Jordan B. Peterson wrapped up a wildly successful European tour this past week. The University of Toronto professor and author has spent the past month speaking to huge crowds at sold-out venues across the continent.
Ahead of his visit to Stockholm earlier this month, leading Swedish daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet examined the popularity of a figure who was been called both the saviour of masculinity and an extreme demagogue. Translated into English for the first time, reporter Adam Svanell looks at Peterson’s attraction in Sweden and seeks out people who say their lives have changed because of the controversial psychologist.
“It’s like living in the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment.” That’s how Johan Karlström describes his feeling.
“I think this is a time of a new direction. A new era is coming and there are enormous opportunities for change.”
Karlström, who is 41 years old and unemployed, lives alone in a house outside Sollefteå, a small town in Sweden. We speak on the phone.
I have just been watching one of his YouTube videos about political correctness, the PC-ism, a fanatical ideology that he claims is dominating Sweden. The PC-ism has, according to Karlström, created a repression of opinion where it is forbidden to speak the truth about feminism and immigration.
“Everybody with the slightest intellectual capacity has been forced away from the public domain to the advantage of people who either are morally reprehensible or daft,” he says in the video.
Still, when I, a journalist from Svenska Dagbladet, a daily newspaper published in Stockholm, call him, he is friendly, low-voiced and cheerful.
“I feel an unbelievable optimism. Yes, I am almost high, thinking of all the things one would be able to do when the old, false society has been swept away,” he says in his calm rural dialect.
His optimism can primarily be attributed to one person: Jordan B. Peterson.
“I believe he is some kind of John the Baptist. Someone who acts as a spark, waking up people’s thinking,” he tells me.
“I’ve always thought if people really noticed what I was teaching there would be Hell to pay,” Peterson writes in 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Now, nine months after the book was published, that is just what there is, Hell to pay.
It may seem paradoxical. In his writings, Peterson often reverts to the danger of polarization and dogmatism. He warns of simple answers, stresses the importance of open conversations. Yet, there are few issues as polarizing as the opinion of Peterson.
For a long time, the 54-year-old was a relatively anonymous psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto. In September 2016, he left his first public footprints with a series of videos where he protested against the proposition that gender identity was to be made a basis for discrimination in Canadian law.
A threat against freedom of speech, Peterson thought. His much-debated interpretation was that he could be prosecuted if he refused to address a student with the pronoun the student preferred.
He is being cheered for his new thinking in spiritual matters, but he is also being called a misogynist and “the leading influencer of the alt-right” — a white nationalist movement.
The debate brought him fans, antagonists and voluntary donations. He used the money to employ a team that started filming his lectures for posting on YouTube.
Two years later, Peterson arrived in Stockholm a world-famous star. Tickets to his speaking events there were sold out in half an hour. His YouTube channel has 1.5 million subscribers. 12 Rules for Life, which was published in English in January and in Swedish in May, has sold more than two million copies. He has been mentioned in the New York Times as “the most influential intellectual thinker in the Western world right now.”
He is described as a role model for young men. International media are constantly paying him attention. At the same time, many stories have headlines such as “Is Jordan Peterson the stupid man’s smart person?”
So, how are we to understand the Peterson phenomenon? What is it that he is arousing? What is his mission?
I decided to speak to some people who really ought to be able to explain this: his fans.
“Well, that depends…” Anna-Karin Wyndhamn writes in answer to my request for an interview. “What is your attitude toward Peterson? Which of his writings have you read and which courses have you been on?”
When we meet at the Faculty of Education at the University of Gothenburgh, Sweden, she says she doesn’t want to be portrayed as an ultra-conservative.
“Nor be freakified: ‘here is someone who is obsessed with Peterson,'” she says.
“I have broadened my thinking by listening to him, started to question things in a new way, but that does not mean I embrace everything he says.”
Wyndhamn is 42, with a Ph.D in educationalist work. At the university, she works with matters concerning equal treatment and equality. In 2017, she hosted the Swedish version of the TV show Super Nanny, where she helped confused parents raise their kids.
“I believe that I was, if not the first, at least among the first in Sweden to listen to Jordan Peterson,” she says.
