Jordan Peterson and the trolls in the ivory tower
In the fight for 'free speech,' a university professor has found himself backed by the Internet's most ruthless denizens while students cry foul. Simona Chiose investigates
The Internet has been good to University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson, the self-proclaimed anti-political correctness warrior whose refusal to use gender-neutral pronouns has sparked a vicious battle at the University of Toronto campus and a heated debate about political correctness across the country. Peterson, who doesn't recognize a person's right to be addressed using genderless pronouns like "they," rails against initiatives such as anti-discrimination legislation aimed at protecting the rights of transgendered people, describing them as dangerous, totalitarian and a threat to his own free speech. He also believes in sharing that view loudly and widely, through his prolific Twitter posts, YouTube channel and lectures to students and political groups.
"I think the universities are in large part responsible for the wave of political correctness that has rolled over North America and Europe," he said in one of his videos.
"I can't believe the amount of foolishness that has accumulated around these contentious Marxist political issues, which I have no respect for. Marxism and neo-Marxism is no better than fascism and neo-fascism," he said.
A provocateur who has posted more than 200 videos on YouTube and about 100 tweets per week, Prof. Peterson positions himself as a defender of free speech against politically correct activists who would trample over individual rights in a misguided effort to protect minority groups. It's an argument familiar from decades of campus conflicts, where the classic liberal dilemma over the balance of majority and minority rights has become a polarized debate with little conversation across the battle lines. Newly elected Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer has also entered into the debate, promising to withdraw federal research funding from universities that don't protect a "climate of free speech."
Prof. Peterson's vociferous defence of free speech isn't new to universities. What is new, however, is the way that social media has amplified the discourse – and "weaponized" and globalized this long-running drama. The professor's unrelenting stance has earned him scores of angry critics, but the attention has also helped him rack up followers. He now has almost 300,000 subscribers on YouTube and thousands of patrons on Patreon, a crowd-funded subscription content site where he earns more than $30,000 a month. On Twitter, his followers hail from Shanghai and Berlin, St. Petersburg and Pune, Toronto and San Francisco. And under the guise of anonymity, these anti-PC warriors can harass their opponents through posts, memes and videos and organize campaigns on no-holds-barred message boards.
The existence of this parallel, online space is hardly mentioned in free speech debates or arises only in lateral mentions of concerns about "safety on campus."
But an investigation into the controversy around Jordan Peterson shows how this world grows and operates. With his vast online reach, Prof. Peterson has attracted small volunteer armies willing to defend his views. The Globe and Mail reviewed hundreds of pages of discussions about Prof. Peterson and his views on anonymous message boards, including 4chan and voat – two of the least moderated or monitored online forums. The conversations, which range from immature to obscene, show that the professor's critics were the subjects of "doxing" campaigns, where activists are personally identified and harassed online.
Prof. Peterson says he can't be held responsible for the harassment that his critics endure online, however, and justifies his hardline position on free speech by saying it allows hateful views to be exposed to the cleansing light of day.
"It's extraordinarily dangerous to drive hate speech underground," he said in a conversation last fall. "There are a lot of terrible things that people shouldn't say, but that does not mean you should stop them from saying them, because you want to know who is saying them and you want to bring discourse to bear on their perspective," he said.
In short, Jordan Peterson has redefined the notion of the faculty celebrity and pushed the university into new territory, trying to decide what protecting free speech means in the age of Internet trolls.
Until last fall, Prof. Peterson's primary claim to fame outside the classroom was a "self-authoring" program, a guided series of reflective written exercises shown to improve academic performance and mental and emotional health. A picture on his web page posted prior to his stratospheric rise to fame showed him broadly smiling, a tweed jacket draped over his arm, looking every bit the contented professor at Canada's top university. He hadn't yet tapped into his nascent fan base, although he was more media-savvy than your average university lecturer.
On Patreon, where he had a page, he was earning several hundred dollars a month, primarily toward the production of YouTube videos of his lectures.
