When U of T professor Jordan Peterson pledged never to use gender-neutral pronouns, he sparked a vicious campus battle. The free-speech advocates say he’s combating the tyranny of political correctness. His critics say he’s a privileged, trans-phobic bigot who must be stopped
On September 27, University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson posted a video titled Professor Against Political Correctness on his YouTube channel. The lecture, the first in a three-part series recorded in Peterson’s home office, was inspired by two recent events that he said made him nervous. The first was the introduction of Bill C-16, a federal amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code that would add gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds for discrimination. Peterson’s second concern was that U of T’s human resources department would soon make anti-bias and anti-discrimination training mandatory for its staff—training he believed to be ineffective, coercive and politically motivated. “I know something about the way that totalitarian, authoritarian political states develop,” Peterson said in the first video, “and I can’t help but think I’m seeing a fair bit of that right now.”
Other profs in his position might have written op-eds, circulated petitions or negotiated with university officials. But Peterson is a big believer in the power of YouTube—“a Gutenberg revolution for speech,” he calls it—and, as it turns out, he had a lot to get off his chest. He carpet-bombed Marxists (“no better than Nazis”), the Ontario Human Rights Commission (“perhaps the biggest enemy of freedom currently extant in Canada”), the Black Liberation Collective (“they have no legitimacy among the people they purport to represent”) and HR departments in general (“the most pathological elements in large organizations”).
Peterson also said he would absolutely not comply with the implied diktat of Bill C-16, which could make the refusal to refer to people by the pronouns of their choice an actionable form of harassment. He believes the idea of a non-binary gender spectrum is specious and he dismisses as nonsensical the raft of gender-neutral pronouns that transgender people have adopted—ze, vis, hir, and the singular use of they, them and their. “I don’t recognize another person’s right to determine what pronouns I use to address them,” he said grimly. “I think they’re connected to an underground apparatus of radical left political motivations. I think uttering those words makes me a tool of those motivations. And I’m going to try and be a tool of my own motivations as clearly as I can articulate them and not the mouthpiece of some murderous ideology.”
A good number of reasonable people are also skeptical about the newly developed assortment of personal pronouns. How will all the new pronouns work in practice? How will we know what to call someone? And can people call themselves whatever they wish? This is new territory where the usual maps don’t apply, where some of the tiniest words in the English language can cause offence. But it’s a problem that, to my mind, can be resolved with little difficulty—just ask people what they want to be called. It’s not so different from learning how to correctly pronounce a name that’s foreign to you. Peterson seized on the pronoun issue, above all other free-speech-related matters that bother him, because it’s an effective dog whistle. It underscores the lengths to which people will go in the name of political correctness while exposing and exploiting the anxiety that already exists around trans culture.
Within days of going live, Professor Against Political Correctness had created the most intense campus firestorm since the University of Western Ontario psychology professor and race scientist Philippe Rushton whipped out his measuring tape. To many in the trans community, Peterson was a middle-age, white, tenured university professor—the very embodiment of patriarchal privilege—who was denying their existence, tacitly inciting prejudice and targeting an already vulnerable group to make a questionable theoretical argument. He was called a bigot, a racist, a relic.
On October 3, Peterson received two letters from U of T: one from the undergraduate chair of the psychology department, Susanne Ferber, and the other from David Cameron, the dean of arts and sciences. Both urged him to stop repeating the statements he’d made in the videos and comply with applicable human rights law. Student groups demanded Peterson apologize and take the videos down. Several of Peterson’s fellow faculty members castigated him on TV and online. A trans non-binary physics prof named A. W. Peet tweeted: “Jordan Peterson is an over-privileged blowhard who needs to grow some humility.” LGBT students said that, in the wake of Peterson’s videos, they were threatened and doxxed (their addresses and phone numbers published online). Peterson said his office door was glued shut by vandals.
Students on both sides of the argument took to the streets—or, at least, to the steps of Sidney Smith Hall. In early October, non-binary activists held a rally. A few days later, Peterson supporters organized their own rally, during which their opponents tried to drown out speakers with a white-noise machine. After scuffles between the two camps, a trans student was charged with assault.