It started with a video, of course. Peterson is part of the YouTube intelligentsia sometimes called The Intellectual Dark Web, a heterogeneous bunch of controversialists, among them the brain researcher Sam Harris, TV host David Rubin and the economist Eric Weinstein. What they have in common is the fact they talk a lot about freedom of speech (which they like) and political correctness (which they dislike) and that they have built a large following outside of traditional media channels.
Peterson is the opposite of being a conformist and is, in that way, a role model.
In the spring of 2017, Wyndhamn stumbled upon a clip where Peterson argued compassion is being used as a tool to promote “postmodern and neo-Marxist, anti-West doctrines.” Interesting, she thought. That summer she was biking a lot, with Peterson almost always in her ear.
“It gave me a new way of thinking about what I had been doing myself, what the academy is today and as what it could serve. What happens if the perspectives that become dominant in certain fields are more driven by ideology than coming from verified science? What does that do to those who are drawn to the universities? Will they become capable of reading advanced texts and of writing independent, critical texts? Or are they turned into puppets for a political dogma of what is right and wrong?
“This is a central idea of Peterson’s: postmodern theories have created ideologization and value relativism. Morale and truth have been turned into a question of subjective experience. Peterson — who has spent much time studying Stalin, Hitler and Mao — does not only reject the scientific value of, for example, gender studies and critical studies of whiteness, but also claims that they can lead to a new totalitarian society.”
For Wyndhamn, his thoughts supported objections she earlier had on, for example, norm criticism.
“People are being sorted into fixed groups and being told ‘here is our idea of who is superior and who is inferior. Now go out into the world and see to what extent you can be critical of that.’ For me it is a way of locking one’s view rather than opening it.”
Peterson inspired her to see the problems and to dare expressing them.
“Somehow I came to a point where I thought ‘why should I not tell that I am critical of certain things?'”
What does she see as the gist of his message?
“A call to the individual to constantly be moving the limits of one’s thinking and, through that, what is possible to achieve in one’s life.”
As a woman, academic and previous chairperson of the department’s committee for gender perspective, Wyndhamn is otherwise almost as far as you can get from the cliché image of Peterson’s audience. He likes to speak about all the boys and men who have thanked him for helping them to overcome destructivity and bitterness and points out that only 10 per cent of those who watch his videos are women.
His image smacks of male role models from times gone by. The stern father. The well-dressed, eloquent teacher. The cowboy, “the small-town Peterson from the Alberta hinterland” as it says in 12 Rules for Life. A simple man standing steady on the soil and standing up for himself. And whose only food is beef, salt and water. Men do not have to apologize for their masculinity in order to have a better life.
In spite of the many references to Nietzsche, Jung and Solzhenitsyn, his bestseller is also basically a self-help book, designed to usher people out of the chaotic meaninglessness that is living in modernity.
Life is suffering, Peterson declares. We are all capable of atrocious things, and we have a calculator inside of us that all the time is keeping track of our status. Dominance hierarchies have existed longer than trees have. Trying to abolish them is impossible. The only thing you can do is take responsibility for your own life, striving upward in a disciplined way, not seeking happiness, but virtue and dignity.
Some of the rules: stand up straight with your shoulders back. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient). Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world. Tell the truth — or, at least, don’t lie.
The ideal is the strong self-sacrificing hero. Both men and women want men to become tougher, according to Peterson. If men are pushed too hard to be more like women, they will become more interested in a hard-fascistic ideology.
In Sweden, he has inspired controversialists such as Alexander Bard and David Eberhard.
“He empowers disillusioned men and shows that responsibility, not blaming others, is the way forward,” Benjamin Kalischer Wellander writes in the magazine Liberal Debatt. “Men are not obliged to apologize for their manliness in order to find a better life. They do not have to cry their eyes out at ‘boys’ dinners’ arranged with the consent of feminists.”
“I read your piece on fatigue,” says Alexander Sopov, laughingly. “We have a thing, we the second generation immigrants, that we use to joke about: that fatigue is a Swedish invention. If I had called my mother and said that ‘I am too tired to work’ she wouldn’t understand what I was talking about. My parents never had any alternative. Work or starve to death.”
His one-room apartment is on the top floor of an 11-storey building in Sweden’s Hisingen area. A bed in one corner. Leather sofa in another. In a cupboard there are the cups from his years as a heavyweight boxer.
