A lot of ink has been spilled over the astonishing rise of Jordan Peterson, the University of Toronto psychology professor who has risen to become the new conservative darling of the anti-political correctness crowd.
A Globe and Mail columnist recently pointed out something that seems fairly obvious to many of us who have listened to and read about his views. Margaret Wente has decided that “Peterson is not the leading public intellectual of our age… much of what he says is not terribly original.”
Even a cursory review shows that there are whole publishing and social media industries built around almost identical arguments against progressive politics, the supposed leftist bias of our universities and the perceived associated decline of free speech.
So, while a compelling public speaker, Peterson’s insights cannot really explain his tremendous popularity.
What’s truly unique, and perhaps troubling, about Peterson is not his ideas but the way he has tapped into a deep reservoir of fear, resentment and frustration through his deft social media presence. It’s empowered and mobilized his followers to promote and defend him.
He has harnessed the same emotional power that propelled Donald Trump to the presidency in the United States. And, similarly, his acolytes are unmoved by even the most withering criticisms of their hero because they believe it’s all part of the very same conspiracy of leftist “fake news” that is currently working to bring him down.
Armed with an arsenal of alternative facts, this dangerous feedback loop not only makes such movements impervious to any kind of refutation but adroitly uses such attacks to further bolster the credibility of the movement.
This is all the more surprising considering how Peterson’s social media presence started out. In a series of YouTube videos beginning in 2016, Peterson criticizes Bill C-16, a seemingly innocuous Canadian law that added “gender identity expression” to the Canadian Human Rights Act. It was designed to protect transgender citizens from discrimination and hate speech.
While his first subscribers were attracted by his attacks on identity politics and “social justice warriors,” the main focus of his argument was on something entirely different: The seemingly unrelated elements of “compelled speech” found in the bill, which he claimed demanded that transgender people must be called by their preferred pronoun (zhir and ze, for example, rather than she and he).
Similar laws and associated debates popped up in the United States around the same time.
For Peterson, all of these issues are tied together because he views them as a further manifestation of the larger movement behind political correctness that has long infiltrated our universities, board rooms and legislatures.
Through this lens, for example, #MeToo is not about women coming forward to speak out about sexual harassment, but part of a multi-pronged feminist effort to thrust group-based guilt upon all men. Starting from the 3:20 mark, Peterson makes his point about the movement:
Peterson goes yet further by pinpointing the source of all political correctness in a deep state “cultural Marxism” that stems all the way back to the “murderous ideologies” of Joseph Stalin and Chairman Mao.
In other words, following in the steps of these dictators, George Orwell-inspired “groupthink” and political correctness are simply stages toward an inevitable violent revolution to create some sort of left-wing totalitarian society, just as Karl Marx would have wanted.
However far-fetched this scenario may seem, the view is embraced by many on the right, and it easily lends itself to the coining of new terms and phrases designed as customs for entry into their world.
Allegations of “Frankfurt School” tactics, for one — a reference to a group of mid-20th century neo-Marxist philosophers — are used to further connect the dots between the ivory-tower intelligentsia and the true depth of this alleged evil plot.
While there may be some merit to some of Peterson’s concerns, such as the defence of the free speech rights of teaching assistant Lindsey Shepherd, to then contextualize such events as concealed in a larger “murderous ideology” is quite troubling, and may even court a violent counter-reaction. See Peterson make that reference at the 1:34 mark here:
Peterson’s recent debate with British journalist Cathy Newman, which launched him yet further into the social media stratosphere, had a hint of the possibility of violence when the news channel had to call in security experts to assess potential threats against her. To his credit, Peterson seemed to at least partly understand the seriousness of the situation, asking his followers to back off.
Altogether, in the age of fake news and vast online echo chambers, a figure like Peterson wields tremendous influence.
While Peterson clearly welcomes debate about his world views, criticisms of him merely serve to corroborate and solidify his and his growing crowd of followers’ beliefs. But like many social media stars before him, Peterson will eventually fade from the scene.
Yet the underlying foundation of his popularity will remain and another person will easily fill his place.