Jordan Peterson and Toxic Masculinity

In the May 3 edition of Harper’s, former Jordan Peterson follower Omer Aziz examines the teachings of wildly popular psychologist Jordan Peterson about masculinity. Aziz immersed himself in Peterson’s teachings as an acolyte for a short period of time but has emerged as a critic. The essay covers much ground and in this post I primarily hope to convince readers interested in Peterson to go read it. In addition, I want to highlight a point or two and make one of my own.

Aziz begins by offering hypotheses about Peterson’s appeal to young men. I have often puzzled over this. He seems to point readers to the father figure that Peterson can become to young men who need direction and focus. This possibility leads to the question: if men need a father figure, what hole in their sense of masculinity are they seeking to fill? Aziz asks:

If Jordan Peterson was the solution that a whole generation of men were turning to, then what was the problem? What was the void that these diverse men were feeling, and why? In the shadow of the debate over feminism and women’s rights, what was happening under the surface of men that led so many of them to this paternal psychologist scolding them about Western civilization, the tyrannies of feminism, cleaning your room, and growing the hell up?

In trying to understand why sane young men turn to the often incoherent and conspiratorial Peterson, these are good questions. Peterson fans I have spoken with seem to feel at war with women (I only know male fans). Peterson is the general in charge of the resistance.

Aziz then brings up some of General Peterson’s more objectionable pronouncements about women. About oppression of women, Peterson once said:

I don’t think there is a great deal of unjust discrimination against women in comparison to the degree of unjust discrimination against men. I think that hasn’t really been true for probably, well, at least ten years. And I know that’s not very long. But then, I also don’t buy the argument that throughout history, men have, what would you say? Singularly oppressed women? I think that’s absolute bloody nonsense.

Even the casual reading of history which Aziz provides puts the lie to Peterson’s bluster.

Aziz also highlights Peterson’s recent statement in an interview where he said feminists don’t criticize Islam because they unconsciously long for brutal male domination. Some followers said this statement was taken out of context or a joke. However, he has tweeted this same sentiment in the past.

Reading Aziz’s essay reminded me of others in the past who, like Peterson, have lamented soft men (Aziz mentions Robert Bly’s Iron John). During and after World War II, “momism” was the enemy of that era’s tough men. Author Philip Wylie coined the term in a popular 1943 book, A Generation of Vipers. In 1946, military psychiatrist Edward Strecker claimed the rigors of war revealed that thousands of men were handicapped for military service by overprotective mothers. In Strecker’s view, these mothers were threats to the nation.

Wylie, not having feminism and leftists to blame as does Peterson, just blames mothers and “momworship” for the demise of men.

Meanwhile, Megaloid momworship has got completely out of hand. Our land, subjectively mapped, would have more silver cords and apron strings crisscrossing it than railroads and telephone wires. Mom is everywhere and everything and damned near everybody, and from her depends all the rest of the U. S.  Disguised as good old mom, dear old mom, sweet old mom, your loving mom, and so on, she is the bride at every funeral and the corpse at every wedding. Men live for her and die for her, dote upon her and whisper her name as they pass away, and I believe she has now achieved, in the hierarchy of miscellaneous articles, a spot next to the Bible and the Flag, being reckoned part of both in a way.

Instead of Peterson’s leftist plot, 1940s mom haters like Wylie simply pointed to controlling mothers.

“Her boy,” having been “protected” by her love, and carefully, even shudderingly, shielded from his logical development through his barbaric period, or childhood (so that he has either to become a barbarian as a man or else to spend most of his energy denying the barbarism that howls in his brain – an autonomous remnant of the youth he was forbidden), is cushioned against any major step in his progress toward maturity. Mom steals from the generation of women behind her (which she has, as a still further defense, also sterilized of integrity and courage) that part of her boy’s personality which should have become the love of a female contemporary. Mom transmutes it into sentimentality for herself. (pp. 195-196)

I could also bring up Mark Driscoll and his provocative claim in 2000 that we live in a “completely pussified nation.” Many in Driscoll’s orbit told me that he attracted young male followers who wanted a father figure. I don’t know if anyone has done a comparative study of Driscoll and Peterson but I suspect there is significant overlap. Driscoll famously had some things to say about the place of women which might resonate well with Peterson fans.