The hostilities continued to play out for months in the media. Peterson gleefully watched his YouTube subscribers swell to more than 100,000. On his personal website, he linked to every one of the 180 articles published about him and the controversy he had launched. Peterson had already enjoyed a cultish following among U of T students. Now his fan club expanded to include a cadre of big-name columnists—Margaret Wente, Christie Blatchford, Conrad Black—and a chorus of vocal online extremists: 4chan and Reddit trolls; UK Independence Party supporters; Gavin McInnes, the Vice co-founder and head of the Brooklyn-based misogynist libertarian group Proud Boys. The attention seemed to embolden Peterson. On a panel on The Agenda, where he’d been a pundit for years, he vowed he would go on a hunger strike before letting other people put words in his mouth.
In his fervent opinion, the issue wasn’t pronouns, per se. It was much bigger than that. It was truth itself. Being told what to say—and by the government no less—was just one more step along the slippery slope to tyranny. The way Peterson tells it, the only thing standing between us and a full-blown fascist insurrection was him.
The spectre of political correctness has loomed over universities since I was at U of T in the early ’90s. The term was used then to attack everything from shifting standards of language—What, I can’t say “Oriental” anymore?—to new academic departments like gender studies, African-American studies, and gay and lesbian studies. Conservative politicians and scholars believed political correctness had led to cultural relativism, a disdain for the canon and misguided affirmative action. They were convinced that the zeal for plurality ironically created growing intolerance and the silencing of debate.
The hysteria around political correctness today is not so different, but now the debate centres on the idea that students are coddled, over-sensitive and entitled. Designated safe spaces and the desire for trigger warnings reinforce this notion. This has all happened amid a radical reframing of race, gender and sexuality. Transgender and queer people have never been more visible, and major protests against sexual violence and racism, propelled by social media, have given marginalized groups a much louder voice. Both on campus and off, it’s never been easier for activists to confront authority. The result has been an unending series of dust-ups over free speech and power.
Peterson characterizes the “PC game” like so: divide the world into winners and losers, insist that division is the result of oppression, and claim allegiance with the losers. And though I think such PC game-playing is relatively rare and these scenarios are not the harbinger of doom that Peterson sees them as, you can find examples almost everywhere. A couple of years ago, students at Oberlin College in Ohio were ridiculed around the globe for complaining that the sushi and bánh mì served at a campus cafeteria constituted acts of cultural appropriation. It’s easy to mock such extreme, counterproductive pieties.
More recently, and more distressingly, queer film director Kim Peirce was verbally attacked by trans activists at Reed College during a screening of her landmark film, Boys Don’t Cry, for failing to depict trans life in a positive light (among other things). Closer to home, last November, the head of Ryerson’s social work department stepped down over murky allegations of racism directed against him by the Black Liberation Collective.
To Peterson, the patrolmen of the thought police lurk around every corner, most insidiously in the modern university. The academy, he argues, has been thoroughly corrupted by political correctness, especially the humanities and social sciences. “The education department is the worst of the lot,” he says. “It used to produce teachers and now it produces ideological activists.” In his courses, Peterson teaches his students to resist what he calls “ideological possession,” but his real work now, it seems, is to take those lessons into the wider world.
In early November, I met Peterson at his home, a cozy semi on a serene, leafy street in Seaton Village. The house is a warren of small rooms decorated with Peterson’s large collection of Soviet realist paintings—the immense canvases cover almost every wall—and bookshelves that Peterson built himself. He shares the house with his wife, Tammy, and their 23-year-old son, Julian, a web designer and programmer. They also have a 25-year-old daughter, a Ryerson student named Mikhaila, after Mikhail Gorbachev.
Peterson, who is 54, was barefoot, wearing a white T-shirt and jeans. He took me up to a recently completed third-floor addition, an unusual aerie modelled after a Kwakwaka’wakw big house and decorated with colourful carvings and masks by his friend, the West Coast Indigenous artist Charles Joseph. With its pale wood salvaged from his great-grandfather’s barn in Saskatchewan, it might have been the waiting room of a New Age spa.
