Critics have been misrepresenting Jordan Peterson for years, finding in his advocacy of meaning through responsibility “a vector for the spread of alt-right ideas” (as one of the more restrained formulations put it). Still, one might have expected news of the Canadian psychology professor’s personal difficulties and life-threatening illness over the past nearly two years to evoke sufficient magnanimity among the caring-and-sharing Left to prompt a pause in their attacks.
The author of the wildly successful 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos has spent many months out of the public eye, where he had previously been making the world (allegedly) unsafe for snowflakes. After taking time out from his book promotion tours when his wife was diagnosed with cancer, he was himself stricken by an adverse physical reaction, called akathisia, to benzodiazepine anxiety medication. The reaction was so excruciating that he reportedly came to believe he could not survive it.
Despite visiting the best rehabilitation centres in North America, Peterson was unable to find a successful course of treatment. He then put himself in the care of doctors in Russia and Serbia. It seems to have worked. Now, a year after the public first learned of his trials, Peterson remains fragile emotionally and physically, and still not pain-free. He has begun a cautious return to public life to promote his next book, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life.
But the attacks on Peterson have not abated. Following his daughter Mikhaila’s announcement in early 2020 of her father’s “Year of ‘Absolute Hell’” (reported in this National Post article), the naysayers have renewed their efforts, finding in Peterson’s health woes cause for jubilation and a potent symbol of the hollowness of his “bootstrap philosophy.” If the holier-than-thou prophet couldn’t get his own psychological house in order, who was he to lecture others?
The Comments below the article announcing his condition were replete with Peterson detractors unashamed of their schadenfreude. “Clean your room, bucko!” vaunted one. Amir Attaran, a Professor of Medicine and Law at the University of Ottawa, took to Twitter using the hashtag #KARMA to rejoice that Peterson, “oracle to gullible young men, preacher of macho toughness,” had got what he deserved, being “addicted to hard drugs,” and that the appropriate response (this from a professor who studies “drivers of human well-being”) was a rude rhetorical guffaw.
A longer, more sophisticated guffaw appeared a month later in The New Republic. Though lacking any first-hand knowledge of Peterson’s condition, author Lindsay Beyerstein contended that the psychologist had simply been unable to accept that he had become a drug addict: “Dependency goes against the core tenets of Peterson’s philosophical brand: stoicism, self-reliance, the power of the will over circumstance and environment.” Needing to act the hero of his own favored myths, the right-wing preacher of willpower “succumbed to the lure of a quack treatment – with devastating consequences.”
Beyerstein’s snidely tendentious account never seriously considers the possibility that Peterson attempted in good faith to follow the medical advice of North American doctors but found them unable to help him. She also threw in the by-now standard put-down of Peterson’s work serving as “a gateway drug for countless budding right-wingers.” Beyerstein could barely contain her glee that now, the drug-dealer was hooked on his own smack. Our therapeutic culture has room for every sort of victim except, it seems, Peterson; he’s at fault for his own illness.
Why is Peterson so hated? It is not only that he has made by far the most visible and trenchant objection in recent history to the shibboleths of the social justice Left, helping millions of people understand, and giving expression to their own uneasy awareness of, the dangers of suppressing free speech, warping academic research, denying biological realities, and demonizing ideological opponents. More importantly, in his particular appeal to young men, Peterson has dramatically exposed this group’s decades-long alienation.
The eagerness of these men, many of them fatherless, shamed, and disaffected, to absorb Peterson’s advice about bearing burdens and facing difficulties – and Peterson’s own shocked, heartfelt realization of how socially rudderless many have been for so long, including those who have attended college – have illuminated a glaring gap in the alleged compassion of the social justice program. A messenger who wept over our culture’s lost boys was unwelcome, to say the least, and was best banished from the public conversation.
As long as Peterson’s health was good and he remained at the top of his game, this effort failed. 12 Rules for Life sold over 5 million copies and Peterson’s book tour reached over 100 cities. The more viciously his critics behaved, the more popular Peterson became and the more devoted his following grew. He received at least some favourable press from mainstream publications. But when he got sick, his enemies smelled weakness.
Among the more egregious demonstrations of the willingness to discredit Peterson via his illness is Decca Aitkenhead’s recent article for The Times, “Jordan Peterson on his depression, drug dependency, and Russian rehab hell.” It was arranged by the prominent UK paper’s acquisitions editor, Megan Agnew, who described the proposed interview to Mikhaila Peterson as an opportunity for her father “to clear up any factual inaccuracies that might have been reported in the press, telling his side of the story, as well as celebrating his life and career so far.” Her note oozed apparent sympathy and understanding.