Peterson has found a way to sell a message which as found a home with certain men over the years who are looking for a reason why they experience the world the way they do. Blaming moms, egalitarians, or feminists is another way to say with Adam, “Lord, it is this woman’s fault.”

To that I say, “Grow the hell up.”


Image: Dr.Jordan Peterson delivering a lecture at the University of Toronto in 2017. March 20, 2017, Source: Adam Jacobs, Wikimedia, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

79 thoughts on “Jordan Peterson and Toxic Masculinity”

  1. Coming to this post super late, but what the heck. As another data point I’d include John Eldredge’s “Wild at Heart” book and the devoted following it created among evangelical Christians. Not anywhere near as objectionable as Peterson, it still strikes some of the same chords in terms of “men being free to be manly”.

    Some of Peterson’s appeal likely stems from very real changes in society that have had very real impacts on the collective psyche of young men. Used to be there was a certain “script” men could follow that provided validation and a sense of self-worth in certain specific ways. A job that actually paid the bills. Supporting one’s family. Being the “protector”. Etc. One common theme being: women are in need of support, and a man can demonstrate his value and derive meaning from his role as provider/protector. To the extent women no longer need that support, or at least less than they once did, men’s ability to derive meaning and self-worth from that role has also diminished.

    Compounding this are changes to the economy that have devalued “brawn” as a marketable trait and increased the premium on getting a college degree, both in terms of pay and in terms of social status. Women now graduate college at a considerably higher rate than men, at all levels of study (associate’s through doctorates). That means there are a lot of men left with poor financial / career prospects. What’s more, studies show women (in general; not all women) place more of a premium on career / finances when choosing a romantic interest (compared to men, who put more weight on physical attractiveness), so the loss of career status is doubly damaging to men.

    (Some) men may also feel threatened by the rise in criticism of “toxic masculinity”. I’ll be the first to agree that there’s plenty that is legitimately messed up about the stereotypical conception of “masculinity” but, that said, I can also see the argument that some neutral traits (that are disproportionately represented among men) are getting unfairly lumped in under the definition of “toxic”. Or, at least, I can see how someone might *think* that’s happening. This causes men to feel like they’re being attacked, they become defensive, and, in some cases, define themselves by their opposition to these perceived attacks.

  2. I’ve been waiting for someone I respect to critique this guy. I was going to analyze him myself but he’s extremely prolific with his work and I wasn’t able to get a good read from cursory examination. His popularity in the kinds of right-leaning groups I despise had me suspicious.

    So thanks, doc!

    I do want to note on Peterson’s erroneous assumption that parity of sex discrimination exists: very recently every major bank CEO testified in Congress, and one Congressman noted the whole panel was white and male, and asked them to raise their hands if they thought their successor would not be a white male. None did, despite it being in their interests to do so.

  3. I think it is good to subject any “public thinker” to robust discussion and critique.

    I would tend to agree with the comments of ‘RVS’ (10 May?) about Peterson having helped a lot of people, although he is a person with some flaws (who never claimed inerrancy btw).

    I believe Jordan Peterson has some good things to contribute to contemporary debates on masculinity and femininity. Do I always agree with him – No!
    Do I think we need to get away from all the polarization in discussions of complex historical and cultural issues – Yes!

    Let’s stop comparing him to Donald Trump and Mark Driscoll please and debate his ideas on their own merits or faults. His strengths and weaknesses are more complex, I think. One of the things Peterson seems to be trying to address is a very strong cultural imbalance in its official media approach to gender. Let the debate begin – but it won’t progress through mere mud-slinging.

    1. I recommend you read Dr. Throckmorton’s thoughtful response to rvs’s naive comments. Time to take personal responsibility and educate yourself.

  4. Jordan Peterson is part of the mythic structure of lies that mesh easily into the “PUA” movement. That is a dark misogynistic world.

      1. It doesn’t have to be, but it very often overlaps when it comes to Peterson and his supporters (especially his outspoken supporters).

        1. I’ve seen it coming across this way. Things get out of hand, but I still think that Peterson is mainly critical of feminism.

          1. I think Peterson mainly offers convenient excuses to his audience, who are struggling to accept responsibility for their own behavior i.e., grow up. Feminism is just their favorite thing to blame.

