Peterson is fifty-five, and his delayed success should give hope to underappreciated academics everywhere. For a few years, in the nineteen-nineties, he taught psychology at Harvard; by the time he published "Maps of Meaning," in 1999, he was back in Canada—teaching at the University of Toronto, working as a clinical psychologist, and building a reputation, on television, as an acerbic pundit. His fame grew in 2016, during the debate over a Canadian bill known as C-16. The bill sought to expand human-rights law by adding "gender identity and gender expression" to the list of grounds upon which discrimination is prohibited. In a series of videotaped lectures, Peterson argued that such a law could be a serious infringement of free speech. His main focus was the issue of pronouns: many transgender or gender-nonbinary people use pronouns different from the ones they were assigned at birth—including, sometimes, "they," in the singular, or nontraditional ones, like "ze." The Ontario Human Rights Commission had found that, in a workplace or a school, "refusing to refer to a trans person by their chosen name and a personal pronoun that matches their gender identity" would probably be considered discrimination. Peterson resented the idea that the government might force him to use what he called neologisms of politically correct "authoritarians." During one debate, recorded at the University of Toronto, he said, "I am not going to be a mouthpiece for language that I detest." Then he folded his arms, adding, "And that's that!"
Such videos reached millions of online viewers, including plenty with no particular stake in Canadian human-rights legislation. To many people disturbed by reports of intolerant radicals on campus, Peterson was a rallying figure: a fearsomely self-assured debater, unintimidated by liberal condemnation. Students staged rowdy protests. The dean of the university sent him a letter warning that his pledge not to use certain pronouns revealed "discriminatory intentions"; the letter also warned, "The impact of your behavior runs the risk of undermining your ability to conduct essential components of your job as a faculty member." Last fall, a teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University, in Waterloo, Ontario, was reprimanded by professors for showing her class a clip of one of Peterson's debates. (The university later apologized.) The reprisals only raised Peterson's profile, and he capitalized on the attention on his Patreon page, where devotees can pledge monthly payments in exchange for exclusive Q. & A. sessions and online courses.
Earlier this year, Peterson appeared on Channel 4 News, in Britain. The interviewer, Cathy Newman, asked what gave him the right to offend transgender people. He asked, cheerfully, what gave her the right to risk offending him. Newman paused for an excruciating few moments, and Peterson allowed himself a moment of triumph. "Ha! Gotcha," he said. David Brooks, in the Times, said that Peterson reminded him of "a young William F. Buckley." Tucker Carlson, on Fox News, called the exchange with Newman "one of the great interviews of all time."
Given the popularity of these online debates, it can be easy to forget that arguing against political correctness is not Peterson's main occupation. He remains a psychology professor by trade, and he still spends much of his time doing something like therapy. Anyone in need of his counsel can find plenty of it in "12 Rules for Life." The book is far easier to comprehend than its predecessor, though it may confuse those who know Peterson only as a culture warrior. One of his many fans is PewDiePie, a Swedish video gamer who is known as the most widely viewed YouTube personality in the world—his channel has more than sixty million subscribers. In a video review of "12 Rules for Life," PewDiePie confessed that the book had surprised him. "It's a self-help book!" he said. "I don't think I ever would have read a self-help book." (He nonetheless declared that Peterson's book, at least the parts he read, was "very interesting.") Peterson himself embraces the self-help genre, to a point. The book is built around forthright and perhaps impractically specific advice, from Chapter 1, "Stand Up Straight with Your Shoulders Back," to Chapter 12, "Pet a Cat When You Encounter One on the Street." Political polemic plays a relatively small role; Peterson's goal is less to help his readers change the world than to help them find a stable place within it. One of his most compelling maxims is strikingly modest: "You should do what other people do, unless you have a very good reason not to." Of course, he is famous today precisely because he has determined that, in a range of circumstances, there are good reasons to buck the popular tide. He is, by turns, a defender of conformity and a critic of it, and he thinks that if readers pay close attention, they, too, can learn when to be which.
All the while, Peterson was also pursuing a grander, stranger project. He had fallen under the sway of Carl Jung, the mystical Swiss psychology pioneer who interpreted modern life as an endless drama, haunted by ancient myths. (Peterson calls Jung "ever-terrifying," which is a very Jungian sort of compliment.) In "Maps of Meaning," Peterson drew from Jung, and from evolutionary psychology: he wanted to show that modern culture is "natural," having evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to reflect and meet our human needs. Then, rather audaciously, he sought to explain exactly how our minds work, illustrating his theory with elaborate geometric diagrams ("The Constituent Elements of Experience as Personality, Territory, and Process") that seemed to have been created for the purpose of torturing undergraduates.
Throughout the book, Peterson supplies small and strange interjections of autobiography. He recalls the time an old friend named Ed came to visit, accompanied by another guy who was, in Peterson's estimation, "stoned out of his gourd." Alarmed, Peterson staged a kind of intervention. "I took Ed aside and told him politely that he had to leave," Peterson writes. "I said that he shouldn't have brought his useless bastard of a companion." Ed took his friend and left—fearing, perhaps, to discover what a less polite admonition would have sounded like.
