Sometimes you get to the end of watching a Canadian Senate hearing about a gender identity bill and you sit there, finish your box of Wheat Thins, and wonder how you got where you are.
This is what happened to everyone who for the last year had been following the internet maelstrom surrounding Prof. Jordan Peterson.
Haven’t heard of Jordan Peterson?
Take one part Carl Jung, one part Solzhenitsyn, one part Kermit the Frog, and one part St. Augustine. Put all this in a conceptual blender.
That’s something like Jordan Peterson.
If you do a search online you will most likely stumble upon articles from both left and right media, which attempt to outline his meteoric rise (he is now the 25th highest earning producer on Patreon), but each inevitably fails in their own way telling the whole story. Right media cast him as the savior of free speech in a University campus culture of trigger warnings and student infantilization. Left media cast him as a fussy provocateur who is reading too much into a piece of legislation designed to categorize transgender people as a protected class against discrimination.
But these are both limited perspectives and they are limited in an important way.
In short, Jordan Peterson’s popularity came from a video he made critiquing Bill C-16, a piece of Canadian legislation that added gender identity or expression to a list of protected categories under the Canadian Human Rights Act.
Peterson’s critique was a small spark that ignited the fumes building around the issue of political correctness on college campuses. A year before Peterson’s video, the September 2015 edition of Atlantic Monthly published an article entitled “The Coddling of the American Mind,” arguing that the academy’s continuing tendency towards more authoritarian means of policing both student and faculty behavior was causing more harm than good. Safe spaces, trigger warnings, censorship, etc. These are self-defeating and preemptively ideological means that are unproven to produce any positive social change. The article received much attention which was mostly supportive from all points on the political spectrum. It also sparked a heightened media awareness around issues of ideologically motivated campus protest. And we are still debating these issues today.
So the stage was more or less set for Jordan Peterson and boy, did he hit it out of the park.
Rather than tackle these issues in the abstract Peterson critiqued a specific bill (C-16) he found troubling. The bill itself was pretty innocuous but there were some troubling implications when interpreted in light of Canadian legal precedent. For example the Ontario Human Rights Commission published ambiguous and contradictory guidelines on transgender pronoun use, making it unclear as to whether using the wrong pronoun in reference to a transgender person was grounds for harassment and therefore technical discrimination. In one place it says, “The Code does not specify the use of any particular pronoun or other terminology,” and in another: “Refusing to refer to a trans person by their chosen name and a personal pronoun that matches their gender identity, or purposely misgendering, will likely be discrimination when it takes place in a social area covered by the Code, including employment, housing and services like education. The law is otherwise unsettled as to whether someone can insist on any one gender-neutral pronoun in particular.”
Peterson’s video highlighted the dangers of a bill that would compel and mandate the use of certain words.
After the video Peterson’s YouTube subscriber count went from a few thousand to 40,000. A few viral videos went around of him debating students on the issue, and his account grew larger. A public debate at the University of Toronto was held in which Peterson debated three activist professors in support of the bill, and still his account grew larger.
What made Peterson’s case against C-16 so compelling, and different from the general case laid out against the overreach of political correctness in the “Coddling of the American Mind,” was the depth of his critique and the narrowness of his focus. Love him or hate him, you cannot say that Jordan Peterson’s arguments are shallow. His knowledge of human psychology, biology, philosophy, religion, and literature is such that no simple dogma can honestly stand up to his case against politically compelled benevolence. This is why most of the time his opposition resorts to chanting slogans or blowing air horns or calling him names. You may disagree with him, but to really meet his arguments on his level, you’re going to have to go deep.
But of all the videos on Jordan Peterson’s channel, Bill C-16 plays a small role. Although because of the publicity surrounding the issue it has been something like a lightning rod which has given an audience to the rest of his material.
Peterson’s entire philosophy of western culture, for instance.
“Maps of Meaning,” is both a book and a lecture series which attempts to synthesize modern neuropsychology with religion and story-telling. In short he attempts to trace the development of religion and political theory from a biological necessity to its more current manifestations. Rather than dismiss religion as mere superstition, Peterson handles the great religious traditions as an important evolutionary step towards developing meaning and significance. I have found his case to be incredibly compelling both personally and scientifically. In my humble estimation he has done even more than Joseph Campbell to bring ancient philosophies into focus for the modern person to seriously think about.
I don’t want to ruin anything for you but if you are interested in what I’ve laid out so far and are planning to watch any Jordan Peterson videos, keep these mantras in mind:
“Sort yourself out.”
“Slay the dragon of chaos so you can save your father from the belly of the beast.”
“Clean your damn room.”
A study of the YouTube comments shows the impact Peterson is having on hundreds of thousands of people. Below are some touching ones I cherry-picked:
If you want a condensed version of Jordan Peterson to dip your toes into before committing to a longer lecture, here are some good appetizers:
What do you think about Jordan Peterson? Do you think he has a point and his analysis of human nature is correct? Or do you think he is reacting too strongly against progressive ideology?
Let us know in the comment section.
Interested in Jordan Peterson’s philosophy?
Check out Maps of Meaning on Amazon: