We have to condemn publicly the very idea that some people have the right to repress others.
— Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago
May God Himself eternally fail to forgive us if in the painstakingly-revealed aftermath of such bloodshed, torture and anguish we remain stiff-necked, incautious, and unchanged.
— Jordan B. Peterson, Introduction to the Fiftieth Edition of The Gulag Archipelago
Recently at my gym, a man spotted me with The Gulag Archipelago under my arm and, looking at me like I was a member of an open cult, said he wanted to read the book as well. I was immediately interested in my new friend’s interest—a five-hundred-plus-page literary text on the horrors of the Soviet concentration camp was not exactly the sort of book that men casually chop it up about at the gym.
“Why do you want to read it?” I asked him.
The reason he gave was what I had suspected: because Jordan Peterson recommended it. The psychologist, professor, and author had encouraged his followers to read Solzhenitsyn; he had even written an introduction to a new edition of the book.
I hasten to note that, unlike the majority of Peterson’s fan base, my friend was not white; he was brown, or South Asian. He clarified that he was no follower of Peterson’s, but still felt that the psychologist “said interesting things” and “made sense,” unlike so many other paid talkers. I asked my friend why he thought ideas about responsibility and carrying a heavier burden—the self-help crux of Peterson’s message—had less purchase among our cohort.
“We need a father figure less,” he said in Hindi, “because our fathers would give us one slap if we crossed the wrong line.” Then, in English, he added, “These guys need some discipline.”
It was true: a kind of dispositional conservatism was baked into the immigrant child born in the West, in whose life were reposed, from birth, the sacrifices and burdens of the parents’ migratory journeys. Some took this burden as a challenge to be met—notice the working-class Asian and brown kids at places like Stuyvesant High School, Oxford, and Yale. Other kids wilted away, or just disappeared, especially those born into the cosseted security of middle-class suburbs. Enough of them drifted aimlessly between the culture of the parents and the culture of the streets. Still, both my friend and I were drawn to Peterson’s work, if for different reasons. The fact that we were even having this conversation in this gym was evidence of Peterson’s broader popularity. Something was happening to a particular segment of men, who seemed to need Peterson to not only lecture at them, but scold them as well.
Hardly a week had passed when Peterson’s ideas intruded upon my life once again, this time in the gym’s sauna. A white man in his early twenties named Jacob struck up a conversation with me. He spoke in an affected manner while telling me about his job, and then surreptitiously dropped the words “Chaos” and “Order,” midsentence. To the uninitiated, these words have no particular significance beyond their literal definitions, but language can often conceal its own secret codes.
“Order and Chaos,” I repeated. “You’re a fan of Jordan Peterson’s.”
Jacob blushed and said yes. The dichotomy between Order and Chaos is central to Peterson’s thinking, taken from the archetypal framework of Carl Jung: a meaningful life is learning to create Order out of Chaos, to forge a life at the border of these oppositional forces. Rather helpfully for young men, according to Peterson, Order is represented by the masculine, and Chaos by the feminine.
When I asked Jacob how Peterson’s ideas had impacted his life, he suddenly became deliberative and stern. He sat up with his back straight and his shoulders back, and solemnly began confessing his past sins. With alarming candor, he spoke about how he had driven his life into the dumps while in art school. His parents were paying all of his tuition and living costs, yet he soon found himself drowning in a cesspool of drunkenness, debasement, and depression. The debt came next.
I let him speak; I could tell he was in the mood for penance in this boiling sauna.
Jacob acknowledged that relative to other people, his predicament might seem stereotypically self-inflicted: wealthy young white guy, lost and purposeless, who succumbs to his own privileged freedom. It’s a story at once banal and tragic. Jacob’s unmoored self was crying out for a savior, and discovering Jordan Peterson—Doctor Peterson, he stressed—pushed him to turn things around. A later familial tragedy reinforced the rules for life he had learned from his new father figure. (“But my girlfriend doesn’t really like Dr. Peterson that much,” Jacob admitted. “When I play too many of his videos, she gets annoyed. So I try not to force her to watch.”)
