph Campbell noticed was found in cultures all over the world. Campbell laid out the structure of the hero’s journey, citing various cultural examples, in his classic book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. The hero’s journey is all about stepping into unknown territory, overcoming trials and tribulations, and coming out the other side psychologically transformed and sharing one’s boon with the world.
This kind of mythology is communicated as a form of self-improvement, which is extremely attractive to young men who feel they are stuck and undeveloped as men. Peterson has rekindled the equation of masculinity with ambition, toughness, and heroism.
The Canadian psychologist may also be attracting a great deal of male attention due to his personality. As a speaker, he is charismatic in a unique way. He commands authority with a stern, dad-like attitude. Which is interesting, as you wouldn’t really expect this paternal, strict, rule-giving approach to appeal to young men. But perhaps a lot of young men have grown up without a lot of guidance or life wisdom relayed to them from a male mentor or father figure. And they have found that living an aimless, reckless life is wearing thin, and feels empty.
So in a sense, Peterson has become the male mentor or authority figure that young men feel they need in their life. Rebelling against discipline and responsibility is no longer ‘cool’; it is seen as childish. Many young men view Peterson as an instructive teacher who is there to help them grow out of a suspended state of adolescence and become real men. And the psychology professor has been moved by the influx of emails and messages from young men who say he has radically transformed their lives. Peterson is a complex, controversial, and fascinating public figure. You may disagree intensely with his political views, but it’s clear that he is speaking to young men on a deep level, motivating them to positively improve their lives. This is something that deserves closer attention.
Looking at Peterson’s work from a mature mans perspective – as a 56 year old, It is easy to see the glaring fault lines in his thinking and material advice. I can fully understand why my younger self might have embraced such philosophies, yet for me they are ultimately simplistic, possibly even dangerous, as they serve to engender notions of social separation via the purported benefits of extreme self reliance. Such notions embraced unreflectively may result in dire consequence for the individual and those near to them. Much better in my view to enable, and allow room for, diverse, creative ways of being in which self reliance has its rightful place yet vulnerability is nonetheless supported and accepted. This may not be easy in practice but it seems to me that Peterson’s message may be making matters worse in some instances.
I agree with you, Dean. I get that extreme self-reliance is appealing. It can be motivating and fit in with more traditional notions of masculinity, which I suppose a lot of younger guys feel can offer a sense of meaning, purpose, and identity. But as you say, identifying too strongly with that, with wanting to achieve everything on your own, has potential downsides.
He does say, ‘surround yourself with people who want the best for you’ which shows at least some acknowledgement of the role of the social. The image i get
though is much more, something like an evangelical mass meeting where slumped over grungy skate board carrying teenagers enter one end and out pops clean up standing self confident likable (so long as you don’t pin them down too much on what their core beliefs are) young men, the other. The problem then is, why hasn’t a more progressive movement arisen that does the same thing? That’s for another time.
As a 65 Yr old father of two, of what are now, young men, I’ve spent a lifetime arguing from a socialist perspective the need for humanity to do better but in the process often became confused as to what role as an individual i could personally contribute in this process. For me, and im sure for many others, the extreme left often seemed too simplistic, almost religious in their calling while the more centrist or centre left were too complacent. This complacency is where the Frankfurt school did their thing, exploring the vulnerability of the ‘individual’ to ideologies that gave ‘life’ meaning in the form of a common purpose and is probably why JP has the whole world of Critical Theory, firmly in his sites as the thing to challenge. Their focus on how the modern state can so easily use new forms of communication to enable Mass movements, such notions as the fatherland, the spirit of the nation, the triumph of the will and all that, supposedly aimed at liberating individuals from guilt and giving them common purpose was extreamly important but by doing so, as JP may argue, drove to the corners so many of the things that give any dominant group a sense of who they are. He says he’s not alt right but by leaving the door open, everytime he leaves the stage, he acts as an enabler. In other words, JP is right when he pleads so earnestly for the illiberal left to see how its anxiety about mass societies propensity to create false prophets is in itself, torturing some young males in particular with feelings of guilt and so, as a self proclaimed, classic liberal, he tells them not to worry, just be a man, and if that releases the inner beast, it’s just biology talking. But in the process of hunting down what he brands as the oppressors in academia he, perhaps innocently, plays right into the hands of the macho guys at Breitbart, handing over nicely turned out upstanding, clean shaven cannon fodder ready for the next global confrontation where its all about who we are against who we are not.