Sopov is 28 years old and a self-employed web developer. Very fit, self-assured. When asked to describe his upbringing in an Orthodox Christian working-class family, he says everything always went his way. There are many people out there who are in deep waters, nearly drowning. He can help them.
“I was like King Midas. Everything I touched turned to gold. It was evident that I was the one who was going to lift the family. I was good at school, ambitious and driven. Then it was like God grew tired of me.”
As a teenager he denounced his faith. He quit boxing and for many years it was all about parties, working as a bartender, giving a course in dating inspired by the book The Game. At the age of 25, he was on sick-leave after knee surgery and he says he received no benefits. At the same time his father fell ill and died.
“I couldn’t help my father financially because I had no money, and I couldn’t help him mentally because I was too weak. For a while I couldn’t even fake a smile. One could see tragedy screaming from my face. I knew I couldn’t say to Mum ‘I am broke, I have lost the will to live’ and receive support. So, I started working towards the only future I could consider: being self-employed. I was tough, but slowly I dug myself out of it. I have gone from being burdened by invoices to buying gold watches and owning a BMW. A symbolic achievement. Today I can smile again.
“Nowadays, many people have the wrong expectations,” Sopov says. “We believe that life is supposed to be comfortable just because tigers no longer eat us. ‘What excuses do we have for not being happy,’ we say, when we should be saying ‘what right do we have to be happy?'”
The turnaround in his life happened before he discovered Peterson, but the professor’s ideas have had a big influence on him.
“There are many people in deep waters out there, close to drowning. He can help them. His most important contribution to my life is the importance of guiding principles.”
A constant point of reference with Peterson is the Bible. Not because it speaks to a real God, but because it conveys a collective wisdom in the form of archaic stories and principles which, according to him, have survived for so long because they express something true.
For Sopov, this has made many pieces fall into place. Nowadays he wears a cross and prays every day.
“We live in times when we know enough to know that literal interpretations of religion are wrong, but if you look at it metaphorically there is no end to the wisdoms. Just because a magician has put a rabbit in the hat, that doesn’t mean that there actually isn’t a rabbit in the hat.
What does he see as the gist of Peterson’s teachings?
There is a catastrophe waiting around the corner and the only guarantee to avoid being obliterated is to live as it has already happened. Lift the heaviest stone you can lift and move it to a better place. Again, and again. Survival mode, constantly.
Is Peterson, in fact, a religion in himself? That may seem to be too simple a thought. Most movements that engage people are habitually accused of being “sects” where leaders are “being worshipped.” But, in the case of Peterson, the parallels are more than him having devout followers and resembling a preacher when he speaks.
Already in the foreword of his book 12 Rules for Life, psychiatrist Norman Doidge compares the rules in the book to the Ten Commandments. It has been claimed Peterson has had plans to buy a church where he wants to speak every Sunday. His arguments for the need for rules for life start with how a common faith system gives meaning and makes the world understandable. He writes that maybe there is nothing more important than to preserve this institution.
“Here is this summer’s harvest,” says Barbro Liberg.
Six-metre-tall Yuca palm trees are standing on the floor in this second home outside of the small town of Skövde. It was previously only used as her summer house but now it is her annex surgery.
“Sometimes,” she says, “when a patient has given up hope, I say ‘look at these trees. A short while ago they were just dry sticks, and look at them now!'”
She is 74 years old and had been planning to retire a long time ago but her work as a psychiatrist was too meaningful. She says colleagues have called her “a wise old lady” and “one who knows how to deal with spiritual issues.”
Last spring, when Svenska Dagbladet published the article “This is why young people are attracted to a guru who despises weakness” by Carl Cederström, an associate professor at Stockholm University, there was a flood of emails in support of Peterson. In working on this piece, I went through the emails. The senders formed a long list of male names — and one woman.
In her email, Liberg says she has listened many times to Peterson’s lectures: “It takes quite a big mental effort to understand his thinking, but for those who are not frightened by his special style, but are really listening in earnest, there is, I feel, much to embrace in his analysis and synthesis of old truths in a new light. His earnest pursuit of honesty and his wish not to dissimulate leaves him sometimes emotionally stark naked in front of the listeners.
“Long before I began listening to Jordan I had thought ‘thank you, dear church for the evangelists!'”
