Does it matter what we think of Jordan Peterson?

Is it possible to separate a figure from their work?

Jordan Peterson

In a social sphere dominated by ‘personality politics’, is the emergence of a ‘Rockstar Psychologist’ truly surprising? With over 57 million views on YouTube and a New York Times best seller, Jordan Peterson is a star ascending. But is it possible to separate Peterson and his work from the following he is accruing?

Peterson quickly became a polarising figure. Social commentator first, academic second.

Why, or how, has a clinical psychologist and university lecturer from Canada attracted a worldwide cult following? Much of Peterson’s notoriety does not come from academia, but from his sporadic forays into politics. This was epitomised by his public disdain for Canada’s Bill C-16, which added an amendment to protect against gender identity discrimination. Peterson claimed that the bill “dictated speech” by enforcing specific gender pronouns. He also increased his political presence when he commented on political issues, from wage gaps to patriarchy, in an interview on Channel 4.

The message of Peterson’s advice in his latest work, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, is simple: take personal responsibility and set goals to overcome life’s inherent suffering, or as Peterson summates, “clean your room”.

No child willingly complies when a parent mandates that they clean their room. Yet the same defiant children appear enthusiastic to take up Peterson’s call.

The vast majority of this audience is generally not enticed by his academic work.  Instead, the audience comes from Peterson’s public spats with authority. They listen for the man, not necessarily his message. That’s not to say all Peterson fans follow his rhetoric blindly, nor that his advice is inherently flawed. Examples such as Rule 8, “Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie” raises little objection. But Peterson has a blind legion of fans who would instinctively accept any idea at face value, and that’s dangerous.

Perhaps Peterson’s strongest stance is his disgust for ‘identity politics’. He claims if “the left…play that game” the only logical response is retaliatory and possibly more extreme variants. The danger lies with acceptance of this in isolation and totality, considering Peterson’s words as instructions rather than a critique.

Similarly, his repeated attacks on “Post-Modern, Neo-Marxist” academia are lost on those with no knowledge of the academia, fostering strawmen arguments not of Peterson’s creation, but new bogeymen in the mind of the reader. Failing to critique ideas and implications has dangerous consequences, especially for those on a pedestal.

However, it’s foolish to completely ignore a speaker’s credentials. Even if Peterson’s well-read nature doesn’t validate his political commentary, abject dismissal of 12 Rules as the ramblings of an “angry white man”, as Michael Dyson recently claimed, would be naïve, and admonishes any value in his work.

Other critics malign Peterson’s diametric separation of femininity to reflect “chaos” as opposed to a masculine “order”. Seen as reinforcing patriarchal stereotypes, these critiques neglect Daoist readings of his argument. Peterson’s “competence hierarchies” are regressive reinforcements of current hegemony. But is this critical analysis, or conflation with the public persona of Peterson, however accurate or inaccurate?

There are two sides to the coin of Peterson. A large part of his audience is attracted due to his persona, not his ideas, while his critics are also drawn to dismiss his character rather than his arguments. After all, it’s easier to ‘win’ when your opponent is summarily deemed absurd.

Arguments should be analysed in isolation from perceptions of the messenger. We mustn’t allow jesters to deceive, but we shouldn’t dismiss their truths.