        2. I’ve seen it coming across this way. Things get out of hand, but I still think that Peterson is mainly critical of feminism.

      2. Find out about how closely Peterson’s comments mirror those of out and out misogynists – and if you tell yourself the truth- you will not defend this hater.

        1. Total number of peer-reviewed academic books sam80 has read on feminism: ZERO.

          1. Exactly the type of Peterson haters you’d expect. Assumptions, no due process, conclusions based on whims and impulses.

    1. That’s bad but not really damning unless he’s doing it on purpose. I don’t know enough to determine if he sought this prominence out or is being co-opted. That doesn’t mean you don’t know of course, it’s just a question I still have.

      1. Not sure what you are talking about. But sounds like you search for excuses for this guy.

        1. As a fair minded person I try to look at both sides; what kind of person are you?

          1. I am a follow the facts where they lead type person- and the facts are Jordan’s own writings. I think you really have to have your strong “both sides-ism” filter running to defend this fellow. Is that who you are?

          2. If facts interpreted themselves we wouldn’t have a word for “disagreement”. Claims of fealty to them don’t really mean much.

          3. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “There a lots of opinions- but only one set of facts. ” I say, if you want to enslave yourself to your opinions- you will never set yourself free to find the facts. It is only ignorance to refer to respecting facts and reality as “fealty”.

          4. I suppose one chooses one’s ignorances. I much prefer to not have the kind that thinks I alone think rationally and all who disagree with me are irrational, since in that state I cannot change, learn, or grow. Which is what saying “I just follow the facts” indicates. It’s very closed-minded thinking and egregiously uncivilized.

          5. I think facts are always the truth- I think the “truth can set you free” – and I don’t think that is a close minded attitude- instead one is more open to what is real. I also can see that you are shy of dealing what is front of our eyes here. I guess sometimes the truth (facts,reality) can bite- but in the end we can not use pretend philosophy to push it away.

  5. There’s an acquaintance of mine who seems to be getting more and more in Peterson, and it’s the strangest thing. He’s an fairly liberal ex-hippie who converted to Judaism, and I’d say he’s a feminist. But, he (my friend) is a huge fan of Carl Jung, and so is Jordan Peterson. Best I can tell, both Jung and Peterson’s ideas (especially about religion and god) are a word salad mishmash that make liberal use of shifting definitions to “prove” whatever they want to prove.

    Is Jung even taken seriously in psychological circles as having figured out truly important or new stuff?

    1. Jung is of intellectual interest due to his influence on popular culture (Star Wars for instance). He also waged war against materialism and pointed therapists toward expansion of consciousness. Jung is interesting to study but as clinical science, I don’t see much help. Jung was bohemian when it came to man-woman relationships and had an open marriage. However, he also trained female analysts and believed that men had a feminine side and women a male side. His followers were encouraged to develop a kind of androgyny so he was ahead of his time in that way. Peterson’s bluster and blow seem at odds with the accounts of Jung by those he trained. I need to add that I don’t claim to be an expert on Jung but I have watched hours of footage of interviews with Jung and those he personally analyzed.

  6. I find Peterson’s “Pinocchio moment” on the Rubin podcast to be moving, and my sense is that his work has helped a lot of people who have struggled with nihilism and despair. That’s not a bad thing.

      1. Point taken. I think you pigeonhole Peterson with the phrase “often incoherent and conspiratorial.” Also, the Peterson-Driscoll comparison is iffy. For example, I would very much want to distance Peterson’s readings of Scripture from Driscoll’s readings. That said, I don’t think you try to create a strawman Peterson in the way that Cathy Newman tried—and failed—to do so, and I appreciated the questions you raise. I very much share your concern about all things toxic.

        I read Aziz’s article largely as a reflection upon—and projection of—his own addictive tendencies. I would like to see him concede the idea that some of Peterson’s fans like Peterson because they like him, after thoughtful consideration (including a consideration of his flaws), not because they are ignorant and have fallen prey to some sort of propaganda technique.

        1. Thanks for a nuanced reply. I read Aziz a little differently. He likes the Peterson who is the winsome college professor but believes he has transformed into a conspiratorial victim of late with the rise of his fame. I am on the outside looking in but I think this makes sense.

