3 Things I Learned from Attending a Jordan Peterson Rally, Part 3

The following three-part series provides a first-hand account of one stop on Jordan Peterson’s recent 45-city  tour promoting his bestselling book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, with popular political commentator Dave Rubin. In part one I provide some background on the Peterson phenomenon,  followed by a detailed account of one of his rallies in part two. Here in part three I offer some thoughts on how we might situate this phenomenon within broader cultural trends, with a tidbit on my own experience sitting in on a few of Peterson’s classes during my undergraduate years at the University of Toronto.  

Are there 3 things that I leaned from attending a Jordan Peterson rally, as my title suggests? Perhaps, but in the world of YouTube algorithms it’s all about what gets clipped and what gets clicked. [1] I’ll leave up to others to determine who “changed” whose life, who got “destroyed,” or whether anything was “calmly dismantled” here–be it feminism, the “radical left,” or Peterson himself. Continue reading “3 Things I Learned from Attending a Jordan Peterson Rally, Part 3”

3 Things I Learned from Attending a Jordan Peterson Rally, Part 2

By Matt Sheedy

The following three-part series provides a first-hand account of one stop on Jordan Peterson’s recent 45-city  tour promoting his bestselling book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, with popular political commentator Dave Rubin. In part one I provide some background on the Peterson phenomenon, followed by a detailed account of one of his rallies here in part two. Part three will offer some thoughts on how we might situate this phenomenon within broader cultural trends, with a tidbit on my own experience sitting in on a few of Peterson’s classes during my undergraduate years at the University of Toronto.  


 

I arrived 30 minutes before the show in order to survey the scene outside the Burton Cummings theatre in downtown Winnipeg, and lingered for about 20 minutes after the crowds had been released. By my estimate, around 75% of those in attendance were men, while the vast majority of women were accompanied by a male partner. Between 5-10% were people of color, while no more than 10% were over the age of 30. A noticeable percentage of the men were nicely dressed (e.g., blazers and pressed and/or collared shirts), which may reflect, in part, the influence of Peterson’s own 3-piece suit persona, which he endorses in Rule 26 (see his expanded 40 Rules on Twitter), “Dress like the person you want to be.” One young man I encountered was wearing a “Proud Boys” shirt, which is a controversial men’s group (founded by Gavin McInnes) promoting traditional ideals of masculinity and an unapologetic “Western chauvinism.”

There was some backlash to Peterson’s appearance at a prominent downtown venue (e.g., see comments in this sub-Reddit), including a small rally held outside the Manitoba provincial legislature, dubbed “anti-fascist picnic.” The only visible protest outside of the venue, however, came from a trans-woman who stood at the entrance holding a sign that read:

The social obligation to fit in is to fit in regardless because it’s so threatening not to. – Jordan Peterson, conformist, enemy of freedom.

In speaking with this lone protester I was informed that they had only had a few people ask them questions about their sign, and that all were generally polite and non-confrontational (perhaps due in part to the presence of police).

There was no merchandise being sold inside the theatre (full disclosure: I was hoping for a lobster t-shirt) save for two small posters, $20 and $30 respectively—featuring images illustrating the 12 Rules for Life. There was also a VIP meet and greet with Peterson afterwards, which could be purchased for $100.

Dave Rubin opened the show with a 5-minute comedy routine to a packed theatre (capacity = 1638), which included jokes about Peterson wrestling a lobster backstage and playfully asking if everyone had cleaned their room—a reference to one of Peterson’s 12 rules that some critics have latched on to as an example of the over-simplified “self-help” nature of his message (e.g., see Nathan Robinson’s critique). In fairness to Peterson, each of the 12 rules is embedded in a chapter that draws on elements of mythology, ontology, neuroscience, and personal experience (e.g., growing up, as a father, etc.), which aims to locate these rules within a larger narrative of universal truths (or archetypes), buttressed by empirical claims about human cognition and anecdotes from his experience as a psycho-therapist. Rubin also noted how Peterson continues to be attacked by media outlets like The New York Times, and expressed their excitement about being a part of the “intellectual dark web.” Here he mentioned Peterson’s now infamous line about “enforced monogamy” in response to the “incel” attack in Toronto last April, coyly brushing it off as “basically marriage,” while stating that they might as well own the term if the media was going to use it.

