- TORONTO — Jordan Peterson fills huge lecture halls and tells his audiences there’s no shame in looking backward to a model of how the world should be arranged. Look back to the 1950s, he says — and back even further. He tells his audiences that they are smart. He is bringing them knowledge, yes, but it is knowledge that they already know and feel in their bones. He casts this as ancient wisdom, delivered through religious allegories and fairy tales which contain truth, he says, that modern society has forgotten.
Most of his ideas stem from a gnawing anxiety around gender. “The masculine spirit is under assault,” he told me. “It’s obvious.”
In Mr. Peterson’s world, order is masculine. Chaos is feminine. And if an overdose of femininity is our new poison, Mr. Peterson knows the cure. Hence his new book’s subtitle: “An Antidote to Chaos.”
“We have to rediscover the eternal values and then live them out,” he says.
Mr. Peterson, 55, a University of Toronto psychology professor turned YouTube philosopher turned mystical father figure, has emerged as an influential thought leader. The messages he delivers range from hoary self-help empowerment talk (clean your room, stand up straight) to the more retrograde and political (a society run as a patriarchy makes sense and stems mostly from men’s competence; the notion of white privilege is a farce). He is the stately looking, pedigreed voice for a group of culture warriors who are working diligently to undermine mainstream and liberal efforts to promote equality.
He is also very successful. His book, “12 Rules for Life,” which was published in January, has sold more than 1.1 million copies. Thanks to his YouTube channel, he makes more than $80,000 a month just on donations. Hundreds of thousands of people have taken his online personality tests and self-improvement writing exercises. The media covers him relentlessly.
Security at Mr. Peterson’s «12 Rules For Life» tour event. CreditMark Sommerfeld for The New York Times
For two days in May, Mr. Peterson gives me a view of his life. He shows me his home, lets me listen in on business calls and a Skype session with a fan, and follow him backstage during a speaking engagement at the Queen Elizabeth Theater. He does not smile. He has a weathered, gaunt face and big furrowed eyebrows. He has written about dogs being closest in behavior to humans, but there is something extremely feline about him. He always wears a suit. “I am a very serious person,” he often says.
Wherever he goes, he speaks in sermons about the inevitability of who we must be. “You know you can say, ‘Well isn’t it unfortunate that chaos is represented by the feminine’ — well, it might be unfortunate, but it doesn’t matter because that is how it’s represented. It’s been represented like that forever. And there are reasons for it. You can’t change it. It’s not possible. This is underneath everything. If you change those basic categories, people wouldn’t be human anymore. They’d be something else. They’d be transhuman or something. We wouldn’t be able to talk to these new creatures.”
Why Men Murder
Mr. Peterson’s home is a carefully curated house of horror. He has filled it with a sprawl of art that covers the walls from floor to ceiling. Most of it is communist propaganda from the Soviet Union (execution scenes, soldiers looking noble) — a constant reminder, he says, of atrocities and oppression. He wants to feel their imprisonment, though he lives here on a quiet residential street in Toronto and is quite free.
“Marxism is resurgent,” Mr. Peterson says, looking ashen and stricken.
I say it seems unnecessarily stressful to live like this. He tells me life is stressful.
He tucks his legs under him as he talks, curled in a dark leather seat. He has been padding around softly in socks. He looks down while he talks and makes fleeting, suspicious eye contact.
He quit his private practice last year and is on an early sabbatical from the University of Toronto. He dragged the school into controversy in 2016 by opposing a Canadian bill that he believed would compel him to use a student’s preferred pronouns.
“I am not going to be a mouthpiece for language that I detest, and that’s that,” he said during a debate at the University of Toronto.
Mr. Peterson, who grew up in Fairview, Canada, a small town in northern Alberta, spent his career teaching psychology at Harvard and then at the University of Toronto, all while running a clinical practice.
The lesson most patients need to hear, he says, is “grow the hell up, accept some responsibility, live an honorable life.”
“We just haven’t talked about that in any compelling way in three generations,” he says. “Probably since the beginning of the ’60s.”
Why did he decide to engage in politics at all? He says a couple years ago he had three clients in his private practice “pushed out of a state of mental health by left-wing bullies in their workplace.” I ask for an example, and he sighs.
He says one patient had to be part of a long email chain over whether the term “flip chart” could be used in the workplace, since the word “flip” is a pejorative for Filipino.
“She had a radical-left boss who was really concerned with equality and equality of outcome and all these things and diversity and inclusivity and all these buzzwords and she was subjected to — she sent me the email chain, 30 emails about whether or not the word flip chart was acceptable,” Mr. Peterson says.
CreditMark Sommerfeld for The New York Times
So he was radicalized, he says, because the “radical left” wants to eliminate hierarchies, which he says are the natural order of the world. In his book he illustrates this idea with the social behavior of lobsters. He chose lobsters because they have hierarchies and are a very ancient species, and are also invertebrates with serotonin. This lobster hierarchy has become a rallying cry for his fans; they put images of the crustacean on T-shirts and mugs.
The left, he believes, refuses to admit that men might be in charge because they are better at it. “The people who hold that our culture is an oppressive patriarchy, they don’t want to admit that the current hierarchy might be predicated on competence,” he said.
Mr. Peterson illustrates his arguments with copious references to ancient myths — bringing up stories of witches, biblical allegories and ancient traditions. I ask why these old stories should guide us today.
“It makes sense that a witch lives in a swamp. Yeah,” he says. “Why?”
It’s a hard one.
“Right. That’s right. You don’t know. It’s because those things hang together at a very deep level. Right. Yeah. And it makes sense that an old king lives in a desiccated tower.”
But witches don’t exist, and they don’t live in swamps, I say.
“Yeah, they do. They do exist. They just don’t exist the way you think they exist. They certainly exist. You may say well dragons don’t exist. It’s, like, yes they do — the category predator and the category dragon are the same category. It absolutely exists. It’s a superordinate category. It exists absolutely more than anything else. In fact, it really exists. What exists is not obvious. You say, ‘Well, there’s no such thing as witches.’ Yeah, I know what you mean, but that isn’t what you think when you go see a movie about them. You can’t help but fall into these categories. There’s no escape from them.”
Recently, a young man named Alek Minassian drove through Toronto trying to kill people with his van. Ten were killed, and he has been charged with first-degree murder for their deaths, and with attempted murder for 16 people who were injured. Mr. Minassian declared himself to be part of a misogynist group whose members call themselves incels. The term is short for “involuntary celibates,” though the group has evolved into a male supremacist movement made up of people — some celibate, some not — who believe that women should be treated as sexual objects with few rights. Some believe in forced “sexual redistribution,” in which a governing body would intervene in women’s lives to force them into sexual relationships.
Violent attacks are what happens when men do not have partners, Mr. Peterson says, and society needs to work to make sure those men are married.
“He was angry at God because women were rejecting him,” Mr. Peterson says of the Toronto killer. “The cure for that is enforced monogamy. That’s actually why monogamy emerges.”
Mr. Peterson does not pause when he says this. Enforced monogamy is, to him, simply a rational solution. Otherwise women will all only go for the most high-status men, he explains, and that couldn’t make either gender happy in the end.
“Half the men fail,” he says, meaning that they don’t procreate. “And no one cares about the men who fail.”
I laugh, because it is absurd.
“You’re laughing about them,” he says, giving me a disappointed look. “That’s because you’re female.”
But aside from interventions that would redistribute sex, Mr. Peterson is staunchly against what he calls “equality of outcomes,” or efforts to equalize society. He usually calls them pathological or evil.
He agrees that this is inconsistent. But preventing hordes of single men from violence, he believes, is necessary for the stability of society. Enforced monogamy helps neutralize that.
In situations where there is too much mate choice, “a small percentage of the guys have hyper-access to women, and so they don’t form relationships with women,” he said. “And the women hate that.”
Helping Men Out, One at a Time
Mr. Peterson, John O’Connell and Dave Rubin backstage at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Toronto.CreditMark Sommerfeld for The New York Times
Mr. Peterson is a celebrity in the men’s rights community, a loose collection of activists who feel men have been subjugated or betrayed by social progress. Some of these supporters pay $200 a month for a 45-minute Skype conversation with Mr. Peterson to discuss their problems. (Mr. Peterson says this service has since been discontinued.)
Before he leads me to his office to sit in on one of these appointments, Mr. Peterson shows me around the third floor of his home, which is filled withcarvings made by Charles Joseph, a Kwakwaka’wakw artist.
Over his bed is a painting celebrating electrification in the Soviet Union. On the wall across from it is a hyper-realistic painting of two nude women with swords. His bedspread is familiar: It’s the same image as his Twitter avatar, a dark geometric design based on a piece of art he made out of foam core in 1985 that he called “The Meaning of Music.” He says it’s “an attempt to portray in image what music means.” He has had it made into a rug as well.
Mr. Peterson’s office has objects scattered and strewn throughout: There is a hat from a gulag, some steampunk masks he thought were cool, stacks of papers and cords, and a Kermit puppet his sister sent him because his fans joke that his voice, high and hoarse, sounds like the Muppet. Mr. Peterson stresses the importance of cleanliness, but honestly his office is a mess.
For the Skype call, he wears a sharp blazer and button-down, but he sits shoeless and cross-legged. He knows where the frame cuts off.
“I’m really hoping that somebody is going to recognize my talent,” Mr. Nestor says.
Mr. Nestor says he recently wrote a paper on how testosterone levels and sperm count are dropping. He argues sociocultural transformations are probably making men less virile, and Mr. Peterson nods along.
At one point in the discussion, Mr. Peterson, who had been relatively quiet, becomes heated on the topic of women who find marriage oppressive.
“So I don’t know who these people think marriages are oppressing,” he says. “I read Betty Friedan’s book because I was very curious about it, and it’s so whiny, it’s just enough to drive a modern person mad to listen to these suburban housewives from the late ’50s ensconced in their comfortable secure lives complaining about the fact that they’re bored because they don’t have enough opportunity. It’s like, Jesus get a hobby. For Christ’s sake, you — you — ”
Mr. Nestor says he was an engineering student at the University of California, Berkeley, but decided to transfer after feeling overcome by the liberal dogma when he took theater classes for his humanities requirement.
“They were teaching in classrooms things like Martin Luther King Jr. would have supported violent rebellion, and marriage is an institution that is designed to control the sexuality of women,” he says.
Mr. Peterson has a verbal tic where he makes a sound like m-hmm, a guttural forceful noise to signify agreement barked in two distinct beats; his mouth stays closed.
“I’ve talked to a few young women, and they have told me they do wish that they could be housewives,” Mr. Nestor says. “But what they’ve said to me is that they feel as though if they were to pursue that, other people would look down on them.”
“I’ve had lots of women tell me that,” Mr. Peterson says. “Women will never admit that publicly.” Women are likely to prioritize their children over their work, he says, especially “conscientious and agreeable women.”
When Mr. Peterson talks about good women — the sort a man would want to marry — he often uses these words: conscientious and agreeable.
Mr. Nestor feels anxious, and Mr. Peterson says he should. “My primary focus has been to not be homeless,” Mr. Nestor says.
“You don’t have a future and you don’t have a job and no bloody wonder you’re anxious,” Mr. Peterson says. “That just means you’re sane.”
Lined up for the book tour.CreditMark Sommerfeld for The New York Times
Jacob Logan, 18, from Alliston, Ontario, was first in line for Mr. Peterson’s talk on Thursday, May 3 at the Queen Elizabeth Theater. He had arrived 12 hours early, wearing a shirt with lobsters stacked upon each other. He also had 100 name tags to hand out on which he had scrawled the name “Bucko.” It’s a nickname Mr. Peterson sometimes uses for his fans.
“Whenever I listen to him, it’s like he’s telling me something I already knew,” Mr. Logan says. “Learning is remembering.”
When Mr. Peterson comes down the line shaking hands, the crowd cheers in a way that is not normal for a book tour. He is wearing a new three-piece suit, shiny and brown with wide lapels with a decorative silver flourish.
It is evocative of imagery from a hundred years ago. That’s the point. His speech too is from another era — stilted, with old-timey phrases, a hypnotic rhythm. It’s a vocal tactic he came to only recently. Videos from a few years ago have him speaking and dressing in a more modern way.
I ask him about the retro clothes and phrases. He calls it his prairie populism.
“That’s what happens when you rescue your father from the belly of the whale,” he says. “You rediscover your tradition.”
Inside among the crowd was Sue Bone, 66, a retired flight attendant from Halifax.
