I first heard about Jordan Peterson in the same way you all did — he’s that professor who had the thing about the pronouns. I’ve always had trouble believing that freedom of speech was truly what Jordan Peterson was peddling.
Peterson’s rise to prominence on the wings of what seemed like a willful misinterpretation of a law, Bill C-16, which added gender identity and expression to the Canadian Human Rights Act, struck me as opportunistic at best.
But Peterson didn’t go away. He built a following. And then he wrote a book, which is still, more than 30 weeks after its publication, among Amazon’s top 20 best-selling books. With 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Peterson has become, as they say, incontournable.
Many better minds than mine have offered up their thoughts on our latest cultural icon. He is the “custodian of the patriarchy,” a “disturbing symptom” of our intellectual and moral breakdown, “dangerous.” But no, others insist. Peterson is actually “the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now,” or, as he’s been described in these pages, “a warrior for common sense and plain speech.”
I confess I have only a passing interest in who or what Jordan Peterson is — conveniently enough, as he didn’t speak with me for this piece. But I am interested in what he is saying. And I am fascinated by the fact that some of his followers feel their lives were changed by a self-help book Peterson published based on a list of maxims he wrote on Quora one time. I did not understand it, and I wanted to.
The idea came to me one evening, while out with colleagues. I want to read the book, I told them, and try to live out the rules. So I have, and it’s been eye-opening, infuriating, challenging, and sometimes deeply boring, because there is nothing interesting about protein-rich breakfasts and washing floors, even if they are good for you.
I did not know where I would end up at the start of this, but I can safely say I didn’t think it would be here. I cannot despise Jordan Peterson, as I thought I might. I’ve spent time with some of his followers and I appreciate what he’s done for them, and what, to some extent, he’s done for me. But I won’t embrace him as they do. I can’t. Because I fear that on some level, Jordan Peterson despises me.
Rule 1 • Rule 2 • Rule 3 • Rule 4 • Rule 5 • Rule 6
Rule 7 • Rule 8 • Rule 9 • Rule 10 • Rule 11 • Rule 12
STAND UP STRAIGHT WITH YOUR SHOULDERS BACK
It starts with lobsters. You have to understand about the lobsters.
Not lobsters, exactly, but the ancestors of lobsters. The ancestors of lobsters were around at least 350 million years ago, and 350 million years is a Very Long Time.
The thing about lobsters, according to Peterson, is that the males fight each other to establish dominance, and the females all want to mate with the dominant males. We are not so different, his argument goes. (Except for the part where female lobsters squirt pheromone-laced urine out of their faces to entice the males, but Peterson doesn’t mention that.)
There are lots of animals Peterson could have used to make this point, like elk or lions or elephant seals, all of which compete for females and none of which pee out of their faces. But he chose lobsters, and I have to think it’s because anything that’s been around that long has clearly figured itself out.
Rule 1 is to stand up straight with your shoulders back. Don’t be a pathetic lobster, basically, though lobsters don’t have shoulders, as such.
I took a literal approach one Monday morning. I stacked my laptop and monitor on top of some dictionaries and sat up very straight, with my shoulders back, for hours.
The pain started in the small of my back around 10 a.m. and radiated up from there. By early afternoon I was finding excuses to hunch over, even for a few seconds, to get some relief.
I didn’t feel any more dominant than usual. But I couldn’t stop thinking about lobsters, so I called a marine biologist in Halifax, Bruce Worm, to ask if we really are just like them. He said no. “The main hallmark of our own species is that we’re social creatures, right? And the only reason we survived is that we perfected social cooperation,” he said. “A lobster does none of these things. A lobster’s essentially a glorified insect.”
Worm thinks humans are attracted to each other for all kinds of reasons, not just dominance. All species will try to find high-quality mates, he said, but that can mean a lot of different things for humans. Basically, he said, we’re more complicated than a crustacean.
I wanted to agree, but I wasn’t sure. I thought Peterson might counter that we’re not nearly as complex as we like to think.
