Jordan Peterson, the polarising Canadian psychologist, is coming to New Zealand in February. In an attempt to understand his appeal, Madeleine Chapman spent a week in Peterson's beef-filled shoes.
OPINION: I took three shits during my week living as Jordan Peterson. That's three fewer than is healthy and three more than I expected. I ate seven bowls of mince, seven cuts of steak, drank copious amounts of water, read one book, watched more than 20 hours of lectures and interviews, and was miserable the entire time.
Jordan Peterson doesn't need me as a fan. He has literally millions already. The clinical psychologist and professor has amassed a global following and reputation as a thought leader, with his appearance at the Auckland Town Hall in February 2019 already sold out. His book, 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos is an international bestseller, his online lectures attract millions of viewers, and he lives comfortably off the financial contributions of his followers. But for reasons apparently unclear to Peterson, nearly all of his followers are men.
Why indeed? I didn't know much about Peterson beyond his public stance against a proposed bill in Canadian parliament that would ban discrimination against people based on "gender identity". Peterson considered it a threat to the right of free speech, and that he could be arrested for using the wrong gender pronouns. This was ultimately proved to be untrue, but it didn't matter. Thousands who opposed the bill alongside him had found their leader.
I knew that a strangely aggressive opposition to gender neutral pronouns wasn't all Peterson had to offer. I'd met many, many people who had been positively influenced by his work and I wanted in. Could Peterson be my leader?
I needed a bridge, something to connect me with a man who appealed almost exclusively to other men. And I found it in his diet. Short-term, foolhardy, physical challenges have become my bread and butter. I decided to connect with Peterson the man by suffering with him on his diet. And it's one hell of a diet.
Peterson, by his own account, consumes only three things: beef, salt, and water.
This is not a healthy diet. That's not hard to figure out, what with the only eating beef part of it. But I'm not one to dismiss something that works for others, and Peterson has spoken at length about the many benefits he's experienced because of it. I possess a laundry list of food allergies and intolerances myself, so I went in hoping to be the exception. With a Mad Butcher shopping bag in one hand and 12 Rules for Life in the other, I was ready.
My first meal of plain mince with a dash of salt tastes surprisingly good. While I eat, I read the first chapter/rule of Peterson's: Stand up straight with your shoulders back. I read about lobsters and the natural dominant hierarchy within the species. Male lobsters fight each other and the winner grows in dominance while the loser shrinks. The dominant male lobsters get all the females to mate with them while the losers get none.
This is how lobster society works and this is how human society works, says Peterson. Peterson's fans affectionately refer to themselves as lobsters and him as the "Lobster King". Keep in mind that lobsters technically do not have brains.
Every person in society knows where they stand in society. If you're a male at the top, writes Peterson, "you have preferential access to the best places to live and the highest-quality food. People compete to do you favours. You have limitless opportunity for romantic and sexual contact." I eagerly read on, wanting to know what I, a female, will get once I rise to the top of the hierarchy.
"If you're female, you have access to many high-quality suitors: tall, strong and symmetrical; creative, reliable, honest and generous. And, like your dominant male counterpart, you will compete ferociously, even pitilessly, to maintain or improve your position in the equally competitive female mating hierarchy. Although you are less likely to use physical aggression to do so, there are many effective verbal tricks and strategies at your disposal, including the disparaging of opponents, and you may well be expert at their use."
Wow, can't wait to be a gossipy bitch with nowhere to live.
Eating plain mince with no seasoning or sauces whatsoever has unsurprisingly lost its extremely limited appeal. I made the mistake of complaining to someone about the mince. Their response is a wise "you know you could just...not do it, right?" And they're right. I could.
Peterson himself urges readers of his book to say no to things that cause them harm. Say no to tyranny. Say no to oppression. "If you say no, early in the cycle of oppression, and you mean what you say (which means you state your refusal in no uncertain terms and stand behind it) then the scope for oppression on the part of the oppressor will remain properly bounded and limited. The forces of tyranny expands inexorably to fill the space made available for their existence."
Just say no. Don't allow room for others to hurt you or oppress you. By showing weakness, you invite others to take advantage of you. So just say no. On its own, that's good advice, albeit easier said than done. Those who stand up to their oppressors and demand change would therefore have the full support of Peterson. Except they don't, because Peterson despises activists, or "Social Justice Warriors", as he explained in a Harvard talk when discussing the largely female crowds that have protested his platform:
"This happened in the 60s, as far as I can tell, that we got this misbegotten idea that the way to conduct yourself as a responsible human being was to hold placards up, to protest, to change the viewpoints of other people and thereby usher in the utopia. I think that's all appalling."
In the 1960s, Americans were protesting as part of the Civil Rights movement to end segregation in schools and the second-class citizenship of African Americans. In other words, they were standing up and saying no to oppression. It's almost as if Peterson's universal truths are only universal if the universe were entirely made up of white men.
I go to sleep at 6pm, exhausted.
Clementine Ford comes into the office to record a podcast. It's my chance to use what I've learned from Peterson in a debate with a very famous feminist. Before we sit down, I adjust my seat so that I'm sitting higher than her. A classic power move to assert my dominance and show that I'm the successful lobster. Our debate begins and I start by asking Ford if she believes we live in an oppressive patriarchy. She says yes. Time to strike.
It was a man that invented the first practical tampon, I say, confidently and with my shoulders back. And a man who invented the birth control pill. Two items that have only served to benefit women. I glance down at page 305 to make sure I deliver the line correctly, "In what manner were these practical, enlightened, persistent men part of a constricting patriarchy?"
I don't know why Ford is laughing.
I finally poo. When I stand on the scales I see I've lost 2kg since Sunday.
With a bowl of mince in my hands and the disgusted stares of my colleagues at my back, I watch Peterson debate with British journalist Helen Lewis over whether or not the patriarchy exists. Lewis's argument for the existence of a male-dominant society is that until very recently, men owned the vast majority of land, capital, and power.
Peterson's response is to point out that "a huge proportion of people who are seriously disaffected are men. Most people in prison are men. Most people who are on the street are men. Most people who are victims of violent crime are men...where's the dominance here precisely?"
It's galactic brain level whataboutism. Men kill their female partners? Men also kill other men. Men rape women? Men also rape other men. Men oppress women? Well guess what, men oppress men too.
Peterson walks a tightrope in his book of simultaneously decrying the "victim mentality" in women, minorities, and other marginalised groups in society, while at the same time proposing that the loudness of these groups' protests is harmful to young men and their mental health. "It's worse, I think, for young men. As privileged beneficiaries of the patriarchy, their accomplishments are considered unearned. As possible adherents of rape culture, they're sexually suspect. Their ambitions make them plunderers of the planet. They're not welcome."
Have you ever gotten mad at someone for a legitimate reason, only for them to get so aggressively and surprisingly angry at you for getting mad that you almost apologise instinctively? That's what it feels like to read this book.
I'm so tired. I'm getting puffed on my 20 minute walk to work and I feel a little feverish. I've thankfully graduated from plain beef mince to poorly cooked steaks and the strips of fat along the edge of each cut are the only thing keeping me sane. My room, which I'd cleaned at Peterson's urging (rule six: set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world) is messy again. I'm still losing weight.
I'm struggling with this challenge, far more than I anticipated. It's not physically as demanding as living like Dwayne Johnson or riding an OnzO bike for 12 hours, but it's so much worse. During those other challenges, even as I hated what I was doing, I could understand why someone else might want to do it. It's been five days and I literally do not believe that Jordan Peterson has eaten only beef for months. Neither the diet nor the book are inspiring me to be healthier, or even just better, and it's throwing me off.
How can a bestselling self-help book be absolutely no help to me, a person who loves being helped?
I've finally found it. Hidden in the selective anecdotal evidence and the obsession with a brainless species as a model for human behaviour, Peterson has dispensed some good advice. It can be found in the first and last page of each chapter, when Peterson sets aside his political thoughts and focuses on helping the individual reader. In other words, goes back to his actual profession of clinical psychology.
On telling the truth: "Your truth is something only you can tell, based as it is on the unique circumstances of your life. Apprehend your personal truth." On improving day to day: "If you ask, as if you want, and knock, as if you want to enter, you may be offered the chance to improve your life, a little; a lot; completely."
Peterson's strain of self-help is nothing new. Being told to form good habits, be organised, display confidence, and set realistic goals has long been part of the developed world's curriculum. But it always helps to be reminded regularly, just as every New Year reminds us all that we were supposed to quit smoking and drinking. Self-help is all about accepting responsibility for one's self and turning perceived weaknesses or barriers into opportunities.
There's no denying a growing listlessness among a generation of young men. Men whose lives aren't falling into place as they had been led to believe. These men are looking for guidance, needing direction as their stock falls - or as others' rises - depending on how you look at it.
It's a situation that needs addressing and it explains the overwhelming popularity of Peterson himself, who has become the patriarch of this movement, if you will. But he has done so by presenting the plight of the young, white man as being the issue in today's society. Women, minorities - both racial and sexual - their "so-called oppression" was simply nature at work.
Biological and societal hierarchies playing out according to competence and expertise. Young white men feeling disenfranchised or sidelined [note: feeling, not necessarily being] is a tragedy in the making, according to Peterson.
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Don't dismiss these men or there'll be devastating consequences, Peterson warns, while dismissing everyone else.
Peterson continues to deny any connection to the alt-right, and he wouldn't be lying to say he does not officially align with their values, but he is undeniably beloved by radical conservatives. Anyone with his size of audience - and a way to measure their engagement - quickly learns what their followers want.
I know that if I write a snarky article about Don Brash being an idiot, a lot of people will read it and agree. I don't like writing about Brash, or Mike Hosking, or any other old white men. Not because they don't deserve criticism but because each article - while popular - inevitably leads to readers commenting far too violently. Taking my words and using them irresponsibly. So much so that I begin to resent what little power I have to direct their ire at another person, even if that person is someone I so fundamentally oppose such as Brash. But those articles perform well and articles that perform well are good for me and my job.