          As your followers respond to your harder edged critiques, it is easy to accelerate those critiques and focus on them thus attracting more fans and more fringe followers. Think behavioral shaping. In his rant about white privilege, he makes one point about one study and then dismisses the whole business as leftist nonsense. This isn’t what scholars do. I think Aziz believed at one point, he had a nuanced critique of ideas and now he just rants to the fan base. I don’t know for sure that Aziz is accurate about the Peterson of before but I do think he saw a different Peterson at one point.

          1. As your followers respond to your harder edged critiques, it is easy to accelerate those critiques and focus on them thus attracting more fans and more fringe followers.

            Especially when the money starts rolling in.

          2. So it all boils down to Skinnerian behaviorism xD

            That explains my confused read of Peterson. I see an academic in there somewhere but I can’t reconcile it with his following. His following changing him for the worst makes sense, like Twitch Thots only more shameful.

          3. As your followers respond to your harder edged critiques, it is easy to accelerate those critiques and focus on them thus attracting more fans and more fringe followers.

            Especially when the money starts rolling in.

        2. I would like to see him concede the idea that some of Peterson’s fans like Peterson because they like him, after thoughtful consideration (including a consideration of his flaws), not because they are ignorant and have fallen prey to some sort of propaganda technique.

          These are not mutually exclusive. People often carefully consider propaganda, fail to recognize it as such, and decide they like or agree with it. I don’t doubt that most of Peterson’s fans like him because they like him after listening to hours of his lectures and reading his writings. That does not mean it isn’t propaganda.

          Check the anti-vaccine movement for more of the same, every anti-vaxxer I know has studied like crazy on the topic and yet still come to a very incorrect and harmful point of view.

          1. People often carefully consider propaganda, fail to recognize it as such, and decide they like or agree with it.

            Reminds me of the almost unanimous support of all political parties for the Iraq War Sequel in Congress.

  7. Jordan Peterson’s empty word-salads remind me of the equally vapid prose of Thomas Freedman. Dr. Throckmorton’s writing is a helpful detox.

    1. Being unfamiliar with Peterson, I was doing a little reading. Man, does he know how to toss a word salad – meaningless tripe that leaves the mind frustrated in wondering where to connect the dots. He could give Deepak Chopra a run for his money!

  8. If memory serves correct, a similar view has been put forth before in the past concerning the industrialization of our planet, when in the past the father was home tending the fields or his trade, and how that changed when fathers left home daily to work after the industrial revolution.

    So, I ask the question – is there a tiny bit of validity to his statements ?
    – that there is a difference, however slight, when there is a matriarchal head of household when papa is not around ?

    1. I don’t know, though I suspect it would be overwhelmed by the whole “not having to work like a slave at the age of 8” thing. What research I have seen indicates that the most important things for healthy childhood development are unconditional love, a safe family space and the elements needed to thrive (food, healthcare, education, socialization, etc). The attempts, for instance, to place causation of homosexuality on a weak or absent father or overbearing mother were not borne out by the data. I think we might tend to take our gender stereotypes a bit too seriously.

    2. Since time immemorial, under every kind of society there is, men have found a way to avoid being home.

      1. Most of them, yes. Over 3,800 years ago Esau was recorded as spending all his time away hunting. He was hairy and manly and beloved by his father, not like the girly Jacob who hung out in tents and cooked with the women.

      2. Most of them, yes. Over 3,800 years ago Esau was recorded as spending all his time away hunting. He was hairy and manly and beloved by his father, not like the girly Jacob who hung out in tents and cooked with the women.

    1. Having read it now, it of course reminds me why I hate guys like this.

      The appeal of despots like Peterson is that they promise One Truth to guide the misguided, whilst ignoring the fact that they are the misguiders. Peterson in fact knows very little. He has no understanding of reality, of the eons that have gone into our formation, and the futility of searching for a Theory of Everything. He eschews chaos, without realizing that what he thinks is chaos is in fact a complexity and system that he cannot perceive, much less accept.

      What a wanker.

      1. I hope that the 8 likes you got didn’t encourage you to assume that you are actually more correct than Peterson yourself, in your own views. A lot of assumptions and big talk coming from a guy who literally gives zero backup arguments to any of the enormous claims he makes. At least Peterson goes to great lengths to attempt to clarify and explain himself. What he says is researched and backed up by decades of studies and practical experience in the topics that he discusses and in which you describe him as being a “despot”, “misguided”, “ignorant” and the list goes on. Whether he is right or wrong is both his prerogative and the reality of doing research; sometimes you’re wrong, other times you’re right. That’s the rule of the game.

