Only a Country Like Canada Could Produce a Guy Like Jordan Peterson

Jordan Peterson, the University of Toronto psychologist, at his home in Toronto.Credit Cole Burston for The New York Times
Jordan Peterson, the University of Toronto psychologist, at his home in Toronto.Credit Cole Burston for The New York Times

There is a certain image that Canada projects to the world, one that is particularly compelling to Americans. It’s the image of Canada as a tolerant, progressive, kind and humanitarian nation, populated by mild-mannered and polite people. The idea of Canada the Good — a Scandinavian-style socialist democracy, with the added bonus of multicultural harmony — is an attractive one, helpful in providing Canadians with some kind of national identity, and left-leaning Americans with a handy rhetorical device for political arguments: Look at what’s possible, right next door!

But it’s worth remembering that this image of Canada, currently personified by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, is a relatively recent construction, largely put forth by Mr. Trudeau’s father, former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Before that — and for most of the intervening years, between Trudeaus — the public face of Canada has looked a lot like, well, Jordan Peterson. Mr. Peterson is the University of Toronto psychologist who leveraged his defiant stance in 2016 against a human rights bill concerning gender expression to become, arguably, the country’s most famous academic ever.

Canada is home to many more Jordan Petersons than Justin Trudeaus. Mr. Peterson is — to use one of his favorite terms — something of a national archetype, the default setting of the Canadian male: a dull but stern dad, who, under a facade of apparent normalcy and common sense, conceals a reserve of barely contained hostility toward anyone who might rock the boat. To these types, those who make a fuss are bothersome and ignorant at best, and probably dangerous and destructive too.

This is a mind-set with deep historical roots in the Great White North. There is, for example, no national mythology surrounding the idea of Canadian independence; that’s because try as our forefathers might, it’s not easy to construct an inspiring story out of representatives traveling to London to request greater autonomy while remaining within the British empire. This is how “peace, order and good government” came to be the Canadian answer to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Canadians may flirt with the occasional dynamic leader, but they never go too far. Our current prime minister came into office following the Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose beige public persona lent a sense of dull inevitability to his technocratic and paternalistic tenure. Charisma is suspect here, and when Mr. Peterson uses that word to describe Mr. Trudeau, it’s not a compliment.

Suspect, too, is any whiff of revolutionary spirit. Pierre Trudeau might have technically been a liberal, but he was the kind of liberal who declared martial law in 1970 when a bumbling handful of Quebec separatists were deemed enough of a threat to justify suspending civil liberties en masse. This skittish overreaction to a perceived threat to social order repeated itself in 2010, when the entire downtown core of Toronto went on police lockdown because of protests at the G-20 summit conference, protests that resulted in the largest mass arrests in Canadian history.

Our politics reflect our sense of unease with anything radical. Liberals who think of Canada as a lefty haven should look to our most recent federal election: the New Democratic Party, ostensibly the major party farthest to the left, ran its last campaign on a platform of balanced budgets and fiscal responsibility. Not even the Green Party dares to suggest divesting from Alberta’s oil sands. As for Justin Trudeau, his dreamy-boyfriend brand suggests a departure from Conservative government policies that he has yet to deliver: On every issue, from peacekeeping to pipelines, carbon targets to Indigenous relations, Mr. Trudeau has largely continued the policies set by his predecessor. Even our pop culture reflects our national preference for stasis: Drake, the Torontonian rap superstar, is probably best known for introducing ennui to hip-hop.

Canadian conservatism is not brash. It not belligerent, it is not loud. It is not Fox News. But our most popular columnists all deliver the same message: Things are the way they are for a reason. Those who agitate for change are stepping out of line.

Which brings us back to Jordan Peterson. Consider his book’s sixth “rule for life”: “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.” The message: Until you’ve cleaned your room and achieved perfect personal order, how dare you assume you have any business diagnosing the world’s problems, much less trying to fix them?

He reserves particular ire for young activists. “I tell 18-year-olds: Six years ago you were 12 — what the hell do you know? You haven’t done anything,” he says. “You don’t have a degree, you haven’t finished your courses, you don’t know how to read, you can’t think, you can’t speak.”

“It’s just not right,” he says, “to tell people in that situation that they should go out and change the socioeconomic structure of the culture!”

Delivered as a fiery sermon, this impassioned plea for humility and self-improvement gets laughs from Peterson fans. But in practice, it’s actually an argument for submission to the status quo that would have prevented any number of people, from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Emma Gonzales, from ever speaking up.

Americans are raised to believe that individuals, even flawed ones, can indeed change the world, and sometimes should. Canadians, for all that we’ve managed to construct a society that Americans sometimes envy, lack this ethic. The resulting mind-set, disdainful of idealism and suspicious of ego, is one we are now, evidently, exporting.

To his growing fan base of disaffected men in America and around the world, Jordan Peterson is considered a heroic figure of historical importance, the man who finally said “Enough!” to political correctness run amok, to mobs of rabid Social Justice Warriors, to an ideologically driven “leftist-Marxist” movement hellbent on destroying Western civilization itself.

It is worth remembering that Mr. Peterson can be more accurately described as a previously obscure Canadian academic who believed, erroneously, that he would soon be forced by law to use gender-neutral pronouns and who refused to bow to that hypothetical demand. The proposed human rights policy that made Mr. Peterson famous is now Canadian law, and no instance of “compelled speech” has occurred as a result of it or resulted in criminal charges, as Mr. Peterson feared. On the issue of legal requirements for pronoun use, things remain the way Mr. Peterson wanted them — the same.

Mr. Peterson was taking a stand not against power in that instance but on behalf of it. His acolytes, some of whom might consider themselves to be walking in the tradition of rugged American individualism, should note that they are in fact taking marching orders — “Rules for Life,” no less — from a line-toeing Canadian, preaching a philosophy not of American defiance but of Canadian deference.

By Jesse Brown, a journalist in Toronto and the publisher of the news site Canadaland.

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