Peterson sat in an armchair between a pair of floor-to-ceiling totem poles and spoke, almost without pause, for an hour and a half, as if I knew everything and nothing about what he was saying. He likes to joke that his voice resembles Kermit the Frog’s, and it does, kind of—if the Muppet had taken elocution lessons at a Vulcan finishing school. On the many TV appearances Peterson made in the months after the YouTube lectures, he was uniformly dour, unapologetic and supercilious. The person I met was not much different. Without prompting, he raged, with operatic scattergun anger against postmodernism, Marxists and—his favourite bogeymen—“social justice warriors.” It was the day after the U.S. presidential election, and I was still reeling from Trump’s victory. Peterson was unperturbed. He said Trump was no worse than Reagan and that the Democrats got what they deserved for abandoning the working class and playing identity politics. I was initially surprised—someone who spent a lifetime studying tyranny wasn’t maybe a tad worried about a president with such undisguised autocratic ambitions? But then I remembered that Trump, too, has long blamed political correctness for America’s ills, and reflexively used the phrase to dismiss any criticism he faced—everything from his treatment of women to his proposed immigration ban on Muslims. And, among many Trump supporters, “social justice warrior” is a favourite epithet used to disqualify his critics.
Peterson’s monologue ran on parallel tracks of provocation and paranoia. As in his videos, every compelling pronouncement he made (for example, how can you really measure racism?) was offset by another that sounded like a bad joke. He was bluntly contemptuous of feminists, something he returned to in a later conversation with me, saying, “The idea that women were oppressed throughout history is an appalling theory.” Peterson is no Trump, of course, and not even a Trump booster, but it was the kind of thing I could imagine Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon saying.
Peterson’s friends told me he can be “fun” and “funny,” and watching videos of him lecturing years or even months before the controversy, I could see he was relaxed and avuncular. But in the three times we talked, I think he smiled maybe twice. Describing his own personality, he said that he was “pretty agreeable, all things considered.”
Until he posted those YouTube lectures, he had been a popular but low-profile academic. He was born in 1962 and grew up in Fairview, a small town about five hours northwest of Edmonton. His father, Walter, was a schoolteacher and vice-principal; his mother, Beverley, worked as a librarian at the Fairview campus of Grande Prairie College. Peterson was the eldest of three kids, and his childhood was, unsurprisingly, bookish. He learned to read at the age of three, he says.
Peterson’s ample ego formed early. One of his first memories is watching Robert Kennedy’s funeral on TV and thinking, I’ll have a funeral like that one day. When he was 13, his school librarian was Sandy Notley, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley’s mother, and she introduced him to George Orwell, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Ayn Rand. He worked for the NDP throughout most of his teenage years. While he admired leaders like Ed Broadbent, he became disillusioned by the party’s peevish functionaries. He found Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, which he read as an undergrad at Grand Prairie, enlightening: “Orwell did a political-psychological analysis of the motivations of the intellectual, tweed-wearing middle-class socialist and concluded that people like that didn’t like the poor; they just hated the rich,” he says. “I thought, Aha! That’s it: it’s resentment.” Anyone who set out to change the world by first changing other people was suspicious.
He finished undergrad at the University of Alberta, first studying political science and then psychology. In Peterson’s retelling, he endured psychic turmoil like other students suffer hangovers. He became obsessed with the Cold War and the nuclear arms race, and, for a year or so, was haunted by apocalyptic nightmares. He became depressed and confused about the world’s—and his own—capacity for evil.
