November 11, 2019

“I’ve spent so much time in the dark. It’s not easy to find, not so much heroes, but people who could be so helpful.”

A controversial new film, The Rise of Jordan Peterson, is full of testimonies such as this one from vulnerable young men who have found something — peace, solace, direction, perhaps? — in the work of Canadian professor of psychology, Jordan Peterson.

Back in 2015, when filmmakers Maziar Ghaderi and Patricia Marcoccia began making a film about Peterson, he already had a sizeable following on the back of a series of YouTube lectures. The filmmakers had originally intended to look at this, but mainly on the professor’s close friendship with indigenous artist Charles Joseph, a Kwakwaka’wakw carver.

Then, in 2016, halfway through making the film, Peterson exploded into the mainstream for quite a different reason.

He posted a YouTube video critiquing Bill C-16, an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code which added gender identity and expression to the act’s protected categories. Within a month of being posted, the video clocked up half a million views, propelling him to intellectual superstardom. Ghaderi and Marcoccia decided to change tack and explore the subsequent controversy.

In his response to Bill C–16, Peterson argued that it was wrong to force university staff to address students by their preferred pronouns – ‘they’, ‘ze’, ‘zir’ – on the basis that the path to authoritarianism begins with “attempts to control the ideological and linguistic territory”, as he phrased it at the time. The video provoked a furious backlash, as documented in the film, with some students and trans activists at the time calling his comments “unacceptable, emotionally disturbing and painful”.

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The film navigates this controversy with nuance and sensitivity. It is a thoughtful examination of why his fans love him and his critics detest him. The filmmakers spend time with Peterson, his family and the young men (though there are woman too) who find solace in his work. At one point, a man rushes up to Peterson in the street to thank him for pulling him out of his depression. Such occurrences happen frequently. But the filmmakers – who describe themselves as left–of–centre politically – spend equal time with the trans activists who feel hurt by Peterson’s objection to Bill C-16.

The film is not a straightforward narrative of good versus evil; you come away with no sense of being browbeaten by the directors into taking a particular point of view. And it is this which appears to have angered the film’s most rambunctious critics, who worry that someone may watch the film and conclude that Peterson is not entirely wrong about everything after all.

Peterson’s superstardom is, to a large extent, built on the wrath of his opponents. At one point in the film, a rabble attempts to use white noise to drown out a speech Peterson is making. To them, Peterson’s opinions are ‘literal violence’, a contorted intellectual rationalisation that the radical left uses to shut down disagreeable opinions.

I’m not the biggest Jordan Peterson fan in the world. I found his reluctance to use the pronouns favoured by trans students to be churlish and petty. I also found his conflation of alternative pronouns with Soviet and Nazi totalitarianism hysterical. There may be something sinister about the trans lobby’s insistence that biological reality must fall by the wayside in order to accommodate something as vague and poorly-defined as gender identity. But it is not the road to the Lubyanka.

Moreover, Peterson comes across at times in the film as narcissistic and conceited, at one point relaying a dream he had in which he appeared to save the world from totalitarianism.

In my opinion, the film pretty much skirted over the real story: the story of his audience. What explains his runaway success within a certain demographic? It’s something that lies at the root of much that is disrupting society at the moment.

Peterson appeals to young men who lack direction. His work is replete with admonitions to “set your house in order” so as to live a meaningful life. “We require routine and tradition,” Peterson cautions readers in his hit book 12 Rules for Life. “That’s order. Order can become excessive, and that’s not good, but chaos can swamp us, so we drown – and that is also not good.”

The self-help side of Peterson’s work has brought him massive success, even though much of his oeuvre is unexceptional. Underpinned by a folksy Christian conservatism, the videos deal with mythology, Jungian philosophy, anti-totalitarianism and self-help, with a strong emphasis on personal responsibility. They have titles such as ‘How to stop procrastinating’, ‘Advice For People With Depression’, and ‘Jordan Peterson on the meaning of life for men’ and have racked up tens of millions of views between them.

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But the advice he hands out also goes some way to explaining his unpopularity among the bien pensant Left. His YouTube content is very much of the ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ variety. Such a message has obvious limits (for an idea of why, see my own book Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain). But more significantly, it does not sit well with a culture that increasingly valorises self-flagellation and performative outpourings of self-pity.

Peterson’s lower–middle and working-class followers, who naively take to heart his folksy injunctions to better themselves, are an affront to the notion that real change only comes about through political activism. Left-leaning intellectuals detest self-help, which to them reeks of aspiration. A person should focus on changing the system and not personal betterment, they argue – which is easy enough to say when you aren’t the one languishing in financial and spiritual poverty.

