The Rise of Jordan Peterson

Some notes on the new documentary

The last thing the world needs is another article about Jordan Peterson — but here I go again. If ever a person was overexposed, is it not the ‘professor against political correctness’? Haven’t we had enough of talking about him?

Well, it turns out no. The story about Jordan Peterson that hasn’t been told is the story of his fragility.

In the documentary ‘The rise of Jordan Peterson’ you get just that: no heroic triumphalism. Nor mockery or insult. Peterson is neither demigod, saviour, nor devil. He is awkward, volatile, emotional, and all too human.

In this film the camera is often aimed at the back of Peterson’s head, one of the most vulnerable parts of the human body. The metaphor should be an obvious one; imagine the gun to the head that Peterson and his family have lived under in the last couple of years. This film is all about the ‘back story’ and the moments in between.

Some scenes are too intimate for comfort: the camera feels like an intrusion. We see Peterson in shorts and socks, guzzling diet coke, his wife Tammy Peterson making chicken in the kitchen. The point is to de-mythologise and humanise.

Peterson’s rise is indeed sensational and surprising. He meets the mob with fury—becomes the most famous intellectual in the world. But one gets the sense that Dr Peterson never really wanted that. Like Frodo carrying his ring, the power of influence feels like a heavy burden, and the ring takes its toll.

Peterson goes through a rather dramatic kind of transfiguration: his hair falls out, he loses about a quarter of his body weight, he finds out he is allergic to any kind of food but red meat—he starts to wear three piece suits and dress like a 19th Century dandy. He moves from the stage of the classroom, to the world stage.

Does Peterson ‘stand up straight with his shoulders back’ in this film? Sometimes. More than often he is slouching and volatile. Does he have a clean room? Not really: his office is in chaotic disarray. But Tammy, on the other hand, seems to have it all together amidst the overwhelming chaos of Peterson’s life and his fierce demand for truth-telling. I doubt he would have survived without her.

Tammy is the still, powerful centre of Peterson’s hurricane. She provides dedicated and steady support. It’s obvious that they operate as one being, which is perhaps the most touching part of the film. And the saddest moment is when she declares ‘I feel like I’m losing Jordan to the world’.

Jordan Peterson has been several different people: the mouthy and wild and left wing activist from Fairview, Alberta, just below the the arctic circle; the precocious professor at Harvard who is a spitting image of Jerry Seinfeld; the overweight and eccentric Hobbit hooked on anti-depressants and tormented by dreams of the end of the world; an intellectual version of Mister Rogers dedicated to helping people get their shit together.

Poets, philosophers, and visionaries—and Peterson is a bit of all those things—have often come from provinces—not from Paris, London or New York. The new air comes from the edges of the world not from the centre. And then the edge becomes the centre, for better or worse.

Frodo Peterson—let us call him— is a reluctant hero. And he is even more reluctant to be the messiah or the satan that people make him out to be. But there is no going back to the shire now.

Because he has been deemed worthy, he has been given the ring of power, and his mission is to save Middle earth. Today he climbs up mount doom at the end of the world, tears in his eyes, emaciated, worn, broken, weakened to near death by the ring of power.

And yet despite his weakness — which the film does not shy of portraying — he is actually triumphant on some level. Vulnerability is king. Even as Frodo Peterson recovers from the adventure of his life in a rehab centre (this story is not told in the film) and while his wife recovers from the adventure of her life (cancer); he remains a courageous, fundamentally decent man.

Life is suffering Peterson tells us; however, it is worth the agony to know that you can help one pimple faced millennial to clean his room and groom himself, get a girlfriend, and maybe patch up his relationship with this father.

Did Frodo Peterson ever want to leave his sweet life in the Shire; did he ever want to leave his leafy neighbourhood of Toronto? It seems unlikely. However, there were Orcs to battle, the forces of totalitarianism to oppose. There is no going back to the shire or the provincial life now, after those few lofi YouTube videos.

Of course, to some people Jordan Peterson is not Frodo but Sauron himself. He is the dangerous corrupter of youth, the obscure force of evil, the big daddy deplorable. The film tries to give the ones who feel insulted and injured by Peterson a voice, and makes no caricature of them. But they are wrong. But there is no virtue in white noise and airhorns and chanting ‘transphobic piece of shit’.

Peterson is mostly reasonable, compassionate, and well-meaning man, even with an impulsive twitter temper—even if you get a little tired of him ranting about ‘post-modern neo Marxism’. And I get the sense he actually wishes his enemies well.

‘The person with the best story wins’, as Peterson points out.

Yes and no. The person with the best story might be taken down by the mob. I’d say he barely got out alive. But we must be grateful to him.

You can only wish Dr Peterson all the best in his recovery. And that the next passage of his life will be less filled with sound and fury. And that he can kick back and make Tammy and the kids laugh again. And maybe go back to that prairie cabin and write the next Map’s of Meaning.

Maybe the end of the infernal 12 Rules for life tour isn’t such a tragedy.


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