Leader of the Pack: On Jordan Peterson's Fanbase
by Kaleigh Weickert
Jordan Peterson has become an internet sensation. Some may say for all the wrong reasons. His no-nonsense views have made him an idol and spokesperson for many right-wing groups, including the alt-right. However, it is not exclusively his perspectives which could potentially pose harm to a society currently in a violent tug-of-war between two opposing political and cultural standpoints (right and left). Rather, it is the interpretations and actions of his ever-growing, loyal fanbase that are truly troubling. The majority of Peterson’s followers are young men. And yet, his best-selling self-help book is titled 12 Rules for Life and not 12 Rules for White Dudes, so what is it that makes Peterson so attractive to this demographic? He seems to be the knight in shining armour (or perhaps he would don a red baseball cap instead) who has finally come to the defence of the men who feel demonized by diversity politics and called out for their “privilege” when they do not feel their lives are so easy at all. And yet, there is more at stake than just a new male victim mentality as hate groups such as neo-Nazis and the alt-right have started adopting Peterson as a figurehead. How, then, may we understand Peterson’s appeal?
Just two years ago, Jordan Peterson was working as a clinical phycologist and psychology professor at the University of Toronto, a somewhat accomplished individual in the world of academia but largely unknown to the general public. He gained international attention in 2016 when he publicly opposed the Trudeau government’s “Bill C-16,” which proposed to grant full civil rights to transgender persons, including the right to be called by their preferred pronoun. This event inspired Peterson to start a ‘movement’ of sorts, one which consisted and continues to consist of him posting various anti-political correctness video lectures to his YouTube channel. These videos quickly gained Peterson a significant online following, which has rapidly grown into a full-fledged fanbase. The purpose of this study will be to examine that fanbase; predominantly, I will be investigating the demographic of Peterson’s followers and why/how he appeals to them. Additionally, I will address the concern that is the professor’s unintended admirers—largely, the alt-right and other far-right/politically deviant groups. Lastly, I will touch on the effect that Peterson’s supporters are having not only in YouTube comment sections, but in the real world.
With over one million subscribers on YouTube and 600,000 Twitter followers, Jordan Peterson clearly has a significant fanbase—but who are they? Based on his strong and very public stance on political correctness, it is tempting to assume who his fans would be. Luckily, I do not have to resort to this; Peterson has publicly acknowledged the demographic of his fanbase in various interviews. On his podcast ‘Under the Skin’, Russell Brand asks Peterson whether or not he is aware that his audience is made up largely by young men, to which Peterson answers affirmatively. The University of Toronto professor adds that YouTube happens to be one of his main platforms, and youtubers viewers, “tend to be predominantly male.”[i] In his article on the Jordan Peterson phenomenon, Max Read points out that the section of YouTube in which Peterson operates attracts a certain group of people who are looking for a particular kind of wisdom; that is, “aggrieved young men feeling threatened and alienated and seeking justification for their anger.”[ii] Read describes how Peterson is, “telling young men that there is a hole in the world if you do not fulfill your destiny,” to emphasize his message of “personal responsibility.”[iii] He does not orient his work around men who are secure in their intellectual and/or political standing, and he seems even less concerned with reaching out to women.
The first chapter of Peterson’s self-help book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is titled, “Stand Up Straight with Your Shoulders Back”. For men who feel out of place and victimized in a time of ‘white guilt’, and supposed rising female power, Peterson offers comfort and satisfaction in that they need not be submissive—especially not to ‘radical leftists’. During the introduction to Peterson’s interview with Vice News, several fans are asked on camera what attracts them to Peterson. One young man claims, “He came to me at a point in my life when I really needed someone to look up to.”[iv] Clearly the relationship flows both ways, as Peterson later admits to the journalist that he is trying to reach, “people who have more in them than they’re currently manifesting… people who have been fed a nauseating diet of rights and freedoms.”[v] This theme reoccurs in Brand’s podcast; the host asks Peterson if a desire for “unity” and a “guiding figure” for men in a time where “communities are suffering” might be one of the reason young males are so attracted to Peterson. The professor confirms this to be a possibility.[vi] It is not only a guiding figure that men search for in Peterson, he also acts as a defender of the ever-criticized white male. His stance on the falsehood of white privilege validates his significant white male fanbase. He reassures them that they are not the part of society in the wrong, and they should not be blamed for the shortcomings of others. For example, in his interview with Vice, Peterson claims that, “makeup is sexually provocative” and there is no reason for it to be worn in the workplace.[vii] He says if a woman wears makeup to work and then complains that she has been sexually harassed, she is being hypocritical. This puts the onus on women; thus, men feel validated in that when issues such as sexual harassment take place, Peterson’s logic suggests they are not the ones to be blamed.