Peterson has a way of making even the mildest pronouncement sound like the dying declaration of a political prisoner. In "Maps of Meaning," he traced this sense of urgency to a feeling of fraudulence that overcame him in college. When he started to speak, he would hear a voice telling him, "You don't believe that. That isn't true." To ward off mental breakdown, he resolved not to say anything unless he was sure he believed it; this practice calmed the inner voice, and in time it shaped his rhetorical style, which is forceful but careful. In "12 Rules for Life," Peterson recounts a similar experience when, as a psychologist, he worked with a client diagnosed with paranoia. He says that such patients are "almost uncanny in their ability to detect mixed motives, judgment, and falsehood," and so he redoubled his efforts to say only what he meant. "You have to listen very carefully and tell the truth if you are going to get a paranoid person to open up to you," he writes. Peterson seems to have found that this approach works on much of the general population, too.
If he once had a tendency to shut himself up, Peterson has wholly overcome it. "Do Not Bother Children When They Are Skateboarding," he proclaims (Rule 11), but the expected riff about "overprotected" children leads elsewhere: to a grim story about a troubled friend who committed suicide, and then to a remembrance of a professor who boasted that he and his wife had made an ethical decision to have only one child, and from there to an argument that both the unhappy friend and the arrogant professor were "anti-human, to the core." Elsewhere in the chapter, he writes that "boys' interests tilt towards things" and "girls' interests tilt towards people," and that these interests are "strongly influenced by biological factors." He is particularly concerned about boys and men, and he flatters them with regular doses of tough love. "Boys are suffering in the modern world," he writes, and he suggests that the problem is that they're not boyish enough. Near the end of the chapter, he tries to coin a new catchphrase: "Toughen up, you weasel."
When he does battle as a culture warrior, especially on television, Peterson sometimes assumes the role of a strident anti-feminist, intent on ending the oppression of males by destroying the myth of male oppression. (He once referred to his critics as "rabid harpies.") But his tone is more pragmatic in this book, and some of his critics might be surprised to find much of the advice he offers unobjectionable, if old-fashioned: he wants young men to be better fathers, better husbands, better community members. In this way, he might be seen as an heir to older gurus of manhood like Elbert Hubbard, who in 1899 published a stern and wildly popular homily called "A Message to Garcia." (What young men most needed, Hubbard wrote, was "a stiffening of the vertebrae.") Peterson is an heir, too, to the professional pickup artists who proliferated in the aughts, making a different appeal to feckless men. Where the pickup artists promised to make guys better sexual salesmen (sexual consummation was called "full close," as in closing a deal), Peterson, more ambitious, promises to help them get married and stay married. "You have to scour your psyche," he tells them. "You have to clean the damned thing up." When he claims to have identified "the culminating ethic of the canon of the West," one might brace for provocation. But what follows, instead, is prescription so canonical that it seems self-evident: "Attend to the day, but aim at the highest good." In urging men to overachieve, he is also urging them to fit in, and become productive members of Western society.
Peterson seems to view Trump, by contrast, as a symptom of modern problems, rather than a cause of them. He suggests that Trump's rise was unfortunate but inevitable—"part of the same process," he writes, as the rise of "far-right" politicians in Europe. "If men are pushed too hard to feminize," he warns, "they will become more and more interested in harsh, fascist political ideology." Peterson sometimes asks audiences to view him as an alternative to political excesses on both sides. During an interview on BBC Radio 5, he said, "I've had thousands of letters from people who were tempted by the blandishments of the radical right, who've moved towards the reasonable center as a consequence of watching my videos." But he typically sees liberals, or leftists, or "postmodernists," as aggressors—which leads him, rather ironically, to frame some of those on the "radical right" as victims. Many of his political stances are built on this type of inversion. Postmodernists, he says, are obsessed with the idea of oppression, and, by waging war on oppressors real and imagined, they become oppressors themselves. Liberals, he says, are always talking about the importance of compassion—and yet "there's nothing more horrible for children, and developing people, than an excess of compassion." (This horror, he says, is embodied in the figure of the "Freudian devouring mother"; as an example, he cites Ursula, the sea witch from "The Little Mermaid.") The danger, it seems, is that those who want to improve Western society may end up destroying it.
Peterson thinks that this danger has a lot to do with men and women, and the changing way we think about them. "The division of life into its twin sexes occurred before the evolution of multi-cellular animals," he writes, by way of arguing that human beings are bound to care about this division. During his Channel 4 News debate, Cathy Newman pressed him on whether he supported gender equality, and he replied that it depended on what the term meant. "If it means equality of outcome, then almost certainly it's undesirable," he said. "Men and women won't sort themselves into the same categories, if you leave them alone." (He mentioned that in Scandinavia, an unusually egalitarian part of the world, men are vastly overrepresented among engineers, and women among nurses.) Convictions such as these inspire in him a general skepticism of efforts to redress gender inequality. He has argued that traditionally feminine traits, such as agreeableness, are not historically correlated with professional success. (He says that, as a psychologist, he has often counselled female clients to be more assertive at work.) When Newman suggested that this correlation might merely reflect the ways women have been shut out of corporate leadership, Peterson sounded doubtful. "It could be the case that if companies modified their behavior, and became more feminine, that they would be successful," he said. "But there's no evidence for that."