My experience says evangelists are a tremendous treasure for humanity, particularly their hopeful message that every human being can mean something, that there is something good to strive for. But I have experienced an incapacity for tying together the church’s message with people’s existential needs.
In the Christian sphere, some who have embraced Peterson are astounded by the fact someone has succeeded in getting young men to start Bible study circles. Others have pointed out that he is rather far from the Christian message of love.
Because for Peterson it is the individual who is divine. Redemption is reached through development of the self.
But the archetypal death of Christ exists as an example of how to accept finitude, betrayal and tyranny heroically … and not as a directive to victimize ourselves in the service of others.
Alright then, perhaps God does not exist, he more or less confesses, but, contrary to the neo-atheists, he does not want to substitute the Lord with science or humanism but introduces a middle road; a belief system where you don’t have to believe in anything but yourself.
Liberg is smiling as she describes how Peterson usually answers the question of whether he believes in God.
“I think it is so lovely, because he is writhing like a worm on a hook. He does not want to answer.”
What does she think is the gist of his message?
“That he is his words. How you live must be consistent with what you say. If there is anything that I have learned, from my profession, that is life-giving, it’s self-knowledge. People who dare to be themselves are role models.”
Is Peterson a political thinker? No, is his own answer. At the same time, it is not hard to understand why opinion-makers on the left, right and centre perceive him as their opponent.
When he brings up that the 85 richest people in the world own as much as the 3.5 billion poorest people, it is not a criticism of inequality, but an expression of the opinion that hierarchies are a natural part of life.
Where some people see a champion for free speech seeking an open debate, others see a reactionary, even fascistic, agitator.
When he writes about the liberalizing of divorce laws in the 20th century, it is to question whether the children whose lives were destabilized thought that was a good thing.
He goes on to say fear and terror are lurking behind the walls that wise ancestors put up for us and that we tear them down at our own risk. We are unknowingly skating on ice with deep cold water underneath, water where unimaginable monsters roam.
What monsters is he talking about? What does he mean when he says fear and terror are better than the alternative, or when he expresses concern that children might fare badly from having same-sex parents?
However subtle he is in his writing, there is also another Peterson who, in debates and on Twitter, is making drastic remarks on everything from climate research to connections between race and IQ.
Bernard Schiff, a psychology professor, wrote an article in the Toronto Star with the headline “I was Jordan Peterson’s strongest supporter. Now I think he is dangerous.”
Schiff, who used to be a colleague of Peterson’s — for a period their families even lived together — describes him as something of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde figure: charming and considerate but also aggressive and paranoid. To draw conclusions about who he is based only on the good and thoughtful Peterson, not the evil one, becomes misleading and potentially dangerous, according to Schiff. He accuses his old friend of using the same methods as the authoritarian demagogues he has been studying. His opposition to rights for transgender people cannot be reduced to a question of freedom of speech but is a way of baiting the masses against a minority, Schiff claims. He feels Peterson is driven by fear that the LGBTQ movement and the dissolvent of the nuclear family creates chaos and is threatening the whole order of society.
In a conversation between the two men in 2016, Peterson reportedly said his wife has prophetic dreams and that she has dreamt that doomsday is near. According to Schiff, Peterson seems to believe this — and looks upon himself as the saviour who must prevent the end of the world.
The recurring accusation that Peterson is an alt-right philosopher seems to be a case of guilt by association. If the extreme right is pleased with his thoughts, it is more because of what they read into his writing than what those words actually say. At the same time, if they do, isn’t there something important in that as well?
“It is understandable that liberals, cultural Marxists and actually everybody leaning to the left, turn a deaf ear when Peterson is talking,” the Nordic alt-right says on its site.
In “Samtiden,” a newspaper loyal to the far-right populist party Sverigedemokraterna (SD), editor-in-chief Dick Erixon sees a connection between Peterson and the SD leader Jimmie Åkesson: both are an example of the new kind of leadership that is needed in the cultural struggle against the leftist liberal hegemony.
I join the Facebook group Jordan B. Peterson Sverige, which has 2,200 members. When one person asks the others what party they are going to vote for in Sweden’s general elections, 60 per cent put an X either for Medborgerlig Samling, Sverigedemokraterna or Alternativ för Sverige (all very small and conservative). Out of 300 answers, not a single vote is given to the parties in the coalition government: the Social Democrats and the Green Party.
