I recently had a fascinating conversation with a Current Affairs reader, Benjamin Howard, who was once a major fan of Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, the famous Canadian psychologist and author of the bestselling book 12 Rules For Life. Howard has taken what I suspect is an uncommon intellectual journey. From admiring Peterson and swallowing the professor’s critique of the “woke mind virus,” Howard has become so skeptical of Peterson that he is now building a comprehensive website called JordanPetersonIsWrong.com.
I spoke to Howard because I wanted to better understand two things:
- Why people are attracted to Jordan Peterson’s ideas
- How the minds of Peterson’s fans might be changed
Personally, I have little respect for Peterson’s intellectual contributions. But I don’t extend that contempt to his readers and listeners, because I think he offers persuasive narratives to those who feel lost and confused. I have long considered him a charlatan, but I also think you can be a very perceptive and decent person and still be taken in by charlatans. By talking to Benjamin, I wanted to see how Peterson looked not from my perspective (as a left-wing cynic) but from the perspective of someone who had once deeply admired the professor’s intellect. I’ve written out my criticisms of Peterson at voluminous length (they are also available in a book, The Current Affairs Rules For Life). I am long past the point of wanting to rehash them, and Peterson has ducked my attempts to organize a one-on-one debate despite initially agreeing. The question that interests me most now is: Given that I think Peterson’s apocalyptic black-and-white worldview is incredibly dangerous and delusional, what can be done to de-radicalize his followers and keep them from joining the right-wing mission to eradicate “leftism” and “transgenderism” from the world?
Benjamin and I began our conversation by talking about what sets Peterson apart from other “anti-woke” pundits. Peterson has not just built a following for his critique of political correctness, but for his program of personal self-improvement. His 12 Rules For Life is not really a political book at all (although a couple of its rules have political implications, such as his view that you shouldn’t “criticize the world” until you “set your house in perfect order”). Instead, Peterson offers his answer to the question “What are the most valuable things that everyone should know?” He gives a set of maxims ranging from “Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient” (#7) to “Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street” (#12). Peterson explains that “people need ordering principles” because “chaos otherwise beckons.” The rules are his attempt to counter “chaos” so we can “stay on the straight and narrow path.”
For Benjamin, the fact that Peterson’s self-help principles are so prescriptive, and he doesn’t offer affirming and uplifting messages, is part of the appeal. Benjamin explained:
There’s certain kinds of self help where it feels like they’re just telling you what you want to hear…You shouldn’t feel bad about yourself, this kind of positive thinking. And Peterson was straightforwardly against that. [His take was more like] just, if you’re not doing well, you should feel bad about yourself and you should want to improve yourself and if you don’t, then something’s wrong with you.
Now, to me, this seems pretty horrible (I’m much more of the Mr. Rogers “you are special” school so hated by the right). But Benjamin says the approach was actually “inspiring” because Peterson “has a way of speaking [where] it feels very deep in his heart that he wants you to do better for yourself.” For Benjamin, what may look to other people like obvious and paternalistic advice can feel very useful to certain people at certain points in their life:
I’ve heard some critics of Peterson say, well, his self-help is all just obvious. They don’t even get why anyone would listen to his self-help or enjoy it…He says “clean your room,” doesn’t everyone know that? But there’s a certain point in your life where you don’t know that or you do know it, but you don’t care about it, or you don’t see why you should do it…He gives an explanation of why it’s important. And you might want to look up his clean your room speech. It’s very interesting…He kind of has a habit of making everything feel really profound and super meaningful. That’s part of what makes it motivating. And so if you’re lacking in motivation, then someone comes along and sort of slaps you in the face and says, “Hey, this is really important, clean your room,” then you’ll actually do it.
Benjamin himself, when he first heard Peterson on the Joe Rogan podcast in 2018, was at a point in his life where this kind of message spoke to him. As he explains:
At the time that I encountered Peterson, I wasn’t where I wanted to be in my life. I had graduated high school, and then I didn’t go to post secondary immediately after. I was trying to do writing, and I was just working part time at a furniture warehouse. There’s kind of that vacuum after going to high school. In high school, you have all these friends and everything’s decided for you. You know exactly what you’re doing. You’re being graded, so you know if you’re doing it well. And then one year out of high school, it’s like, what do I do now? At first you’re like “oh, I have all this freedom.” For the first two months or whatever. And then a year goes by and it’s like “Oh, I’m still not moved out of my parents’ house, which I thought I would have…That was where I was at when Jordan Peterson entered. And when you’re in that kind of place having someone who’s coming along with this very confident, inspiring message of “Here’s what you need to do to fix your life,” that’s really valuable.” I still don’t credit him for helping me to ‘change my life’ or something. But maybe a little bit.
There are plenty of people who do credit Peterson with changing their lives (just read the YouTube comments sections or the Amazon reviews of his books). Benjamin did get to where he wanted to be in his life, enrolling in college to study computer science, and when his life changed, his interest in listening to Jordan Peterson started to wane, because he no longer felt he needed to hear these “tough love” messages about getting his act together.
Peterson is not just a self-help guru, though. He’s also a demagogue who pushes reactionary talking points about how transgender people and socialists pose a threat to the social order. Benjamin and I discussed how Peterson combines the “how to fix your life” message with regular attacks on “woke” culture. Benjamin concedes that at the time he first encountered Peterson, he enjoyed hearing him “going off against political correctness,” and “thought he had done it in a way that was very unique and intelligent.” When Peterson explained the sources of what was wrong in the world, Benjamin describes the listening experience as:
“Oh, now I understand. Everything clicks into place. It makes it almost addicting to listen to him. You feel like you’re really learning something deep about the whole world, like how everything is really working.”
(Incidentally, that feeling of being told the secrets of how everything is “really” working is part of the source of QAnon’s appeal, too.)