Even though he only had several hundred subscribers, his channel had earned 900,000 views by August 2016. And he was fascinated by the potential of the medium.
"YouTube might be the biggest revolution in human communication since the printing press," he said in an earlier interview with The Globe. "It's the first time in human history where a lecture can have the same longevity and force – maybe more force – than a piece of written material. If 3,000 people have read my book, Maps of Meaning, it would be a shock to me, including my students. But I did a talk on Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky that had 100,000 views."
Prof. Peterson will never be a YouTube phenom on the scale of Stampy, the voice of countless Minecraft videos, or PewDiePie, a 27-year-old Swedish vlogger with 54-million subscribers. But the vast majority of North American professors, who regard online exposure with a mix of ignorance and skepticism, will never be Prof. Peterson.
They're not wrong to be cautious. Academic tweeting can be a high-risk activity. In April, Fresno State University placed a history professor on leave for the rest of the spring term after one of his anti-Trump tweets was discovered. "Trump must hang," the tweet said.
The ascent of Prof. Peterson's social media persona began on Sept. 27, 2016. That is when he posted a YouTube video of himself speaking out against Bill C-16, legislation introduced by Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, and intending, among other things, to expand the definition of hate speech in the Criminal Code to include discrimination on the basis of gender expression.
"It's time to stand up against this movement," Prof. Peterson tweeted, linking to the clip. "It's moving from absurd to dangerous." The tweet received 169 retweets and was favorited by 332 accounts, more than 10 times the number he'd received for any of his tweets in the prior two months.
The Varsity, the University of Toronto's student newspaper, broke the story and it was quickly picked up by other local and national media. The professor tweeted out each article, reporting his coverage alongside his rising YouTube viewership numbers.
By early October, his monthly support level on Patreon had risen to $1,500 a month and the professor rather presciently joked, "Might end up being my salary :)"
A star was born.
Since media critic Marshall McLuhan, few University of Toronto professors in the humanities and social sciences have enjoyed the global name recognition Prof. Peterson has won. This May, as transgender advocates protested nearby, he even appeared on Parliament Hill, testifying against Bill C-16.
Prof. Peterson's notoriety has come at the same time that a new right wave is sweeping North American campuses. From the University of Toronto's Students in Support of Free Speech (a group that started in the wake of the Peterson controversy) to American conservative campus groups like Turning Point, which started a website called Professor Watchlist that tracks leftie profs, right-leaning organizations are rallying against a university culture that they say censors robust debate.
"I'm very concerned about what is happening in the universities," Prof. Peterson said in that first video. "There are continually things happening in the administration [at U of T] and in the broader political world that make me very nervous. I'd like to attribute that to the fact that I know something about the way authoritarian and totalitarian states develop and I can't help but think that I am seeing a fair bit of that right now."
Similar charges are being levied on an almost daily basis in the media and on social platforms. On Breitbart News, education reporter Tom Ciccotta covers each campus protest as another indicator of progressives' intolerance. Dismissive labels like SJW (social justice warrior) and snowflakes abound in these online flame wars.
These are not just wars of words, however. They have real consequences. Prof. Peterson's supporters didn't simply show their support through financial donations. Drawing from an arsenal of tactics commonly employed in the Internet's darkest corners, they began to expose and harass Prof. Peterson's detractors. "Whatever he was saying, his followers and supporters would pick out whatever they wanted out of that and in some cases would be going after people who they thought were critical of him and his position," said David Cameron, the Dean of Arts and Science at the university.
The ephemeral nature of some of the message boards where posts would appear and disappear made it hard for the university to track the threats and campaigns. Instead, it relied on students to bring complaints forward and then would try to develop support and safety plans. Some issues were reported to Toronto Police.
Some students held Prof. Peterson responsible, saying they were targeted after the professor showed a letter signed by many of his critics and containing their email addresses. "I received threatening messages from various forums; email, Facebook messages, Instagram direct messages, even LinkedIn," said one person who reported the harassment to police. "I didn't go to school and stayed home for a couple days because of my safety and also to care for my mental health," they said.