Peterson, though, speaks powerfully to those who find themselves adrift at a time when traditional institutions and structures are increasingly viewed as suspect and even tyrannical. There is a generation of men who were born into fatherless and chaotic families, bereft of stable jobs and meaning, who are being told to stay put and focus on ‘changing society’ by the affluent Left. Their masculinity is impugned as ‘toxic’, while hypergamy (turbocharged by social media) makes it increasingly hard for them to find a date.

Is this burgeoning male resentment really just a thwarted sense of entitlement, as Peterson’s critics suggest? To a point it is. There was always going to be a reckoning for white men once women and other ethnic groups were empowered. We are living through that backlash.

Peterson may be right to dismiss the social constructivist nonsense which concludes that gender is entirely a social construct (a wealth of evidence suggests otherwise), a view he shares, ironically, with trans activists. Yet he would do well to empathise with women’s fears of this being used as a trojan horse by chauvinists and misogynists to justify and entrench inequalities in the workplace and the home. Peterson has also come out with some disturbing remarks around ‘enforced monogamy’, remarks which seem to imply that life was better when women could not access birth control and divorce their spouses.

But regardless of his shortcomings, Peterson is tapping into a genuine phenomenon, the effects of which we cannot ignore. There’s a problem brewing for a generation of men. They are angry, directionless, and, perhaps most important, sexless.

Our promiscuous culture increasingly bends toward the Pareto principle, also known as the 80/20 rule whereby 20% of men date 80% of women. Women compete over the most desirable men, while the rest are increasingly turning towards porn and – before long, no doubt – sex robots.

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In just a decade, there has been a three-fold increase in the number of men who have not had sex in the past year. The rise in online dating — encouraged by corporations with a financial interest in keeping people glued to their smartphones — has exacerbated the trend. To quote a recent study of the popular dating app Tinder, “the bottom 80% of men (in terms of attractiveness) are competing for the bottom 22% of women and the top 78% of women are competing for the top 20% of men”.

This kind of thing was ameliorated in the past by the type of socially enforced monogamy that is romanticised by Peterson. Yet it produced legions of unhappy women who were pressured into ‘settling’ with a man who was by all intents and purposes their inferior. The sexual revolution turned the tables. And invariably, there are men who resent this and believe that the world owes them intimacy.

And this is where I part ways with Peterson. Is it not for the men left behind by the dating market to up their game, instead of complaining about it on Reddit or longing for a halcyon era of obedient wives?

Easier said than done of course. But Peterson counsels precisely this model of self-empowerment when it comes to economics — he rallies against the “aggrieved victimhood” of those living in poverty — however he appears to shift responsibility to women when it comes to sexual inequality.

Peterson’s desire for a return to monogamous norms also contains within it a set of contradictions. Romantic idealism — which continues to prop up our (still broadly) monogamous culture — must shoulder some of the blame for the mercurial rage of many isolated men. From an early age, society bombards both sexes with unrealistic expectations around romance. Individuals are conditioned by Hollywood movies, popular magazines and soap operas to let ‘fate’ take care of their love life. “Just be yourself and it’ll happen eventually,” runs the advice.

For men, who are still expected to initiate most romantic encounters, this is atrocious advice. What if  ‘being yourself’ hasn’t worked in the past? What if women on dating apps find you unattractive? What if crippling anxiety prevents you from even starting a conversation with a woman?

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Men are expected to understand these things automatically. When many do not, society shows little sympathy, dismissing them as pathetic losers – the word ‘Incel’ has itself become an online insult in recent times.

Insofar as Peterson provides young men with an alternative to the bottomless despair of the Incel movement, he does so by encouraging them to see beyond their own solipsistic rage.

Stop whining on the internet. Stand up straight. Leave the house. Join a gym. Learn how to hold eye contact. Start small (tidy your room) and build momentum on the back of every seemingly insignificant victory.

It is easy enough to sneer at this sort of folksy advice from the lofty heights of a job and a relationship. Yet it seems a better bet for some than the idealistic alternatives provided by the mainstream (‘be yourself and you’ll be fine’) and the fatalistic despair of the Incel movement (‘you will never be good enough’).

Had the film looked at some of the issues outlined above, rather than just focusing on an argument over pronouns, The Rise of Jordan Peterson would have been a more compelling prospect. It is male resentment that is driving much of the populist tumult that is shaking democracy, and it is male resentment that underlies the runaway success of Jordan Peterson. The film features quite a few clips of fans relaying to the camera how Peterson’s work has helped them, but a more in-depth look at this aspect of Peterson’s appeal would have been welcome.

For those who are tired of the usual polemical attacks on Peterson — which for the most part deploy bucket-loads of conceit and sarcasm in order to avoid engaging seriously with anything he says — it was refreshing to watch a film which laid things out in a straightforward manner.

The viewer is given room to make up his or her own mind. Though as evidenced by the rowdy protests against the film, we live during a time when even this is considered revolutionary.