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Talking Basement-Dwellers With Jordan Peterson, Reddit’s New Favorite Philosopher

Jordan Peterson. Photo: Ryan Pfluger

“Why not sit in your mother’s basement and eat Cheetos and play video games and watch pornography?” Jordan Peterson asks me. For the record, he means it rhetorically, as the existential plight of modern man; my mother doesn’t even have a basement. We’re on the balcony of an Airbnb in a luxury loft in downtown Los Angeles, overlooking an unpopulated swimming pool. “That’s a perfectly valid question,” he says. “It’s certainly pleasurable, and not very onerous, moment to moment.”

We’re roughly four uninterrupted minutes into the answer to my first question: What about this particular historical moment has made Peterson, a University of Toronto professor in L.A. to lecture to a sold-out crowd at the Orpheum Theatre, a sudden celebrity as the author of a best-selling new book, 12 Rules for Life; the star of a wildly successful lecture tour across North America and Europe; a candidate, David Brooks says, for the title of the West’s “most influential public intellectual”? “I think the answer to that is actually to be found in an old story,” Peterson began. “There’s an idea that, especially in a moment of crisis, you have to go into the belly of the beast and rescue your father from the depths of chaos. Well, that’s what I’m doing.”

The father in this parable is — I think — stable, individualist, Western democracy; the “depths of chaos” are (again, if I’m following him) the “postmodern neo-Marxist” attacking truth and meaning, and thus threatening the stability of prosperous industrial nations. At its core, Peterson’s basic intellectual project is a familiar conservative one: He stands for natural order, individualism, and responsibility in opposition to what he sees as the looming totalitarianism of the “radical left”; he says that, while responsibility must be balanced with “rights and freedoms,” we’ve been emphasizing rights “for, like, 60 years. Enough!”

Two things seem to separate Peterson from other would-be most prominent public intellectuals: The first is that he is, essentially, a self-help guru. 12 Rules for Life, which Peterson describes as a book of “philosophical self-help,” distills Jungian archetypes, biblical stories, biological studies, and Peterson’s own life experience into a 12-item list of commandments, like “Stand up straight with your shoulders back.” On a surface level, the advice is direct and nicely practical, but it tends to veer into a kind of woo-woo evolutionary psychology: “Chaos, the eternal feminine, is also the crushing force of sexual selection.”

The second thing that seems to separate Peterson is where he became influential: the internet. 12 Rules for Life began life as a viral answer to the question “What are the most valuable things everyone should know?” on the question-and-answer social network Quora. (Back then, the list had 40 items.) Peterson now pulls in as much as $60,000 a month from devoted subscribers on the crowdfunding site Patreon; the sub-Reddit in his name has about 33,000 passionate readers. But his home base is, really, YouTube, which he calls a “Gutenberg revolution”; his personal channel, which he began in 2013, has 720,000 subscribers, and his lectures live on, remixed and given slavering titles (“Jordan Peterson Destroys Islam in 15 Seconds”), on other channels.

All of which has turned him into a philosopher king–life coach of basement-dweller nation, a stern father figure peddling a kind of NEET respectability politics. (NEET, which stands for Not in Education, Employment, or Training, is a British bureaucratism borrowed as a self-descriptor by the web’s most asocial.) It might tell you a fair amount about both Peterson and his audience that his best-known and most beloved bit of insight is “Clean up your room.” (Perhaps the NEETs’ mothers should upload lectures of life-changing philosophy like “Put the toilet seat down, please” to YouTube.) Peterson’s is a message of personal responsibility, but not a heartless one. “I’m telling young men that, look, there’s a hole in the world if you don’t fulfill your destiny,” he says. “The loss of what you have to offer will be felt by others.”

The flip side of the YouTube dynamic, of course, is that the corner of YouTube that has glommed onto him is a marketplace with a particular kind of audience, seeking a particular kind of wisdom: aggrieved young men feeling threatened and alienated and seeking justification for their anger. Peterson is also known for his outspoken opposition to a Canadian law that added gender expression and identity to the list of classes protected by discrimination law. Peterson’s opposition is based on his reading that the law would compel him and others to use gender-neutral pronouns that he considers “an attempt by the radical postmodernists to occupy the linguistic territory,” and a video of him, in red suspenders, in the midst of an angry confrontation with trans students over “made-up pronouns which no one uses,” went viral in the fall of 2016. He became a hero to the anti-p.c. right.

The problem, as Peterson puts it, is that “there’s a whole bunch of people that are opposed to the radical left,” and many of them are, well, Nazis. Peterson is not “alt-right” (he hates Nazis too much), but, not coincidentally, his fans are the same demographic that tends to get preyed upon by neo-reactionaries. As with his book, Peterson’s lectures feature broadly good advice and in-the-abstract good ideas, which, when attended to closely, reveal themselves to be, well, extreme. He recently suggested there ought to be an algorithm that would uncover and list the college courses that feature postmodernism; in January, he promoted on Twitter a bizarre, long-standing 4chan conspiracy theory that Google artificially promotes image-search results that show plus-size women in searches for “bikini”; in lectures and on Twitter he’s speculated that “the feminists and the radical Islamists” have formed an “alliance” because of an “attraction emerging among the female radicals for that totalitarian male dominance.”

Like other anti-p.c. crusaders, Peterson tends to insist that his more controversial statements are speculations in the spirit of free inquiry. But Peterson is also unconcerned about right-wing radicalism because he believes that postmodern leftists represent a greater threat to stable democracy. “The radical right?” he asks incredulously. “Who are you talking about? The radical right that occupies the humanities?” The right and left in the U.S. right now, he believes, are “quite nicely distributed in terms of influence” — the right with its power base in Congress, the left with its power base in academia and human-resource departments. (“Human-resource departments, man,” Peterson says, “they’re trouble.”)

Peterson considered running for leadership of Ontario’s conservative party last week, after its leader resigned in a sexual-harassment scandal. Ultimately, he decided against it. “It doesn’t seem that it’s time to stop doing” what he’s doing, he says, and besides, his influence is only growing. The crowd at his Orpheum lecture in L.A. was more mixed than you might expect based on his online fandom. “I think that many of the things that I’m saying are attractive to women who are sensible,” he says. (Peggy Noonan, who devoted a Wall Street Journal column to Peterson last week, is one such woman.) After L.A., Peterson is traveling to San Francisco, where he’ll meet with the prominent venture capitalist Marc Andreessen. And then? Well, he actually wrote 20 rules for the book but picked out just 12.
“The other eight are sitting there,” he says, just waiting to pull someone out of the basement.

*This article appears in the February 5, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. 

Talking Basement-Dwellers With Reddit’s Favorite Philosopher