Jordan B. Peterson: Society’s Grey Father-Figure

Jordan B. Peterson, a name that evokes both cries of support and disgust, is one you’re likely familiar with. He’s an academic with an interesting mix of liberal and conservative values and a following that just keeps getting bigger. Powered by a technological platform that reaches millions of people every day, he’s known for having a large male fan base – a point that is often used against him. The big question remains when it comes to Peterson: why doesn’t his female fan base match up to his male one? If that’s a question worth deliberating, then we too must ask: why does he have a following at all?

Rising to internet fame in 2016 with his condemnation of Canada’s controversial Bill C-16, he’s garnered a reputation for himself from the get-go. Every label out there has been pasted all over him: Peterson, the pseudointellectual, prophet, father-figure, alt-right extremist, misogynist and self-help promotor all in one and at once. It’s no surprise people are quick to judge him. For someone to be named all sorts of things, it’ll make you wonder what type of audience he draws in.

Demystifying his reputation

As a notable speaker popular during a time where freedom of speech is being contested in many places around the world, people were made to believe that following Peterson is anti-women and anti-left. The result is a precarious situation that leaves fans open to attack from people who view him negatively. Labelled a right-wing extremist for critiquing the left for its political correctness and extremism, coupled with being seen as an adversary for women by the likes of Cathy Newman for critiquing modern feminism, and it’s hard to hear from the source itself what type of ideology he supports.

The negative, distorted image that arose side-by-side with the tough-love parental figure his fans see him as. As questionable as the things he says are – there’s a lot worth analyzing and challenging – a lot of what he’s made out to be is misguided and inaccurate.

An alt-right supporter? Peterson classifies himself as a classic British liberal, a left-leaning position. He has political roots in Canada’s NDP party, one of its dominant centre-left parties. His views on tradition tend to sway people to think otherwise, while small portions of those who support him helped perpetuate this type of thinking – some can take his words out of context to follow their own agendas, which Peterson does not endorse.

A misogynist? While Peterson is a critic of modern feminism, lots of his work is applied to women in different ways. He believes men and women are fundamentally different, and will naturally want different things – which shows itself in their choices of lifestyle and careers. He advocates for men and women to have the ability to choose for themselves the type of work and lifestyles they want to have, regardless if its seen as stereotypical or traditional.

A pseudointellectual? That can be pretty subjective, especially if you think he doesn’t have the credentials to be speaking to crowds and crowds of people. Peterson’s formal education consists of degrees in psychology and political science, and a PhD in clinical psychology. Although he may not know everything, he has the credentials to prove he knows his stuff, and has extrapolated from them to form his own opinions.

Who follows him, and why?

“I think he’s just tapped into the anxiety of a lot of people right now who feel disenfranchised,” said Iman Bundu, a 19-year-old student at the University of Toronto, where Peterson has tenure as a professor. “He’s kind of just viewing all the anxiety and the hatred that they have. He presents himself as like a father figure, or a role model, for these ‘disenfranchised people.’”

These “disenfranchised people” – men typically between the ages of 18-30 – have become a big part of his following and have been a pointed remark in criticism against him. If his ideas only seem to attract men, what business do women have listening to him?

According to what he knows, for the longest time his viewership was mainly comprised of men, something he attributed towards the skewed proportion of men using YouTube, one of his biggest platforms. However, His Facebook is predominantly female, with his overall online audience now close to 55 per cent female. In his lectures, he estimates he ratio to 65:35 males to females. These numbers are growing and changing every day, as he continues to travel the world to speak to sold out theatres that tend to be 50/50 male to female.

But where have all the women been?

The reality is, women have always been listening. Although dwarfed by Peterson’s media scandals and his critiques of being a shepherd to men, they still form their own holdings in his communities. Women have flocked to social media to congregate: Reddit communities for women-only discussions, Facebook meet-up groups all over the world, and videos upon videos on YouTube that are all individual testimonies to his work and influence. What drives them to him is his different take on women’s issues and global issues. A feminist critic and advocate for traditional values, he’s been able to appeal to women’s need for a different perspective on their issues.

Ellen Fishbein, a 25-year-old living in Texas, embraces the idea women and men are fundamentally different but wholeheartedly equal. “I think that he agrees with that 100 per cent,” she said. “I’m the first to admit and point out that Jordan Peterson is not a perfect communicator. I really think if you approach him with a genuinely open mind, and listen to the things he says directly, and not what people say he says, I think you’ll find he actually respects women tremendously.”

Peterson has built a large chunk of his foundational image off of statements said during the initial 2016 Bill C-16 controversy. While not expecting to make as much ruckus, he was able to grate on people he might have otherwise appealed to by coming off as offensive and intolerant, even though his core message was about protecting the right of freedom of speech. Through time, he’s become better at reasoning out his thought process and clarifying exactly what he means; the debates he’s part of and the podcasts he gets featured on, such as The Joe Rogan Experience, give him the space to go more into depth of his views. But sometimes, he can be deliberately taken out of context, perpetuating an image that only adds to the stigma surrounding his ideas and fans.

Many of his fans, although gathering online and in person through clubs, still hesitate to publicly support and express a liking towards Peterson. Fearing backlash from the media, the left, and those in their own personal spheres, this has deterred many men and women from associating with him, and is likely a culprit of why people in general find it hard to listen to what he has to say.

The real question - Why are we focusing on who he attracts, and not why he attracts them?

While female empowerment is surging in the media, little can be said about the male equivalent. A lot of men are struggling with their mental health and not much attention is directed towards their betterment. What’s being left out of the conversation is their suicide rate, which has been increasing over the years and is higher than women, their alarming dependency on alcohol and drugs, and the fact that Peterson has been able to shed a light in their corner.

Women who feel modern feminism isn’t the answer deserve to have a figure, male or female, who shares their same plight. Men who need a positive role model to help get their lives together deserve a man who they are able to relate and learn from. Society deserves the ability to hear, challenge, and support voices that carry different perspectives and ideas.

Is being a paternal figure to a group that is, in this day and age, feeling more isolated from positive encouragement in the media, really such a bad thing? Peterson is deeply passionate about being able to change young men’s lives, by empowering their state of minds and helping them get themselves together. No, not in terms of organization, but in a way of productivity and responsibility for themselves.

“We’re alienating young men, we’re telling them that they’re patriarchal oppressors, denizens of rape culture, and tyrants in waiting. And we fail to discriminate between their competence and their tyranny, and it’s just… it’s awful,” Peterson says in the 2018 interview. Maybe he has a point.

Many claim he is a dangerous speaker, spreading regressive ideology that empowers dangerous individuals and goes against a lot of the progressive movements that are happening today. But the things that get overlooked and aren’t nearly analyzed enough? His plethora of talks and podcasts, his self-help book 12 Rules of Life: An Antidote to Chaos, and his practice in clinical psychology, which he and many others all say to have helped thousands of people over the years.

Society shouldn’t be scared of people who present different ideas. Criticism should always be warranted – we need to evaluate arguments presented and question the integrity a person has. Instead of looking to critics to determine how we should feel and think about a certain person or thing, we need to be able to make up our minds for ourselves.

Maybe he belongs somewhere in the grey, where a lot of morally ambiguous people and topics lie. Go through his lectures, podcasts, and writings. Try to see from his point of view, and contrast that from how others view him. Is he an alt-right intellectual who poses a threat to society, someone to be afraid of? Or is he someone society needs more of – a person with a non-mainstream perspective and approach – that we can all learn something from?