The final product was about as far from a celebration as one could imagine. It was such a hit piece that, upon its publication, Peterson released the audio recording he had made. Comparing the interview to the resulting article shows how Aitkenhead shaped the account, omitting and arranging details to make it correspond to her apparent pre-existing conviction of Peterson’s “toxic masculinity.”
Aitkenhead drew liberally on the now-familiar arsenal of anti-Peterson characterizations. Along with lazily recycling the “dangerous gateway drug” trope, she tells us that Peterson became a YouTube celebrity by “defend[ing] traditional masculine dominance” and “dispensing bracing advice about how to be a real man.” She notes that, “according to Peterson, men represent ‘order.’” Peterson’s advice for withstanding suffering, she claims, is to “stand up, man up, suck it up.” She refers to his having “built an entire intellectual philosophy upon[…]the strong manly response” to life.
The English journalist does not quote Peterson expressing these ideas, or anything else he is on record as actually saying, preferring the critics’ reductive versions. In case readers are in doubt about how to think of Peterson, she lets us know early on that, “To his critics, he represents the respectable face of reactionary misogyny.” It was extraordinary to find such sloppy calumnies in a once-respectable newspaper that continues to boast that “we tell difficult stories with generous space, time and objectivity.”
For an overview of Peterson’s actual thinking on “traditional masculine dominance,” one need only look at Chapter 11 in 12 Rules for Life. Here he clarifies that it is “competence, not power [that] is a prime determiner of status” in democratic societies. Hierarchies can never be simply abolished, he avers, and a well-functioning society creates multiple hierarchies based on ability. Many masculine qualities now regularly denigrated are fundamental to achievement. Masculine aggression, for example, when appropriately channeled, “underlies the drive to be outstanding, to be unstoppable, to compete, to win – to be actively virtuous, at least along one dimension.”
No one reading Peterson honestly can claim he is a woman-hater. He makes clear that while, “Culture is symbolically, archetypally, mythically male,” it is not by any means “the creation of men,” for women have always played an “instrumental role.” In Peterson’s view, “the so-called oppression of the patriarchy was instead an imperfect collective attempt by men and women, stretching over millennia, to free each other from privation, disease and drudgery.” He shows how men have sought to lessen women’s biological burdens, and he highlights the undeniable female preference for masculine, successful men as well as the manifold dangers – to men themselves and their societies – of telling men to be less masculine.
Haters gonna’ hate: Peterson’s detractors have expressed unseemly delight at his recent health problems, including (above right) Amir Attaran, professor of Medicine and Law at the University of Ottawa, and (below left) Lindsay Beyerstein of The New Republic. (Source: Licensed under CC BY 2.0)
Peterson notes that currently maligned masculine ways of being, such as status-testing, are a big part of “what allows men who work for a living to tolerate or even enjoy laying pipe and working on oil rigs and lumber-jacking and working in restaurant kitchens and all the other hot, dirty, physically demanding and dangerous work that is still done almost totally by men.” Peterson provides ample evidence supporting all these ideas.
Did Aitkenhead read any of 12 Rules for Life beforehand? If so, she didn’t let the experience interfere with creating a cartoonish image of Peterson as an at-once neurotically frail and macho man, so intent on disguising his inadequacies that he nearly died in the attempt. No matter how many times in the interview Peterson tries to correct her perception of his health debacle, she is relentless in suggesting that it must have stemmed from his inability to see or admit his own psychological needs.
In the recorded interview, Peterson speaks specifically about the physical pain of akathisia, trying to characterize its sustained agony, which he repeatedly calls “unbearable”. It is like pulling away in spasm, he explains, from someone jabbing you really hard in the ribs with stiff fingers, except that it keeps happening, “50 times every time you breathe,” hour after hour, day after day. Aitkenhead quotes none of this, referring only to “intense agitation and restlessness.”
She presses Peterson to acknowledge that his illness made him feel ashamed, asking him if it “generate[d] a self-punishing dynamic in your head, that you’re angry with yourself?” Did he feel, she keeps on, “grotesque and ridiculous and weak?” Despite Peterson’s definitive answer – “If you’re in enough pain, you’re no longer self-conscious…or you’re still self-conscious, but that problem is trivial compared to the pain” – she persists in her caricature of self-loathing.
Decide for yourself: Peterson recorded and posted the audio and transcript of his entire interview with The Times’ Decca Aitkenhead (at right).
