In recent weeks, venues in three North American cities have cancelled screenings of a new movie, “The Rise of Jordan Peterson.” In each case, from Toronto to Brooklyn to Portland, the decision was made in response to criticism that Peterson, a Canadian psychologist who was thrust into fame in 2015 with a controversy over trans pronouns and a series of viral You Tube videos, is a dangerous far-right fanatic. There were also threats that showings might be protested, perhaps violently.
Lets be clear on one thing right off the bat: this allegation is pure and simple nonsense. First of all, unlike the violent activists who dub themselves “Antifa” and busy themselves throwing milkshakes at people if they aren’t punching them, Peterson spent much of his early career studying the psychological elements at work when populations come to accept fascistic and totalitarian regimes.
That work was in fact at the root of his dust-up over pronouns. Peterson vowed not to obey a Canadian law that criminalized refusing to use a person’s preferred pronouns. He wrote at that time, “I know something about the way that totalitarian, authoritarian political states develop and I can’t help but think I’m seeing a fair bit of that right now.”
Essentially his argument is that a central factor in authoritarian control of the people is for the state to determine what the people may say, and by extension control what they believe. Now to be clear, Peterson — like millions of other people, myself included — does not believe that people can change their sex. This is not some far right-wing dangerous belief, either. In fact, until a very few years ago it was unquestionably the belief of the vast majority of human beings, and frankly it still is.
So clearly, in order to find him dangerous enough to shut down a movie about him, there must be other complaints. There must be other things he is doing and saying that create a threat that must be matched by censoring work about him. And there is, kind of. Beyond the trans issue, but related to it, is that Peterson believes that men and women are inherently different and require different things to find fulfillment.
That’s right. Peterson is problematic because his views on men and women are viewed as regressive. He’s not saying that women aren’t or shouldn’t be free to pursue whatever they wish to achieve. Rather, as he pointed on a viral smackdown of a BBC reporter, he thinks that in general, on the whole, there are differences between what men and women want.
The final argument that suggests Peterson is too dangerous for a movie about him to run is that he is some kind of gateway drug to alt-right thought. Take this nugget from a recent New York Times opinion article: “They may also find videos by more mainstream figures, including members of the so-called intellectual dark web like Jordan Peterson, a Canadian psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto, whose conservative perspectives on feminism and gender are very popular among young men and often are a path to more extreme content and ideologies.”
This is really one of the stupidest and most insidious arguments about Peterson: He leads to harder stuff. This is an argument that any side can make about anyone. Climate activist are a gateway to Antifa, civil rights activists are a gateway to the Black Panthers, The Grateful Dead are a gateway to Phish. It is such an insincere and unremarkable argument against a man who has legitimately helped a ton of people that it is simply laughable.
There is nothing wrong with thinking that Peterson peddles a bunch of silly nonsense, if that’s what you believe. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, but this is exactly the free speech he defends. What doesn’t make sense is trying to shut down access to his ideas. Protesting a movie about a person you disagree with and getting it cancelled is not a noble way to engage in ideas. It is illiberal and a bit fascistic.
Let the movie play. Let people who want to see it see it and judge for themselves. Jordan Peterson is not dangerous. The people who seek so desperately to shut him down, on the other hand, are.