Peterson may well resent his followers who hear his lectures about biological gender differences and use them as an excuse for violent sexism. He may hate it that his fans sent death threats to an interviewer with whom he disagreed. But Peterson relies on fan donations to his Patreon for income. He will know by now that a Jordan Peterson YouTube clip explaining why posture is important won't get near as many views, and therefore donations, as "Jordan Peterson DESTROYS feminist interviewer" or "Jordan Peterson debunks white privilege".
Peterson himself explained it best when talking about how Hitler came to power, in a clip he insists is not Nazi apologia.
"Carl Jung called him the mouthpiece of the collective unconscious of the German people. So you imagine there's all this resentment and hatred brewing underneath the surface and this chaos is there. The desire for order is clamouring in everyone's minds. And Hitler comes along and he's a very powerful, emotional orator, and he's watching the crowd. He listens, and when he says Thing A, nothing happens. When he says Thing B, everybody roars. So he takes note of that. He's not even conscious, exactly, because he's being moulded by the crowd. So they roar, that's a reinforcement, that's a reward, so he goes down that line a little bit farther and they roar some more. He acts out the dark desire of the mob."
The subtitle to Peterson's book is "An Antidote to Chaos".
I had a dream last night that I ate some Rashuns. When I woke up, I could still taste the ghost chips. For the first time, I got annoyed about my flatmates making noise on a Friday night. Living as Jordan Peterson has made me irritable. I've lost 3.4kg, the smell of beef makes me gag, and I don't see any silver lining. There's beef and political ideologies going into my body, and nothing coming out. At all. Reading back over my emails this week, I see a lot of embarrassing typos and I'm stumbling in my speech more than usual. It's as if the waste that's not leaving me naturally is finding another way out.
I lie in bed, feeling hungover for some reason, and listen to Peterson's first appearance on Joe Rogan's podcast. It's arguably what launched his career as a controversial thought leader, enemy of snowflakes and PC culture. The episode is fine, he's mostly repeating what I've already read in his book, but when it ends, a saved Rogan podcast on my phone starts to play automatically. The guest is David Goggins - former Navy Seal, current ultra marathon runner - and he's telling me that I need to do the things I hate every day. I need to callous my mind against pain because no one will help me but myself. He's inspiring me to get off my arse but I just don't have the energy. I haven't pooed in three days.
Goggins and Peterson appeal to the same demographic: young men feeling uninspired and needing a push. They have a similar delivery; they don't mince (ha) words and aren't afraid to target people's weaknesses. But Goggins manages to keep his message narrow. Don't worry about what everyone else is doing, just worry about being better on your own. If you're looking for the type of life lessons that Peterson claims to offer, men like Goggins can give you that without the convoluted lobster analogies. Which raises the question: are Peterson's diehard followers looking to him for accountability or for an excuse?
For my final beef meal of this hell week, I'm dining out. The Grill at SkyCity have taken up the challenge of cooking me a steak (with nothing else) that won't make me want to throw up. When it arrives, a $105 small serving, it tastes nothing like beef and is therefore the most delicious beef steak I've ever eaten. If Peterson eats steak this good for every meal, I can see how he might manage. I think even I could go another week of eating just fancy steak from The Grill. I don't have to pay for my dinner, and I get a glimpse of what it must be like to be rich and or powerful. I can't help but think maybe Peterson has a point, maybe I'm starting to come around. Peterson's diet and teachings are far more palatable with a sprinkling of salt and privilege.
It's over. I'm not even hungry for my big breakfast but I'm cooking up bacon and mushrooms anyway. Peterson said that eating only beef means he's not so hungry all the time. He's right, but the only reason I haven't been hungry is because I'd rather not eat at all than eat another bowl of mince. It's surprisingly easy to pick the lesser of two evils. As I eat my breakfast, my appetite waking up, I think about what I've learned during my week living as Jordan Peterson.
I already knew that more and more young people, particularly men, are feeling disenfranchised and unmoored. I already knew that Peterson has provided these men with an explanation for what they're feeling and a path forward. What I didn't know was that Peterson's explanation - an explanation now widely received, revered, and distributed - involves the dismissing of all other people who've historically felt the same way. This knowledge - and the whole pack of bacon I've just inhaled - makes me sleepy and sad.
Back in bed, I listen to Peterson say "it's a very rare woman who at the age of 30 doesn't consider having a child her primary desire. And the ones that don't consider that, generally, in my observation, there's something that isn't quite right in the way they're constituted or looking at the world." I watch as he tells a crowd of cheering fans that white privilege is a Marxist lie. I hear him say the reason radical feminists in America don't protest Muslim countries is because of "their unconscious wish for brutal male domination". I sit in my messy room on a Sunday morning watching Jordan Peterson video after Jordan Peterson video, absorbing everything he has to say about the world, and suddenly feel an overwhelming urge to take a shit.
Madeleine Chapman is a staff writer at The Spinoff