TREAT YOURSELF LIKE SOMEONE YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR HELPING
There’s this thing Peterson does that I really don’t like. In Chapter 2, he’s writing about order and chaos, which are symbolically male and female, for reasons I don’t fully understand. He gives an example of a woman rejecting a man. “For the men,” he writes, “that’s a direct encounter with chaos, and it occurs with devastating force every time they are turned down for a date.”
Later in the same chapter: “Women have been making men self-conscious since the beginning of time. The capacity of women to shame men and render them self-conscious is still a primal force of nature.”
Later in the book: “It’s the terror young men feel towards attractive women, who are nature itself, ever ready to reject them, intimately, at the deepest possible level.”
I do not know what any of this means. I have never felt powerful when rejecting men — only awkward and self-conscious and afraid it’s my fault. But sure. Primal force of nature.
Anyway, Rule 2 is about treating yourself properly and setting out a direction for your life. Except the chapter isn’t about that at all. An awful lot of it is a retelling of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, because apparently that’s where self-hatred comes from.
There’s also this theory Peterson cites that sexual selection, or the possibility of rejection, has driven the evolution of the human mind.
“Women’s proclivity to say no, more than any other force, has shaped our evolution into the creative, industrious, upright, large-brained… creatures that we are,” he writes.
The idea belongs to Geoffrey Miller, an American evolutionary psychologist who published a book in 2001 called The Mating Mind. It’s controversial, in part because it implies that women’s choosiness drives men to excel, but not necessarily the other way around.
I called Miller to ask about this, and he insisted that men and women have an equal capacity for ideas and creativity, but men are just louder about it — think male rock stars who are in it for the groupies, he said.
If that’s what men need to do to attract women, I asked, what’s the advice in there for women? Miller told me men are looking for different things in their mates. A century ago, for instance, middle-class women could play piano and have witty conversations. “I think a lot of those traditional social skills aren’t being cultivated in an era of Tinder and texting,” he said. “I think young men are kind of missing that.”
I decided I wanted a second opinion. I texted a guy I’d met on Tinder and asked if he thinks rock bands are just in it for the girls.
“No,” he said. “And fuck Gene Simmons for ever saying that!”
A few days later, the Tinder guy rejected me. Turns out it wasn’t that primal or chaotic — he’d just met some other girl. Perhaps I should have played him some piano.
MAKE FRIENDS WITH PEOPLE WHO WANT THE BEST FOR YOU
Less than a week into this experiment, I’d taken to sleeping with Peterson’s book on my bedside table, along with a copy of the Bible, because he refers to it so often. It’s a strange new world.
I wasn’t doing so well with the rules. I was struggling with my posture, and wasn’t really treating myself much better than I had before. I was eating protein-rich breakfasts at more or less the same time each day, which Peterson advocates. But then I blew it on Rule 3.
Rule 3 says you should make friends with people who want the best for you, but the chapter is really all about who you shouldn’t be friends with — namely, the people who are going to bring you down.
“Before you help someone, you should find out why that person is in trouble. You shouldn’t merely assume that he or she is a noble victim of unjust circumstance and exploitation,” Peterson writes. “It is far more likely that a given individual has just decided to reject the path upward, because of its difficulty.”
You can’t save people who don’t want to help themselves, he says.
I blew it on Rule 3 because of Sam. That’s not his real name. Sam was a friend of mine who lives in Fort McMurray, working in the oil sands. He stopped getting full-time work after oil prices tanked, not long before his house burned down in the devastating wildfire that swept through the city in 2016. He ended up in his family’s cottage, alone, unemployed. He drank a lot.
Sam used to call me, always at night, almost always drunk. Sometimes it would be fine. Other times he would rant.
I answered more and more infrequently. Occasionally, he would text me belligerently. Get off your high horse.
He stopped calling eventually, months ago, and I was relieved.
But then I read Chapter 3, and all I could think about was Sam. He was the type of friend Jordan Peterson would say you should drop, but I just wanted to talk to him again. Sober, he was one of the people who understood me best, and I’d thrown that away.
So I called him. I asked why he’d stopped calling.
“Because I figured you were tired of talking to me,” he said.
I told him Jordan Peterson says you should try to keep friends around who want the best for you, not people who are going to drag you down. He said he fits into the category of people who want the best for me. “But I kind of wandered into the second one,” he said. “I think for a couple of months, I was pretty toxic for everyone.”
