The Man They Couldn’t Cancel

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Mobs have targeted Jordan Peterson, but he hasn’t lost his university job and his publishers have stuck by him. What’s his secret?

The term “cancel culture,” like “political correctness” before it, is a comical expression for an ugly cultural pathology. To be canceled—an older, closely related term is “blacklisted”—is to have your public persona or influence assailed, typically by a sizable mob, for some real or perceived offense against progressive orthodoxy, whatever that orthodoxy may hold at the moment. For that to happen, you must possess some form of authority in the first place: an academic post, a political office, a role in the entertainment industry, employment with a “mainstream” media organization, a voice as an intellectual or imaginative writer.

But the targets of cancellation, having derived their legitimacy from consensus left-liberal culture, are typically not very good at defending themselves, or even understanding what happened to them. Often they apologize, despite having said or done nothing wrong, which only emboldens the cancelers. Or they fall back on pieties about free speech and the marketplace of ideas, as if their tormentors still believed in those principles.

One target of cancellation who is able to speak intelligently about it is Jordan Peterson, the University of Toronto clinical psychologist, YouTube lecturer, and author of “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos” (2018) and “Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life,” published in March.

If you’re an ordinary curious person, Mr. Peterson won’t strike you as a likely target for moral outrage. He brings together a dizzying array of texts and traditions—Jungian psychoanalysis, the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, Frederick Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard and much else—to formulate basic lessons, or “rules,” about how humans might overcome their natural tendency to lassitude and savagery. His books, podcasts and lectures are impressively argued, frequently insightful and occasionally abrasive presentations of various principles of wise living.

I don’t share some of Mr. Peterson’s philosophical premises and find in his work points of disagreement, but there is much to appreciate and nothing sinister in them. Twenty years ago very few people would have considered him the intellectual subversive and moral monster many now claim him to be. A few rules from his latest book: “Do not do what you hate,” “Work as hard as you possibly can on at least one thing and see what happens,” “Try to make one room in your home as beautiful as possible.”

Why has the political left taken a severe dislike to him? “A lot of my popularity derives from YouTube,” he says in a phone interview, “and YouTube skewed hard male for a long time, and is still mostly male. My typical audience would probably be between 60/40 and 70/30 men to women. There’s nothing conspiratorial about that, and it wasn’t because I was talking specifically to young men. It might be that they’re more desperate for what I’m saying.”

The stereotypical Peterson fan, it’s probably fair to say, is a young white male whose life lacked structure and discipline but heard Mr. Peterson’s lectures and began to reorder his life. Mr. Peterson insists, though, that his critics caricature his audience for their own ends. “There’s this hypothetical group that I’m helping,” he says: “angry, alienated, disenfranchised white-supremacist young males. First of all, that’s a lie. Second, even if it is disenfranchised young males who are primarily responding to what I’m saying, is there really something wrong with me talking to them? Are they so beneath contempt that they don’t deserve anyone’s attention?”

Those who despise Mr. Peterson think of him as a member of “the right” or even “the far right.” I wouldn’t describe him as a conservative—his interest lies in individual rather than societal order, and he says little about public policy. But it’s true that he not infrequently winds up holding conservative viewpoints on cultural matters. In “Beyond Order,” for example, he makes the case for marriage over cohabitation and readily acknowledges that children do better in two-parent families than in single-parent ones. He also writes and speaks frequently on the differences between masculinity and femininity.

But what put Mr. Peterson in the crosshairs of North America’s cultural arbiters was his vocal opposition to identity politics, and specifically the totalitarian methods of militant transgenderism. In 2016 he ran afoul of Bill C-16, legislation in the Canadian Parliament (later enacted) that added “gender identity or expression” to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination. In the course of that controversy Mr. Peterson remarked that he would refuse to use contrived pronouns in his classes. “I regard these made-up pronouns, all of them, as neologisms of a radical PC authoritarianism,” he said in 2016. “I’m not going to be a mouthpiece for language I detest.”

Since then he has been denounced as racist, misogynist, fascist and transphobic. Occasionally violent protests against him have taken place on the University of Toronto campus, and he is regularly shouted down at speaking events. When Penguin Random House Canada announced that it would publish “Beyond Order,” its staff “confronted management,” according to media reports, in a tearful town-hall meeting.

