This interview was first published on 28 January 2018
On Monday night at the Emmanuel Centre in Westminster, the 1,000-seat conference hall was packed to the gills with mostly white young men, from bearded hipsters to bespectacled nerds, already clutching copies of his book. Extra seats had been laid out and were quickly filled. Rock music was playing and the windows were lit with dramatic red spotlights that flanked an enormous black and white photograph of Peterson, who walked onto the stage to the roar of loud applause. It was as if their messiah had finally arrived.
Earlier in the day I met Peterson in a Holborn flat rented by his publisher to discover what all the fuss is about. A word-of-mouth phenomenon, according to his Penguin publicist, the 55-year-old professor of psychology at the University of Toronto lectures on subjects from the dangers of identity politics and use of gender-neutral pronouns, to the power of mythology and the Bible, to why the works of Jung, Nietzsche and Solzhenitsyn matter today more than ever.
Peterson’s fire-and-brimstone views form the basis of the 12-chaptered book, which offers positive advice about telling the truth always, avoiding losers, finding meaning, standing up straight, doing tough-love parenting and listening to others, among other things.
It is precisely the kind of hardline counselling for which he has long been revered, especially by 25 to 40-year-old men, who thank him profusely for helping turn their lives around. Peterson’s videos have clocked up 150 million views and he has 300,000 Twitter followers. But he is also accused of being an alt-Right, racist transphobe, and “the stupid man’s smart person”. In any event, he despises the far-Left and believes all ideologies are inherently evil.
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“I lived through a tumultuous times when I was writing this book,” says Peterson, adjusting a pencil-slim gold tie that one of his fans has just given him. “Particularly around my actions in relation to Bill C-16.” This Canadian bill, which passed in 2016, means that it is now a criminal offence to refuse to call a person by their chosen gender pronoun, which Peterson has argued is an infringement of free speech.
“When I made a video saying I wasn’t going to abide by Canada’s new speech laws there were demonstrations at the university and a huge backlash against me — but only to begin with. Then I had a huge wave of public support. The trans-activists videotaped the talk in an attempt to discredit me but the comments were about 50 to one in favour of what I was saying.
“I’ve had letters from trans people supporting me because they’re not happy. We’re in this weird time when if someone claims to be a member of a minority group and claims persecution of that group, then they can put themselves forward as valid spokesperson and everyone says OK. But, no, it’s not OK. Just because you’re a trans person doesn’t mean you’re a spokesperson for trans people.”
Soon after this Peterson became embroiled in the case of Lindsay Shepherd, an English graduate teacher at Wilfred Laurier University, Ontario, who was hauled up before faculty members after playing a video clip of Peterson on the gender- neutral pronoun debate to her students without first condemning it. She was told her actions were “like playing neutrally a speech by Hitler or Milo Yiannopoulos”. Shepherd covertly taped her inquisition and took it to the media. The story went viral, after which the university issued a public apology to her.
Peterson says this bears out his fears about the bill. “Except it was worse, since it was used to persecute an innocent person.” As for his own role, he says, half-jokingly, “I turned out to be Hitler himself. Or was I Milo Yiannopoulos? Take your pick. That shows exactly the intellectual level at which these ideologues play — they can’t even get their insults sorted out.”
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It’s easy to see why Peterson attracts controversy. You get the sense he enjoys it, or rather that the evangelical zeal with which he talks compels him towards its flame. With his prairie cowboy style — he grew up in Fairview, northern Alberta — and intense gaze, he speaks in a high-pitched, torrential stream of invective, occasionally shouting, and repeating words to emphasise a point, sliding his wedding ring on and off his finger.
“And then there was James Damore,” he starts up. Peterson video-interviewed the Google engineer after Damore was fired for a memo he wrote questioning the benefits of diversity programmes. Damore also suggested that “the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership.”
“To understand Damore,” he says, “you have to understand engineers. Damore was asked by the HR department to a session about diversity, equity, inclusivity, white privilege and all those buzzwords these people use now. He was told they wanted comments, and being an engineer he thought they meant that they wanted comments, because engineers think that when you say something you actually mean it. Engineers aren’t political and there’s a reason for that, which is that if one of the dimensions in which people vary is their interest in ‘people’ versus ‘things’, and one of the biggest gender differences between women and men is their interest in ‘people’ versus ‘things’, then engineers are way the hell over on ‘things’.”
He’s delighted that Damore has just launched a lawsuit against the company for unfair discrimination “against a white male” at the same time as it faces another one over the gender pay gap. “Google is in the wonderful position as far as I’m concerned of being harassed legally on both sides, which is exactly what they deserve for playing identity politics.”
Nor does it end there. “Look up ‘white couple’ on Google Images,” he says suddenly. “Then look up ‘black couple’, then ‘Asian couple’.” Peterson and I look together. If you Google ‘white couple’, the first four images on the top row show a white woman with a black man. “This is way more terrifying than you think, because it means that Google is messing about with algorithms that present information to the public according to a built-in political agenda.”
Hardly surprisingly, he is just as contemptuous of #MeToo identity politics and can hardly contain himself when asked what he thought of Hollywood’s leading ladies parading in black dresses at last weekend’s Golden Globes. “What, you mean really sexually provocative black dresses? Those ones?” he snorts. “That says it all. If there’s one industry that capitalises on the exploitation of casual sex, it’s Hollywood. There are all sorts of reprehensible ways that men treat women, obviously, and I’m not saying Harvey Weinstein’s victims invited their own victimisation, but I’m not impressed by the fact that this went on forever and no one said anything. The issue isn’t male sexual misbehaviour, it’s sexual misbehaviour on the part of women as well as men. But we can’t have an intelligent discussion about that, because all the women are good and all the men are bad.”
Take responsibility for your own actions, he says, and it’s ultimately the message of his book. “You can put things straight in your own life and have a massive effect on the world around you. It’s why the victimisation ideology is so corrosive,” he says in parting.
Whether you agree or not, whether you think he’s a maniac or a messiah, or a little bit of both, Jordan Peterson is here now, and here to stay.