I said I felt I’d lost the good parts of our relationship along with the bad. I was crying by this point.
Sam told me he’s working again, planning to rebuild his home in Fort McMurray. He’s drinking less. And I kept thinking, ‘I wasn’t going to call him again. I might never have known.’
Later that evening, I messaged another friend, Eva Holland, to ask about Rule 3. When I was going through a crisis of my own, I used to write to her practically every day to tell her how hopeless everything was. She never stopped answering.
“Certainly there was a period where I would have felt like I was putting in more than I was getting out from our friendship,” she said. “There have also been times when I felt really low and you tried to prop me up.”
I realized I’m not sure how to navigate this world that Peterson envisions, where we assume the worst of each other until proven wrong.
“The irony, of course, is that we’re all the taxing friend when we are the ones who need help,” Eva said. “In other words, if everyone followed the rule, no one would be able to follow the rule.”
COMPARE YOURSELF TO WHO YOU WERE YESTERDAY, NOT TO WHO SOMEONE ELSE IS TODAY
I looked up Peterson’s original list of rules for life, posted years ago on an online forum. It includes 41 “valuable things everyone should know,” and I was struck by a few that didn’t make it into his top 12. “Plan and work diligently to maintain the romance in your relationships.” “Make at least one thing better every single place you go.” “Try to make one room in your house as beautiful as possible.” “Maintain your connections with people.”
I don’t know what happened to these, since most of what I’ve been offered so far are meditations on how wretched and flawed we are.
But then I got to Rule 4: “Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.” On the brink of turning 30, the age of reflection on milestones missed and goals unmet, Rule 4 felt like the advice I needed to hear.
I have this high-school friend, Meghan Turnbull, who recently turned 30 herself. Most of Meghan’s twenties were consumed by her struggle with anorexia. She was diagnosed just after she’d turned 20, and she’s still dealing with it a decade later. She wrote a recent blog post about her birthday, saying she was embarrassed to tell people she was turning 30. “Shouldn’t I be married? Shouldn’t I have kids?” she wrote.
I decided to call her. It was the first time we’d spoken since before she got sick.
I remember how much of a perfectionist Meghan was in high school. She told me she’s had to learn to set new goals for herself that aren’t based on what everyone around her is doing. It took her seven years to graduate from university, but she did it. She has her own apartment now, and a job she loves.
“It’s constantly just reminding myself of that, right? And just recognizing what I’ve accomplished,” she said.
I am not good at this, either, preferring regular doses of self-flagellation to self-acceptance. But in an attempt to compare myself to who I was yesterday, I spent several hours trawling through my Facebook data, a collection of every message I’ve ever sent and every photo I’ve posted in the 11 years since I joined the platform.
From my younger days, there were the predictably overwrought messages about minor conflicts, lengthy treatises on the state of my life that used words like “trepidation” and “schadenfreude,” and my personal favourite, delivered to the first boyfriend I really liked when I was 19: “No guy has ever known about my maple-sugar addiction until you. So there you go. That’s the best proof I can give you. I want to be with you.”
It was kind of nice to have a record of how much I’ve grown in the last decade. Since starting this experiment, this was the first thing that actually made me feel good about myself — despite all my flaws and wretchedness, etc.
DO NOT LET YOUR CHILDREN DO ANYTHING THAT MAKES YOU DISLIKE THEM
Rule 5 is about parenting — specifically, not letting your children do things that make you dislike them. This was a challenge for me, given that I don’t have any children to dislike.
Instead, I fretted about the children I might have in the future, and how I’ll probably ruin them. So much for not judging myself too harshly.
The problem, according to Peterson, is that Parents These Days are apt to spoil their children, to let them become little tyrants without discipline or boundaries. “They are doughy and unfocused and vague,” he writes. “They are leaden and dull instead of golden and bright. They are uncarved blocks, trapped in a perpetual state of waiting-to-be.”
There seem to be so many ways of damaging children irreparably, I thought. Either parents are too involved with their children, or they’re not involved enough.
“Talk about setting parents up for failure,” said Kathleen Gerson, an American sociologist and an expert on gender roles and changing family life.
