“Grifter” is an overused insult.
If a public person takes a heterodox or contrarian view on a hot-button political issue—particularly if their position is in conflict with their supposed political or identity tribes—they’re likely to be called a grifter when no substantive argument is available. Far too often, it’s lazily deployed against ideological adversaries, particularly if those adversaries have grown financially prosperous or publicly influential.
That doesn’t, however, mean the G-word is never an appropriate descriptor. Sometimes it’s the only sensible word to use, if one is being precise in one’s speech. When a person misrepresents who they are and what they stand for, in the pursuit of profit, they’re grifting.
In the case of Jordan Peterson, there’s no mistaking it. He’s working a grift.
Peterson—the Canadian professor and clinical psychologist turned self-help guru and best-selling author turned anti-woke firebrand commentator—was recently suspended from Twitter. At issue is a tweet (really a quote tweet) of a New York Post article with the caption “Elliot Page is ‘proud’ to introduce trans character on ‘Umbrella Academy.’”
The 12 Rules For Life author (Rule 10: Be Precise in Your Speech) author quote-tweeted in response: “Remember when pride was a sin? And Ellen Page just had her breasts removed by a criminal physician.” Peterson was subsequently suspended from Twitter for violating its terms of service.
The idea that Peterson didn’t know what he was doing when he twice misgendered Page in a mere 18 words is risible. He and his fellow Intellectual Dark Web culture warriors have been pissing and moaning over Twitter’s content moderation policies for years. These avowed-free market capitalists know quite specifically that intentional misgendering is a no-no on the privately owned social media website.
Moreover, Peterson has been on an attention-seeking tear of late, becoming Twitter’s main character several times in recent months for conflating a plus-sized model on the cover of Sports Illustrated with “authoritarianism,” then performatively “quitting” Twitter because people were being super mean to him in response, then breaking his Twitter retirement within weeks to rant about corporate Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) scores as a “a centralized planning neoMarxist eco fascist economic disaster in the making.”
Was Peterson just going through a particularly cranky period? Or was he gearing up to announce his new high-profile media venture, where he’ll be the star of paid bonus content for The Daily Wire—the right-wing news aggregation site made famous by fellow Intellectual Dark Webber Ben Shapiro?
It could all just be a big coincidence, but you can’t pay for the kind of publicity Peterson got from being suspended by Twitter. And if his first Daily Wire video—released days after his suspension—is any indication, he knows it.
Awkwardly reading from a teleprompter, Peterson said his suspension was essentially a banning because he’d “rather die” than delete the tweet (which would lift his suspension) that violated Twitter’s rules, and that he considers his suspension a “badge of honor.”
“What rules, you sons of bitches? Exactly? Precisely? Because such things matter when the accusations start flying,” Peterson rhetorically asked in his Daily Wire video.
This isn’t a court of law, but (as previously noted) there are reasons to disbelieve the premise that it was merely fortuitous timing for Peterson to achieve “free speech martyrdom” at the same exact time he was preparing to announce his lucrative Daily Wire partnership.
But his manufactured controversy is not the only reason Peterson can, precisely, be called a grifter.
Know Your Grifter
“I’d rather die!” Peterson insisted, preferring eternal darkness than deleting a stupid tweet. But, he has hope: “We’ll see who cancels who!”
This comic book supervillain routine has particularly sharpened in the weeks since his Twitter suspension and joining the Daily Wire—but it’s so transparent that even some of his longtime fans are jumping ship.
Now would be a good time to recall why we’re even talking about a once-obscure Canadian academic in the first place.
Peterson came to internet fame in late 2016 over his opposition to a Canadian bill about trans identifiers, to which he responded in a series of videos that surprisingly went viral, titled: “Professor Against Political Correctness.” On the surface, that’s what his Twitter ban is about, too.
What’s different is that when he first rose to public prominence, he claimed he’d have no problem with people calling themselves whatever they want and that out of basic human decency, he’d do so, as well. It was merely the speech policing that Peterson said he objected to, which he claimed would subject people to criminal sanctions even in the case of accidental misgendering (six years after the bill became law, that hasn’t happened).
And make no mistake, despite Peterson’s popularity with social conservatives, men’s rights activists, and women-hating incels—the fear of being sanctioned at work, school, or in society for not fully understanding all of the rules around the gender identity lingua franca isn’t inherently “transphobic.” Social rules are being written and rewritten at whiplash speed, and the vast majority of people who don’t work in media or academia—or who aren’t involved in social justice activist circles—are not always aware of the “informed language” required in certain arenas.
