Who is Jordan B Peterson?
If you looked closely at the Alternative Network Influence map I shared in my last blog post, you may have seen a tiny dot to the upper right of Joe Rogan labeled “Jordan Peterson.”
Jordan Peterson is a fifty-seven-year-old, Canadian clinical psychologist, social commentator, and an author of over one hundred academic articles as well as two books, one of which, a self-help book named “12 Rules for Life” received quite a lot of attention after being published in 2018. He has a B.A. in political science (1982), psychology (1984), and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology (1991). He worked in the psych department at Harvard form 1993 until 1998, when he returned to Canada and became a professor at the University of Toronto. He also had a clinical practice for much of his career.
Around 2013, he began his internet career with a YouTube channel where he would post lectures and short educational videos on topics ranging from psychology, personality, gender, politics, religion, and mythology. His channel now has 2.72 million subscribers, which, in my opinion, earns him the title of “influencer.”
Why does he matter?
You may be thinking, why should I care about some Canadian psychologist with a self-help book and a YouTube channel? My answer is, though he may seem obscure and unimportant in the cultural and political grand scheme of things, his mark on the internet in particular has made him an important cultural figure who has affected many people in a variety of ways. I think his character arch over the last four years illuminates the positive and negative aspects of becoming an influencer.
Appearing on the Joe Rogan Experience:
How an influencer’s connections can build their audience and give them a reputation
Since 2016, Peterson has been a guest of Rogan’s podcast at least 6 times. They’ve talked about an extremely wide variety of topics and ideas. His spot on the AIN web was given to him because he speaks negatively of certain aspects of liberal ideology and because he has worked with others in the AIN web such as Rogan, Sam Harris, and Dave Rubin. If you’d like to know more about Jordan Peterson’s beliefs (without any potential skew from journalists or, *cough cough* humble bloggers) I would recommend watching an episode or some clips from any of his appearances on the JRE. Otherwise, the important takeaway here is that appearing on Joe Rogan helped him gain followers, but it also earned him a reputation he may or may not have wanted.
“12 Rules for Life” and the Channel 4 Interview:
How a poorly conducted interview made Peterson appear more profound than he really is
As mentioned above, in 2018 Jordan Peterson published a self-help book titled “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.” For a full synopsis, this Wikipedia page is quite helpful, but I’m going to highlight one part of the book that is particularly important to understanding his Channel 4 Interview (perhaps Peterson’s most viral moment).
A great deal of Peterson’s psychological research has focused on personality traits and how distribution of these traits among men and women indicate innate differences in the genders. While much of “12 Rules for Life” is focused on self-help topics, part of his book is focused on how the modern cultural idea that men and women are equal (the same) is false and is preventing men from taking responsibility for themselves (growing up), which in turn is hurting society as a whole.
It’s this section of his book, and his related opinions on gender, that were the main focus of his viral interview (which currently has over 20 million views, 440k “thumbs up” and 15k “thumbs down”) with Channel 4 journalist Cathy Newman. This interview went viral not because it was a good interview, but because Newman failed to conduct an interview at all, quickly becoming combative and offended by Peterson’s answers. I find this unfortunate because there are plenty of things you could criticize about “12 Rules for Life,” like the fact that Peterson is a wealthy, internet personality selling a self-help guide to struggling young men. But Newman repeatedly trapped herself by arguing that the book is offensive, and why should Peterson have the right to offend someone? (Easy answer: free speech). In my opinion, all this interview accomplished was to make Peterson even more famous, push more people into buying his book, and most likely heighten his followers trust in him, because Newman’s poor interviewing skills made his answers seem more meaningful than I think they really were, simply by contrast.
Peterson’s Addiction and Rehab Experience: Do personal struggles detract from ones ability to help others, and related risks of becoming a “self-help” influencer
So far, I’ve shown you the rise of Peterson’s character arch. From his career as a lesser known professor and clinical psychologist (I should mention here that he stopped teaching and seeing clients a few years ago when he switched to using Patreon for financial support from followers), to entering the world of YouTube, to being listed on the AIN, to his bestselling self-help book, and ending with the viral interview that perhaps made him most famous.
I’d like to take a moment to discuss the self-help genre. Self-help books can be very helpful to people who are struggling with a variety of personal issues. I don’t deny that they are positive for some people. I can’t help but point out, however, that many self-help “gurus” end up collecting a cult following. Some people read a self-help book or attend a program and by the end of it view the author or leader as all-knowing, or a god-like figure (a prime example of this phenomenon is NXIVM and Keith Raniere). This is very dangerous and detrimental to followers mental health.
Jordan Peterson is no different from any other self-help author: while his work has been beneficial to some, it has turned others into cult followers, who take his every word as truth and become unable to criticize anything he says.The problem with people like Peterson is that they (sometimes inadvertently and sometimes on purpose) prop themselves up as someone who has it all together, and people begin to rely on them for strength and wisdom. So, what happens when the person you turned to for help begins to struggle?
In 2019, Peterson’s wife was diagnosed with cancer, which led him to take anti-anxiety medication to deal with the pain and stress of the situation, and unfortunately led to an extreme and debilitating physical dependency for which he needed medical intervention to detox from. When the news broke, many news articles were quick to jump on the irony of the situation: a self-help author finding his life in complete shambles.
The result is a lose-lose situation:
Those who used Peterson’s book to better their lives may struggle to trust the advice he gave them, even if it was beneficial when they took it.
Those who already hated Peterson can use his struggles against him, to discredit him and take away from his achievements.
And what’s left of Peterson’s career once he’s recovered? If he’d remained a lesser-known clinical psychologist and had experienced the same hardship, it’s unlikely that seeking treatment would’ve hurt his career. His clients may have even appreciated that he’s been through hardship and recovery, himself.
But after you’ve made a bunch of money by authoring a best-selling self-help book and collecting millions of followers on YouTube (in other words, once you’ve benefited financially from your influencer status) and still end up at rock bottom, it can be harder to restore your reputation and garner the same respect you once did.
Are the “pros” of being an influencer worth the “cons”?
This is ultimately up to individuals themselves, however, before people start building an internet persona or career, I think it’s important they consider the pros and cons of doing so, many of which Peterson’s personal experience illuminate:
- Respect and recognition among your followers
- A platform to express yourself
- A fanbase to share you work and ideas with
- A variety of other influencers to interact with and further spread your content or ideas
- Extreme pressure (from the media, your fanbase, and your haters) to stick to the persona you’ve already built, making it difficult to change your opinion or admit when you make a mistake
- Strangers watching your every move, many of which are not on your side and are waiting for you to slip up so they can call you out
- Even small interactions with other influencers (for example, a like on a post, or a follow on Twitter) will influence your reputation, and who decides to trust you
- Having a large following can create trust, even for people who don’t deserve trust
- It is difficult to redeem yourself when you mess up due to a combination of the previously listed cons