Peterson’s tendency to use academic language in a broad, often not wholly accurate manner also contributes to his appeal. For example, he often blames ‘postmodernism’ for the downfall of Western society. How he defines postmodernism, however, is both confusing and troubling. In an interview with far-right political commentator Ben Shapiro, Peterson is specifically asked, “what do you mean by postmodern?”, in response to which he says that people can think of it today as “identity politics” and left’s manipulative use of an “oppressor vs. oppressed narrative.”[viii] He adds that today’s postmodern society is apparently made up by various groups “vying for power”, because they believe there is nothing else to vie for.[ix] In contrast to experts such as Frederic Jameson, these statements suggest Peterson sees postmodernism simply as a way to explain how the left has gone too far. He equates postmodernism with classic “Social Justice Warrior” critiques; that is, that we reside in an oversensitive society where people love to play the victim. Again, this interpretation of postmodernism takes the blame off of men. The issue, Peterson implies, is not that twenty-first century society is raising its expectations of men; rather, that postmodernism has infiltrated the cultural sphere and created a narrative which wrongfully denounces men. This cements Peterson’s proclamation that men, and more largely masculinity, are not problematic.
It is established, then, that the main demographic which Peterson draws is primarily young white men who are ‘seeking guidance’. This in itself is not inherently problematic; country music and Eminem also attract a lot of young white men. The issue lies in the groups whom Peterson is unintentionally attracting: the far-right, alt-right, neo-Nazis etc. To clarify: Peterson himself is not a neo-Nazi or political extremist. However, evidence suggests that he does not care if Nazis are who he attracts. In his interview with Vice, Peterson is asked, “Are you worried you’re attracting a crowd you may not want to attract?” to which Peterson responds, “No I’m not … I’m not worried about the impact of what I’m doing, because the evidence is overwhelming that it’s positive.”[x] Before Vice’s interview begins, the program features a segment of Peterson answering questions at a talk, which gives an interesting glimpse into the type of audience he is attracting. During this segment, a young man stands up and asks Peterson if he believes Jewish people are going to, “use their position of power to seek revenge on Europe.”[xi] Though Peterson’s lectures do not focus on Jewish Issues or Jewish-European relations, he evidently attracts individuals who feel comfortable/right in asking him provocative, culturally-insensitive questions such as this.
A fanbase made up of not only white men, but white nationalists; how does this conservative academic attract groups whose views are more extreme than his own? Firstly, Peterson consistently bashes the humanities and says universities are corrupt. He claims that universities have become “indoctrination cults” for social justice ideology.[xii] Based on these assertions, one would have to be a pretty self-deprecating arts/humanities student to be a fan of Peterson’s. Thus, his followers are largely made up by those who work or study in other areas, such as business or engineering, or those who are formally uneducated. This indicates that the majority of his followers do not study culture; those who are actually educated in the arts, and know the most about the humanities, tend to oppose Peterson. This allows Peterson to talk about things like cultural Marxism and postmodernism with little critique from his audience because many of them are unfamiliar with the concepts. While Peterson benefits from a fanbase not educated in the humanities, his hatred of the department also attracts more extreme right-wing followers who view him with a “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” mentality. Peterson has clearly positioned himself against PC-culture and the “extreme left,” the same opposition taken by groups like the alt-right. There are so few public figureheads for the alt-right, it follows logically that they would attach themselves to anyone who openly opposes the same progressive ideologies.
