Editor’s Note, May 14, 1:08 p.m.: The original version of this article featured an illustration juxtaposing Jordan Peterson’s image with that of Hitler. In the eyes of many, the art equated Peterson and Hitler, which was not our intent. We were trying to convey Peterson’s intellectual interest in the phenomena of Hitler and the Holocaust. We apologize for the error.
Jordan Peterson is a public intellectual adored by white supremacists and conspiracy theorists. The white nationalist sympathizer known as Sargon of Akkad has expressed his love of Peterson’s work. Paul Joseph Watson, a prominent conspiracy theorist for Infowars, has tweeted, “Jordan Peterson for Canadian Prime Minister.”
Part of why people on the far right like Peterson is because he is not afraid to talk about the Jews, and he has a lot of people to talk to. Peterson is on a 50-city tour of North America and Europe to promote his best-selling new book, “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.” His YouTube channel has over a million subscribers. He has answered questions about global Jewish influence several times, in person and online. In an April blog post, he attributed that alleged influence to Jewish intelligence — an old anti-Semitic dog whistle.
Yet Peterson rarely speaks about anti-Semitism itself, even though he says he’s been obsessed with the Holocaust since he was a teenager and lectures on it frequently. Critics say this omission may encourage anti-Semitism among Peterson’s followers, who range from avowed white nationalists to frustrated young men looking for a scapegoat. In an interview, Peterson told the Forward he feels that he is battling anti-Semitism through his work.
“Part of your responsibility when you have a platform like that, especially when you present yourself as an academic, is to make sure that you’re giving those audiences the full truth,” said Jared Holt, a researcher for People for the American Way who studies far-right media. If Peterson were to be more forthcoming about the importance of anti-Semitism in the Holocaust, it “might allow some of his viewers to think about course correcting,” Holt added.
Peterson, 55, used to be an ordinary academic at the University of Toronto. His first and only other book, published in 1999, was a 600-page tome chiefly about Jungian psychology. He taught at Harvard in the 1980s before moving to Toronto; back then, his “audience” was his students. Now, he posts lectures on everything from Palestine to parenting, the Book of Genesis to psychobiology, on YouTube. Supporters gave him $70,000 through the website Patreon in April 2017, compared with $700 in April 2016. “12 Rules For Life” has sold over 700,000 copies since its publication in January, the Washington Post reported.
Peterson didn’t reach these heights because of his discourses on Jewish topics. His primary preoccupation is healing broken masculinity, and his main following is the young men with whom such a focus resonates. Peterson is nowhere near as toxic as various other internet cultures, like the “incels” who blame women — and sometimes murder them — because they’re not having sex. Yet behind the father figure role he affects lie darker preoccupations with Hitler, Marxists and the “radical left” on college campuses. That’s where his teachings can provide fodder for conspiracy theorists and bigots.
Peterson opposes Jew hatred, he says, and claims that leftist members of the media tried to hurt him by linking him to white supremacists. He has accused white supremacists of having a “pathology of racial pride,” and written that “identity politics” –- the idea that drives white nationalism — is “misguided.”
Peterson told the Forward he felt he had to answer the question of Jewish influence in order to undermine the far right’s anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Other scholars don’t think that’s a sound strategy.
He has addressed the subject several times in public and online, most recently in a blog post published on his website, when he talked about Jewish IQ. It’s higher than average, he said, and that’s true also for people in power. Therefore Jews are accurately represented among the cultural and financial elite of the world. Peterson didn’t mention anti-Semitism directly in this lecture, but he was thinking about it, he said.
“You can assume that they [Jews] are intelligent and have a culture of learning, or you can think that there’s some kind of cabal,” Peterson told the Forward. “So if I’m gonna hit the hornets nest, I might as well hit it on the side that takes the wind out of the sails of far-righters and their idiot anti-Semitism.”
Peterson’s willingness to answer questions about “Jewish success” and his interest in IQ literature is “suspicious” said Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of history at Emory University and author of “Denying the Holocaust,” who won a libel case in Britain against prominent Holocaust denier David Irving.