Peterson began his talk by musing about art and how it epitomizes creativity in “chaotic” form (the relationship between ‘chaos’ and ‘order,’ represented by the feminine and masculine principles, is central to his worldview) that can be moulded into something productive. In this vein, he structured his narrative around two poems: one by Shakespeare and the other by the young Marx. Beginning with Shakespeare, Peterson quoted the opening lines of “All the world’s a stage”:

All the world’s a stage/And all the men and women merely players/They have their exits and their entrances/And one man in his time plays many parts 

While I may have misheard him, I’m fairly certain that Peterson read the last line quoted above as “and one man in his time plays his part.” Creative licence or not, his gloss was that it is the individual (and not the collective) that makes up society and that each person must therefore take responsibility and play their part. This, above all else, is the ultimate antidote to chaos, which we are currently experiencing on a global scale. Peterson stressed the point that our current state of chaos is not the result of capitalism or broader social structures, and certainly not the fault of the ‘West’ or ‘Western values,’ which he claims have created the best systems that the world has ever known (e.g., free markets, innovation, private property, etc.) and lead to more progress and prosperity than during any time in human history (he cites www.humanprogress.org as a prime example of such trends).

It is worth noting that humanprogress.org is a conservative website that champions free market capitalism and is a project of The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank founded by the Koch brothers. [1] Rubin himself is sponsored by Learn Liberty, which was launched by the Institute for Humane Studies, largely funded by Charles Koch. Rubin is also affiliated with Prager University, a media organization considered by some to be the intellectual wing of conservative politics in the United States, with videos racking up over 1 billion views to date. While it is not clear whether Peterson receives money directly from these or other groups, his association with Rubin reveals some rather clear affinities with powerful social actors who have a vested interest in supporting public intellectuals that espouse some version of libertarian ideology as a way to counter the perception that ‘leftist’ ideology (e.g., ‘post-modern, Neo-Marxism’) is on the rise. Peterson has presented two videos for Prager University to this effect (see here and here).

Throughout the performance Peterson leaned heavily on the idea that ideology was the most dangerous force in the 20th century, from the Nazis to the Soviets to Mao’s China and up to the present day (Peterson often styles himself an expert on the psychology of authoritarian movements, and has even adorned his home with Soviet propaganda [2]).  He sought to make it clear, however, that his own views, and those of his fellow travellers, are not ideological since their professed goal is to promote a “free exchange of ideas.”  Here the link with Marx and the “radical left” became apparent, as he read from the young Marx’s poem, “Invocation of One in Despair,” with an emphasis on the following lines: “So a god has snatched from me my all/Nothing but revenge is left to me/If he bring my walls and towers down/Eternity shall raise them up, defiant.”

Peterson interpreted this poem (written in 1836-37 when Marx was 18-19 years old) as evidence of a young man seeking bloodthirsty revenge, whose ideas would latter wreak havoc in the form of over 100 million deaths. This interpretative style is common with Peterson, where he’ll claim that he’s thought about something for a long time (often for over a decade) and has finally “figured it out.” Such certainty is curiously balanced with an emphasis on the complexity of human understanding, at least when it comes to solving problems like climate change, public policy, poverty, and the like. Indeed, the rhetorical back and forth between acknowledging complexity in some cases (e.g., see his statement on Islam here) and claiming absolute certainty in others is a common move that Peterson uses in his books and lectures, as when he interprets the Garden of Eden narrative in the Book of Genesis as an allegory for taking individual responsibility amidst the chaos of the world.

Much of Peterson’s talk revolved around the errors of collectivism (which for him ultimately leads to communism) and the virtues of the individual, which translates on the political stage as free speech, capitalism, free markets, and individual responsibility. This, he claims, is an essential truism to grasp, especially since the spectre of Marx is being taken up once again by the “radical left,” which, if left unchecked, can lead to authoritarianism and, eventually, the gulag. Peterson’s antidote of personal responsibility is given slight priority over equal rights since responsibility is what empowers the individual to challenge themselves through increasing returns (e.g., through micro-improvements of the self over time), and to create new innovations that will make the world a better place. This line of argument parallels Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s Panglosian idealism (who Peterson tips his hat to), along with the work of Bjorn Lomborg, a climate change sceptic that Peterson admires, especially his book The Skeptical Environmentalist.

As Business Insider describes Lomborg:

Bjorn Lomborg is a Danish-based scientist, famous for his book The Skeptical Environmentalist. Like Dyson, he’s not an outright denier, but rather he thinks the current approach to global warming is misguided and that the costs of drastic, short-term action are too high. Instead, he thinks we should focus on becoming more adaptable, while putting more effort into such real-world tragedies as AIDS and malaria.

Peterson lauds this approach since we can’t know what will lie ahead and thus can’t predict where the science will take us. Here he shared a personal anecdote about working as a consultant with the UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel for Sustainable Development (leading some on Reddit to call him a ‘globalist‘) and how, for him, this amounted to a useless competition to get 150 ideas listed on a platform. Peterson’s preferred solution to this ‘chaos’ was to start with two idea, or at least to prioritize the top contenders. No directives were given for how this would be decided, though the point was clear. As with his 12 Rules for Life, political projects should only take on what can “reasonably” be accomplished. This is why, for Peterson (as for Lomborg) we should be working to deliver practical projects like heath care and education to poor countries, as modelled by Bill Gates, instead of spending $75 billion on risky and uncertain outcomes like projects to tackle climate change. The free market gave us Gates’s innovations and it also gave us his philanthropy, which Peterson upholds as the most responsible way forward since it will lead to the development of more creative minds that can help humanity solve its toughest problems.