This story was reminiscent of the ones Peterson tells on stage about young men finding his work and then feeling empowered to improve and fortify their lives—spiritually, morally, politically. For many, Peterson is their first brush with any question of transcendental meaning. He is both a public intellectual and a self-help guru, a psychologist who has crossed over from the academy and now regularly fills theaters with thousands of people willing to pay to watch him lecture. The first mega-intellectual celebrity of the social-media era, Peterson has risen thanks to his cultural-warrior position: he refused to use preferred pronouns for trans people, explicitly criticizes feminism, and continuously warns of the social-justice mobs coming for our thoughts. Much of last year saw the north-Albertan academic either vilified in the establishment press as a crypto-fascist or exoticized as an antiquated opponent of feminism, an aging meteor from a bygone era blasting through the progressive consensus. The herd of independent minds who attempted to dissect Peterson last year did not bother to ask what the martyrdom and sanctification of this psychologist said about Western civilization and its depressive pathologies.
Initially, I stayed away from the Peterson phenomenon. I had seen a video of him lecturing some six or seven years ago, before his fame, and had appreciated the talk enough that I never forgot it. I wished to preserve this memory of the amiable and generous professor, because at the height of his controversies last year, you could already watch Peterson’s metamorphosis in real time from mild-mannered academic into something else—no longer an intellectual or a professor, but a male prophet convinced that he was being persecuted by the mental gulag of the university.
In our hyper-connected world, there is only so long that one can avoid someone who is everywhere. My life kept looping back to Peterson. Friends would mention him, either in praise or in revulsion, and which side of the Peterson question you fell on became a distinctive marker. I noticed that he found support in unlikely quarters, among women and men around me who were as far from the Jacob archetype as could be. On some of their faces, beneath the carefully calibrated display of happiness they put on, one could sense the nerves and traumas that had led them to this point.
I began watching Peterson’s videos—first out of curiosity, then out of commitment. He had an intoxicating allure, provoking in the viewer existential questions and, at times, providing insight into the metaphysical edifice of the life around us. Whole days would pass with my being trapped in Peterson’s universe of videos. Then I looked up, and six months had gone by. Like some kind of intellectual black hole, once you entered the Peterson vortex, time itself could dissolve into an endless stream of shouting lectures. His presence became inescapable. Now, everywhere I went, Peterson’s ideas and followers trailed not far behind. It got to the point where I walked into my brother’s apartment to write this essay, and there he was, slouched on the couch, with his nose buried in 12 Rules for Life. (“Peterson’s talking about lobsters and hierarchies right now,” he said.) My own attraction to Peterson, and all these men around me—young, multiracial, curious—who were engaging with his work, led me to wonder: If Jordan Peterson was the solution that a whole generation of men were turning to, then what was the problem? What was the void that these diverse men were feeling, and why? In the shadow of the debate over feminism and women’s rights, what was happening under the surface of men that led so many of them to this paternal psychologist scolding them about Western civilization, the tyrannies of feminism, cleaning your room, and growing the hell up?
Some months into the first cravings of my Peterson addiction, the American Psychological Association published its first-ever Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men. It is about forty pages, and in line with a similar guidebook the APA issued for women and girls a decade ago. Much of the report states the obvious: that fathers should be involved in their sons’ lives, and clinical practitioners should tailor their work to the specific needs of boys and men, whose emotional and interpersonal frames are different from that of girls. This drove Peterson into attack mode, and he prophesied of the true authoritarian motives of the APA. “Make no mistake about it,” he warned on his website. “[T]his document constitutes an all-out assault on masculinity, as such—or to put it even more bluntly, on men.” His chief objection was to the APA’s overarching position that traditional masculinity was psychologically and emotionally harmful. Men were turning out to be depressed and violent creatures, the APA guidebook suggested, but this was not because they were men; rather, there was a sociocultural pathogen known as “traditional masculinity” that men were afflicted with. To cure men, you would first need to cure them of this ailment.