In trying to explain why Peterson is so compelling, Benjamin points to his confidence, charisma, and his seemingly “genius” ability to combined eclectic insights into a giant unified theory:
He’s also able to weave in a lot of different topics together, where he’s got the self-help, he’s got religion, he’s got psychology, and then the politics…If you listen to one of his lectures where he’s in this lecture hall talking for an hour, two hours, he’ll go across all these different topics and weave them, like he’s trying to give the impression that they’re all unified together. But it’s this hodgepodge of different things that maybe aren’t related. It gives this feeling of “Wow, this guy knows about everything, and he’s just so knowledgeable, and he’s giving this profound insight that other people just don’t have. I think there is definitely an impression that you’re getting genius insights from this person. I think that’s what leads to over-trusting of his information, because if he’s a genius, then why look into anything he says? He must just be correct.
I think Benjamin is right about the impression Peterson gives. In my own writing, I dissected some of the tricks Peterson uses to convey the impression that he knows more than he actually does. But what I was really interested in was the question of why Benjamin left Peterson behind. What broke this man’s spell?
It wasn’t reading Current Affairs. Or at least, that was only part of it. In fact, Benjamin told me that the first time he encountered my article about Peterson, he hated it. He rejected its analysis and thought I was just a hater launching unfair attacks. Other things had to happen before Benjamin would be open to hearing such a sharp critique.
I’ve mentioned one of the things that happened, which is that Benjamin’s life circumstances changed when he went to college. When he was there, he took a couple of courses that opened his mind. First, he took a course on ancient Greek and Roman religion, which he says pushed him toward being an atheist, because he saw how these societies decided things based on religious ideas that seem loopy today. “Things were decided just based on…’ What do the gods want to do?’ I just realized ‘Whoa, they did a lot of crazy stuff back then.” Critically analyzing these ancient societies allowed Benjamin to see parallels with our own.
Second, Benjamin took a critical thinking course. (For some reason, we don’t mandate critical thinking in schools, but we should!) This taught him to spot outright errors in the thought of the genius psychologist:
I was still very much into Peterson at that time. But I noticed “the naturalistic fallacy.” That’s something that Peterson actually does very frequently. Or “appeal to tradition.” And so you notice, “Oh, okay, there are some problems here.”
But Benjamin says that a crucial eye-opening moment came when he heard Peterson make a remark he just considered totally off the wall and transparently wrong:
I really enjoy art and fiction and music. And Peterson said, “without religion, there would be no art, there would be no poetry, and there would be no music, no anything.” And I went, “Whoa, that is so not true.” What about all these atheists? People that made great things. So for me, that was the part that was like, “That’s crazy.”
Seeing that someone seemingly profound was not right about everything led Benjamin to take a more critical approach to Peterson’s thinking, at which point a lot of his faith in Peterson’s genius began to crumble. (The central role of college courses in changing Benjamin’s thinking helps us explain why the right hates college.) He noticed that Peterson exaggerated and misrepresented the Canadian law that was supposedly going to throw him in jail for misgendering people. He noticed that Peterson was not interested in accurately or fairly representing the “postmodern neo-Marxists” he criticized. Benjamin’s disillusionment started slowly, and then happened “all at once.” It was only then that he re-read my article in Current Affairs and found himself agreeing with a lot of the criticisms I made. I hadn’t persuaded Benjamin, but I did confirm a lot of what he had started to figure out on his own. Now, as I say, Benjamin is so critical of Peterson that he’s building a whole website laying out the flaws in Peterson’s thought. I think this is a valuable project, because there are a lot of people who remain fans of Peterson and have yet to undergo the process of disillusionment that Benjamin has been through. I hope he can help them.
There are a few interesting insights to be found in Benjamin’s story, if we’re thinking about how to keep people from turning toward hateful reactionary thinking. First, and I’ve said this before, we need to have faith in people’s ability to change their minds. I find Peterson repellent, but I don’t find it helpful to call his listeners fascists or even transphobes. Many are young men like Benjamin who are simply in a tough place in their lives and susceptible to the messages of charismatic figures who promise to explain the world, identify your enemies, and help you fix your life. (That’s not to say that Peterson himself is not transphobic; he is, and it’s extreme, toxic, and frightening.)
We can also see that even though people can change their minds, the process takes time. It doesn’t happen because someone presents you with a set of arguments that “own” and “destroy” a certain position. Changes in our thinking come from experience, not just pure reason. My article on Jordan Peterson did not snap Benjamin out of his fandom. He had to figure things out bit by bit, with different bricks slotting into place. Studying ancient societies made him critical of religion. Studying critical thinking gave him the tools to see when Peterson was wrong. And so when Peterson defended religion using arguments Benjamin knew didn’t make sense, the genius suddenly seemed a bit, well, stupid.
I was encouraged by my conversation with Benjamin. As we see reactionary politics getting more and more aggressive in this country, with would-be dictators like Ron DeSantis clamoring for power and legislatures around the country embracing anti-LGBT legislation, we need more urgently than ever to figure out how we can talk to people and keep right-wing movements from attracting new followers. It can be done. It’s not easy, and it’s not just a matter of handing people copies of Responding to the Right and buying them subscriptions to Current Affairs (although you should of course do both). Sometimes, people’s lives have to change in order for their minds to open, and you can’t really affect that. We can, perhaps, give them the kind of inspiration they are looking for in dark times, so that they will be less in need of the messages someone like Peterson offers. We can perhaps show them that while having a clean room is nice, a lot of our problems must be addressed through collective political action. But first and foremost, we have to have some empathy and patience. I have confidence that there are many people out there like Benjamin who can eventually come to see through the lies and misdirection of demagogues and join the project of building a better world for all.