Whoa, you have to read this op-ed from a retired member of Jordan Peterson’s department at the University of Toronto — and not just a member, but his primary supporter in getting him hired and tenured, and who was good friends with him. Now it’s all regrets.
I thought long and hard before writing about Jordan, and I do not do this lightly. He has one of the most agile and creative minds I’ve ever known. He is a powerful orator. He is smart, passionate, engaging and compelling and can be thoughtful and kind.
I was once his strongest supporter.
That all changed with his rise to celebrity. I am alarmed by his now-questionable relationship to truth, intellectual integrity and common decency, which I had not seen before. His output is voluminous and filled with oversimplifications which obscure or misrepresent complex matters in the service of a message which is difficult to pin down. He can be very persuasive, and toys with facts and with people’s emotions. I believe he is a man with a mission. It is less clear what that mission is.
I am baffled by all the people who say things like that “He is a powerful orator”. I just don’t hear it — I find him meandering and pointless and weirdly distractable, but OK, I’m just going to have to recognize that some people are sympatico with his lecture style. Every teacher knows that there’s no such thing as a universal communication strategy.
But he really was a strong supporter, initially.
We did not share research interests but it was clear that his work was solid. My colleagues on the search committee were skeptical — they felt he was too eccentric — but somehow I prevailed. (Several committee members now remind me that they agreed to hire him because they were “tired of hearing me shout over them.”) I pushed for him because he was a divergent thinker, self-educated in the humanities, intellectually flamboyant, bold, energetic and confident, bordering on arrogant. I thought he would bring a new excitement, along with new ideas, to our department.
Been there, seen that. Contrary to the right-wing stereotypes of academia, we actually do look for different voices — someone with good credentials who is also enthusiastically radical will get some attention. We won’t necessarily hire them, unless there’s a strong advocate on the search committee, but yeah, that rings true. It’s also sometimes a colossal mistake.
He sat in on some of Peterson’s lectures. This also rings true.
He was a preacher more than a teacher.
We walk a tightrope in the classroom. I think it’s a good thing to be transparent about my biases, but I have to be careful to avoid strong rebukes of students’ ideas — my job is to give them the basics, get them thinking, and draw out their ideas in discussion. I am not the repository of all knowledge, I’m the guy who has read a lot and can steer the class in productive engagement with the material, I hope. That’s not Peterson’s style.
And then it gets weird.
Jordan exhibits a great range of emotional states, from anger and abusive speech to evangelical fierceness, ministerial solemnity and avuncular charm. It is misleading to come to quick conclusions about who he is, and potentially dangerous if you have seen only the good and thoughtful Jordan, and not seen the bad.
Shortly after Jordan’s rise to notoriety back in 2016, I emailed him to express my upset with his dishonesty and lack of intellectual and social integrity. He called in a conciliatory voice the next morning. I was reiterating my disappointment and upset when he interrupted me, saying more or less the following:
“You don’t understand. I am willing to lose everything, my home, my job etc., because I believe in this.” And then he said, with the intensity he is now famous for, “Bernie. Tammy had a dream, and sometimes her dreams are prophetic. She dreamed that it was five minutes to midnight.”
That was our last conversation. He was playing out the ideas that appeared in his first book. The social order is coming apart. We are on the edge of chaos. He is the prophet, and he would be the martyr. Jordan would be our saviour. I think he believes that.
He used to support him, but now he’s seeing serious problems with the man — problems that are probably key to his popularity, but also tell us what we ought to fear in this guy who is basically a religious fanatic on a mission from God.
What I am seeing now is a darker, angrier Jordan than the man I knew. In Karen Heller’s recent profile in the Washington Post he is candid about his long history of depression. Depression is an awful illness. It is a cognitive disorder that casts a dark shadow over everything. His view of life, as nasty and brutish, may very well not be an idea, but a description of his experience, which became for him the truth. But this next statement, from Heller’s article, is heartbreaking: “You have an evil heart — like the person next to you,” she quotes him as telling a sold-out crowd. “Kids are not innately good — and neither are you.” This from the loving and attentive father I knew? That makes no sense at all.
It could be his dark view of life, wherever it comes from, that the aggressive group of young men among his followers identify with. They may feel recognized, affirmed, justified and enabled. By validating them he does indeed save them, and little wonder they then fall into line enthusiastically, marching lockstep behind him. That is unnerving. The misogynistic attacks on the British broadcaster Cathy Newman, after she was humiliated and left speechless by Jordan in the infamous “gotcha moment” of their TV interview, were so numerous and vicious that Jordan asked his followers to back off. These devoted followers are notorious for attacking Jordan’s critics, but this was different. It was more persistent and more intense. That was not outrage in defence of their leader who needed none; she was the fallen victim and it was as if they had come in for the final kill. Jordan’s inflammatory understanding of male violence for which “the cure … is enforced monogamy” as reported by Nellie Bowles in the New York Times is shocking. This is upsetting and sad if you are, or were, Jordan’s friend. But it is also frightening.
Peterson is also getting scathing reviews of his skills as a therapist. Again, he’s not there to help people learn and become better — his goal is to bully people into accepting his dogma, or to pander to their beliefs if they’re already aligned.
Ugh. Just ugh. I can’t believe this fellow has such a zealous following, but then I’ve never understood how people can fall for Deepak Chopra, or Joel Osteen, or Donald Trump, either…but they do.