Contempt for the “working class” by North America’s “liberal educated elite,” is a major reason for his popularity, he says. “There aren’t very many people with an encouraging voice,” Mr. Peterson says. “Most of the things you read by intellectuals—not all, but it’s a failing of intellectuals—most of it is criticism. Look what you’re doing to the planet. What a detestable bunch of wretches you are, with your rapacious structures and your endless appetite and your desire for power. . . . Look at what your ambition has done to the planet. How dare you!”

Mr. Peterson doesn’t directly challenge the substance of these dreary criticisms. Rather he protests that they’re unnatural and unhealthy. “The proper attitude toward young people is encouragement,” he says—“their ambitions, their strivings, their desire to be competent, their deep wish for a trustworthy guiding hand. I think our culture is so cynical that it’s impossible, especially for the established intellectual chattering critics, to even imagine that encouragement is possible.”

When I ask what he thinks is driving the effort to destroy him and others who hold heterodox views, he diagnoses his persecutors as though they’re exactly the sort of young people who wander into his lectures or buy his books looking for structure and purpose. His admirers and his fiercest detractors are, in his mind, not so different from each other.

Part of what drives these young moralistic firebrands, he thinks, is the despairing outlook of the contemporary left. “Whenever you see that level of contempt manifest itself, that desire to flog and destroy, you have to ask yourself: How deep is that? The idea that we’re a cancer on the planet—well, what do you do with cancer? You eradicate it. I’ve heard environmentally sensitive types say that, and it’s horrifying. They’re completely blind to what they’re saying. If they weren’t blind to it, they’d be traumatized by it.”

The mention of environmentalism brings to mind the cultish side of modern progressivism. Is this desire to flog and destroy, as he puts it, a sign of some twisted spiritual longing? “I think so,” Mr. Peterson says. “The people who caricature Western society as a patriarchy, and then describe it as evil, they’re possessed by a religious idea.” He thinks the problem with modern enlightenment intellectuals—he names the American philosopher Sam Harris, the British conservative writer Matt Ridley and the British broadcaster and writer Stephen Fry, all atheists—is that they offer no mythology, no “adventure.”

“They leave this nihilistic nothingness in their wake, and what happens?” he says. “These kids turn to radical political correctness.” Messrs. Harris, Ridley, Fry, et al. aren’t happy about political correctness, Mr. Peterson notes, but “what did they expect to happen? Did they expect these kids would settle for their insipid rationalism?”

This search for a metaphysical teleology denied young people by “insipid rationalism,” in his view, is also “what motivates antifa and Black Lives Matter and white nationalism and all these other romantic revolutionary rebellions. It’s the romance and the heroism these movements offer.” Mr. Peterson recalls the famous line of George Orwell in his review of “Mein Kampf” in 1940: “Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.”

Taking Orwell’s terms “socialism” and “capitalism” both to mean, roughly, life without transcendence or any hint of the supernatural, the point seems defensible. Mr. Peterson thinks atheistic materialism has nothing to compare to religious worldviews. Rather than telling people simply not to do bad things, he says, “the right approach is to say to them: Here’s a better adventure. Now go conquer your own demons.”

In the end, Mr. Peterson hasn’t been successfully canceled. He retains his academic post; his YouTube lectures and podcasts have not been scrubbed from the internet; and his publishers stuck with his books, which are available for purchase. This is true for basically two reasons. The first is that he has tried to understand his would-be cancelers and thinks of them almost as outpatients. He speaks in gentle, clinical terms about a reporter for the New York Times who in 2018 wrote a scathing piece about him headlined “Jordan Peterson, Custodian of the Patriarchy” and later posted online what sounded like a confession (“The roar of Twitter on my side meant the kill was justified and good”). He has, as best I can tell, genuine pity for this writer.

The second reason follows from the first. The cancelers’ strange fixations mean that apologizing to them is folly. Mr. Peterson hasn’t apologized or disavowed any previous statement. Now there’s a rule for his next book: Don’t apologize when you haven’t done anything wrong.

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