I’d called Gerson because I genuinely worry about this. How to have kids who are well-adjusted and disciplined and neither smothered nor neglected? Peterson seemed more interested in criticism than in providing a roadmap for success, other than to tell parents they should “come in pairs” and should discipline their children.
“This notion of perfect parenting and how we’re all falling short is part of a culture of ‘You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t’,” Gerson told me.
Gerson believes we’re “living in a 21st-century economy that still relies on 20th-century institutions.” Both parents generally work, not necessarily in stable jobs, while expectations around parenting have not kept pace. “We have this very (privatized) family-centric, and unfortunately still woman-centric, notion about what caregiving should be and who should be doing it.”
I told her I worry about finding what seems like an impossible balance if I become a parent. “You sound like the people I’ve interviewed,” she said. Gerson published a book in 2011 called The Unfinished Revolution, and she found that most young couples want to share work and caregiving equally. “Despite this ideal,” she said, “very few of them were optimistic about their ability to achieve it.”
Gerson said men and women tend to have very different back-up plans if an equal division of labour proves to be impossible. Women were more likely to say the most important thing was for them to earn a decent living and be self-reliant, while the fallback for men was more traditional — the father working and the mother at home.
Still, she told me I’d figure it out. After all, she said, humans have been figuring it out forever. “We’ve managed to keep the human species going in difficult circumstances for millennia and we will keep doing so.”
SET YOUR HOUSE IN PERFECT ORDER BEFORE YOU CRITICIZE THE WORLD
I’m feeling judged by Jordan Peterson. He’s so certain about how the world works and how people should be, and I know I’m not living up to his standard. I’m doing friendship wrong, and I still compare myself to other people all the time, and if I had kids, I’d probably be doing that wrong, too. On top of it all, I’m likely only a middling sort of lobster.
I wanted to do Rule 6 perfectly, to prove I could do something right. I spent a week on it, trying to set my house in perfect order. It was good timing. I’d just moved and was still unpacking my apartment. I can attest to Peterson’s claim that if your life is in disarray, you will be less equipped to deal with everything else. Every time I walked in the door and saw all the boxes, I was filled with an oppressive sense of dread.
Still, it’s not that easy to put your house in perfect order, as it turns out. That’s because you have to borrow someone’s car and go to IKEA, and then you spend seven hours building a damn dresser because it has a million pieces and of course you put the top on backwards, which sets you back, and then when you’re finally done with that, you realize there are all these other things you don’t have, like a garbage can and a dish rack, so you go out and buy those things, but all the boxes are still waiting for you when you get home. Then a week passes and it’s still not done, and you try to explain that it’s because you’re working and you don’t have time, but you can still feel Jordan Peterson judging you despite your best intentions.
PURSUE WHAT IS MEANINGFUL (NOT WHAT IS EXPEDIENT)
Peterson is big on suffering. Suffering is the basis of human existence, he claims, and every modicum of happiness we achieve is wrested from the jaws of tragedy.
Rule 7 is about choosing meaning over expedience. Peterson argues we can only achieve meaning (Meaning — he likes capital letters) through sacrifice, suffering and delayed gratification.
It’s another of these big, sweeping rules that’s tricky to put into practice, but I decided to write a story for work that had been hanging over my head for ages. I’d been putting it off, but now I was going to suffer through it. It was a small way of choosing purpose over indulgence, but Peterson says it’s important to make incremental changes.
I bought myself a chocolate chip cookie and told myself I wouldn’t eat it until I was done, just to drive home the bit about suffering. Then I started a log to track my progress.
Just before 1 p.m. — Took the cookie out of its bag so I could look at it as an incentive.
1:21 p.m. — Still haven’t started. Had a text conversation with a colleague about how I’m trying to use a cookie to force myself to write a story.
1:39 p.m. — Took a picture of the cookie.
2:05 p.m. — Had a conversation about Ramadan, which involves fasting for an entire month. Feeling pathetic about my cookie-related struggle.
2:51 p.m. — Took a break from writing to gaze longingly at the cookie.
3:45 p.m. — Another colleague asked for a bite of my cookie. I said no. He asked what Jordan Peterson says about sharing, so then I had to give him a bite.
