A little more than a week ago, an article from the website Quillette, “Why Jordan B Peterson Appeals to Me (And I Am on the Left),” went viral. The essay itself is a fairly standard defense of Peterson’s work, following a similar blueprint to those you’re likely to find scattered all over Reddit, YouTube and Facebook. It starts by the writer stating his sympathy for “Anarcho-Syndicalism” before explaining that you can only understand Peterson’s work by watching dozens of his hour-long YouTube videos and reading every word he’s ever written. It’s only much later on in the essay that the question of Peterson’s compatibility with leftist politics gets interrogated, with the writer arguing that those who lean left can see merits in Peterson’s work if they acknowledge “biological differences” that are “scientific truths.” He especially hammers this point home at the end:
“So finally, I put forward a plea to my fellow travelers on the left, who view our ancient biological nature as an obstacle to progress: we must first come to terms with material reality and human nature if we ever seek to change it. Until we do that, we’ll remain culturally stagnant, and the most unscrupulous actors on the far right, and in totalitarian governments, will seize upon dominance hierarchies and difficult scientific studies to justify their horrible crimes.”
Believe me, I’m not interested in interrogating Peterson’s work here. (There’s plenty of that already all over the internet.) I’m not even that interested in interrogating the Quillette piece. (I’m too tired to engage in hundred-tweet threads that will all inevitably lead to someone advocating race science be taught in public schools.) I am, though, curious about one particular line in it: “Jordan Peterson has plenty of followers on the left, but watching the media climate surrounding his book release, you’d think he appeals only to the most reactionary, hyper-masculine discontents of the modern world.”
Could this really be true?
Could there really be a cabal of young leftists — members of the DSA, Jeremy Corbyn supporters, European social democrats — who found solace in Jordan Peterson? After all, you only need to type in “Jordan Peterson Left Wing” on YouTube to find pages of videos with titles like “Jordan Peterson Dismantles Leftism,” “Jordan Peterson: How the Left is Dismantling Moral Thinking” and “Jordan Peterson Dismantles the Left’s Idea on Gender/Income Inequality.” Meanwhile, it’s not uncommon for Peterson super-fans to use terms like “leftist,” “Marxist” and “SJW” when going after people critical of him or his work.
That isn’t to say Peterson is situated in any right-wing camp. Plenty of his fans refer to him as a left-leaning liberal or politically neutral. But as both a leftist and someone active in the British left-wing political space, I’d never heard of people who had taken Peterson’s writing seriously, let alone considering them formative texts behind their political thinking.
It turns out, though, they do in fact exist.
“I’ve been a fan of Peterson’s for a long time — before he became really famous,” says Alex, a British postgraduate student who didn’t want to disclose his full name because he’s an activist for Momentum, a left-wing political organization known for championing Corbyn. He adds that Peterson’s appeal isn’t necessarily political or intellectual. Instead, Alex views him more as an advice guru. “I was in a really bad place last year,” he explains. “I was depressed and on medication. I’d just graduated from university, and I didn’t have a job. All I did was watch YouTube videos. I found some Peterson videos on my recommended tab, and one of them was about setting up a schedule. It was really useful — just because I’m a disorganized idiot, and had no idea where my money was going or what job applications I’d sent.”
Since then, Alex has favorited several Peterson videos on managing depression and anxiety as well as on creativity and time management. “Things that just help you sort your life out, you know?”
Alex says he doesn’t know a lot about Peterson’s political views, and though he was sure he “wasn’t alt-right or far right,” he doesn’t see Peterson as left wing either. “He’s more like a guy who can appeal to everyone — just because the things that really resonate are common sense kind of things.”
The other left-wing people I find who are comfortable calling themselves Peterson fans are similar to Alex. Namely, they’re all men in their mid- to late-20s who see Peterson’s advice either as peripheral to their wider political convictions, or someone whose ideas are separate from their political activism. Nearly all of them, however, didn’t want to be quoted for fear of falling out of favor with left-wing friends who were vehemently anti-Peterson and accused him of capitulating to far-right personalities on social media and/or saying stupid shit about women in workplaces and trans people.
Moreover, they don’t want to be associated with Peterson’s hardcore fan base, which is known for piling onto people who they perceive as opponents, sometimes with racist and sexist abuse. “I’d have been happy to go on record if there wasn’t a risk that a negative comment about him might result in my Twitter inbox being spammed for days,” one tells me over Facebook Messenger.
Still, there’s at least one brave soul.
“From an American perspective, he’s pretty left-wing!” says Jak Shah, a 28-year-old retail manager who describes himself as an active left-winger and a member of his local New York DSA branch. Speaking to me on Whatsapp, he says, “If you’re European, Peterson’s message might resonate less, largely because his popularity is still largely rooted in North America. But Peterson’s one of those voices that isn’t ardently right-wing — he’s not batshit crazy like those guys on Fox News. And though there’s plenty to disagree with him on, there’s also plenty of stuff that’s quite progressive in U.S. political terms.”
Shah tells me he became interested in Peterson after seeing one of his YouTube videos. “I remember this video where he basically said that universities’ humanities departments were wasting money by publishing bullshit papers. I was like, ‘The man has a point!’ I was two years into doing a PhD in philosophy, trying to write this bullshit paper that even I wasn’t convinced by — with the aim that I could shop it to some journal and it’d boost my standing.”
Plus: “There’s a part of me that just sees him as pure entertainment,” Shah continues. “I mean, when I’m bored, I’ll click on a Peterson video, and I’m not sure what I’ll get. It might be a useful piece of advice, it might be an insightful anecdote or it might be some absolutely bizarre shit that I’m not even sure he believes in.”
Shah explains that more of the latter is showing up lately. “Things like ‘Jordan Peterson Owns A Leftist TV Host,’ when he doesn’t really ‘own’ anyone. Recently, too, he’s commenting on everything free speech related. But it’s never been a feature of his work — not even in his latest book. So that kind of stuff — the obvious right-wing tropes and straw men — I won’t pay attention to. But that’s not to say Peterson isn’t intriguing in his area of expertise.”
In this respect, Shah argues Peterson is like Noam Chomsky. “Chomsky’s a darling to parts of the left, especially young people just venturing into leftist politics. But at a certain point, that intrigue dies, and that’s because Chomsky is more interesting in his actual academic area of expertise — linguistics. I imagine the fascination with Peterson will go that way, too. He’ll be a gateway for young people who lean to the social right, but at some point, people will just remember him for his self-help stuff.”