“It’s been a year and a half of just absolutely non-stop scandal and press,” says Professor Jordan Peterson of the events that have propelled him from the shadows of academia to his present status as one of the most talked-about intellectuals in the English-speaking world.
The 55-year-old Canadian clinical psychologist and thinker has written 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, a self-help guide for people (mainly men, he admits) who find themselves trapped in damaged lives, using the behaviour of lobsters and Old Testament stories to illustrate his points.
“I’m asking you to quit drifting,” he explains. “Not only is that not good for you, it’ll make you miserable. Then it’ll make you resentful, and then it’ll make you dangerous. None of that’s good.”
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The sooner you take responsibility for your own actions, rather than blaming social disadvantage or gender, 12 Rules argues, the better your life and the world will be. This has made Peterson a figure of hate for the left (he blames “the radical left” for many ills) and a messiah for the right.
His online lectures have been viewed by hundreds of thousands of people and his admirers bombard him with goodwill messages. “I’ve had 60,000 letters since August,” he tells me .
A YouTube star with more than a million followers, Peterson has sold over a million copies of 12 Rules worldwide and packs out venues wherever he appears. “I kept thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve had my 15 minutes of fame’, then, ‘I’ve had my half an hour of fame.’ I kept expecting it to peak and it never happened.”
Peterson’s public career as provocateur was launched in 2016 when he attacked a Canadian law, Bill C-16, that would oblige tutors to use the preferred pronoun of transgender students. “People would be able to refer to themselves as ‘xe’ and ‘xyr’, or ‘they’ and ‘them’.
“I don’t really care about the pronouns, but I really do care about the fact that I would be compelled to follow that example.”
His position, a defence of personal liberty at the expense of other people’s feelings, caused outrage. Then, in January this year, Peterson was interviewed on Channel 4 News. Presenter Cathy Newman took exception to Peterson’s belief that feminism, along with any other ideology that classifies people by a group rather than as an individual, is a bad thing.
When Channel 4 put the full interview online, Newman was bombarded with threats that, the channel claimed, endangered her.
Peterson doesn’t see it that way. “Channel 4 said that she was afraid for her life, and that the police had to be called in. You could call the police in for anything; that isn’t evidence of a credible threat. I thought, ‘Oh, now they’re going to spin this as a victim narrative’. Which I was appalled at.”
Why? “Cathy Newman goes out of her way to be harsh and contentious as a public figure. She’s already put herself in the fray and if you’re part of the privileged elite you don’t get to do that and say, ‘Oh, look, now I’m being victimised by my fame’.”
Did he feel sorry for her? “I tweeted out, ‘Look, lay the hell off. Enough is enough.’ Or something a little bit more civilised than that. You don’t need to beat a dead horse. I’m glad I wasn’t the one who was being torn to shreds online. I tried to put myself in Cathy’s position psychologically for a very long period of time, thinking, ‘How would I react?’ Eight or nine million people have watched that, but it’s also been cut up and distributed on YouTube, so it’s more like 30 million now.”
And all this fuss over 12 rules that can read like maxims you find on fridge magnets. There’s no “Life’s too short for bad wine”, but Rule 9 says: “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t”. Rule 6, “Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world”, is addressed to young men with messy bedrooms.
“You think that’s a joke,” Peterson says. “But you try and do it in a dysfunctional home where everyone is at each other’s throats, where for decades it’s been absolutely brutal, rife with alcoholism, hatred, murderous impulses, dependency, just a whole Freudian nightmare. You try to clean your room in a house like that, and you’ve got an existential battle of gigantic proportions on your hands.”
Like many professionally strident characters, Peterson in person is actually quite retiring. “I think, because of my proclivity to depression, that negative things hit me harder than they hit people in general. I’m on the side of the spectrum where they have more impact.”
Perhaps this proclivity has shaped the world view that has made 12 Rules a bestseller? “Suffering is the price that you pay for being,” he says. “If you’re going to make the most of being itself, you have to accept the suffering that’s part and parcel of that. That’s where the nobility is, that’s the call to adventure.”
The call is increasingly being heard by troubled men. “I get messages like, ‘I was in a really dark place, I was drinking too much, I was addicted to drugs, my family was broken, I didn’t have any aims, I was depressed, anxious, aimless. Now I’m way better.’”
And that’s the strangest thing about 12 Rules – it appears to work.
Jordan Peterson appears on The Chris Evans Breakfast Show (Tue 6.30am Radio 2) and Free Thinking (Thu 10pm Radio 3)