By Peterson’s telling, these APA guidelines were a nefarious plot hatched by the postmodernists to impose a radical leftist ideology that would erase the biological underpinnings of gender. (What is to be gained from such an erasure remains a mystery.) It was true to Peterson’s form, inflating a presumed political threat and setting himself up as the conqueror of despotic ideologues. But the masculinist crowd apishly beating its chest about evolving gender norms is nothing new. Twenty-five years ago, the poet Robert Bly wrote a runaway best seller called Iron John which provoked the same kind of commentary Peterson has over the last two years. Bly’s screed about male mythology was also a call for men to reclaim their masculinity, in particular the Unchanging and Eternal Masculine that lay domiciled deep in the male psyche. He warned of the crisis facing men, the “anguish of ‘soft’ men,” and the male grief that was eroding as heroism and traditional masculinity waned, domesticating and emasculating men in the process. Weak men, suffering men, castrated men: it was a rallying cry for making men great again. Peterson, less phallocentric than Bly, is the latest grizzled prophet preaching to an anguished male populace, but now with the platform to reach millions of young, vulnerable men.
Like others, Peterson cites concepts from biology and evolution to push back on the idea that masculine norms need to change. “We cannot allow ideology and political correctness to prevail over science,” Peterson wrote in the National Post. “The Boys and Men document is propagandistic to a degree that is almost incomprehensible.” But how much of one’s manness is biology, and how much is the environment? Social norms, internalized from the moment a boy comes out of the womb to when he can recognize himself in the mirror, to the aggression that peaks at age two, to his navigation of the complex worlds of the schoolyard and the locker room, all encourage him to suppress his emotions. He must be resolute, strong. Showing emotion will lead people to think he is weak. Every man unconsciously imbibes this rearing, which in the long run can be positively dangerous, if not restrained. What the APA was recognizing was that the social norms of traditional masculinity, when superimposed upon our existing and innate aggression, simply reinforced poisonous tendencies that resulted in self-harm and violence.
There is a crisis of men that runs much deeper than the crisis of unkept bedrooms. Across multiple levels of Western society, men are struggling to adopt to the evolving realities around them. Most of the failing grades in school go to boys. Men commit 90 percent of all homicides, and over 90 percent of prison inmates are men. We can factor in race: from 1980 to 2013, 262,000 black men were killed in America, a population greater than the entire city of Buffalo; the fact that this number can even be written testifies to the erasure of black male life from American life. Moreover, so many rural white men have been falling dead from alcohol, drugs, and suicide—so-called “deaths of despair”—that sociologists have noted that this is the first case of any demographic cohort having its mortality rate going up in the entire industrialized world. There is a link, it would seem, between the suppression of emotion and the redirection of rage outward, creating a pathway to violence, addiction, and self-loathing.
“Traditional masculinity”—something everyone can recognize when they see it in real life—taught me to suppress my feelings towards the world and that emotion was something for weaklings. I was born in one of those outer-boroughs of Toronto, the city Peterson also calls home, in a place where the rules of life were very different from the college campuses where I found myself later. Even the slightest intimation that you would not fight back made you a target for the boys who roved together like packs of wolves, singling out those who would only too happily take a beating. They had been traumatized at home, traumatized at school, and they made sure you, too, would feel their pain. Hardness of heart engendered violence, which further hardened our hearts. If girls were around, or other boys were watching, the stakes would become mortally serious. There is a scene from Moonlight that I think of when I hear the defenders of traditional masculinity. Teenaged Chiron, his face battered, looks at himself in the mirror. He was humiliated that day at school, repeatedly punched in the face in a sick game orchestrated by a school bully. The music stops. His face is bloody, broken. He stares at himself in the mirror, wounded, then calmly murderous. The next day, this once-gentlehearted boy marches into school, adrenaline pumping through him, walks into the classroom, picks up a chair, and breaks it on his classmate’s back. It is Chiron’s first act of violence, spurred on by the hurt that was transmuted into rage. (He is next seen being taken away by the police, as his trajectory towards criminal violence is complete.)
