Jordan Peterson is a professor, a pretty decent professor. He may not be the greatest thinker currently alive in western civilization, but he doesn’t need to be. No professor does. He does what a professor should do: he interrogates assumptions, presents his ideas in a clear and cogent manner, and is a respectful and courteous listener to those with whom he disagrees. Being a good professor is more than enough.
I typically stay away from topical subjects. As a scholar of Metaphysical poetry, theology, and philosophy, the subjects that I usually write about—phenomenology, sophiology, mysticism, and poetics—are not of the kind that make it into the headlines. Nevertheless, I’ve been asked to write about what has come to be called “The Jordan Peterson Phenomenon.”
Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, first came to national attention in his native Canada in late 2016 because he balked at his country’s new legislation demanding people use “alternative pronouns” when referring to certain persons, usually transsexuals. Quite simply, Peterson refused to use these pronouns—“ze,” “zhe,” “zir,” and so forth (I’m not even sure how to pronounce them)—arguing further that terms like “gender identity” and “gender expression” are notoriously ill-defined, despite being used to bully opponents into submission. This was Peterson’s “mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore” moment.
At the time, I was glad he stood up to the government (and university) bullies. Good for him. Universities, of all places, should be places where free speech is respected and the marketplace of ideas encouraged. Agree or disagree with Peterson, it was certainly a discussion worth having. And still is. But universities in Canada it seems, much like many of their American counterparts, are far from being open spaces hospitable to the exploration of knowledge and the pursuit of truth.
In the meantime, Peterson has become a phenomenon. And bigly. He has 518k followers on Twitter, over 898k followers on Youtube, and a bestselling book, 12 Rules for Life. Not surprisingly, Peterson’s popularity has instigated much debate and critique (a good deal of it nasty) from the press as well as from his fellow academics. The academic criticism tends to be very snippy.