Jordan Peterson is opening the Peterson Academy. “Affordable to all, taught by the best,” it launches in 2024 with the promise of a rounded education in the arts and sciences. For Peterson, the world’s most famous public intellectual, general knowledge is power. “Why should you be generally educated?” he asks his daughter and co-founder of the Academy, Mikhaila, in a promotional video. “Because otherwise you’re going to be a useless, resentful, bitter, pointless, counterproductive lump.”
Such language has become typical of Peterson. Once known for the cool, icy logic he used to deconstruct feminist truisms around the gender pay gap, he’s better known today as the Right’s most passionate culture warrior, and a leading voice in the debate around freedom of speech. “I take no pleasure in the catastrophic and unprecedented decline of institutions such as Harvard,” he tells me, “or, for that matter, the collapse into ideological idiocy that has characterised once-great institutions such as the BBC.” He goes on: “I think, however, that we’re past the tipping point, and no recovery, other than that provided by alternative institutions, is now possible.”
Peterson is a staunch traditionalist. He believes in the virtue of self-sacrifice, the power of the nuclear family, and claims that taking any other approach to life makes us “anxious”, “hopeless”, and “narcissistic”. An almost Franciscan streak emerges through our conversation today, one he’s nodded to in the past when he said, “The most fundamental reality is pain”. On other occasions, he has claimed that meaning can only be found through suffering.
Whether free speech is worth suffering for, though, is up for debate. Self-censorship can cause “emotional distress”, Peterson admits, but that is “a trivial price to pay compared to dying for your stupid idea”. The reason why free speech must be protected, he argues, is because interfering with it interferes with thought itself. “When you interfere with thought, then the culture can’t note down its own errors and renew itself,” he explains. This is because language is inextricable from ideas; to restrict words is to restrict the concepts within them.
“The very notion that speech which ‘offends’ should be regulated is totalitarian,” Peterson adds. It is counterproductive, too. “Liars invest in their lies, and have every emotional reason to reject correction,” he says. “We think, and speak freely, so we may be privileged to engage in the combat of ideas, knowing that conflict in the abstract is preferable to actual concrete conflict, which is what will inevitably emerge when we forego or are forbidden the opportunity to exchange.”
What free speech is not, Peterson argues, is a fundamental right granted to us by the state. That is an “idiot, hedonistic view”, the kind that believes it’s okay to speak before you think. Peterson is, first and foremost, an intellectual. It is primarily through his status as an academic that he’s tackled the issue of free speech, shooting to fame in 2016 when he challenged — on free speech grounds — a law that would have legally compelled him to use transgender people’s chosen pronouns. “Just who determines what offends?” he asks me. “If my speech pleases ninety-nine of a hundred, and displeases one, should I be silenced?”
Since then, the psychologist has gained millions of fans. He is a successful author and an in-demand panellist. As the founder of the Alliance for Responsible Citizenship (or ARC, like Noah’s Ark — like, it’s not a coincidence), Peterson recently set out his vision for society: moral and virtuous and built on Western canons.
Peterson has seen these canons sidelined within higher education, which for the past 20 or so years has looked unkindly on the West. The University of Toronto, where he teaches, has become crippled by Leftist ideologies, which he claims scupper freedom of thought and turn all students into woke clones. “An entire generation of students,” he says, worships at the altar of the Left because they have “no idea what life in the Soviet Union under Stalin was like”, “no idea of the extensive massacres that occurred in Maoist China”.
After the Charlie Hebdo attacks we signalled to the enemies of freedom that we were weak
These are inconvenient truths for the progressive Left, he argues, and so remain largely untaught. When travelling through Eastern Europe, he claims, “the refrain I constantly hear is: how can you people in the West flirt with these ideas that decimated us for seven decades? How can you be so blind?” Peterson believes that “anything which interferes with free speech is potentially fatal”. He thinks we reacted too gently to Iran’s fatwa on Salman Rushdie (“our response should have been: touch him at your extreme peril, all manner of hell will rain down on you if you threaten one of our free literary figures”). And how we dealt with Muslim extremism in the aftermath of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks was cowardly. “We signalled to the enemies of freedom that we were weak,” he says.
Peterson speaks with zeal and presents as anti-establishment. “The continual clamour around issues of free speech, easily derided as unnecessary ‘song and dance’, is in fact vital, as a freedom so profound and troublesome must be constantly defended,” he tells me. Yet his ideas are, at their root, unradical. The first of his 12 rules for life is to “stand up straight with your shoulders straight”. During our chat, the idea he seems most passionate about is the value of “child-centred, long-term, monogamous relationships”.
Today, Peterson follows a strict diet of red meat, which he says has helped him heal following health trials during the pandemic. His obsession with order, structure and through-lines has grown stronger since then. “When you’re disoriented, anxious and hopeless, one of the places you can look to orient yourselves is to the standard practices of humanity across the largest span of time,” he waxes.
He says he hates chaos, yet his knack for an online scrap suggests otherwise. He laments a world where “people who want to oppose opinions they’re not fond of can accuse and pillory and mob with no danger to themselves” and where we cannot “make a comment in the public square” without being “vilified by anonymous trolls”. “The debate around free speech,” he tells me, “is toxic because the ideology-deluded power-mad liars will and do use every evil trick at their disposal to silence those attempting to expose their falsehoods.” Despite this, he bravely continues to put himself out there. But then, as he says, is it ever worth dying for an idea? What’s certain is that cancel culture needs to end. The “psychopaths” who engage in such behaviour (though, Peterson concedes, many of those online troll accounts are bots) need to be punished “with a force proportionate to the punishment they wished upon the accused”. The most high-profile case of online cancel culture is, undoubtedly, JK Rowling’s, and Peterson has frequently thrown himself behind her books and ideas. He has himself become a target in the trans debates raging on Twitter/X.
It is on this topic that Peterson reserves his strongest invectives. Here his stance has less to do with free speech than with ideological definitions of sex and gender. “I don’t believe there’s any more fundamental category than that of sex,” he tells me. “It’s more fundamental than dark and light, up and down, black and white, wet and dry.”
“I’m saying this as a psychologist and a neuroscientist,” he goes on. We’re “mutilating” the “most vulnerable children”, “the ones who don’t have parents to defend them, who are autistic and unhappy and alienated and miserable, who hit puberty early and are uncomfortable with it.” He claims that supporters of gender-affirming surgery have “Satan firmly embedded in their heart”.
If we consider Peterson to be testing the boundaries of free speech, we should pause and ask ourselves whether it is he pushing the envelope, or us reappraising what beliefs we find acceptable. Peterson is unradical: as society progresses, unradical views fall out of favour. But society, Peterson cautions, hasn’t progressed as far as the liberal orthodoxy would have us believe. His views, even in the West, remain widely held.