Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychology professor-turned-culture warrior, is a man prepared for his own crucifixion.
In the preface to his recent bestseller 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, he describes a dream in which he found himself suspended in the air beneath the central dome of a great cathedral. Peterson knows enough about the symbolism of church architecture to realize that he was hanging at the center of the cross. In describing this dream, he compares himself to Christ: an individual with the courage to resist evil and speak the truth, no matter the cost.
When asked during an interview on Britain’s Channel 4 what was next for him, Peterson replied, “I don’t know what’s next really…. The overwhelming likelihood…is that this will go terribly wrong…. I’m surfing a hundred-foot wave and generally what happens if you do that is you drown.”
During a debate with a transgendered professor, Peterson flatly stated that he expects to be hauled in front of the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal for his refusal to comply with legislation that mandates the use of alternative pronouns. “If they fine me, I won’t pay it,” he said. “If they put me in jail, I’ll go on a hunger strike. I’m not doing this. And that’s that.”
Taken together, these statements show Peterson’s profound awareness that he will almost certainly be destroyed, directly or indirectly, by the leftist, postmodernist forces he defies. It’s difficult to defeat an inherently collectivist ideology when your own creed is one of individualism. Indeed, he perceives ideologues of every stripe as dangerous and mentally deficient and denounces white nationalism as no better than any other form of identity politics. He insists that it is only by strengthening individuals that the twin extremes of totalitarian order and anarchic chaos can be avoided.
If all this talk of crucifixion, hunger strikes, and the primordial forces of chaos sounds a little melodramatic, that’s because Peterson thrives on melodrama. His investment in archetypal stories might even necessitate it. In the New Yorker’s remarkably balanced piece on Peterson, the writer references his penchant for making “even the mildest pronouncement sound like the dying declaration of a political prisoner,” and despite the admiration I have for Peterson, I couldn’t help chuckling.
Peterson’s opponents often extend this persecution complex to his fans, whom they eagerly paint as alt-right misogynistic incels angry that women won’t sleep with them. One interviewer even spent several minutes trying to link Peterson to this depraved subculture, holding up a picture in which Peterson posed with a few fans holding a Pepe the Frog poster and demanding an explanation. The New York Times jumped on the same bandwagon with a shameful hit piece that willfully misinterpreted Peterson’s reference to “enforced monogamy”—which means nothing more than social norms that favor marriage and discourage promiscuity—as a government policy of dragging beautiful women from their homes and forcing them at gunpoint to marry neckbearded basement dwellers.
It doesn’t matter that Peterson has a far more nuanced understanding of the Pepe meme than the leftists who consider it equivalent to the swastika, or that he has explained time and again that he is trying to save his audience from radicalization, not push them toward it. Peterson’s enemies, it seems, are willing to say anything to villainize him and his fans.
If nothing else, Peterson has done us a service by showing us how truly dystopian our society has become. Fifteen short years ago, Barack Obama believed that marriage was between one man and one woman. Now such a statement reeks of unforgivable bigotry. The Overton Window is narrowing at a rate that can only be a bid for ultimate power, the authority to reprogram reality at will. In one debate, Peterson made a reference to “preferred pronouns,” only to have his opponent insist that they are not “preferred pronouns” but “correct pronouns.” In other words “ze,” “zir,” and all the rest, none of which anyone had heard of five years ago, are to be treated as objective truths. In a few brisk strokes, these ideologies have reduced the whole of Western history, from the Nicene Creed to the U.S. Constitution to the transphobic society of five years ago, to one unbroken saga of oppression. Only the present and the future exist. The past, even the recent past, is a hell beyond imagining and anyone who disagrees is defending privilege, not patrimony. It used to take generations to vilify our ancestors; now it can be done in a few short years.
This stranglehold on reality itself is reminiscent of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the most terrifying aspect of which is its inescapability. Orwell offers us no glimmer of hope, no possible means by which the harm the Party’s rule has inflicted on human society can ever be undone.
Peterson seems to think we are fast approaching this point, and he’s far from the only one who senses it. What liberals denounce as racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia in Trump supporters may be, on some deeper level, a manifestation of that same fear. Trying to be respectable wasn’t working, so they adopted the ultimate scorched earth tactic. Trump does not represent “morning in America,” but a tacit admission night is fast descending.
If Peterson’s warnings about the government throwing people in jail for not using pronouns seem overstated, look to history. By the end of the 18th century, the peasants of the region of Western France known as the Vendée had lived for 1,000 years under the relative stability of Church and King. Then came the Revolution. A group of intellectuals, armed with an irrefutable body of theory and allied with the mob, seized power and told the men and women of the Vendée that everything they had ever pledged allegiance to was a lie designed to oppress them. Anyone still clinging to those lies was not only an enemy, but an enemy so perfidious as to be impossible even to reason with. The Reign of Terror in Paris receives the most attention in history books, but when the Vendée peasants rebelled, the revolutionary government came down on them with such fury that some historians consider it the first modern genocide.
Jordan Peterson understands that we may be too far gone. Either the entire Western world will slip beneath the sea of chaos never to resurface or, more likely given Peterson’s order/chaos dialectic, order will reassert itself with bloodshed. His exhortations to personal responsibility offer a middle way, but he understands better than anyone that his message may be too little too late.
Grayson Quay is a freelance writer and M.A. student at Georgetown University.