I’ve long struggled to figure out who Jordan Peterson really is and what he’s all about. Sometimes he strikes me as the exact kind of man his critics claim him to be—an irrationally confident academic who uses very big words to make recycled, unremarkable ideas appear fresh and profound. Other times, though, he’ll utter a few short sentences that pack as much intellectual punch as an hour-long university lecture, leaving me in awe of his extraordinary ability to connect with his audience in ways that would turn even the most charismatic influencers green with envy.
So the question is, who exactly is the real Jordan Peterson? Is he a brilliant self-help guru providing countless young men with the tools they need to straighten themselves up, or just another dime-a-dozen charlatan preying upon the insecurities of his fans and followers? It was my sincerest hope that Patricia Marcoccia’s documentary film The Rise of Jordan Peterson might yield a few helpful clues that could lead me to an answer.
The film opens with a brief montage of media clips, protest footage, and a few select quotes from Peterson’s critics, followed by several close-up shots of Peterson himself that help set the tone for what promises to be a tale of two conflicting narratives. “So this is what I actually look like,” Peterson says into the camera before donning a scary mask and remarking that “this is what people who don’t like me think I look like.” Asked which of the faces represents who he really is, he replies, “Well, I would say they’re both real.”
One of the most prominent themes in the film—and perhaps the one most relevant to the question I sought to answer—is Peterson’s obsession with existentialism, meaning, and individuality. He wants people to be free in nearly every possible sense of the word—free to think for themselves; free to draw their own conclusions about the world; free to challenge mainstream concepts and ideas, even at the risk of causing widespread offense; and, most importantly, free to act in accordance with their beliefs so long as doing so does not violate the rights of others. That obsession undergirds his opposition to political correctness, which he sees as a growing threat to the individual’s right to disagree.
There are, of course, many critics of Peterson who would disagree with that assessment and are openly skeptical of his motives. One of those critics, A.W. Peet, is a physics professor at the University of Toronto, the same school where Peterson has been teaching since 1998. Peet has previously referred to Peterson as a bigot, leading to a fiery debate between the two on CBC News. Activist Lane Patriquin has also spoken out against Peterson many times before and organized a demonstration against Peterson back in 2016. Peet and Patriquin are both featured in the film and given ample time to explain their objections to Peterson’s views.
Interestingly, though, the most biting critiques of Peterson’s work come from the people who know him best. One of those people is Bernard Schiff, a former psychology professor and mentor to Peterson who passed away earlier this year. Schiff’s criticisms carry a heavy weight given his intimate familiarity with Peterson’s journey from first-year professor at the University of Toronto to bestselling author and quasi-celebrity. There’s a palpable sadness in Schiff’s voice that underscores his disappointment with what he perceives to be the corruption of Peterson’s character. It almost feels as if he is mourning the loss of the man he once thought Peterson would eventually become.
On the other side of the aisle, we have the undying loyalty of Peterson’s family, friends, and biggest fans. His wife, daughter, and parents all appear in the film and help connect the modern-day Peterson to his past self—a man possessed by an anti-authoritarian spirit that came into being long before the introduction of Canada’s Bill C-16. It was Peterson’s vocal opposition to that bill that propelled him into the international spotlight.
There are also interviews with several young teenage boys, all of whom credit Peterson with helping them learn “how to act in the world” and giving them the courage to start speaking their minds in the classroom. As I listened to these boys talk, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Peterson has been mythologized into a larger-than-life legend whose shoes are much too big for any mere mortal to fill. But as long as the public-facing side of Peterson is contributing something useful and necessary to the lives of wayward youth who are in desperate need of meaning and fulfillment, how much does it really matter if his followers occasionally flirt with the line between passionate appreciation and cultish deification? That might be the most important question this documentary raises. If Peterson’s detractors do eventually manage to run him out of the public sphere, one must wonder what will become of the countless adoring fans who have come to depend on his guidance.
As enlightening as the interviews with Peterson’s friends, fans, and critics may be, you should pay even closer attention to the events playing out around him throughout the film, as they help provide the context for his evolution into a polarizing figure. At a free speech rally at University of Toronto, we see campus police standing idly in place as demonstrators attempt to sabotage the rally and prevent Peterson from speaking. Later, during a planned appearance at McMaster University, school officials refrain from taking any action as a bunch of obnoxious, entitled protesters employ cowbells and air horns to shut the event down. As the footage rolls on, we can see a self-fulfilling prophecy playing out right before our very eyes. The very people who Peterson contends are on the path to authoritarian extremism seem inclined to step right into that role and legitimize his concerns.
Needless to say, The Rise of Jordan Peterson is not a one-sided presentation of Peterson’s story. Marcoccia does her best to relay to the audience the full range of reactions that Peterson’s ideas routinely elicit and provide the appropriate context for those reactions. Unfortunately, I can’t say that that the film solves the puzzle I was hoping it would solve. I’m still not sure who the real Jordan Peterson is, and I’m not sure I ever will. That being said, I think I do understand now what he is—an amalgamation of the best and worst qualities ascribed to him by his most devoted followers and his most indignant critics. In other words, he’s a man who effortlessly switches back and forth between two very different faces, choosing whichever face he needs to wear to achieve the task at hand. And if you want to understand precisely what each of those faces represents, The Rise of Jordan Peterson is an excellent place to start.