4:00 p.m. — Took a picture of the remaining cookie.
5:15 p.m. — Colleagues go for a drink on a patio. The suffering is real.
8:00 p.m. — Still writing.
9:20 p.m. — Finished the story, at last. Ate the rest of the cookie. It was stale, but the taste of moral victory was sweet.
It occurred to me that I may not be taking this seriously enough. Jordan Peterson takes everything seriously. In this chapter, he describes a vision he once had where he was hovering high in the air, looking down over all humanity, “above even the pinnacle of the highest of dominance hierarchies.” This is a guy who believes he has great Wisdom and Insight, and I used one of his rules to hold off on eating a cookie. But I don’t know how else to live out these rules. I’ve realized this isn’t a self-help book in any practical sense of the term.
TELL THE TRUTH — OR, AT LEAST, DON’T LIE;
ASSUME THAT THE PERSON YOU ARE LISTENING TO MIGHT KNOW SOMETHING YOU DON’T;
BE PRECISE IN YOUR SPEECH
Rule 8 is about telling the truth, and the truth is I was feeling more and more apathetic about this whole thing. The more tangible rules seemed absurdly obvious to me. Clean your house. Don’t compare yourself to others. Stand up straight. Some of it is helpful, but I didn’t understand how this could be considered life-altering advice. (Rule 12 is to pet cats when you encounter them in the street, which is so facile that I wasn’t able to think of a single thing to write about it. Peterson tries to dress it up by saying that playing with animals reminds us that “the wonder of Being might make up for the ineradicable suffering that accompanies it,” but I couldn’t be fooled into thinking this was deep.)
I decided to join some of the members of a local Jordan Peterson meet-up group outside an Ottawa Starbucks on a Friday afternoon. Rule 9 is about assuming the person you’re listening to knows something you don’t, so I figured they could help me understand Peterson’s appeal.
“He’s really capturing something that’s missing from the public discourse in our time,” said Sandra, who declined to give her last name. Sandra created the meet-up group over a year ago. She saw it more as a book club, for studying books that have shaped Peterson’s thinking, though it’s morphed into more of a self-help group since then. She’s interested in Peterson’s intellect, the way he weaves different ideas together. She calls herself a diehard liberal, but a contrarian.
“Fundamentally, it’s responsibility is what’s he’s selling,” said Xander Miller, the group’s other de facto leader. “Individual responsibility.” These days, one of the others chimed in, you can “get a trophy just for showing up.”
Xander takes this call to action seriously. At age 39, he’s married with two kids, works part-time from home and is the primary caregiver. This isn’t by choice, exactly, though his eyes welled up when he talked about being able to spend time with his young kids. He used to work two jobs, but that fell apart. He’s not been as successful as his wife, he said, but he’s now trying to find full-time work.
Since discovering Jordan Peterson, he’s taken to carrying a large notebook with him at all times, in which he lists everything he needs to do on a given day, including shaving and brushing his teeth. He makes lists of everyone he speaks to, as well, and puts checkmarks beside the names of those with whom he has meaningful interactions. “Before, I wasn’t taking control, and I wasn’t making decisions,” he said. “I’m becoming more the master of my own life.”
Xander organizes bi-weekly Sort Yourself Out meetings for the group.
Chris Yandt, 53, is a regular attendee. Chris spent seven-and-a-half years working at Loblaws and is now looking for something better. “I think I’ve lived most of my life by default,” he said. “It’s better to wake up eventually than not at all.”
Maybe the appeal is less about Jordan Peterson himself, I thought, and more about finding someone who can guide you in your time of need. For those seeking structure or a set of principles to live by, Peterson can deliver.
And yet there was something almost reverential in the way the men talked about him — especially Eric Dagenais, an earnest young man who listened to the others so intently that he confessed to being exhausted by the end of the meeting. Eric, 34, has recently decided that he wants to be a father, but he’d like his future wife to stay at home to raise the children. He’s been working hard, hoping to get to a six-figure salary sometime soon.
I asked if any of them had ever met Peterson. Eric told me he’d been to see him talk, standing near the front of the crowd. “His presence and his stare was just like….” — he jerked back, miming being struck by an invisible force. “As I turned to stone,” he said.