Suffering was a constant theme throughout Peterson’s talk–acknowledging that we suffer (with nary a tip o’ the hat to Buddha, I might add), with a decidedly conservative twist, urging that we can lessen our suffering by taking personal responsibility. In this way, Peterson zeroed-in on reconciling people to the chaos of life by encouraging them to maximize their potential through small acts of self-ownership that can be built upon, piece-by-piece, over time toward ever increasing returns.


During the Q&A, Peterson and Rubin sat together on stage in plush leather chairs, as Peterson was asked a number of pre-selected questions, read by Rubin from JP’s own laptop. Some of the questions included: would he run for Prime Minister of Canada?; what he wanted to be as a young child?; and who his heroes were? After a moment’s pause to the latter question, Peterson singled out Islam critic and popular atheist Ayaan Hirsi Ali for her defense of free speech, British writer Douglas Murray, known for his defence of the West and ruthless critique of Islam, and Lindsay Shepherd, a former Master’s student at Wilfred Laurier University who became a brief cause célèbre for defenders of free speech when she sued her university after being reprimanded for playing a clip of Peterson during a class that she lead as a TA. Peterson himself has filed a lawsuit against Wilfred Laurier for defamation, directly related to this controversy. 

The topic of marriage also came up during the Q&A, where Peterson stressed the importance of working through conflict in order to learn from past mistakes, which aligns with his ethos of taking personal responsibility as the fundamental building block of society (i.e., the individual and not the collective).

When asked what the biggest problem in politics today is, and what he would work toward solving if given the chance, Peterson quipped, “well it’s not the gender pay gap” to loud applause. He did not elaborate on what he meant by this statement. [3]

Peterson also talked about starting his own on-line university at a very low cost, to which he received yet another round of applause. This aspiration has parallels with Peterson’s earlier claim to want to start his own church, which was alleged in a piece by Bernard Schiff, a colleague of his at the University of Toronto who helped to get him hired, and who now thinks that he is “dangerous.”

Peterson ended the Q&A by talking by noting that he had just finished writing an introduction to a new edition of Solschenizyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, and how he is currently working to turn his debate with ‘new atheist” and neuroscientist Sam Harris into a book that focuses on their dispute over the role of rationality in human behaviour.

Stay turned for part three in this three-part series, where I’ll offer some thoughts on how we might situate the Peterson phenomenon as a continuation and innovation upon certain cultural and political trends.


[1] Photo credit: https://www.mobomo.com/2013/10/unveiling-humanprogress-org-with-the-cato-institute/

[2] Photo credit: https://frieze.com/article/whos-real-ideologue-jordan-petersons-communist-art-collection

[3] Photo credit: https://eblnews.com/video/jordan-peterson-debate-gender-pay-gap-campus-protests-and-postmodernism-305243

  • All additional photos are the author’s.

3 Things I Learned from Attending a Jordan Peterson Rally, Part 1

By Matt Sheedy

Hmmm, perhaps a better title would have been, “That time I saw Jordan Peterson go ‘full beast mode’” … no wait, “Six times JP destroyed Marx and the radical left!” I can’t decide which one is more click-baity? At any rate, I’ve made my choice and it’s my responsibility to learn from the consequences. [1]


The following three-part series provides a first-hand account of one stop on Jordan Peterson’s recent 45-city  tour promoting his bestselling book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, with popular political commentator Dave Rubin. In part one I provide some background on the Peterson phenomenon, followed by a detailed account of one of his rallies in part two. Part three offers some thoughts on how we might situate this phenomenon within broader cultural trends, with a tidbit on my own experience sitting in on a few of Peterson’s classes during my undergraduate years at the University of Toronto.  


For those unfamiliar with Peterson (and the fandom that surrounds him) he is a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto who rose to prominence in September of 2016 after he publicly denounced the Canadian government’s Bill-C-16, which proposed to add “gender identity or expression” as a form of discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act. Central to Peterson’s objection was his fear that citizens might be compelled by the state to use the preferred pronouns of transgender people, which he wrote about in an op-ed, “The right to be politically incorrect,” as follows:

I will never use words I hate, like the trendy and artificially constructed words “zhe” and “zher.” These words are at the vanguard of a post-modern, radical leftist ideology that I detest, and which is, in my professional opinion, frighteningly similar to the Marxist doctrines that killed at least 100 million people in the 20th century.

