December 10, 2020

For all that he’s regarded in some quarters as the house philosopher of male supremacy, Jordan Peterson is quite a vulnerable figure —and admirably honest about that vulnerability in talking about his depression, his feelings of powerlessness, his care for his daughter. He’s translated that honesty into a public persona that reaches directly to thousands upon thousands of young men (the female Peterson fan is not unheard of, but she’s unusual) and helped them articulate their own dissatisfactions with the kinds of masculinity on offer.

This following has made him into a global superstar psychologist and theologian. There’s no one else quite like him — some people have even started wondering why he doesn’t have a female equivalent. This singularity is a lot for any one man to carry without some weirdness getting in, and now Peterson is on the cusp of a comeback, with a new book on its way, it seems like a good time to reckon with just how weird things have got.

There’s the all-beef diet, developed by his daughter and then adopted by him, with enthusiastic testimony about its cure-all powers. Then there is the claim he was once kept awake for 25 days by accidentally consuming some vinegar (a sad downside, apparently, of the all-beef diet). More troublingly, there are the eight days he spent in a medically-induced coma in Russia earlier this year to treat a “physical dependence” on tranquilisers.

More curious is the fact that he became the world’s most significant public intellectual, having published precisely one academic book 18 years ago — a book which contains more pictures of dragons than legible sentences. (I’m not joking about the dragons.) In this book (Maps of Meaning) he describes going to a maximum security prison dressed in “long wool cape, circa 1890, which I had bought in Portugal, and a pair of tall leather boots”. Unsurprisingly, the get-up attracts attention, and Peterson finds himself “surrounded by shoddy men, some of whom were extremely large and tough-looking”.

Extraordinarily, he has ascended to the position of the liberal Left’s number one enemy. When Penguin announced that it would be publishing a sequel to his wildly successful 2018 self-help manual Twelve Rules for Life (to be called Beyond Order: Twelve More Rules for Life), some members of staff were so distraught that they cried.

Even weirder, the staff seemed to think that leaking this information would be persuasive. (Peterson’s own position on crying, from Twelve Rules, is this: “Anger-crying is often an act of dominance, and should be dealt with as such.”) But that’s still not the weirdest thing. Is it that people think he’s not just “an icon of hate speech” but also stupid? He might seem absurd; but he’s not stupid.

Watching Cathy Newman interview him for Channel 4 news is like watching someone show up to a knife fight with a pair of safety scissors: the more she tries to rattle him, the more rattled she looks, and all her efforts to get him to confess that he is in fact a massive sexist are easy for him to skirt around. Who you think wins depends greatly on who you agreed with at the start, but there’s no Frost/Nixon killer blow here.

Peterson’s prominence — both as hero and villain — is unusual, but not difficult to account for. People of all political persuasions need him, whether they’re looking to him as the unflappable gladiator squaring up to postmodernist corruption, or anointing him the avatar of the basest reactionary tendencies. So while there are surprising aspects to his celebrity and his notoriety, we’re still in the realm of the explicable rather than the strictly weird.

No, the weirdest thing about Jordan Peterson is that he is actually a woman. Obviously I don’t mean he’s a woman in the literal sense of being female, and nor do I think that he has some kind of feminine essence waiting to be uncovered. In fact, one of the things that made Peterson famous was his stand against enshrining gender identity in Canadian law, a legal change which he said could be responded to in two ways: “One is silent slavery with all the repression and resentment that that will generate, and the other is outright conflict. Free speech is not just another value. It’s the foundation of Western civilization.”

This is a typical bit of Peterson rhetoric. What he’s actually saying here is that he’s going to continue perceiving — and probably referring — to people as male or female, depending on how they appear to him. This is a banal pronouncement, even if present conditions make it an inflammatory one, but he leaps into the register of high drama: “Silent slavery”; “foundation of Western civilization.” It’s the linguistic equivalent of wearing a Victorian cape on a prison visit, and I’ll leave you to decide whether that counts as bathos or as camp.

The same jolts of tone are everywhere in Twelve Rules. Its lessons are fundamentally prosaic ones about self-reliance and social integration: Peterson boils them down at one point to “adopt as much responsibility as possible for ourselves, society and the world”, which I’m sure I’ve also read on the label of some hemp soap I bought once. A life lived by the Peterson precepts might be one in which you think about your health, keep your home tidy and maybe get involved in local politics or do some volunteer conservation. At bottom, what he’s recommending is basic good citizenship.

But in order to recommend it, he uses the language of existential struggle. This isn’t just about leading a decent, balanced life: it’s about “shoulder[ing] the burden of Being” and “tak[ing] the heroic path”. It’s not just tidying up, it’s applying the force of Order (personified as “the Wise King and Tyrant, forever bound together, as society is simultaneously structure and oppression”) against the terrifying swarm of Chaos (defined as “the new and unpredictable emerging suddenly in the midst of the commonplace familiar” and represented by “Mother Nature”).

Oh yes, and order is “masculine” (“symbolically”, he hedges, unconvincingly), while chaos is “presented imaginatively as feminine”. There isn’t, it should be noted, any particular reason for this gendering: it’s just the way Peterson has decided things should be. And even though he claims to be seeking a “balance” of these two principles, it’s hard to get around the fact that the book is subtitled An Antidote to Chaos. I mean, no one ever recommended an antidote to something they thought was good.

This is where — however much he might pirouette around it — the sexism of Peterson’s worldview comes through, because if men are order and women are chaos, and order needs to dominate chaos, there’s a pretty obvious conclusion for sexual politics. When he really gets into his stride, you’ll find him describing “the terror young men feel towards attractive women, who are nature itself,” which I guess means that if you’re a woman and he thinks you’re fit, you might as well be soil, so who knows what’s a compliment anymore.

For some of Peterson’s fanbase, the sexism is surely the point. But I wonder whether there are others for whom this relentless assertion of masculine authority (bathos or camp? You decide) is more condiment than main dish, making palatable the fact that Peterson is actually quite a feminised figure. Think about it: who else can fill stadiums by telling people to sort out their drawers or learn self-respect? Who else shills eating plans? Peterson doesn’t have an obvious female counterpart because there are so many of them that none could gain his preeminence: Oprah, Gwyneth, Marie Kondo. Being a lifestyle guru is woman’s work, even if you are a man and you throw around some gratuitous Jung.

Young men don’t want to hear “tidy your room and grow up and how will you ever get a nice girlfriend if you slouch around like that?” from their mothers, but they’ll pay to take it from Peterson — so long as he wraps it in some just-so stories about lobster hierarchy. His insistence on “taking responsibility” reminds me of nothing so much as me going Full Matriarch and chasing some teenagers down a tram stop, waving the litter they’d dropped. For his fans, Jordan Peterson is their mum: she might have some odd beliefs and go in for faddy diets, but at bottom, doesn’t she just love them and want what’s best for them.