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Political Editors / May 4, 2021

In Brief: The Man They Couldn’t Cancel

Mobs have targeted Jordan Peterson, but he hasn’t lost his university job and his publishers have stuck by him.

Conservatives have become all too familiar with “cancel culture,” which Wall Street Journal editorial board member Barton Swaim likens to old school “blacklists.” He notes that many folks don’t know how to stand up to it. That’s not true of others, including one popular man:

One target of cancellation who is able to speak intelligently about it is Jordan Peterson, the University of Toronto clinical psychologist, YouTube lecturer, and author of “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos” (2018) and “Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life,” published in March.

Peterson is a philosopher whose message, especially on YouTube, resonates with young men who yearn for his tangible advice for life. Increasingly, he’s become a target of the Left. Swaim explains:

The stereotypical Peterson fan, it’s probably fair to say, is a young white male whose life lacked structure and discipline but heard Mr. Peterson’s lectures and began to reorder his life. Mr. Peterson insists, though, that his critics caricature his audience for their own ends. “There’s this hypothetical group that I’m helping,” he says: “angry, alienated, disenfranchised white-supremacist young males. First of all, that’s a lie. Second, even if it is disenfranchised young males who are primarily responding to what I’m saying, is there really something wrong with me talking to them? Are they so beneath contempt that they don’t deserve anyone’s attention?”

Those who despise Mr. Peterson think of him as a member of “the right” or even “the far right.” I wouldn’t describe him as a conservative — his interest lies in individual rather than societal order, and he says little about public policy. But it’s true that he not infrequently winds up holding conservative viewpoints on cultural matters. In “Beyond Order,” for example, he makes the case for marriage over cohabitation and readily acknowledges that children do better in two-parent families than in single-parent ones. He also writes and speaks frequently on the differences between masculinity and femininity.

But what put Mr. Peterson in the crosshairs of North America’s cultural arbiters was his vocal opposition to identity politics, and specifically the totalitarian methods of militant transgenderism. In 2016 he ran afoul of Bill C-16, legislation in the Canadian Parliament (later enacted) that added “gender identity or expression” to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination. In the course of that controversy Mr. Peterson remarked that he would refuse to use contrived pronouns in his classes. “I regard these made-up pronouns, all of them, as neologisms of a radical PC authoritarianism,” he said in 2016. “I’m not going to be a mouthpiece for language I detest.”

Since then he has been denounced as racist, misogynist, fascist and transphobic.

Perhaps what irritates leftists most is Peterson’s general tenor:

Mr. Peterson doesn’t directly challenge the substance of these dreary criticisms. Rather he protests that they’re unnatural and unhealthy. “The proper attitude toward young people is encouragement,” he says — “their ambitions, their strivings, their desire to be competent, their deep wish for a trustworthy guiding hand. I think our culture is so cynical that it’s impossible, especially for the established intellectual chattering critics, to even imagine that encouragement is possible.”

Nevertheless, Peterson persists. “He retains his academic post; his YouTube lectures and podcasts have not been scrubbed from the internet; and his publishers stuck with his books, which are available for purchase.” Why? He’s both “tried to understand his would-be cancelers” and he “hasn’t apologized or disavowed any previous statement.”

In fact, Swaim concludes, “Now there’s a rule for his next book: Don’t apologize when you haven’t done anything wrong.”

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