A PhD in clinical psychology and teaching at the University of Toronto would not strike anyone as a libertarian poster-boy. That is, unless you’ve heard of Jordan Peterson. In the past 27 years, Peterson has transcended from psychology to sociology to political science, all while rebelling against the liberal intelligentsia that educated and employs him.
Many writers, on all sides of the political aisle, have sought to explain Peterson’s rise. They often point to his self-help books and podcasts, aimed at bestowing purpose and discipline on emasculated young men.
Yet for all his books, YouTube series, and psychological research, Peterson was relatively unknown in the global libertarian community just months ago. It’s not that he had not been making headlines—Peterson drew national attention for speaking out against Bill C16, which infringed upon all sorts of freedoms of speech and expression. Unfortunately, he made the news in Canada, and as a citizen of Canada’s favorite next-door neighbor, I can assure you that what happens in Canada, stays in Canada.
All this changed on January 16th, when British journalist Cathy Newman interviewed Peterson on Channel 4 News about gender equality, the wage gap, and the aforementioned Canadian Bill C16.
Unbeknownst to Peterson, Newman would prove both incompetent and boorish, consistently misinterpreting him and thus inspiring the now viral “so you’re saying….” meme. Peterson, as an active psychology professor, played perfectly into the niche, responding calmly and intellectually with concrete statistics and precise language. And thus, out of this lucky pairing, another legend was born.
However, there are many eloquent libertarian figures (many not so eloquent as well) and even more obstinate, downright infuriating, progressive pundits. Interviews between the two have been plentiful. While the Newman interview was undoubtedly the spark, there must be some underlying source of fuel that keeps the Peterson fire aflame.
I believe Peterson’s claim to ideological fame is his seeming lack of interest in it. Most political pundits start and end their careers in politics. And yet, politics inherently do not produce any economic value—the entire essence of the job is to steal another’s earning while convincing that person it is for their own good.
Beginning your career in politics, even if as a conservative, is a smear to one’s ethos. None of the most successful libertarians in the United States, from Ron and Rand Paul to (and I hate to say it) Gary Johnson, started out as politicians. Peterson has taken this strategy to a new level: he is influencing US and global politics while actively teaching psychology in Toronto, with absolutely no political aspirations.
Unlike economists like Friedman, few of the socially and ethically libertarian commentators have come from academia (unless you count Ayn Rand’s alma mater, the Leningrad State University). Peterson, bucking yet another trend, has chosen to export his psychological acumen, so that rather than helping individual patients, he can resuscitate our increasingly degenerate culture and help millions. Like Carl Sagan, with the now famous “Pale Blue Dot” speech, Peterson is taking his decades of research out of dusty old databases and scientific journals and bringing them to the light of the public.
From this functionalist perspective, Peterson is able to do something no libertarian commentator before him could: he can argue that a freer, less coddled way of life is not just ethical, but also adaptive, better for humanity as a whole.
He can say that he has, first-hand, treated the victims of progressive culture without ever invoking Democrats or politics. Peterson, from his intellectual moral high ground, can scientifically confirm all that which libertarians have viscerally known for decades. He has proven to be a political force for the very reason that, in an atmosphere inundated with politics, he appears to want nothing to do with it.
Jordan Peterson will likely trend for some time and then fade out of the greater public eye, like many who have come before him. Should the University of Toronto, Canadian government, or a vengeful Cathy Newman try to censor him, he will certainly be thrust back into the spotlight. Such is the hyperactive (to borrow a term from Peterson’s oh so favorite psychology) news cycle of the 21st century. Fortunately for Peterson, he has a stable job and life outside of Internet forums and Ottawa’s political showdowns (if those actually exist).
Peterson should act as an inspiration for a future generation of libertarians, not merely through his life advice, but also through his actions and career path.
The movement for liberty needs intellectuals of diverse backgrounds and creeds to break through the barriers imposed by the liberal intelligentsia. Many have given up on academia altogether, leaving it to the radical liberals to do with as they please. I believe if intellectualism is still salvageable, it must be saved. The rational, scientific manner by which we derive our values, embodied by Dr. Peterson’s psychological research, is an essential beacon of hope for our future.
When fascist dictator Francisco Franco conquered Northern Spain in 1936, he inspired protests among the faculty of the University of Salamanca.
While Professor Miguel Unamuno was making speech against the Francoists, the lecture hall was stormed by a general of Franco’s, who yelled “Muera la Inteligencia,” meaning “death to Intellectualism.” Unamuno responded, “Viva la Muerte,” meaning, “long live death,” words that became a battle cry for Spanish liberation. Unamuno died before Franco conquered all of Spain, but he did have time to coin another rallying cry: “Vencer no es convencer,” meaning, “a physical victory is not a victory over the mind.”
While radical progressives, like Franco’s forces a century ago, have taken over academia, heroes the likes of Dr. Jordan Peterson are fighting to keep liberty rational, intellectualism free, and perhaps even, in the words of Unamuno, keep death alive.
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