Skip to main content

If his popular Twitter account is to be believed, on the morning of Jan. 9, 2018, Dr. Jordan B. Peterson woke up, opened his laptop and immediately Googled the word "bikini." Then, he opened another tab and, using Microsoft's Google-rival search engine Bing, executed a new query, also for the word "bikini."

Peterson arrived at the conclusion that the difference between Google's and Bing's respective results of bikini photos revealed the former's apparent desire "to shape our perceptions themselves in the politically correct manner." Here is the defining image of Jordan B. Peterson, the menacing academic rock star and father figure: staring daggers at digital photos of bikinis to lay bare the tyranny of political correctness.

Google (or Bing) "Jordan Peterson" today and you'll find a bestselling author, whose new pop-psychology, self-help tome 12 Rules for Life is making its debut at No. 1 on The Globe and Mail's non-fiction bestseller list and is already topping the non-fiction list, edging out Michael Wolff's trashy Trump tell-all, Fire and Fury. That any university prof, let alone a Canadian, should achieve such popularity is frankly unfathomable. How can such an absurd figure be taken so seriously? It is, as with most things about Peterson, a paradox.

Read more: How U of T's Jordan Peterson has made money from online notoriety

Jordan Peterson is a tangle of contradictions, inconsistencies, and seeming improbabilities: a famous academic; a middle-aged man with a spookily intuitive mastery of the vicissitudes of social media; a Christian in the thrall of Nietzsche; a self-styled individualist free-thinker who calls for the mass sackings of fellow academics; a wholly unimposing specimen who insists on the moral necessity of physical strength and bemoans the social taboo against becoming physically violent with "crazy women."

Peterson's lectures, YouTube videos, and new book contain wisdom that ranges from the incendiary (that sexual assault is a consequence of the decline of traditional marriage), to the obvious (skateboarding is cool), to the vacuously pithy ("Start to stop doing what you know to be wrong"), and utterly ponderous ("cats are a manifestation of nature, of Being, in an almost pure form"). He has been called a "dangerous scholar" (the Chronicle of Higher Education), "Canada's newest intellectual star" (the National Post), "YouTube's new father figure" (the National Review), and, in an acerbic turn that cuts to the heart of the Peterson Paradox, as "the stupid man's smart person" (Tabatha Southey in Maclean's).

Unlike other thinkers historically vaunted in conservative circles, from Francis Fukuyama back to Allan Bloom and William F. Buckley, Peterson seemingly arrived out of the blue. This dark horse quality accounts, in no small part, for the cultural phenomenon that is Jordan Peterson. Through social media, he has circumvented the traditional pathway to academic and intellectual prominence. He speaks directly to an audience that has found him: his 703,000 YouTube subscribers, 394,000 Twitter followers, and thousands of Patreon contributing to upward of $62,000 monthly he rakes in crowdfunding his mission to "take the humanities back from the corrupt postmodernists."

Where other academics rise on the strength of their ideas, Peterson's fame has crested on their sheer proliferation. As with his online lectures, his new book is rangy and digressive, addressing a wide range of subjects (history, theology, critical theory, evolutionary biology) well outside his realm of professional expertise. He can skip from the journals of the Columbine shooters to Goethe within three sentences; and within three pages skips to Tolstoy, to Cain and Abel, to Christ Himself, and back to "the Columbine boys." If psychology has always been the smorgasbord of soft sciences, Peterson's brand of profundity is the sprawling, all-you-can-eat Mandarin buffet – a medley of undercooked ideas warmed under the heat lamp of his own faintly flickering intellect.

As recently as early 2016, Peterson was a cultural non-entity, virtually unknown outside of the University of Toronto, where he works as a professor of psychology. (The closest he had come to a celebrity breakout came more than a decade ago, when TVOntario commissioned a 13-part lecture series based on his 1999 book Maps Of Meaning.)

Then, Bill C-16, an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act to enshrine legal protections on the basis of gender identity, turned Peterson into a glowering cause célèbre. "I will never use words I hate," Peterson wrote, "like the trendy and artificially constructed words 'zhe' and 'zher.' These words are at the vanguard of a post-modern, radical leftist ideology that I detest, and which is, in my professional opinion, frighteningly similar to the Marxist doctrines that killed at least 100 million people in the 20th century."

For Peterson, the decency of recognizing people by their preferred pronouns leads irrevocably to the gulag. And not an intellectual or metaphorical gulag. But the actual gulag. Fitting, then, that in 12 Rules for Life he finds a hero in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose epic history of Soviet forced labour, The Gulag Archipelago is praised by Peterson as, "a forceful, terrible book, written with the overwhelming moral force of unvarnished truth." Peterson casts himself as such a truth-teller: casting a lantern into the darkness of "postmodern neomarxism" (a term he uses pathologically, and without clear definition), and piercing the veil of political correctness.

It is little wonder, then, that Peterson is prominent among conservatives (he identifies as a "classical liberal," which is a conservative), angry young men, and the ranks of the alt-right. (Following her recent interview with Peterson, Channel 4 presenter Cathy Newman was deluged with death threats; thus giving Peterson the dubious distinction of being the rare "dangerous scholar" who is actually dangerous.) Peterson dresses up the language of misogyny in the woozy jargon of Eastern religion (he identifies chaos, his enemy, with the Taoist notion of the "eternal feminine"); he justifies existing structures of social dominance by deferring to the hard-wiring of ancient crustaceans; he capitalizes words such as Being and Woman and Nature with no apparent rationale. For all his wailing about the dangers of tyranny, Peterson's use of language is itself spookily Orwellian – justifying the most noxious, moronic ideas by making them seem intellectual or, in his words, "archetypal."

Such apparent tension may constitute yet another paradox. But where contradiction can often prove edifying – as in the Hegelian dialectic, in which ideas are refined through their conflict with one another – Peterson's various paradoxes are unreconcilable, and empty. In a recent interview with the CBC's Wendy Mesley, Peterson was asked how he sees himself: as Marshall McLuhan or Billy Graham. With a characteristic smirk he responded: "Billy McLuhan."

A dumb joke, maybe. But an edifying one. (Jokes, as Freud knew, are frequently revealing; "an envelope for thoughts of the greatest substance.") Jordan Peterson is the intellectual as guru-mystic, and the guru-mystic as shameless huckster. He maintains that he abhors "right-wing identitarians" while simultaneously baiting them, materially profiting off their interest, and bequeathing their misguided movement the illusion of intellectual heft. He has also spoken giddily about his ability to "monetize social justice warriors," by converting outrage against him into more online donations. He is an intellectual snake oil salesman, exploiting a genuine need (pointed among the young men who shore the ranks of Peterson disciples) for meaning and order. His aim is little more than the pursuit of his own vanity and the P.T. Barnum-ish padding of his own pockets. He is a prophet, for profit.

That he has been hailed as the West's "most influential public intellectual" speaks despairingly to the state of the Western world. Anyone tempted to take him seriously, on his own terms, as some brainiac Ubermensch dispelling the gathering clouds of chaos would do well to keep in mind the image of a sallow man, slumped at a desk in his Native American-inspired attic longhouse, angrily Googling "bikini" first thing in the morning, desperate in the hope that it really, genuinely means something.

Interact with The Globe