        So much talk about “understanding of reality” and “eons that have gone into our formation”, “chaos”, “systems and complexity” and more, but no explanation, no arguments, not even a definition of these big words you so loosely use; nothing to accommodate a constructive debate. Just a closed door upon another.
        No, instead you opt for the easy way out, call your opponent by silly names, forward loose ideas and then snuggle up in bed as you accumulate hive mind internet points thinking you’ve become smarter, shared knowledge and are a constructive citizen.

        No wonder Democrats lost the election. I suggest you learn both to look outside and in with a more critical eye and mind. You’re stuck in your own ideas with your own people.

        1. “from a guy who literally gives zero backup arguments to any of the enormous claims he makes.”

          that is because Jeff was writing a blog post not a book. If you wanted more information about his sources you should ask him for them, not just assume he doesn’t have them.

  9. I also have plenty of disagreement with Peterson, and I probably personally filter out just about anything he says that attempts to scapegoat someone or something else. That sets off flags for me. But I think what appeals to me in what he says, and probably appeals to many younger men (I am not young anymore), is that he commends self-determinism, wisdom, prudence, personal responsibility, self-confidence and resistance to unwelcome societal pressure. Like almost anyone with influence, he’s a mixed bag.

    1. WE – off topic but assuming you are signed up for notifications, did you get an email notification of this post?

      1. I’m not signed up, Warren… I believe I arrived via Twitter. I usually get new posts via Feedly.

    2. It seems to me that with those “good” parts intertwined with all the bad, the former is compromised. Or worse, the good is an attraction for some who then fall for the bad. I realize at times it is necessary to separate good and bad information from the same source, but in practice it can be tricky. It depends heavily on the character and intentions of the source in question. In this case, I can’t imagine there is a shortage of exhortations such as those you mention, both historical and contemporary, that one could turn to as an alternative.

      1. It’s a standard tactic of Peterson fanboys. When criticized for saying something completely fucked up they immediately try to distract by pointing to his trite second-rate self-help schtick.

        Came for the Daddy lecture, stayed for the misogyny.

      2. I’ll give you a good example of why I don’t mind seeing a lot of good in the interest in Peterson. Just to frame things, I came from a home with a criminal father and an alcoholic mother. That’s just for starters. I had very little guidance at points in my life, and after high school and some personal misfires, all I knew was that 1) I had to get out of that environment and 2) I had to somehow go to college and also work full time. I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.

        Short story is that I started listening to Rush Limbaugh at work (someone else liked it, I guess). Today, I have very little positive to say about Rush Limbaugh’s shtick. Politically, he was a waste of time. But I do have to say that I am SO GLAD that I latched onto a source who told me that I could choose to succeed. That no matter what my starting point was, I could go out and stake my claim in this country. Because it was what I needed, and I am glad no one got to me to enlighten me about the challenges of my own predicament, due to mental trauma, or lack or resources, or whatever else. I just grabbed onto that message and I did it.

        So, I personally benefited greatly from several years of daily Rush Limbaugh, even if I can’t tolerate it today.

        1. There are some issues with this line of thinking. First, even if listening to RL was the impetus for your success you think it was, I’m not sure we can justify the damage he has done to public discourse in this country on the off chance that some got a kick in the pants from his verbal bilge. Second, as I mentioned before, there are certainly more thoughtful, and healthy sources of this sort of message available. Yes, you caught him on the radio but we do not know that you would not have received the same push elsewhere, or been successful in spite of not hearing it. IOW, I understand how you could feel this way because of your own personal narrative, but I don’t think we can use that to excuse all the negative, which in this case seems to clearly outweigh any accidental positive.

          I am glad no one got to me to enlighten me about the challenges of my own predicament, due to mental trauma, or lack or resources, or whatever else. I just grabbed onto that message and I did it.

