People have hailed Jordan Peterson as a father figure, a modern-day prophet, a free speech warrior. Stripping all those fancy titles aside, Peterson is a grim-looking Canadian scholar who lectures in a quaint three-piece suit. He was an obscure professor until he criticized a bill in Canada that proposed banning discrimination based on gender identity and expression. He said the bill threatened free speech and was a slippery slope toward totalitarianism. Student activists heckled Peterson on campus, and a video of that confrontation gained millions of views and comments.
Then in January, journalist Cathy Newman attempted to paint Peterson as a misogynist during an interview with him on Channel 4 News. That video attracted more than 10 million views on YouTube, and Peterson’s book soon topped the bestseller charts.
Peterson is obsessed with Jung, Nietzsche, and Dostoevsky, and his house is reportedly a showroom of 20th-century horrors: A massive collection of original USSR propaganda art hangs on every wall, even ceilings and bathrooms—a solemn, grotesque self-reminder of what devastation the pursuit of utopia can wreak.
Peterson’s three-hour lectures center on ideas such as: (1) All human beings are capable of unspeakable evil, especially in the name of good. (2) Change starts with the individual. (3) Ancient stories, from the Bible to Egyptian mythology, hold profound, still-applicable truths about human nature and life. He weaves together social science, neuroscience, his own clinical experiences, Biblical literature, and evolution to present a systematic understanding of the world and us in it. But his theories are not ivory-tower abstractions. He drills those ideas down to practical, traditional values: hard work, personal responsibility, and virtue—hardly the most endearing or sexy subject matters.
Yet those ideas are captivating thousands of fans, mostly young men. They’re flocking into Facebook groups, Reddit chatrooms, and Meetup gatherings to discuss all things Peterson, often spouting “Petersonisms” to encourage and motivate each other, like Bible study group members quoting Scriptures. That’s extraordinary, given this age of postmodernism, ever-chirping 280-character commentaries, and pursuit of instant gratification.
Yes, life is painful and unjust—‘So what are you gonna do about it? Accept it voluntarily and try to transform as a consequence.’
To hear the media describe them, Peterson’s fans are mostly right-wing white males shaking their fists at a new social stratum that no longer benefits them. But the people I spoke to were diverse: They were male and female; white and Asian and Latino and Jewish; self-defined conservatives, moderates, liberals, and apoliticals. They work in fashion, tech, construction, film, music.
Meet Irina Hernandez, for example. Hernandez is a 22-year-old fashion design assistant in Brooklyn who grew up nonreligious. She calls herself “left-leaning” and has a brother with whom she shared a close relationship until they began debating politics. When her brother argued that the wage gap between men and women isn’t a gender issue, “I really started to see him as a bad person,” Hernandez recalled.
Then she watched a YouTube video in which Peterson explains the many variables such as personality, interests, and skills that lead to wage gap. For the first time, Hernandez saw someone “bluntly questioning these ideas and doing it in such a mature and empirical way”—without resorting to ideology. She clicked on more of Peterson’s videos, and spent 50-plus hours listening to him outline the biological and psychological differences between men and women using history, psychoanalysis, neuropsychology, and storytelling. Those videos taught her more than all her classes in college combined, she said, and that made her angry: “I felt like before, I was consuming a lot of misinformation.”
A career-driven, “super independent” woman who cared deeply about gender equality, Hernandez said Peterson’s lectures provoked questions about her future: “Do I want marriage? Kids? Women my age, we’re so caught up in being equal … but do I really want to be a CEO in a Fortune 500 company?” Those thoughts changed the way Hernandez dated her then-boyfriend, and now they’re engaged.
But whenever Hernandez tried to talk about Peterson with her more liberal friends, she felt shut down. In the last several months, Peterson has become the No. 1 person the media loves to hate. (When I requested an interview with Peterson, his publicist told me they’re cutting down on media interviews.) Forward magazine published an article titled, “Is Jordan Peterson Enabling Jew Hatred?” Vox stated that Peterson’s views “weaponize the grievances of the kind of young men attracted to the alt-right.” Current Affairs called Peterson a “tedious crackpot,” and several publications suggested that Peterson is “dangerous.”
Perhaps that’s also why Peterson is so popular: People don’t like being told what to think. They recognize that what Peterson is saying is not only important but makes sense, and when a dominant culture so strongly denounces him as a sexist racist transphobic charlatan, they start to wonder what’s missing in modern society.