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Perspective: Why Jordan Peterson can’t be canceled

His latest Twitter spree is disappointing, but in an age of subtle misandry, Peterson’s message to boys and men is important

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Illustration by Michelle Budge, Deseret News

Jordan Peterson is used to being in hot water, but this summer the pot is boiling. First, the bestselling author got in trouble for saying a transgender cheerleader for the Carolina Panthers and a plus-sized swimsuit model are “not beautiful.”  Then he was suspended from Twitter for what he called “an irritated tweet” about transgender actor Elliot Page.

These incidents — and last week’s announcement that he’s signed a podcast deal with The Daily Wire — have left many wondering what it is about this once-obscure Canadian psychologist that makes him so popular and relevant, maybe even cancel-proof? Why do millions of people follow him, buy his books and listen to his every word?

I have some ideas.

As a grad student in Canada, I was invited to watch the Munk Debate featuring Peterson and Stephen Fry. It was held in Toronto’s beautiful glass-encased Roy Thompson Hall; you can see me sandwiched between the two here wearing my Sunday best.

Queuing up to the box office, there was a buzz. You could feel the tension in the building as people mingled in the lobby, waiting for the lights to flicker signaling us to take our seats.  The night’s motion, debating political correctness with the very figure most associated with critiquing it, was among the most anticipated of Munk Debates. Peterson had recently broken through from obscure academic to first-rate cultural influencer.

Writing in early 2018, New York Times columnist David Brooks opined on “The Jordan Peterson Moment,” quoting Tyler Cower saying Peterson “is the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now.”

By then, Peterson had been a repeat guest across the major intellectual dark web podcasts. Joe Rogan even had a sweet spot for him. Having published the bestselling book “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos” shortly before the debate, Peterson brought an international spotlight to the University of Toronto and Canadian politics. 

While Fry helped to add levity to break the tension, their debate opponents — Michelle Goldberg and Michael Eric Dyson — came at Peterson with righteous fury. 

Who doesn’t want to kill the king in his own court? 

That night, Dyson infamously called Peterson “a mean mad white man” which may have helped his book sales but failed to carry the crowd. Peterson’s side won the day in a city known for its deep liberal roots.

That should have been a wakeup call for Peterson skeptics. However, few of his critics have come to understand his appeal and appreciate his Don Draper style and his Kermit-like voice. They hoped the everlasting hit pieces and protests — if not the prescription drug addiction he admitted — would drive him out of the public square. They fail to grasp what I call the Peterson pull.

I remember clutching “12 Rules for Life” on the subway after having taken the dust jacket off to hide its identity. There had been stories that people had been assaulted on public transit for having the temerity to read such a book in broad daylight, and I didn’t want to take a chance.

Apart from a few other classmates in the rapidly dwindling tribe of campus conservatives, few dared to show any sympathy for Peterson’s side at the debate. I remember condescending comments when I brought the book onstage in hopes of getting a signature. And this was four years ago. He’s become even more controversial since then.

David Brooks’ article was an attempt to school the progressive readers of The New York Times on why Peterson has remained so unfathomably palatable, especially to young men. By blending social science research, the classics and religion, Peterson is introducing many boys and men to forgotten wisdom, much of which has been canceled, such as his old-fashioned views on dating and gender politics. 

Look no further than his recent podcast with Warren Farrell, a leading figure within the men’s movement. There is no place in academia or legacy media where such an open, earnest and — by today’s standards — taboo conversation could be held. (The academic discipline of masculinity studies is as bad as you think it sounds.) Against the backdrop of the Uvalde, Texas, school shootings, Farrell and Peterson didn’t reach for the low-hanging jargon of toxic masculinity or white privilege. Their conversation revolved around issues plaguing boys today, including plummeting fertility rates, lagging academic performance and soaring incarceration.

To draw attention to the plight of men in the age of Woke Inc., where every month has another identity worth trumpeting and cause worth celebrating, is career suicide for most people. Not Peterson.

Peterson has built an ecosystem in which boys and men can think earnestly and provocatively about their experiences in an age of subtle and not-so-subtle misandry. (Cue the noticeable uptick in “Dumb Men” commercials now proliferating.) Our social discourse, punctuated by Super Bowl commercials condemning “toxic masculinity,” provide men with little room for navigation. We are to surrender our masculinity at the door, to be replaced with the sweet ineffable demeanor of Clay Aiken and perhaps the crinoline of Harry Styles.

For the youngsters who are equally alienated by frat boy/alpha male culture on one side and calls to dismantle the patriarchy on the other, Jordan Peterson is there. He doesn’t sound like either side. Peterson’s vibe isn’t found in Davos or The Aspen Institute. His voice is hardy and practical, hardscrabble; dispensing wisdom grown in the rough soil of the Canadian prairie, not on the intellectually claustrophobic campuses of today. 

Peterson’s latest Twitter spree is disappointing (though he calls his suspension “a badge of honor”). Using a massive platform to provoke transgender activists or demean plus-sized models is gratuitous, and for someone who has received so much digital hate, he should sympathize a little more. But his ability to repeatedly survive the onslaught of social media mobs and keep engaging on the difficult issues of the day is part of his appeal. Try and cancel him all you want, but I’ll still follow him. And I’m not alone.

Ari David Blaff is a Deseret contributing writer and freelance journalist in Canada. His writing has also appeared in Tablet and Quillette.