Though Peterson himself is not extreme enough to be rightfully called a neo-Nazi, his lectures do not reject the far-right strongly or openly enough to keep these groups from relating to him. He will imply that society ought to be more conservative, but he will not precisely convey how conservative. His far-right listeners can then choose to apply his words to suit their own philosophies. As Tabatha Southey attests, one will not hear Peterson directly say that “we must secure a future for our white children.” Instead, he makes statements such as, “while there does appear to be a causal relationship between empowering women and economic growth, we have to consider whether this is good for society… because the birth rate is plummeting.”[xiii] Peterson has not promoted a “white ethnostate,” however, he has retweeted Daily Caller articles with opening statements such as, “Yet again an American city is being torn apart by black rioters.”[xiv] Additionally, Peterson has dedicated lengthily YouTube lectures to, “identity politics and the Marxist lie of white privilege.”[xv] While some may take Peterson’s lectures ‘with a grain of salt’, the hate groups who are following him adopt his principles and exaggerate them to fit their own regressive doctrines. The professor himself seems to be quite stable in his ideas and his identity; however, his fans exist within the same demographic that tends to get “preyed upon by neo-reactionaries.”[xvi]
I suggest that problematic right-wing groups are largely drawn to Peterson due to his narrative being highly divisional, as well as critical of minorities. For instance, on Twitter the professor has proposed that the “feminists and the radical Islamists” have formed an “alliance” against white men because of an “attraction emerging among the female radicals for that totalitarian male dominance.”[xvii] He suggests that certain groups, mainly women and minorities, are attempting to destroy not only individual freedom, but all of Western civilization; disregarding concepts of rightfulness and truth for the sake of their own sick satisfaction. As Southey describes, “He’s telling you that when someone tells you racism is still a problem and that something should be done about it, they are, at best, a dupe and, at worst, part of a Marxist conspiracy to destroy your way of life.”[xviii] In a time where the political climate is so starkly divided between left and right, statements such as the above which may exist in the “middle-right,” are easily interpreted as “far-right.” This allows for an alt-right fanbase who love Peterson not because he specifically endorses their hateful, racist etc. beliefs, but because he validates them just enough to give them a ‘way in’ to the public sphere/public discourse. He makes it easier for far-right groups to be considered seriously, as one can draw loose (and sometimes not-so-loose) connections between his positions and theirs. A fitting example of this may be that in the past, Peterson has suggested that while responsibility must be balanced with “rights and freedoms,” society has been emphasizing rights “for, like, 60 years. Enough!”[xix] Proclamations like this sit unsteadily on the line between conservative and alt-right; thus, a ‘slippery slope’ is created. Average people may initially be attracted to Peterson’s forwardness, but one article links to another and soon they could find themselves reading hate-speech published by the alt-right referencing similar anti-PC themes. This is what makes Peterson’s fanbase potentially dangerous; it is not Peterson himself, but how the far-right interprets him. They have the means to use him as a ‘gateway philosopher’ to draw his other fans to much darker corners of the cultural/political sphere.
I have thus far examined who Peterson is attracting and why… but so what? To look deeper into the cultural effect of the Peterson cult phenomenon, I will reference Roger Berkowitz’s article: “The Origins of Totalitarianism: Why Arendt Matters.” Mass movements, Ardent claims, are one of the core elements of totalitarianism. Berkowitz related this to U.S President Donald Trump by saying, “He understood that he was not running a political campaign but was the leader of a mass movement. Most importantly, he understood something that his critics still fail to understand: the essential nature of loyalty in mass movements.”[xx] I suggest that Peterson acting as the figurehead of a mass movement—one that is quite similar in nature to Trump’s. Like Trump, Peterson also dedicates his time to fighting against political correctness and oversensitive left-wingers. Part of Peterson’s appeal is that his fans do not perceive themselves as simply committing celebrity worship; instead, they believe that they are part of an important movement against the nefarious liberals who are trying to control society. In his interview with Vice, the professor states that people should stay away from “identity politics” at all costs because the phenomenon is only an “excuse” not to live in a “respectable, noble manner.”[xxi] His choice in language, especially with the word “noble”, shows the effect he has in making young men feel like warriors. Rather than identifying as fans of a man who rejects a bill supporting human dignity, his followers see themselves as soldiers coming together to fight against corruption as if they are in a twenty-first century French Revolution.