It’s these “regular people”—who are not bigots but also aren’t perfectly “politically correct,” and who still have the right of free speech (including the right to be “wrong”)—that Peterson claimed to be speaking for.
But like his commitments to “free speech” and “civil discourse”—Peterson has sued people for likening him to Nazis, threatened lawsuits for being called a misogynist, and even threatened violence over a bad book review—it seems more and more likely that he was always full of shit when he claimed to be accepting of trans people.
For all his philosophical mumbo jumbo and gratuitous references to mythology, Peterson isn’t all that hard to figure out. The guy is a traditional Christian conservative moralist. It isn’t more complicated than that.
In his first Daily Wire interview, Peterson hosted his loyal sycophant and right-wing minstrel Dave Rubin, who pleaded for acceptance among social conservatives as a “civilized” married homosexual about to become a father via surrogacy. But Peterson, who has been known to cry when talking about “the primacy of the individual,” said in 2017 he couldn’t support gay marriage if it were supported by “Cultural Marxists.”
In Peterson-speak, that appears to be his way of saying he’d like to be open to non-traditional “modes of being” like gay marriage—but the bad people support it, so he can’t.
In another Daily Wire video, Peterson insinuates that the culture war in the U.S. and the West’s descent into “degeneracy” (e.g. acceptance of trans people, gay marriage, etc.) could be why Russia has engaged in a savage war of attrition on Ukraine. I’m not kidding.
But, returning to the heart of the matter, it’s Peterson’s vicious rhetoric about trans people (as viewed through the prism of a famous adult, Elliot Page, transitioning), that really makes the case that he was never a principled, free speech-loving, individual rights-defending type of guy—rather, he’s a right-wing culture warrior, terrified of modernity, who sure sounds like he’d ban people’s personal choices if he had the power.
In his Daily Wire rant about his Twitter suspension, Peterson likened the doctors who performed Page’s transition surgery to “fascist physicians who carried out the Nazi medical experiments.” His galaxy brain argument is that, like trans-affirming surgery, the Nazis made their own crimes technically legal under German law.
He continued to fulminate about “pride” (specifically LGBTQ+ pride), which he pretentiously argued is “classically regarded as a sin”—once again invoking Christian mythology gussied up as some kind of universally accepted truth.
But he really blew up the premise of his own grift in a recent interview with the left-wing commentator Kyle Kulinski, during which he again misgendered Page, saying: “I would’ve left Ellen Page alone if she hadn’t been parading her new abs in a fashion magazine… How many kids do you think she convinced to convert? One? A thousand?”
When Kulinski asked Peterson if he thinks gender-affirming surgery for adults should be criminalized, Peterson was non-committal, but he did say: “It was an act of stunning hubris to conduct the first trans surgery procedure.”
In June (prior to his Twitter suspension), Peterson released a video on his own YouTube channel titled, “Doctors & Psychotherapists: Butchers & Liars,” in which he likened trans affirmation with “ancient societies sacrific[ing] children to their gods.” Lest the point be lost on his audience, he advertised the video with a screengrab that read, “Arrest Them.”
So, could it be that when Peterson opposed Canada’s bill C-16 on free speech grounds, he was really just masking his religious conservative horror at people choosing to live by different “modes of being”—as he’s fond of putting it?
Taking the most generous and credulous view, Peterson may be completely sincere that his attacks on Page and his “criminal physician” were merely Peterson’s expressions of “classically accepted truths” in a time of “authoritarianism” and “degeneracy.”
Jordan Peterson almost certainly believes he’s a bulwark made flesh—standing atop the ruins of Western civilization, yelling “stop.”
Call me ungenerous, but I’m unwilling to dismiss him as a harmless crank. He’s still a hugely influential figure on the right. And he’s also an intellectually shallow bullshit artist who I believe deliberately broke a private company’s terms of service to promote his new show.
Most offensively (to me), he’s a free speech tourist—taking an a la carte view of free expression—who lacks the genuine commitment of principle to vociferously defend the rights of his adversaries, or accept any criticism (however harsh) as being presented in good faith.
Jordan Peterson misrepresents himself and his values for money. That’s a grifter.