The same brown men around me who came of age between the twin catastrophes of 9/11 and the financial crisis were likely the sons of older South Asian men—men who raised their hands on their children at the slightest misbehavior. Men who ran their homes like tyrants intent on enforcing their own laws, lest the laws of the police enforce themselves upon their offspring first. Men who were as emotionless as statues, who lacked even the most basic vocabulary to communicate their wounded feelings, whose only language was shame and violence. Some of these men had sons my age who thought they ran the neighborhood, until they ended up in those prisons and addiction centers that had been waiting for them since they were teenagers. Some of these men were abusive towards their wives, and like their white male friends, were protected by the moral racket of a social conservatism that imposed unequal standards on women and told them to know their place. Online, these men—all men—could live their simulated lives with their simulated heroes, dissimulating the part of themselves which constitutes the unloved child.
There was so much deprogramming to do among men that the APA document, far from being too radical, was actually too restrained. The fact that Peterson could respond with such hysteria to the APA’s guidelines for men and boys was unsettling. Rather than display the scholarly perceptiveness and goodwill that I had come to admire in his videos, or even to acknowledge how the sharper edges of masculinity could lead to self-loathing and violence, Peterson went right into conspiratorially suggesting that authoritarians had hijacked the field of psychology. Who was this person? What happened to the genial professor? He was turning into an aggrieved, aggravated man and the crudest of all postmodern creations: the victimized internet personality.
But it was Peterson’s take on feminism that I began to find most distressing. His opinion on female subjugation today is one that is rarely shared publicly, and has brought him some notoriety. In a recent public conversation, Peterson, when prodded on the point that one could recognize population-level differences between the sexes and still recognize unjust discrimination against women, said the following:
Yeah, I don’t recognize that. I don’t think there is a great deal of unjust discrimination against women in comparison to the degree of unjust discrimination against men. I think that hasn’t really been true for probably, well, at least ten years. And I know that’s not very long. But then, I also don’t buy the argument that throughout history, men have, what would you say? Singularly oppressed women? I think that’s absolute bloody nonsense.
How a reader of Solzhenitsyn and a critic of authoritarianism like Peterson could look at the history of gender relations and minimize the state-sanctioned subjugation of women suggests to me that he abandoned his intellectual calling at least a year ago. While valorizing traditional masculinity, Peterson doesn’t see—or doesn’t wish to see—how, for many men, power over a woman is the defining quality of manhood. He does not acknowledge to his followers how the history of all the criminal codes of every Western country are littered with laws specifically discriminating against the bodies of women—liberation from which women themselves had to fight, to be seen as independent of the chattel state of their husbands. In places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, especially their feudal areas, men still treat women as the functional equivalent of slaves. In Asia, women are still bought and sold openly, or turned into the sexual property of the white man who has arrived to purchase a bride. Only someone who has spent far too long within the confines of the university can have such an ahistorical and blinkered view of either the contemporary reality or the history of women’s rights.
Peterson doubles down on the strongman pose of traditional masculinity, which is rooted not in sadism as much as it is in masochism. A man responds to the norms of his society by overcompensating for insecurities that can eventually lead him into an existential tailspin. A major consequence of this is violence, visible and unseen, and most of this violence takes place inside the home: four in five victims of intimate partner violence are women. According to the UN, over 87,000 women were killed in 2017, the majority of them by a male intimate or family member. This translates into 137 women killed every day in acts of gender-based violence. The manifestation of misogyny is particularized in different cultures in different ways, but it’s always there, and ready to overwhelm and overpower the women whose individuality is soon fatally extinguished.
Much as we all metamorphose when we enter our online skins, Peterson has adopted his as the man ready to make a reactionary shriek at any demand for equality. Understanding astutely the emotional triggers of the fan base he has aggressively monetized, Peterson is attuned to what he can say that will rile up his army. There is little in the way of nuance here regarding the actual causes and consequences of sexism and misogyny. The problem with all this is that Peterson, while assiduously prepared to play up his victim status, ends up compounding “the original sin” of traditional masculinity: the absence of any self-awareness when it comes to questions of body and space.
