“I think he’s an idiot,” I snapped at my running buddy in the early kilometres of a trail run not far from Pretoria. He had started a sentence “Jordan Peterson says…”. I was quite sure the guy was far-right of politics and mean of spirit. 

I knew nothing substantial about Peterson. Only that he was deep inside the “basket of deplorables”. Illiberal, Trumpish, homophobic. The CNN and MSNBC talking heads were clear and convincing on this.  

I had watched none of the Canadian clinical psychologist’s lectures. I had read only the title of his book, and “Twelve Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos” seemed a dismissably stupid title. An opinion piece I had breezed through reproduced long stretches of things Peterson had written and said. They made him seem a loon. 

Days later my running buddy sent me a link to a video of one of Peterson’s early lectures at the University of Toronto. It was an amateur film of him teaching undergraduates in a modest lecture room. It was the sort of thing that has achieved millions of view and helped build cult-like status. I forget the topic now. But the content was strange and intriguing. Unlike anything else I’ve seen. I watched a few more of his many lectures on YouTube.  

I’ve now watched many hours of Peterson giving lessons and speaking to packed theatres around the globe on book tours. I’ve read three of his books and listen to his podcast. 

As a quasi-academic, I have been struck by how thoroughly he references his arguments. He also follows with great precision the professorly rule of avoiding claiming a study or body of work demonstrates any more than it really does. The breadth of his knowledge is staggering. The former Harvard faculty member cites papers from the top of his head on the fly.  

Peterson’s reasoned opinions that go beyond hard scientific findings are flagged as such. His stories are gripping. The metaphors are unusual and excellent. He is very liberal, although not in the sense that has emerged in the last three years.  

His chief “illiberal” crime, and the saga that shot him to notoriety, was to oppose the move to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code (Bill C-16). His fear was that this amounted to state-compelled speech to use preferred gender pronouns in places like university classes. That was all. Strictly that. That was his reasoned approach to free speech and academic freedom. He pushed back on state-enforced wording. 

As it happens, he has no opposition to using preferred gender pronouns on an individual basis when asked to. He has gladly agreed to such requests. No fuss. No issue of state-mandated language or inefficient bureaucracy or limitation on freedom of speech in academic settings. 

Of course, one can make strong arguments against Peterson’s. In fact, it is a necessary part of a healthy society that people argue he is wrong. My opposition is to the position that he is not just wrong, but malignant. Moreover, I reject the dismissal of him based on the level of knowledge I had on a dusty highveld trail one morning a few years ago. 

Further, Peterson’s work and stances are not just defensible against accusations of right-wing nastiness, but are mostly rather gentle. Consider just a few of his famous rules. Book 1, rule 2: “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping”. Book 1, rule 9: “Assume whoever you are listening to knows something you don’t”. Book 2, rule 8: “Try to make at least one room on your home as beautiful as possible”.

Peterson uses established science to discuss things like differences between men and women. He appropriately frames these as not absolutes or universals, but statistically meaningful. In a famous interview (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMcjxSThD54), he engaged in heated debate with a feminist about the gender pay gap. 

He has been harshly rebuked for this. And again, his position is entirely defensible. He argues for a multivariate analysis: “If you’re a social scientist worth your salt, you’d never do a univariate analysis.”  

Peterson argues that “the claim that the wage gap between men and women is only due to sex is wrong”. One reason he deals with concerns the personality trait of agreeableness. “Agreeable people are compassionate and polite. And agreeable people get paid less than less agreeable people for the same job”. That is, regardless of sex, the market rewards more agreeable people less. “Women are more agreeable than men,” says Peterson. 

The conclusion is that the portion of the pay gap between men and women that is explained by average agreeability differences cannot be considered a result of sexism. It is a function of the market economy and applies equally to both sexes. That doesn’t mean it is right. Only that, as Peterson puts it, “Agreeableness is one component of a multivariate equation that predicts salary”. 

One might disagree. But judging Peterson as sexist for making this argument doesn’t seem a valid response.  

Peterson also has a way of making arguments fun. Take his rule “Do not bother children when they are skateboarding”. Kids are often shooed away. “Leave those damned kids alone!” he pleads. “They need some danger.” It is critical to learning to live with the existence of chaos and order. Safety and danger. They are learning to be brave and how to make themselves competent at a difficult task. I think this has important principles for the safetyism that has gripped the world around Covid-19 and lockdowns.  

I disagree with Peterson strongly on a number of issues. Chiefly, he has debated my former University of Cape Town professor, David Benatar, on the latter’s philosophy of anti-natalism. I am a rare adherent of this. I think Peterson is wrong and Benatar is right. That is the extent of it. It says nothing about the goodness of the man. He isn’t bad. He makes valid points. I think the argument fails against Benatar’s. 

I am embarrassed at my knee-jerk dismissal and evidence-free disdain as typified by my grumpy response on that trail run. And sorry for snapping at Tino. This was a valuable lesson. 

Disdaining Jordan Peterson taught me several lessons. Here are two. First, be slow to judge, especially when your sources of information are media snippets. Second, read, watch and listen widely. We need CNN and Fox; Sky and Ben Shapiro; News24 and Roman Cabanac. Competing arguments are the route to good answers. Embrace them. Distrust them. Test them. Marry none. 

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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Ian Macleod studied business science at the University of Cape Town, and journalism at Rhodes University. He completed his MBA at the University of Pretoria’s Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) during 2016-2017, penning his thesis on the challenges inherent in private equity investments into family business. During his studies he worked at professional services firm EY in their People Advisory Service (PAS) consulting wing, working primarily on change management. Macleod returned to GIBS shortly after graduating to help launch the school’s new Africa centre, the Centre for African Management and Markets (CAMM), and to drive an exploration into the viability of a family business network for Africa housed at GIBS. He combines his interests in journalism, business and academia in his online platform, Investment Narrative (https://www.investmentnarrative.com/). Macleod has run five Comrades Marathons, and once rode his bike 900km off-road from Joburg to Scottburgh in nine days.