After throwing in a downright bizarre comparison of the verbally magisterial professor to Donald Trump, Aitkenhead finally concludes that it was Peterson’s own “bootstrap philosophy” which was to blame: “When life became excruciatingly stressful, Peterson’s stand up, man up, suck it up mentality didn’t work.” That and, in case you forgot, his “toxic masculinity”. That is highly convenient, for if it was indeed Peterson’s purportedly far-right emphasis on self-control and stoicism that nearly killed him, then that’s ample reason for rejecting everything he has ever said about pretty much everything, especially the dangers of victim ideology, with its corrosive resentment and grievance.
Every component of Aitkenhead’s damning condemnation is untrue, however. Not only is there no evidence that Peterson’s physical illness was psychological in origin, but Peterson has never even advocated a “bootstrap philosophy”, nor come close to claiming that “stand up, man up, suck it up,” in Aitkenhead’s burlesque, is all you’ll need to overcome pain or disaster.
On the contrary, Peterson is deeply aware that no act of will or strenuous adherence to virtue can hold off the capricious tragedies of life. Many passages in 12 Rules for Life point to the terrifying fragility of human striving. “Even well-lived lives can, of course, be warped and hurt and twisted by illness and infirmity and uncontrollable catastrophe,” he writes in Chapter 8. “Depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, like cancer, all involve biological factors beyond the individual’s immediate control. The difficulties intrinsic to life itself are sufficient to weaken and overwhelm each of us, pushing us beyond our limits, breaking us at our weakest point.”
The apprehension of looming tragedy is a theme in Peterson’s thinking and was offered with particular candour near the end of a TV interview in early 2018 with the CBC’s Wendy Mesley. “I don’t know what’s next, really,” he said pensively. “The overwhelming likelihood, as far as I’m concerned, and it’s been this way since September of 2016, is that this will go terribly wrong…I’m surfing a hundred-foot wave and generally what happens if you do that is you drown.” Mesley’s response: “That’s interesting.” Last summer, Mesley herself was tragically consumed by the irrational radical forces Peterson has been battling all along.
Medical evidence: While his critics have attempted to label his condition as a personal or moral failure, akathisia is a well-established and serious condition. Pictured is an excerpt from the January 2011 issue of the academic journal CNS Spectrums.
What Peterson does allege – in one of the arguments that most aggravate his opponents – is that the age-old virtues of self-discipline, integrity, and the acceptance of suffering are ultimately far more useful than the self-pity, envy, and resentment of victimology. The bearing of burdens, he asserts, can become a powerful source of meaning that testifies to our shared humanity. Identity politics, in contrast, can only divide, and disastrously so. Aitkenhead must be unnerved by the humaneness in Peterson’s message, for she omitted a part of the interview that most clearly conveys it.
Aitkenhead also attempted to manipulate the issue of why Peterson forced himself to keep working on his new book even when his akathisia made it excruciating to sit still. He tells her that he did it “because the alternative was worse.” According to Aitkenhead, his “voice raises and fills with pride” as he describes a working schedule that took him to his studio “virtually convulsing.” Though he denies that his persistence was “willpower or courage,” she alleges that “he has ended up framing his story in terms of his willpower and courage.” He is still deluding himself, she implies.
Many of us similarly constituted will recognize the truth in Peterson’s contention: to have done nothing during his illness, even with very good reason, would indeed have been worse than persevering through pain. This was a rule for life in action, a piece of costly wisdom, but one Aitkenhead can only dismiss as masculine pathology. Through an ideological lens focused on masculine and, indeed, Western cultural perfidy, that’s all that can be seen.
This is a great pity, not least because as a charismatic figure of striking contrasts – the fierceness and frailty, courage and anxiety that Aitkenhead is not wrong to have noticed – Jordan Peterson deserves critics whose acuity is commensurate with his own complex insights. If his compelling elaboration about the nature of virtue, masculinity, and civilized society is truly wrong, his critics should be able to explain how. So far, they have mainly opted for crude and often cruel mockery.
As for the man himself, Peterson is home again in Toronto re-starting the work he loves. His first new video, Back Home, expresses his intention to create a video series with a Biblical focus, and received over 4.6 million views. He has resumed his interviews with public figures, including Hollywood maverick actor Matthew McConaughey, and provocateur and Concordia Professor of Marketing Gad Saad. Most recently, Peterson has begun to promote Beyond Order by releasing short videos outlining the various rules. Rule #2: “Imagine who you could be and then aim single-mindedly at that.” It is an appropriate motif for the culture warrior who has inspired millions – and it’s sure to keep driving his critics wild.
Janice Fiamengo is a Professor of English who retired from the University of Ottawa in 2019 and, now living with her husband David Solway in Vancouver, is author of The Fiamengo File, a series of videos about men’s issues and feminism.
Source (main image): Gage Skidmore, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0