Movie review

The Rise Of Jordan Peterson

I bought this because of my interest in Jordan Peterson and because it received some good reviews as a dispassionate presentation of how a University of Toronto psychology professor suddenly became a world famous, polarizing “public intellectual.”

I was disappointed. I found it superficial and unenlightening. There are a lot of interleaved, ten second soundbites: Pro/con, “He is the ultimate father figure.”/“So, you’re anti-justice. Are you a Batman villain?” There’s a “what” to this documentary, but we are left to wonder why anyone holds such opinions.

This film doesn’t help in understanding the virality of a intellectual cultural phenom whose dozens of 2.5 hour University lectures attract ~5 million views each on YouTube. Or why an assistant professor of sociology will grade any paper mentioning Peterson with an “F;” seeming to confirm one of Peterson’s criticisms of the modern University.

Strictly as a documentary, it very nearly does manage to take no position. As an examination of Peterson’s ‘rise’ it is short on context or background.

Peterson’s objections to Bill C-16 gave him a viral blip when he publicly objected to compelled use of whimsical, invented pronouns: His corpus of prior work made him a phenomenon.

In fact, it’s the hundreds of hours of video he already had published that protected him from the SJW mob (and, until the Bill C-16 blip, was the motivation for the filmmakers to create this movie). There is no sign in this history of the patriarchal, sexist, transphobic, authoritarian, fascist thinking with which he is charged. A point which is not made evident in the film, despite a few truncated clips of his earlier work.

There’s much, much, much more explanation of Peterson’s rise in the video record preceding his tussle with the Canadian nanny-state. Peterson’s rise was propelled by the fact that he is a charismatic speaker and a powerful teacher.

The filmmakers’ attempt at even-handedness may be sincere, but the overall impression is more that Peterson promoted a free speech controversy as a way to enrich himself, not that he was risking his career. For an American audience, without a sense that freedom of speech in Canada is clinging to a cliff by one hand, the film is simply puzzling.

Supposed allies are shown expressing trepidation about Peterson’s outspokenness. This objection is to be expected from most Canadians, whose government has an uneasy relationship with freedom of speech and who are congenitally uncomfortable with controversy. See Mark Steyn, Lindsay Shepherd, etc..

And there are unanswered, factually incorrect slurs. A former supporter turned critic finds evidence of authoritarian impulses in Peterson’s collection of Soviet-era art (prominent in the movie). The reasons for this art are precisely the opposite of what is implied. If Peterson was asked for a response, it’s on the cutting room floor. Here is that response from an interview of Peterson:

[Tyler] COWEN: Let me start with a very lateral question. Why do you collect old Communist memorabilia and propaganda?

PETERSON: Well, part of it is dark comedy. Really, I spent quite a bit of time on eBay for a number of years. And I had read this article by a psychologist named James Pennebaker. He said that the past turned into history at 15 years. That’s when you start to see people commemorate events in the past. At that point, it was 2004, and I thought, “Oh, that’s interesting. It’s 15 years since the Soviet Union collapsed. Maybe I can go online and see what historical memorabilia is left over.”

So I went on eBay, looking up Soviet artifacts, and I thought that was so comical because there isn’t anything more capitalistic than eBay, right? Seriously, that was completely unrestrained capitalism. And then all this Soviet-era stuff was for sale. I thought it was absolutely comical that I could buy paintings of Karl Marx discounted on the world’s most intense capitalist platform…

Some of it is intensely propagandistic, and I’m interested in that because I’m interested in propaganda… So it was interesting to surround myself with these works that were battlegrounds between art and propaganda.

Here’s a vastly better look at Jordan Peterson from the Claremont Review of Books: The Jordan Peterson Phenomenon and it takes less time to read than it takes to watch the movie.

I was quite disappointed, and it caused me to wonder if those cancel culturists pressing theaters to scrub scheduled showings (that link also has a positive review, for contrast) had any idea what was in it. They couldn’t have watched it. Maybe that was just a marketing ploy by the producers.

2 stars anyway, because I learned more about his parents and his family because of the access Peterson granted.