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14 March 2023

How Jordan Peterson became the internet’s village idiot

The clinical psychologist is now a punching bag for both the left and the right.

By Charlie Nash

Jordan Peterson was once considered, particularly by conservatives, a respected clinical psychologist and author. An intelligent, courageous self-help guru. Peterson encouraged young men to read Kierkegaard, and helped countless young Neets turn their messy bedrooms clean. Then Peterson transformed; whether due to a well-documented health crisis, or due to his non-stop tweeting, he has, in recent years, unwittingly become a 21st-century village idiot.

In this past week alone, Peterson shared not one – but two – pieces of content that were so glaringly fake, even the most naive would hesitate to retweet them, let alone a doctor who was once described by Tyler Cowen as “the world’s most influential public intellectual”.  

In the first case, Peterson was tricked into sharing an entirely fictitious de-transition story that featured photos of the YouTube political commentator Shoe0nHead as an alleged ex-transgender man. In the second, much more embarrassing case, Peterson mistook a pornographic BDSM video of a “male milking” machine for a dystopian Chinese government breeding farm. 

[See also: How to spot fake news and fight against post-truth politics]

“Such fun in unbelievable techno-nightmare CCP hell,” he tweeted, completely unaware that this purported Chinese Communist Party medical facility was actually located in south-west England. There, the room was part of dominatrix Mistress Jane’s by-appointment “fetish dungeon”.

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After much ridicule – including from his daughter Mikhaila, who wrote that her eyes would “never recover” – Peterson soon deleted this piece of misinformation (the fake de-transition story, however is still up on his Twitter page). But given how much Peterson tweets – several times an hour, all day, every day – it likely won’t be long before he blunders again.  

Without realising it, Dr Peterson has become a “lolcow”. Wiktionary informs us that a lolcow is “somebody who can be ‘milked’ for laughs” – a fitting description of the space Peterson now occupies in the online attention economy.  

YouTube is rife with edits that splice Peterson’s increasingly hysterical rants with gameplay from the Command & Conquer games, a series that features a cast of eccentric villains who issue apocalyptic threats to the player as they progress through the story. Sadly, these edits are not even necessary. Peterson’s video monologues are quite enough on their own. Last year, with Bond villain-esque delivery, Peterson warned the Masters of the Universe to leave him alone or face the consequences: 

“Leave us alone, you centralisers of power. You worshippers of Gaia. You sacrificers of the wealth and property of others. You would-be planetary saviours. You Machiavellian pretenders and virtue-signallers objecting to power, all the while you gathered around you madly… Leave us alone, or reap the whirlwind and watch terrible destruction of what you purport to save in consequence.”

[See also: In trying to tackle fake news, Facebook is cracking down on real science]

And it wasn’t the only video. Peterson made a similar vlog just a month later addressed to the then Twitter chief Parag Agrawal, protesting the suspension he received for comments about actor Elliot Page, before effectively calling for his own anonymous critics to be suspended themselves. Singling out Agrawal and his “demented and presumptuous minions”, Peterson accused the CEO of enabling “anonymous Machiavellian narcissists and psychopaths who inhabit the Twitter troll underworld”.

This month, Peterson was also mocked for attempting to lecture the Pope on Christianity, while during an appearance on Fox News he delivered a bizarre monologue about environmentalists and the Earth that left host Tucker Carlson looking confused: “The environmentalists offer us a story to live by and it’s a pseudo-religious story and it essentially elevates the biosphere – the Earth, Gaia, the Earth goddess, let’s say – to the status of primary deity and characterises her as sort of a waif-like, innocent victim easily taken advantage of and fragile. It casts the entire human endeavour on the social front as a raping and pillaging patriarchal monster only interested in power, and it casts the individual as a devouring mouth riding on the back of that giant.” 

Peterson proposed that while this narrative had an element of truth to it, since humans do “wreak environmental havoc”, it’s a dangerous idea because it “demonises”. Watching all this, you realise how far Peterson has travelled from telling the boys, quite reasonably, to tidy their rooms.  

There is more lolcow material out there. Peterson’s obsessive hatred of anonymous social media users and the rants that accompany it, have given the internet a treasure trove of quotes. Such as, “Up yours, woke moralists. We’ll see who cancels who!” and his repeated attacks on the “narcissistic Machiavellian, sadistic trolls” who can supposedly be identified by their use of “Lol”, “LMFAO”, “OMFG”, “bro” and “dude” – which has led to the creation of thousands of memes, enough for Peterson to have his own dedicated page on the Know Your Meme database.

Peterson has even been derided by his peers. The economist Nassim Nicholas Taleb, whose own audience overlaps with Peterson’s, received nearly 14,000 likes on Twitter in January after calling Peterson an “idiot” and telling him to go away. It used to be the case that Peterson would debate a left-wing academic or journalist and they would be on the receiving end of this meme treatment. That’s all changed. He has become the object of online derision, rather than its author.  

Unsurprisingly, Peterson’s bizarre and erratic statements have led to concern over his wellbeing. “Jordan Peterson is not well,” alleged journalist Noah Smith last week, and it’s easy to see why these concerns exist. While he has long been derided by some for his all-meat diet and criticism of political correctness, transgenderism and other issues, Peterson wasn’t always a source of such universal ridicule. His 2018 self-help book 12 Rules For Life, was published by Penguin, and became a global bestseller that can be found front and centre in bookshops around the world. The work received glowing write-ups in the New York Times and the Atlantic, and there were protests when Peterson was excluded from a list of the world’s top 50 intellectuals. 

[See also: The Alex Jones verdict won’t help America’s fake news problem]

Five years after the release of 12 Rules For Life, Peterson’s influence is still immense. He continues to sell out venues and has been photographed hanging out with celebrities as diverse as the former Australian prime minister Scott Morrison and the dubstep producer Skrillex. And yet something feels different about Peterson today. 

He is no longer just ridiculed by those on the left, but also by many on the right, who regard him as hypocritical, cringe and overrated. His fulminations against anonymous and pseudonymous social media users have gained him a growing number of conservative critics, who see anonymity as vital to protect the privacy and livelihoods of political dissidents that would otherwise be harassed, cancelled and persecuted if they used their real identities. 

The follow-up to his 2018 book, 2021’s 12 More Rules For Life, while also a bestseller, made much less noise than his previous title, and whenever Peterson surfaces in the news or on social media, it’s usually only because he said or did something embarrassing again. 

Perhaps Peterson’s issues are a result of his bitterness. It’s easy to make mistakes when you’re blinded by anger, and Peterson – despite his wealth and success – seems an exceedingly bitter person. Bitter towards his many enemies: anonymous social media accounts, critics on both the left and the right, transgender people, Chinese communists, the “bro”, “dude” and “LMFAO” youth, and many more. It is irrelevant whether he is right or not. It’s simply sad to see the man who became famous for giving optimistic self-help advice to the young devolve into a rancorous old fool who can’t differentiate between Chinese human rights abuses and graphic fetish porn. 

The Collins Dictionary defines village idiot as “someone who is well known in their community for their stupidity and ignorant behaviour”, and if that doesn’t define Peterson at this stage, then I don’t know what does. 

Read more:

The new intellectuals of the American right

Britain will keep getting weirder

Is there a career in being a young right-wing sensationalist?

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