Of course, this does not necessarily mean a majority of those who like Peterson are sympathizing with the anti-establishment parties. But it should probably say something.
I find Johan Karlsson through the Facebook group. He is among the most active, writing about whether Peterson’s world of ideas fits with Confucianism, and which thoughts he has borrowed from Jung. And, of course, PC as in political correctness.
Over the phone, he explains to me how the changes happening in society can be explained by the boiled frog metaphor.
“A frog that’s cooked slowly doesn’t notice that the water is getting warmer. You don’t notice what is going on as society is getting a little more crazy all the time.
Karlsson lists examples.
“We distort human nature forcing boys to be like girls. We import grown-ups to Sweden, pretending they are children.” In the election he voted for Alternativ för Sverige. He finds the more established Sverigedemokraterna too nervous.
One of Karlsson’s latest YouTube videos is called “Election results likely to have been manipulated and why that can be something good.” I ask him what proof he has.
“There are as many reports as you could wish about ballot papers being hidden away and so forth. No doubt about that. Then I find it wrong to say that we have to have proof. I don’t think that the politicians we have are particularly honest people so how can you believe in a result that is simply presented to you? They should prove that there was no fraud.
“For example, I made a video where I am saying that voting rights for women weren’t such good idea. When you do such things, you earn respect for yourself.”
His video has 54,000 viewings and has been liked 1,400 times on YouTube.
Karlsson does not want to appear in a photo. While I look for his phone number, I learn the average monthly income in his area is SEK 14.700 ($2,150) and that nearly half of the population vote for the Social Democrats.
He tells me he has brain damage from a blow to his head when he was 3 years old. After that incident, his memory is weak and his mental energy low, which has made it hard for him to get a job. He has been out of work or on sick leave for depression for most of his grown-up life.
But things have changed since he discovered Peterson. Inspired by his hero, he started a YouTube channel. The result: self-esteem, drive and a feeling of being able to make a difference.
In one video, Karlsson says he thinks Peterson has been chosen by history and that it is not a coincident that he is white and male. “He is like Satan to the politically correct, but to us normal people he is the archetypical wise man or even Messiah, or at least a prophet.”
Peterson’s philosophy, he explains, represents a whole new way of thinking at the same time leaving much room open for interpretation. I think there is some kind of allure in that. That you do not quite understand what he means, or what it leads to, while at the same time the things you do understand are so bewildering.
Somewhere here I begin to see at least part of an explanation as to why Peterson strikes a chord in large groups and causes rage in others. He has so many opinions, some of them contradictory, on such a wide range of topics that one can choose where to put one’s emphasis and interpretation.
Champion of free speech, life coach, authoritarian reactionary or Messiah? No wonder his critics and supporters cannot hold a discussion in a calm manner. They can’t even agree on who he is and what he is saying.
I ask everybody I interview where they see Peterson in five years’ time.
“I think The Intellectual Dark Web will merge into some kind of secular organization, a religion 2.0 for the modern human being,” Sopov says.
Wyndhamn is hoping Peterson will be able to make certain academic areas a bit more open and less self-confirming. Karlström is looking forward to a time where there’s opportunity to form new thoughts.
“Democracy, for example, is it really that good? That is one of many self-evident things that must be questioned as people start thinking in a critical manner.”
“Hope,” says Liberg as we step into her Toyota. “Peterson can give people hope. I see much earnest, disorientated searching, both in men and women.
“Today there are not any ready-made moulds really, for good or for bad. I believe that Jordan stands for a forceful, honest wish to have a responsible masculinity.”
She gives me a ride to the station.
I tell her about the vote in the Facebook group and I ask her if it is obvious that a responsible masculinity is stern and heroic rather than permitting and caring.
“I am thinking that if Jordan’s message that one must pull oneself together could be conveyed in a friendlier manner, masculinity would not have to be an armour but more like a walking stick. So that searching young men have something to hold on to. And if he is attracting extreme people I hope they take all of his message to heart. That might just be what they need.”
She turns silent. There is a high wind outside. She says:
“I tend to turn everything to something positive. I hope that Jordan will be able to bring hope, that it will actually turn out well.”