They talked about religion a lot, the three men, though they weren’t all conventionally religious. They feel something is being lost as Western society becomes more secular: a moral compass, perhaps. “We threw out a very important baby with all that bathwater,” Xander said.
Enter Father Peterson and his 12 commandments, I thought. Yet I was enthralled by them, this community of disciples. They get together just to talk about ideas and improve themselves, and Peterson made that possible for them. I have nothing like that in my life — how many of us do, really? For the first time, I thought maybe I was starting to get it.
DO NOT BOTHER CHILDREN WHEN THEY ARE SKATEBOARDING
There’s this skate park near my apartment, which is convenient because skateboarding is very important to Peterson. Skateboarding is about danger and mastery and pushing limits and masculinity —because, of course, most skateboarders are men. And boys.
Do not bother children when they are skateboarding. This is Rule 11 and really the crux of the book. All rules lead to Rule 11. The chapter sweeps from skateboarding to the suffering of boys in the modern world to the perils of Marxism to the fact that Lisa Simpson was attracted to the bully Nelson Muntz, which proves, surely, that even progressive women want tough men and men just need to buck up. In fact, all of Peterson’s exhortations to sort yourself out seem to boil down to this singular objective.
Anyway, I went to the skate park and bothered a bunch of the skateboarders, which sort of broke the rule, I suppose. I found four young men in their 20s who’d been skateboarding since they were kids and were practising on a Sunday afternoon.
“It’s an outlet if you’re angry or something,” Mousa Jaber told me. “It kills you to not skateboard.”
At 26, Mousa was getting ready for his fourth knee surgery stemming from skateboarding injuries. One of the others, Ben Duncan, said he’s broken his ankles a bunch of times, as well as a kneecap. “We’ve run into each other at the hospital,” Mousa joked.
I asked why they thought more girls don’t skateboard. They had several ideas: maybe men are more inclined to take risks. Maybe women’s wider hips make it harder to balance. “Not your average girl wants to end up with scrapes and cuts every day,” said Adam, who declined to give his last name.
Adam said he’s seeing a wave of women in their twenties starting to skateboard. He has a feeling they’re doing it to prove a point, because the sport has been so dominated by men.
There were, in fact, a few girls at the skate park that day, though not many. I walked over to a couple of them, Melinda Massolas and Shayla Brooks, and asked them the same question. “I think a lot of girls are more scared of hurting themselves,” said Shayla, 19.
Melinda, 23, described how embarrassing it was when she fell and got a huge goose egg on her forehead and had to face her friends the next day.
I told them about Jordan Peterson, about Rule 11 and how it seemed to apply more to boys than girls. They were unconvinced. “If a girl falls and a boy falls,” Melinda said, “it’s just a fall.”
I’ve never been on a skateboard. It was never something the girls I knew did.
I think Jordan Peterson would say that’s okay — normal, even. In Chapter 11, he tells us that men are not like women, nor should they want to be. And women, I surmise, should not want to be like men, though he never quite goes that far. Chapter 11 is self-help via biological determinism.
“If they’re healthy, women don’t want boys. They want men,” Peterson writes. “They want someone to contend with; someone to grapple with. If they’re tough, they want someone tougher. If they’re smart, they want someone smarter.”
Reading this, I was reminded of a New York Times piece a few years back on a study showing that couples had less sex when husbands did traditionally feminine chores like laundry, compared to those with a more conventional division of labour. (When I looked it up again recently, however, I came across another study, published three years after the first, showing the exact opposite result.)
I am less convinced than Jordan Peterson that all of this is proof of some immutable, biological truth. Maybe I would find, if I tried to skateboard, that my hips are too wide to balance properly. But I doubt it.
Still, how to explain the phenomenal appeal of Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey, stories featuring ordinary women who become the obsessions of extraordinary, dominating, dangerous men, without accepting there is something to what Peterson is saying?
I called Sandra from the meet-up the next day. She’d described herself as a “masculine woman” who’d always been scrupulous about dividing tasks equally between herself and her long-term boyfriend, and fought off “any whiff of anything traditional.”
