T hey’re waiting in the cold for Jordan Peterson, hands shoved in jacket pockets, serious books like The Gulag Archipelago and Modern Man in Search of a Soul tucked under arms. The crowd outside the University of Toronto’s Isabel Bader Theatre on a Tuesday evening in November is mostly male and mostly in their 20s. They’ve spent hours watching Peterson on YouTube, where he rails against the enervating evils of postmodernism, dissects the Bible at length, and offers fatherly advice about how to “change the world properly.” They recite his dictums on personal responsibility, like “Clean your room,” “Sort yourself out,” and “Don’t do things that you hate.” They devour the classics he deems must-reads — Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Orwell. When asked to describe him, they reach for superlatives: brilliant, breathtaking, wise. When asked to compare him, they turn to historical figures: Plato, Diogenes, Gandhi. They insist he’s changed their lives.
Soon the man himself will arrive and deliver an often dazzling, sometimes puzzling, rarely dull two-hour lecture on the symbolic and psychological underpinnings of the book of Genesis. Afterward he will field knotty questions from the audience on whether originality is really possible, the tension between honor and happiness, and the evolutionary upside of solitude. These questions seem designed to be difficult, as if the audience were engaged in a giant game of Stump the Guru. It’s during such sessions that Peterson is at his improvisational best, sprinkling in ideas from philosophy, fiction, religion, neuroscience, and a disturbing dream his 5-year-old nephew had one time. It’s a hearty intellectual stew ladled up by an intense 55-year-old psychology professor who gives the impression that he’s on the cusp of unraveling the deep secrets of human behavior — and maybe the mystery of God, too, while he’s at it.
You’d never guess from the reverential atmosphere in the 500-seat theater just how polarizing Peterson has become over the past year. Days before, fliers were tacked up around his neighborhood warning the community about the dangerous scholar in their midst, accusing him of “campaigning against the human rights” of minorities and associating with the alt-right. There have been several calls for his ouster from the University of Toronto — where he’s tenured — including a recent open letter to the dean of the faculty of arts and science signed by hundreds, including many of his fellow professors. Friends refuse to comment on him lest they be associated with his image. Critics hesitate, too, for fear that his supporters will unleash their online wrath. A graduate student at another Canadian university was reprimanded for showing a short video clip of Peterson to a group of undergraduates. One of the professors taking her to task likened Peterson to Hitler.