Lipstadt, who said she has not read Peterson’s work, said that Peterson’s statements on Jewish intelligence reminded her of Kevin MacDonald, a professor of psychology who the Southern Poverty Law Center has described as “the neo-Nazi movement’s favorite academic.” MacDonald has written several books criticizing Jewish intellectual culture. (Peterson links to a critique of one of MacDonald’s books at the end of his blog post on Jewish intelligence.) Lipstadt said that MacDonald’s academic language obscures the anti-Semitism behind his opinions. She worries the same is true of Peterson.
“It’s not [Holocaust] denial, but when people start asking questions like that, I begin to get leery,” Lipstadt said. “The question is, is he a self-help guru who find the Holocaust a convenient way of attracting attention, or is there serious thought going on here?”
Likewise, Lipstadt wonders why Peterson rarely mentions anti-Semitism in his work on the Holocaust. Peterson more often attributes the cause of the Holocaust to human nature.
“Anyone who really diminishes the importance of anti-Semitism — who says, ‘Oh it was an afterthought, a cover’ — I think has got it wrong,” she said.
“I don’t see how you can distinguish cause and effect when discussing the relationship between anti-semitism [sic] and the Holocaust because they are different element [sic] of the same thing. The question is ‘what is driving both?’” Peterson told the Forward in an email.
Peterson says he has been preoccupied with the Holocaust since he was a teenager. He once told an audience that he wrote an essay about Auschwitz at age 13. In “Maps of Meaning,” his 1999 book, he writes that he based his career on trying to understand what drove fascist regimes like the Nazis. “I could not make sense of the human propensity for belief-inspired violence,” he wrote.
Peterson thinks that peer pressure is nearly always stronger than one’s inner moral compass. Anyone has it within them to be Hitler if given enough power, he claims.
“If you think that you wouldn’t be tempted by having 20 million people worship you, then you don’t know yourself at all,” Peterson told the Forward.
He also believes almost anyone would have become a Nazi if they were a German living under Hitler — that “everyone participated” in the Holocaust.
“His audience is without a doubt a large chunk of people in the ‘alt-right,’ and that’s the kind of signaling that would appeal to them,” said Heidi Beirich, the director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “If you play fast and loose with the issue, you’re going to be seen as a possible ally in Holocaust denial.”
Peterson admits he has a dim view of human nature. But he has a much rosier picture of humanity’s potential to learn from its mistakes. He believes that sufficient Holocaust education is the key to preventing genocide. In fact, he says, the reason genocides continue to happen is that Holocaust education is not good enough. People don’t understand that it was a feature, not a bug, of human behavior.
“It hasn’t been transformed into deep and practical psychological knowledge,” Peterson added. “You can tell by the rise of publicly accepted anti-Semitism in the last five-to-10 years. Whatever we understood of that education, it wasn’t enough.”
Holocaust education is not a silver bullet, according to Sander Gilman, a professor of history at Emory University who has written extensively about anti-Semitism. Teaching about Nazism and the Holocaust is extremely important, Gilman said. But it doesn’t explain – and can’t prevent – modern anti-Semitism.
“If you have a fantasy that that is going to be a kind of vaccination against hate, that’s wonderfully naïve,” Gilman said. “The rise of anti-Semitism today has to do with situations today.”
Joe Flanders, an assistant professor of psychology at McGill University who was mentored by Peterson as an undergraduate, says that Peterson is “bizarrely preoccupied” by the Holocaust, along with the Cold War. But he pushed back against the possibility that Peterson’s views were evidence of any anti-Semitic feeling.
“He’s interested in how it’s possible for something so evil to manifest in the world,” Flanders said. “It’s an expression of the darkest part of humanity, which we don’t have access to now in the news cycle we consume these days.”
Peterson has repeatedly said that instead of being suspicious of Jews, the world should be grateful that there are so many Jewish geniuses.
“They’re a resource you don’t want to squander,” he said.
Update, 5/19/18, 12:30 p.m.: This story has been updated to reflect the following changes. Language clarifying Deborah Lipstadt’s unfamiliarity with Peterson’s work has been added, and mentions to Peterson’s neo-Nazi followers has been removed.