Literature offered both solace and solutions. He dove deeply into writings by those who would form his world view: Jung, Nietzsche and Solzhenitsyn. On his website, Peterson lists recommended books, a syllabus he could have compiled, for the most part, when he was in his early 20s: Orwell, Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky, as well as Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking. “Trigger warning,” he writes sardonically, “these are the most terrifying books I have encountered.” Number 13 on the list is one that Peterson himself wrote—Maps of Meaning, his attempt to untangle the roots of belief-based violence. Peterson began the book at McGill, where he completed his PhD, and worked on it for 15 years. Published in 1999, Maps of Meaning is a dense and difficult blend of psychology, mythology, philosophy and neuroscience. It’s akin to work by Joseph Campbell, maybe, rewritten by Steven Pinker. (TVO produced a 13-part series based on the book in 2004.) Simply put, it argues that the essential story of humanity is a complicated, codependent struggle between order and chaos. He claims we are governed by stories and myths (or maps), and ideologies are only incomplete, misleading and dangerous maps. To some, the fluidity of identity is liberating and joyful. To Peterson, an unstable identity is an invitation for chaos.
One night when he was at McGill, Peterson went to a Jane Siberry concert. The singer reminded him of his old friend Tammy Roberts. They grew up on the same street and went to prom together. By the time Peterson was at McGill, she was in Ottawa, pursuing a kinesiology degree. He invited her to Montreal for Thanksgiving. Soon after, they moved in together. Peterson proposed to her three times before they finally married in 1989. “I thought, If I don’t marry Jordan, I’m not going to know what he does with his life,” she says. “And he’s going to be an interesting person.” Tammy still kind of resembles Siberry—short hair, pixieish, with a yoga teacher’s muscle tone. She’s as warm as Peterson is imperious, and she’s deeply committed to his current project. Peterson refers to her as his “executive assistant”—she handles all his media requests—and she even came up with the anti–political correctness stickers he hawks in one of his infamous YouTube videos: they feature the letters PC in a circle with a slash through them.
Their first child, Mikhaila, was born in 1992. The family moved to Boston, where Peterson took a job at Harvard, then Tammy had Julian. Peterson taught psych at Harvard for six years. When Mikhaila was seven, she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and started showing signs of depression. Tammy, who had become an artist and massage therapist, put her career on hold to care for her daughter. In 1998, Peterson was offered a tenure-track position at U of T, and the family returned to Canada. At U of T, he was a swashbuckling, beloved professor—students regarded him as a kind of guru. For people just figuring out who they were and what they wanted to be, he offered a seductive bulwark of certainty. “There are perhaps one or two professors you’ll run into during your career who completely capture and captivate you,” says Christine Brophy, one of Peterson’s current grad students. “And he was one of them.”
Peterson calls himself “hyperproductive.” In addition to teaching his undergrad and graduate courses, he started a clinical practice—he now spends about 15 to 20 hours a week with clients—and built a battery of neuropsychological tests designed to predict academic and corporate performance. He followed that with the creation of the Self-Authoring Suite, an online self-help program designed to walk participants through creating a sort of mini-autobiography, then writing what they want their futures to be like. Tammy served as a guinea pig. “I outlined eight goals that I had no idea I was going to outline,” she says. “But it puts you in a dream state, and, when you write your goals, they come from somewhere inside you that you hadn’t scripted. I told him this would be the most important thing he ever did.” Peterson says about 10,000 students have gone through the program, and it decreases drop-out rates by 25 per cent and raises GPAs by 20 per cent.
As busy as he was, Peterson was also grappling with depression. He likened it to being impaled on a tree that’s “dead and black and frozen.” Tammy threatened to leave unless he went on antidepressants, which he finally did. But he still felt sluggish: he was sleeping all the time—most afternoons he would collapse on the couch for three or four hours. Mikhaila came to his rescue. A few years after having her hip and ankle replaced, she’d realized that eating wheat made her arthritis worse. She went on a six-month elimination diet, at first eating only chicken and broccoli, and both her arthritis and depression all but vanished. She convinced her dad to try the diet a year ago. Seven months later, in July, he stopped taking his meds entirely. By August, he says, he was 42 pounds lighter, and his depression had been alleviated. Tammy was amazed at the return of his energy. “He was a revolutionary on paper before,” she says. “Now he’s a revolutionary in action.”
