‘I’m not doing that.” So declared University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson in a YouTube video posted a few weeks before the 2016 U.S. elections. Bold words, and to some inflammatory. Peterson became a celebrated outcast by saying he wouldn’t do injury to truth (much less grammar) by submitting to a bill that he believes significantly restricts speech, citing his intent to continue to use accurate pronouns to refer to people rather than agreeing to everyone’s “preferred pronouns,” which often amount to preferred fictions.
Built around interviews with Peterson, his family, his friends, and his detractors (there is some overlap among these groups), the documentary The Rise of Jordan Peterson is a fair and even-tempered overview of how Peterson became perhaps the most popular professor in North America and the accidental leader of a movement, strongly identified with young men, built around taking responsibility for oneself and carving order out of chaos.
But first Peterson became a scourge of those who wish to control other people’s words and maybe their thoughts, the “Professor Against Political Correctness” as he billed himself in his YouTube videos. Provocative and at times pugnacious, Peterson proved to be the man for the moment. Students organized protests against him, and when he sought to speak in public they would drown him out with noise-making devices or speakers blasting death metal. Peterson is shown simply unplugging one such speaker and refusing to shut up.
The doc gives plenty of airtime to his ideological opponents, who in interviews say things such as “I was in danger of vomiting all over my keyboard,” as if their inability to control their own digestive tracts is Peterson’s responsibility. “You hurt my feelings, so I get to lock you up” is an idea that gains traction every day, and Peterson deserves praise for being the rare campus figure to call this absurd. The raving hordes who want ever more restrictive speech codes come off poorly in this movie, but that’s because the movie quotes them fairly.
Co-written and directed by Patricia Marcoccia, The Rise of Jordan Peterson (which is playing in a few theaters and available via video on demand) makes an effort to pierce the increasingly outsized public persona of its subject and “unpack” him, to use a very Peterson-y verb. Courtly and polite, Peterson speaks with a mild, Muppet-y voice, yet can’t resist being nettlesome: Kermit the Firebrand. At times this gentle soul seems like an unlikely candidate to be whipping up opposing armies. He might have preferred to remain focused on his academic work on belief systems, myths, and archetypes. But like many others on the right, Peterson is ultimately motivated by an inability to let bunkum prevail unchallenged. A daughter gives him a psychological test in which Peterson is asked to rate himself in various categories. “You have no idea how irritated I actually am,” he says, in one revealing moment. He also says he isn’t as eager to quarrel as people think: “They agitate the hell out of me, but I won’t back away from one [dispute].” There’s an element of fun to it, of course: “I figured out how to monetize social-justice warriors,” he says with a gleam in his eye.
Though Marcoccia is largely sympathetic to Peterson, she spends several minutes with a friend and fellow professor, Bernard Schiff, who once shared his home with Peterson’s family and has a transgender child. Schiff has come to regard Peterson as needlessly cruel and even dangerous. Another colleague who remains a friend, Will Cunningham, struggles to reconcile Peterson the public bomb-thrower with the kindly man he knows. “He does say horrible things sometimes,” notes Cunningham. The doc cites such Petersonisms as “Do feminists avoid criticizing Islam because they unconsciously long for masculine dominance?” In a TV interview, Peterson is seen suggesting that women who wear high heels and makeup are being hypocritical when they complain about workplace sexual harassment. It’s as if the media urged Peterson to become a caricature of a right-winger and Peterson was eager to oblige.
Today Peterson has 2.3 million YouTube subscribers and his book 12 Rules for Life continues to be one of the self-help touchstones of this era. He’s hardly infallible on every subject, but his core message is sound and ought to be uncontroversial. Young men approach him not only at speaking engagements but randomly, on the street, to thank him for giving them some purpose. Thanks to Peterson, “Clean Your Room” became a meme (and he notes that the only messy room in his house is the one where he keeps all the merchandise inspired by him that people send him; spreading the gospel of tidiness is drowning him in gewgaws). We shouldn’t have arrived at such a state in our culture that Peterson’s directives to “stand up straight” and “tell the truth” seem necessary, much less counterintuitive, but we have, and may Peterson continue to inspire young men to take control of themselves.