Many of those targeted were reluctant to speak for fear of restarting the harassment and most sought repeated and extensive reassurances that they would not be identifiable. When interviewed, several confirmed that online harassment campaigns and threats lasted for months, leading some to seek counselling for anxiety and post-traumatic stress.
But the professor insists he can't be held responsible for the actions of his supporters. "The only real response is to make the threatening messages public and identify the people who made them and deal with them in that manner," he said. "The mere fact that phenomena emerge that are associated with me does not give me responsibility for them, except in so far as I've said something directly."
Indeed, he has sometimes moderated the views of those who believe in the far right, he said.
"One of the things I've done is I've convinced many people on the right to moderate their viewpoints," he said. "They write and tell me that they were being pulled into radical nationalism of the more extreme and racist kind and as a result of listening to me they've moderated their views."
The tension and incidents of harassment that took place last fall are collated in an independent document that was obtained by The Globe and Mail and that circulated in forums used by transgender activists. Titled "Threat Assessment: Jordan Peterson," the 60-page document is compiled by multiple sources and written under a pseudonym by an author who describes himself or herself as a graduate of a private investigator program.
It is a meticulous timeline of the events and people involved in the debate, one that weaves physical protests and social media reaction into a narrative that is impossible to verify entirely but is a testament to the blended reality of the physical and online realms in which the controversy unfurled.
The most consequential event was an Oct. 11 protest on campus. At a so-called Rally for Free Speech, a transgender activist swiped the mic from Lauren Southern, a reporter from The Rebel Media, a conservative media platform. (The Rebel has since begun helping Prof. Peterson raise money for research.)
The next day, on the message board Voat, a discussion began about how to respond to the incident. "Anybody who touches Lauren is declaring war on Helen of Troy. Good luck," said one message in a string attempting to identify the perpetrator of the assault.
The comment marked the start of a campaign on that site and on 4chan to identify and publicize the names of the transgender activists. Posters on both sites nicknamed one of them #smugglypuff, a variation on a similar nickname given to a protestor at the University of Massachusetts earlier in the year. Memes of this person – who is alleged to have lied to police about witnessing the assault – and personal insults directed at them still populate the Internet.
Prof. Peterson was aware of the conflicts. On Oct. 14, he tweeted out a video of the incident, tagging it #smugglypuff.
"She [the student] watched the assault, she lied blatantly … She was taken to task on the Internet as a consequence and she got exactly what she deserved," he said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.
While publicly proclaiming the professor's right to express himself, the university privately warned Prof. Peterson that refusing to refer to students using gender-neutral pronouns if requested would violate Ontario's human rights provisions. In one letter, U of T also reminded him that students are facing harassment as a result of the controversy.
"Some students have reported being the target of specific and violent threats, including threats of assault, injury and death against them individually and as members of the trans community," a letter from Dean of Arts David Cameron and vice-provost Sioban Nelson stated. "We trust that these impacts on students and others were not your intention in making these remarks. … [We] urge you to stop repeating these statements."
Prof. Peterson forwarded the letters to reporters.
He was similarly outspoken against colleagues. On Oct. 20, 250 people published an open letter in The Varsity asking the university to take action to stop the threats. Prof. Peterson tweeted out the letter signed by this group of colleagues: "A complete list of the 250 most ideologically possessed SJW's at the University of Toronto, compiled by themselves," the tweet said.
At the same time, he and his supporters continued to lobby for a debate on campus to take up the substance of his claim that human rights legislation places limits on speech. That discussion happened on the morning of Nov. 19. Facing Prof. Peterson were University of Toronto law professor Brenda Cossman and University of British Columbia Assistant Dean of Education Mary Bryson, with Mayo Moran, the dean of students at Trinity College, moderating.
While campus and city police were stationed around the building hosting the debate, inside the room the discussion was forceful but polite, focusing on the substance of his arguments. Transgender advocates did not attend the event, instead holding a teach-in nearby.