In 2014, Peterson began an academic study with grad student Christine Brophy about the relationship between political belief and personality. It morphed into a study of political correctness (or, more precisely, the politically correct). They compiled a list of 200 statements, including: “Safe spaces are necessary to promote diversity of perspective,” “Feathered headdresses should be banned at music festivals,” and “Police brutality is racial in nature.” They then produced an online multiple-choice questionnaire in which they asked people how much they agreed with each statement. They gave the questionnaire to about 360 people in an initial study, then to more than a thousand in a second.
Peterson and Brophy concluded that political correctness exists in two forms, which they call PC-Egalitarianism and PC-Authoritarianism. Simply put, PC-Egalitarians are classic liberals who advocate for more democratic governance and equality. PC-Authoritarians are, according to Brophy, “the ones now relabelled as social justice warriors.” Both share a high degree of compassion. Extreme compassion, they believe, can lead to difficulty assessing right from wrong. It also can mean the forgiveness of all failures and transgressions by people viewed as vulnerable. “Any personality trait to an extreme is pathological,” Brophy says.
Like most psychologists who study personality, Peterson believes there are five core personality traits—extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness and neuroticism—and that these traits are universal across most cultures. The taxonomy is also gendered. For example, women tend to be more agreeable than men. The traits have both biological and cultural origins and, as Peterson is fond of saying, the biological factors maximize in places—like Scandinavia—that have strenuously tried to flatten out the cultural differences. Biology is, therefore, in a sense, destiny, no matter how much people may want to deny it. To his mind, arguing that gender is a social construct or a kind of performance or—as the Ontario Human Rights Code says—an individual’s subjective experience is just wrong. “It’s not an alternative hypothesis,” Peterson says. “It’s an incorrect hypothesis. That’s why the damn social justice warriors are trying to get it instantiated into law. They’re implementing a social constructionist view of human identity into the law.”
When such culture-war skirmishes flare up, university administrators have tended to confront the issues head-on. The liberal university is, after all, the exact environment where intense philosophical and political debates are supposed to take place. Last August, for example, the University of Chicago dean of students published a highly charged letter to the incoming class of 2020 saying the school did not support safe spaces or trigger warnings.
But U of T, it seems, just wanted the whole thing to go away. None of the professors I contacted for this article would speak with me about Peterson. President Meric Gertler’s office said he was too busy to do an interview. I spoke instead with Sioban Nelson, the vice-provost of faculty and academic life, who seemed weary of the subject. She argued that the university had no problem balancing its commitment to freedom of speech and its support for vulnerable groups or minority views. It was not an either-or situation, she said. Regarding Peterson specifically, she said, “The university has made it very, very clear, and has been quoted ad nauseam, that we do expect all members of our community, faculty or staff, to abide by the human rights code and to be respectful and supportive of each other.”
Peterson, however, kept poking the hornet’s nest. He requested that the university host a debate so the issues could be aired publicly. After much hand-wringing, the university finally scheduled a debate of sorts—they called it a forum—at the Sandford Fleming Building on November 19 at 9:30 a.m. The auditorium was full, despite the fact that his opponents boycotted the event and organized their own breakfast elsewhere. Like the university, it seemed, the trans and non-binary community didn’t want to engage Peterson any further. Alex Abramovich, a transgender research scientist at CAMH who boycotted the forum, argued that the controversy was fuelling a lot of hate on campus and that he was afraid to lecture there for the first time. A trans law student who had initially agreed to speak with me later demurred because my questions, some of which I had emailed in advance, were “triggering,” and he feared for his safety, too. From an outsider’s perspective, this kind of passive-aggressive absence can be frustrating. It confirms the worst stereotypes about over-sensitive activists. But I can see their point of view: why should their existence be up for debate at all? Plus, they were already victorious—the day before the forum, Bill C-16 had passed a third reading in the House of Commons and was on its way to the Senate.
