‘I have my fears in order’ — Jordan Peterson and the triumph of the ‘disinvited’
The controversial Canadian psychologist found friendly ground this week — in Manhattan, of all places
NEW YORK CITY — Jordan Peterson is hard to describe. “Controversial Canadian psychologist” doesn’t quite cover it, nor does podcaster, professor and author. The bio on his podcast says “intellectual phenomenon.”
But Wednesday night at The Plaza hotel, of which it is said “nothing unimportant ever happens” there, Peterson was celebrated for being a disinvitee.
A two-time disinvitee, in fact.
The occasion was the “Disinvitation Dinner” hosted by the Buckley Institute at Yale University. Named for William F. Buckley Jr., a Yale alumni and the founder of National Review magazine, the group says it is “dedicated to promoting intellectual diversity and free speech” at the Ivy League school in New Haven, Connecticut.
It promotes free speech beyond the campus with the Disinvitation Dinner, which provides an opulent and welcoming forum for a notable person who has had an invitation to speak or teach rescinded over controversial positions. Past honorees include Bari Weiss, Charles Murray, Peter Thiel, Ray Kelly and George Will. (Their speeches can be viewed on the Buckley Institute’s website.)
Peterson was chosen as this year’s honoree because of two invitations that were rescinded: the first, a speaking engagement at Linfield University in Oregon, and a fellowship at Cambridge University in 2019. But controversy is a regular occurrence for Peterson, who built an enormous following, many of them young men, for the life advice he offered in his books “12 Rules for Life” and its follow-up, “Beyond Order,” and the videos he posts on YouTube and the Daily Wire, exploring not only his own ideas, but others. (He has, for example, recently interviewed GOP candidates including Mike Pence, Chris Christie and Vivek Ramaswamy, as well as an expert on mindfulness.)
While much of his advice is common sense (the 12 rules in “Beyond Order” include “Do not allow yourself to become resentful, deceitful or arrogant” and “Be grateful in spite of your suffering”), Peterson’s criticism of liberal ideology has caused some people on the left to call him a hater and a bigot. Employees of Penguin Random House Canada reportedly cried and raged against the publication of his latest book.
And a regulatory board in Canada has sought to take away his professional license unless he undergoes a training program, a campaign that his supporters call “re-education” and Peterson calls a “prosecution.” He rose to prominence after challenging a Canadian law that he said would criminalize the use of the wrong pronouns for a transgender person.
“If you think you have the right to free speech in Canada, you’re delusional,” he wrote last month on X, formerly Twitter.
Introducing Peterson, Buckley Institute founder and executive director Lauren Noble said that the event is “a response to the cancel culture, the censorship and the shout downs.”
“It’s a demonstration of support for the idea that education should be challenging. It should test our preconceptions. And yes, it should expose us to diverse ideas and unorthodox perspectives. And, it says loud and clear that just because some consider an opinion dangerous, we aren’t afraid to hear it.”
Attendees at the Disinvitation Dinner included both Yale students, alumni and other supporters, many of whom paid $1,000 a ticket or much more for a table near the front of The Plaza’s grand ballroom. (A “Diamond” sponsorship, which included a photo with Peterson, was offered for $50,000.) It was, the Buckley Institute said, the most successful Disinvitation Dinner yet, raising more than $630,000 for the group’s programs and initiatives.
‘The predicate of all rights’
Peterson, 61, did not directly address the many controversies that have caused invitations to be rescinded in the past, nor did he speak of the more recent incidents that made headlines, including calling a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model “not beautiful” because of her weight, and posts on social media about transgender actor Elliot Page and the transgender movement generally. He also did not mention the health issues his family has dealt with in recent years, including his own struggles to recover from addiction to an anti-anxiety drug, an ordeal he detailed in “Beyond Order.”
Instead, bounding about the stage in a checkered suit that was widely admired (“Where’d you get the suit?” was one question from the audience), he spoke without notes about the importance of free speech, the “hedonistic desires” of “left wingers” and his next book, entitled “We Who Wrestle With God.” (“It’s a killer, this book. So, be aware,” he said. “I mean that.”)
He appeared fit, healthy and unable — or unwilling — to stand in one place for very long.
He began by saying, “People will say to me that I have courage. That’s not right, that’s not true. I have my fears in order. I’m dead serious about that.” He then alluded to Canadian legislation adopted in 2017 that said misgendering a transgender person amounts to a human rights violation, and spoke about the effects of lying, and the necessity of being able to think, and to say what you think.
“Free speech is the predicate of all rights. It’s also the predicate of a functioning psyche,” he said to applause.
Peterson told the crowd, which numbered about 350, that human beings test the validity of their thoughts by subjecting them to criticism, which serves a biological function by correcting wrong ideas or impulses that lead us to destruction.
“Progressives like to say you have no right to hurt someone’s feelings, but you should hurt their feelings if the alternative is to let them die,” he said, adding, “The purpose of thinking is to let your stupid thoughts die instead of you.”
He went on to say that it’s important within families that there is this kind of clash of ideas, whether it’s parents teaching children the ways in which they are immature or foolish, or spouses helping each other to become better versions of themselves.
“In marriage, you communicate honestly, as painful and terrible as that is, so that each of you can discover what’s lacking about you, and that’s plenty. It’s not going to be a pleasant interaction. It’s going to be something that burns off the deadwood,” he said.
A social contract at risk
Frequently using biblical analogies to make his points (he recently did a series on the book of Exodus on YouTube), Peterson spoke about the book of Jonah, which he said is the most relevant story in the Bible for the state of the modern world. Jonah had been told by God to take a message to the people of Nineveh, and after refusing, began a journey that culminated with him being swallowed by a whale.
Some people today may think they don’t get messages from God, Peterson said, but they do: “It’s your conscience.” And like Jonah, things will go poorly if we are called upon to speak, and we don’t. The waves are starting to rise and the wind is starting to blow in society today because people aren’t speaking out, Peterson said.
“If you fail to say what you have to say when it’s your turn to talk, it isn’t just your life you’re putting in danger, it’s the entire bloody social contract.”
Speaking with vivid imagery punctuated frequently with humor, Peterson closed with an indictment of totalitarianism, which he described as “the universal grip of the lie on every soul.”
“Not a single man in a totalitarian state is willing to stand up and say what he knows to be true. ... So what happens when you don’t say what you have to say? Well, then, you go to hell and you take everyone you love with you.”
In a question-and-answer segment after the presentation, Peterson called clinical psychologists “secular priests” and told a student contemplating psychology as a profession, “There’s great books. Read them. Ignore your professors.”
He called the social platform X “a giant walking the Earth” that we don’t know how to regulate, and said one of the positive things about today’s world is that there are “way more fat poor people than starving poor people” and called gender-affirming surgery on teens “appalling, shameful.”
Peterson also said that a religious underpinning is necessary for ethical systems, contrary to the thinking of secularists who say a moral system can be constructed without God.
“How’s that working out for you, buddy?” he said to laughter, then said that a lasting ethical framework without an underlying substructure of transcendence is “not going to happen.” There’s no “non-religious story” in the history of humanity, he said.
Peterson’s full remarks will be available on the Buckley Institute’s website later, a spokesman said.