Is Jordan Peterson a coal-mine canary?

Professor Jordan Peterson. Photo: Getty Images
Professor Jordan Peterson. Photo: Getty Images
For decades, coal miners would descend into the earth armed with a canary in a cage. The canary's job was simply to survive. If it didn't, dangerous gas levels were the likely culprit and evacuations ensued.

The practice resulted in the canary in the coalmine idiom - that little things can alert us to bigger dangers ahead. The reaction over the past two years to Canadian clinical psychologist, professor and author, Dr Jordan Peterson, could arguably be one of those proverbial canaries. Despite extolling what many would consider "common sense", a considerable animosity towards his views has emerged.

Last week, Dr Peterson toured New Zealand. Some paid to hear him speak. Others labelled him a threat to our society. How has a psychology lecturer who extols and criticises views from both political sides become such a divisive figure?

Dr Peterson is not a new arrival. He began videoing his lectures decades ago. He wrote a book 20 years ago on how people construct meaning. He published a second book last year, using a set of "rules" to teach personal responsibility as "an antidote to chaos".

But it has been his public speaking which has brought him the most attention. His profile surged when he debated a proposed Canadian law compelling the use of various gender pronouns. It surged again when he silenced an aggressive interviewer on British television last year.

YouTube is stocked with examples of his concise and often cutting retorts to questioners attempting to paint him into one of several unsavoury corners. His fans celebrate his ability to defend his arguments in the face of hostile questioning. YouTube and the wider media are also stocked with people painting him as an incorrect, dangerous, self-serving intellectual lightweight.

For some, his insistence happiness lies in taking responsibility for one's self, making good choices, telling the truth and not discarding the morals behind thousands of years of Judeo-Christian teachings is labelled life changing. For others, his insistence that ideological group-based identity politics is dangerous is considered hate speech.

For his fans, hysterical negative reactions to his teachings must seem like a canary in a coalmine, a warning society is in trouble - too much focus on group identities over individual responsibility, and too much focus on the taking and giving of offence, on who is responsible for our lot.

Yet to his detractors, such teaching could itself be considered a canary in a coalmine. For them, the extrapolation of a drive for individual responsibility is the strong profiting at the expense of the vulnerable. Personal responsibility can't address systemic issues which make it harder for some groups to succeed based purely on their gender, their sexuality, their race or their beliefs. To suggest it should is dangerous and truly does, to many, represent a threat to society.

Of course, most people would consider both sides to have valid points. Ironically, so does Dr Peterson. But arguing one side or the other is futile if, beneath our noses, the canary in the coalmine is already choking.

Because when a distinguished professor with decades of experience studying, teaching and practising psychology talks about the importance of traditions, ancient stories and individual responsibility, a healthy society would surely benefit from listening carefully - and not just to the soundbites. And if people disagreed, doing so in a considered and reasonable manner would be healthier than resorting to the fallacious attacks Dr Peterson often receives.

Perhaps, the canary in the coalmine has nothing to do with Dr Peterson. Perhaps the real danger is in our growing trend towards polarisation, our seeming insistence on labelling each other instead of listening to each other.

When such a habit means a relatively centrist psychologist is considered a messiah to some and a bearer of hate speech by others, perhaps it is time, as Dr Peterson suggests, to look at ourselves.

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