The contrast with what happened online is stark. On 4chan's / "pol"/ subgroup, where hundreds of posters were commenting on a live feed of the event, a stream of misogynist and dehumanizing invective was directed at all three women.
The Peterson tent may not be a safe space, but it's spacious. Alongside those who find personal direction in his lectures about Jung, religion and morality, his fans include a strange fringe movement associated with the far-right and a semi-satirical belief in an ancient Egyptian god of chaos called Kek.
"Kekistanis" conduct their conversations on the message board 4chan, and particularly its /"pol"/ space, where the movement was born. It's a heedless world that thrives on a mix of shock, teenage-level obscenity and often, racism, misogyny and hate. But some observers have also suggested that the Kek movement represents a kind of alt-right paganism.
Prof. Peterson says he is fascinated by some aspects of this world, which is why he tweets out links to discussions about him and Kek and meme variations on the satirical frog, Pepe. He points out that such links form only a small part of his total output of several thousand tweets.
"The mere fact that I link to these boards does not mean that I agree with them," he said. "I am interested in symbolic representation and it's no different than my general interest in symbolism."
The vast majority of discussions around Peterson on the 4chan / "pol"/ board, however, is obscenely insulting toward his critics. "Part of the animus and part of the anger on the far right comes from simply not seeing what other people can see," said Whitney Phillips, the author of This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things, a book about the relationship between trolls and mainstream media.
Prof. Phillips says the trolls of Kek and 4chan thrive on damaging others. Sometimes they may not even realize how deep the damage may be because they have never experienced the kind of aggression they are perpetrating.
Regardless of their motives, such boards can inspire fear in those targeted and silence opposition.
"It's critical to focus on the impact on their victims," Prof. Phillips said. Those who support free speech without limits "say they are pushing back against PC culture, but what they are doing is creating a space that has less speech in it."
The controversy has had a dramatic impact on the professor's salary. In fact, by taking his inflammatory message to social media and YouTube, Prof. Peterson is resurrecting the medieval model of the university in which students would pay their professors for lectures. His twist is that the whole world is paying him.
Several thousand supporters funnel him money on Patreon. The crowd-funding site has allowed artists, filmmakers, video game designers and other creatives to find stable funding by soliciting small monthly donations. Prof. Peterson earns double the average amount per follower than others with similar monthly earnings – suggesting either that his patrons are more generous individually, or that at least some of them are wealthier. (Donors are not public.)
In addition, YouTube provides him with several thousand dollars a month – an amount that fluctuates depending on viewership. And after his application for a federal research grant was turned down this year, Rebel Media, the same media outlet that was central to the October protest, started a crowdfunding effort on its own site on the professor's behalf. Should any donors wish to see his research proposal before supporting the work, it is also available on the Rebel site.
Several weeks of fundraising raised $195,230 – about half of the five-year public research funding he had requested.
His critics find his success offensive. "I think it's about abuse of power. Peterson is using his position as university professor to build his revenue stream … ," said A.W. Peet, a physics professor and transgender advocate at U of T who spoke out against Prof. Peterson's videos early on. "He took the lifeforce of me and some of our students and dehumanized us for fun and profit and I'm still not ok with it."
It was all by accident, not design, Prof. Peterson says. "If anyone thinks that this was a picnic, they can come out and make the kind of statements I did and live through it. … If someone thinks that is to my single-minded benefit, they can think again," he said.
For the University of Toronto, the episode has had far-reaching consequences. Administrators are studying what kind of guidelines the university may need to develop to deal with this new model of private research funding. Other universities across the United States have implemented policies that regulate when university resources and personnel, including graduate students, may be used when research is privately funded.
"People are puzzling over this phenomenon that has surfaced because of what he is doing," Prof. Cameron said. "This is not going to go away, so how do we find a way as an institution of adjusting to the world in which we live?"
And U of T is also working on measures to address how it responded to its students. An internal report about the protests made a series of recommendations that the university is now following up on, including how to support transgender students.