Peterson is not primarily interested in policy, but he was eager to join the debate over C-16, the Canadian bill forbidding discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression. In opposing the bill, Peterson claimed the mantle of free speech. "There's a difference," he explained, "between saying that there's something you can't say, and saying that there are things that you have to say." But if laws against discrimination also prohibit harassment, they will necessarily prohibit some forms of verbal harassment—and they will therefore, to a greater or lesser extent, limit speech. Canada already limits speech in ways that the U.S. does not: a law against "hate speech" was repealed in 2013, but the government still bans "hate propaganda." From an American perspective, such laws may seem ill-advised, or even oppressive. Still, like many free-speech arguments, this one was in large part a debate over the political status of a minority group.
The C-16 debate is over, for now—the bill passed and was enacted last summer. But Peterson remains a figurehead for the movement to block or curtail transgender rights. When he lampoons "made-up pronouns," he sometimes seems to be lampooning the people who use them, encouraging his fans to view transgender or gender-nonbinary people as confused, or deluded. Once, after a lecture, he was approached on campus by a critic who wanted to know why he would not use nonbinary pronouns. "I don't believe that using your pronouns will do you any good, in the long run," he replied.
So what does Peterson actually believe about gender and pronouns? It can be hard to tell. Later in that campus conversation, when asked whether, in the absence of legal coercion, he would be willing to use pronouns such as "they" and "them" if a trans person asked him to, Peterson demurred. "It might depend on how they asked," he said. One of his foundational beliefs is that cultures evolve, which suggests that nonstandard pronouns could become standard. In a debate about gender on Canadian television, in 2016, he tried to find some middle ground. "If our society comes to some sort of consensus over the next while about how we'll solve the pronoun problem," he said, "and that becomes part of popular parlance, and it seems to solve the problem properly, without sacrificing the distinction between singular and plural, and without requiring me to memorize an impossible list of an indefinite number of pronouns, then I would be willing to reconsider my position."
Despite his fondness for moral absolutes, Peterson is something of a relativist; he is inclined to defer to a Western society that is changing in unpredictable ways. In discussing the many women who have criticized him, he has talked about how verbal disagreements commonly contain an implicit threat of violence, and about how such implicit threats are "forbidden" when men are addressing women. And yet, even when the topic is as elemental as male-female violence, our norms are changing: in the United States, laws against spousal violence were first enacted in the middle of the nineteenth century; laws against spousal rape are only a few decades old. Not long ago, these laws might have seemed intrusive and disruptive; now, many people shudder at the notion that it might ever have been legal for a man to physically assault his wife. Peterson excels at explaining why we should be careful about social change, but not at helping us assess which changes we should favor; just about any modern human arrangement could be portrayed as a radical deviation from what came before. In the case of gender identity, Peterson's judgment is that "our society" has not yet agreed to adopt nontraditional pronouns, which isn't quite an argument that we shouldn't. And this judgment isn't likely to be persuasive to people in places—like some North American college campuses, perhaps—where the singular "they" has already come to seem like part of the social fabric.
At times, Peterson emphasizes his interest in empirical knowledge and scientific research—although these tend to be the least convincing parts of "12 Rules for Life." There is an extended analogy between human beings and lobsters, based on the observation that male lobsters that have proven themselves dominant produce more serotonin; he suggests that when people "slump around," like weakling lobsters, they, too, will run short on serotonin, which will make them unhappy. The fact that serotonin has varied and sometimes contradictory effects scarcely matters here: Peterson's story about the lobster is essentially a modern myth. He wants forlorn readers to imagine themselves as heroic lobsters; he wants an image of claws to appear in their mind whenever they feel themselves start to slump; he wants to help them.
Peterson wants to help everyone, in fact. In his least measured moments, he permits himself to dream of a world transformed. "Who knows," he writes, "what existence might be like if we all decided to strive for the best?" His many years of study fostered in him a conviction that good and evil exist, and that we can discern them without recourse to any particular religious authority. This is a reassuring belief, especially in confusing times: "Each human being understands, a priori, perhaps not what is good, but certainly what is not." No doubt there are therapists and life coaches all over the world dispensing some version of this formula, nudging their clients to pursue lives that better conform to their own moral intuitions. The problem is that, when it comes to the question of how to order our societies—when it comes, in other words, to politics—our intuitions have proved neither reliable nor coherent. The "highly functional infrastructure" he praises is the product of an unceasing argument over what is good, for all of us; over when to conform, and when to dissent. We can, most of us, sort ourselves out, or learn how to do it. That doesn't mean we will ever agree on how to sort out everyone else. ♦
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