Sandra works in tech, writing code for a living. She never planned on getting married or having kids. But she told me she found herself getting frustrated by the fact that she’s always been the “carer” in her relationship, despite her focus on being egalitarian. Peterson has helped her accept that it’s okay for men and women to be different, she said, and to take on different roles. “It made me less resentful, I think.”
Sandra told me that she believes modern feminism is “really screwing up women.” She thinks we’ve thrown out all the rules and the traditional gender roles, but we haven’t built any workable replacement.
“I think it’s really tough on women. In a way, you suddenly have to do everything, right?” she said. “I don’t know what the solution is.”
I found myself wondering what Peterson thinks the solution is. In a recent New York Times profile, he was quoted telling someone that “lots of women” have told him they wish they could be housewives, but they’ll “never admit that publicly.” He never goes that far in the book, but he hints at it. There’s one section in Chapter 11 where he says most high-achieving female lawyers quit when they hit their thirties because their priorities change. He also argues there’s an increasing shortage of university-educated men, and that’s a problem for educated women who generally want to marry up.
This is not what Sandra is suggesting. She said she doesn’t know a single woman who wants to stay home and raise children.
Sandra doesn’t call herself a Jordan Peterson fan. She didn’t find his book particularly insightful, but she donates to his Patreon account — in fact, once people started publishing “hit pieces” against him she doubled her donations. She likes that Peterson says things that other people don’t.
If there’s a genius to Jordan Peterson, it’s his willingness to shout from the rooftops the things that a lot of us would rather not say. I can respect that. But I can’t shake the feeling that, beneath the lobster metaphors and the bit about skateboards, I am the problem he’s trying to help men solve.
I met up with Xander, Chris and Eric again at the group’s bi-weekly Sort Yourself Out meeting, at a pub overlooking the Ottawa River. Xander was in charge, and he went around the table asking each of us for a long-term goal and then one action we could take that day to move toward that goal. His own goal was to be working more than part-time, and he planned to draft an email to his bosses that day. Eric suggested he should arrange a video chat instead — more direct, harder to misinterpret.
It was kind of wonderful, like a group therapy session for the price of brunch. I found myself wondering why they needed Jordan Peterson for this, then decided that’s not the point. Peterson brought them together, and now they’re trying to help each other, and that can’t be a bad thing. “It’s a place where I can speak openly,” somebody said, “without repercussions.”
Before long, they started covering the material we’ve come to expect from Peterson’s adherents: modern society is toxically anti-male, white men are asked to atone for all of humanity’s sins, and the worst place for all of this is college campuses, where free speech is all but dead.
They asked me what I thought, and I answered as honestly as I could.
I told them I was uncomfortable with Jordan Peterson’s advice to men — toughen up, essentially — because of what it suggests for women. What is he saying to us?
“He doesn’t have the answer,” Xander said. “He’s just raising a difficult question.”
As we got up to leave, Eric asked me to chat a bit longer.
He wanted to know how I would feel if I put my career on hold to have children, or if I turned 50 and had no family. I had no good answers.
I asked him for the most important message he’s taken from Jordan Peterson. “Men are lost,” he told me, and Peterson offers them a useful role, an avenue for “positive masculinity.”
He wanted to know why I was so hung up on all of the gender stuff. I stammered out an answer, because the truth is I’m not totally sure. Why should I mind, really, if men have a father figure telling them to sort themselves out? If they feel lost, then I guess they are.
But I can’t get past this. For all the perfectly reasonable advice about breakfast and house-cleaning, I keep coming back to the lobsters, to Woman as Nature, to parents in pairs, to boys and skateboards. They say Peterson’s audience is largely male, and I believe that, but that doesn’t mean he has no message for women. It’s there, between the lines. If men need to man up, where does that leave us? Not back in the kitchen, necessarily, but maybe not around the boardroom table.
Eric and I sat together for a while, an unlikely pair having an unlikely conversation. He seemed to understand what I was trying to say. Or at least he wanted to understand, and I wanted to understand him.
Then we went our separate ways, maybe no more sorted out than before, maybe without any answers, but at least with a bit of common ground to stand on. We’d spoken openly, without repercussions.
Illustrations by Brice Hall