"No one wanted him to be fired or put in jail. What people wanted was for there to be that accountability – a townhall with administrators where transgender students could talk to them," said Cassandra Williams, who was the equity officer for the University of Toronto Students Union throughout the crisis.
As for Prof. Peterson, he is moving back to some of his original academic preoccupations, including exploring the relationship between religious belief and psychology. With his cash infusion, Prof. Peterson has rented the Isabel Bader theatre from Victoria University at U of T – at a cost of about $40,000 – to give a 12-lecture series on "The Psychological Significance of the Bible stories."
And he is also imparting professorial and practical advice to some of his fans. He spent the spring term juggling teaching with lecture appearances, podcast interviews and steady uploads of YouTube videos.
"I am trying not to make a mistake in what I say or do because such a thing might well be fatal given the insane amount of attention that is currently focused on me," he told a Reddit online chat earlier this year. It's "a highwire act and many people are depending on me and I don't want to get careless and fall."
What is 'Kek'? A primer
What can a year's worth of tweets reveal about someone's preoccupations? In the case of Jordan Peterson, one of the minor but consistent undercurrents in almost 3,500 tweets over the course of seven months is a recurring interest in the Internet meme of Kek, a virtual deity whose connection to the far-right has often been noted. Here is a primer.
Kek the idol
Kek is the name given to a virtual deity created by the online world, and specifically by the 4chan discussion board, populated by a mix of far-right Internet users, libertarians, trolls and teenage pranksters. Originally a garbled version of "LOL" (laugh out loud) from online gaming and Internet forums, "Kek" is also a variation on "Kuk," an ancient Egyptian god symbolizing primordial darkness and chaos, and usually depicted with the head of a frog. In recent years, some adherents to the "church of Kek" have built a semi-ironic "cult of Kek" around the god to signal their identity as agents of disorder.
From Kek to Pepe and back again
Artist Matt Furie created the cartoon frog Pepe in 2005 as a way to depict the life of twenty-somethings, and the character took off in the 2000s as an innocent reaction meme on 4chan forums and the social-media accounts of pop stars. But at some point, posting images of Pepe became a way to will memes of Kek into being. It's as if the combined power of the modern and ancient frogs could revive the deity's spirit. Is this nuts? It gets better.
Trump is Pepe's guy
During the 2016 U.S. election campaign, some posters on 4chan's /pol/ sub-board found that messages supporting Trump seemed to be automatically numbered in a way that was improbable through chance alone. /Pol/ attributed those coincidences to "meme magic" – specifically to Kek manifesting his power.
Jordan Peterson arrives in Kekistan
In a series of tweets late in the fall, the professor jumped right into the world of 4chan and Pepe – the Empire of Kekistan as its denizens call it. He also referenced 4chan's obsession with probability and coincidences. His fans looked on, amazed.
Supporters have repeatedly warned Prof. Peterson that his dalliance with Pepe could be seen as sympathy for the frog's far-right fans and for campaigns of harassment against some of the professor's critics.
A mystical frog
At times, Prof. Peterson has talked about the frog in vague mystical or metaphysical terms, an attempt to connect its reception by Internet users to his other work on religious belief and psychology. He knows it's weird. "The mere fact that we are having this conversation about Pepe the frog and Kermit the frog is just an indication of how surreal this is, and the fact that something strange is happening at a symbolic level," he said.
In a few tweets and other scattered images, Prof. Peterson has also taken up Kermit the Frog, a mainstay in anti-Pepe memes used to speak out against the extreme right.
The lost boys
Before becoming a controversial figure, one of Prof. Peterson's most successful ventures was his self-authoring suite, a program of reflection and writing that improves students' performance. On Twitter he has advertised the program to his fans on 4chan. Increasingly this spring, Peterson has been speaking directly to his young male followers in videos and online chats. Don't hate women, sort yourself out, clean up your room. The basics of humanity and parenting – perhaps delivered to the online space where those who need to hear it most now live.
Simona Chiose is The Globe and Mail's higher-education reporter.
MORE FROM THE GLOBE AND MAIL