Ms. Bone loved her flight attendant job until she began to find it dehumanizing and corporate. Her friend told her the airlines were now run by “angry gay queens,” she says. She found Mr. Peterson. She feels he understands the danger of these strange new social forces.
“He’s waking us up in the West,” she says.
The People Who Have Found Their Leader
The audience during Mr. Peterson’s talk. CreditMark Sommerfeld for The New York Times
“You’re a divine locus of consciousness,” Mr. Peterson tells the crowd of 1,200 or so people.
He looks down as he walks. He paces. He pleads — he often sounds frustrated, like you’ve just said something absurd and he’s trying to correct you without raising his voice. He speaks for over an hour without any notes. He runs his hands over his face when it’s all too much. He cries often.
“We love you!” a woman screams from the back of the house
Those with V.I.P. tickets get to shake his hand and take a picture. Many tell him something as they stand, waiting for the flash: “You made me have a religious experience”; “we got back in our faith because of you”; “this is another wedding you can take credit for.”
Mr. Peterson’s response is often, “How’s that working out for you?”
Around midnight, there is still a group outside, lingering and talking.
Lion Arar, 22, a theater student in Montreal, says Mr. Peterson’s discussion of gender brought him back to religion.
“It made sense in a primordial way when he breaks down Adam and Eve, the snake and chaos,” Mr. Arar says. “Eve made Adam self-conscious. Women make men self-conscious because they’re the ultimate judge. I was like, ‘Wow this is really true.’”
The changes in his life include starting to clean his room. “My mom’s been nagging me for years, but I’ve never done it until Dr. Peterson,” he says.
“You organize one shelf, you do that, just incremental challenges,” he says. “That makes you realize, ‘O.K., this is how I grow up.’”
Andrew McVicar, 45, a waiter, says it was good to hear someone finally talk about how hierarchies were okay. He says current politics are pushing for everyone to be the same, promoting women and minorities into unearned positions.
“It’s forced diversity, it’s saying you must have X percent of A-B-C,” he says. “How about, look at yourself?”
Without notes.CreditMark Sommerfeld for The New York Times
Jeffrey Rouillard, 21, from Montreal and also studying theater, says he was drawn to Mr. Peterson after watching a prominent female journalist grill him.
“How many times have I been in a situation where I had been set up to be the bad guy?” Mr. Rouillard asks. “Listening to Dr. Peterson, I got a grasp of myself. It’s things I already knew, but now I know how to process the thought.”
Agreeing, Mr. Arar gave off the same guttural m-hmm that Mr. Peterson does.
The Horror of Women
To Naureen Shameem, who works at the Association for Women’s Rights in Development, which is based in Canada, Mr. Peterson’s philosophies are part of a bigger global backlash to gender equality progress.
“It’s an old story, really,” she said. “In a lot of nationalistic projects, women’s bodies and sexualities become important sites of focus and control.”
“Jordan’s exposed something that’s been festering for a long time,” says Justin Trottier, 35, the co-founder of the men’s rights organizations Canadian Association for Equality and Canadian Centre for Men and Families. “Jordan’s forced people to pay attention.”
Mr. Trottier made headlines when his group called the anti-manspreading subway initiatives sexist. Their musty space hosts events in which men discuss the prejudices they perceive against them. One of their group’s main goals is “waking the police up” to female-perpetrated domestic violence, Mr. Trottier says.
Now, “there’s more acceptance of what we’re trying to do,” he says.
The V.I.P. meet and greet. CreditMark Sommerfeld for The New York Times
There are now regular Jordan Peterson discussion groups. The one in Toronto meets once a week at a restaurant called Hemingway’s and is run by Chris Shepherd, who used to be a professional pickup artist who coached men on how to get laid fast at a club but is now a dating coach.
Mr. Shepherd first encountered Mr. Peterson in a viral video of the professor getting yelled at by campus activists. Watching the stoic professor take on righteous liberal anger touched Mr. Shepherd.
“Campus censorship has been a problem when I was at university too,” he says at Hemingway’s one recent afternoon.
I ask for an example.
“One law professor said something like, ‘You young ladies should get married and start families,’ and he got fired,” Mr. Shepherd says. “The message was just you’ll have a happier life if you get married instead of focusing on your career.”
“Certainly not a firing offense,” he says. Except, for now, it is.