          This part concerns me a bit. You are expressing that romanticized mythos that has lingered in this country since the 1800s. It wasn’t true then and it isn’t true now. Yes, depending on the economy at the time one has a decent chance of making a living, and, to a lesser degree, becoming moderately wealthy. However, this country has always had people who, try as they might, could not make it. All countries have this, and I hope you are not making some sort of “I did it so why can’t you” statement.

          Perhaps you think that understanding why some people can’t succeed threatens your own ideology. Perhaps you feel it is just liberal coddling and destructive – anything can be taken too far I suppose. But the truth is rarely harmful and I believe for every one of you, there is someone who has been set free from believing they were somehow damaged or a failure by learning how certain things can affect their lives. Pulling oneself up by the bootstraps is a good general philosophy, but it is not absolute. There are a host of factors, some beyond our personal control, that can interfere – temporarily or permanently.

          I’ve heard more of your childhood story before and it is definitely not good. I would like to bring up one thought, which perhaps Warren could verify. I believe that individuals can be affected to varying degrees in such situations. Just like war, some come back able to cope well, others do not. I do not know you, only what you have said here. However, it is possible that, despite these circumstances, you coped better than perhaps another might have? I’m not calling this an accomplishment, simply a matter of mental makeup. You might consider this as well when you think of those who have come from equally bad backgrounds and did not succeed.

          1. You are correct. There are better voices out there than Rush Limbaugh, but there are certainly much, much worse. I’m just glad I ran into his first. I had other, better quality voices that I valued greatly. But it was the “believe in yourself” aspect of Limbaugh that helped me endure through some very difficult personal stretches.

            And, you are also correct that different people have different challenges. I know siblings who grew up in the same house, one being traumatized and the other seemingly doing fine. Some people encounter worse obstacles, or have more intractable impediments. I would have had much, much more difficulty if I had simply had really bad teeth. That’s not a flippant statement. I’m relatively intelligent. Some people aren’t. My legs work.

            But in the end, whatever the obstacles are, it’s your life to attempt to make the best of. If one’s own assessment, or someone else’s assessment, of the limitations/obstacles is perfectly accurate and correct (which is likely isn’t), it changes nothing. Maybe someone will help you, and maybe they won’t, but you should at least be able to count on yourself to give it 100%, whatever that looks like.

    3. “Personal Responsibility” except when blaming everyone feminists, “cultural Marxists”, etc.

      1. I’ve heard that term “cultural Marxists” for years and still don’t know what it means.

    4. The same hook Driscoll and religion itself has used for time beyond reckoning to ensnare men: you’re a pussy and I know how to make you a real man (by controlling women).

  10. This guy is not a very clear thinker and an abominably bad writer. The books he’s written are barely literate word salads that demonstrate an alarming lack of knowledge about reality. And his narcissism rivals Trump’s.

    One can only hope that his “Jordan Who?” stage is fast approaching.

    1. TBH, I am in the “Jordan Who?” stage. I’ve heard his name mentioned online, but that’s about it. But if he’s anything at all like Driscoll, I can only be thankful I haven’t been exposed to his toxicity.

      1. I only became aware of him about a year or so ago. But he’s awful, and seemingly everywhere on the internet. Big YouTube guy.

    2. That explains why I couldn’t sit through one of his videos long enough to form an opinion of him. And for the record, I’m pretty good at sitting and watching things, it’s basically all I do.

  11. Do feminists avoid criticizing Islam because they unconsciously long for masculine dominance?

    We don’t specifically criticize Islam because the masculine dominance within Islam is no different than the dominance found in Orthodox Jews and far-right Christians.

    Interesting article from Omer Aziz. By the end of the article, I came away thinking Peterson is just a more cerebral version of Trump. Trump could never have thought up “Cultural Marxism”.

    1. I honestly think we need a rescue mission for women brainwashed in complementarian churches. They’re basically indoctrinated into believing they are inferior and need a man to make decisions for them and to submit to. It’s disgusting. I say that as an anti-church Jesus freak.

  12. Both Peterson and Wylie sound like they have some rather deep seated mommy issues.

    1. I did some research for an author on Tim LaHaye’s The Unhappy Gays. He’s another one with issues.

      As important as the father is in the life of a child, even he must take second place to mother during the first three years of life…. Consequently, mothers actually have more to do with producing a predisposition toward homosexuality than fathers. Two kinds of mothers are particularly harmful – smother mothers and dominating mothers.

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