At the forum, Peterson was pitted against Brenda Cossman, a U of T law professor, and Mary Bryson, a language and literacy professor at UBC. Wearing a pale yellow button-down and cowboy boots, Peterson gripped his lectern like a life raft, at times making his points through gritted teeth. Picture a middle-age Clint Eastwood in a remake of Dead Poets Society. To bursts of applause, he rehashed the arguments that he’d been making for months. Cossman said Peterson had misunderstood the law, and that it did not restrict his free speech—there was an extremely high threshold for determining hate speech, she argued, and refusing to use the appropriate pronoun would not meet that standard unless Peterson was also calling for genocide. Bryson, meanwhile, said Peterson adopted “rhetorical strategies more common to Breitbart News than a university professor.”
Peterson talked earnestly about how debate helps people refine and adjust their arguments, but, by the end, all the forum did was remind him of his own embattlement. As the morning wound down, he stared sourly at the crowd. “I have been denounced today,” he said.
In the days and weeks following the forum, Cossman reported that she received hate mail and physical threats, so many that she alerted campus police. “I have no doubt that Jordan Peterson really believes in free speech,” she told me, “but I can’t say the same thing for many of his supporters. I have received an overwhelming number of emails that essentially say ‘shut the fuck up.’ I just think, You guys are all for freedom of expression but only for the people you agree with.”
Peterson, meanwhile, flew to California a few days after the forum, where he went on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast. When I caught up with him via Skype, he looked tired. After the forum, he told me, he’d convened a post-mortem with some friends at his home. A couple of them—academics he’d known for decades—had told him that, while they supported him, they thought he could be “more friendly” and “nicer.” The thought exasperated him. “I’m trying to formulate my arguments as clearly as I possibly can,” he said. “To get your words right is exhausting, and I don’t have spare capacity outside of that.”
In any case, he didn’t want to be nicer. Malcolm Gladwell, an admirer of Peterson’s, interviewed him a few years ago for his book David and Goliath. They talked about the big five personality traits, and Peterson told him that innovators and revolutionaries tend to have a specific mix of openness, conscientiousness and agreeableness. Crucially, innovators needed to be disagreeable. “If you worry about hurting people’s feelings and disturbing the social structure,” Peterson told Gladwell, “you’re not going to put your ideas forward.”
Last May, four months before Peterson posted his lecture series, he emailed the people who run the online courses at U of T to tell them he’d amassed about a million views on his YouTube channel. He thought maybe they could collaborate with him—give him a bit of money, lend him some production assistance, capitalize on it as an educational opportunity. They never got back to him.
Peterson didn’t need the university, it turns out. Through Patreon, a crowd-funding website, fans have pledged $12,000 (U. S.) a month in donations. The Self-Authoring Suite sells for $29.95 (U. S.) a pop, and he claims to have sold a good many of them. He now has a podcast, and Penguin Random House is publishing his new book, The 12 Most Valuable Things Everyone Should Know, later this year.
More ambitiously, he is thinking of starting his own private educational institution. His earnings on side projects are already set to exceed the $160,000 he makes at U of T.
He says he won’t retreat from his position on Bill C-16 no matter what, and he is willing to face the consequences—lose his job and his salary, be stripped of his clinical licence, be brought before a human rights tribunal. These are all possibilities, if distant ones. University administrators won’t speculate about what will happen to Peterson if he doesn’t back down, but the vice-provost Sioban Nelson told me the idea that tenured faculty can’t be terminated is a myth.
If, as Peterson insists, the academy has abandoned its commitment to the truths he holds dear, why not spread those in a whole new way? Like loudmouths on either end of the political spectrum, he has found a place—the Internet—where freedom of expression reigns. Peterson’s ideological compatriots are all over Twitter, YouTube and the comments section of his blog. He has a new army of adherents seeking guidance in a chaotic culture, and they are all too eager to engage—online and off—in the intellectual brawls on which he thrives.
“One thing about me that’s strange is that I will have impossibly difficult conversations with people,” Peterson says. “There are people who shy away from that. They let monsters grow under their rugs. Their marriages fall apart. They get detached from their children. They carry around resentments and unresolved conflicts. I’m not doing any of that. If there’s something to be discussed that’s difficult, we’re going to discuss that right down to the goddamned foundation.”