A deluge of international media attention followed after a public debate between Peterson and student-activists at the University of Toronto went viral. Sympathetic platforms like 4Chan and Reddit lauded Peterson as a “free speech hero,” while the student-activists were framed as an embodiment of the so-called “post-modern, radical leftist ideology.”

It was likely this image of a neatly dressed and articulate professor single-handedly taking on a band of so-called “social justice warriors” in an outdoor forum that propelled Peterson to near-rock star status among a loose-knit group of (mostly) young, (mostly) white men (sometimes referred to as “free speech warriors”) who contest the proliferation of ‘liberal’ narratives on gender and sexual identity, white privilege, racism, etc., and have come to view Peterson as the vanguard of resistance to these trends. [2]

For cultural critic Angela Nagle, the Peterson phenomenon is part of a larger cultural formation that is deeply influenced by male-dominated on-line communities, which she describes in her book Kill All Normies (2017) as follows:

This on-line backlash was able to mobilize a strange vanguard of teenage gamers, pseudonymous swastika-posting anime lovers, ironic South Park conservatives, anti-feminist pranksters, nerdish harassers and meme-making trolls whose dark humour and love of transgression for its own sake made it hard to know what political views were genuinely held and what were merely, as they use to say, for the lulz (1-2).

To what extent Peterson and his fellow-travellers fall-in to most or at least some of these categories is an important question to grapple with, especially as cultural formations like the “alt-right” and the “alt-lite” have become increasingly popular identity markers, along with a revival of the term “classical liberal,” which Peterson himself prefers (see Dave Rubin’s definition here).

Peterson quickly cashed in on this attention on YouTube (according to one recent interview, his videos have been viewed over 150 million times), followed by numerous media appearances, including on Fox and Friends, Real Time with Bill Maher, and Channel 4 in the UK, which went viral after Peterson clashed with host Cathy Newman over his claim that hierarchies are a natural by-product of social organization, from lobsters to humans, and not a construction of the “Western patriarchy.”  Thus a legion of lobsters memes was born. [3]

Peterson also made waves when he proposed to create a website that would call out postmodern/Neo-Marxist professors on university campuses, and provide a warning system for prospective students so that they could avoid taking their classes (see extensive commentary here). Following this he came under fire after an interview with The New York Times, where he suggested that the solution to the “incel” (“involuntary celibates”) problem among young men was “enforced monogamy.” This statement was among several controversies related to gender and sexuality that Peterson has been embroiled in (e.g., see this Vice interview and his talk with Camille Paglia). Most recently, he filed a lawsuit against Kate Manne, a professor of philosophy at Cornell University, for “libelling” him a misogynist (see the interview here) as first reported on The Cut on September 20, 2018. [4]

Peterson has also been a fixture on popular podcasts such as Dave Rubin, Joe Rogan, Ben Shapiro, Sam Harris, and Charlie Kirk of Turning Points USA, and has become a key figure in what some have called the “intellectual dark web.” This term, coined by Eric Weinstein, and popularized by Bari Weiss in her New York Times article, “Meet the Renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web,” refers to a group of intellectuals (e.g., Sam Harris, Ben Shapiro, Maajid Nawaz, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and of course Peterson) who’ve made waves on social media for their staunch support of “free speech” over “political correctness” and “identity politics,” especially as it plays out on university campuses. [5]

Indeed, media fascination with Peterson—whom David Brooks of The New York Times has referred to as the most important public intellectual in the West—seems to have no end, from the highly popular Monk Debates at the University of Toronto this past May, to his more recent claims to be on an “all meat” diet, which he has promoted alongside his daughter Mikhaila on The Joe Rogan Experience, one of the most popular podcasts in the United States.

Contrary to some predictions that Peterson would flame out after his 15 minutes of fame was up, he’s been able to maintain a prominent place in the spotlight for over two years now and does not appear to be slowing down any time soon.

Stayed tuned for part two of this two-part series, where I detail my first-hand account of one of Peterson’s rallies, and conclude with some thoughts on why he continues to appeal to a growing number of devotees …


[1] Photo credit: https://knowyourmeme.com/photos/1334709-jordan-peterson

[2] Photo credit: https://thevarsity.ca/2016/10/17/tensions-flare-at-rally-supporting-free-speech-dr-jordan-peterson/

[3] Photo credit: https://www.deviantart.com/timeghost00/art/Dr-Jordan-B-Peterson-King-of-the-Lobsters-728268750

[4] Photo credit: https://twitter.com/jordanbpeterson/status/929187145746542592?lang=en

[5] Photo credit: https://www.memecenter.com/fun/7228856/because-the-amp-039-intellectual-dark-web-amp-039-is-now-a-thing-it-had-to-be-done