Peterson also invokes Berkowitz’s analyzation of Trump in that he presents himself as a rare perpetrator of honesty. He gives the impression that he is the only one willing to pronounce what all others are thinking but are too polite to say aloud.[xxii] Such as with the U.S. President, ‘fact checking’ is irrelevant, because Peterson’s fans prefer the version of reality that he presents. They do not trust the media and they certainly do not trust universities, as Peterson has condemned both for being corrupt. The unwavering loyalty of Peterson’s army of anti-PC soldiers is beginning to make discourse in academic settings very challenging. A post submitted on Reddit titled, “Jordan Peterson is Making My Job Impossible,” written by a frustrated university arts professor, describes the phenomenon:
“Peterson is on the record saying Women's Studies departments and the neo-Marxists are out to literally destroy western civilization and I have to patiently explain to [students] that, no, these people are my friends and colleagues… you need to stop feeding yourself on this virtual reality that systematically cherry-picks things that perpetuate this neurological addiction to anger and belief vindication… I just want to do my week on Foucault/Baudrillard/de Beauvoir without having to figure out how to get these kids out of what is basically a cult based on stupid YouTube videos.” [xxiii]
Though Peterson criticizes the left for attempting to silence him, his followers appear to be exhibiting similar behaviour in classroom settings by preventing lessons about liberal thinkers and/or postmodernists from being effectively taught. It is not only by promoting his message that Peterson’s fans show their loyalty; as of February 2018, Peterson was making as much as $60,000 per month in donations from devoted subscribers on the crowdfunding site Patreon.[xxiv] His sub-Reddit, which collects posts on the topic of Peterson and his work, has approximately 33,000 passionate readers.[xxv] His greatest method of influence, though, is his YouTube channel with over a million subscribers, which he calls a “Gutenberg revolution.”[xxvi] Fans often repost clips of Peterson on their own channels, adding aggressive titles such as, “Jordan Peterson Destroys Islam in 15 Seconds.”[xxvii] It would not be shocking for his passionate fans to perpetuate aggressive behaviour as their way of standing up to the left-wingers and postmodernists who Peterson blames for Western society’s downfall. His diction seems to encourage aggression, with statements such as, “If you’re not capable of cruelty then you’re a victim to anyone who is.”[xxviii] If Peterson himself chooses to act cruelly and/or aggressively to propel himself forward in life, that carries a minor impact on society. However, when his overly loyal fanbase, especially those who sit somewhere on the far-right, also start to orient their lives around these values, it becomes a problem on a societal level.
The majority of the ‘Jordan Peterson phenomenon’ remains a mystery to me. A much more lengthy analysis would be needed if I were to attempt to grasp the entire nature of his coming to fame, let alone understand his opinions. However, I hope to have given some insight into Peterson’s appeal, and the rather complex innerworkings of his fanbase. His strong anti-political correctness message predictably attracts an audience consisting largely of young men, whose adoration for Peterson can be linked to feelings of validation. Their commitment to enforcing his condemnation of the humanities and postmodernism is making discourse, especially in classroom environments, increasingly challenging. The more pressing issue, though, are Peterson’s unintended admirers—such as the alt-right. Such hate groups do not operate under the same agenda as Peterson, but their ability to ‘connect the dots’ between his message and their own is truly troubling. To oppose liberalism does not inherently put one on the same side as those who support fascism, society is not that polarized—I can only hope Peterson’s fans are able to make this distinction for themselves.
[i] “Russell Brand & Jordan Peterson - Kindness VS Power.” YouTube, YouTube, 15 Feb. 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=kL61yQgdWeM&t=1793s.
[ii] Read, Max. Talking Basement-Dwellers with Jordan Peterson, Reddit’s New Favorite Philosopher. New York, Feb 05, 2018.
[iv] “Jordan Peterson Is Canada's Most Infamous Intellectual (HBO).” YouTube, YouTube, 7 Feb. 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=blTglME9rvQ
[vi] russellbrand, 2018.
[vii] vicenews, 2018.
[viii] The Daily Wire. “Live Exclusive: Ben Shapiro with Dr. Jordan Peterson.” YouTube, YouTube, 7 Feb. 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=_3uTp7ATrB0.
[x] vicenews, 2018.
[xii] Jack Smith IV. “Jordan Peterson Is Creating His Own Online University to Destroy College ‘Indoctrination Cults.’” Mic, Mic Network Inc., 27 Mar. 2018, www.mic.com/articles/188569/jordan-peterson-is-creating-his-own-online-university-to-destroy-college-indoctrination-cults.
[xiii] Southey, Tabatha. “Is Jordan Peterson the Stupid Man's Smart Person?” Macleans.ca, 20 Nov. 2017, www.macleans.ca/opinion/is-jordan-peterson-the-stupid-mans-smart-person/.
[xvi] Read, 2018.
[xviii] Southey, 2017.
[xix] Read, 2018.
[xx] Berkowitz, Roger. “Why Arendt Matters: Revisiting ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism.’” Los ……….Angeles Review of Books, 18 Mar. 2017, lareviewofbooks.org/article/arendt-matters-revisiting-origins-totalitarianism/.
[xxi] vicenews, 2018.
[xxii] Berkowitz, 2017.
[xxiii] “I'm a College Philosophy Professor. Jordan Peterson Is Making My Job Impossible. r/Enoughpetersonspam.” Reddit, 26 Mar. 2018, www.reddit.com/r/enoughpetersonspam/comments/86tnz7/im_a_college_philosophy_professor_jordan_peterson/.
[xxiv] Read, 2018.
[xxviii] JordanPetersonVideos. “2017 Personality 04/05: Heroic and Shamanic Initiations.” YouTube, YouTube, 26 Jan. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=wLc_MC7NQek.