An opinion piece by:
By Rob Henderson
Mr. Henderson is a Ph.D. student at the University of Cambridge.
Published by The New York Times
He’s the reason I’m at Cambridge, which is why the university’s decision to revoke his invitation to do research there is so disconcerting.
When people learn that I study psychology, they often ask, “What do you think of Jordan Peterson?” It’s a tough question to respond to.
Dr. Peterson, a professor at the University of Toronto, rose to infamy in the wake of his protests against a Canadian human rights law he believed could result in jail time if he did not use a person’s preferred pronouns. His star rose further as a result of his popular YouTube videos in which he rejects notions of political correctness and rails against what he calls left-wing bullying. As a result, he isn’t always a popular figure.
Last month, his notoriety grew still further, because the University of Cambridge, where I am studying for a Ph.D., revoked his invitation to be a research fellow at the Divinity School this fall. News of the invitation had been greeted with outrage. The Cambridge students’ union viewed his invitation as political. They and others believe him to be an enemy of inclusion. The reaction from many students and faculty led the university to withdraw his offer, which Dr. Peterson denounced as a “serious error of judgment.”
Most people have learned about Jordan Peterson through news stories like these — through stories of backlash, followed by counter-backlash and so forth. (Or, through stunts like the recent debate over capitalism, Marxism and happiness staged between Dr. Peterson and the philosopher Slavoj Zizek.) But I learned about him through something more mundane: I searched online for “how to get into graduate school for psychology.”
I’m the first in my family to go to college. The first in both of my families, actually: my adoptive family and my birth family. I’ve never met my birth parents. My mom was a drug addict and my dad abandoned us.
As I thought about graduate school, I was insecure about my chances. I thought my admission to college was a fluke. I thought going for a Ph.D. was foolhardy. I seriously believed that I was pushing my luck. I thought, and still think, that college is for people smarter than me.
I searched online for other people’s experiences, looking for reassurance. A YouTube video appeared. It was audio only. A Muppet-voiced psychology professor was holding a Q. & A. session with students about the process of obtaining a Ph.D. in psychology. It was, in some ways, not reassuring. Jordan Peterson rattled off reasons graduate school is not a good idea and described the doubt and stress that comes from pursuing a Ph.D. But if you love the field, he went on to say, then the struggle is worth it. I applied; now I’m here.
I had a problem, I went online for answers, and I found Jordan Peterson. It’s clear I’m not the only one doing this. My experience listening to his video and my subsequent decision to apply for graduate school is an example of Dr. Peterson’s influence on his millions of listeners. I learned about Dr. Peterson because he says graduate school is painful but worth it. His other fans learned about him because he says other aspects of life are painful but worth it: taking care of oneself during periods of depression, for instance, or working through marital challenges. One fan has even said Dr. Peterson’s advice saved his life.
Young people, including me, find Dr. Peterson appealing in part because at this stage in our lives, at this particular time in history, it’s easy to find ourselves questioning what exactly all this is for.
Dr. Peterson integrates psychology, history and mythology to describe how people behave and what they can do to live fulfilling lives. His lectures and books imbue the everyday with a new sense of romanticism. He makes tasks like cleaning one’s room or finding a career sound like dragon-slaying voyages. His lectures infuse ordinary activities with new meaning. Dr. Peterson both informs us about the world and imparts guidance on how we shouldact within it.
In psychological terms, what many people who become Jordan Peterson fans are looking for is called self-efficacy — belief in our ability to achieve goals. One way it can be derived is through persuasion. People can be led to believe they can rise above challenges by a figure whom they trust and respect. High self-efficacy has been linked to self-regulation, resilience and accomplishment. It is a vital part of people’s lives, and when it’s missing they can feel aimless and inept. A lot of young people feel this way — even high achievers. Self-efficacy, after all, is about belief, not reality. Dr. Peterson prefers to couch this idea in abstruse language, but this is a crucial aspect of his appeal. For many people, incentives and facts only get us halfway to believing in ourselves. Learning how to overcome obstacles through myth and story can take us the rest of the way.
I want to make clear that I recognize that Dr. Peterson has many critics and that some believe his views on some subjects, including women, are offensive. I should also say I don’t agree, and I think these arguments misrepresent his point of view; I also find his arguments in favor of maintaining vigilance against restrictions on individual freedom compelling.
But I don’t want to rehash or defend Dr. Peterson’s views here — he’s more than capable of doing that himself. I want to explain what happens to people like me when a place like Cambridge says Dr. Peterson isn’t welcome.
My heart dropped into my stomach when I learned that Dr. Peterson’s offer from the Divinity School had been revoked. Doing so sends the message that there’s something wrong with people who value his message — that there’s something wrong with me.
I also recognize that this mirrors the protesters’ claims that his invitation makes them feel unwelcome. But I still find myself in a strange position: The Cambridge University students’ union says Dr. Peterson’s views are not representative of the student body. Yet the very reason I am a part of the student body is because of Dr. Peterson.
There may not be a clear solution to this. But if a solution exists at all, it will be found through charitable dialogue and free expression, of the sort that universities are supposed to foster.
In the aftermath of the rescindment, some students drafted a petition urging the Divinity School to reconsider its decision. I gladly signed. Beyond this, the campus has been relatively silent.
Three years ago, a disembodied voice on a YouTube video told me why I should apply for graduate school. Today, Cambridge says that the person behind that voice does not uphold the principles of the university and that there is no place here for those who do not. I’ve felt out of place for most of my life, in places more blistering than Cambridge. Fortunately, I know where to turn to find some encouraging words.