His devoted followers must not realize the effect of this propagandizing of ignorance. A state of privileged unawareness reigns supreme, which the critic in me began to find distasteful by month six of my addiction. An impressionable young man, having digested copious amounts of liturgy about making his bed and cleaning his room, about orderliness and conscientiousness, about standing with his back straight and confronting Chaos with all the might of Hercules, might come away from Peterson’s lectures believing that there is nothing in his attitude towards women that he should critically reflect on, because he is the one actually being discriminated against. In a world of rape. In a world where honor killings still happen. In a world which, until #MeToo, gave all powerful men a blank check on casual harassment. Not to worry, though. Hierarchies are natural. They may even be beneficial. And don’t worry much about equality: it’s the holy trinity of equity, inclusivity, and diversity that is the real oppressor. The social-justice mobs are coming for us. But first, please donate here and buy my book. And if you find yourself on the losing side of life, it’s because you haven’t made your bed.
I had not been looking to excuse my own ignorance, but I was nevertheless absorbed for half a year by Peterson’s lectures. My mind flitted digressively between all the subjects the anachronistic professor was discoursing upon, from the Marxist Lie of White Privilege, to the importance of reading, to restraining one’s impulses and living by one’s duties. “Be more than you are,” he bellowed at me. “Carry a heavier load.” Even the hyperbole began to feel cathartic, and I needed to up my dose of his videos every week to keep the rush of excitement flowing.
Peterson often cries in his videos, and the tears appear genuine: his face scrunches up, his lips quiver, and his cheeks redden. The tears come streaming down. There is something poignant about seeing a fully grown man, an academic no less, crying in public. While crying, he is often describing an interaction with someone whose life had gone off the rails, who then found Peterson and had a moment of enlightened awakening. The cynic may wonder how a woman who laid all her emotional cards on the table would be perceived—perhaps the word (and much of our battle here is terminological) would be “unstable” instead of “passionate”—but the stories are themselves touching. When Jacob began confiding in me, I thought of the people who had confided in Peterson, and how genuinely vulnerable the professor seemed at times.
Having been sucked into Peterson’s orbit, I understand why he is so admired and viewed. He was built for the streaming and YouTube era, easily accessible for a generation used to convenience and the instantaneous. His ideas are easy to grasp, and the longer one spends in his universe, the more one’s reality becomes warped by this self-referential matrix of learning where all subjects are covered by the guru’s orthodoxies, all blind spots go unacknowledged, all answers are waiting to be revealed. With only a screen separating Peterson and me, he stands before me, intimate and honest, his mind becoming an extension of my own, a referent to which I would circle back even when offline, or at the gym, or driving. Spend enough time in Peterson’s universe of videos, and you come away feeling his omnipresence. The young may confuse that for omniscience.
The personality-driven aesthetics of YouTube reward the intellectual who has all the answers, and for the men who make up a disproportionate share of the site’s user base, this totality of insight in a single man serves as a kind of comfort. The proximate precursor to Peterson’s intellectual performance art was Christopher Hitchens, the equally volatile and anti-authoritarian polemicist, whose knack for the debating stage and lecture hall was vintage Oxbridge. I remember spending many evenings watching Hitchens videos with some of the people on my floor during my first year of college, and continuing the discussions after the videos ended. Of course, some of what Hitchens said was hogwash, especially his support for the war in Iraq. But as a younger man, I would sometimes find myself repeating his assertions about that war, unaware that they were misleading. He said them with such certitude that it was convincing. Peterson knows what every white man at the office has known for a very long time: that by virtue of one’s place in the hierarchy, one has tacit permission to say ignorant things with confidence and still be taken seriously. This privilege of being taken seriously even when wrong is the meta-privilege of our time.
