Photo via The Guardian.
As I am flipping through the first pages of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos, I cannot make up my mind. On the one hand, I am unable to stop myself from associating the words I am reading with those of a man who, metaphorically or literally, believes that chaos is inherently feminine and order is masculine. On the other hand, some of the advice is valuable. That is the danger of Jordan Peterson.
Jordan Peterson is a Canadian clinical psychologist who, throughout the past years, gained significant attention as a result of his conservative political views. In 2016, Peterson posted the first lecture of a three-part series titled Professor against political correctness, addressing his opposition to the Canadian government’s Bill C-16. Bill C-16, passed in 2017, expands the list of prohibited grounds for discrimination in the Canadian Human Rights Act to “gender identity and expression.” Peterson claimed this bill would criminalize the refusal of using one’s preferred pronouns, therefore “compelling speech,” an assertion that has since been refuted by experts. Ever since, Peterson has been branded as a “public intellectual,” a label that stirred concern among many, me included.
With a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from McGill University and an incredible ability to utilize formal language in any setting, the aesthetics of Peterson’s work are scholarly. Peterson exudes credibility. However, some of Peterson’s political claims are filled with logical fallacies. Among Peterson’s most controversial assertions is that “the idea that women were oppressed throughout history is an appalling theory.” The historical oppression of women is not a theory. It is a fact. A glaring example is that, in Quebec, women did not gain full suffrage until 1940. If you’re not convinced, a Google search directing you to Elizabeth Cady Santon’s Declaration of Sentiments should suffice.
Declaring Peterson a public “intellectual” allows right-wing conservatives to use some of Peterson’s refutable political claims as a reliable source to support their exclusionary agendas. Peterson is a psychology expert. Yet, Peterson’s following consists mostly of young men who, finding refuge in his psychological guidance, are likely to take his social commentary as the undeniable truth. As a society that tends to praise public figures, we sometimes lack the capacity to filter through the information given by individuals we idealize, which can represent a real danger.
Since 2019, Dawson English teacher Paul Hawkins has been offering a BXE course entitled Jordan Peterson's Rules for Life on Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos. Newly this semester, the course focuses on the sequel Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life. As the mandate of the English BXE course is to provide students with the opportunity to create a program-related project, Hawkins felt that Peterson’s books, as they link interdisciplinary elements, would be an ideal pick. Hawkins, aware of the controversy surrounding Peterson, considers this polarization as an extra appeal to the course. “I never felt that Peterson’s views were so far outside the mainstream as to make him unacceptable to teach. Some have said they are surprised to hear that a course like this is given at Dawson and that just makes me feel all the more that it is a necessary thing to be offered,” states Hawkins. Hoping to incentivize critical thinking, Hawkins stresses that he makes it clear from the start that his goal is not to persuade students that Peterson is either right or wrong as the course solely focuses on the book. “I want them to feel free to critically assess the material as they will. In the past, students have definitely felt free to disagree,” says Hawkins.
In January, 18-year-old Clara Nhiên Lévesque, a Dawson student in the Social Sciences Psychology Profile, wrote a letter to Dawson expressing her concerns about the course. Lévesque worries that the class does not foster true critical thinking. Most of us perceive the world subjectively, through the lens of our own lived experiences. Quintessentially, by virtue of being part of a marginalized group, one might have a deeper understanding of the ways in which inequalities frame our society. In the context of an English course, some might not be well equipped to critically assess the different layers of Peterson’s written work. “The education system as we know it is about swallowing information you receive without questioning it. Students are incentivized by grades to agree with the material or pretend that they do,” states Lévesque.
What about exposure to differing views? Lévesque says, “the basis of knowledge is largely built upon listening to counter-arguments. But, there is a difference between encouraging people to listen to other points of view and being taught those in a classroom setting.” Peterson refuses to identify himself as a political figure. Nonetheless, he is perceived as such by the masses. By denying his influence, Peterson escapes accountability. Although his books are not marketed as political and are mostly focused on important psychological advice, they are certainly filled with his own biases. And, as Lévesque puts it, “At the end of the day, people’s political beliefs will impose themselves in your life, especially if you’re part of a marginalized group.”