More recently, Peterson’s particular brand of confidence has taken an angrier tone, one that is in direct contrast to his more affable pre-celebrity performances. In one video, the professor is joined by three podcasters—Kyle, Woody, and Taylor—and their conversation turns to Muslims. Peterson gives a rambling answer about the dialogue needed between Islam and Christianity, and the schism within Islam between Sunnis and Shiites. It’s all basic history, but Woody, Kyle, and Taylor appreciate it. Then Kyle speaks up. By my count, Kyle has eight machine guns behind him, but otherwise appears normal. He incoherently suggests that there have been no civil wars within Christianity. Peterson is silent at this abominably ignorant statement, and when the conversation resumes he eventually digresses into asking why America’s radical feminists “tolerate” an alliance with Saudi Arabia, a baseless and bizarre suggestion. Taylor happily hypothesizes that feminists support the Saudis because Muslims are “higher on the victim hierarchy” than them. No, no, Peterson interjects, the real reason feminists like Muslims is because they have an “unconscious wish for brutal male domination.” Woody, Kyle, and Taylor laugh cheerfully. Despite the utter absence of any knowledge in this bar-table talk, the four white men speak with a certitude that I find chilling. It’s a certitude I have heard many times, and it always disguises a sickeningly ignorant mindset about people whose stories you do not know, and therefore cannot deconstruct. Peterson was once a professor at Harvard, and now he cannot correct even the most irresponsibly ignorant of statements. He is Exhibit A of what happens in the vacuous “Intellectual Dark Web”: sooner or later, you become comfortably mired in intellectual darkness.
In the private whisperings of men across race and age, I have often detected a nervousness about past indiscretions which, in the cold light of the egalitarian morning, might be perceived as predatory from the women’s perspective. Rather than deal with its own issues, this male hysteria, in typically masculine fashion, externalizes them onto feminism, and has found its chief intellectual proponents in figures like Peterson. But the fear of reprisal is real and arises out of the revolutionary moment we are witnessing, one that is reconfiguring whose narrative lens is dominant, and from whose perspective we understand the story. Solzhenitsyn understood this better than most. In one chapter of The Gulag Archipelago, he notes that women were equally resilient as men in the horrors they encountered in the labor camp. Not only did they suffer the same ordeals of punishment as men, but the additional humiliation of having their bodies stolen and reduced to the playthings of men in charge: the plight of women from time immemorial.
Yet even the most baked in and seemingly eternal norms can be changed, should the effort be made. It is the responsibility—the duty—of men to correct their excesses, and bring decency and respect to the forefront of their interactions with women. Reverting back to denial and obfuscation is the child’s game, as is defending a traditional form of masculinity that ever only benefited a sliver of men. Man is capable of adapting, for good or for evil, depending on the environment that nurtures him. E.O. Wilson’s On Human Nature describes the Semai people of Malaysia, one of the oldest indigenous groups in all of Southeast Asia, who are known for their culture of nonviolence. Parents do not hit their children, children do not aggressively compete with one another, murder is virtually unknown, disputes are settled peaceably, and there is no word for “kill.” When British colonialists conscripted the Semai to fight the Communists, these poor men did not even know that soldiers were supposed to kill others. But, according to the anthropologist Robert K. Dentan, when Semai men were trained to murder by the British, this happened:
Taken out of their nonviolent society and ordered to kill, [Semai men] seem to have been swept up in a sort of insanity which they call “blood drunkenness.” A typical veteran’s story runs like this. “We killed, killed, killed. The Malays would stop and go through people’s pockets and take their watches and money. We did not think of watches or money. We thought only of killing. Wah, truly we were drunk with blood.” One man even told how he had drunk the blood of a man he had killed.
There are many faces hidden beneath the stolid exterior men display like masks, and which face is called forth is often the result of whose influence one falls under. One thing is for sure: a persecution complex leads one to persecute others. And when a man intent on being a martyr gets his wish, he can quickly become an archetypal huckster peddling old tropes that have gotten people into the very messes from which they now seek liberation. This figure—of the male prophet, the old shaman, the man whose words are dogma to his disciples—is as old as humanity itself. As Peterson’s tears rain down like the flood, he continues to hustle out his ideas, fill his arenas, become a speedball for the male masses—while around us there deepens the crisis of men: men whose problems are far worse than their unmade beds, but who nevertheless cheer on their messiah in his battle against the feminists, religiously following him right into the predicted end of times that awaits us all. Man will be called on to account for his sins, I am told. Let us hope the chaotic masculine has not already brought about his ruination.